Girl in PinkYou have to walk down two flights of stairs to get to the playground. This path leads out through battered metal doors propped open by two ancient trashcans – one can on each side. Monday morning, Felicia hid just outside and to the right. When I reached the doorway, she popped out in front of me and yelled “Papa!”

My coffee flew and she took off squealing toward the far side of the yard. Even at six and a half, this scrawny scruff of a neighborhood kid knew how to make a grown man jump.

She had been calling me Papa, staring at me, looking about a half inch from crazy for about a week. None of it sat well. For neighborhood kids, mothers often run the show. Many of my students have to work hard to fill in the blanks where a father is supposed to go. No trifling matter.

So, I was perplexed. I knew little about Felicia. She had been a first grader here for two months, entered the school  after weeks where she had not been in any school at all. She had one cousin in second grade. Besides scaring me, she spent time looking out for her cousin mostly to know where the older girl was. And while I knew little about Felicia, I knew less about her mother except to see her dropping her daughter off each day, sporting some big tattoos.

But the young girl’s antics had reached the point of distraction. Late yesterday, I dug up all I could learn about her. I found more missing pieces. No father (not on the card), no brothers or sisters, and then these patches of time where she’d fall out of one school and show up at another. Quite a bumpy ride, at least on paper.

Therefore, yesterday morning, I went out the front door of the school, through the alley along the north side of the playground, and up the east steps of the yard. I got to the point where I could see the big double doors and sure enough, there she crouched, waiting for me. I always wear these super cushy shoes – my interceptors – because they allow me to walk up behind pranksters and catch them seconds prior a bad choice. I approached in silence and came up behind Felicia. Too easy!

“Looking for someone?” I said from about a foot away. This time, she did the jumping, but when she looked up, I saw fear that comes on a face when a child thinks she’s going to get hit. I told her “Calm. Calm. Don’t be scared. I just want to talk.”

She relaxed a bit: “You been calling me papa for a bunch of days and today we are going to turn the page.” She blinked, but seemed unable to speak. “Time for me to get to know you and for you to get to know me for real. No more papa. No more games.”

As I jot my thoughts down this afternoon, I am noting that she didn’t call out to me all day. In fact, she didn’t talk to anyone. Yesterday’s intervention might have caused a full stop but I know better than to leave it like that. Time to open a second door since the former one slammed shut. No more games. Instead, an invitation for her to come out and begin filling in some missing pieces.

My heart is in it if she can find hers. We will have to see how things unfold.


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