Among my students last year I had two noteworthy boys, both very small, one delicate, elfin, dark-haired and bright-eyed, who in his years with me had changed from a five-year-old to an eight-year-old without appearing to have grown at all. He is back this year, a little bit bigger but somehow exactly the same, as if he had been born a sprite. He used to prance and flit about the classroom, ageless, and despite the strict rules this year to stay in your seat, he prances and flits just as before. Quicksilver he is. Full of charm and petulance. His passions flicker across his face like the play of light and shadow. He’s a pleasure to watch. His English is great. His father, who brought him to class last year, is over six feet tall.
The other boy, just a year older and in a different class, was nine last year, and his age was at odds with his movements and his proportions, which seemed so adult. This sandy-haired man-boy would saunter into class in his jeans and boots and red vest, his schoolbook under his arm, chin up, head tilted slightly back, at ease, a smiling, pleasant fellow, no higher than his classmates’ shoulders, his size suggesting someone around six but his manner more like a 26-year-old who aspires to nothing but a happy, honorable life, a young adult settling into his groove, a veritable paisano, defined as a person who lives in a rural area, a farm laborer, or a rustic, but which it seems to me often means someone straightforward, guileless, robust with sterling quality, like this boy. Paisanos also means your people, your friends.
His classmates sometimes ridiculed him, and I was torn over how to respond. Stop the snarky reactions to his sunny innocence, yes, but stop them sharply, which would have required calling attention to them, or steadily, firmly quell the comments as if they were merely floating in the air and not directed at anyone in particular? That’s how I leaned, with reminders to the class at large to be kind, to be patient, to let everyone have their say, to laugh at no one.
The boy listened to me without realizing he was the victim of the behavior I was censuring, and that was fine with me. I was indignant on his behalf, so he had no need to feel the insult. And he never did. He was unfailingly pleasant. No hang-ups, no secret shames, no driving pride. I’ve read of people without pain sensors, and this boy seemed to be lacking the sensors for scorn or other slights. Could this be to his detriment in the long run? I’ve wondered this in the past, and again when I spotted him this year, no longer my pupil, sauntering now into another classroom, a mediocre student but as confident and relaxed as if he were the star. A buoyancy in his step gives the lie to his sturdy body. What, I wonder, will he be like when he really is an adult?
I expect that both he and my little elf will shoot up with a growth spurt, and won’t be child-sized all their lives, as some people are, two of whom I recently saw, a man not up to my chin, a woman at his side no higher than my elbow—child-sized people, as if they’d just stopped growing at 10 years of age. I felt positively hulking, encumbered, on the street with these two people, as if I hadn’t had the sense to stop growing when I was still ahead. If these two boys never did grow more, my elf would find a way to turn it to his advantage. Slide your eyes from him to almost any of his classmates and you understand the Muriel Spark character in her novel The Comforters who feels repugnance toward “human flesh where the bulk outweighs the intelligence.” And my paisano? He’s the one who pulled at my heart when I saw him walking into his new class, a spot of sun in a windy day with racing clouds that threaten to block him out.
But he’ll be fine too. He’ll hardly notice that the weather has changed around him because, I like to think, it’s always sunny in his world. He’ll be no different than now. The world will one day discover him, grown older, grown up, even one day grown old, an artifact with a shine still.
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