His brown eyes looked at me searchingly, as he took my hand and pressed it to a word I had just written in black marker on the board, where we had been working together to build a word bank students could use to help them write simple sentences about a photo.
“What thiiiiiis?” my new Spanish speaking friend asked, pressing my hand to the word and smiling, revealing two missing front teeth. “What thiiiiiiiiiis?”
“Balloon,” I repeated to him slowly, showing him the word and then pointing to the red balloon in the photo.
“Balloon?” he asked, looking at me for confirmation.
I nodded, grinning.
John (not his real name) repeated the word at least 15 times as he bounced back to his seat. Then, he scrunched up his nose, twisted his green marker top off, and started writing.
“Ballooooooooonnnnnnnn,” he said, lips puckering as he made the ending sound.
He wrote his sentence and read it to me, slowly. Deliberately. Proudly.
“I see a red balloon!”
He clapped and waved his hands over his head, smiling. Always smiling.
His excitement — the unbounded joy he showed while learning this new English vocabulary, took my breath away.
It was a sacred moment. Nothing in the entire world felt more important than the two of us, face to face, sharing words. Connecting.
Pure poetry. Beauty. Energy. Power.
When it was time for John to go, I gave him an elbow bump, saying something vague and child-friendly about this new and crazy idea that maybe we shouldn’t high five or shake hands because of germs, social distancing, all that.
“John! You keep working hard, promise?”
“PROMMMMMISSSSSSE,” he said, bouncing out the door.
It was a more innocent time, six days ago. Care-free.
I had no idea, blissfully naive.
I didn’t know he was about to lose at least five weeks of precious classroom time – probably more – because of the COVID-19 virus.
Today – on the heels of the governor announcing that Mississippi schools will be closed until at least April 17 – I’ve been working hard by Zoom and email and phone with a smart, capable team of school leaders. Districts have called and emailed, asking questions. Good questions. Hard questions.
We are talking about important things. Solutions – at least the early stages of them.
But I keep wondering what things will look like for John while he is out of his Mississippi public school classroom and away from face-to-face contact with the teachers who love him. Will he have an adult with him who is patient – and stress-free enough – to answer him when he grabs and points and asks, urgently, intently, “what thiiiiiis?”
Will his caregiver know enough English to be able to answer his questions? Will she have enough energy in reserve for the sacred moments, which can be beautiful but also draining.
Deep down, I believe that with his enthusiasm and eagerness and focus, John will likely be OK. He will probably get through this, because it’s who he is. He will learn, even with tremendous challenges.
But I also know that all the educators in his life – including me, in my ever-so-small role as the red balloon writing lady – need to work really, really hard – and very creatively – to get this thing right.
We will all be working hard, John. Promise.