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A Short Story by Don Plansky, ECBA Volunteer at Washington Elementary, Berkeley

Ms. Willow is bestowing gifts today.

As the final school bell is about to sound, the kids line up for their choice of one of two parting presents: either a weirdly colored, crazily bouncing tiny rubber ball, or else a plastic “ring” that you can load up with water.

I stifle the impulse to get in line, painfully aware that I’m 65 years old, not eight or nine, and I’m supposed to be their tutor, not one of their playmates. After picking out a ring, Tamarind scurries toward the sink.  A native Spanish speaker, she joined the class several weeks ago.  She and I have read Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat together in a dual-language version.  I did not conceal from her that I don’t much care for the uptight, meddling, talking fish in that story.  The fish kept trying to spoil the fun the Cat in the Hat was having with Sally and her brother.  “I don’t like that crummy fish,” I told Tamarind even though I understood from Mr. Fennel’s discussion about writing that every good story needs an antagonist.

Emmer, a kid who is always interjecting himself with a mischievous grin when I attempt to work with kids at his table, asking me to spell out words like “nefariously,” and, when I do, commenting, “Are you sure you spelled it right?,” is searching for something on the floor.  I see the bouncy ball he chose — and already lost — rolling on the floor, pick it up, and hand it to him.

Ms. Wormwood is suspicious that when she briefly turned her head, Baobab may have grabbed more than one of the gifts.  He fesses up, putting three balls and two “rings” back into the box.  “Because you were honest, you can keep just one, okay?”

Baobab is one of two kids I’ve been asked to help out who doesn’t want anything to do with me.  Anise is the other.  Earlier in the afternoon I pointed out to Baobab that he made a mistake in his word sort.  He waved me away.  He’s always waving me away.

A third kid, Juniper, is not quite so recalcitrant as Baobab and Anise, but often digresses into sundry extracurricular obsessions, such as Ouija boards.  Juniper’s writing is meticulously precise but so minuscule as to be almost unreadable without a magnifying glass.  In stark contrast, the writing of another of my charges, Dill, is enormously large (sometimes as few as ten words per page) but hieroglyphically indecipherable.

I follow the kids outside as the school day ends.  I come up to Anise, asking her which gift she chose.  “Go away!” she says.  She’s always telling me to go away.  One day when we were reading together she told me about her idea of lighting me up with a torch.  “That’s not very nice,” I said.  “And what would you tell me when I was dying?”  She looked me directly in the eye, smiled, daintily fluttered the fingers of her left hand, and then answered in one word: “Goodbye.”  I’m not sure why she doesn’t like me, especially since she’s one of the kids I’ve given a stick of sugarless gum to after class.

Laurel comes up to me and asks if I have gum today.  “Okay, but don’t tell the other kids,” I say, handing him a cinnamon stick.  He often seeks me out, sometimes to read with me, quite often to pull off my badge and put it on himself.  But when I say, “You know, now you’ll have to tutor me,” he gives it back.

As the kids make their way across the schoolyard towards their friends and waiting parents, I come over to Tamarind who snagged a pink ring out of the gift box.  It fits nicely on her index finger.  I hunch over to get a better look, my eyes inches from the ring, and say, “That’s a beautiful ring!”  Tamarind squirts me directly in the eyes.  “Oh no, I can’t believe I fell for the old fake ring trick!”  Berry sidles up along on my right, beaming broadly at my foolishness.  She has to get up close to make things out since she’s legally blind.  …  When Mr. Fennel reads an illustrated story to the kids gathered on the carpeted floor, he often places an illustration inches from her face.

Meanwhile, as I continue to clear my eyes of water, Zinnia, who I soundly defeated in tether ball earlier today with a series of virtuosic volleys, is still chuckling at my mishap.  Zinnia, Tamarind and Cranberry keep a keen lookout for me so I can join them in their tether ball game before the end of recess. Cranberry is one of two kids, the other being Dill, I’m supposed to help out, who likes working with me.  Her reading has definitely improved, so, just maybe, I’m making progress.

Cranberry and Berry are fast friends.  I am now prepared to disclose that the three of us have been involved in intense negotiations for nearly six weeks about beginning a high-end clothing line.  I’ve pointed out to Cranberry that Berry’s name is contained within her own and that we could use this happy coincidence to create a really neat business logo.  Sadly, this is the only financial planning I’ve done to secure my later years.

As I make my way across the crowded area outside the school where teachers, kids and parents are all milling around, Aloe comes over to me.  “Can I have some gum?”  “Okay, but we’ll have to be careful.  There are a lot of people around.”  I let her slip in behind me, then put a stick of gum in my left hand.  I discreetly twist my arm behind my back, disguising this clever maneuver by casually gazing skyward in the opposite direction.  As Aloe plucks the tasty morsel and runs off to join her companions, I must suppress the uneasy feeling that the part-time tutor for Mr. Fennel’s third-graders may one day be replaced by a gum-dispensing machine.

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