I often catch her eyes resting on me. I wonder what she’s thinking. I smile at her. She looks away, but I can see the corners of her mouth twisting up, that she’s deliberately suppressing her natural response.
I am not the teacher; I am a teacher in training, working as an assistant. The teacher soon pairs me with this tiny girl. We are to read together for a few minutes every day. My shy friend is a struggling learner.
She has many struggles.
I learn that this child is the oldest of several siblings and that they all live with their grandmother. This child suffers with asthma – common ground with me.
“I have asthma, just like you,” I tell her one day.
“You do?” Little eyebrows elevate over the big brown eyes. She studies my face, and for the first time, a smile breaks over her solemn countenance, like a flicker of light.
The teacher and I notice how our little girl scratches herself, her arms and her neck in particular. Patches of thick, scaly skin appear to be eczema – they flare when she’s stressed. She scratches and scratches.
I take over the class while the teacher ushers our friend to the sink and shows her how to use a nail brush to clean away the necrotic tissue collecting under her fingernails.
After conversations with Grandma, a tub of cream is brought to school. When we open it, the cream is peppered with flakes of our little friend’s skin, from multiple dabbings and applications.
On the worst days, we take turns holding her in our laps, rocking her while she cries, holding her hands in ours to keep her from scratching and drawing blood, while the other kids run and play at recess or spread across the room to do their work.
The teacher fears that the thick patches of skin are permanently altered.
We cry, too.
One morning, after an unpleasant encounter with an adult in the building, I enter the classroom and find a quiet place to sit away from the children. Passing by, en route to morning meeting, the teacher whispers to me: “Are you all right?”
“I will be,” I reply. “I just need a minute to breathe.”
As the students gather on the floor around the teacher, my tiny friend creeps over to me. She crawls up in my lap, featherweight that she is. I put my arms around her.
She reaches out her little hand and pats my neck.
“Your skin is all red,” she says.
And she sits there with me, not to be comforted this time, but to comfort. The only child who perceived that something wasn’t right.
She rocks, humming a tune. I don’t know it. Turns out that my friend is a singer – there’s an astonishingly big, expressive voice inside that tiny ravaged body.
She begins singing more and more. She makes us laugh – her classmates love to hear her.
One afternoon, after several weeks of reading together – beginning with picture walks and my reading pages to the girl and her reading them back to me, repeating until she can read with few to no errors, with increasingly complex books – she sits regally in the chair beside me and takes the new book out of my hand before I can introduce it.
“I can do it myself,” she announces.
I hold my breath the entire time, restraining myself from intervening as she works through this new, harder text on her own. She labors in some places, but she keeps moving, until the final word.
“YOU DID IT!” I shout. People walking at the end of the hallway stop and turn around.
My little friend, face aglow, radiant, throws her braided head back and laughs for all she’s worth.
I carry those moments – I carry her – in a corner of my heart forever.
For me there’s no question of who really taught whom, who was the greater blessing to the other.
Many years have passed, but when I think of diverse student needs, of overcoming, I see her solemn face, her beautiful eyes. I hear her cries, her laughter, and marvel at the resilience of children. I feel the pat of her little hand, the innate empathy in it, born of suffering, recognizing suffering, seeking to alleviate it; our exterior, our skin, is not the whole of us. Her songs, resonant with untaught vibrato, bubbling up from some pure wellspring deep within, represent the indomitable human spirit – full to overflowing, even in the face of hardship, even in the smallest of us.