James, a fourth grader, is a different kind of boy. Not because he is a mix of two races. Not for the bouncy clump of black and blond hair that sits like a wedge at the crown of his head. And at four feet, five inches tall, he stands at the middle of the pack.
But then you get to the paleness of his skin – skin with a hint of blue that reminds me of transparencies. He is thin, too. Maybe too thin. He has to cinch his baggy jeans at the hips with a wide brown belt. When a strong breeze hits him, it appears to ripple through.
And beyond these descriptors is something more – a capacity that I can point to but not prove. James is permeable. Everything, even a thought unspoken, gets in. He feels all of it. How would I name such a quality?
Enter “Big” (Leonard). A wide faced fifth grader with a solid wedge of bone beneath his eyebrows, he takes wide, almost lateral steps as he walks. He knocks into people and things as a matter of course. Still, I care about these boys as if they were my own, so yesterday, when their paths collided, I got engaged.
The sequence lasted no more than thirty seconds: James sat in a chair outside the office door. He had melted down in the classroom because, by his own report, his classmates had been thinking mean things about him. He said he felt safer near my door.
Then, Big approached. As he approached, he asked “What you lookin’ at, freak?” and James lunged, scratching the larger boy on the neck. Big dropped to the floor and remained on his knees, in tears. I intervened just before a second scratch occurred.
“That boy just attacked Big for no reason.” I heard one student comment after the blow-up. I might add to her sentence: “No reason that you and I could see.” For James, the exchange amounted to reprisal.
An intuitive boy like James makes me re-assess my baseline. He won’t get off the hook for his actions, but these circumstances are unique. I had believed that thoughts weighed less than words and words less than deeds. In a boy who can feel an intention as if it were a fist, lines blur. If I accept that James feels thoughts, words, and actions as palpable things, I question whether the world within one’s head is a private one of little consequence. Does intent – either to harm or help – matter if it never rises to the level of action?
I watch public figures distance themselves from their own words and deeds. Truth might come closer if they lean in the opposite direction. I may have met a boy with capacity to feel silent messages and I want good to come of this kind of gift. James might, for example, show us how to lift others up. By thinking of sunshine, he might teach us how to bring light into the room.
Maybe people will never change. Should change come, however, it will first show up in children. As of yesterday, my hunch is that it may be here already.