She was 5 years old with curly blond hair and a light sprinkling of freckles across her nose. Before we met, she ate frozen waffles every day for breakfast and had a bowl of powdered sugar with a spoon every day for lunch. She was smart, almost too smart, and her razor sharp wit was often responsible for the decay of yet another friendship with yet another girl her age.
I was taking her to school.
I’m not going to get into why I was taking her to school or exactly where her parents were because, well, it just doesn’t seem like it’s my business to tell you. Instead I’ll just say that she was going through some shit and like many children who go through shit; she was handling it like a soldier. Chin up. Head high. Defiant look in her eyes…as if she were daring you to call her weak.
See, that ‘look’ is exactly why I both love and hate children. A child, when pressed to his limits, can be braver than any man. You can flip their worlds upside down and show them things that no human being should ever see and they’ll just cope and cope and cope. But more than that, they’ll cope while simultaneously giving you ‘the look.’ The Look can mean everything from ‘bring it’ to ‘you better not fuck with me’ to ‘I’ll take some orange juice, please.’ It’s hard not to appreciate ‘The Look.’
But despite what it says about the backbone of the child you’re dealing with, it’s hard not to also hate ‘The Look.’ When you see it too often, it gets easier to forget you’re dealing with a child who may just need a hug. And even if you remember, it’s hard to actually give the child a hug. ‘The Look’ has a tendency to render any act of affection disrespectful.
In the case of my 5 year old girl (let’s call her Mary) ‘the look’ was all she had. Well, that and a ripped up, dirty ass, shredded excuse for a baby blanket. Mary had named her blanket ‘Blue’ and it was literally only telltale sign of weakness she possessed. She had a tendency to chew on Blue when she was feeling anxious and as a result, Blue sported more holes than a piece of baby swiss. Furthermore, Mary absolutely, positively, could not sleep at night unless Blue was by her side. To even get her to try would produce hysterics.
That morning, on the way to school, I noticed an odd lump beneath Mary’s shirt.
“Mary,” I asked her, “You’re not trying to sneak Blue to school with you, are you?”
She shook her head adamantly in reply.
With a small sigh, I said, “Mary, I’m going to need to see what’s under your shirt.”
Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of her hat, Mary pulled Blue out of her shirt sleeve.
“Please let me take him!” she implored.
“I can’t let you take Blue to school, honey. What if we forget him? You need him to sleep.”
With a voice soft as cotton and eyes downcast to hide the tears, she whispered, “Please.”
Eh, what do you say to that? I know what I would have advised the typical parent to say. I would have told them to hold their ground. I would have told them that it was their job, as parents, to set boundaries. But then again, the typical parent probably has a typical child. Mary was anything but typical.
“Maybe just this once,” I told her, “But we have to work really hard to remember to bring Blue home with us. It’s Friday and we don’t want to accidentally leave him in school for the whole weekend.”
She nodded gratefully and I escorted her to school. That afternoon when I picked her up, she seemed to be in especially good spirits. I marveled to myself, perhaps having Blue with her helped to calm her down a bit and finally allow her to have some fun?
It took me almost 2 hours to realize that in the hustle and bustle of after school pick-up, I had failed to double check to make sure Blue was in her backpack. My throat suddenly dry, I took a peak into her pack. It was empty.
“Mary,” I cautiously called into the living room, “You don’t have Blue with you, do you?”
Pure panic animated her face. “Oh no!” she screamed, “I left Blue in my cubby!”
Fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck fuck.
Predictably, Mary dissolved into hysterics once she realized Blue was missing. In fact, her anguish was so acute, that I had to get down on my knees in front of her and firmly clasp both of her shoulders in my hands to remind her I was in the room.
“Mary,” I said to her, “Mary. Look at me. Listen. You’re going to stay here with big Mike. I’m going to go back to school and get Blue.”
She doubled over with the force of her sobs. Little chest heaving, she asked me if she could come with me. With deep hitching wails of pure grief, she told me that she didn’t believe I would actually go and get him. She wanted to come along to make sure.
Obviously, she was in no condition to leave the house, so I said, “Mary, I promise you that I am going to school right now to get Blue. I promise you I’ll bring him back.”
This seemed to calm her, so I wasted no time. I grabbed my car keys and headed out the door. Her school just happened to be a full hour away from the house, so by the time I arrived it was closed for the weekend. There was not one single, solitary window I could knock on to alert even a lonely janitor of my presence. Every car in the parking lot had long since headed home.
FUCK! FUCK FUCK FUUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCKKKKK!
Dejected, I sat down on the cement steps in front of the school. I rubbed my temples and tried to think about what to do next. But try as I might, I just couldn’t think about Mary and Blue. Instead, I kept replaying a conversation I overhead in a bank between a Mother and her young son the day before over and over again in my head.
It was a crappy day outside; overcast and rainy. The little boy was asking his Mother why they were no longer going to the Zoo as previously planned. The Mother, obviously frustrated, snapped at her young son.
“Because it’s raining outside! Can’t you see it’s raining? Jesus!”
“But you PROMISED!” the boy had retorted.
With a exasperated sigh, the Mother responded, “I know I did. But I didn’t know it was going to rain!”
As I sat there and listened to the exchange between Mother and son, I couldn’t help but feel disgusted. As far as I was concerned, the entire situation had been the Mother’s fault. Quite simply, she had made her son a promise she was unwilling to keep. If she would have qualified herself the day before by saying, “I promise we’ll go to the Zoo as long as the weather is nice” or had refrained from promising altogether, she wouldn’t have been in a predicament. But instead, she had made a promise willy nilly with no thought to extenuating circumstance. That’s bad form for an adult. Even worse, she had had the audacity to get upset with her son even though she was the one who let him down.
I remembered thinking to myself, If she was any kind of a Mother at all, she would tromp around the Zoo in the goddamn rain before breaking a promise to her son.
See, and there was the rub in my situation with Mary. This is why I couldn’t go back and say, “Mary, the school was closed and there was nothing I could do. Get over it.” Nor could I turn it back on her and say, “This is why we don’t take Blue to school. Next time, you make a better choice.”
I couldn’t say any of that because I promised her. I gave her my word and when I left that house, she had trusted me.
When I was a young girl, my Father used to tell me that my word was my bond. He told me that if I became the sort of person who made promises lightly, than I wasn’t going to be much of a person at all. A person with honor and integrity dies with their secrets. A person worthy of trust keeps their promises come hell or high water.
So that is why I stood up, straightened my back, and resolved to do whatever it took to get Blue home to Mary. I made about a dozen phone calls and spent a small fortune convincing someone to open up the school during off hours for a silly blanket. Honestly, now that I think about it, I could have bought a house full of new Blues with the money I spent.
It was worth it to me, though. Mary’s trust was worth earning. Even more so, preserving the integrity of my word was worth it.
I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell. But if I did, I think breaking a promise to a child should be considered a cardinal sin. A child has their whole life to learn that the world is a dark and horrible place full of people who are going to fuck them over and let them down. Do you really want the person who finally teaches them this to be you?
Never make a promise lightly. But if you do, resolve to keep that promise or die trying.
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