The Escape Artist

Brian was on the taller side. Well, as much on the taller side as you can be in first grade. He had downy blond hair and eyes like clear morning sky. His smile was easy and he’d not yet lost his first tooth.  He came to me on the first day of school, shirttails tucked into pants pulled up way too high. He beamed when I commented on the gel in his hair and the shine of his new shoes.

As I came to know Brian, it became apparent that reading and writing were already a struggle.  His kindergarten teacher noted that he was behind in language arts, but proficient in math and science.  While most incoming first grade students could recall 20 or more letter sounds and read short words like “and”, “the” and “can”, Brian retained only 12 letter names and when encountering the written word, labored over each sound.  While others were writing words and constructing basic sentences, Brian was penning strings of letters and random symbols.  Together we began by studying letter/sound correspondence.

By the time the leaves turned crunchy and brown, Brian had transformed into a functional reader and a lover of writing.  He was reading simple, repetitive stories with multiple sentences on each page.  During writing time, Brian used the words he’d mastered in reading to create stories of his own.

Each day, our class devoted an hour exclusively to the purpose of writing.  I’m not talking about handwriting practice, fill in the blank workbooks, or copying the teacher’s writing.  My students viewed themselves as authors with important things to say.

As a beginning teacher, I was clueless on how to teach writing, so I let my students select their topics and go from there.  As they worked, I would assist and answer questions when needed.  Our class was a hive of activity.  As students worked, I would stroll around the room, often interrupting the class to reading snippets of their writing.  Despite my miniscule knowledge on teaching the craft of writing, my students bubbled with excitement at the opportunity to record their thoughts and above all, create books of their very own.

On Friday afternoons, my class would cluster on the carpet to read finished pieces.  Without exception, when a student climbed up into The Author’s Chair and read aloud a story created by their very own hands, their face shone with pride.  The children on the carpet were rapt as they listened to and applauded story after story.  When a student would scoot down off the chair, a flurry of hands would shoot up, eager to be the next reader.  Most of my students chose to leave their books in the safe haven of the classroom.  Consequently, our classroom was brimming with their books.  There were books sandwiched on the shelves, leaning in the windowsills, stacked in cubbies, spilling out of desks, overflowing out of book boxes, and just when I thought we’d run out of space, we started tacking them up on the walls.

Brian especially took pleasure in writing about his family. He wrote about his mom, his grandma, his sister, and his rowdy horde of cousins. His stories were predominantly retellings of exciting vacations to every place a kid could dream of.

Several times that year I’d sent notes home and left phone messages to tell Brian’s family about the tremendous progress he was making. My attempts to connect with his parents went unanswered, but hearing the stories about his close-knit family set my mind at ease. Parents are busy. I understood.

So, each Friday in the Author’s Chair, Brian would sit up straight, clear his throat, and read his latest adventure with his family.

To describe what happened next as shocking is like saying the ocean is slightly damp. One day the principal asked me to escort Brian to the office during lunchtime. Brian was not a troublemaker. In fact, he befriended everyone and avoided conflict at all costs.

Lost in conversation about his recess plans we walked hand in hand up the hallway, oblivious to the police cruiser in the parking lot and the possibility that it’s presence was linked to Brian. As we stepped through the office doorway, my eyes met the gaze of a police officer. A CPS caseworker stood beside her.  My heart dropped like a stone. The caseworker spoke with Brian privately while the officer filled me in on the details. Brian’s father was in prison and his mother had just been arrested for possession of methamphetamine. According to the officer, this was an ongoing case, which included prior arrests and visits to the home.  I was blindsided.  My mouth gaped as the officer succinctly informed me that Brian was to be relocated to a foster home and a new school that very day.  His little sister would be placed in a separate home.

As he returned to the office with the caseworker, Brian cried from a deep and broken place. I held him, rocking him like a baby, feebly assuring him that he would be loved in this new home and at his new school. He was adamant about returning to his mom.

“My mom is a GOOD mom! My mom is a GOOD mom! I want to go back to MY HOME!” he wailed, sucking in his bottom lip, struggling for breath.  After forty minutes of rocking, crying, and desperate screaming, Brian caught his breath and paused.

“Can I do Author’s Chair today even though it’s not Friday?”

I was speechless. I would have wrapped the moon in a silver bow and placed it in his small hands had he asked.

When the lunch bell rang, the class sat at the carpet.  Brian sat in the Author’s Chair, straightened his back, cleared his throat, and through red-rimmed eyes began to read.

He read about a trip he’d recently taken with his family to Disneyland.

I knew it wasn’t true.  He knew that I knew it wasn’t true.

In that moment I knew that all of his stories about his family were untrue.

He finished reading and with my heart in my throat, our class said goodbye to Brian. Our paths did not cross again.

On that tear-streaked day, it was starkly apparent to me that writing had become a survival mechanism for Brian.  Perhaps his stories were a bundle of wishes he’d hoped would come true if he scratched them out on paper.

I’ve always known that writing has the power to whisk an author away to unknown and exciting places. What I learned from Brian is that writing can also sustain a person in places that are painfully real. His fictitious life created a safe space of normalcy. Pencil in hand, Brian scripted the life he both craved and deserved.

I often wonder what became of Brian.

At night, between the hazy edges of dreams, I glimpse his face amongst other lost children who have come and gone too quickly.

I regret not seeing beyond Brian’s eager smile and bright eyes.  I regret not hearing his real stories, the ones that were too hard to tell.

That day was a turning point in my life.  It changed who I am as a person, who I am as a teacher.  I pursued parents with regular phone calls and when they didn’t call me back, I called them at work, flooded them with notes, and even dropped in on them at home.  Shiny new shoes, freshly gelled hair, and parents who appeared “too busy” would never again fool me into assuming a loving home existed for any of my students.

Most of my digging into their lives produced discoveries of yards littered with bikes, parents who were eager to hear about their child’s school life, and above all, families with deep love for their children.

Occasionally, I’d uncover a family without electricity, a kitchen with hollow-eyed cupboards, or a parent undone by addiction.  Knowledge is power and I did my best to use the intimate knowledge of my students’ lives to help them attain whatever resources they needed.  Digging beyond the surface allowed me to see the real stories of my students and maybe even ensure that some of those stories had happier endings.

Eight years have crossed the calendar since my time with Brian.  Eight years and not a day has passed without his story rising to the surface of my mind.  Over the years my shock over his abrupt departure gave way to grief.  Grief was shoved aside by guilt.  And guilt became the catalyst for change.

I recognize that some children have tumultuous lives outside of school.  Lives that I cannot always understand.  Lives that, to my dismay, I cannot always change.

The guilt I feel lies in this one lingering thought: If I’d shown Brian powerful words, words sturdy enough to bear the weight of his reality, maybe, just maybe those words would have given him the courage to write the heartbreaking truth.

Yes, Brian demonstrated tidy handwriting.  He applied correct sentence structure, but that was not enough.

That is not enough.

I wanted Brian to have the power, or at least the choice, to write honestly.  While fiction can be a captivating vehicle, fiction under the guise of truth is hollow.

In his keynote address to the National Writers Workshop Donald Murray said “The more personal I am, the more universal I become.”  Writing that comes straight from the heart is what I want my students to strive for.

What I did not know eight years ago, but am sure of now is that young writers need familiarity and practice writing with compelling words.  They need to roll words around in their mouths just to see what they sound like, to sandwich them side by side in unlikely metaphors, to appreciate the expression in a vivid verb.  As J. Patrick Lewis puts it, I want my students to experience the joy of  “uncovering that elusive verb or metaphor that one hopes will make a reader stop, ever so briefly, in wonder.”

Reflecting on my second year of teaching, the year Brian entered my life, I feel grateful for his impact on the way I teach my young writers today.  I feel honored to have witnessed the preserving power of writing in Brian’s life.

Yet, there is a tender place in my heart that still pulses with sorrow because this was a lesson too callous for a six-year-old.  

Even for one on the taller side.

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