The small patch of ambiguous November evening sky I could see from the window was dark already. Although it was a little past five o’clock in the evening, it could have been ten and I would have felt the same, stressed and only thinking of getting back to my warm twin bed in my dorm. I was tired and the kids in my pre-school class that I volunteered for were driving me up the wall. The kids had been there from the time the sun had just come up and when it was long gone in the early evening, so I could not blame them for being tired and cranky too.
There were many children who had difficult lives at the early childhood center in Roxbury that I assisted in. There was the girl who didn’t have shoes that fit her, always complaining about her sore and blistered toes, and the boy in foster care who didn’t ever want to go home because school was the most consistent thing he had. The teachers were overwhelmed. The more than twenty-five children ranged from ages two to five and there were almost no school supplies. There was little to no teaching going on because the kids were on such different academic levels and there wasn’t much to teach with. Still, the child that stuck out to me and that I still think about is the little boy name Jonathan.
A three-year-old in foster care and brought in to school each day by a social worker, Jonathan seemed to enjoy being in school but would cry when he had to leave. I would want to cry as I saw a tiny little thing with a big backpack leaving to ride the school bus by himself. He was pretty behind in literacy for his age and I couldn’t even get him to say what letter his name began with, a skill he should have already acquired.
One day, the group of students that I went to the center with and I decided to have a “dental hygiene” day and teach the kids the importance of brushing their teeth and to encourage the parents to make check-up appointments for their kids. We brought in Buzz Light-Year and Disney Princess toothbrushes and toothpaste for the kids because apparently only Disney can lure kids to brush their teeth. At around 5:30, it was time for Jonathan to get on his bus home. With him refusing to leave and my patience wearing thin, I picked him up, took him over to get his backpack and I handed him a Buzz Light-Year toothbrush. This immediately rendered him silent. He looked down at the toothbrush and said, “Toys!”, as if he couldn’t believe his luck. It was clear that he was not accustomed to getting things of his own and didn’t have many toys seeing as he thought a little toothbrush with Buzz Light-Year was one. I told him that he got to keep it and hold it while he rode the bus. He now had no problem with leaving school. Seeing how happy this small thing made Jonathan was very humbling, especially because it was such a rare occasion for him. It had previously never occurred to me that getting a toothbrush could be a treat for someone. It made me wonder what life must be like for this little boy. What sort of inconsistencies were in his life if this little gesture brought him a source of comfort? At least I could have done that little for him.
I was overcome by a feeling of guilt. I had just done a good thing for this little boy but all I could think of was all the toys I had gotten for each Christmas in my life and was probably never as surprised about as Jonathan was by a toothbrush. Going to the dentist was normal for me, I had never felt hunger, and my own mother picked me up from school every day. There is a world that coexists with my own that I had to realize was there. I was tired but I wasn’t as tired as the little girl’s feet who’s shoes didn’t fit them, I wasn’t as tired as the crayons that the students had rubbed into little stubs although they didn’t have any others, and I was not as tired as the teachers who taught an unfair ratio of students. That evening, my emotions went from stressed, to sad, to grateful and back again but at least I was able to change Jonathan’s emotions from sad and scared to go home to feeling special and loved.