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All My Children

When They Come to Her, This Mother With Daughters of Her Own, She Gives Them What They Need. Then They Go Home, Where They Need So Much More.

May 11, 1997|Susan Straight | Susan Straight's latest novel is "The Gettin' Place," published by Hyperion

They gather in my yard. Neighborhood kids, cousins, school friends. With my three daughters, they skate up and down the sidewalk, they laugh in the pink-and-purple-painted wooden playhouse, they slide and swing on the ancient equipment in the side yard and they climb the mulberry tree.

Sometimes there are eight or nine of them out there. I sit on the porch steps with my mail or my students' papers, trying to grade and watch and admonish at the same time. I have a cup of tea, since it's late afternoon. They have everything loose in the kitchen. Fruit rolls, Popsicles, cookies, string cheese. Everything.

And they talk. While they're asking me to open the plastic packages so hard for little fingers, while I'm cutting the tops off the Popsicles, they tell me about school, about fights on the playground. About their mom's fights with their dad. About their dad leaving. About what they would do with a horse. I listen, trying to say the right thing. Maybe I could send some eggs or oranges home for Mom. Maybe my daughter and the girl could band together on the playground against the boys with the palm-frond weapons. Maybe the child can come over here and play and talk any time.

Before I start to sound like I think I'm doing the right thing, I should explain that what I do is only the easy stuff. I don't do the really hard stuff. And for that, I feel guilty nearly every day.

Every Tuesday, I work in my 5-year-old's kindergarten class. I cut out sailboats, help children write in their journals and sit in a tiny chair just behind the group of 33 kids in case someone is acting up and needs to "take a seat with Delphine's mom."

Lamont* was always taking a seat with me. Instead of sitting quietly on the rug, listening, he would hum, lie down, talk and touch people. When he sat next to me, another volunteer mom whispered to me, "He's so dirty."

He was. His braided hair was fuzzed and grown out, his shoes filthy and loose-soled, his fingernails dark crescents. I've seen dirty kids before. Lamont kept fidgeting and talking, and I pulled him onto my lap. "Hey," I said. "We have to listen to the teacher now." He noticed the silver anklet I wore around my boot, and then my other jewelry, and he played with the charms for a long time, quietly.

He sat on my lap all the time after that, and then I'd hover near him when he worked at his table, trying to help him with projects. He colored beautifully, with great artistic flair, but when we worked on the alphabet, he knew no letters. The teacher and I discovered he was a crack baby, one of seven children being raised by his grandfather in an apartment several blocks from my house. I talked to his grandfather a few times, helped him get forms for free lunches, and gave him two bags of groceries every Tuesday. My neighbor gave Lamont new shoes, Sharks sneakers, and I got him jackets, shirts.

Then, while I was supervising the playground one day, someone came running to tell me Lamont and some other boys were arguing over scooters. I walked near the fence, and Lamont lifted his shirt to scratch something on his stomach.

It was a festering magenta burn the size of my hand. He dropped the shirt quickly, his eyes darker-brown in fear, knowing that I'd seen the burn.

"How did that happen?" I whispered.

"I'm not apposed to tell," he said, his fingers clutching the shirt.

"Did you go to the doctor? Did you get medicine?" I asked, and he shook his head. "Will you come see the school nurse with me?" I took him to the nurse's office, whispering to the kindergarten teacher that we had a problem. The official school nurse travels among several campuses, so we talked to the health aide. I explained that Lamont had a bad ouchie and might need some medicine. When he reluctantly lifted the shirt, she gasped and winced.

The burn was at least a week old and had become infected and crusted. I couldn't imagine how much it must have hurt him. He dropped the shirt again and began to recite, "My mama cooked some food and she gave me a hot plate. The food spilled on me."

His mother was, I had heard, incarcerated. "Are you sure?" we asked, and he repeated the exact sentences, over and over. "Are you hurt anywhere else?" His fingers flew down to cover his crotch.

"Did the food fall down there, too?" we asked, and I'm thinking that the only way he could be burned like that was if he ate naked. Eventually, he pulled his pants partway down to show us circular burns, three of them.

I went into the outer office and cried in front of all the secretaries. They'd seen it before; I hadn't. But Lamont would only stay in the room and talk if he was on my lap, so I went back in.

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