It has just begun to rain, freshening the remains of the day. Cachito was glad to see me when I came home. I threw his toy mouse and he ran batting it down the hall, grabbing it in his jaws, bringing it back for me to throw again. I was in the South Mountain visiting my folks. Matthew and I cleaned out the springs clogged with watercress, shoveling it from the stream, raking it away from the banks, upsetting some salamanders and crayfish. My nephew knows his plants and kept a raspberry bush from destruction when I wanted to pull it out for a briar. The sun shone brightly through the trees illuminating patches of the forest underneath. A doe came springing up out of the woods with her cinnamon fawn and walked along the stream. We took a sip of spring water and watched them graze and drink.
My whole stay was as peaceful and calm as that, but on the train coming home, my heart began to beat faster as I remembered my summer job looming ahead like disaster. I was going to be teaching a group of kids gardening in La Plaza Monday through Thursday, five hours a day for six weeks. I never taught children before. What if I bored them? What if I couldn’t teach? Lancaster County passed by, highway after highway, Amish farmhouses and fields of growing corn. I envied the dumb Holsteins wading in their wide muddy stream beyond the cool window, but soon the cows turned into parking lots, shopping malls, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark, and then the skyline of New York City, the Empire State and the World Trade, inevitably gaped.
My class turned out to be energetic first, second and third graders who passed the year and now can play, unlike their unfortunate classmates, who have to go to summer school where the homework’s never over. The first day we had five boys and five girls. Those ten came back and thirteen more showed up. Girls outnumber boys two to one and are, as a group, much easier to control. There were three siblings, which didn’t work at all. The sister, Quaneesha, was perfect, but her brothers, Shahem and Raheem, did not want to participate and refused to give their names. Raheem stood insisting that he wasn’t going to sit next to white people. “Hey, I’m Puerto Rican,” José protested. At lunch Raheem ran away, and didn’t come back. Six year old Shahem, when he settles and draws, sees and feels, and is the best detailed artist I have. The boys the first day were behaved, but with the fleeing and fighting Shahem and Raheem, Matthew and Roberto as well as Lee and André began picking on each other and I had to discipline them with separation and threats of time out. On the first day Roberto volunteered with José to go get their backpacks. José wanted to please, but Roberto sincerely wanted to help when his hand shot up. Day two Roberto was a little hellion while José, rising in my estimation, remained both helpful and pleasant.
On July the Fourth, the fireworks went off over the East River. It’s not a bad view from my building’s roof, which was packed with dozens of neighbors and their guests. When the fireworks appeared and loudly flashed everyone gasped as if having sex or breathing their last. When I overturned the compost with a pitchfork in La Plaza the next morning, all of the children gasped at the sight of twisting earthworms and retreating sow bugs just like my neighbors on the roof did looking at the fireworks.
When the compost was lifted and the sow bug curled up into a ball, the children understood that it wanted to look like a stone, and I remembered that I understood at an early age what the word “camouflage” meant. I was pasting pictures of moths that looked like bark and caterpillars that looked like leaves into a book. It’s possible that my parents told me that the moth looks like the bark to protect itself, but I understood. Children understand hiding perhaps. The adult concept of metaphor is a lot like the child’s concept of camouflage: to mean (be) one thing, but to say (seem) another. How do children learn? In first grade, I remember the first word I understood was “Look.” I was reading Dick and Jane. Look, with its two o’s like the circles of eyes looking at me, resembled what it meant, kind of like a visual onomatopoeia. “Look, Jane, look.”
Discovery is startling. Children forget where they are. I have to tell them, “Get your pencils and notebooks.” When I told them that I wanted poems about earthworms and sow bugs, Alexandra didn’t want to write, had a fear to write, but described an earthworm succinctly when she did:
Melanie sees colors. Kids color color, but don’t seem to mention it much:
………I am red, brown and pink.
………I help you to be alive.
………I help you breathe.
There is something about Lee’s poem that’s sublime. Lee has empathy, the essential quality of a good poet:
………I was picked up
………by a boy named Lee.
………He threw me in the flowers.
………I hate the sun.
Six year old Kira is already contemplating death:
………A sow bug lives on the ground
………and if you step on it
………it would be dead.
Roxanne’s observations are a scientist’s:
………The Sow Bug has 19 legs
………on each side. That makes 38.
………His or her body is round
………and has two antlers
………on its face.
When Roberto writes, “I curl up in a ball to protect myself,” he heard that from me, but when he observes the sow bug is gray and white, and not a slug, these facts he saw for himself and, like one candle lighting another, illuminates more than I was:
………I am gray and white
………I curl up in a ball
………to protect myself
………I look like a slug
………but I am not a slug
On the bus going back I noticed the kids all had sow bugs or earthworms. Matthew said he was going to put his sow bug in a potted plant to live. The earthworm in Roberto’s hand seemed to be expiring. I told Jamilla to pour some of her water in his palm. The earthworm revived with a twitch as I commanded Ellery and Kira to hand over some of the dirt they had put in their plastic bags for Roberto’s homeless one. I pitied the worried creature with a boy, its natural predator, and thought about lecturing on the sanctity of life, but then like God kept quiet.
I wrote what is written above in July of 2001. The children have graduated from high school by now and many I’m sure are in college. I have no idea where they are and I hope they don’t mind that I’m sharing their drawings and poems. The earthworms below were drawn by Roberto. I had filled a huge glass jar with soil, put earthworms in it, and put the jar in my closet for a week. When I took the jar out, the earthworms had dug many tunnels along the sides making it easy to see how they in their tunnels helped the earth to breathe.
That September my students would have been in schools in Lower Manhattan. None of us were very far from the World Trade Center when it collapsed. So much has happened since then. May they have gone in good directions. Do you believe in Fate? Are we helpless or is it something we instigate? Think of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. If one or the other had lingered just a minute longer not starting the car or staying in the store, or had left a minute earlier, there would have been no encountering. I’m sure Mr. Zimmerman has often wished it had happened just as I’ve said. Perhaps we shouldn’t curse, but thank our lucky stars when we miss the bus or the boat or the train. Does life have a design, a pattern? Below Robert Frost reads his poem Design. At the end of the twelfth line he mutters to himself, “and then,” giving us an extra foot, a lazy iamb. Is it meant for the end the twelfth line or the beginning of the thirteenth? What exactly is Frost’s design here adding two more syllables to what he had originally written?
I would like to end by giving a shout out to all of my summer camp students from 2001. I hope you sometimes remember me as I remember you. If you should read this or Fate should bring you to me, I might have a picture you drew or a poem you wrote or a photo I took. I would love to give them to you. Perhaps when all is said and done, it’s best it was kept by me in a dark box like earthworms away from the fading sun. Little children lose things, have no accounting; your drawings may have, in your own hands, already been lost in time. Stop by.