As I was grading essays tonight (the seventh and final night of this batch!!), I thought about a student I had over the summer. His name was Nathan and he was a fourth grader.
Ordinarily, I don’t particularly like children. This summer I was teaching English and Math to young students grades 2-7 in a private academy in LA, and sometimes I thought I would go crazy. There were a few gems, but there were more than a few kids who couldn’t settle down no matter what, loud ones without voice modulation, ungrateful brats, temperamental pre-teens and constant whiners.
Even amongst the well-behaved children, Nathan stood out to me from the very first day. Vietnamese decent, and quite possibly a first generation American, Nathan had a calm, serene demeanor. As the summer progressed Nathan became more lively, but he always carried himself with a certain inner calm, even in his bursts of joyful energy, almost as though he had an old soul. I saw his father dropping him off one day and immediately saw the resemblance. As I got to know him, I learned that he is Buddhist; perhaps that’s the source of his serenity.
In a lot of ways, he reminded me of myself as a young person. He was quiet and a little shy, but he always smiled in class. His smile was full of gaps and a mix of big adult teeth and small baby teeth. He was a small kid — skinny and short. He wasn’t a popular kid, but he was well-liked and kind. English was easy for him, as was multiplication, but long division tripped him up.
Nathan was one of the few students who wanted to be at summer school. He genuinely enjoyed it and told me that a few times. He said he liked seeing his friends and learning new things. Nathan never gave me any grief and was always respectful. And yet, while some children gave me hugs every time they saw me, I could never really tell if Nathan enjoyed having me as his teacher.
By the end of the summer, I would describe my feelings towards him as love — obviously not a creepy, romantic love, but the kind of love I have for my pets or my nieces and nephews.
Several times, Nathan told me that the coming Friday would be his last day at school.
“We’ll miss you,” I would say and smile gently.
“Maybe I’ll be back. I’ll ask my mom.”
“I hope so.”
The following Monday, Nathan would come back to class wearing the backpack that was almost as big as his body.
Somehow, this scenario we played out reminded me of _The Runaway Bunny_. I don’t really even know why. Maybe it was the repetition of our dialogue.
One week before the academy stopped summer school, the director asked me to be a chaperone on their Friday field trip. This trip was to a nearby park. Nathan and a few of his friends ended up in my car. We rolled down all the windows. When the car hit 35 mph a bunch of papers in the back of the car started flying all around and the children started laughing and squealing. It was definitely not the safest way for me to be driving, but I wasn’t going very fast or very far.
When we got to the park, I spent my time pushing kids on the swings. Some of them wanted to go high up right away, but others were timid. Nathan liked being pushed, but not very high at first.
After a while, I had to usher some kids out of the trees. Nathan got off his swing and followed me. As I was urging the students to come down, Nathan watched from a short distance. One of the second graders came up to me and complained of the heat. I told her I would walk with her to the water fountain. Moments after we got to the fountain, Nathan came up for a drink as well.
“Are you having fun?” I asked him.
“Mm-hm,” he said with a tight smile.
Together, we all walked back to the trees and found a spot to relax in the shade. Soon, other kids joined us and many of them started playing with the grass. Nathan hovered on the periphery.
“Oh, look!” I pointed to the basketball courts where some of the students were shooting hoops.
Most of the kids were engrossed in their new game and ignored my exclamation, but Nathan came up next to me.
I looked at him. “Do you want to play?”
“OK, well, I’m going to go play,” I told him and walked away.
A few steps later, I realized he was trying to catch up with me. His little legs were moving quickly, but he didn’t run. I thought at that moment that he was my little duckling following me everywhere I went.
“Ah, you decided you want to play?”
Approaching the court, a couple of the too-cool seventh graders saw me and quickly left. The remaining fifth grader, Nathan, and I started a game of “Horse.” Soon, a few more kids joined us.
Next, it was time for group activities, popsicles, and then it was time to leave.
Once we got back to the academy, Nathan told me he wasn’t coming back the next week.
“We’ll miss you.”
“I’m really not coming back next week,” he told me. “My regular school is starting.”
I nodded my head. “Well, it was great having you as a student this summer. Thank you for your hard work. Make sure you do well in your classes this year.”
“OK. Will you be back next summer?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“OK. Bye.” He smiled and waved goodbye.
“Bye, Nathan.” I smiled back and watched him as he walked out of the academy.
When I thought about Nathan tonight, I realized that I’ll probably never see him again and that made me sad. I decided that I have to make sure I treasure each moment that I have with the people I care about. I want to enjoy every moment.
I still don’t see myself ever having kids, but I could see myself finding some child along the way and wanting to adopt. Perhaps I’ll end up volunteering in an orphanage and finding someone like Nathan — someone who I form a bond with, someone who brings out my instinctual, maternal love.