One Autumn Day When He Should Have Been in School ...

A CHILD - nine? eleven? - shuffles through the leaves ahead of me, his (or her?) head bent under the hood of the dark green wool jacket. Is he appreciating the leaves, gold with scarlet veins, or just scuffing his too-new school shoes? Or dreaming of summer, hiking mountains, swimming lakes, exploring... . Must be a boy: Boys zigzag more.Yet it's 8:30 a.m.; he is heading homeward, instead of toward school. I stop my jog, drag my feet too. We make no sound through leaves too soggy to crackle properly... . Spectacular leaves, scarlet, gold, orange. Bared trees are punctuated by pines. I prefer pines, eternal green. It's eternal summer I want, that eternal summer of childhood, eternal childhood of summer... . I, too, do the Maple Leaf Shuffle along wet Toronto streets, which what I now realize must be my half-remembered dread of school's reopening. Not dread of most subjects: Only arithmetic and penmanship tripped me up, and still do. Not so much what I was going toward as what I'd left behind: summer's verdant warmth, summer's freedom, from schedules, for exploring. Forget those intellectual explorations school is meant to stimulate. After all, summers I read a book a day. And certain people can make exploring beaches and forests intellectual. (I merely beachcombed and bushwhacked, uncertain of whatever wisdom supposedly lurked in grains of sand, or the clues to romance conveyed by daisies.) The boy's hood hangs over his brow, shields his cheeks like blinders. He can't see that squirrel grooming itself like a cat, he can't note the variegated cats pouncing through leaves, nor the last laggard children hurrying past to school. Must be a reason he was sent home. Or is going home for his own reasons. Had he forgotten something at home he would - might - hurry too. Overtaking him, I glance back. Under the hood: a long face, straight nose, eyes obscured by long lashes. Yes, a boy. Not crying, but looks - Solemn? Peaked? Concerned... . Suddenly my backward glance no longer merely encompasses this child, but my own Alexander, nearly two decades ago, his first autumn in a new school. The previous school hadn't ignored his reading and writing problems but, given several other boys with similar troubles in a class of 26 pupils, nobody got enough attention. The teacher emphasized his virtues: "charming, willing, no behavior problem. Great love of nature, animals... ." And he loved books. We read to and with him daily since babyhood. By age seven he dictated his own poems and stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends; strong plots, no excess verbiage. Only with great difficulty could he unlock words others had written, or copy those terrible numbers that emerged from his pencil backward. One perspicacious neighbor helped him, but he was embarrassed for anyone to know he needed tutoring. Another ventured that at age 10 reading problems sometimes correct themselves. Alexander was nine. I suspect the headmaster of the smaller school accepted him into their high-speed fifth grade because Alexander so intelligently described why he'd become a vegetarian. "Obviously a deep-thinking child," the headmaster noted, "with concern for the world... ." The damage, however, had been done. His classmates, observing a new boy taking three times longer than anyone else to read or write a paragraph, drew their own conclusions and, with that candor of children, shared them. Sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you is what adults teach children to recite: We know they're sometimes wrong. I remember that autumn morning when the school secretary called in alarm: "Alexander has disappeared." "He may just be tardy... ." "He reached school on time, for a change. We've checked every hiding place in and around school." No, there were no suspicious characters around the playground, but we dialed 911. A patrol car cruised the neighborhood. So did I. At last we found him by the wooded ravine, shuffling through the leaves. He hadn't wanted to come home and explain himself, nor return to the taunts of his classmates. Although I'd never shown the courage to run away from school, I knew exactly how he felt. He returned to school. The fortnight after his 10th birthday, he suddenly ceased reversing letters and numbers. He was breaking through. Despite haphazard handwriting, he was eager to write. His original and (to me) brilliant compositions, however, seldom related to the particular assignment. But his wise teacher said, "Fine, Alex, I love your fantastic stories; keep turning them in, but also write a paper that fulfills the homework assignment." So while writing still took him longer than his classmates, by sheer volume he became the most productive boy in fifth grade. He learned to type on my machine. In math, he leapfrogged to the answers, though impatient with having to record the intervening steps. Although in 9th and 10th grade he went into a slump, became a "behavior problem," by 11th grade he won history prizes and spelling bees. He set off to Syracuse University in the autumn with enthusiasm. He mastered my computer, and senior year I bo ught him one which helped measurably. Later, he worked a while in journalism, and he still writes well when he tries. I relate this family history whenever, while visiting classrooms as a poet-in-the-schools, I note a child staring into space while everyone else scribbles energetically. "Don't worry," the teacher murmurs. "Susie never writes." "Susie, could you dictate your poem to me?" I whisper. After hesitation and hand-wringing, ideas and images and emotions tumble forth. The next day Susie may thrust a wrinkled paper in my hand: illegible, poorly spelled, nonetheless a sort of poem. "First thing Susie has written all year!" the teacher exclaims. "We'd concluded she ... ." We discuss getting Susie hooked into a computer. Some schools already provide them for what they euphemistically call "gifted learning disabled" pupils. Susie may start coming to school on time. The boy in the dark green jacket shortcuts through the park. Should I intercept him, ask him why, what? Who am I to grill him? One more busybody adding to his concerns. I watch as he tempts a squirrel with cookies from his pocket, detours to scatter heaped gold leaves to the wind. Finally, beyond the park, he enters a house. Perhaps he'll reappear with his forgotten lunch, or math homework, or a fantastic poem he just composed, then sprint through the leaves toward school... .

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