Last Friday, my work day began like this:
Dr. Mayo, guess what?
Good Morning, James. What?
This morning one of my cats had kittens.
You’re kidding! Which one?
James, that’s great! I know you’re so excited. Where were they born?
Under a bush out front of my building. And you know what else?
We thought that Mocha and Pepper were brother and sister but it turns out they were husband and wife.
James is one of my second graders. He’s a scrappy kid who hasn’t had an easy life in all his eight years. He and his mama and his big brother are Katrina survivors who were relocated to Atlanta after enduring one of those shelter stays we all watched, in horror, on television. His mother works full time and also goes to school, trying to make a good life for her family of three.
Because my public school is in a well-to-do part of Atlanta and is a feeder school for some of the more elite private schools, most of my students come from families that can provide material items and experiences James and his family don’t have the means to attain or access. For children like James, attending my school means dragging around a big old double-edged sword along with their book bags. While they have the great opportunity to learn and play with kids who have many advantages, they are also constantly reminded of their inability to compete with, or even understand, ski-vacation and electronic-game-acquisition stories at recess and Show and Tell.
Still, James manages well. He’s quick and funny and plenty hard working when he isn’t busy being overwhelmed. He struggles with math and those pesky rules that accompany reading and writing, but he’s a master communicator and he has the biggest heart of any little kid I’ve ever known, a heart that gets broken whenever we more flawed humans fail to live up to his standards for how people should act. I’ve told his mother I think he’ll either end up a preacher or a comedian, probably a bit of both within whatever future that comes his way. I’ve told him he’ll need to hire a good accountant to take care of his first million.
And James loves his cats, a luxury his mama must have mixed feelings about as they live (and breed) in and around his apartment home. The days before the feline births were difficult for him. His mother had been out of town, flying on a buddy pass that worked beautifully to get her to but not from her destination. Her well-articulated weekend stay-over plans for James had to be extended, via frantic phone calls, into the middle of the next week, with him spending additional nights away from home while his mother waited, exhausted and worried, in various airports as she inched closer and closer to her home and children, in what had to be a universal, cross-cultural, every mother’s worst nightmare.
And then, just days after his mother finally returned home, the cats arrived, baby ones, and James’ entire Friday was spent on an up-note, an optimistic day of believing that good things can happen on any morning, a day with no worrying about the spelling lists or math facts that, at times, elude him, but instead a day of celebration and making plans for our class to vote on kitten names, even for kittens whose futures would be iffy at best.
And there was a lesson for me too. As I've just recently begun thinking seriously about retirement, I've had the tendency to bemoan the drudgery of full-time work, the hours spent at the beck and call of others, the documentation, the fatigue, the not necessarily following my bliss. And then, just as I was succumbing to the notion that I was biding my time, overworked and under-appreciated, until the economy or my pension smiled on me, in walked James, with his not so easy life and his few material possessions, but with new kittens.
At that point, I realized that a child can still surprise and delight me with a story and a belly laugh, and that life is what we live day by day, not something that comes from perfect 401k planning. With that, I understood that I, too, could find an unexpected gift on any given Friday, at a time when it's least expected, my version of kittens in the morning, although I might have to look under a bush, or in a little boy's face, to find it.
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