Last summer, when you were in a bad way, your brother and your cousin took care of you at your worst. They didn’t want you to be shamed in front of me. They didn’t want me to be embarrassed. When you needed to be undressed and washed, they did it. When you raged, they fought you. Your brother and your cousin might be modern men, but they are gentlemen and I love them for it.
Whatever help I gave them – if it was help and not just some kind of witness – was when you were calm and clean. When I remember that time, it reminds me of how parents introduce their newborns to the world of family and friends when they are sweet and sleepy. Not that any of us thought of you as a baby. Your family, though, believed they were giving you a new life. Their hope, while they cleaned you and fought the chemicals coming out of your blood, affected me. I came to believe in your new life too.
That time was also full of memories from old lives, of the souvenirs your family carried. Your brother told me about your notebooks from school. He told me your mother kept them, and now he keeps them, waiting for the day you can sit and share an old memory and laugh together.
As a boy you didn’t like school. You didn’t like sitting still or listening quietly, or being inside while the sun was shining. You did like notebooks and pencils. Your math notes, your printing book were not full of the exercises children do to form numbers and letters. Well, they were, but every line had been embellished. A simple S became a slithering snake with scales and poisonous fangs. The number 2 became a swan gliding across the blue lines of the page. And, in the margins of your notebooks, the swam met the snake along with the fat-bellied bear that was the capital letter B and the robot-waiter on wheels who had once been the anonymous figure of 4.
Nowadays any teacher would see something of wonder in your creativity and original perspective. A modern teacher would find a way to use your pictures to teach you, give you a picture of a queen carrying an umbrella and ask you to find the letters and sounds hidden in the illustration. When you and I went to school, our teachers thought they were training us to work in car factories. We had to learn to be on time for our shifts, to follow instructions and to keep up with the rest of the production line. These days they’d identify your talent, your learning style, and find way to turn you into a graphic designer or a marketing executive so we can’t really say you’d have turned out any better.
In your notebooks of figure 8s turned into snow people, of lowercase Js that grew angel wings and haloes around the singing mouth of the dot, an adventure formed. Your mother found the story. She pieced the serial together according to the daily timetable, looking first at math and then at printing, taking a bi-weekly peek into the early-start French cahier. The story started in September and ended in June.
Like many stories, the one you drew was about two brothers. There was little b and little d. They weren’t twins, but they thought they were alike in every way. Children never do appreciate the nuances of being a stick then a ball rather than a ball then a stick. Besides, whenever on of the brothers looked in the mirror, he saw the other looking back at him. They made mischief and were bad together. They slept in twin beds on opposite sides of the room. They were best buds.
And then little b had to go to school and leave his brother d alone with their babysitter while their parents worked. Little b drew d watching cartoons, eating peanut butter sandwiches and playing with robots who would sabotage the tea parties the babysitter’s daughter was trying to have with her dolls. Meanwhile, little b was sitting at his desk drawing robots that sabotaged his teacher’s attempts to teach him to form his letters so that other people could read them.
“During art class we draw pictures,” your teacher told you, patiently at first. “When it’s time for math, we do our math.”
A teacher’s patience doesn’t last very long. They believe, like most adults, that information and instruction should not have to be repeated. They all believe a child’s nature can be changed to suit the time of day. I haven’t found another formula as a parent. In desperation, I repeat myself in a variety of ways, but it doesn’t work.
My mid-October you could read a little and the teacher left comments where you had left blank space.
“In our printing books, we do our printing work,” your teacher wrote. “We do art in our art books.”
By the end of November she’d given up leaving comments. Instead she drew red wavy lines through your pictures in the margins of your books. The ink framed your neglected sums and abandoned printing.
Little d’s robots stopped attacking the babysitter’s daughter’s tea parties and sat down to drink with the dolls. Eventually little d even kissed the babysitter’s daughter. In the next page they were married and left little b alone at his desk.
“She was a really cute girl, I remember,” your brother told me with his shy smile, “but I am so sorry he thinks I let him down.”
“Ah, you were only four,” I told him. It was easy to see why the babysitter’s daughter had fallen for your brother’s charm.
One episode ended with Christmas vacation. In the New Year another began and in this one little b made friends with the other kids in his row. Together they glued the lids of the desks down. They melted crayons down the sides of the radiators so that the whole classroom smelled of fruit-laced wax. With the confidence of children who could finally tell the difference between g and q, and even b and d, the gang that now populated the margins wreaked educational havoc with dedication as well as creativity.
By February, your teacher started to get a clue.
“I am so glad none of the things in your drawings happen in my classroom,” she commented in red ink. “Make sure the dot on your i is directly above the line. I am not sure your letter K needs so many teeth. Crocodile starts with C.”
She was almost converted.
When springtime came she got out two boxes of sidewalk chalk and handed one to you.
“Maybe if your draw on the pavement at recess,” she said, “you won’t need to mark up your work.”
And so you set to work on the school grounds. You decorated the hopscotch court with little b playing basket ball, you drew Cs with curving mouths full of crocodile teeth, and Ms with snow peaks and foothills. The other kids stopped their own games and came to watch you.
“Hey! Show me how to do that!” the first boy demanded. Soon you’d taught your whole class to write your language of watery, wavy Ws at the beach and open-faced Os with their own emotional lives. For one afternoon there were blank spaces in your margins, your page was clean and orderly with the laboured script of first graders. The same could not be said of your classmates’ work. You’d taught them the tragedy of wasted space, the real opportunity of pencil on paper.
Your teacher was not converted, but she gave up trying to change you.
“He’s not a good student,” she told your mother, “but he keeps quiet and stays busy.”
Your mother examined your notebooks and drew her own conclusions. Of course she saw a famous artist’s beginning, a deft politician, a philosopher.
Mothers can see wonderful things in what their children produce. Of course she kept the notebooks and passed them to your brother to keep for you. She wanted you to be able to look back when you need to, where ever your new life might take you. She wanted you to see those wonderful things in you too.
Kate Baggott is a Canadian writer living in Europe. She writes at http://www.katebaggott.com
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