Christmas lights were strung in the streets of Gijón absurdly early this year—in October. That day, the children in my six o’clock class swarmed in, going straight to the window. “Look, look!” they called out, turning to me. One girl bounced up and down, saying “Come see! Lights!” I looked, but the lights weren’t on yet, just up. I was sure though that my students would let me know as soon as the switch was thrown, and they did, joyously, about a month later—still far too early, in my opinion. More than Santa, it’s the three wise men, called the kings, who make Christmas in Spain into a holiday, and so the decorations and the festive air have to last through the kings’ day, Reyes, on January 6. In my house, however, I find it hard to keep up the holiday spirit that long, and nowadays I invariably pack up Christmas right after welcoming the New Year. Put those decorations back in their box and put the potted tree back outside. It’s all over.
Or is it?
Many years ago, I read a story about love between children—disinterested love, caring love—and I wondered if I would ever witness in children that degree of selfless concern, not motivated by the hope for a return to play or tainted by a twitch of jealousy. My six-o’clock children are friendly and helpful to each other, but often their interactions seem exploratory. My brother was always good to me, but details are faint. And between my two sons, when they were little, I saw lots of gestures of concern, but nothing that I can picture as clearly as the scene in the story where one child gently tugs at the camp counselor’s sleeve to get help for his friend. I don’t remember the title of the story or the author or even the name or age of the narrator, but I see the two children, each with a predicament: one who has soiled himself and one who wants to save his friend from embarrassment.
On further consideration, I’m not sure the story was about love, though that is the part I remember. And certainly my classroom is not about love. Yet there, in the small room made chilly from periodic airings, with the four-o’clock light outside the windows already thin, the traffic lights shining in the dimming afternoon—there, with another set of children, five students between 10 and 12 seated in a semicircle against the periphery, I recently became aware of a wonderful connection between two of them.
One is the best student of the group, a quiet girl with olive skin and dark wavy hair pulled back in a bun. Neither shy nor assertive, she is modest in a Jane Austen sort of way—aware of her own competence yet free from that drive to proclaim it that I see in so many of my good students. The other is the worst student in the class, the least accomplished in English and apparently slow all around. Perversely slow. She understands nothing, requires prompting just to lift her pencil, and, when at a loss, which is nearly always, she never thinks to imitate her classmates. In her seat, she appears frozen, though she shows no stiffness at the end of class as she gathers up her things.
This student sits in the corner, wedged against the wall, with the best student on one side and on the other side the other two girls, both shy and soft-voiced but attentive and eager to give the correct answer, which they usually do when called on. The only boy in the class, rather than being abashed among four girls, is like a small rooster, crowing his answers. His hand is always up, and from behind his mask come the funny sounds of his effort to contain himself when I call on one of the girls instead. When it is the slow girl, he writhes.
The slow girl has beautiful eyes, soft and inquiring and trusting. How she has the courage to lift her hand I don’t know, yet she does sometimes. In three months she’s had the right answer just three times. Usually, however, when I call on her she simply sits, saying nothing, her beautiful eyes shining at me before she turns her head. And why does she? Because the answer is being offered by the shy girl on her immediate left or by the best student on her right. So it was on the day when the question was about details of their lives, like age, favorite music, and name of their best friend. The shy girl whispered something to no effect before she looked back toward the front of the room, whereupon the best student turned sideways in her seat so she was facing the girl.
Have you ever seen someone stretching, stretching, already fully extended, but somehow stretching a tiny bit more, the effort visible in a tension in the air around them more than in movement? It’s the movie scene on the cliff when one hand reaches for another, or from the edge of a launch when one person tries to pull another to safety, and that’s what I saw: the good student yearning toward the poor one, willing her to reach out and understand.
The best student was giving the answer, I was sure, and I approved, as it would allow the slow student to save face as well as speak some English. But the answer sank in the gap between the two. So I called on the best student to model the answer. “Who’s your best friend?” I asked. And to my surprise, I knew the girl she named. My eyes flew to her, sitting in her corner.
The scene is not exactly warming. The day was gray, the room chilly, the effort of the would-be savior doomed, the lost child doomed. The boy sat squirming with impatience, the two other girls were as quiet as mice. But still, something wonderful had emerged. Now at the end of the year, looking back to wonder what the year has accomplished, I see the scene like a small shining orb, like a Christmas ornament nestled among the boughs of daily life. “You’re best friends?” I asked, looking from one girl to the other.
The poor student seemed as bewildered as ever. But her best friend nodded. Her eyes crinkled in a smile.
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