Paper Comes from Trees, Or How to Say Goodbye

The girl who is afraid of boats left my school.

Around lunchtime on a Friday a few weeks ago her math teacher rushed into my office, pizza in hand.

“J’s last day is today! I wanted to let you know so you could say goodbye.”

I thanked him profously and rearranged my afternoon. After lunch, I went by her classroom and picked her up for the last time.

We meandered down to the office to pick up her records. We wandered past the spot where we usually practiced math. Pausing, I turned to her and asked, “I promised I’d show you my office one day, want to see it now?”

With her assent we climed the stairs, weaving towards my office. Once inside, I introduced her to people who were there but her shyness overcame her. Even other teachers who talked to her in Spanish couldn’t get more than a little smile. Plunking her down in a chair I brought her some paper and our bin of colored pencils. I figured on her last day she should get to draw. She wanted a lot of pages, and I was inclined to give her what she wanted. But for some reason as I handed her more, I glibly added this line: “Don’t waste too many trees.”

“Arboles?! What do trees have to do with anything?” she wondered.

Paper comes from trees, I explained.

“Nooo” she said, eyes wide.

So I pulled up a little YouTube video in Spanish about how paper is made and she sat, mezmerized, for a full ten minutes.

I let her color nearly the whole afternoon. She drew landscapes, mostly, with rainbows and trees and horses and recycling bins. When it was time to say goodbye, I wrote my number down on the back of one of her drawings and told her she could call me any time.

Later that afternoon, I chatted with the math teacher because he wanted to fill me in on a few more details.

J was moving to a different U.S. city, not returning to El Salvador as I feared. But her stay in the U.S. doesn’t represent a happy alternative. Her mom decided to leave Boston to escape domestic violence.  I had blithly thought that J’s experience with trauma was squarly in the past, relegated to her country of birth and the perilous journey that brought her here. Now, this assumption feels arrogant; why did I think this little person would trust me with the details of her life?

After our conversation, I called J’s mom. I let her know that J would be missed but that we understood that she needed to move, without getting into specifics. I also let her know that her teachers recommend that J enter into a SIFE program for students with interrupted formal education. At the very least, she would benefit from repeating 5th grade. Mom listened to my thoughts but also made it clear that she wanted J to be enrolled immediately, above all else, even if that meant forgoing a spot in a program better tailored to J’s needs.

I have not heard from them since they left. I’ve wondered about trying the number for J’s mom again, checking in to see how she’s doing in a new city and a new school. But I haven’t picked up the phone, worried, Iguess, that it might be disconnected or that I’ll get through and be unable to help.

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