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If you want to know me, there’s one simple rule: Talk to the hand. I do not say that as an expression of contempt or disinterest. Rather, I say it an invitation. A call to engage my heart and learn the truth of the man who lies beneath. For while my mouth is stopped with shyness and doubt, my fingers speak to the soul of who I really am.

There are so many words I wish I could have used my mouth to say. I’m sorry. I love you. Please stop. Don’t leave. But they all got stifled, halted in their tracks, and shoved back down my throat by a lifetime of conditioning. Shut up. No one cares what you think. Your breath, your life are a burden. I don’t think the trauma of bullying ever really goes away. It just gets buried by time until only you know where all the scars are. Like a picture faded by the sun, the imprint has gone from the visible world, but is still there in stunning relief to those who have lived it and know where to look.

How does the saying go? Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Whoever said that was a fool. I have been beaten with sticks. With cleats. With rulers and water coolers. I have broken bones. But bruises heal. Bones mend. It is the words, the taunts that still define me almost three decades later. So bring on the sticks. Start lobbing your stones. Those I can take. Just don’t say anything, because that will destroy me.

The taunts turned my life into a cocoon of silence. After all, words were what you used with friends, with people who cared to know about you, and I had none left. I had a large family, and I knew they loved me, but I was so locked into a stunted narrative of myself that I withdrew even from them. The clown who always stole the show slowly became replaced by an angry, bitter person who just wanted the world to go away.

Until I fell in love for the first time and discovered a wonderful thing about myself; that what my mouth could never deign to say, my hands could. There was no trace of shyness or doubt in any of my digits, and they could speak to all that lay trapped with me. As long as I didn’t have to form the words with my lips or distort the air with my mouth, I was free to say whatever I wanted. Whatever I needed.

I had finally found my voice, in the clicking of computer keys.

Love faded and bloomed again, By then my gift had been transformed into a beast that no instant messaging window could contain. Poetry had come into my life with a ruthless purpose, and my fingers could barely contain their glee. They rode roughshod over the ruin of my childhood, eviscerating those who had wronged me while raising up the battered boy still trapped inside. Nine months and 250 poems later, I was reborn. My heart had been cleansed from the pain of my past, and for the first time I began to contemplate the future instead of just wishing to erase what had come before. I began to see hope and happiness for myself, where before I had only tried to work up the courage to end my life and be done with it all.

Poetry did not save my life. I did that. But poetry gave me a life worth fighting for.

That battered boy is still inside me. He is healing, and he has sunlight, but he does not trust the world. Not yet. It has hurt him too much for that. His mouth is still silent, but his fingers are those of a man desperate to lift himself from the abyss. They are the lungs of a drowning man taking one last gasp of air. They are the hands of a castaway screaming his pain and his joy into a million bottles and hoping that someone, somewhere will see them and know him for who he is.

A man who once had nothing, until words gave him everything. A man who knows that the world will right itself for him if he keeps pushing hard enough. A man whose fingers could sing to you the wonders of a million worlds, if only you would listen.

And a boy who still hopes that it’s not too late.

So please, talk to the hand. It will not clam up or shy away from you. It will welcome you wholeheartedly, and answer anything you ask of it. Just be patient with the mouth it belongs to. It will join the conversation eventually.

If you give it time.

Ian Foutz has been teaching elementary school for over a dozen years. He is currently at work on his third children’s book.


Of Rug and Darkness

By Ian Foutz

You are all things to me

Warmth, fear, and pity.

Sucking me back to a time when

The drone of your heart

Was both a pillar of hope
And a place of unimaginable terror

Back to the boy who was gorged

And broken by the lies the world fed him
Spinning, flipping, he felt you near
You, who made shapes from the void
You, who warmed him

 Against the cruelty that dared him to let go

When all he wanted was to squint

And let you mold him into an empty vessel
Curled up beneath your bright,

 Beating, pinwheeling kaleidescopes

Of noise and heat, of rug and darkness
Of all the things he could not fathom

The one who yearned

For an impossible release,

Who wished to lose himself

In your aura of blacks and greens
To melt into that beating, electric hum

To finally feel the sound of freedom