A long time ago now I had a job at a low-income daycare center, funded largely by the state, for children not yet old enough to attend kindergarten. I was hired as an aide for two boys in particular, who had been assessed as high-needs. Every woman on the staff was called, regardless of marital status, Miss. Followed by our first names. I soon got so that I didn’t think of dead babies when the little voices called out for me: Miss Carrie! Miss Carrie! I have never in my life—before or since—been bruised as much, or touched as much.
Keeping an eye on my two charges could be difficult. Many of the kids at the daycare were starved for love, and of course people starved for love are the best charmers. Boys and girls alike would compete for my attention like crafty suitors, playing with my buttons, going out for long-bombs, asking about the dogs I knew. They’d drape themselves over me and tell amazing stories, the kind I only strive to tell. One might start out about a pony with its rainbow mane flying back, for instance, but then some detail from a crummy home-life would drift in uninvited, a dark shadow cast across a summer picnic. My pony has diamond teeth. It can jump higher than the storm clouds! But if it goes too far away my mom has to drive it home and she is so mad she slams its hoof inside the glove compartment so it can’t move! If it moves its hand will get sliced off! I would want to believe the darkness in these stories was invented. But usually the child’s voice would become more halting, and her eyes more drifty, on the innocent parts.
Both my charges ignored me. Well, they tolerated me. One of them, I’ll call him O Hungry One—we weren’t sure if he got fed, except at school. He was always sneaking out of the classroom and dashing down the hallway to the kitchen. The woman in charge of the kitchen, Miss Rhoda, would feed O Hungry One endless snacks, but he had to work for them. And when I peeked in to see him carefully arranging dough on a cookie sheet, or stirring a pot of soup, I froze. I gawked. This boy I didn’t know had O Hungry One’s haircut; he was wearing O Hungry One’s clothes. In the classroom O Hungry One had no attention span for books or toys or other children. He liked to systematically destroy crafts, in fact. He’d sneak around and slam shut the books kids were reading. But in the kitchen, in the presence of food, he was still and absorbed, completely lost and completely found. Miss Rhoda treated him with the love and respect his kitchen behaviour warranted, and commented that he had a real future as a chef. It seemed both a happy and pathetic prospect to me, that our success should be so utterly defined by a lack. I would hide at length behind the silver industrial shelves full of pots and canned goods, soaking in this version of O Hungry One. It always impacted me like that thing in books they call a vision. And it was a vision I wanted to burn into my head clearly, so that later when O Hungry One was biting my hand or filling up my coffee mug with toilet water, it would help me act kindly and patiently.
My other charge—I’ll call him O Wordless One—he didn’t speak. He squawked and yelled but with no discernible words. His badly-cut hair had a grey cast, and his skin was greyish too, and he resembled an old man who was far too little. He acted most like a toddler on the playground, where he wanted me to push him higher on the swings than anyone else did. He wanted to go all the way around the bar. When I stopped pushing he would kick his legs backwards, towards my kneecaps, sometimes nailing them. O Wordless One liked being dizzy. He wanted me to spin him around and around by the arms, but he also didn’t want to be touched. The conflict this created was apparent in the way he would back away with his face down as he lifted his arms up to me. When I was spinning him he laughed and laughed, seeming to forget we were connected. I would spin him until I was past dizzy, and still he would protest when I set him back down on the ground. Maybe sports equipment is a real possibility for reincarnation, I remember thinking. Maybe in the last life he was—maybe in the next life he will get to be—a tether ball.
We were spinning like this one morning when I heard a pop and O Wordless One began to scream. Unlike the other kids he never cried; but he suddenly had water rolling down his face. He was holding his arm, which we noticed now hung at a funny angle. I was scared of his mother already, but now if she beat me up it would be justified. When she arrived I would start with I’m sorry I’m sorry and then gesture to the lesser side of my face, the left. But the director of the daycare said: Let me handle this. I was sure I was going to lose my job. And the first whoosh of remorse, surprising to me, was that I would miss the physicality of it. At that point in my life I thought of myself as a rock. And what do rocks need? The touch of rain and sun and wind seemed incidental to them, not to mention the hardly-ever-happening touch of other rocks. Yet here I was unable to catch my breath at the imminent absence of all the unthinking pats from little hands, and the heavy leans into me, which were more like trust falls. The crying, heaving backs stilling inside my arms, the little fingers fiddling braids into my hair. Within minutes I had another sorrow. Namely, who else can I be around who will talk in stories, and show emotion so plainly? But my first dread was for the loss of touch. Perhaps right before dying, before departing this human body, it will be the same.
O Wordless One returned in an hour. His mother signed my accident report and dashed back to work. The doctor had popped his shoulder back into the socket and presto, that was it. I got down on my knees and tried to tell him I was sorry, but he wouldn’t look at me. That was normal. I told him I wouldn’t spin him around again, because I knew now that it was dangerous, and that we’d have to find something else on the playground to make him dizzy. He was gone, walking away. That was normal. But then nap time arrived. Every afternoon we would set out the cots, put lullaby music on the tape recorder, and turn off the lights. Sometimes it took awhile for all the kids to lie quietly. Miss Ginny and I would travel around the room sitting on the floor beside this or that cot, rubbing a back or shushing as needed. I had a strategy that worked well: I rubbed one finger across an eyebrow, gently and repeatedly. With the grain for sleep; against the grain for waking.
Some kids always wanted me by their cot. They would ask me first thing in the morning— or, more often, inform me I was to be at their cot for nap time. In a tone like they were drawing switchblades, which was funny in association with lullabies and blankies. I was sitting beside one of these children, stroking an eyebrow, my own eyelids invariably getting heavy, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked around. O Wordless One was standing in the dim light, backing away with his face down as he lifted his arms to me. It was so out-of-character for him to want anyone near him, especially before sleep, that several kids lifted up to get a better look as we passed. Miss Ginny had to hiss at them to lie back down. O Wordless One arranged himself on his cot like someone fearing an ambush—on his stomach, with his knees up and his arms flung over his head. I was happy to note his one arm bent at the same angle as the other. I lowered my hand slowly, until it touched his back. He didn’t jolt at all. Does he like me now because I hurt him? I wondered. But it was too unbearable a thought, and so I thought nothing, nothing at all. I pretended this—rubbing a child’s back—was just another required task, part of the job, and that my hand wouldn’t always remember this child’s shirt. It was a grey-blue flannel shirt, worn thin, with little pills that bumped against my palm.