art by Cheryl L Owen-Wilson
by Vylar Kaftan
I figured the new boy would have trouble making friends. He sat alone on a swing, holding his open sketchbook and chewing on a yellow pencil. Around him, other children played tag, climbed on the jungle gym, or scrambled aboard the school's pride--an elaborate wooden fort with towers, rope ladders, and a playhouse. The whole community had built the fort with locally donated funds, and it still smelled like new wood. The boy squinted, looked at the fort, and started drawing. He reminded me of myself years ago, on other playgrounds in dozens of places.
I wasn't usually a playground monitor. The art teacher was out with chicken pox, of all things, so I'd volunteered for her shift. I felt awkward with older kids. The fifth and sixth graders grew up a lot faster than I remembered. Three of the girls wore mascara, and I'd already stopped a bra-snapping incident involving ten-year-olds. When the game of tag turned into tackle, I broke it up, wishing for the safety of my kindergartners' finger painting.
After things calmed down, I visited the swings to see what the boy was sketching. When I approached, he tucked the pencil behind his ear and hugged the book. I got the feeling someone had taken it away before. Probably more than once.
He stared at me. I tried to look harmless. "It's all right," I said. "You're not doing anything wrong. I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
He was a small kid, but maybe ten or eleven--with golden-brown skin, rusty brown curls tight against his head, and long-lashed black eyes that most girls would kill for. He'd be a heartbreaker in a few years, but right now his legs had grown faster than the rest of him. His feet dusted the dirt beneath the swing. He pushed against the ground, rocking slowly.
I sat in the swing next to him and stretched my legs out. I walked forward a few steps, then back. Even if I'd tucked my legs all the way underneath me, the swing was set too low. "I know you're new here. That's hard sometimes."
He nodded, staring at the line my feet made in the dirt.
I smiled at him. "I'm Ms. Dayton. I'm pretty new here, too. I've only been teaching for two years. What's your name?"
"Kevin," he said, looking away.
"Well, Kevin, welcome to Harrison Elementary. Where are you from?"
"Texas. Before that, Arizona, and then Ohio and Michigan."
I raised an eyebrow. "You're very well-traveled."
He shrugged. "My ma likes to move."
"That's tough," I said, remembering my own childhood in a military family. We moved all the time. I'd missed my Christmas concert solo, a free trip to the White House, and my first prom date--not to mention all the half-finished art projects my mom had thrown away. I still missed that mosaic I'd made with seashells and beach treasure. I wrapped my hand in the swing's chain, smelling the familiar rust. "Grown-ups are easier to move than kids are."
He grinned, showing crooked teeth. "Yeah," he said. "Ma gets a new job when she moves. She's happy for a few weeks anyway."
"Isn't she happy later?"
"No," he said, scuffing the ground with his sneaker.
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said as kindly as I could, saddened by his unspoken tale. Shouts from other children carried across the playground. I glanced up, then returned my attention to Kevin. "What are you drawing?"
"I ain't drawing."
"Oh? What are you doing then?"