I had a smooth know-it-all fourth grader in my school named Leland. Leland Washington Carter III to be exact. He was a talker and knew that fast talk could help him slip out of many a tight spot. He had a sparkling charm that won him unusual latitude among his peers and teachers. He knew that language had power and he could spin a story with deft speed. His charms made him stand out. He was a favorite, but also one to watch.

Then, a change came, turning young Leland from a fast talker into a wide-eyed and quiet little man. His new-found silent ways intensified over a period of two weeks. When I pried, I never got more than a few intriguing bits shared in private from his three aunts– that he had been with his family at a weekly church service, and that in the context of the service one Saturday, Leland became silent and – to use the words his aunts used – received a “visit from the prophet.”

Amen, amen.

When week three came, I had little more than an uneasy feeling to go on. None of his family responded to calls. I made a call to social services to ask for guidance. That same day, Leland stopped coming to school. Through the neighborhood network I learned that the Carters had moved. No one had a forwarding address. I was left with unanswered questions and a deep wondering about what might befall him in his next home.

I struggle with an uncomfortable relationship with what I don’t know. I can fill in blanks by inventing little happy-ending stories, but I am awe-struck with how little I know about the lives of the children I serve. Ignorance is part of living. At three pounds, an average adult brain has 100 billion neurons, 100,000 miles of capillaries, and one quadrillion connections. But with all of this capacity, the best I can hope for is an  “A” for Effort. I will likely never know where the truth exists in this case and can learn only from my reaction to what I didn’t know.

Total understanding of another human being is a kind of perfect geometry. A sphere. I can want to keep a child safe, but I can fill in the blanks with stuff that I make up. So ironic that schools place the index finger of hush on the lips of truth. To etch out solutions in the midst of the unknown and the inexplicable leaves us working with unlikely outcomes. I don’t know Leland’s story, but I know that working on his behalf blinded by my own bias leaves me with an incomplete shape and not the perfection I’d seek.

Simple facts speak their own blunt story. They may bring tears and it may make us frightened. Shutting it out makes us no stronger. Learning comes from opening wide to a totality of knowing – and through the spine to see the come-what-may. May the inexplicable become the known, may the boy somehow thrive, and may I use this loss to build greater skill using what I can’t explain to inform what I can.


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