Running Free

Running Free

Thursday, October 23, 2008


It began simply enough.

I said hello.

She smiled.

She had on a Juicy Couture black velvet sweat suit, with the familiar logo crest on the left pocket. I told her I liked her outfit - especially the shoes. They were pink ballet flats with satin bows trimmed with tiny bits of purples and iridescent green rhinestones that shimmered like fish scales in ocean foam.

She said thank you.

I was sitting on the ledge of a pock marked slab of grey stone beneath a pair of tired maple trees heavy with peeling bark and graying trunks. I sat there under the umbrella of leaves, in the soft strands of southern California morning sun drinking my habitual green tea. I was a teaching assistant working in a kindergarten classroom at an elementary school recognized as a national award recipient for academic excellence.

I told her my name.

She told me her name was Grace.

Her voice was soft and pert, like lemon drops, sour and sweet at the same time.

I asked her how she came by such a lovely name. She told me her mother named her after a beautiful actress who married a prince and became a princess. Just like in fairy tales.

My new friend sat down next to me. The smell of jasmine was everywhere. The bees in the nearby bougainvillea were grumbling. A rogue bee with a nail-sized tail the color of mud landed on my arm raising and lowering his backside and tickling the hair on my forearm. He looked like he was trying to unload a gift I was a bit hesitant to accept.

Grace had skin the color of fresh cold milk, with an almond shaped face that peeked out beneath a veil of hair the color of molasses. Around her neck was a heart-shaped silver locket. It was a Tiffany's necklace - I recognized it because I had longed for one in college.

He won't hurt you if you don't move she explained.

I tried not to think about the bee navigating my arm. As the creature moved its fine tuned legs up and down my arm, goose bumps popped up - little round hills of cold pink skin. I tried to keep my arm still so as to not frighten the bee and cause a startle reflex (assuming that bees even had such a reflex). I didn't want to chance having the visitor leave me with a nasty welt. Finding nothing to eat or pollinate, the bee flicked his wax paper wings and flitted away.

Grace dangled her long legs over the side of the planter letting the shoe on her left foot tap the dried leaves that had fallen off the maple tree. Her left foot was grinding the leaves into bits of brown and sand-colored flakes.

Ribbons of white streamers crested across the sky, piercing shade of blue. The smell of spring was teasing us with beach air you could almost taste. I breathed in deeply filling my lungs, closing my eyes.
From somewhere behind me I could hear the other children giggling and laughing. Two mop headed sprites with purple and yellow tights and red patent leather Mary Janes skipped up to me and threw their sweaty arms around my neck. They smelled of Play-doh and fruit loops.

The sticky arms caked with dirt and sand wriggled their way into my lap, which was not quite big enough to hold two sets of arms and legs and associated heads and other body parts.
I returned the hugs of Julia and Sophia, the twins, now taking up residence on me.

They called me Miss C.,short for my name, Miss Camerone, a bit of a tongue twister for little mouths. They asked what I was doing. I explained I was enjoying tea with a new friend. Their voices, like daffodils made me smile.

I introduced the girls to Grace.

The twins said hello and Grace smiled shyly but didn't say anything.

After a few more giggles the girls bounced off to play with Dominic who was taking a turn with the red wagon. I removed the grass bits and melted chocolate from my neck and cheek- gifts from my pint-sized pals.

I turned to Grace who was picking at an imaginary piece of lint off her shoulder. I asked if anything was wrong.

She gave me the look like you get from someone who is afraid to tell you the truth. Her eyes got big and glistened and her tongue licked the side of her mouth as if searching for something.

The wind was rustling through the leaves above us and not too far away a crow was announcing his imminent arrival.

Grace whispered that her stomach hurt; that today was her busy day. She shared with me that on Mondays she had ballet and piano and a language lesson. It was the way she said what she said - not so much the words themselves. The way the words stopped short on her small mouth, like wisps of pollen in search of a place to call home.

Her words were suspended somewhere between her and me. I could feel the knots of her stomach somehow gripping my insides. I looked at her staring up at me with eyes that wanted more than I could say or do.

And what could I say or do? What was I to think? I was little more than a cog in the educational web of what we consider to be mandatory academic preparation for our children. She was so small and tiny. I was so much bigger than her and yet, it was I who was the truly helpless one.

She reached out with her small pink tipped nails, took my hand and placed it on her chest. Inside, inside here is where it hurts the most she whispered. I let the sun reach the quiet shadows in my mind now growing darker with the heaviness of this child's burden.

I cannot tell my mother because she will be ashamed of me. And my father, he tells me to be good and I can have anything I want. But I have to be good. I have to be strong.

I didn't know what to say. So I sat there with a mouthful of dust and empty words that would do little to console this young child. And I felt empty, bone dry, full of chalky thoughts.

I had nothing to offer this young and trusting soul.

Her voice trailed off and I squeezed her hand as if such a gesture could do or change anything about her life as it was in the moment.

The school bell rang.

I stood up and gave Grace a hug. She clung to me with her pretzel thin arms and I choked back the tears threatening to flood the messy thoughts in my head. She let me go and walked slowly toward her kindergarten classroom.

My break was over, and I was that that much closer to the end of my work day.

But for Grace, a six year-old kindergartener in Orange County, California - it was just the beginning.

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