BY JAN CHARONE-SOSSIN
Copyright is held by the author. This is a novel excerpt.
AS SOON as the Sattler’s black minivan pulled to a stop in front of Lakeshore Elementary School, Gerald’s older sister, 10-year-old Laura Sattler, grabbed her book bag and scooted out of the car. Freed from the confinement of the car with her six-year-old brother Gerald, even her walk changed. Laura practically sauntered through the parking lot in search of her friends.
The car had stopped at one of Gerald’s favourite scenes in the movie playing in the DVD player. While swarms of children of all shapes and sizes in brightly coloursed fall clothes worked their way towards the two white pillars that flanked the school’s main entrance, the T-Rex started to eat the men he discovers at a campsite. Gerald let out a loud wail of protest as Beth slid her key out of the ignition.
“Gerald,” Beth warned. “It’s time for school.”
“No school. No thank you. Gerald not go to school. Gerald stay home.”
Despite knowing better, Beth felt a flush of pride in his words, in knowing how hard she had worked in the past five years to make home a place that Gerald would choose to be in, and not just another four walls in which he could spend the day isolated, doing strange little routines that fascinated him and kept him from reaching out and making friends with anyone.
She rubbed her eyes, eyes that had not know a full, restful night of sleep since the day that Gerald had been born. Beth steeled herself against giving in to the sad, little boy she saw curling up into himself in his car seat. Even though he was way past the usual age for a car seat, Gerald’s skinny, 42-pound frame was not heavy enough to earn him the grown-up status of a booster seat. Gerald’s slightness made it harder for Beth not to start the car engine up again and take her son away from the Lakeshore Elementary School for another year. Why did he have to go to kindergarten now? Looking at Gerald in the rearview mirror, she felt her heart start to race with other possibilities. She could home school her son; she could find some nice, pre-kindergarten class to accept Gerald and shelter him from the demands of growing up.
Beth stopped herself short from putting her flight of escape plans for her son into action. She had fought with her husband all summer about what to do with Gerald in the fall. Although Walt was certain that Gerald should start kindergarten with a diagnosis, which would provide him a host of special services, Beth wanted to give her son the chance to make it in a mainstream classroom. Walt had finally relented, agreeing to give Beth one year to see if Gerald could make it in a regular classroom. One year, he’d said, that’s it.
“Let’s go, Gerald. We don’t want to be late for school.”
Gerald whimpered and kicked the front seat with the toe of his sneakers.
“Kindergarten won’t be like preschool.” Last year, Gerald had come home from school every day with yellow frowny faces coming home in his backpack, to show how badly he had behaved.
Gerald gazed at her for a second with wide, unblinking eyes. It was at these moments that Beth knew that Gerald understood so much more than he was able to express to her, or to anyone. “Miss Flannagan?”
“No, honey. Miss Flannagan teaches at Kid’s Place. This year, you’ll be going to school at Lakeshore Elementary School, just like Laura.”
Gerald’s body went limp. Beth knew that her son had accepted the fact that not getting out of the car and going to school was not an option. His resignation to his fate saddened her, but Beth had no choice. Gerald waited for Beth to unbuckle him from his car seat and lead him across the wide expanse of the crowded parking lot and into the school building. Beth held his hand and guided Gerald into Room 14, while he clung tightly to the hard, rubber tail of Dinosaur.
She pointed to one of the gaily-printed balloon cutouts that had been placed on the classroom door. “Look, Gerald, this one has your name on it. Your new teacher put everyone’s names out here so you would know how excited she is to meet with you.” Gerald just looked at her; Beth knew that for her son, the world was not a place where people were usually excited to see him. She wondered what Gerald though about when he listened to his parents fight at night, lying still in his bed under the milky light of his glow-in-the-dark planets beaming down at him from his bedroom ceiling, She had a feeling that Gerald knew, without ever being able to put it in words, that they were arguing about how to fix him. Beth saw Gerald look down at his small body, hidden in oversize sweatpants and a t-shirt. He kicked out his legs and bolted.
Gerald turned and ran down the hallway, his eyes tracking the red neon glow of an exit sign. His run was brought to a sudden halt by two fat arms belonging to a large, balding man who smiled at Gerald with all of his teeth. Gerald tried to wriggle his way out of this man’s hold, but the man only clamped his hands on Gerald’s shoulder more firmly in response.
“Well, well, little man, where are we off to in such a hurry?”
Gerald put his hands over his ears. The man boomed his question out again, as if Gerald might not have heard it the first time he asked. By now, Gerald was staring at the floor. Beth rushed up to him and put a protective arm over his shoulder.
“He’s uncomfortable with you,” she said flatly, trying to keep her voice devoid of any feeling. Beth read on his ID card that his name was Dr. Bailey and that he was a school psychologist. She was furious that this stranger was even touching her child. Shouldn’t he know better than to scare a little boy on his first day of kindergarten? Did he not understand how much children like Gerald hated to be touched, by anyone, let alone a fat stranger in a new school?
Dr. Bailey looked her up and down. “Well, he still has to get to class.” His words offered no apology for his actions.
Bristling, Beth took Gerald’s small hand in hers, steered him around and drew him back into his classroom. “Stay with me,” she muttered with gritted teeth. They could not afford to have Gerald’s school year start out on a bad note.
She shut the classroom door firmly behind her. Still clenching tightly to Gerald’s hot, sweaty hand, she pulled him over to what looked like the main teacher, a dark-haired woman standing in the centre of the room with a bemused expression on her face as 20 or more children wove in and around her feet like streamers in a Maypole dance. Holding back her tears, Mom delivered a defiant Gerald, mouth and lips tightly shut, body rigid, to the teacher.
“I’m Mrs. Sattler. This is Gerald Sattler. He might have a little trouble with my leaving, so I’m going to make a run for it now.”
Miss Brach looked steadily at Mrs. Sattler, noticing the enormous grey circles under her eyes and the tremor underneath her gesturing hands while she spoke. Bending down to talk to Gerald, she waved his mother permission to leave. As soon as the door clicked behind her, the boy issued a small sound that went unnoticed by all the other children in the room. Then, Gerald started to scream, a loud, angry wail that stopped everyone in their tracks like a game of freeze dance. Miss Brach reached out to touch Gerald. He recoiled from her, bumping into several children that had frozen stiff in the block corner, toppling onto the colourful carpet, where the teachers had laid out bins of inviting books for the children to peruse. Gerald stood up blindly, panting, his glasses slipping down his narrow face, snot running down his nose and onto his Seven Dwarves shirt, making all the dwarves look like they were sobbing, even Happy. He reached into the first bin, grabbed for as many books as he could hold, and began to throw them randomly around the room, repetitively screaming, “Hi ho, the witch is dead, the witch is dead, the witch is dead.”
Many of the children huddled behind classroom furniture, trying to stay out of the way of the flying books, while others began to cry, begging to go home.
There was a throttled gasp behind the rectangular window cut out from the classroom door. Beth watched as her son, the boy she had carried inside of her for nine months, nursed, rocked, and lived for, dropping all future career plans to try to have any other life alongside of mothering, transformed right in front of her into a fire-breathing, primeval dragon, someone that she didn’t recognize or wouldn’t choose to know. She whimpered once, and slid down to the floor, drawing up her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms around her legs tightly and trying to remember to breathe.
Inside the classroom, Gerald lay down on the carpet. The bins were empty; there were no more books left to throw. His heart hammered in his chest. He looked around, wondering where his Mom was and when someone was going to yell at him for being bad. He felt lonely and scared. Why was he all alone in this room? He had no idea what he was supposed to do now, and there was no adult in sight to explain what happened next. Would he never see his Mom again? Is this what kindergarten was really about? The room had grown very quiet, so quiet that Gerald could her a redbird outside trilling, and he got up and went to the window. The bird was perched on the freshly-mown grass, balancing on its spindly legs while he lowered his beak to root for food. Gerald laughed. He craned his neck to see if there were any other birds to keep this bird company. Gerald thought the bird looked like it needed another bird to be with him. He and his Dad liked to go to the park and look for birds. They could spend hours being quiet together, and when they’d come home, Mom would laugh and say she’d bet the two of them probably never said more than two words to each other the whole time that they were out. Gerald and his Dad would look sheepish, but really, Gerald, wondered, why bother? Words were tricky; he never managed to say what he meant.
He wondered where the rest of the class had gone. Gerald turned away from the window, and almost giggled at what he discovered. He had found them! Miss Brach and the other teacher had fit all the children into a small circle in the block corner, like a tiny rowboat floating on the open sea, and she was sitting in a rocking chair reading Knuffle Bunny to the spellbound group. Gerald loved Trixie. His mother had read him this book over and over again. Gerald never tired of hearing about this tiny girl who loses her bunny and becomes hugely upset, yet can’t find the words to tell anyone what’s wrong. He wanted to listen to this book even more than he was afraid of all the strange children in the room. He tucked himself into the group just in time for his favourite part, where Trixie and Dad leave the Laundromat and Trixie realizes she doesn’t have Knuffle Bunny. Gerald leaned forward, his brow furrowed. as Miss Brach read about Trixies’s plight, about how she had no choice but to go boneless, spineless, because her Dad did not understand how upset she was. Gerald knew all about people not understanding. He too had gone spineless and had temper tantrums when he felt like there were no words to match what he felt. Before his mother had read him Knuffe Bunny, he had never known that anyone else in the world ever felt like he did. But now, Trixie was an old friend, and he didn’t want to miss another word of the story.
Gerald raised his hand tentatively. The whole class turned around to look at him. He wondered if this was what you were supposed to do in kindergarten when you wanted to talk. Last year, in Miss Flannagan’s class, Gerald had gotten in trouble almost every day for talking without raising his hands. So, why were all theses children looking at him strangely now when he was raising his hand before he talked? Gerald never really understood what the rules were in all the different places his mother had brought him, but it always seemed like the other people in the room already knew the rules. That’s why Gerald liked it better when he could just stay home, where he knew the rules and he understood what was going to happen next.
The other children in his class had forgotten about Gerald and his wild behavior, but gazing at him now, with his hand raised crookedly in the air, they remembered. Some children laughed anxiously, looking from Gerald to the teacher, wondering what was going to happen next. Gerald began rocking furiously, until he was a blur in motion. Why was everyone staring at him? Was he going to be in trouble for raising his hand? The rocking helped Gerald to calm down. If he kept rocking, there would be no words in his head, just the blurry dizziness that he was creating with his body. Miss Brach asked for everyone to be quiet.
“Maybe we need to think about why Gerald is upset,” she suggested. Urging the class on, she said, “Trixie is also very upset. She is having a real tantrum. What is she trying to tell her father?”
A little boy named Marvin in khaki trousers and a plaid shirt answered. “It’s not her fault. She lost Knuffle Bunny and she is very upset.”
“Yeah,” added Anne, “And she doesn’t know how to talk. So she can’t tell her Dad what’s wrong.”
Miss Brach paused and looked thoughtfully at Gerald, who now looked like a spinning whirlwind. “Why do you think Gerald got so upset?”
“I don’t know,” replied Adam indignantly. “He didn’t tell us.”
“Maybe he isn’t good at talking either,” Alison said.
Gerald slowed down his rocking. “Where’s my mom?” he asked. “I want my mom.”
“Maybe Gerald is starting to tell us, and we all just have to become better listeners,” suggested Miss Brach, and without another word, she finished the book, and sent the class off to the tables to draw pictures of the story. By now, Gerald had stopped rocking completely and was holding the book that Miss Brach had just finished reading, lovingly tracing the bumpy ridges of the Caldecott medal that had been imprinted on the book’s cover. He watched the other children going back to their seats, and he got up too, wanting to draw a picture of how happy everyone looked at the end of the book when Trixie finally found her words.