Smart Cookie

You call me smarty pants! He says, looking up at me.

We’re in the hallway between playground and school building. They’ve just come in from outside and they stand there against the bright orange wall, still breathing hard from so much tagging, running, jumping.

I’m patrolling the girls’ bathroom now, standing just outside the threshold, calling instructions to the four 7-year-old girls who probably won’t listen to me, anyway. It’s hard to listen when you’ve just played outside for twenty minutes, and spent the entire day in school before that. So they jump and spin and wash their hands until the sink threatens to overflow and I shake my head and roll my eyes, hiding my smile because I’m the one in charge, and they’re not supposed to be making me chuckle with their antics.

I’m standing there, holding their discarded coats, when I feel a hand on my back. I turn and he’s pointing at me, gazing up with his dark round eyes, crossed a little bit, because his glasses are missing again. He’s smiling, the creases of his face reaching up to his eyes, dipping dimples into his cheeks. I smile back, and reach down to cup his soft face in my hand.

You call me smarty pants. He says.

I smile, nodding, my eye brows raised a little like this name is a secret between us. Behind me, the sounds from the girls’ bathroom grow louder, and I can hear the sink still running as sneakered feet tap back and forth, dancing on the cold red tiles. But I lean down, closer to his level, grinning still.

I do. I say, running my hand over his fuzzy black hair, clipped close to his scalp. I say that because you are smart!

I say that because I fought him for weeks, in September, October, November. Sitting side by side in blue plastic chairs along the homework table, he spread his kindergarten homework- letter tracing, simply addition- in front of us, and the battle began. He hung upside down in his chair. He rolled under the table. He drew circles on his page, tracing the graphite over and over until the pencil tip broke.

Sometimes, he’d finish his work.

Usually, he didn’t. His soft voice, so distinct I can hear it in my head still, repeated over and again: I can’t do it.

I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.

I’m learning a lot, there in that afterschool classroom. A lot about classroom management and races in the gym and explaining first grade math and teaching them to love reading.

I’m learning patience, too, and in those weeks, drawn to that little boy, I found a free moment, sat down, and we quietly, patiently, fought through his homework.

Sometimes we were successful. Often we were not, and they called his name on the radio before we had finished two lines. On those nights, I watched him shrug his blue coat on, pull his bookbag over his slumped shoulders. On those nights, he proved himself right: He couldn’t do it.

One afternoon, as he sat at the table and I stood behind him, leaning over the table and watching his little hand grip the pencil, I watched him write the correct answer.

Good job, I said, trying to contain my optimism.

Another right answer. This was good.

A third, a fourth. He was on a roll.

Ecstatic, I laughed, squeezing his arm gently, grinning at him. Hey! That was so good! Suddenly shy, he averted his eyes, but I watched the corners of his mouth curl up in a smile he couldn’t control- a smile of pride in his work, confidence in himself- and I felt my heart flip. I loved that little boy, and the confidence that flicked across his face made me giddy.

Later, when the radio beeped, his name called, I watched him slide his work back into his folder. Hey, I stopped him before he left the table. You did a great job, I said. And then, before he could walk away: You’re smart, I added, stretching the word to emphasize the truth of what I spoke. I watched doubt, hesitance cloud his eyes, and then that smile appeared again, revealing spaces where teeth should be, and hitting my heart with joy once more.

And so it began. Working across the table with another child, I watched out of the corner of my eye as he solved a problem. Leaning down to eye level, I grinned. You’re smart.

Smart cookie. Smarty pants. Smart boy. Smart.

I watch him learn, eager for him to succeed, and when he does, I am there.

You are smart.

I say it because it’s true.

I say it because I want him to believe it.

I say it because if there is one thing I want him to learn in kindergarten, it is that he is important, he is precious, he is unique, and he is smart.

And now we stand in the hallway outside the bathroom and it’s been days since he saw me. But he’s thought of it just now, and he looks up at me with those dark eyes, and his little hand grasps mine, Will you work with me tonight? He asks, and I smile and I nod, yes, I will, because I’ve been saying that he’s smart, and he smiles that shy, eyes down grin, and I think he’s starting to believe it.



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  1. Trackback: Hold Onto That Forever | Lead Me Where

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