Some readers of this blog know that I'm entrenched in work on a MFA in Narrative Nonfiction. Mostly I write pages for my High Low Tide project (a narrative about oystermen in Georgia) and read other works of longform narrative. So far, the list of titles has included classics like In Cold Blood and newer books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Recently, I finished Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a richly reported narrative work about a slum in Mumbai. I could gush at length about the treasures within its pages, but I hope you'll just read it yourself and we can swoon together next time we meet. As part of my course work, I must respond to the work, which is standard grad school stuff. As this is a degree in creative and factual writing, I also have to respond in narrative. The means don't write an essay. Instead, set a scene. Find dialogue.
I spend much of my free time in the company of three- to six-year-olds, the children with whom my daughter attends Montessori school. In the afternoons, I watch over a group of them, including my own, until their parents arrive to collect them. So I decided to set my response to the Boo's book within this after-school classroom, as it is, besides the marshes I've been spending so many hours on these past few years, a place I know in and out. I felt I could write about the place with as much background and accuracy as Boo wrote about Annawadi. I'm publishing it here, with names changed other than my own, but with all the overwrought language left in and the writing about myself in the third person left in as well. Enjoy, I hope.
J wanted another sheet of paper. Mr. Andre did not want him to have it. Rules were rules: one sheet of paper, per student, per day. Mr. Andre kept his foot down.
In retaliation, J found an unguarded supply of paper while Mr. Andre's attention was elsewhere. When Mr. Andre found J with a stack of sheets procured from a pile he was not supposed to pull from, Mr. Andre expressed disappointment.
"Why did you take paper that belonged to Mrs. Betty's class, J?" Mr. Andre said. J met the question with silence and scared eyes.
Mr. Andre could not keep his anger outward for too long. After all, J was only 3. It was best, Mr. Andre knew, to proceed with a smile and soft tone. But it was too late. J had begun to cry. The little boy buried his head on his older sister's shoulder. She patted him on the back and shushed him, saying, "It's O.K."
For Mr. Andre, it was another battle without a victor or loser. He carried a desire to be both stern and comforting, and in doing so, he often found himself, as in the interaction with J, involved in situations that could be difficult to peaceably resolve.
J would be the first altercation for Mr. Andre that day, but not the last. It had been raining, and rain always created uneasiness among the 28 young people Mr. Andre cared for every afternoon.
For the first time in what seemed like days, dappled sunlight invaded the classroom. Twenty five students, aged 3 to 6, had occupied the space throughout the day. Heavy rains had barred them from morning rituals: an hour on the playground. Quarantined, the smell of coughs, poops, and runny noses sat heavy on the air. An outdoor respite just before lunch would have let much of the scent dissipate. But this was winter in North Georgia, the rainiest of seasons and oddly cold, so time outside was fleeting, if not totally unattainable.
Sure, the sun shone bright. The grass and hills that made up the school's playground, though, had been sullied into a pant-staining, shoe-drenching slop by a 24-hour downpour. The field where they played was never totally dry; it drained so badly that after any decent rain, pools and mud pits formed in high traffic areas.
Today, nobody would be going outside.
By 3 p.m., the number of students in the classroom swelled from daytime numbers. School had now morphed into after school, when children of parents who worked late waited to be picked up and taken home and fed before bedtime. Children from other classes joined together to form one large group. This was Mr. Andre's domain. Until parents arrived, he was in charge.
Too often, children stuck in after school were also part of a group called "early drop-off." Their days at the school lasted from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mr. Andre held a special place in his heart for these long day kids. Often, they caught a break on bad behavior. How would I feel if I was stuck in this place for that many hours, Mr. Andre often wondered.
This day, Mr. Andre had pulled out blocks, puzzles, drawing paper, books, and other Montessori-related activities to keep the children occupied while stuck indoors.
Normally, in better weather, after school would've taken place outside on a playground. As dusk approached, the class would've come inside for snack and story time. By 5:30 p.m., parents would've come for the last kids.
It was early still, and more signs of restlessness among the children emerged. Granger erupted first.
"Mr. Andre! B won't leave my train alone."
Mr. Andre looked up from reading "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," by Katherine Boo. He hated to be distracted around the kids, but he both needed to finish the book and had a hard time putting it down. Raising a child, working multiple jobs, reading had become as equally chimeric for Mr. Andre as playing outside was for the kids. Inside, the children wouldn't be falling down or jumping off things; they were relatively safe. Certainly Mr. Andre could divert his attention for a page or two at a stretch.
After school was a time for Mr. Andre to be immersed in a child's world, just as Boo immersed herself in a Mumbai slum. His duty was clear. Placing the book bent spine up, Mr. Andre turned his attention to D, whose cheeks rouged as he whined while sitting among wooden tracks. Clutching a small painted engine, B fumed quietly near D.
"B, can you ask D if you can work with him on the trains?" Mr. Andre said. B was one of a few students at the school who fell somewhere on the autism spectrum. School was never easy for B. After school was less stressful than the morning, but not always. The other kids didn't get him; clear communication came and went for B. But something about the boy made Mr. Andre work a little harder to connect with him. Mr. Andre knew that B responded positively to masculinity, so he often bent down in front of B, and in a firm but kind voice, told B what was what.
"D is doing that work right now, B. You're going to have to wait," Mr. Andre explained. B did not meet his eyes, though Mr. Andre's were quite close. He didn't meet anyone's eyes. But he nodded and didn't squirm away from his after school caregiver. "Or, you can ask D nicely if you can do the work with him. Do you think you can ask him?"
B agreed in his own way, a mumble and a nod. And then, though it might only be for a moment, Mr. Andre returned to his book.