By Judy Field
They came trooping into my third-grade classroom dressed in red and decorated for the holidays. Antlers set at action angles, reindeer with blinking noses on thick sweatshirts, and heads weighted with Santa hats. They brought sprinkled cupcakes in lonely plastic modules, fudge in pans crusted on the sides from last month’s party, and off-brand coke and orange soda in extra-large bottles.
In the parent newsletter I asked for only juice boxes to prevent spills and avoid a post party wipe-down, but (problem solved) the foster child went into the cupboards and pulled out lots of paper towels and a sponge to prepare for emergencies.
The biological parents lingered after hauling in the food, joking about long gift lists from their cherished and eager offspring (bending their mouths to the side to whisper, “Oh, no, he’s not getting all that”), and they traded quips from the day’s big story about a parking lot fight ending with aggressive gestures toward the principal.
Back at his desk and drawing, the foster child appeared indifferent as he sketched images from the “Winter Holidays Around the World” bulletin board, a theme I had chosen to avoid suited-up Santa’s, gluttonous gift piles, or snow men of questionable integrity — except, except – he liked all of it! In truth, the holidays brought a party with treats and gifts from the teacher and room mother, which communicated somebody was there to provide. In child parlance this meant he was loved.
He continued working on his art pad, drawing a reindeer in the driver’s seat of a fast car, with machine guns mounted on the sides as it raced through twinkling forests. The gangster reindeer smoked a cigar and wore a gold chain necklace, and it stared ahead with a self-satisfied grin. Soon the party food was ready, and he slouched over to the serving table and made the kids laugh by placing frosting on his nose and gum drops under his upper lip.
The foster child was a cross between a silent beatnik and Bartleby the Scrivener in a Herman Melville short story, who made it clear he would “prefer not to.” Entering the class in midyear, it was understood that the foster child would need an adjustment period, since problems blew in the door with him. But he steadfastly drew fleets of cars, disassembled an old cell phone and calculator down to the circuit boards — look what he did!—and locked his head firmly on his desk when it was time to take a test.
He also “preferred not to” fight and either cowered or walked on tiptoe among his milling, exuberant peers. He could rapidly run on the side of the school wall and back down again, but he never lined-up on time, if at all. They liked him because he ignored their childish antics and the school rules, and he was the kid who effortlessly scored the best classroom jobs.
It is 4:00 p.m. after the party and clean-up, and the school psychologist wants to help me avoid anxiety medication through a briefing on the foster child’s young life trajectory. His mother, a hopeless drug addict, abandoned him to an ailing grandmother who raised him well, but when dementia overtook her, he had to make deliveries for drug dealers and beg food from neighbors.
She was put in a skilled nursing facility, and his parenting no longer came from “babies raising babies” or “grandmothers raising babies,” so he slipped through the safety net and landed on his own. Completely alone. He lived in eight foster homes in two years – no details shared here – and his last placement kept him at the dinner table until he finished his homework, which “he preferred not to.” He lost outside privileges most of the time, and even stayed behind when the other angry and clinging kids went on reward-excursions. No new foster family placement was available close to our school, and the psychologist told me he would be moving on.
He returned after winter break to his good-by party and gave me a holiday card made during an art activity at the holding facility, where he’d waited for his new assignment. The card was on yellow paper with glued, plastic holiday images, and his photo with lidded eyes and protruding teeth reigned inside a snowflake star at the top. He had inked in a little goatee.
From his heavenly God-photo near the moon and stars, gifts of candy canes and cookies rained down onto the gingerbread people below. Although two of them stood together, delighted with the sugary treats falling from above, a short distance away a solitary gingerbread person was upside down, stiff as a rod, with his legs jutting into the air.
Copyright 2019 Field