I taught second grade, which meant that virtually all of the parents wandering around my classroom for Back to School Night were, like me, not much older than thirty. The exception was the elderly couple who’d just entered the room and hovered uneasily inside the open door; I guessed they were both at least seventy. The woman held her hands in front of her and stared up at some pictures on the big bulletin board beside her; the man gazed about him with a tiny grimace. Most of the parents were at their children’s desks where work samples from the first couple weeks of school were displayed. I greeted several of them as I made my way back to the classroom door.
When I got there, the old man’s eyes met mine. I smiled and said, “Good evening.”
His grimace remained. “Hello there.”
“So, you here for Back to School Night?”
The old woman turned my way and said, “That’s right.”
“Which student . . . is yours?”
“Mitchell Robinson,” she said. “He’s our grandson.”
I nodded and watched her point to the bulletin board. She said, “That’s his picture on top. The T-Rex.” She turned back to me, a small, pained smile deepening the wrinkles around her lips. “He loves dinosaurs.”
“Mitchell’s a good artist,” I told them. “Very creative.”
They glanced at each other in a way that seemed hesitant, almost sheepish. “I’m Maude,” the old woman said. “And this is Carl.”
“Tom Reynolds, his teacher,” I said. “Pleased to meet you.”
Carl said, “Tell me he’s behaving himself.”
“Yes.” I paused. “He’s very quiet, in fact. Seems shy, a little removed.”
They both nodded. Their blank stares were identical.
I pointed to a student desk a few feet away. “He sits right over there. Has some classwork on top for you to look at.”
“Nah.” Carl made a wave like he was shooing away a fly. “Not necessary.”
Maude shook her head. “It’s all very nice, though. Neat and clean. Organized.”
Carl said, “You’ll let us know if he misbehaves.”
“Well, then.” Carl said. They exchanged glances again, and he extended his hand. I shook it and did the same with Maude’s. Then they turned and left, both shuffling a little. Out into the warm September evening with its salty tang from the bay on one side of the school and the ocean on the other. They’d been there for perhaps five minutes total.
After our principal went over the loudspeaker thanking parents for attending the event and there were none left in my classroom, I dug out the binder our school nurse gave all teachers at the start of the term with copies of their students’ emergency release cards. I found Mitchell’s and ran my finger down it until I reached the lines that held the names of the adults to whom he could be released from school. There were a mother and father listed, as well as Carl’s and Maude’s names. Like almost all our students, the address listed was in the enlisted military housing neighborhood where our little school was located. The father’s name was followed by his rank: E-3; there was nothing after the mother’s name. Many of the naval personnel in housing at that time were out on deployment; two of the carriers that docked at one of the local San Diego bases had recently left for the Persian Gulf. I found myself frowning and closed the binder.
The next day, I had a roving sub that the school provided each teacher until beginning-of-the-year individualized reading testing could be completed. I sat just outside the classroom door with my record book and a stack of leveled readers while students took turns testing in the chair next to me. Depending on their reading abilities, about ten minutes was needed to finish each student’s testing.
Mitchell’s turn came midway through the morning. His big, troubled eyes reminded me of a doe’s as he climbed onto the empty chair. He was small, waifish, with an unruly shock of brown curls. Even though the chair was student-sized, his dangling feet didn’t reach the ground. Like so many of our students who moved regularly with military transfers, Mitchell was new to our school, and there was no previous reading record from wherever he’d attended last.
“So,” I said. I used as gentle a voice as possible. “I just want to listen to you read a little. Is that okay?”
He looked at me with those eyes, his mouth in a short, straight smear, and shrugged.
“Do you like to read?”
He shrugged again, his legs kicking back and forth in a slow rhythm.
“Do you like books?”
“I like dinosaurs.”
“Okay,” I smiled. “I’m afraid I don’t have any dinosaur books today, but try this one.”
I handed him the lowest level reading booklet to start and opened it to the first page. It had an illustration on top with two short sentences underneath made up of the most common sight words and simple consonant-vowel-consonant combinations. He pointed to the first word, then the next, and the one after. As he did, his brow furrowed and his mouth moved like a fish out of water. Thirty or so seconds passed before he turned to me and shook his head.
“You don’t recognize any of the words?”
He shook his head again.
“Try one more time.”
He repeated the gestures with his brow and mouth and dragged his finger over the remaining words on the page. Then he looked at me again with his blank expression, handed me the booklet, climbed down off the chair, and went back inside the classroom.
After school I consulted with our Reading Specialist about Mitchell. In addition to the twenty minutes or so a day he’d get with me in his reading group of one, she found a place for him to join her lowest first grade “double-dip” session each afternoon. Our school had just started a new basal reading program that included an online component students could work on at home. In order to begin closing the gap, she said it would be important for him to do that for a half-hour a day, as well as have someone listen to him read and read aloud to him for at least that long.
When I got back to my classroom, I called Mitchell’s home phone number to explain things. I recognized Maude’s voice as soon as she answered.
“This is Tom Reynolds at school. Can I speak to one of Mitchell’s parents?”
A pause followed, then she said, “Neither is here.”
“Well, I’d like to meet with one or both of them about Mitchell’s reading. I did some testing with him and he’s pretty significantly behind benchmarks for the start of second grade. I was hoping to explain a few steps we think will help him catch up.”
“My husband and I can come over and meet with you. We’re only a block away.”
“If you want, yes.”
I felt myself frowning again like the night before. “All right,” I said. “Best to get started as soon as possible. You can share what I tell you with his parents?”
“We’ll try,” Maude said. “See you in a few minutes. Mitchell will have to come along.”
They appeared in my open doorway a short time later, Mitchell in between his grandparents. Before they’d arrived, I’d put a few picture books about dinosaurs I’d found in our classroom library on one of the chairs that was still outside the door.
I walked up to them and said, “Thanks for coming so quickly.” I looked down and put a hand on Mitchell’s shoulder. “You can wait outside here. I found some books you might like.”
He looked over at the pile of dinosaur books and a grin lit his face. He climbed up on the empty chair and opened the first book onto his lap. Maude and Carl followed me inside to the half-moon table towards the front of the room. We sat down and I briefly explained what the Reading Specialist and I had discussed. They looked at each other after I’d finished, nodded, then turned back to me.
“Do his parents read to him regularly?” I asked.
They exchanged glances again, then Maude said, “No.”
“Well.” She hesitated. “That’s complicated.”
“No, it’s not,” Carl said. It came out hard. “His dad, our son, is on another extended deployment, his second in the past two years. And his mom is gone, left, moved in with another sailor.”
I sat blinking, looking back and forth from one to the other. They stared at me stone-faced until Carl continued, “So, that’s why we’re here. We’re it right now. Lucky we’re retired and available.”
I watched Maude lower her eyes, then raise them to me again. “But we’ll do our best. We’ll have him read those homework booklets to us each night, like you said. Have him do that computer program, too.”
I nodded. “Thanks. And read to him yourselves. Make that something fun you do together. Any books that interest him. Take those dinosaur books outside. He can get whatever others he likes afterwards from those shelves over there or check books out from our school library.”
“All right.” Carl stood up. “We’ll do that.” He turned to his wife and asked, “Ready?”
Maude stood, too. She gave me the same pained smile as the evening before, and said, “Thanks, Mr. Reynolds.”
“Tom . . . please.”
“All right. Thank you, Tom.”
They turned, and I watched them shuffle to the door and out of it. I heard them say something to Mitchell, heard him gather the books into his arms, heard them go off up the walkway towards the front of the school where it met the northern section of military housing. It was quiet afterwards; most of the other teachers had already gone home. Except for the distant tumble of the waves, the only sound was my own slow breathing as I remained sitting at the table. I thought about when I’d been about Mitchell’s age and my own father had moved away to another state. I remembered how lost and confused I’d felt in spite of having my mother still there with me every day and night.
Over the next couple of months, Mitchell’s reading did improve, albeit slowly and grudgingly. By Thanksgiving, he was reading at a late-Kindergarten level. Shortly afterwards, I bumped into Carl while he was walking a small dog one evening as I was heading to the staff parking lot and I told him about Mitchell’s progress.
“That’s good,” he said. “Maude’s been staying on him with that computer program, listening to him read, reading books to him. I’ve never been much of a reader myself. Was a mechanic all my life. Like doing things with my hands, so he and I build things together. Birdhouses, models, that kind of stuff.”
I nodded. I couldn’t recall ever doing anything like that with my father before he left. I said, “I bet he enjoys that. The time you spend together.”
The old man shrugged and tugged at the dog’s leash to keep him in place.
“So,” I said, “when does your son get home?”
He shrugged again. “Well, it’s supposed to be a seven-month deployment, which would mean February, but the last one was supposed to be the same length and went ten.”
“Do you Skype or FaceTime with him?”
“Don’t really know much about that sort of thing. Maude neither.”
“I could show you. It’s not hard.”
He cocked his head. “I’ll ask her.”
I nodded more, gathering my thoughts. Finally, I said, “Mitchell’s mom back in the picture at all?”
Carl gave a grimace like the first night I’d met him. “Nah. That sailor she’s with got transferred to Jacksonville. She went with him.”
I said, “Shucks.”
He looked off towards the bay and muttered, “Yeah.” The dog whined at his feet. “Well,” Carl said. “Better get going before this one pisses on our shoes.”
He grunted a laugh and I tried my best to return the same. I watched the back of him shuffle along after the dog out of the gathering darkness into the globe of light thrown by a streetlamp, then into the gloaming again.
Mitchell’s reading continued to improve, and his confidence seemed to grow a bit, as well. But he remained reserved and generally kept to himself. In the cafeteria or on the playground, I only saw him regularly with one other student, another boy from housing who was in first grade. At recess, they almost always sequestered themselves to a far corner of the grass area littered with rocks and clumps of dirt where they played with the toy dinosaurs Mitchell kept in his daypack. The school had a rule against bringing toys to school, but the yard duties hadn’t seemed to notice, and I didn’t have the heart to intervene. I also knew there was a rule about at least one parent needing to be living in the home in order to maintain eligibility for military housing, but I wasn’t going to get involved in that either.
The days grew shorter and the weather chillier as December advanced. One late afternoon just before Winter Break, I was sitting at the half-moon table grading math worksheets and heard a knock on the doorframe. When I looked up, Maude was standing in the opening in an oversized sweatshirt holding a cell phone in front of her.
“So,” she said. “Carl told me you could show us how to do that thing where you can talk on your phone and see the person on the other end.”
“Sure,” I said. “Come on in.”
She made her way up to the table, sat down across from me, and fixed me with one of her pained smiles. Something about it reminded me of the weariness in my own mother’s face when she was still alive. She pushed her cell phone my way, and I went through the steps to get FaceTime going on it, explaining things to her as I went along. She nodded as I did but didn’t look very certain when I passed the phone back to her.
“Here,” I said and took my own cell phone out my pants pocket. “Let’s try it together. You’ll see how easy it is.” I wrote my cell phone number on top of the paper I’d been grading and turned it her way. “That’s my number.”
She raised her eyebrows and blew out a long breath before tapping the FaceTime icon and entering my number. She tipped the phone towards her as I answered the call, then her eyes widened in happy alarm. She clapped her free hand to her chest and said, “There you are!”
I smiled. “That’s all there is to it.”
“Well, I’ll be.” She returned my smile towards her screen, then over the top of it. “How do you turn it off?”
I reached over and pointed to the bottom of her screen. “Just tap that red icon.”
She did, and our screens went blank, but her smile remained. “We want to try that with Mitchell’s dad for Christmas. What a wonderful treat that will be.”
“I’m glad.” I paused. “Give him my best wishes. Tell him I look forward to meeting him soon. Let him know how well Mitchell’s reading is coming along.”
“I will.” Her smile suddenly left her face. “I guess we could try it with Mitchell’s mom, too.”
I nodded slowly. “She in touch?”
A kind of pallor had replaced her smile. I watched her swallow. “She’ll call from time to time, talk to him for a few minutes. Sent him a birthday card with a ten-dollar bill in it.” She shook her head and our eyes held. “You married, Tom Reynolds?”
I felt my jaw clench and a familiar flush spread through me. “Was,” I said. “It didn’t work out.”
I shook my head.
“It’s tricky business.” She reached over and patted the back of my hand. “My son and Mitchell’s mom should never have gotten married. They were just kids themselves, hardly out of high school. But, then she got pregnant.” Her eyes remained fixed on mine. “Truth is, our son was never the best of husbands.”
I thought: neither was I. I felt my lips purse.
She sighed and said, “You know, there’s no blueprint for any of this.” Her voice had softened. “Heck, Carl and I thought we could never have kids, then Mitchell’s dad comes along after we were both in our forties.” She shrugged. “We just all do the best we can, I guess.”
I nodded. “Suppose so.”
Her pained smile had returned. She patted the back of my hand again and stood up. “Well, thanks for the lesson.”
“And have a nice holiday.”
I watched Maude put her cell phone in the pouch of her sweatshirt and shuffle to the door. After she left, I thought about what she’d said for quite a while as afternoon made its descent toward evening. Finally, I returned to the worksheets I’d been grading. I erased my phone number from the one I’d been working on when Maude arrived and finished circling mistakes on it in red ink. It had only a few corrections the student would need to make in the morning. I flipped it upside down on the pile of papers I’d already graded and pulled the next worksheet in front of me. It was Mitchell’s. He had less trouble in math than reading, but still struggled with it; I circled almost half of the problems on his sheet.
After I’d flipped it over on the pile of graded papers, I paused, frowning. He’d drawn a picture on the back: two big dinosaurs with a small one in between. The big dinosaur on the left was slender and had long eyelashes. They were all holding hands and smiling. Behind the dinosaurs, there was a low cinder block duplex like the ones in military housing with waves to indicate water on both sides of it; in the distance, he’d also drawn the bridge that crossed the bay to a cluster of tall buildings. The same bridge I’d drive back over shortly to my apartment that I knew waited for me as dark and empty and still as I’d left it that morning. I ran my fingertip slowly across the paper from one dinosaur to the other and thought about choices and opportunities, especially the ones that are irretrievable.