My eight-year-old students were oddly quiet outside my classroom, where they always line up, jockeying to be first in when I open the door. When I do, they tumble in as one mass before separating into individual students, this one diving for a seat, that one carefully removing her coat, a couple already complaining about classmates, another singing, another laughing, a rising tide of noise and commotion, a wave of children filling the corners in those first wild moments, all hands, faces, feet.
“Seats please!” I say.
Once they’ve claimed a seat, though, it’s hard to keep them sitting. They are all like Tigger, and can’t stop bouncing, blurting out some bit of news they’ve arrived with. They’ve come here, to the language school, from home, but it’s always their regular school they want to tell about. I hold up my hands. “Slow down, one at a time.”
For two minutes I let them chatter away in Spanish. I answer in English. “My goodness.” Or, “Think of that!”
One boy is always floating away from his seat. His steps are small and light, fluid; rather than bounce, he glides from one side of the classroom to the other. A seahorse, I think. Another student scuttles in and out between her classmates to assist with the attendance sheet or to pass out the books. She’s small but sturdy, quick, and brightly dressed, and she reminds me of a shimmering beetle. Another is like the hippopotamus from Fantasia, twirling in ecstasy, large but surprisingly delicate. One has a sharp face and intense dark eyes, like a friendly rat. One is a toy soldier, officiously marching around the room, bumping into things and saluting. That’s my 6 o’clock menagerie. How many, you wonder? A hoard. How many is that? Seven.
But that day, a Thursday, the last English class before Christmas vacation, when I opened the door, the three children waiting outside surged in, already telling me in dramatic whispers about one of the absent students, a boy. He was sick, he was in the hospital. The three yanked off their coats and tossed them on the chair by the door, then clamored about my desk with more details: his toothache had moved to his lungs, he had cables all over him, he’d been there for a week, he had a 60 percent chance of dying when he was sent and now it was 70 percent.
Wait, wait, wait. What? When did this happen, I asked.
Oh, came the answer, he’d been absent from school for two weeks.
I pointed out that he’d been in my class on Tuesday, two days before.
Well then, said the little girl with the details, it was after that.
Yesterday? I wondered aloud. Another two students had arrived, and one of them, a boy at my elbow, suggested that the sick boy could have been taken to the hospital after class that day.
“Well, that’s terrible,” I said.
Yes, they agreed, here it is, almost Christmas, and the holiday vacation about to start and the three Kings soon to come, and he in the hospital! And perhaps even dying! And missing it all! Then they asked what fun thing we’d do that day, to celebrate Christmas.
We made Christmas cards, and while we cut out bells, stars, and trees, I thought about the absent boy. He’d joined the class the year before, and right away distinguished himself as the class clown. He said silly things and bumbled about, but he wasn’t acting the part of the clown to get attention; he was doing what came naturally, and went right on anyway with his monologues and his ticks, jerks, and grimaces if everyone was watching or if no one was. It was strange. I wondered if something was wrong with him.
He was different in other ways, too. When I admonished him to be quiet or pay attention, he never shrank from the scolding, never made a sour face or uttered a complaint. Instead he pantomimed regret. Then he pantomimed getting control of himself and stopping the antics. He was a curiosity, and I liked him better and better. Something wrong with him? No, something was right. Long of body and face, olive skinned and dark-haired, with crowded teeth, he was always in a good mood, always smiling, as if he knew that being the model student and being the class buffoon were both just parts to play, and he’d happily try whatever part he was given. I liked him very much, and now his classmate was solemnly proclaiming a 30 percent chance of his survival.
Survive, though, he did. I wouldn’t be writing about him if he hadn’t. He’s not meant to bring a tear, but a laugh, this little boy of sallow complexion and scarecrow body, of wonky arms and legs, of movements so loose he might be coming unstitched at the seams. Watching him, I always half expected straw to leak out, but instead he left a trail of good humor and jokes. Some classmates laughed at his silliness, some interrupted to snatch their own moment of glory, some studied him to imitate him; none, however, vied with him because he is that most charming of performers, happily ceding the stage. When he wasn’t bustling forward, he was bustling away. He was quick, he was bright, like a bird in a bush. Then he was gone, and I missed him. “What happened,” I asked when he was back after vacation. Even though his classmates looked on in thrilled silence, he was not able to look grave. It was nothing, he said, nothing serious. He cocked his head, waiting for me to understand. “Not serious,” I said doubtfully. He beamed at me. “Not serious at all.”
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