A student raised his hand when I asked my class of teenagers if they watched or listened to the news about the war in Ukraine. He is a year or two younger than the others and an interesting combination of fearlessness and clumsiness, his gaze steady and his English unabashed, though he might drop his pencil in the middle of giving an answer, and his book regularly slides off his desk. He’ll raise his brows or shake his head, as if to say, “Oh, the things one must put up with,” and then he’ll bend to retrieve the book or pencil, sometimes in the process knocking another thing to the floor. Slow, solid, and settled are adjectives to describe him. Measured. Stalwart. Precise in thought though not in movement. Often from the corner of my eye I see him lazily twirling his cap or intertwining his fingers, antsy, but in slow motion.
My question came on the tail of an impromptu allusion I’d made to the start of World War III. Why had I said that? We had been talking about the humorous detective character in the class book, and in an example to illustrate some point of grammar, I jumped from a murder at a country house to war, and once I’d done that, I felt obliged to speak of Ukraine. I uttered some piety about terrible situations. Then, faced with the students’ silence, I asked my question, and the boy raised his hand.
He said that his football coach had a Ukrainian goddaughter caught in the war, and her parents had put the girl along with her grandmother on a bus headed for the border. But the girl and her grandmother had run out of money, and the grandmother had had to stay behind, leaving the girl to travel on alone. “All alone?” I asked, and my student said yes, alone with strangers. She was his age, he said. She had a smartphone.
The mention of the smartphone brought to mind all the things she wouldn’t have with her. Her parents, her friends, money, her dog or her three dolls or her extra mittens. But the list of things she lacked did not bring her into focus. Instead, I kept visualizing Nadia Comăneci, in a white leotard, 14 years old and hugging a doll at the height of her fame, years before her own escape from Romania. No, I couldn’t imagine this Ukrainian child and her trouble. What happened? I asked. The other students listened attentively.
She’d made it over the border. Into Moldova, my student added, after we’d turned to stare at the world map on the wall. His coach wanted to take a flight to where she was, to bring her safely to Spain. I shook my head in wonder. I’d just returned from my brother’s wedding ceremony in his district’s city hall in Madrid, a simple ritual requiring more preparation than usual due to Covid. My brother’s former colleague at Spanish National Radio had finally managed to finalize her retirement, a year late, also slowed down by Covid complications. Even without Covid, bureaucratic red tape gums things up. I wondered how easy it would be to bring this child to safety. I shook my head. “Think of it. Fourteen years old.”
“Thirteen,” my student corrected.
Then he and the rest of the class turned their backs on the map and their attention again to the murder at the country house.
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