He’s late to class again, but he comes in with his usual smile and a late slip. He’s got the rules down: late to first period? Swing by the office before you go to class. He never complains; he just does it.
He tries to come in quietly – he always does – but I’d guess he’s 6 feet tall, and he’s two years older than his classmates, so his “quiet” still attracts attention. He puts his finger to his lips and hunches over a little.
Today he has a beautiful bright blue gift bag in his hand. He half crouches as he walks across the room and puts it on my desk. “Happy Birthday” he mouths, then takes two giant steps backward and folds his too-tall body into the too-small desk. My cheeks get red.
The other students have noticed – how could they not? – and I stammer something about it being my birthday. To explain how he knew when I hadn’t told the class, I babble that his birthday is nearly the same day as mine. The other kids smile, say “Happy Birthday, Miss!” and we get back to the lesson.
I do not tell them that we found out about our nearly-shared birthday only recently when he stayed after class to ask how to deal with his much younger brother. “Miss?” he had said quietly, “You know a little bit about kids, right? I need some advice.” I do not tell them that he is the primary contact for his brother’s school because his parents need to be at their jobs. I do not tell them that he is working, I think, to help his family out. I do not tell them that, despite his near-native accent, he only arrived here a few years ago and that he is the primary translator for his family. I do not tell them that the book he has been reading since September is, likely, the first English book he will finish. I do not tell them how hard he is working.
I do not tell them because he lives by his reputation at school. He’s a kid whose cell phone is always on hand and whose absences are rarely excused. Another teacher recently called his friends “the bad kids.” He blends into this group with his brown skin, his slick black hair, his “don’t care” demeanour. He “needs to improve his focus” say his report card comments, his “frequent absences are hindering progress.” This is both true and not true.
Today, he is a very big little boy who has given me a gift. I glance in the bag as class ends; he leaves quickly before I open it. Back in my office, I find a mug wrapped in pink tissue paper and a beautiful birthday card. I briefly hope he did not spend too much. I open the card.
For one second my eyes close as I hover between a smile and tears. My heart contracts for this sweet boy who has come so far and learned so much, for this observant child who is trying so hard. He has figured out all the trappings, but he didn’t sign the card.
I suspect that he would follow this rule, too, if only he had a card to see how it’s done here – what words do we use? how do we say thank you? What do you write to someone who sees you, even if only in stolen glimpses?
Conveniently, I happen to know that his birthday is nearly the same as mine. I think I might need to give him a card.