I walk into the first grade classroom of my newest teacher, her first year. A black line drawing of a turtle, its shell a patchwork of random designs and doodles, is projected on the large screen. Excited and smiling, she skips toward me and beams; It’s a directed art lesson. Across the classroom every desk top is covered with large white art paper. Each sheet an interpretation, every child’s personality reflected in freehand design. Small tight curlicues, large circles and patterned squiggles, tiny turtles drawn hugging the bottom edge of the page and large bold turtles filling the paper, corner to corner. As I crouch between the desks, commenting on their little masterpieces, I am peppered with requests, look at mine, did you see my turtle, do you like it?, I’m an artist too. I happily and sincerely shower them with praise. They smile knowing I am impressed by their creative work.
Classrooms have always been my sanctuary. As a student I excelled, and felt my true self in the company of my teachers and classmates. Teaching I escaped the stress of raising teenagers as a single mother, finding solace among my loving second graders, always a willing audience. And now, a principal exhausted by the work leading up to school opening coupled with my son’s addiction spiraling out of control, more than ever I yearn for the consistency and comfort of the classroom, and the promise of those little faces.
Wandering between tables I pause. A little boy looks up at me and asks, how about mine, do you like mine? I smile, it’s fantastic. Full of pride he explains his design choices, tracing them with his finger, his voice trails. I notice the name tag taped to his desk, only the last four letters exposed, but they are distinct. You have the same name as my son. He laughs and says, I didn’t know that, as if we are old friends and this is a little fact he should have known about me. Where is he?, he asks. My throat tightens as the lump grows, I successfully hold back tears and say, he’s a grown up. He lives away from me and doesn’t go to school anymore. Satisfied with my answer, he begins chatting with his table mates. I move his pencil box to reveal his full name, beautifully written in perfect teacher print, I say it out loud.
Lost in my thoughts, I imagine my blonde headed boy sitting right here. Inattentive and impulsive, completely missing the directions of the lesson. Still, he would have created something beautifully different, something I would have loved and proudly posted with a magnet, adding to the refrigerator gallery. My boy was smart, but never loved the work of school. He loved art and friendship and belonging.
Before my emotions get the best of me, I quietly wave to the teacher and slip away. The last twenty four hours have taken a significant toll on my heart. I recount the last few days, still surreal . . . I receive a call at work, my neighbor hysterical as she describes police surrounding my son, guns drawn, he is arrested. He calls me, begging me to post bail. He is crying and I am crying. I close my office door, please mom, I am your son, please don’t leave me here, I won’t make it, I’ll lose my mind, mom please listen to me, I swear I am going to rehab tomorrow, I have a plan, why does bad stuff always happen to me, don’t hang up mom, please, please I’m begging you, listen to me, please help me, I promise to never ask you for another thing. I mean it this time, I have to go to rehab. I have to, please help me mom.
I cannot seem to say the word no. But I don’t say yes either. Instead I tell him I cannot make any promises, he has lied too many times, the help I have given has only hurt him, delayed his recovery. He wails and begs one last time. I tell him I love him and end the call. Sitting at my desk, eyes swollen and red, his cries play over in my head, so childlike, a boy who needs his mom . . .
He calls me two more times, but I do not answer. I cannot bear to hear him cry, and I cannot say what he so desperately wants to hear. I will not rescue him. It’s up to him now.
I walk toward another row of classrooms, looking for peace once more. As I enter, children lift their heads, look my way, and smile. Some get up and hug me, and others call me over to look at their work.
In spite of everything, I am still hopeful. My boy will make art again, he will know the love of family and friends, he will remember how much he loved belonging . . . and he’ll wonder why it took him so long to come home.
Ps BIG love and gratitude to my friends and family. You are my strength. I love you all.