And the story goes . . . that you soared into your first day of school.
From the moment we walked, hand in hand through the front doors and greeted the folks at the desk who didn’t say a single word you knew.
To the moment we walked into Kang Laou shu’s classroom and you found the seat with your name on it.
You were 100% brave and willing.
Didn’t mean you weren’t terrified.
I saw it in your body, etched into your face. That shy smile you get when you have no idea what is going on. The way you tuck into yourself, slide all the protective doors over your real self . . . the way a turtle tucks into it’s shell. That’s what I saw when you sat in your new seat in Chinese class at school, as the teacher introduced you quietly.
And when the rude boy in the front row’s hand shot up and he asked loudly in English “is she a girl or a boy cause I totally can’t tell at all?” Well, I was so glad you didn’t understand him. But I saw your face, saw it crack into a confused smile as all the faces laughed around you, laughed at you. It made me hot angry. But I simply caught your eye and smiled calm. Do not let this touch you, Ava girl.
Today the class is learning fractions – and you have never been taught them before. I watch the teacher, teaching as if this is normal to you, though she knows it is not. She is a master, thoroughly calm, thoroughly contained. And completely ready to assist you. She pauses, regularly, by your seat, squatting beside you. Your two Chinese faces, locked in concentration, as the fluent words flow between you. They make me tear up. Thank you, God, for a Chinese teacher.
I see you begin to understand, see the light bulb go on as you understand what to do with this math page in front of you. The teacher, using a smart board to fill in the problems, while students take turns coming up to the board to work. And then, your name is called. And I am a little stunned that she believes you are already ready to try in front of the class. Only ten minutes have passed and I sit in the wings, ready to rescue you.
But you walk strong, up to the front. And you fill in the fraction, carefully chosen by your teacher I’m sure, not too hard. You use the right marker, the right symbols. You make a slight correction. And then the class in unison is saying “doi” – yes, correct. And you are walking back triumphant, calmly smiling. Your eyes catch mine and I see inside that you are shouting and my heart shouts back.
And the teacher gives you a paper, with a little red Chinese stamp, one for each time you walk to the board and work in front of the class. She shows you the treasure box you will pick from when your paper is full of stamps. And then the achiever in you really comes out. Prizes to work for, success rewarded. This is one of your languages! Now your whole body aspect has shifted. No longer are you the shy quiet know-nothing in the back of the room. Now you are on the edge of your seat, ready to compete, watching everyone and everything. Working faster than the rest of the class.
The teacher tells me later that you got fractions in five minutes. Her class has been learning them for weeks and some of the students still haven’t gotten it. I know then that she is proud of you too, that you are her gift just as she is yours.
When recess time comes you grab my hand and we run to the playground where you discover the zip line and ride it . . . again, and again and again. Children try to meet you and greet you out there. But you remain mute, only whispering your name (the wrong one, the orphanage one) when asked by an adult. We have to work on that, you and I. How to simply say “Ava” or “Qiao Qiao” in response.
The rest of the day is a blur of in the classroom, to the library, back to the classroom for pinyin, to recess and lunch and then a shift to the English classroom where you follow directions as best you know how. I see how you zone out there, in the English setting. Merely passing time till we are home.
But next to you in every class, at every activity is little JL . . . Chinese American, fluent in both languages, with a memory of being the “new Chinese kid.” She is your big sister, your helper, your guide. She is like you: irrepressible, a leader, funny, smart and in a hurry. Sometimes she forgets to bring you along. But I am so thankful for this one little girl who can enter your world and hold your hand.
Now the day is finally over and we pick up sister and head home and eat snacks to our hearts content. But while we are all tired, it is like your day is just starting. All those love tanks needing to be filled up. You want time, attention, touch. You want me to hold you, hold you, hold you. You have worked hard to be nine all day long – now you regress back to earlier ages where you have needs waiting to be met.
We buy burgers for dinner and as we wait in the drive through line I keep my eyes on you through the rear view mirror, as always. You, sparkling at me, in the back seat. We play a Raffi CD on endless repeat, as we have for days. And today you begin really singing in English, though totally unaware of what the words mean. And sometimes in French too – as he does. I listen to you and my heart grows another size. You talk loudly into the drive through microphone and when we get to the window you pass them my credit card, laughing loudly all the way. You make friends everywhere without a word of English. Spreading joy like a virus.
In bed at night we use google translate to talk about school and you tell me you like Chinese school and the zipline but you do not like English school. You ask me to come again with you tomorrow. Hao bu hao? you say? ” How do you feel about that?” And I pause a moment, and I guess it is a moment too long, so you thrust your whole face up into mine – smushing wet lips and your tiny little nose into my cheeks. And you tell me “it’s a GOOD idea” and with everything in you, you will me to come back to school tomorrow.
And I say yes.
And we snuggle in for two Kai-Lan stories and an endless round of you pulling my arms tighter around you.
Until you fall asleep.
Another American third grader – but not like any this family, this town, this school has ever seen before.