Of the earth

Midway through lunch, the din in the cafeteria is too much. The new boy brings his tray to where I’m standing:

Can I sit here at this table?”

It’s an empty table, save for my phone, closed laptop, electronic entry key, all the things I carried with me because I didn’t have time to put them in my room before this daily duty.

I consider his brown eyes, looking up at me. Pleading.

I consider his boisterous classmates and the seat he left behind.

“Are you moving yourself here because you feel it’s a safer place for you to be right now?” I ask.

He nods.

“All right. That seems like a good choice.”

His face breaks into a grin. He sits.

And the questions start: What kind of phone is that? Do you have a dog? Do you like Doritos? What kind do you like best? What’s your favorite color? Where are you from? How old are you, twenty-nine? Forty? Older?

How old are YOU? Eight? Did you move over just here to ask me all these questions?

He just smiles and takes a swig of his strawberry milk.

Then:

“Mrs. Haley, what’s your favorite snake?”

“What? My favorite SNAKE, did you say? Yikes—I don’t …”

Of course I am about to say I don’t like any snake whatsoever, but something in his expression stops me. “Um, do you like snakes?”

He nods. “I like pythons.”

Heavens. I refrain from telling him about a man I saw on the news this week. He happened to find a boa constrictor in his couch and had no idea how it got there or from whence it came.

He’s watching my face. A keen observer, this child. He’s waiting for my response.

I could say I like green snakes, but I don’t. I could say I like black snakes because my granddaddy said they eat rats and mice, so don’t ever kill a black snake. I think about the copperheads Granddaddy killed on the dirt road where his barefoot grandchildren ran in the summertime. I think about the coiled baby water moccasin I found in front of the kitchen cabinets when my first son was just three, and I how I was about to pick it up, thinking it was an odd piece of rope . . . until I almost touched it. And saw its eyes. Or that time I was cleaning the attic and discovered a complete shed snakeskin; I nearly knocked a whole new exit in my ceiling, trying to scramble out of there . . .

I DO NOT LIKE SNAKES.

But this boy with the strawberry mustache is waiting. His eyes are shining.

And then I recall a little creature lying across my sidewalk a couple of weeks ago. So little that I thought it to be a large worm at first; it was the same pale tan. I noted a faint pattern of scales on it. Could it be a snake? I looked it up. It was. “Smooth earth snake.” They are shy; they live mostly in the dirt around trees and bushes. I’d just had all the old bushes around my house pulled up. Apparently this little fossorial serpent was disturbed, or even damaged, as the equipment pulled away deep, tangled roots. For whatever reason, it crawled out in the open only to die there on the sidewalk. Who knows, maybe it was just trying to get to safety.

—Poor little snake. The only one I’ve ever mourned.

I look at the boy. He’s new here. He’s been uprooted.

Perhaps he did come to this table for safety, after all.

Even as I begin to speak, I think of earth and geosmin, the organic element in soil that humans can smell to something like the trillionth degree (we can detect one tablespoon in three Olympic-size swimming pools) and why that should be, unless it’s because we were meant to live close to the earth, that we came from the earth, and to the earth we will return. A curious kinship with that little snake. With all living things.

“My favorite snake is the earth snake. It’s very small. Have you heard of it?”

He wants to see a picture, so I do a search on my phone just as it’s time for classes to clean up and go outside for recess. To run, to play, to breathe the fresh air, to enjoy being children . . . how well I remember.

The silence in the cafeteria now is too much.

Photo: Smooth Earthsnake. Cygnus921. CC-BY

That kid

Legos

Legos. qrevolutionCC BY

I woke up thinking of him today.

Don’t know why.

Maybe it’s because another school year just ended and memories are flowing thick and deep, like they always do.

Maybe something subconsciously reminded me of the collective sigh of relief when he finished elementary school and moved on a few years ago.

I am not sure.

But here he is again, so clear in my mind.

He arrived every morning long before the school doors were open, jumping, running on the sidewalks, talking to himself, singing. Staff spent the first few hours of each day trying to calm him down.

My first real encounter with him came in third grade when I, as the literacy coach, worked out of the room across from his classroom. In better moments, he’d appear without warning in my room: “What do you do in here?”

“I plan reading and writing lessons. Sometimes I have reading groups in here. Want to read with me?”

“Naw,” he said, wide-eyed, shaking his head emphatically, bouncing back to his room just as the teacher realized he’d left.

In the worst moments, the teacher came to enlist my help.

“I need a breather,” she said once, gray-faced. “I can’t do anything with him today. Can you please just stay in the room for a few minutes?”

So I stepped in. Everyone was seated, working on something, except . . . that kid. He was standing by a classmate’s desk. Taking things off of it.

“Stop it!” she kept saying.

“What’s going on?” I asked her.

“He’s taking all my supplies that I’m trying to use for this project,” said the exasperated girl.

Leaning down to his eye level, I addressed that kid: “Did you ask her permission to borrow her supplies?”

He snorted and flounced away from me. He kept grabbing pens and markers.

Firmly accentuating every word, I said: “Leave her things alone. If they aren’t yours, do not touch them without permission.”

At this moment, I realized the whole class had stopped working to watch.

He didn’t return the items. Instead, he marched to his desk, took out a wrinkled piece of notebook paper, wrote a word on it, and waved it around in the air:

Bitch

I took odd satisfaction in his spelling the word correctly.

Just then his teacher returned from her “breather.” In fractions of a second, she absorbed the scene. She was livid. The rest is a blur, her ushering that kid out of the room while the others bent quietly back to their work.

He wrote me a note of apology while doing his time in the assistant principal’s office. Delivered it to me himself, later that day.

He’d drawn flowers all over it.

That was the beginning of my being his “safe place.” When he couldn’t function in the classroom setting, his teacher sent him over to me for a few minutes, until he was able to return. One day was especially bad; I cannot remember the details of his actions. His teacher, red-faced and teary-eyed, escorted him over and immediately returned to the rest of her class.

Pacing back and forth like a caged animal, his eyes suddenly landed on the Legos on a table in the wet area of the room. Without a word, he sat at the table, and, block after block, immersed himself in building.

Presently his teacher came back, and on seeing this, turned to me. Turned on me, actually:

“Why are you rewarding his behavior like this? Why should he disrupt the class completely and get to come over here and play?” This teacher, usually so mild-mannered and nurturing, was angry to the point of visibly shaking.

Caught off guard, I took a step back. “I didn’t think of it as a reward, or even playing. He’s decompressing—this seems to be exactly what he needs.”

She stared at me for a long minute. Then she turned to that kid and said, “Are you ready to come back to class?”

He got up without a word and followed her.

Many more times that year he came, played with the Legos for a little while, and went calmly back to class.

I learned, talking to him, listening to him, that his mind functioned in overdrive. Warp speed. Hyper-curious. He asked questions other students didn’t think to, without reservation. He noticed minute details that others, adults included, frequently did not.

Such as, seeing me walking toward him in the hallway: “Hey, Mrs. Haley! Where are you going? What’s wrong with your hip?”

“What?”

“Your hip. One’s higher than the other.”

I looked at his earnest face, stunned. He was right; a touch of scoliosis left one hip slightly higher than the other, which plagues me every time I have to buy pants or jeans, making sure the one side is long enough.

He was also a math whiz. Scored high on his tests. Reading, not so much. He did decide to read with me a time or two. I later watched him work hard on his reading test, but there were too many things vying for his fractured attention; too many choices, too many strategies to remember.

But he tried.

And then he went on to middle school.

One day, at the end of another school year, I was walking through the parking lot with boxes to place in my car when I heard, “HEY, MRS. HALEY!”

—That voice!

A human projectile came from nowhere and threw its arms around me, tight.

That kid.

“Hey!” I said. “It’s you! How are you?”

“Good!” he said. “How’s that hip?”

That kid.

That rare kid, with rare insight and gifts that many may never see.

Woke up thinking of him today.

God, please let him make it.