When I got the nine o’clock call from Ms. James’ in Room 209, I knew why she called. “Would you come upstairs and take Francena for a bit? She’s having one of those days. I can’t get my class started.”
“One of those days” meant that Francena had come to school full of questions. On such days, she would ask about everything. She would begin during the line-up on the playground, continue on the stairs up to the second floor, and then crescendo as the rest of the students dropped off their backpacks and gathered in morning circle on the rug. Hundreds of questions like:
Why do finger nails grow? Or what happens if I hold my breath forever? or Why do grown ups’ feet smell? Or Ms. James, how come you always look mad? She did not mean disrespect as far as his teacher (and I) could see. She simply could not rest until she had an answer.
I arrived at the door to the classroom. Ms. James and Francena were waiting there for me. She placed the second grader’s hand in mine, and said thank you. I looked at the little girl. “Want to go for a walk?”
The eyes said yes so down the hall we went.
She had a little, cobbled together frame, big eyes, bangs that she cut herself, a large mouth with full lips – well suited to asking question after question. She also liked to stick her tongue out when she smiled.
As we walked down the front steps, she asked why I wore black socks. “How come you didn’t wear green? Green is a better color.” Good point, Francena. Outside on the playground, we worked our way around the perimeter – our standard route on these questioning days.
The girl investigated everything. She lifted lids on trash cans, looked underneath benches, and peered through windows into classrooms. She also could hop from a standing position to a table top and she demonstrated this skill to me as our walk progressed.
I plodded along, one foot in front of the other answering her questions in single words or I-don’t-knows. And, I followed as she bounced from table to bench and down again. I had hoped that one or two turns around the yard would calm her, but so far, no go.
Then, she stopped, turned, and looked at me. “Principal, how come you got old?”
This particular question got me. It was a real one and needed a real answer this time. So, I stopped, took a breath, felt my two feet beneath me and said:
“People like me have to get old. That’s how we make room for you to be young. That’s the way it works, Francena. You can’t have one without the other.”
We resumed our walk, now in silence. I brought her up the back stairs to her classroom. She scooted inside to her table. The teacher looked at me, a bit puzzled, but smiled and said thank you.
Angels speak through any mouth that works. I don’t get to choose the timing of the lesson. It comes as it comes and it comes all at once on most days. Youth with age, sadness with joy, beginnings with endings. By asking her questions, this girl reminded me of something in my core – A heart big enough to hold of world full of opposites – and a mind capable of knowing they are one in the same.