Mary Ann Bird grew up knowing she was different, and she hated it. She was born with a cleft palate, and when she started to go to school, her classmates-who were constantly teasing- made it clear to her how she must look to others: a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and hollow and somewhat garbled speech. She couldn't even blow up a balloon without holding her nose, and when she bent to drink from a fountain, the water spilled out of her nose.
When her schoolmates asked, "What happened to your lip?" she’d tell them that she'd fallen as a baby and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. By the age of seven she was convinced that no one outside her own family could ever love her. Or even like her.
And then she entered the second grade, and Mrs. Leonard's class. She never knew what her first name was -- just Mrs. Leonard. She was round and pretty and fragrant, with chubby arms and shining brown hair and warm dark eyes that smiled even on the rare occasions when her mouth didn't. Everyone adored her. But no one came to love her more than Mary Ann did. And for a special reason.
The time came for the annual "hearing tests" given at the school. Mary Ann was barely able to hear anything out of one ear, and was not about to reveal yet another problem that would single her out as different. And so she cheated. She had learned to watch other children and raised her hand when they did during group testing. The "whisper test" however, required a different kind of deception: Each child would go to the door of the classroom, turn sideways, close one ear with a finger, and the teacher would whisper something from her desk, which the child would repeat. Then the same thing was done for the other ear. Mary Ann had discovered in kindergarten that nobody checked to see how tightly the untested ear was being covered, so she merely pretended to block hers.
As usual, she was last, but all through the testing she wondered what Mrs. Leonard might say to her. She knew from previous years that she whispered things like "The sky is blue" or "Do you have new shoes?"
Her turn came up. She turned her bad ear to her plugging up the other solidly with her finger, then gently backed her finger out enough to be able to hear. She waited and then she heard the words that God had surely put into her mouth, seven words that changed her life forever.
Mrs. Leonard, the pretty, fragrant teacher Mary Ann adored, said softly, "I wish you were my little girl."
Love heals. A small expression of love goes a very long ways.