Released

There were two North Carolina sons who died on the same day.

One lived to be ninety-nine. 

The other lived nineteen days.

One is known the world over; his body will lie in the Capitol of the United States. 

The other is known only by a small community; his body weighed less than three pounds.

One accomplished great and mighty things; he is remembered, will be remembered, by generation after generation.

The other fought a great and mighty fight to stay alive, to grow; he was the start of a new generation. The first child, the first grandchild. 

There will be several commemorations for the one.

There was a small gathering of family and friends, clutching balloons, for the other.

A man old and full of days, as the Bible says, ravaged by time, and a new baby ravaged by arriving too early, they breathed their last around the same hour and left the world behind. 

Released. 

 I stood at the little gathering for the baby, holding onto the ribbon of a light blue balloon someone handed me.  

The North Carolina sun shone bright and uncharacteristically warm for February. It felt like spring. A breeze rattled the balloons; the sound of their bumping each other reminded me of boats bumping against their moorings at a dock. 

A lonely sound.

In one motion, together, our gathering released the balloons. Swept quickly upward, they made an array of shimmering colors against the azure sky. Breathtakingly beautiful. Within seconds they attained stunning heights. The brilliant colors changed, before our eyes, into distant glittering dots, bright, silvery stars twinkling in the daytime. 

I thought then of all who are loved and lost. The young and the old. By sickness, tragedy, time . . . it matters only that they lived. They were here and we loved them. We do not stop loving them. We rail against our constraints, but they are not tied anymore. Their moorings are loosed. Their spirits are free, glittering, ever-bright in the distance, going on and on.

Released.

RSVP

They sit at the table before me, these two boys, with their books open.

The book’s too hard for them. I know this. But they’re fifth-graders now, having been in intervention groups since first grade, and this is a book they really want to read. 

So we’re reading it together.

The book? Wonder. By R.J. Palacio.

We stop to discuss words and phrases that they have questions about, such as “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

I don’t get it,” says one of the boys. “Why is the mom talking about a tree? What tree?”

You’ve studied figurative language in class, right?” I ask. The boys nod. Their expressions are perplexed. “Sometimes words and phrases mean something more than what they actually say. That’s the case here. Think of a tree loaded with apples. If an apple falls off, what eventually happens to it?”

Someone comes to eat it,” offers the other boy.

Maybe,” I laugh. “But let’s say the apple stays on the ground where it fell and no one ever comes to eat it. What will happen?”

They think. I can almost see their brains scrolling.

It’ll go bad, won’t it?” asks the first boy. 

Yeah,” says the second. “Like, brown and mushy.”

“So,” I press on,”what’s inside of that rotting apple?”

“Seeds?” says the first boy. 

The second boy says “Oh!”

“What?” asks the first boy.

The seeds. They get in the ground and grow into more trees.”

Now you’re getting there.” I lean in. “You know about life cycles from science. So what will these new apple trees do?”

Grow more apples!” says the first boy.

Yes. The new tree does exactly what the mother tree does. It grows the very same kind of apples. So when August’s mom says ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ when Julian’s mom doesn’t RSVP to August’s party, what is she really saying? Think of what you already know about Julian.”

He acts like his mom!” says the second boy.

For a second, tiny rays of light beam across both boy’s faces, driving their clouded expressions away. Then . . . 

“What’s an RSVP?” asks the first boy.

You’ve never heard of it before?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

I turn to the second boy. How about you?” 

He shakes his head, too.

“It’s what people put on a party invitation so that the people throwing the party know how many other people are coming, so they know how much food to buy or how many prizes to get.”

Their faces are blank. 

It’s French. RSVP stands for répondez s’il vous plaît: Please reply. When you get an invitation with RSVP, you’re supposed to let the sender know yes, you’re coming or no, you’re not. That’s what’s happening here in this chapter. August’s mom has sent the invitations for his party and people are saying their children can’t come. Julian’s mom doesn’t even answer.”

Oh,” says the first boy.

It hits me then.

Hard.

Guys, have you ever gotten an invitation to a birthday party or anything?”

 They shake their heads. 

I look at them for a long moment while my mind races. My thinking process is like a bubble map sprouting out in every direction, bubbles upon bubbles, thoughts multiplying exponentially.

What some children— including my own—may take for granted as a natural and fun part of childhood isn’t every child’s experience. Superman, Captain Hook, the Titanic, even—alas!—Barney the Dinosaur themed-parties clamor in my mind. 

These two boys have never had, never even seen, a party invitation.

 This is a matter beyond understanding the heart of this scene in the books before them.

It’s now a matter of understanding how the world generally works. Of broadening their world. 

 I recall a university professor giving a keynote address to would-be educators years before. He described his impoverished childhood and taking an aptitude test in elementary school. He told of this question: “What color are bananas?” I can’t recall the four answer choices (one of which was presumably yellow and the right one) but he chose “black.” Because that is what he knew; his father could only afford the bananas that were reduced when they began to spoil. He’d never seen a yellow banana.

How could he know?

How can these boys know what an RSVP is, or care? Until now, it’s never appeared in their world. It has no significance, no relevance.

All right, then,” I say. “That’s enough for today. We’ll read more and talk more about this chapter tomorrow.” 

They gather their things and head back to class.

That night, I make two invitations, personally addressed to each boy:

You are cordially invited to attend a popcorn and book celebration

with Mrs. Haley at

(the time of our group meeting, two days away).

(On an additional slip of paper):

RSVP – I will ____ will not ____ be able to attend.

The envelopes are on the table at their places when they come the next day.

“What’s this? ” asks the first boy.

That’s our names on there,” says the second.

Well, I guess you have to open them to find out,” I say.

Rustling, tearing. Reading.

What’s this word?” asks the first boy, pointing.

Cordially. It means ‘warmly’ or ‘in a very friendly way.'”

A popcorn party?” says the second boy, eyes lighting up.

A popcorn and BOOK party,” I tell him. “We’re still going to read.”

Can we have Dr. Pepper, too?” The first boy bounces in his seat.

That all depends,” I smile, “on my knowing how much popcorn and Dr. Pepper I need to buy. How am I going to know?”

Oh yeah . . .” 

With their pencils, both boys check I will be able to attend on the slips. The second boy slides it across the table to me. The first boy follows his lead.

Great! All my people RSVP’d that they’re attending! So tomorrow is our celebration. Just promise you won’t get popcorny fingerprints and Dr. Pepper on our books.”

They giggle.

Together we read a little more of August’s struggles. All the while my heart is hoping that right now, and tomorrow, and what little bit of time we have together in the tomorrows beyond, will lessen their own. And that their learning will become one long celebration, filled with wonder.

The Valentine

Broken heart

Broken Heart. David GoehringCC BY

Here’s a mentor text, a modeled memoir originally written for a fifth grade class a few years ago. It’s a true story from my own fifth grade year. These long-ago events etched themselves on my young heart as they unfolded. Some of the minor details are fuzzy, but I remember the intensity of these moments. I see every classmate’s face; I recall every name, although I’ve opted to alter all but my own for a comfortable anonymity in the face of hard truths.

For it’s a hard slice of life.

Today I dust off that Valentine’s Day I’ve never forgotten, reinforce it with a bit of word-glitter and glue, and give it to you  . . . 

On a cold but sunny February afternoon, my fifth grade class gathers on the kickball field to choose teams. The two captains flip a nickel to decide who’ll go first; my friend Shannon wins. She and Davy stand side by side for a moment, scrutinizing the rest of us as if they are drill sergeants and the rest of us are boot camp recruits.

“Allen,” says Shannon.  Allen is always the first pick because he’s a go-cart racer, competitive and very popular. He likes to win.

Allen jogs over to stand behind Shannon.

“Jon,” says Davy.

I think, That’s kind of surprising.

Jon came to our class late in the fall. He used to be the last pick for our teams, since he wears big, thick glasses and doesn’t seem very athletic. At first the boys called him Four-Eyes and the girls said he looked like a little old man because of the way he hunches his shoulders up to his neck most of the time, in addition to the bowl-style cut of his hair. We really don’t notice him that much any more, as Jon is so quiet. When Davy calls his name, Jon trots in his stooped-over way to stand behind him.

“Fran,” says Shannon, after a pause.

YESSSS!” I whisper. I take my place behind Allen, who gives me a high five.

I love kickball. Next to jacks, it’s my favorite game to play with the class—these are really the only two games I’m any good at playing. Once when I slid into home plate I peeled up a whole strip of turf in my shoelaces, but I was safe!

The captains continue choosing players, until only one girl remains.

Eloise.

She, too, is new to our class, arriving just after Christmas break. Eloise is unusually tall, taller than Shannon, who’d been the tallest girl in the school until now. Eloise is as big as a grown woman. Her brown, frizzy hair puffs out from her head like a cloud. It flutters when she walks. One of her front teeth is chipped. Her eyes are the color of the summer sky, and at the moment, they’re a little teary.

Davy sighs: “All right. Eloise.”

Eloise scurries to the end of Davy’s line, looking at the ground.

During the game, Eloise tries with all her might to run and kick the ball, but she misses and loses her balance. When she falls, we can’t help laughing. Eloise, her face pink, gets up by herself and runs to the back of the line once more.

I don’t know what makes me keep my eyes on Eloise, and why I began wondering what it must be like to always be picked last, or to hear other kids whispering things like Neanderthal and  Amazon, never when Mrs. Peterson might hear. I try to imagine how embarrassing it would be if I was too big to be comfortable in the classroom desks and if regular girls’ clothes wouldn’t fit me. I am already clumsy, which is why I’m not good at most sports. Except kickball.

What would I do if no one wanted to sit by me at lunch or went the long way around my desk, the way we do to Eloise?

Watching Eloise with her face turned toward the ground, I suddenly don’t feel like laughing anymore.

Back in class, after a stop at the water fountain, Mrs. Peterson passes out sheets of Manila paper.

“Today, Class, you will write the first letter of your name in cursive on the paper and turn it into an animal or a design that represents you.”

Mrs. Peterson’s first name is Felicia; she holds up  her paper to show how she’s turned her cursive “F” into a giraffe.

Everyone gets to work. Except me. I am stumped for how to turn my own cursive “F” into anything artistic. I have trouble making a cursive “F” in the first place. Everyone says my “Fs” look like “Ts.”

I have no idea what to draw.

To waste time, I get up and sharpen my pencil. I pass right by Eloise’s desk, where she’s bent hard at work. On her paper, she’s written a large, elegant cursive “E,” the fanciest one I’ve ever seen.

She’s turning it into the open wing of a bird.

Before I know what I’m doing, I blurt: “Oh my gosh! That’s beautiful, Eloise!”

Mrs. Peterson comes to look. “It’s lovely. Why don’t you show the class?”

Eloise, looking alarmed, shakes her head. Her fuzzy brown hair bobs like ocean waves.

“May I show them?” asks Mrs. Peterson.

Eloise nods, turning pink again.

Mrs. Peterson holds the paper high. “Just look at what an amazing artist Eloise is, everyone.” She turns slowly so all can see, the way teachers do with pictures in books.

“Oooooo,” breathe my classmates.

Someone says “Wow.”

Eloise’s pink face glows. She smiles, revealing her chipped tooth; her sky-colored eyes sparkle.

I want to freeze this moment for Eloise, and for myself, to capture it for the wonderful and powerful thing it is, but it is quickly gone, and the next day at lunch when she knocks her milk carton over, we all laugh at Eloise again.

Even as we laugh, I feel bad inside.

What’s the matter with me? Why do I laugh when it doesn’t feel right? 

After lunch, Mrs. Peterson gives a speech:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, as tomorrow is February fourteenth, you may bring Valentines to exchange. Listen carefully: If you bring Valentines, you will bring one for everybody in this class. Do you understand?”

Her dark eyes stare right through us.

“Yes ma’am!” we answer in unison.

We know why she makes this point.

Eloise knows, too, and keeps her eyes on her feet.

I’ve already got my box of Valentines and can’t wait to give them out. Inside my box there happens to be a bonus Valentine; I’ve never seen one like it before. It’s about five times larger than the other little cards. It has to be unfolded several times to show the gray, fluffy dog decorated with silver swirls all around. The dog holds a big red heart in its mouth, which reads You are special. This big Valentine is just too beautiful to give away. I am keeping it for myself.

The next day, Mrs. Peterson makes us wait until after lunch to distribute our Valentines. We have to open them together, all at one time.

“Hey, thanks for the candy!” Shannon tells Allen.

“Cool—gum!” says Davy, even though he has braces and isn’t supposed to chew it.

Just then, Eloise cries out. It’s a loud, terrifying sound.

Everyone turns to look at her.

Everything just freezes.

She’s sitting at her desk with her hands over her face, sobbing.

No, I think. Tell me someone hasn’t given her a mean Valentine. Or put something gross in her bag.

Then I recognize, from several desks away, that open Valentine on Eloise’s desk.

The fancy silver dog, the big red heart, the message. You are special.

“Who gave you that?” someone demands.

I walk over to read what’s written at the bottom of that most beautiful card:

Your friend, Jon.

Obviously, Jon’s mom shops at the same store where my mom shops, since we have the same box of cards.

Unlike me, however, Jon has chosen to give his best card away.

To Eloise.

She continues to wail, but we all look from her to Jon, who’s sitting slouched worse than usual at his desk. His face is a darker shade of red than Eloise’s has ever been. He won’t look at the rest of us.

“Oooooo!” says one of the girls.

A boy starts chanting: “Jon and Eloise, sittin’ in a tree . . . ”

But something new is happening here; the energy in the room is changing. This isn’t the regular boy-likes-girl situation. I feel it.

So does Allen.

“Hey, stop it, guys!  Leave him alone!” Allen gets up to stand by Jon.

Mrs. Peterson  is there, too. She places her hand on Jon’s shoulder, her wide brown eyes glimmering with tears. “You, young man, are a noble person.”

I don’t know exactly what “noble” means, but I know that Jon, all of ten years old, is the biggest hero I’ve ever seen.  My emotions swirl inside me like the silver designs on the card—shock at Jon’s choice, guilt over not treating Eloise better, sadness that I hadn’t been the one to give so freely. I look at Jon, the boy new to us this year, who’d endured teasing, too, until he faded into the background in a way Eloise can’t, and I know I want to be like him. Today he isn’t in the background; today he’s the champion of us all. Today he taught us—or at least me—the power of kindness and selflessness, to forget yourself and help someone else.

Perhaps that’s what “noble” means.

I want to be as noble as Jon. I want to help Eloise. So after Mrs. Peterson calms down, I sit beside her.

“You can make Valentines prettier than these, Eloise, the way that you draw.”

“Maybe.”  She shrugs, her face splotchy.

“Don’t you live in my neighborhood?” I ask. “I think I’ve seen you walking that way after school.”

“Yeah. I know where you live. I’ve seen you playing in your yard with your sister.”

“We could walk together sometime. If you like,” I offer.

Eloise looks at me. She smiles. I think of the elegant E-bird she drew; I imagine it stretching its wings just now, preparing to fly high and far in the wide blue sky.

“Sure,” she said. “I’ll walk with you.”

So after school, that’s what we do. We walk together.

Home.

Beautiful lady

beautiful sign

It took me a while to figure out the tiny, nondescript building in the heart of the rundown side of town. I only noticed what it was when I needed it—there, in the tiny window, a tiny sign:

Dry Cleaning.

My first thought: So that’s what that little place is!

Second thought: Time to take that mountain of cleaning . . . 

Back at home, I grumbled all the way to the car with my armload. Too much of my family’s wardrobe required dry cleaning. Suits, coats, some of my dresses . . . this is ridiculous, this is IT, I am reading every tag in the future and I am NOT buying anything else that has to go to the cleaners. I could buy several more outfits for what this is going to cost!

The tiny parking lot had only three parking places. A pretty tight fit.

Fortunately, two spaces were free.

I got out of my car, gathered my garment mountain unto myself, and somehow maneuvered through a sliding glass door to enter the shop. I made it to the counter where I let it all go—thunk!

Yes, the weight of the clothing was enough to thunk.

Then, as if by magic—I didn’t see exactly where she came from—a young woman materialized.

“Hello!” she said, smiling at me. “Welcome! I am happy to help you today.”

Her Korean face shone like the sun; I actually blinked. I could feel the warmth she radiated.

She clasped her hands. “Oh, you are such a beautiful lady!”

Tears stung my eyes.

Seriously.

I almost wanted to hide.

I had been feeling—acting—anything but beautiful. I am quite sure my face looked like a thundercloud when I walked in.

“Oh my,” I said, feebly. “Um, thank you.”

She beamed.

She catalogued my family’s clothes, said they’d be ready next Tuesday, and she walked me to my car. When I pulled out of the parking lot, she stood there waving good-bye with fervor.

My first thought: Grandma used to do that. Used to wave after the car when I left, even ran out into the old dirt road to keep waving until she couldn’t see me anymore.

Second thought: How can this lady be so exuberant? Is ANYONE really that happy?

But I realized, as I drove away, that I was smiling, too.

Thus began years of visits to this dry cleaning shop.

Always when I walked in, the young woman dropped what she was doing and flew to meet me: “Beautiful Lady!”

I stopped ruing the fact that I had so many clothes needing to be dry cleaned.

I started taking things that needed mending. A hem come undone, a blouse pulling apart, hateful buttons that fell off of coats because they weren’t sewn on properly to begin with. A zipper that broke, needing to be replaced.

She fixed them all.

Once I took a challenging piece to her. A jacket with torn lining.

For the first time, I saw her brow furrow as she examined the tear.

“Is it fixable?” I asked. “If it’s not, that’s okay.”

She held her head up, sticking her chin out just a bit. “I will fix it. Not on the machine. By hand.”

And she did.

When I picked up the jacket, I marveled at the tiny, perfect stitches. They were machine-precision. I looked at her in awe. Sewing, I’d decided long ago, was just about a lost art. My mother and grandmothers sewed; they made clothes for themselves, my sister and me when we were children, and for others. My mother even crafted a slipcover for a sectional sofa. I can barely sew on a button.

And here in my hands was some of the prettiest handiwork I’d ever seen.

“It’s beautiful!” I said.

My dry cleaning lady smiled, good cheer emanating from her entire being: “It must be beautiful for the Beautiful Lady.”

I swallowed, too humbled for words.

Her habit now was to carry my clothes to the car—she absolutely would not allow me to do it—to hang them and to open the driver’s door for me. And there she stood, waving good-bye to me until I was out of sight.

I had taken to rolling the window down and waving back until I was well down the road.

I met her children as they began learning the business. “Look!” she exclaimed on one visit, as soon as I entered.  “Look at this report card!” Her son had received straight As.

“That’s awesome work,” I said to him as he rang me up on the register.

“Thank you,” he said somewhat shyly, handing me my receipt.

“Listen!” said my dry cleaning lady another time. “My boys are taking piano lessons.”

There against the wall by the entrance stood a piano; when did that get delivered to this little shop?  The two boys, in turn, sat and played without any sheet music:

The Entertainer.

Fur Elise.

Moonlight Sonata.

My musician son was with me on some of those visits; he listened, nodded his approval, and was invited to play.

He played his favorite.

Amazing Grace.

My dry cleaning lady and her boys nodded.

“Beautiful music!” she clapped, hopping up and down, when my son was done.

“Your boys also played beautifully,” I told her.

“I am taking lessons, too,” she said, glowing with obvious joy. In that moment, I realized just how much I admired her. Her generosity of heart, her effervescence, her genuine zest. The utter freedom with which she honored life—her own as well as others’.

I didn’t know, still don’t know, her back story, whether she was born in America or came here when she was a child. I never met her husband. She labored long hours in and out of that tiny dry cleaning shop, tireless in her dedication to her work, her family, and her customers. She raised three stellar boys, paid for their piano lessons, got that piano for them to practice as she taught them the dry cleaning business after school, and decided to play herself.

I wonder how long she harbored that dream of playing.

One day I walked in and an old man greeted me. When I inquired where my dry cleaning lady was, he explained with a heavy accent: “I am her father. She is gone to open another shop.”

In another town.

That shop will do well, I thought, thinking of her smile, her magnetic energy.

But a great light and warmth had gone from this shop.

I saw her first name written down once and asked her how to pronounce it. She coached me on it until I said it perfectly. I recalled it this week, and looked it up: It’s derived from the old Chinese “Ming,” meaning bright, brilliant.

It’s too perfect. Dead-on. Life is like that, so seemingly random at times, but always, always moving with purpose, like realizing a nondescript shop is a dry cleaners and oh, maybe I should bring that mountain of cleaning, never expecting to come face to face with the most alive human being, whose ability to make another person feel valued is unparalleled, whose very name means brightness.

I’ve been in the presence of greatness in a tiny shop in the heart of the rundown side of town. I needed to be there, but not for the kind of cleaning and mending I thought I needed. For a different and deeper kind: A lesson in blessing others at the hands of one luminous, amazing, incomparably beautiful lady.

You are beautiful.

If we could all see one another that way, and could say so sincerely, if we honored each others’ lives because we believe it . . . what a different world it would be.