“A slight chance of rain tomorrow,” said the forecaster with a trace of apology. She was new on the local weather team when I lived in Montana and was even younger than I was at the time. She was thin and cheerful but quickly adapted her mien to the weather she was predicting. I liked watching her, and after I left the state, I enjoyed remembering her—her thin hands and how she gestured with them; her colorful, childish skirts; her turning on her heel to observe the map that I learned was not really there in the station room with her but imposed later for the viewers’ benefit. She would be a quick rain shower, here and gone, leaving a freshened world. The word slight could be enough to bring her to mind. But as of this past fall, competing with this image of her is that of a new child I had in one of my classes, a girl of about 11, slight of build, with long bendy limbs, as if she were Barbie’s young cousin. De juguete, you’d say in Spanish, toylike.
Although I could almost pick her up in one hand, her head seemed large in comparison to her size, perhaps because of her halo of frizzy strawberry blond hair. Even on the first day, she was volunteering answers. She was good. I asked her teacher from last year about her. Yes, my workmate agreed, the girl stood out. In fact, that teacher had offered the girl a higher-level class, but she hadn’t wanted to change. In a new group now, she was still with some of her former classmates, but she didn’t know all the students in class, and she didn’t know me. Yet she appeared completely at ease from day one, not at all watchful or careful, ready to fill a silence with a bit of banter. “She doesn’t seem shy,” I said, and my workmate agreed that it wasn’t timidity that had kept her where she was.
This girl was in stark contrast to another student in this same class, a girl who despite having been my student for three years still looked at me with scared eyes when I called on her. She gave her answers in a paralyzed whisper, though they were nearly always correct. What accounted for the fear? I tried to spare her, but she put her hand up when I asked the class a question, and then her fear seemed to be that I wouldn’t call on her. Yet when I did, she was stricken every time, barely audible, a rabbit in the middle of the road. She too had declined to switch classes the previous year, in her case to one that suited her schedule better, and as a consequence had often arrived late, meaning the other students, already in their places, watched her cross the room to her seat. Out of the corners of her eyes she warily watched them back.
That group moved on to a different teacher this year, but she did not: when my new group filed in, rubbing hand sanitizer, I spotted her, there by special request, enduring that whole new group in order to keep me as her teacher. Does she truly like me or do I simply terrify her less than the unknown alternative? Más vale malo conocido que bueno por conocer, say the Spanish in their version of the saying in English “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
In Spanish, however, it’s not the unknown devil that one should steer clear of but the unknown good. How curious that seemed when I first heard the expression. Is good not always better than bad? Perhaps not. Another Spanish saying, De buenas intenciones está empedrado el camino al infierno, is the same as the English saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Better safe than sorry.
Is that what these two students have learned, one from the top of the pile where things couldn’t be better and the other, hanging on for dear life despite being in no danger, because she knows things could be so much worse? For two weeks in the fall these girls sat opposite each other in class, one trying not to make any splash and the other both queen and jester of the class until, with Covid cases continuing to rise in the city, her parents pulled her out. I guess they didn’t buy that about the devil you know—not if it’s Covid.
There you have it. A student in the grip of fear at nonexistent dangers and another who doesn’t see even a shadow. As the song says, Into each life some rain must fall, and if that slight chance of precipitation develops into a cloudburst, then I hope that my timid student isn’t washed off the side of her mountain and that the slight, frizzy-haired girl doesn’t float away, a twig in a rivulet. For these girls on most days, the chance, as my forecaster reassured me years ago, appearing to look at a map that wasn’t there and appearing to speak directly to me, is slight.
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