It was 2 weeks into the school year and there you were in the office; pants down by your knees, no backpack and the biggest grin stretched across your face. When you asked me if I was your teacher and I said yes, you wrapped both tiny arms around my belly and gave me the biggest hug any skinny 4th grader had ever given me. As we walked to the classroom, you eagerly asking questions, I thought about how lucky I was to have you in my room since you had that great big smile, if only your pants weren’t so close to your knees.
The class invited you in, they were used to kids coming in from other cities and also fell under the spell of your smile. Introductions were made, tentative friendships were formed. Then one day, you started yelling. You were so mad, I had never seen a skinny little child scream so loud and so fiercely standing up for what you thought was an injustice. Pulling you out into the hallway, I calmed you down and soon that big grin came right on back.
It was like a bubble had burst that day. The grin was hidden away and the anger and the need to fight for yourself became a frequent visitor. And yet, you never were angry at me. I never felt threatened even when other teachers pointed to my growing belly and asked how I felt safe in my room. I tried to explain to them that you were just being loud, venting a bit, and that all that screaming really was just for show; a way for you to fight for yourself as you had had to do so many times before.
Every morning you would say hello to the baby in my stomach and you would tell all the other kids about it. Every morning I would remind you to pull up your pants, until I finally got you a belt, which you then strapped around your knees so that the pants stayed right there. Almost every day I would pull you out in the hallway and remind you to just breathe, the others weren’t trying to make you mad. Take a deep breath, let’s talk about it.
It was time for the baby to come so I went on leave. I cried even though I knew my kids were in the best of hands. I would try to sneak by for visits with the new baby but you always spotted me from the classroom window as if you knew that today was the day I was going to stop by. You loved that little baby as much as you loved me and you told her that every time you held her. I noticed you now had sticker charts and reminders of anger management strategies and that your grades were so bad. And yet, when I walked in that door you told me about the good things. See Mrs. Ripp, I got a C on this paper. See Mrs. Ripp, I did this. Your pride could not be taken away.
I came back from leave and you were the first one down to my room. That big old hug came out again and you mentioned how much easier it was to hug me now. Later that afternoon, that angry little boy was there again, yelling so loud for my attention. Your lungs must have gotten bigger in the 12 weeks I was gone because I had never heard such a noise come from such a tiny child. Just breathe, it will be alright.
The school year started winding down and we still battled with your demons. I could read all of your signs. Your fist closing, your quicker breaths, your eyes darting from place to place. I knew when that voice would come back and I knew that you weren’t mad at me; you were just mad at the world. And the world sometimes seemed to be mad right back at you. That final day when we said goodbye, you cried sitting under your old desk. You looked up and asked me, “But Mrs. Ripp, what am I supposed to do?” I had no answer so I simply hugged you one more time and cried with you.
All summer I thought about you and tried to contact you with no luck. When another year started I was told you had moved again and would not be back to my school. I just hoped and wished that I had given you enough reminders to breathe, calm down, it’s not you against the world; it’s us against the world.
I still look for you whenever I find myself in a big crowd of kids. Hoping that from somewhere in the middle of all those little bodies, one set of skinny arms will reach out and hug me and say “Mrs. Ripp, where did you go?” And I would tell you, “Nowhere, I am right here if you need me.” Arnold, I am still right here.