Oddball gift

I watch them each afternoon, bringing odds and ends out of their bookbags.

They’re a pretty orderly group, these third, fourth, and fifth grade students seated in the auditorium for carpool dismissal, so I don’t tell them to put the stuff away. Instead, I take note of what they have in their hands.

Some of them are holding books and reading—a delight to my heart.

Some are doing homework—I don’t blame them for getting a head start.

Some are drawing—and I’m astounded by their artistic ability.

Some are writing, occasionally beckoning me to come over and listen as they read it aloud or to ask me a question, and I sigh: All’s right with the world.

Many are playing with slime.

They learned how to make it in science a couple of months back. The kids took the recipe home, altered it, and have taken slime to dazzling new heights. They bring their latest concoctions to school in Ziploc bags, plastic containers, even small glass jars.

First someone came with glow-in-the-dark slime, which, I concurred, is extremely cool.

This progressed to the creation of fluorescent slime. Then glitter slime; one sparkling turquoise batch reminded me of the ocean. Then a shimmery magenta glitter slime containing iridescent beads, which, I am not kidding, was beautiful; it was as supple and stretchy as any other slime. Fascinating.

But perhaps the oddest thing of all was non-slime: Some kind of ball being shaken by a girl. I could see green glitter swirling inside and something else floating . . .

I went over for a better look: “Is that . . . an eyeball in there?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the girl, giggling. She handed it to me.

I shook it, because, clearly, that is what one should do with a clear rubber ball filled with fluid, green glitter, and a garish bloodshot eyeball.

“Wild,” I laughed, handing it back.

And the girl said, “No, you can keep it.”

“Ummmm, but, it’s your, er, glittery eyeball . . . thing. Thanks but I would, ah, hate to take it from you.”

She grinned. “It’s okay. I have a whole bunch of them at home.”

I opened my mouth to ask WHY just as her number came up and she left me standing there holding this . . . object. The eyeball floated benignly in the fluid as glitter settled to the bottom. The bright blue iris stared right at me. So odd.

Oddball.

What possible purpose could there be for having ‘a whole bunch’ of these things at home? I wondered. Then, instantaneously: Yeah, there’s a story in that, for sure.

Furthermore, I have learned that when the universe gives you a gift—or when a fifth-grader gives you a glittery eyeball toy—you should just accept it.

And so this gift graces my desk at school, awaiting the moment of its destiny, when an eyeball floating in a sea of green glitter is exactly what is needed.

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Getting in

Keep your eyelids up

And see what you can see.

-Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street!

Any writer knows how important it is to be a noticer of things. All things. To catch a sudden spark of inspiration, to fan the flame of an idea until it’s spent.

Around the elementary school where I work, for example, there’s plenty of intriguing things to notice. In this old building a careful observer can find some obsolete oddities.

Such as the dumbwaiter that connects the first floor of the media center to a second-floor loft that, once upon a time, must have been an extension of the library. In my time here the loft has been a computer lab. Until this year. With the arrival of new Chromebooks and iPads in classrooms, the computer lab was disassembled to become the shared space of instructional staff; three colleagues and I are housed there now. The dumbwaiter stands in our space, appropriately silent and still, long out of use. It must have been created as a lift for sending stacks of books or old overhead projectors up and down in decades past. I cannot think of another explanation for its presence. If it were ever opened I’d halfway expect to see Harriet the Spy hiding in there, making her anecdotal notes.

Downstairs in the main lobby, a colorful, student-painted mosaic wraps around the exterior of media center, disguising a flat metal drawer in the wall—an old book depository. As books are now returned at the circulation desk, the handle of the depository was removed years ago so that students wouldn’t keep putting books (or anything else) in there. Every day, throngs of students come and go without ever noticing the plain metal plate embedded in the mosiac artwork that overshadows it and draws the eyes away.

Except for one particular pair of eyes, that is.

One morning, as I stand at the back of the lobby greeting students arriving from buses as usual, I notice that a boy is over at that book depository. I’ve never seen a student acknowledge its existence, so I just watch to see what he’s up to. His back is to me. He’s doing something to the drawer. The lobby has cleared except for a couple of boys who realize something’s going on. They linger to check it out. Next thing I know, the two bystanders are bending over with laughter:

“He opened it! He opened it!”

That’s when I walk over to see. The bystander boys scatter. Sure enough, the first boy has the drawer open. He’s so immersed in his task that he’s unaware of my presence.

“So,” I say, “how’d you do this?”

He starts a bit, automatically hands me two opened, extended paperclips. He’d worked them into the two little holes where the depository handle used to be.

“Where’d you get these?” I query, the mangled paperclips resting in my open palm.

“Upstairs,” he says, somber-faced.

And he shuts the drawer, takes off.

I watch him go, marveling.

He’d planned this.

Who knows when he first noticed the depository and wondered about it, whether it could be opened. When he saw the two holes or when he went to find two paperclips to fashion his own handle. How long it took him to think all this through.

And I wonder about him, whether he pays attention in class or gets in trouble for being off-task, if he’s motivated academically. One thing’s for certain: He’s a critical thinker. This book depository experiment is problem-solving at its finest. The greatest thing a learner can possess, perhaps, is curiosity: What if . . . 

As the tardy bell rings, I walk upstairs, wondering what he expected to see when he opened that drawer, pondering what I saw, just before he relinquished his improvised tools.

He was writing with his finger inside the depository. In the dust of the ages, lying there undisturbed for so long. I caught just a glimpse before he shut it away, and I couldn’t quite make it out, so only he knows exactly what he wrote. I’m pretty sure part of it was a smiling face. This much I know: he accomplished his goal. He got in. He made his mark and there it will remain  for ages and ages hence, or at least as long as the building stands.

One day, perhaps, someone else will come along and notice the depository. And wonder what’s inside. And figure out how to get in, and discover that someone was there before. Likely the boy and I will be long gone by then.

And just now, as I write, I think about books themselves as depositories of thoughts, ideas, and images, places where others have gone before, leaving their marks behind from time immemorial, waiting for us to find them. Indelibly marking us, when we finally get in.

Now as for that old dumbwaiter . . .  don’t even think about it, Harriet, it’s permanently sealed . . . .

Breakfast Island

island

Image:  studio tdes CC BY

Somewhere in Maryland’s scenic Severn River is a tiny island that belongs to me.

Not that I have a deed to it, or that the island was even the giver’s to give, but those are minor details.

The transaction came about when I was around seven years old, during a family gathering. My aunt and uncle, avid boaters, decided to treat everyone to breakfast on the beach. In the chilly gray dawn, a bunch of us piled into my uncle’s motorboat and sped across the Severn. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this majestic river connects with the Chesapeake Bay; the U.S. Naval Academy stands at the convergence. I only knew I was cold and hungry. I shivered in the breeze, thinking that going to the beach for breakfast was just about the most exciting thing ever.

The beach turned out to be an island right in the middle of the river. If Huck Finn had seen it, he would have called it a towhead, a mere islet with a thicket of brush in the middle. As the grown-ups busied themselves with building a small fire, I walked the whole sandy circumference in a couple of minutes, marveling at the island’s diminutive size.

“What is this place?” I asked my uncle, who was crouching by the fire with a skillet full of sausage links.

“Just an island where people sometimes stop off,” my uncle answered, as the sausages began to sizzle.

The sun was bright now, the Severn very blue against the island’s golden sand. A few white sails appeared in the distance.

“What’s the island’s name?” I wondered aloud.

“It doesn’t have one,” replied my uncle.

“Why not?”

“I guess it’s too small for a name.”

How disturbing, that such a pretty place did not have a name.

“Why don’t the owners want it to have a name?”

“Nobody really owns this island,” my uncle said, carefully turning the sausages. Thin blue smoke drifted up from the skillet.

“What! How come nobody owns it? ”

“It’s just here, hon. It isn’t like the big islands, where people live. That’s a good thing, because anyone who wants to can stop and visit, like we’re doing now.”

An inexplicable sorrow welled up in me. It wasn’t fair that no one cared enough about this little island to want it or give it a name. It hurt my heart.

My uncle squinted at me. “What’s the matter?”

“It should belong to somebody.”

“Ok, then, why not you?”

“WHAT?!”

“It now belongs to you.”

“For real?”

“You’re the owner of this island. Congratulations.”

Pride surged through me – I owned this island, the prettiest place in the world! I loved it. Somehow I felt it was mutual, that the island loved me back, was happy that I was there, that we were meant to be. Then a fleeting fear struck me:

“Do I need to pay for it?”

My uncle howled with laughter. “Goodness! Well, since there is no other owner, it’s free.”

The sausages were done; someone filled another skillet with apples and cinnamon. I never knew apples could be fried. Their aroma filled the air like incense from an altar, sweet, pleasing, mouth-watering. For the rest of that morning I basked in the glory of possessing my own island,  soaking up the sun and asking for more apples, until they were gone. I never wanted to leave.

I have never returned. I do not know if the island still exists, or if time and weather have dissolved it, the way that relationships eventually dissolved. What I know is that for that one halcyon morning, I was the richest person on Earth; I owned an island, and it was free.

Reflect: In what ways can you take a child beyond the realm of “the usual” to experience something rich and unusual? How can you creatively instill a sense of ownership?