by Wendy BooydeGraaff
He sits behind his desk, early light shining rays on the crumpled papers stacked in the hand-in box. An old building, drafty and bulky, creaking doors announce the one who comes today, sneaking in from the morning playground. Eliot, the teacher says, what’s going on? Eliot hands him the lined paper, crisp except for the finger smear from the school’s hash brown breakfast. This is Eliot’s first offering to his teacher, though the teacher has received many such offerings throughout his thirty-two year career. The first offering deserves a special reverence, a certain surprise and thoughtfulness, dependent on the character of the student. Every student is an individual, a small promise that can be unfolded only the smallest bit, but the teacher has a premonition beyond the school’s dirty alleyway and bit of smudged grass for soccer, a predetermination that the first petal peeled back allows the rest of the promise to blossom. The teacher won’t know, of course he can never know, but it’s more than talent, he believes. It is that drive, that inspiration deep inside, a fat bud that blooms large, a hibiscus, maybe, but not so common. Last year it was Denise, and she didn’t have a paper, she had a succinct current events stream that allowed him to turn off the radio on the daily commute, listen to the wheels on pavement, hear the brakes squeak out the morning moisture.
The teacher takes the paper, scans the first lines, raises his bushy eyebrows in interest. He clears his throat. Eliot, did you want to read this for me? Eliot ducks his head, shakes his head. No, the teacher says, but did you want me to read it aloud? Eliot takes a step back, his head burrowing down, his chin pressing into his chest. The teacher returns to the paper, he reads it silently, slowly, then reads it again. Eliot, you wrote this? the teacher says. You wrote this. Hmm. I was thinking of—, and the teacher mentions the name of a poet they had studied yesterday, because the child would know who it was, and Eliot now has a spider’s thread of connection to a poet who, for the rest of his life, whenever that poet’s name is mentioned or seen in print, or found in a list on the syllabus, Eliot himself will weave another thread. The teacher will read another poem by this poet today, even though the poetry unit is done, and he will continue to find ways to incorporate this poet’s name into the other subjects. Eliot, this is good, this is very good, the teacher says. He holds out the paper to Eliot and Eliot shakes his head. It’s for you, he says. Okay, the teacher says. Here’s what I’ll do. He goes down the stairs, the old creaking stairs, Eliot following, and walks into the teacher’s lounge where the copier sits in the corner. Eliot hovers around the door, though there is only one other teacher in the lounge, filling her mug with coffee. The teacher comes back with the poem and its copy. Here, he says, handing Eliot the lined paper. You keep the original. Eliot takes the paper and folds it into fourths and stuffs it into his jeans pocket. You keep it in a safe place, the teacher says. Eliot looks up and sees he’s serious. You want to go back outside? They can hear the other kids on the playground, the basketballs bouncing, the jump ropes skipping, the voices calling. The morning light, a little more yellow now, shines hazily down the hallway. Eliot looks at the door to the outside, and he looks up the stairs to the classroom. He shrugs. Come on then, the teacher says, and walks heavily up the stairs, one foot in front of the other. He thinks he hears the boy behind him, but he can’t be sure unless he turns around. He thinks the boy will come upstairs, pull a fresh sheet of lined paper from the stack, sharpen his pencil, and write for the six minutes left before the bell rings. But he knows the day is sunny and the air is light and there are few days that feel like this one and a poet could choose either.
WENDY BOOYDEGRAAFF’s fiction, poems, and essays have been included in The Ilanot Review, The Brooklyn Review, Five South, Miracle Monocle, and elsewhere. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, she now lives in Michigan, United States. Find out more at wendybooydegraaff.com or @BooyTweets.