Story time in the library. Ms. O’Reilly had just read the part where the little princess, missing for days, had been seen floating downstream on a skiff piloted by an ill- intended reptile – a scaly critter with unwholesome plans for princess’ long lockets. Then, a call came in over the loud speaker. Something had come up. Time to snap to.
I learned that two girls, Ana and Emily, last seen chatting in morning circle and tapping their pretty-kitty shoes along playground fence posts, had disappeared. Their absence turned up in the first head count of day.
Since kindergartners are small, they can hide in plenty of places – tucked inside closets, locked in bathroom stalls, stuffed under playground benches, I dispatched every available staff person to search. We looked everywhere.
As a rule, we allow no more than ten minutes before calling local officers for support. I had the phone in my hand when a red-faced aide ran in to tell me she had found both girls – coiled and giggling inside two big tractor tires that serve as our school’s tire swings.
I lined both of them up, told them they had scared us by hiding, and leaned in to make an impression. However, even as I finger-wagged them, they played with their ringlets. Maybe I was losing my touch? I made a note to call their moms and sent them back to class. Later, they became the talk of the playground.
Come the second day, I got a repeat. I stood at my desk, shuffling through while-you-were-out slips and Enrique, age five, entered. He stood in the center of the room, arms folded, brows furrowed, jacket collar turned up.
I am missing, he told me. No you are not, I answered. You are right here.
He said he had been hiding for a whole hour, in the janitor’s closet with all the mops and buckets. Mr. Carpenter had turned out the light and closed the door.
I been in the dark and nobody came.
With Enrique in tow, I bolted toward his classroom. There, Ms. Gladys, a substitute of almost seventy, held court with a circle of children who listened to her read about the fox and the swan.
I marked him absent sir. He never made it to class, I’m sorry.
I had to stop and reflect for a moment. Could it be that this little boy had decided to put the big people through a drill? He stood at my side, still brow-furrowed, scratching at his shaved head, surveying his classmates, me and his substitute teacher.
You looked for the girls. No one came for me. I could have died.
I thought to scold him, but I found myself unable to speak. I told him to sit down. Then I left the room.
Everyone needs to be seen. Most of us get ignored much of the time. Such is life. I need to pay attention to little messengers. Surprises come obscured behind loud noises and sparkling urgencies. I but be about looking, even when nothing seems lost. I have no way to account for what I may have missed. Better to see that I have no time to waste.