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The Peculiar Philosophy of Handstands: Chapter 3
And a toddler boy with very blue eyes.
I have always thought that school is a form of mild punishment, with its busy, crazy halls and forty-student classrooms. But if Parkland High School is Purgatory, then Thornwood Smile n' Share Preschool is living Hell.
Twenty-nine munchkin-sized children frantically running, screaming, and kicking in an area the size of our master bedroom. There's biting, scratching, tug o' war over moldy stuffed animals, fights about scratched wooden blocks. I can't keep all the kids straight, they move so fast. Maybe they had espresso at snack-time.
Mrs. Ramirez, a pudgy Hispanic woman with a soothing voice, shows me the ropes. "I'm sorry about the room," she whispers in lightly-accented English, "but we don't have much money to do this, yes? Almost all of our toys are from kind families, and we can barely pay the rent. Still," she smiles raggedly, "we do the best we can for the children. Most of their parents work two jobs and can't keep up on the payments, so we try to cover those costs."
She gestures at the swarm of kids. "We have children here from three to eight years, so there is a wide range of development. The daycare runs from two to six, so you have the second two-hour shift. We get a lot of selfless volunteers like you to help us, so things run pretty smoothly. Let's see," she consults the schedule, "we have snack-time at four-thirty, and the rest is Free Play. Your job is to run the games and make sure nobody is being left out or hurt. Otherwise, just have fun. The children love it when you play with them."
"OK. Thanks." I glance at the clock. Just one hour and forty-five minutes left. I only had to survive these devil children for two hours a day. Five days a week. For three months. God.
I wade hesitantly into the mass of children, who don't seem to notice me other than to move away from my big clumsy feet. I feel like an unwanted guest at an elite party, where everybody speaks in code. The code of childhood.
Mostly everyone seems fine. Sure, the kids beat each other up pretty well, but the fights are short and nobody really cries. It's a tough crowd.
I find a nice quiet corner and settle myself into it to watch the kids. I decide that there are four groups. The Dolls Group, which is mostly little girls and quiet boys playing serenely and cradling raggedy stuffed animals, the Fighter Group, eight or so rowdy kids attacking each other with planes and cars, the Blocks Group, older children creating complex cities and fighting almost constantly, and the Artsy-Craftsy Group, mostly finger paint and glitter wars. Then there are the outsiders, too young or old or shy or different to play, hanging on the outskirts, watching.
The most interesting are the outsiders. I find myself watching them, the tiny pale girl with wispy blonde hair, the African-American boy missing a couple fingers, the toddler who can barely walk. There's one more too, but I don't notice him until after snack time, when he sidles up to me in my corner.
"Aren't you too old for daycare?" He's slight, scrawny, with tan skin, dark fine hair, and eyes like those in refugee posters, big and brown to melt your heart.
"I'm not in daycare. I just work here."
"Oh." One of his front teeth is missing. "What's your job?"
"To play with you guys, make sure you're nice to each other."
"Then why aren't you?"
"Why aren't I what?"
"I guess nobody needs me to."
"Will you play with me?" I think he feels sorry for me. I have reached rock bottom, and there's nothing to lose.
"Yeah, sure, whatever. What do you want to play?"
He doesn't say anything, just points to a ramshackle cardboard dollhouse that lists more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I follow.
It's much, much later when Mrs. Ramirez finds us.
"And then the giant T-rex comes and attacks Maria!" The little boy yells excitedly.
"But luckily, Bobby is there to save her with his ninja turtle!" I add. Yes, it's pathetic. But, strangely, fun.
"Huh?" I pause mid-clash with the little boy's T-rex.
"I'm glad to see you're getting involved, bit it's six."
I bite off the "already" forming in my throat. "OK." I quickly stuff the dolls back into the house, which wobbles uncertainly. "Bye--" I realize I don't know his name.
"Miguel." He smiles with a missing-tooth grin.
"Bye, Miguel. See you tomorrow."
I sling my backpack into the back seat, hearing the ominous tearing of a binder, and climb into shotgun.
"Hi, honey!" Mom chirps. Her earrings are homemade clay sunflowers dangling on golden chains. She's wearing a recycled-fabric silk blouse, which bares her toned arms. Shouldn't she be getting some flab by now? It's weird that a forty-something mom is fitter than her teenage daughter. Must be all that yoga.
"How was the daycare?" So bright, scripted, like a character from Ozzie and Harriet, if you get my reference.
"Fine. Good." I can see her brain calculating, extracting every last bit of meaning from my response. In the end, she nods, smiles.
"That's great, Mariah. I'm so glad you're getting into service." Her earrings swing wildly as we round a corner.
Yeah, Mom, because you made me, I want to tell her. I want to say that I had a really crappy time, just to spite that perfect face. But I can't, because of Miguel. Those eyes, that heartbreaking smile. And what an imagination!
No, Mariah, no, don't get attached. Remember what happened last time, in the sky-blue room... No. No. Not now. Focus on what Mom is saying, head back, laughing, fake crowned teeth smile like pearls. Forget.
"And then Lisa and Karen DeRoot, you know her from gymnastics, her daughter Ayla? Well, anyway, they found out that they had been doing the same decoupage project the whole time. Isn't that just hilarious?" The car pulls into our sweep of smooth concrete driveway.
"Yeah. Listen, Mom, I need to do some homework, so--" I let it hang. I know she wants to have some mother-daughter bonding time, probably crocheting hats for Kenyan orphans, but I really do have homework. I'm just not going to do it.
I pull out my drawing notebook and flop languidly on the bed. Time to close my eyes and imagine. What will it be today? Maybe a truly perfect family out on a walk. A fashion model. A tropical island. A wish. A... my pencil touches paper, and when I'm done, it's not any of those things.
I am surprised at how well I captured him, how well I remembered. I caught the fading afternoon light outlining his glossy dark hair, the faint upturn of his cheeky nose, the long eyelashes. It's a very good drawing. Maybe because it's true.
Drawing is wonderful for boredom. Like in ninth grade English, where every day is a complete snoozefest. Ancient Greece, Rome, Vikings, on and on and on. They say you learn from the past, but I don't believe that for a minute. If we did, the schools wouldn't teach the same lessons four years in a row.
The Humanities teacher, Mr. Wagner, seems like a good guy, but he can make the siege of Syracuse sound more boring than a funeral. He's very good at droning. Several students are asleep. Two kids, the straight-A nerds, actually listen. The rest of us tune out.
My pencil glides along the back of an Ancient Egyptian text, filling in the outline of the little body just grown out of baby fat, narrow face and crooked smile. A T-rex in one hand. Intently I shade, making the light hit him just so, catch the wrinkles in his secondhand T-shirt.
"That's a lovely drawing, Mariah." Mr. Wagner says in his faint British accent, "but your time might be better spent on this Medieval culture assignment."
I blush, hard, slightly ashamed. I didn't mean to disappoint him, but the subject's so boring. I'll make an effort today, though. As Mr. Wagner reads the assignment, I skim the instructions.
You will have three weeks to:
a) Research a Medieval European topic of your choice.
b) Write a five-page report covering the history, traditions, themes, and importance in daily life of said topic.
c) Create an original presentation with an interactive and creative presentation device (e. g. a brochure, poster,
video, or a news report).
Grades will be given according to the accuracy and fluidity of the essay, punctuality, originality of presentation
device, and fluency of presentation.
I feel myself sinking lower into my seat. Last time we had an oral report, I spoke so fast that nobody could understand me, and Courtney bullied me about it the rest of the day. And Medieval Europe-- boring! I've heard about it-- The Dark Ages-- there was a reason they were called that.
After class, I am scurrying to my locker when I bump into Courtney. What is it about me and running into people? She spins around, and I can see the gleaming light in her eyes. She has found a victim.
"It's not spirit week," she sneers.
"Your clothes-- it's not Clash Day."
"What do you mean?"
"Your socks don't match. And where did you get your shirt? Goodwill?"
Her clique gathers around her, pack of American Eagle, Abercrombie wolves, waiting for me to stumble and fall. They like this. It's entertainment. Where's Brianna when you need her? Usually she stands up for me at times like this.
"Look at her hair," Someone adds sardonically, "What color do you call it? Mouse? Mud?" The clique giggles appreciatively, but the comment hurts more than ever. Because it's Brianna.
This is so juvenile, so stupid. Why does it pierce my shell? Betrayal, maybe. I feel their mascara-laden eyes on me as I search for a way out of their circle. There has to be a break somewhere. Ironically, it's Kyle that saves me. He swaggers up to the group of girls, ripped jeans and all. Brianna is drawn to him with seemingly magnetic force, hanging onto his arm. Finally the girls forget about me and pay attention to their fluttery fan club.
I make my escape to Smile n' Share Daycare, images of Brianna ringing in my head. The way she looked at him... Can't she see what a jerk he is? I thought she knew that stuff. Well, lately she's been spending more time with the clique, and only hanging out with me after school. Still. It hurts.
The kids are back in their groups, not exclusive, but not welcoming either. They sit in loosely defined circles, absorbed in play. I want to go to them and warn them not to base it all on that system. Don't follow it all your life. don't hunt, search for a kill, turn on your firends for a guy... No! What am I thinking! They're only five! I'll grow up to be that bitter old woman who shakes her walker at kids on her lawn.
"You're back!" It's Miguel with an armful of stuffed puppies, no two with all their limbs in place. He smiles hugely. Why does he like me?
"I am. Do you want to play today?" He doesn't answer, just hands me a Dalmatian and a Dachshund.
We are deep in the midst of our game when I hear a familiar voice at my shoulder.
"You have a very good French accent," Austen boy stands above me, hands on slender hips, one eyebrow slightly cocked.
"It was an evil poodle." I stammer. He catches me at the weirdest times.
"He was trying to take over the world!" Miguel pipes, still holding a Great Dane. "Who are you?"
"Quinn." He extends a hand to Miguel, who promptly puts a Labrador Retriever in it.
Quinn. Hmm. Quinn- sounds Irish. Quinn. Quinn Quinn Quinn Quinn Quinn. I think I like it.
At first I'm self-conscious about doing the evil Dr. Poodle gig in front of Quinn, but he goes along with the game so easily that I soon forget it. We engage in a ferocious battle, and I discover an untapped talent for a maniacal laugh. Miguel sits with his feet tucked under his knees, solemn until Dr. Poodle launches a tickle attack.
While serving goldfish, Quinn asks if I like the assignment in Humanities. I shrug.
"Looks fine. Haven't really read all fo it."
"I think it sounds great!" He enthuses. "I'm going to do something on the feudal system, and then demonstrate the difference between levels in class using an interactive Powerpoint presentation!"
"What are you planning on doing?"
Maybe throwing up, I think glumly. "Um.. I haven't thought much..." Why am I so boring?
"What are your hobbies? I bet you could find something that uses them."
"I like to draw, and um..." That's about it, really.
"Oh, you could do a great original presentation with that! Do you have any of your drawings with you?"
"Actually, yes." The one of Miguel in my binder. "Want me to get it?'
He nods fervently, so I wrestle it out of the overstuffed pocket. When he sees it, his eyes widen.
"Wow. This is a-maz-ing. When did you do it?"
"Uh, during Humanities." Will he think I'm a slacker?
He grins. "Seriously, this is better than stuff I've seen in museums. You should ask if you could display it in the library or something. Everybody would love it."
"Thanks." He's probably just trying to be nice. It doesn't look like Miguel at all. I steal a glance at him, inhaling goldfish at record speed. Fine. Maybe it does.
"So, what's your motivation for volunteering here?"
I want to say something like, "It's so fulfilling", not that my grades are too low, but I've seen too many rom-com movies where that goes horribly wrong.
"I need a better grade in PE," I say hurriedly, "apparently you can get a D for coordination. But what about you?"
"It's so fulfilling." Agh! Is he perfect or what?
"How do you fit in homework?" He seems the type who would do all of it, probably ahead of time.
"It gets tough some days," he admits, "and I have to miss cross-country practice, so I usually run the seven miles home, eat dinner with my family, and then do homework till about eleven. It saves my mom the drive." Running. I've always wished I could run. "Do you do a sport?"
"I used to. Gymnastics." I was good, too.
"And now?" He prompts.
"I can't find a school sport that I want to do, and with this, I don't think I'll have time."
"You should run with me." he says, only half-jokingly. "You have a good build for it."
Build? What build? Athletic people have builds! I'm short, skinny, without any muscle to speak of. Besides, the most I've ever run was a mile, and that was torture. Embarrassing, too. Make a fool of myself in front of Quinn? No thank you. Still-- how many other people would he ask to run with him? And I could get faster, stronger, plus run every day with this cute guy--
"Thanks. I'll think about it." I will.
Because if he's brave enough to ask, I'm brave enough to answer.