Nicholas is already crying by the time I reach the cafeteria. No histrionics today, no wailing, no attention-seeking behavior; he’s just huddled by himself at the far end of an unoccupied table with his knees drawn up to his chest, tears dribbling out of his eyes and running down his cheeks, nose running a little, chin wobbling uncontrollably. My first instinct is to go over there and find out what’s up, but for now he’s not doing anything that requires my immediate attention, so I turn to the things that do – today’s absentee list, the third grader who needs her asthma medicine, rounding everyone up to go outside. It’s one of those first breakthrough days of spring when fifty-five degrees feels tropical and the kids are clamoring to shed their winter coats, each and every one of them whining and arguing when I order them to suit up. Trisha and Stephanie are having a shrill debate over the merits of hamburgers (“That’s your opinion!” I hear Stephanie say, her voice climbing toward a dangerous octave). It’s the kind of argument that has the potential to escalate until I’m obligated to intervene, but for now I evade Trisha’s attempt to elicit my support for team Hamburgers Are Gross by asking if they’ve got their things together yet (arms folded across my chest, one eyebrow arched, voice laden with skepticism designed to casually inflict guilt by implying that these two must constantly be reminded of basic procedures).
And finally, out we go, me and the other After Hours staff shepherding our flock to the playground. Nicholas, I notice, lags behind the mob. Are the other kids shunning him, I wonder, or is his isolation self-imposed? One of his friends hangs back, attempts to engage him, but Nick won’t answer, won’t even look at him; his eyes are glued to the sidewalk, and I imagine I can see darkened spots on the pavement from where his tears fall as he walks. His friend loses interest and flits away.
We reach the soccer field and the kids scatter. The Nicholas Question hovers at the edge of my consciousness, but again there are more pressing matters to attend to, the usual flurry of activity, the kids who decide, now that we’re outside, that they desperately need to use the bathroom, the second grader who’s been dying to show me her new Littlest Pet Shop toy, a kickball dispute in progress on the blacktop. All in all, though, it’s a pretty calm day. Within half an hour the kids settle into their routine of doing whatever it is they do while they wait for their parents and I begin scanning the grounds, meandering across the blacktop, the playground, the soccer field in search of Nicholas.
I find him sitting in a drainage ditch at the edge of the soccer field, still clutching his knees to his chest, looking exactly as he did in the cafeteria. “Hey man,” I say, taking a seat on the grass beside him. “What’s going on?”
Nicholas lifts his head and shows me his big, wet, mournful eyes. “They didn’t tell you?”
The Royal They. The schoolchild’s belief that the entire staff, from custodian to principal, are part of a single, interconnected organism, seamlessly transmitting information, one colossal All-Knowing, All-Seeing eye.
“No one told me anything.” I pluck a clover out of the grass.
Nicholas closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “I got suspended,” he whispers. Then he breaks down, tiny shoulders shaking as he sobs.
Eventually I’m able to get him to calm down enough to tell me what happened. Between gulps of air he tells me how one of the kids in his grade started talking trash about his sister (three years older, now in middle school). It takes some coaxing to get him to reveal the exact words, and they are truly vile. For a moment I’m shocked. I do my best to summon up the memory of my own foul-mouthed, fourth-grade self. When I was Nick’s age, didn’t I stand in this very same drainage ditch and scream as loud as I could at my sometimes-friend, often-bully Jessica to go to Hell and Fuck the devil?
But shit. I didn’t even know the C-bomb back then, much less have any concept of the depraved acts that little fucker Ernie attributed to Nick’s sister.
Of course, Nick got mad. Shoved the kid square in the chest. And it probably wouldn’t have been too big a deal, only when Ernie lost his balance he caught the back of his head on the corner of a desk on his way to the floor. Panicked wailing and blood everywhere. Rushed to the ER. When Ernie comes in tomorrow, he’ll have three stitches climbing like spiders up the back of his scalp.
Now, of course, Nick is in Big Trouble. I can picture that teacher, Lucy Snyder, snatching him by the wrist and hauling him to the office, can see Nick sobbing and trembling as he stands before our hatchet-faced bitch of a principal.
I sigh and pat Nick on the back. I never know what to say in these situations. Tell him it’s okay, attempt to comfort and soothe, and it’s like I’m excusing his Behavior (a word I’ve come to loathe almost as much as the word Inappropriate). And knowing Nicholas, he wouldn’t believe me anyway. He’s a pain in my ass sometimes, but he’s got a good heart, and right now it’s riddled with guilt. He’s not crying because he’s been suspended, but because he’s certain he deserves it.
I hate to admit it, but I can kind of see the principal’s point. Apart from fear of a lawsuit and the imperative to appear as though she’s Taking Action, it’s not as though this is the first time something like this has happened. He’s never put anyone in the hospital before, but Nick gets in trouble all the time. He loses his temper at the drop of a hat, always takes the bait when other kids tease him, is forever getting into fights or going to pieces over nothing, snapping his number two pencils in half when he doesn’t know an answer on a test. His teachers, his parents, our staff – they’ve tried everything to reign him in, from bribery to threats to guided meditation, but nothing works. No matter how remorseful or embarrassed he feels later, there doesn’t seem to be any incentive powerful enough to distract Nick in his moments of distress.
On the other hand, that kid Ernie had it coming. I mean, you can’t say shit like that. Right?
“I got in trouble a lot when I was your age,” I tell him. It’s the only thing I can think to say.
This gives Nick pause. He has probably never imagined that I was a child once, much less a flawed one.
“For what?” he asks.
I shrug. “Same kind of stuff as you, mostly.”
“I bet you never broke somebody’s head,” he says, dissolving into tears again.
“It was an accident.”
“But I pushed him.”
“You didn’t mean for him to get hurt. Not like that.”
“But I should know better.”
That’s Nicholas for you. I can pretty much guarantee he told the principal over and over again that it was an accident, but try to reassure him and he argues, dives right into a tailspin of self-deprecation.
I happen to know that this, what Nick is going through right now, is the worst part – waiting for the parents, who, I’m sure, have already been informed. I’ve met them of course, dad who drops him off in the morning and mom who picks him up, both serious professionals, both deeply troubled by Nick’s Behavioral Problems. They never have to say the phrase “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed,” they simply radiate the sentiment.
How do you tell a neurotic little nine-year-old that, despite how fervently his teachers and parents and instincts insist otherwise, nothing that happens right now really matters? A hundred failed spelling tests don’t make you dumb, don’t even make you a bad student, don’t, in fact, have any bearing on the rest of your life, unless, of course, you listen to that cacophony of voices telling you otherwise, let them convince you that your character is defined by those minutiae that occur before you’re tall enough to ride a roller coaster. And how can you not listen to them, when everyone’s speaking at once, and they’re all saying the same thing? Those formative years when you discover your own infinite inadequacy, when you become dimly but unrelentingly aware of what a piece of shit you really are.
I can just imagine what the world has in store for this kid. He’ll start smoking weed some time in high school but will secretly feel guilty about it. He’ll get lazy and stop giving a shit about school at the worst possible time. Two days before his college commencement he will do a bunch of coke with his roommate and come down hard, will hold his arms around himself in the shower, determined to ignore the persistent undertow of self-loathing while he waits for his heart to slow so he can get some sleep and not be wrecked when he meets his parents the next day.
Don’t ask me how I know this. He just seems like that type of kid.
Oh, God, Nick. Please don’t cry. These are the disposable years. You have your whole life ahead of you to be miserable.
“You did a bad thing today,” I tell him, “but it doesn’t mean you’re a bad kid.”
Nick sniffs, wipes his nose on the sleeve of his coat. “I’m always getting in trouble.”
“You get in trouble sometimes,” I say, “but you also draw really cool pictures. You know more about outer space than most grownups. You’re never mean to the first graders. You helped Jenifer find her book last week.” By now I’ve peeled the three little leaflets off the clover. I toss its mangled corpse aside and glance at Nick. “You have a lot of good days, Nick. Today wasn’t one of them. Today you did something you shouldn’t, and now you’re being punished. But just think of all the good days you could have next week.”
Nick actually seems to be considering this. He sits up a little straighter and gazes ahead of him at the soccer field where a bunch of fifth graders are playing touch football. I watch him and think: Did I actually get through to him? Did I just help instill in this child some sense of inherent self-worth? Is this the turning point he’ll write about in his memoirs thirty years from now? Am I a hero?
But no. Nicholas is crying again, doubled over now, clutching his curly hair as though he’s just realized he’s killed a lover in a fit of rage. Stupid kid. I’m giving him gold here, but I guess some things you have to learn for yourself. Like the fact that you wasted your childhood fretting over trivial nonsense and now you can never get it back. Or how to use vitamin B to pass a drug test so you can get a job working with kids.
Before our eyes the football game takes a contentious turn with the distinct possibility of violence erupting at any second if I don’t get off my ass and do something now. Which is just as well, really, because I can only waste so much time searching for the words to comfort this poor, forlorn creature. “You’ll get through this, Nick!” I yelp as I spring to my feet. And he will, because the world moves on and little kids forget and some teachers are still kind, and people have other shit on their minds, and I promise you, Nick, I promise you that Santa Claus will still stop at your house this year and bring you everything you asked for.
Leslie McIntyre earned her BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in 2009. She subsequently moved to Brooklyn to pursue her literary ambitions before changing course to earn a MS in Environmental Science from the College of Staten Island. Leslie now works in the field of ecological restoration, working to improve the health of forests and wetlands throughout NYC. Her fiction has appeared in Forge and Gloom Cupboard and is forthcoming in the spring 2021 issue of Thimble.
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