Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Character Study

I'll call him Zack Brown, which is not his name, because every time I think of him, I think of him by first and last name.

Zack Brown's mother had two older kids, nine and thirteen, both boys. She got divorced and she remarried, and her second husband also wanted a biological child and so she agreed to have a kid with him, too. When she told us this story, there was very little doubt that, while she loved Zack Brown he was not Her Idea and if he had been Her Idea, he would have been a girl. By "us", I mean the three of us who worked in the toddler room with 2-year-old Zack Brown, the three people, who despite a relatively humane four-to-one toddler-teacher ratio in Oregon, often lost track of her child in the chaos of the room.

We would find him in the kindergarten room down the hall, playing with the big kids. Or, worse, we wouldn't find him, but one of the kindergarten teachers would walk him back to us before we had even noticed his absence. We would find him hidden behind bookcases, climbing on forbidden structures, or crawling behind barricades to find a favorite toy that we had put off limits. One day, our toddler room floor drain backed up, and water seeped into a puddle on the floor. We corralled the kids away from the water, but caring for toddlers is always a little like herding cats, and I remember hearing a slurping sound while I was changing a diaper. I looked up and there was Zack Brown squatting face-down next to the puddle, helping himself to a refreshing drink of sewage. Hands full of diaper, I couldn't even stop him.

His mother took these lapses in oversight with grace. She knew how quickly he could move. "With my older kids, I always liked that stage when they knew how to sit, but they couldn't crawl yet, and you could put them on the floor with some toys and walk away," she said wistfully. "Zack learned how to crawl before he could sit."

We used to take the kids for a morning walk in one of those big, red multiple-seat strollers. There were six kids in the stroller, which required one teacher, and then the other two teachers would hold the hands of whoever needed to walk. We protected the communal nap like lions protecting our young. Without the communal nap, we wouldn't get our breaks. If a kid started to doze in the stroller, we'd pull her out and make her stumble over her own sleepy feet until she woke up again. Zack Brown never slept in the stroller, but we never let him ride, either. We didn't know what we'd do with ourselves if we didn't tire him out enough for him to nap, so we held his hand. Zack Brown was going to sleep, even if one of us had to run with him for the entire walk.

"Please, don't let him sleep too long," begged his mother. "Wake him up after an hour or an hour and a half. I need him to sleep at home." We always agreed to her demands to her face, and we always let him sleep for at least two hours when she wasn't there. We were too worn out to pass up the chance to know where he was for a full two hours.

Zack didn't have to speak. He used pointing and grunts to let his needs be known, or he'd move towards what he wanted and have it in his hands more quickly than we could get it for him. At two, he had so few words, his mother started to worry. "He's smart," we said. "We can tell. Don't worry."

Still, one day, she came in to school excited. "Zack has a word! Watch!" she said, pulling out a piece of drawing paper and a marker. Most of our markers had no ink, because when we weren't looking Zack Brown would stick the tips in his mouth and suck them ferociously until the tip was ghostly white. She found one that worked and began sketching. She drew two circles.

"Ball," said Zack.

We looked at each other. We knew he knew "ball". It was exactly the kind of monosyllabic utilitarian word he had mastered. "Not that," she said, continuing her drawing, connecting her circles, adding a seat, and a set of handlebars.

"Bicycle," said Zack Brown, as clearly as if he had been speaking all of his life, and then he ran off to join the kindergartners.

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