A second is all it can take. Every school day – that’s one hundred and eighty-one seconds a year – I am faced with either immediately deciphering the mysteries of the previous six-and-a-half hours, or immediately looking away. It’s body language mostly that is the object of my deliberation – the classes of K-202, 1-212, 2-210, now 3-316 ascending the ramp to the schoolyard, chins swaying, hair fraying, shoulders rigor mortally stiff. Oh, I would rather stare directly into a solar eclipse sometimes than study that shell-shocked little parade. Then sometimes there is even a little gesture in my direction: an eye roll even, the business end of an index finger, or my personal favorite – that thing that teachers do with one hand that looks like an alligator lunging at my head – snip snap. We need to talk.
In all fairness, my anxiety is probably way out of proportion to whatever is actually happening where I cannot witness it, and we do not require so many debriefings any more. Still, it’s hard to forget the sting of such helplessness – mine, the teachers’, and that of a child always and urgently perched on the edge of an opportunity that might not, probably won’t, CANNOT POSSIBLY be there if he waits. This is a gift - this seizing the moment, the day, the ball, the audience before it moves on – but of course it requires exhaustively harnessing, and I can’t help supposing that here is where all of those teachers are earning their summer vacations.
From kindness, yes, and forbearance, but also the high wire acts of imagination that we are likely to remember many years later when we are conceivably still jumping out of our socks, our sentences and commitments, even if we have finally learned to put all that exuberance to good use.
If you are a parent or you are a child, or a person with no interest in either who has anyway needed to skirt the younger sections of your bookstore, chances are you will recognize Kevin Henkes’s iconic mice, and I guess that’s okay. Though I’ve always kind of wished he had the smaller, more discriminating audience befitting his alternative sensibilities. Oh, everyone always learns a couple of lessons in the end, but more often than not they’re distortions of the lessons that are trying to get taught. It’s a prickly ride, owing in no small part to the impulsiveness of Henkes’s lead players. Think of Owen incurably rescuing his blanket from vinegar, subterfuge, a hole in the ground. Consider Wendell tearing it up during an interminable sleepover. And Sheila Rae the Brave – growling at stray dogs, and walking backwards with her eyes closed.
Still, mostly think of Lilly, whose show-stopping impulsiveness was never likely to meet its moderation in Julius, Baby of the World; even as she appears to be finally accepting the reality of a stinky younger brother, it’s really the more grandiose possibilities of older-sisterhood that she embraces. Poor Julius ends up dressed in Groucho glasses in the end. And, frankly, Lilly’s parents never seem up to the challenge of her.
So: to Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, and the homeroom teacher who almost leaves her speechless:
“Mr. Slinger was sharp as a tack. He wore artistic shirts. He wore glasses on a chain around his neck. And he wore a different color tie for each of day of the week.“
“‘Wow,’ said Lilly. That was just about all she could say. ‘Wow’”
Birkenstocks. Interpretative dance. A Lightbulb Lab (“where great ideas are born”).
“Do you rodents think you can handle a semicircle?” he asks.
Well, maybe. Of course, he’s just inviting disaster eventually with all of these avenues of self-expression, particularly when Lilly has so much of herself to express. The drama in this story of two creatively like-minded individuals consists of wondering just how far Lilly will finally concede to her extremes. Mr. Slinger I’m not so worried about personally - you get the feeling he’s been here before, and chased after his emotions, and fretted about it, and apologized, and done it again. So has Henkes, I’d wager, and so have I, and so have many great ambulance drivers probably, and dancers, and surgeons, and divas, and scuba divers, and plenty of golden retrievers. Can we laugh about it yet?