Josh's dad brought in Hammy, their new hamster, at the end of a recent Friday.
I was supposed to say no when Josh asked weeks ago to bring his pet in, because animals are not allowed at school without an act of Congress and dispensation from the Pope (only a slight exaggeration). I have been following the rule all year, even though I think it's one of the dumber ones around. But Josh never asks for anything. And I knew that things at home had been particularly challenging. So just to see him smile, I said yes.
And then forgot the whole thing.
That Friday at last recess, Josh stayed back, clearly wanting to talk. In private. This is a kid who speaks primarily through actions - like throwing himself on the floor of the classroom without a peep, pretending to be dead. Or stealing the sticky note pad I've just written a list on and watching from across the room with a wicked grin waiting for me to notice. Or drawing a bizarre and funny stick figure named Bob and setting it under my nose. When the class wrote about the funniest thing that happened this year, most of the kids shared a Josh story. He waited until everyone else finally went out to recess before he whispered, "Remember Hammy's coming this afternoon."
Hammy turned out to be two and fat and a remarkably mellow hamster who only sleeps and nothing else. They got him for free on Craig's List. I didn't have the heart to tell them not to get too attached. Hammy is ancient and sure not to be around for Josh's fourth grade year. Josh proudly took his pet around the room for everyone to admire while dad leaned against a counter waiting patiently.
I was sitting in my usual end-of-the-day silent ball spot, a table in the back of the room. Scanning to make sure I wasn't missing any important shenanigans that might result in disaster, I realized that Josh's little brother, Elijah, had come in with their dad. A four-year-old version of his long, lean, blonde brother, this little guy stood wide-eyed, silently clinging to his dad's leg. In the chaos of getting Hammy back in his cage, getting the kids settled back down, getting ready to play silent ball, I forgot about the little brother.
The game began with a little more energy than usual, the kids worked up from having company, so I had to work harder to keep things moving. A stirring from the vicinity of Josh's dad caught my eye. Little brother had moved away from dad to track the movement of the ball flying back and forth from kid to kid. I invited him to join me at my table. He raised his arms, without saying a word.
Once settled next to me, he became the focus of the game. Kids would toss the ball gently in his direction, and he and I would sort of toss it back. Over and over and over, my all-about-me, nobody-throws-it-to-me, me-me-me kids gently drew Elijah into the game.
Elijah's throwing is not well-developed and my kids laughed at his wild tosses. The laughter was kind and inclusive, but little brother wasn't sure about it. The longer the game went on, the closer he scooted to me, until his side was pressed tight against mine and my arm winged over his little shoulder.
Eventually the game ended. The day ended. A happy Josh and his smiling dad took a sleeping Hammy home. Elijah went, too, even though the solid warmth and trust of his little body leaning into mine was as substantial as if he were still by my side.
All these days later, I can still feel the weight of his belief in me as a safe place to be. It makes me want to weep. It anchors me as the last days of my life as a third grade teacher swirl ever faster around and away from me. It reminds me of who I am, without the effort to be, and who I will take with me into the beckoning light of my new life. All because I broke a rule and invited a hamster into my room.
photo from Flickr