On the first day of school she wept loudly into her arms, heartbroken and outraged that the supplies she'd so carefully chosen would become part of a classroom whole. Her pretty notebooks and colorful sticky notes were community property. The tradition of collecting supplies existed long before I arrived at this school, and this was her first year so she didn't know. It was the first of many things about her new school she found lacking.
It took a lot of consoling, a lot of kleenex, and most of the day to convince her that this one thing did not mean her third grade year was ruined before it even started.
For most of the first month of school I saw more tears, angrily furrowed brow, and jutted lower lip than anything else. Everything and nothing seemed to set her off, and the more upset she was, the less she could do, which upset her even more. She didn't get her way in a playground game. Math was hard. I asked her to rewrite an incredibly sloppy paper. All minor challenges for a resilient child. All too much for her.
She wore her perpetual unhappiness like porcupine quills so I could only offer a careful hug and gentle reassurance and leave her to settle herself, which she always eventually did.
At this point I don't even remember what the first success was. I do remember her shy smile and the way her whole body beamed with pleasure at my celebration with her.
It took even longer before I heard her laugh out loud for the first time. A child's unrestrained laughter is God's voice at its best, and hers was a gift worth waiting for.
We were playing silent ball, a game where we all sit on desks and throw the ball around - in blissful silence - until only one person is left up. There are lots of ways you can be called down. Hitting your teacher full in the face with a wild throw is definitely one of them. Which she did. I went into full indignant wounded drama, issuing wild threats and acting like I was seriously hurt. She laughed so hard she fell off her desk, which sent the whole room into hysteria. For the short remainder of the day, all I had to do was look at her, raise my eyebrow and shake my head and she'd be off again.
A couple of weeks ago, the teacher she goes to for math told me this child is the best student she has. She raises her hand regularly - the kind of hand-raising that starts from her toes and pushes her whole body into the air. She helps other kids. She's confident in a way that I rarely get to see when she's in the classroom that clearly overwhelms her more often than not.
Last week as we were lining up to walk out at the end of the day, I caught her looking at me with a tentative smile and read the message loud and clear. My hands are highly competed for prizes at day's end. In part because it means those two kids get to be in the front of the line, and in part for the special time with me. There's a sign-up list even, to aid in fairness, but it's usually the confident, more assertive kids who stake claims first. For whatever reason, on that day, both my hands were free and a quiet nod brought her to my side. Her hand slipped softly, shyly into mine.
As we chatted on the way out, I mentioned what her other teacher had said and told her how proud I was of her. At that moment there was no more beautiful child anywhere on earth. She was summer sun, a blue sky laced with cumulus clouds, a flower in full radiant bloom. So far from the grieving sodden fury of a few short months ago.
This, I will miss.
photo from Flickr