On Artichokes and Systems

 by Carin Olavson

April 2012, College, 25 years old

I scraped an artichoke with my bottom teeth. This artichoke was a gift from my roommate, Haley, who in the last week of the semester would move out and get married. Her paper for our class we took together had already been turned in, graded, and returned to her. With one week left of the semester, my research paper was past due and I wasn’t finished with it. Rage. A feeling of hate surged through my body. Nor could I find a pocket of time to begin much needed revision of my other writing assignments. I also worried that sitting and eating an artichoke while thinking about working instead of working wasn’t the best way to spend my time. But it felt necessary to distinguish what was important rather than just plowing ahead. I wasn’t going to finish my work on time for yet another semester, and I blamed my teachers. I blamed them for expecting me to meet a standard that I couldn’t live up to, for deadlines that I couldn’t meet, for my own lack of time to make school achievable, for school losing what ought to be the reason for education: learning. Whatever happened to learning, true learning? Who decided deadlines are essential to the learning process? Why can’t learning just happen at its own pace: why must it happen according to the dictated expected timetables of syllabi? Other people’s deadlines and standards always seemed just beyond my reach.

The warm, stringy artichoke flesh rubbed against my bottom teeth. I put down a petal and pick up the next one quickly. I become a mindless eating machine raging my way through the outer petals. I curse my Music Civilization professor for his inability to see that I did work hard, that I tried my best to learn in his course. Even though I failed his class three times, I wish he would believe that I do have some intelligence masked by my tardy completion of assignments. I grunt, and jerk one more petal out of my mouth. Laughter seeps into me as I realize my ridiculous behavior. What’s the point of sitting around professing poxes upon my professors? I am mad at my own inability to meet a deadline. We both are human, both subject to time. My teachers don’t actually have more time than I do.

Even though due dates for the end of the semester papers had piled up and even though I did not have time to steam a vegetable gifted from Haley, I had chosen to boil it and to feed myself. I rationalized that the nourishment would benefit my studies.

As I scrape the petals with my bottom teeth I was slowly digesting an experiment in hues. What began as a bitter-tasting, dark-olivey-browned green petal on the outside proceeded by degrees to petals so yellow they whitened and transformed from spade shapes to tiny needle shapes. The petals near the center were so fragile that the whole petal was digestible.

Those needley petals eventually transition into hairs on the heart. I count up to 143 petals but when I get to 106, they become more fragile than butterfly wings. The petals neighboring the heart have such a tenderness they are as transparent as tracing paper, more inclined to rip than a rose petal. I never counted how many hairs were on the heart. But looking at the hairs, known as the choke, I deemed it beautiful.

It was something. The hairs of whiteness were exposed only after all the exterior thistle petals were shed. Underneath all the covering layers of petals, this internal space of the vegetable literally was formed by responding to its surroundings. The hairs formed as the bud bloomed. But at the base of this lobed thistle, underneath all the petals and hairs, exists a meaty heart. I pushed both my bare thumbs into the center of the hairs and split the heart like my birth-father did once for me.

 

February 2012, College, 25 years old

In my usual fit of nerves connected to the fourth floor of my university’s Humanities building—a place where many of my professors have offices—I approached Dr. Eastunder’s door. It was the middle of the second month of the semester. I knew the teacher. Two years ago I had a Romantic Poetry class from him in my English undergraduate work. He awakened me to the world of Coleridge, the land of Keats and honey. I knew he was a hard teacher but I tried to take another course from him because I had enjoyed his lectures. I had benefited from him challenging me to push deeper with what I considered my own profound analysis of poems. He branded the following fact into my mind: Nature was a maternal influence to Wordsworth. Such a mother I knew intimately from my girlhood habit of confiding in cottonwoods, depositing my own and my sister’s secrets into the gaps in the outer bark.

I paced outside his door, talked aloud to myself, certain I had to make myself work up the nerves to knock. After coaching myself, “Just ask him. The worst he could say is, ‘no.’ You have to ask. You have to knock. Just knock. Then ask.” I knocked.

He invited me inside. He sat in his chair and cupped his hands on his knees. His slouched posture made me feel aware that my torso was longer than his. At first, in my nervousness, I stuttered. Then my words fell into my rehearsed paragraph, “Would it be alright to have more time on the first analysis paper? . . . I—um—I am still behind on the class readings . . . an extension would allow me to catch up and write a better paper.” We had met earlier in the semester to discuss my slower reading speed and afflicted comprehension. He informed me that this sort of request was to be used only on large assignments like papers, and only in dire need. Yet that letter from my psychologist in the University Accessibilities Center offered proper documentation that extra time to finish tests and assignments was a constant dire need. Technically, he was required by law to accept all work I turned in late. Yet when we had compromised, I accepted the disadvantage of losing points on smaller things because I preferred to take his class and work with his stipulations. The conflict was something I decided not to get ruffled about because I wanted myself to be like the other students—get my assignments turned in on time, meet deadlines, maybe even finish my classes during the week of finals.

He told me that he felt the real problem was my own procrastination and that if I hadn’t waited until the last minute, I wouldn’t need an extension. I didn’t want to argue, but with respect I explained, “The problem isn’t that I procrastinate. The problem is that I take about five times longer to read. Some of my time has to include sleep.” A novel that most students read in a six to seven hour block, I read in 34 hours. I spent from the time I got off work at 5 p.m. until 11 p.m. in the library. Three times that week, I got up early to shovel snow at 2 or 3 a.m. for my job. I even got up at 1:30 a.m. to finish some reading before work at 3 a.m. I knew that procrastination wasn’t the problem. Being a slow reader was, and I don’t know how to learn myself out of that.

He was only looking at my problem on the surface. His judgment that I was a procrastinator irked and hurt me.

 

May 2006, College, Day-care Job, 19 years old

For a year and a half, I was a teacher of twenty-four two-year olds. My classroom at daycare was an attempt to corral, limit, and diminish chaos. At potty time, Nina, my teacher aide who was unable to afford the medical bills for her sick eight-week-old baby, would stand in the doorway while I tried to change everyone out of their soggy, soiled pull-ups. There were two sinks with peeling, water-damaged counters, a maroon tile floor, and a very large mirror finger-collaged, mouth-stamped, and face-printed with many germs from the kids in the whole daycare center. Two-thirds of the class wore pull-ups. While I strapped on obedient Jenna’s Tinkerbell Pull-up, I looked over to see Wyatt suspended and draped on the counter while he smiled with his mouth and blue eyes. His smile was impish and I knew from his upturned chin that he had plugged up the sink with paper towels once more. I was too busy with the other twenty-three to keep Wyatt from flooding the sink, since at this point, two boys were urinating on the stall walls and Kade had ripped off his pull-up and dropped the contents—poop—on the tile, so I sent Jenna away to pull up her pink stretchy pants, and then there was Shadow, who followed my hand and went into the cupboard under the sink where he began sucking on the sanitizing chemical bottles. Nina, at the door frame, was wrestling Brayden, who was kicking her shins because she wouldn’t let him escape and yelling at Kade for what he had done. I scolded Wyatt for flooding the sink, judging that he knew better, dropped two Cheerios in the toilet bowl and told Matthew and Brady to aim for them instead of the stall walls, scooped up Shadow, and reached my long legs over and around the other kids to approach Kade standing frozen, bare bummed but staring at his poop, relocated from bowels to diaper to floor. I needed all the children’s attention and I knew I had to send them out of the bathroom to avoid anyone stepping in Kade’s poop. There were just too many bodies. I told the children to catch a bubble. Twenty-four little toddlers inhaled with me and we all puffed our cheeks out while we held our breath and folded our arms—holding a bubble inside our bodies was the best way I had found to instruct the children to keep quiet while we walked down the halls, hopefully not waking up the infants napping in the baby room. For a rare moment, the small bathroom stopped echoing toddler’s voices and giggles and screams and whines and all I heard was my voice’s alto raspiness, “Everyone needs to line up and follow Nina back to the classroom.” I made it a point to not mention the poop so the kids wouldn’t try to touch or step in it. With just Kade left inside, I wiped him down, strapped him into a new pull-up, put on gloves, picked up his poop, and sanitized the tile. That was it. Only around two-thirds of the class had been changed but it was better for the kids to be soggy than exposed to feces.

When we returned to the classroom, it was time for centers—a relief because I could enjoy the kids’ creativity, unlike during circle time when getting their attention was the highest priority and even in my efforts to animate stories, teach about shapes and colors, one story in a ten-minute period had the class generally divided between the biters, kickers, hitters and the victims as the bit, the kicked, the hit. Nina slammed Brayden’s rear onto a small time-out chair by the locker cubbies. She started yelling at him and he tried to get off the chair. I saw her push Brayden’s shoulders against the back of the chair and heard his head conk on the locker cubbies. A part of me felt guilt that he hit his head and another part of me didn’t care. While Nina was handling him and to avoid more squabbles, I had to transition the others into centers and get them started on puzzles, legos, a miniature house set. The transitions had the most biting, hitting, kicking. If I moved fast, we could avoid some of it. I played cars with Wyatt while I ignored Nina and Brayden.

Another habitual escapee, Wyatt, made a game of turning the door knob and then bolting out of the classroom, down the hallway, past the director’s desk and out the front door which faced a busy street. Sometimes, I didn’t notice Wyatt had left and the director would bring him back to class. Other times, I would shout to the director that Wyatt had escaped, and she would hopefully corner him before he got outside the building. It is dangerous for a two-year-old to run free in a street, but it isn’t so dangerous for them to leave a classroom or sneak out to the playground because everyone needs a change of environment after twelve hours in one room.

My inability to notice his absence made me more upset than his disobedience. I understood Wyatt needed change and more stimulation. He knew all his letters and colors and he was the second oldest—almost three. Wyatt was easy to engage in imaginative activities and he often added clever plot twists, magical appearances of villains, dooming earthquakes leveling block and lego structures, drama between characters. He had a gift for logic and narrative, intelligences valued by the system. I enjoyed playing with Wyatt and frequently favored him with my attention during centers. Our elaborate stories interested the majority of the class. It was a refreshing thing to me to see the children playing together with Wyatt as captain of creativity. Reghan, who usually cried for two hours after drop-off—her mother had been seized by the state and her grandmother just received custody—would occasionally giggle in response to Wyatt, grab a pink car or swaddle the room’s one-armed and naked Barbie, and then join us, forgetting her sorrow about her mother, for a precious few minutes.

Nevertheless, I ignored Brayden’s head hitting the cubbies, his need for physical relief, his need for emotional support. I still feel guilt that labeling Wyatt “the runaway” because of his exterior behavioral tendencies prevented me from caring for Brayden in the moment. My need to protect my own reputation and avoid Wyatt escaping unnoticed once more mattered more to me than Brayden’s feelings. The needs of the group or my needs mattered more than the individual pain of Brayden.

I quit the job after a year and a half because $5.75 an hour was an insufficient salary for me to live on. It was especially inadequate as payment for a caregiver to twenty-four souls that needed more love, attention, and intervention than I could offer during my hours with them in the classroom. Nina expected behavior to be a certain standard and her methods of discipline had been learned from her childhood. Her mother beat her and her brother. Nina told often me that if these were her children she would whip them with her belt. She told me she and her brother knew to respect their mother and these children needed harsher punishments more than they needed understanding. I don’t believe there is an obvious answer to childcare discipline, but I made the decision that I wouldn’t spank my own future children. While working at the day care center, I tried to avoid yelling at my kids—the toddlers in my classroom that felt like mine. Sometimes every hour, I would have to bite my cheek and pray for patience, my way of stepping back before responding to a squabble. There were times when I felt the children needed to be encouraged to be more creative. And there were times when I stifled their creativity. My own frequency of correcting and criticizing befuddled me.

One example: the children often climbed the bookshelf because some city on the other side was under apocalyptic threat, they skated around the carpet on the picture books, or they licked the hand sanitizer I glopped onto their hands. Why, though, was I so determined to teach that there is a proper use of hand sanitizer and bookshelves? Is it so terrible if a dime-sized glop of hand sanitizer is swallowed, or if the city beyond the bookshelf is spared at the sacrifice of a few book bindings? However, seven years ago when I was both a teenager and a day-care teacher, I had the chance to help twenty-four children develop motor and life skills. Nina’s vision of how they should behave seemed to matter more than their own visions. I wonder, was her way right?

Nina wanted the kids to behave like cookie-cutter dolls, silent except when asked a question, stagnant unless prompted to move. Of course, such a standard was unrealistic but I too reached for unrealistic ideals. I wanted the children to obey me because they felt I loved them. To me that seemed enough to compel motivation. I sparingly limited rules to those that provided safety. I tried to understand their perspective; I tried to see the children as more than a collage of defiant behaviors. But when there are twenty-four of them and the state ratio laws limit a class with two teachers to eighteen kids maximum, and six extra toddlers have parents that can’t afford sending their kids anywhere else, it was better that they were in my overcrowded classroom than being locked at home alone. The pressure of overcrowding often forced me to jump to conclusions and punish the supposed hurters even though I often found out later they were innocent. In a lot of ways, Dr. Eastunder and Nina are right. The standard, a way to measure exterior behavior, judgments must be achieved. Biting should not happen at all. Nina felt Keagan should miss all of recess if he bit one of his peers.

Because I felt Keagan needed more flexibility, I convinced Nina to compromise. His tantrums in preface to time-out during recess kept him from playing and getting a chance to run and move. Instead of using his energy in productive activities like tag and monster, Keagan’s energy would be spent throwing a fit in preface to a time-out which caused more biting throughout the day. As much as I wanted Keagan to stop biting, I wasn’t ever convinced time-outs for him were a useful method of discipline. Nina, however, was. So we agreed that when Keagan had a miracle morning and avoiding biting before our first recess, we praised him. Whereas if Keagan bit less than five times before second recess, he wouldn’t have to sit on a picnic bench for a minute and a half after he calmed down from his tantrums—once one lasted the whole of the twenty-minute recess. But when the outer behavior was punished and Keagan’s tantrums included biting my forearm, throwing rocks at me, kicking me, I did wonder if I was responding to his speech impediment the right way. Something underneath, more internal was dismissed and his lack of expression locked him into tantrum behavior prefaced by biting. Was I training the children to be vegetables by valuing only their outer layers of observable behavior?

 

December 1992, Third Grade, 7 years old

When my parents were married, my siblings and I sometimes ate dinner with my mother before my father returned from his train commute. Meals were common, but twice or so in the week, my mother left food on the stove for the kids to heat up while she taught singing lessons in the living room. Except for holidays, it was rare to eat with both my parents. Once when I was in third grade, my mother and father sat on either end of our family’s oval teakwood table. In this unusual moment, my father held a plate with three steamed artichokes on it. He put half an artichoke on my plate.

I whined, “Can’t I have a whole one?”

My father, without explanation, picked up the half artichoke on my plate and put it back on the serving plate. His hand touched the stem of a whole one, and my mother piped in, “What are you doing? She can’t eat a whole one.”

At this point in my memory the dialogue fails me. I do recall that they had opposing opinions and that my father put the whole artichoke on my plate. Things were tense. Petal by petal, I ate the whole thing in silence. When I got to the heart, I didn’t know what to do with its spindled middle. I had only seen artichoke hearts in pickled glass jars. The whole vegetable had fuzzy looking hairs from the bloom, attached to the bowl shaped cavity of the heart. It was something worth observing. I turned it at different angles while holding the stem. While I stared at it, I remember hoping my mother wouldn’t remind me to not play with my food. She didn’t. I just looked. Then I gave it to my father who spooned out the hairs and pushed his thumbs down the middle to split the heart. As I ate the heart, a mushy and stringy texture sloshed on my tongue. I ate both halves but left the stem. My father was flexible and gave me the opportunity to stare at the hairs (the choke) and the heart. My father’s tenderness in letting a seven-year-old eat larger servings of a vegetable, a whole artichoke, touched me. I appreciated him giving me the chance to see the inside of an artichoke.

 

March 1999, Ninth Grade, 14 years old

Once in high school, I sat at a different dinner table, a lighter maple wood, with a different father, a step-father. He had a dark, blackish full beard that covered half of his neck. This table was a circle but no one, other than him, not even my mother, had a say in anything. My new step-father was rigid and authoritarian and his temper was worse than my birth-father’s. I remember watching him eat half of an artichoke and get mayonnaise stuck in his mustache. My brother and sister started laughing and were immediately scolded and sent upstairs without dinner. It isn’t such a cruel thing to deprive children of one meal, but we were constantly in trouble for existing. My step-father on a weekly basis told my siblings and me that we were too expensive, too ungrateful, too lazy, too disobedient. That night my mother left the table to cry in the bedroom and I knew it would be my job to clean up dinner again. I ate my artichoke, a whole artichoke, in silence beside my step-father. I could not decide whether to be on my siblings’ side or to try to become grateful enough, diligent enough, obedient enough, cheap enough to please my step-father. If I chose to behave, my siblings resented me for being obedient or the favorite, and if I chose my siblings, the man my mother married resented my siblings and me for being alive. I could never pin down my step-father’s strict rules about what behavior constituted respect. This sort of upbringing allowed Nina to grow self-discipline. For me, this made me only value how my actions appeared. Even if I felt I should finish my homework, I first had to make the kitchen spotless. A clean house could keep my step-father calm when he came back. My need to complete my studies didn’t matter as much as the kitchen. If my family started fighting again, I would be too upset to focus and not complete my homework anyway. I deflated my own opinions, when I decided I had to behave the right way, to appear the right way. Inside, I withdrew, retreated from my own self, became emotionally numb.

 

August 2006, College, Day-care Job, 19 years old

Kade, for the most part, was a frustrating child. He didn’t listen, and I believe he didn’t listen because he didn’t understand language. Nina, however, saw his behavior as a deliberate scheme to disobey. He also didn’t talk. At two he was too developmentally behind to talk like most of his classmates. Nina and I argued one naptime about this around late August. We disagreed about what the standard ought to be. She wanted one vision and everyone to comply. My view was that we had to accommodate for the speech impediment of Keagan, Wyatt’s need for excessive attention, Kade’s inability to talk and understand language, Reghan’s tears after drop-off. The kids had too many differences to all be held to the same standard. She believed in encouraging respect for authority regardless of the child and his or her circumstance. On one level, the amount of biting was dangerous, as was the frequency of hitting and kicking. Yet, in my opinion, she was rough with the kids. I on the other hand, didn’t stop to protect the children. They would cry for as long as twenty minutes, and I would ignore them. In a way, I liked having Nina be the disciplinarian, but the children responded in fear instead of in respect.

One day, Kade started whimpering after I took away his toys because centers had ended and the class needed to go to lunch. This whole scenario was a true sign of progression because one month earlier, back in June, there was no response from Kade about anything. Just staring, blue eyes. At least now he was holding toys and somewhat interacting with them inside his head, and at least he was blubbering and upset and communicating something. Nina dragged Kade down the hall by the arm. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with this: I had dragged Kade to the playground, the bathroom, the lunchroom. He wouldn’t move if he was asked (in his defense, I don’t think he understood what we were asking of him) and he threw a fit if he was ever picked up. Again, he hated being touched. Occasionally, I would call him Krimson instead of his new adoptive name, Kade, because he wouldn’t respond to his new name. His adoptive mother came in to pick him up early and witnessed Nina dragging him to the lunch room. She became livid.

Kade’s mother pulled me aside. She dragged me by the elbow against the other side of the hallway and scolded me while the other toddlers who had not yet entered the lunchroom ran up and down the hallway, squeals and footsteps echoing. Nina yelled them into the lunchroom. Kade’s adoptive mother chided me and then spewed his back story to me. Kade and his brother had been seized from their birth-mother by the state, shuffled through two foster homes, adopted, and then put in my day care classroom Mondays through Fridays. The terms physical and sexual abuse were part of his history, and while I don’t the know degree of either abuses, I know it hurt him.

Kade’s mom threatened to remove him from day care unless I took better care of him, and I wondered how in the world she planned for me to accommodate for this extremity of an emotional condition when there were twenty-three other “special cases” in my classroom. I mean Wyatt wouldn’t even stay in the classroom—he would escape and run down the hallway. On the other hand, was time-out a cold response towards Wyatt’s need for more attention? Deep underneath they all needed more tenderness than they received, each child yearned for it. Naked children escaping bathroom time, two-year-olds hiding in the tunnel on the playground, toys being thrown across the room, Keagan biting everyone, all produced a destructive chaos. It just seemed to this mother and to Nina, I was the problem, I was the teacher who couldn’t control the classroom.

After Kade’s mother threatened to take Kade out of day care, I hoped she would follow through with the threat. But I had another, deeper thought: Kade’s crying had communicated growth and a longing for love and I had ignored it. Years later, as I write, I take on the role of Kade’s mother and ask myself, “Where was my heart?” Back then I was angry at his birth parents, angry that a child so messed up, so developmentally delayed, so emotionally behind was sent to workers who were paid $5.75 an hour to break state regulations on child/teacher ratios when what Kade really needed was a constant, calm and quiet environment with patient, specially trained guardians. I felt like his adoptive parents owed Kade more time than shuttling him off to a day care for ten hours, five days a week. Strange enough, for that year and a half I almost had more influence over Kade than his parents.

I tried to give Kade even more attention after that. It wasn’t easy because the other children caused more trouble than I could control. How could I focus on the needs of the individual, the heart? I couldn’t. Basic tasks like eating, napping, pottying were already challenging enough that they bordered impossible.

 

September 2006, College, Day-care Job, 19 years old

Nearly five months into my job, the children responded better to my pedagogical and Nina’s disciplinary structure. We all settled into a rhythm and there were even occasional moments where the class walked down the hallway with puffed chipmunk cheeks while they held bubbles in their mouths, and folded their arms. There still was the pattern of Wyatt sneaking out of the classroom during centers when I didn’t play with him. One time, when he ran out, I left Nina in charge and chased after him. He squealed in complete delight and my voice got stern. Then I yelled, “Wyatt, get back here.” I chased him up, then down, then up the hallway. I cornered him in one of the door-less bathroom stalls. I was furious and Wyatt was smiling, his eyes looked wet and twinkly under the fluorescent lights. I couldn’t believe that he was doing this yet again after all the talks, all the scolding I had given him, all the bad reports I had given his mother at the end of the day—who once even broke down in tears and told me she didn’t know what else she could do. In this moment of fury, I grabbed Wyatt under the armpits, turned him upside down, and held him by the ankle. I dangled his head above the toilet and said, “Wyatt, if you ever run out of the classroom again, I will flush you down the toilet and you will meet the world of black and doom.” I wanted to swing his body into the stall walls and hurt him into submission. I didn’t but I wanted to. He needed to stop this nonsense because it wasn’t a game and he could get run over by a car if he went outside again and it needed to stop. He reached toward my forearm and pulled himself up. Then he wriggled over to hold my neck. I could see his eyes were glossy. He begged me not to send him to the black toilet land. In this moment, I couldn’t laugh because I was angry. Then and now I feel guilt that I did this.

That day I hung Wyatt over the toilet by the ankle was not the last day he ran out of the classroom, but I did ignite fear in him. He started pooping his pants after that. His mother transitioned him back into pull-ups because it became too much of a problem.

Now, I laugh and cry at myself for the ridiculousness of our dialogue, my threat to the world of black and doom and his plea to avoid blackness. I don’t know why Wyatt’s curiosity and disobedience threatened me as much as I felt it did. In that moment, I had become Dr. Eastunder, Nina, and my step-father. I became the rigid aspect of everything about the system. I became someone who values the exterior appearance of behavior more than the internal motives. The dynamics of a classroom asks us to sacrifice some of the individual core to work together as a group. The system conjures measurable judgments for the outer behavior and deems that it succeeds if they are met. But it just seems ridiculous to say a toddler who doesn’t skate on books, doesn’t climb the bookshelf, doesn’t lick the hand sanitizer ought to be deemed higher functioning. And isn’t it just as ridiculous to value adults by their transcripts as it is to value kids who don’t put rocks in their diaper?

 

September 2011, College, 24 years old

Once again, I am braving the fourth floor of the humanities building at my university. This time I am visiting a professor, Dr. Shropshire, whose office is tucked away, hidden around a corner separate from the hallway with most of my earlier haunting professors. In his office I sit in a chair lower than Dr. Shropshire’s seat. As he reads my letter from the Accessibilities Center, I notice his rounded chin, down-turned eyes, his right eyebrow bending in an upside down v-shape while his eyes shuffle from side to side. He leans back, puts his feet on his desk, and stretches his arms, exposing how his navy sweater pooches around his ribs. He interviewed me about my reading abilities, asking me questions about how long it takes me to read, what I recall when I read, how much I analyze. He told me that his wife can read a Dickens novel in two weeks and it takes him around six months. It was a minor detail but it made a difference to know there was someone out there maybe a little bit like me. I explained that with dyslexia my concept of p’s, b’s, d’s, and q’s are all the same. Serifs help but sometimes characters and letters just shuffle and rotate. He also told me that he frequently scrambles letters from billboard words and jumbles them around to make new words as a game. He suggested I should try the game. I didn’t remind him that my mind does that without conscious effort.

As we discussed how much longer I take to read compared to most people, he suggested that I just read 25% of the homework. I could e-mail him a report of an hourly log that tracked how much time I spent at the end of the semester. It was that simple. That meant, I offered equal time out of my schedule but it kept me from gradually falling behind and then plummeting in a cyclone of stress towards the end of the semester. I couldn’t believe it. I could still analyze and use my mind to comb through the allusions and the poetic devices stacked into the reading. He, a professor in the system, was human enough to offer me mercy. Even though to others I was a dyslexic thistle, to Dr. Shropshire, that I couldn’t match the deadlines of my peers didn’t matter. My own analysis of a text mattered more.

 

October 2006, College, Day-care Job, 20 years old

Between the rare pockets of the chaos on the playground, Reghan would listen to my stories. In the summer I had told her about wish flowers, commonly known as dandelions, and the power of blowing and making a wish. I had told her about the cotton tree wanting to snow on her because it had a secret to tell her and all she had to do was harvest the cotton, grind it into powder and place it in her ear so she could always hold the tree’s secrets. I wished every child dreamed as Reghan did. Alexis and Cecilia liked to play with Reghan but usually Cecilia and Alexis fought about something trivial like whether the cotton tree wanted purple shoes or Dora the Explorer shoes. Reghan and others (boys too) chased the cotton, and I chased it with them, when time and behavior of the others permitted, and we dashed about everywhere trying to forever grow a pile of wispy cotton seeds. Reghan would talk to each little puffy seed. I would kiss them when I caught them and Reghan imitated me. I made wishes and prayers on each seed as I truly hoped for a good afternoon, a good nap time with Brady, a pull-up free of rocks after recess, a word, just one word, from Kade.

One October afternoon, I told Reghan about the icicle fairy who cried because Reghan was so beautiful. Reghan believed that icicles happened because they wept for her. Matthew once protested and said that they were frozen swords from the water that dripped, but I corrected him because I felt that less violent imaginative play seemed a more productive way to explore the fictitious. But if there is no correct way to play I wonder why I deemed Reghan’s play the highest and most noble way. Reghan was more likely to imagine elaborate circumstances in the kitchen, with the blocks, with the legos, with art. My memories of Reghan are wispy decorated with fairies and lilies and irises and the beauty of her delicate fair skin, and eyes so pale blue that in direct sunlight her irises blended into the whites of her eyes. Yet, when I played with her, I felt like we were two souls interacting heart to heart despite the fact that the system is composed of thistles.

 

November 2012, Ninth Year in College, 26 years old

I was shopping at WinCo seven years after my troubled year and a half at day care. I saw the artichokes on the produce shelf and thought about this essay which I had started months before. I thought about myself as a child, how I needed more people like Dr. Shropshire. The kids, their intense needs, needs that I couldn’t meet and now have no more chance to meet, sat heavy in my mind. Then I saw Wyatt, or at least I thought I saw him. I peeked around a cardboard bin of butternut squash and stalked him all the way to the cheese aisle. He was walking toward the deli, eyeing the fresh cut salmon fillets. Then he turned around. I knew that face. I knew his jaw line and forehead that I had traced and kissed (against state regulations) while he nodded off at nap time, I knew his blue, impish eyes. He wore black pants and looked about eight years old. “Wyatt?” I said. He turned around. He looked shy—the face I knew when his forehead wrinkled on one side with a squinted eye. “Do you remember me?” I asked him. He said, “No.” I was worried other people in the store thought I was strange for stalking this kid from produce to dairy.

“I was your teacher.”

He said, “You’re not my teacher.”

That was a veritable fact, I was not his fourth grade teacher. I couldn’t think of what to say. So I told him, “Let’s find your parents.” It was typical, that he, yet again, was running away to stimulate that brilliant logical and narrative mind of his. As we walked, I asked him about his life. He told me he was in fourth grade, nine years old, that he liked writing and math. I wasn’t surprised; I remember the creative plots, the tears from Wyatt’s classmates about their smashed Lego towers. I recognized his mother, her full bottom lip, her squared teeth, her pointed jaw. I introduced myself and she didn’t remember me either, but she remembered that he went to Milestone Learning Center. She introduced me to Wyatt’s father—a man I had imagined meeting and not yet met in my year and a half at daycare. Only Wyatt’s mother picked him up and I would interrogate Wyatt with questions about his father. I was searching for some kind of problem, to try to understand if Wyatt’s escapee behavior stemmed from something other than curiosity. There wasn’t one. Wyatt told me he liked it when his father tossed Wyatt in the air, gave him quarters for candy, put him on his shoulders. His father looked a great deal like Wyatt, the bulbous forehead with deep set eyes, the broad chin. All were miniature in Wyatt at two years old and still present now that Wyatt was nine. I wanted to confess my guilt for threatening to flush their son down the toilet into the world of black and doom, to ask how long Wyatt stayed in pull-ups, if his mother remembered crying to me about Wyatt’s behavior being beyond her, if Wyatt’s escapee schemes ever subsided, but I didn’t. Somehow, I didn’t need to know the answers to these questions. My year and a half with Wyatt was forgotten by both him and his parents.

Yet, here he was thriving, according to his mother, at math and reading, succeeding in the system that I determined was heartless, unbendable. Perhaps there is hope that Wyatt healed. He’s probably no longer scared of the toilet. Humans can move on and adapt. While the system values the standards of whether or not toddlers or adults put rocks in diapers or get low grades, humanity is occasionally found inside the system. Mercy is inside humanity. And even though the system stinks, even though I had a group of twenty-four toddlers, some of which cried and I didn’t have any more hands to aid them, the children are human, adaptable beings, maybe even resilient enough to get over fears, to value the depth of the heart within each. As I observed Wyatt’s father with his aged Wyatt-looking forehead standing beside them, I saw Wyatt nuzzle into his mother’s stomach with his face. That was something.