I’ve seen the boy a few times when I pick my kids up from school, just a little thing, no taller than my waist. Why he stood out to me among the throng of other elementary-aged children I can’t say, though I suspect his demeanor helped.
No hollering from this boy. No running down the halls, no smile. Not even (as far as I could tell) friends. Just him, walking by his lonesome into the cafeteria every afternoon where parents waited to pick their kids up and spare them from a bus ride home.
The school is home to what is generally known as the poor children in town. There is evidence for this fact—dirty faces, oversized clothes, undersized clothes, and a plethora of emotional problems due to meager home lives. They are good kids in bad situations, unaware they were born with a strike or two against them.
Like the boy. He of the bushy, unkempt hair and the backpack with holes so big everything from pencils to notebooks comes tumbling out. A worn and faded sticker is slapped over one hole. The name JEFF is stenciled there. I wonder if it’s there as a patch or so Jeff can better keep track of his belongings. Or, perhaps, to help remind him of who he is.
Jeff snakes his way through the lunch tables toward his waiting mother. Her smile is not reflected in his face. He looks tired. All the kids do, mine included, but Jeff especially so. He does not hug his mother, simply stands there looking at her feet. She rises from her chair and guides him to the door with her hand. They are gone.
A week later and there is Jeff again, plodding into the cafeteria. I notice his hair hasn’t been combed since the last time I saw him. His eyes keep to the small amount of space just in front of his feet. His backpack is empty. I wonder if that’s because he has no homework or because of the holes. His mother is absent this time, replaced by an older woman I take to be his grandmother. Jeff does not hug her, though she hugs him. Then she guides him to the door with her hand. They are gone.
It was the same three days later except it was neither mother nor grandmother, but a man. His father, I wonder. But then I see the man does not guide Jeff to the door with his hand, he simply gets up and lets Jeff follow. I decide no, perhaps not his father. Perhaps someone else.
That night, I ask my wife about Jeff. She teaches at the school, knows most everyone, but she can’t place him. I ask my kids. They, too, don’t know him.
I’m sitting in the cafeteria the next day, waiting along with thirty or so other parents for the final bell to ring. I notice Jeff’s mother sitting to my right, a few empty seats between us.
I lean over and say hello, which is returned with a smile that seems a bit forced. We spend the next few moments making small talk about the weather and my hat.
I say, “You’re Jeff’s mother, right?”
“Yes.” She looks as if she’s waiting for me to ask something else. I don’t. “He’s a middle child. Middle children have it harder sometimes, I think.”
“I’ve heard that,” I tell her. “So he has two other brothers or sisters?”
“No,” she says. “Well, yes. I suppose, in a way.”
I wonder how a mother could not know how many children she’s had.
“You see, his father and I are divorced. We had three children, including Jeff. His father remarried and has four step-children.”
“Oh. So there’s—”
“—Seven,” she says. “Yes. I talk to Jeff all the time about how great he has it. He stays with me unless I’m working nights. I do that some. He’ll stay with his grandma if I am. And then he goes to his father’s on the weekends. It’s nice. Jeff has three bedrooms. Can you imagine? I tell him he’s the luckiest boy in the world.”
The bell rings. Children everywhere, including mine. Including Jeff. He approaches with is holey backpack and his unkempt hair. I see the clear sunshine in the other children’s eyes and the dark rain in his.
He looks tired. All the kids do, mine included, but Jeff especially so. He does not hug his mother, simply stands there looking at her feet. She rises from her chair and guides the luckiest boy in the world to the door with her hand.
They are gone.