Thursday, we had a new student in the kindergarten class where I volunteer. I wouldn’t dare tell you his real name, but because he’s a real little boy with a real big problem, I’m going to use a pretend name. And maybe he’ll be real to you too.
So, just for today, his name is Ricardo.
Like a lot of 5-year-old boys whose names end in a vowels, Ricardo’s complexion is a coffee-with-a-dash-of-cream-color. He has silky black, thick hair with eyelashes to match and his eyes are such a deep liquid brown, they’re like melting chocolate chips. Ricardo’s are hauntingly sad. On Thursday, he wore what looked like almost new jeans and a turquoise shirt with a collar. Nothing to give away that Ricardo was anyone but a little boy on his first day at a new school.
I’ve been volunteering as a Foster Grandparent five afternoons a week at the same school, with the same teacher, going on three years now — who I’ve known, coincidentally, since she was in college nearly 25 years ago. So we have a routine. I come into class, am gladly welcomed by all the children, and as I put my purse away, Mrs. Cee (also a made-up name) points to who I’ll be sitting with, or says over the welcoming din, who and what my charge will be that day. On Thursday, she met me at the green table and introduced me to Ricardo.
“Things are a little different here than Ricardo’s old school,” she said kindly, with her hands gently holding his shoulders. “He’s going to be fine, but I think I’m going to ask you to sit with him at the round table and y’all can work together on the N-page.”
In kindergarten, we have worksheets (pages) for every letter of the alphabet. Students color about a dozen small pictures in squares. If the object in the picture starts with (in this case) an N, the student circles it. If it doesn’t start with the letter of the day, the student marks an X through it, and tries to sound out and write the letter it does start with.
Ricardo dutifully worked through about half the page — not particularly proud if he got one right, not too upset if he missed and had to erase. I couldn’t see any real discernable emotion either way.
“Maybe he just needs to warm up to me and the routine,” I thought.
And in the middle of the page, he stared a long time at the picture before asking, “What’s this?”
“It’s a needle,” I said. “You use it to sew things. Somebody sewed your clothes before you got them at the store.”
“I didn’t get them at the store. Somebody gave them to me.” Then he yawned.
“Are you tired?” I asked.
“Maybe you need to go to bed earlier.”
“I was going to, but the police came to my house. My daddy had to go to jail. He tried to run, but they shot him, but it wasn’t a real gun. It just shocked him a little bit. My daddy has a gun but it’s hid.”
Tears sprang to my eyes and my mind began to spin. What could I say? Did Mrs. Cee know this? It’s all still blurry, but I honestly think I might have considered taking Ricardo’s hand and heading for the door; taking him to get a chocolate milkshake and to the park near my apartment and letting him play to his 5-year-old’s heart’s content.
Now, getting ahead of myself just to relieve your anguish, I will tell you that in a private moment with Mrs. Cee, she told me she did know. Ricardo, his brothers and mom had gone to her sister’s in the middle of the night. His clothes were likely given to him by child welfare when the transfer was made. The dad would be in jail, as Mrs. Cee understood it, “for a long time.”
But back at the round table with Ricardo I managed to look into his sad eyes and pat his back.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“Needle,” I said feebly. “Nuh, nuh, nuh-eedle. What’s the beginning sound?
“N,” he said.
“Yes ‘N’, which is the same letter ‘never’ starts with,” I thought, wishing and praying with all my heart that Ricardo had never had to see and know such the terrible things. It would make “what starts with what” ever so much easier to learn.
Editor’s note: Candace Cooksey Fulton is a freelance writer, formerly of Brownwood, now living in San Angelo. Her weekly columns are published Sundays in the Brownwood Bulletin and Thursdays in the San Angelo Standard-Times and are unique for each paper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.