"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Out of the Blue

It's a typical morning in Room 16. The first burst of kids, cold air, and unbounded energy explode into the crowded space; latecomers dash through the door in ones and twos. The noise level is high and happy. Girls with heads together share secrets that make them giggle or look around furtively. Boys mill around, bumping into one another like puppies scrambling for a toy. The work of getting ready for another day is happening in the midst of what looks like chaos. I can see they'll be ready when the bell rings - pencils sharpened, planners and journals put away, homework turned in - so I leave them to their ten-year-old tribal rituals.

I stand in my usual place, by my desk where I have the best vantage of the room. The kids meet me there, one at a time, to hand in homework and say good morning. While I'm greeting them, I take a figurative pulse. Asking questions about work, illness, family. Commenting on new clothes, haircuts, bruises. Exchanging smiles, hugs, jokes. Laughing. Encouraging. Reminding.

Most days the kids manage to take turns with our first contact of the day, but as the year has worn on, I often find myself talking to two or three at a time. On this morning, their energy runs particularly high, and mine is drawn from fumes and little else. I'm not really paying attention when Kaelyn appears at my side, ignoring the half dozen kids lined up to see me. She stands looking at me, much like Toby does when he wants my attention: all beseeching eyes and barely contained silence.

In the break between kids I look over (not down as I have for so much of the year - where did those inches come from?) and ask with forced patience what she wants. She's already been through the line, and has a habit of engaging me to avoid work. And she's cutting, one of the cardinal sins of every elementary school experience.

She places a pin in my hand. A pretty cloisonné bird that makes me think of the ones in Disney's Cinderella. As I pick it up and admire it, for once with genuine delight, she tells me her great grandmother gave it to her before she died. I tell her how lucky she is to have such a lovely heirloom, how much her great grandmother must have loved her.

In that same moment I think about the tiny ceramic flower figurine that was a gift from Grandma Dee, my father's mother whom I knew for only a year. I think about the aquamarine ring Aunt Bea gave me, ornate, battered and treasured, much like she was. I think about the book of Anne Geddes babies, the first gift from a daughter met in her adulthood and now gone. I wonder if, when she's older, Kaelyn will feel the bittersweet longing that comes from holding a piece of a loved-one who has gone on - if she might even feel that now.

The clock and the restless line in front of me tell me it's time to move on. I extend the pin toward Kaelyn, telling her to put it in a safe place and to take it home at the end of the day. But she refuses to take it. "It's for you," she says. "I want you to have it."

"I can't take this," I say. "It's your treasure. It wouldn't be right for me to have it." Her eyes well up. The pin sits in my open hand. Her hands are unreachable.

"But I want you to have it. I brought it for you." Tears threaten to spill.

And so I wrap the pin in my hand, hug her, thank her through welled eyes of my own, tell her I will treasure her gift forever. She bounces back to her desk, a March day gone from bleak to sunny. I show my new bird to the next kids in line, allowing them to admire it before I pin it to my shirt where Kaelyn's eyes will travel for the rest of the day.

That lovely bird perches now on the front of the denim jacket I wear for everything this time of year. It will sit there at least until the last day of school, both for Kaelyn's pleasure and mine. I'll be calling her mom to make sure she knows about the gift. I'll offer to give the pin back so that Mom can hold it for the day her daughter is old enough to understand what an enormous gift she gave her fifth grade teacher - not in the pin, but in the honor of being held in the same esteem as her beloved great grandmother. I hope when she wears it in later years, she'll remember us both with love than is more sweet than bitter.

(Student's name changed - just in case.)