She came in late. School started at 8:35 but it was nearly 9:30 when she shuffled into the classroom. She ignored the teacher’s welcome, hung up her grease-stained backpack, walked to her desk, and put her head in her hands. Within ten minutes, her body slumped in slumber.
At lunch my cooperating teacher, Sandy, filled in the details. I was a student teacher in one of the poorest districts in the state, and we had 32 four-graders between us. It was an open secret that Anita’s father was a major player in the local drug trade, she said. No one doubts beats his kids, probably worse. Yes, the social worker has filed with the state. If this kid were in Lexington she would have been removed years ago, but here . . . well, welcome to the neighborhood.
That afternoon, I followed the students to music. We hadn’t finished the welcome song before Anita walked to the upright piano and curled herself beneath it, wrapping her arms around the leg. When I went to retrieve her, tears were streaming down her face, but I couldn’t hear a sound – even her breathing was silent.
The silence lasted two days. “Get your f**** hands off my stuff!” she said, smacking a boy in the gut. Silence, fists, and an occasional simple addition problem. That was the best we could do for a few weeks.
One October day, Sandy pulled me aside. “Expect Anita to be a little off her game today. It’s her birthday.” I riffled through my bag, in search of something, some little present. I found two Halloween pencils and a sheet of pumpkin stickers. I made a card and placed them in her desk. She didn’t acknowledge the gesture, didn’t even look at me as she left that day.
When I arrived the next morning, a package was sitting in the center of my desk. Someone had ripped the book cover off a math book and used it for wrapping paper. A Dole banana sticker ripped in two served as tape. And scrawled in black marker:
To Miss Farmer
From your firend Anita
Inside was a rag doll – face smudged, dress stained. That day, Anita practiced her spelling without complaint.
I am fairly certain I have never prayed more fervently than I did during those six months. My other teaching practicums had been almost effortless. But here I was, running a reading group with nine students who didn’t have basic decoding skills, checking homework that was completed in homeless shelters, and feeling more than I had thought possible. And then there was Anita. I knew the statistics were stacked against her, and her smudged face and fits of tears made me question all I knew about justice and mercy.
On my last day of student teaching, I once again followed the students to music. After a few minutes, Anita curled up next to me and laid her head in my lap. I stroked her hair and listened to her breathing. I’m not sure how to explain what happened next. For a for a fraction of a second – and inhale — I seemed to feel a force from Elsewhere, the shock of love, as if God wanted to touch her for a just moment in this lonely world and my lap was nearest conduit They could find. Anita fell fast asleep.
I don’t know the ending to her story. I lost track of her after a year or two. Every fall, I pull out the doll; sometimes I tell my students about her. They pass it around gingerly; they look at her picture peering from the old class photo, frozen in time.
I know I learned something of mercy that semester, something of God’s love in this shadow world. But justice? It still doesn’t seem fair . . .
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.