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Ralph’s Version

I first met Melodee when she was just 3 years old. That was way back in 1974 and I was the District Attorney for a small county in Missouri. Melodee has moved on to bigger and better things, but I’m still here. I finally retired in 2004 and I have a special sign in the small storefront office I keep now: On one side it reads “Attorney at Law” and on the other it says “Gone Fishing”.

I was called in, as the DA, to defend the county against a possible suit by Melodee’s parents. I was told that this little girl was, as the doctors put it, “profoundly deaf” and the county’s teachers claimed that she would also be “MRDD” because of that. Being just a poor country lawyer, I had to look that one up. It stands for Mentally Retarded, Developmentally Disabled.

To make a long story short, Melodee’s folks wanted the county to pay for special education for her, as opposed to sending her off to the State School more than 80 miles away, and the county school district said the kid couldn’t learn.

We met in a conference room of the County Court House, a building dating back to 1837 that still bears scars from bullets and cannons fired in the Civil War, and I found myself watching the little girl as the adults in the room decided her fate. She sat quietly on the floor with some magazines she’d pulled from an end table in the room, and slowly turned the pages. As she paged through the books, she studied each picture carefully, and I saw her lips moving. When I looked closer, I also saw her fingers moving.

Now, I may be a backwoods lawyer and I could never make it in New York or practice before the Supreme Court, but I’m not dumb. Melodee was communicating with the pictures in the magazine. The problem was that she couldn’t do it in a way that the adults could understand because she didn’t know our language. She was making up a language of her own.

I have a daughter just a little older than Melodee, and I remembered seeing her doing the same things with her picture books, talking to the people in the pictures. I may not be a teacher or a doctor, but I knew that my little Janet was neither MR nor DD.

And I didn’t think Melodee was either. She just couldn’t hear.

I stopped the discussions and asked the Aaron’s lawyer if the county could have a few minutes to talk privately, and he agreed. After Melodee and her folks had left the room, I told the school officials and the county supervisor that we needed to do what the Aaron’s asked us to do. There was a lot of carrying on about costs and such, but the bottom line was that we would lose in court.

Besides, I couldn’t defend the county against a suit and still keep my self-respect.

It ended up that the state kicked in 90% of the cost and by age 9, Melodee was in all regular classes except for one class a day on sign language and other stuff for a deaf kid. Don’t ask me what all of that was. I’m just a simple country lawyer.

Melodee and I had a few more contacts later on that were of a much sadder nature, but she’s still that same little girl making up things as she goes along.


Southwest Missouri