The kids with moms and dads were all in preschool that day – the day his torso and head were replaced with a dense rack of coats. Below the coats stood baggy-kneed khakis and knobby ankles emerging from Toy Story runners (Velcroed, so that his inability to tie laces would not be another source of shame). They were positioned in the far corner of the closet for greater invisibility, toes pointed toward the bank of cubbies stuffed with crayon cases, toys, and lunch boxes.
Except for the bright yellow cubby marked “Marshall.” It contained only a printed cardboard lunch box.
Eventually, he was discovered by a lady voice that said, “Oh, hello there.” Followed by, “That is a really cool hiding place.” The voice was not going to go away, and he surprised himself because he didn’t mind.
“I’m feeling like it is kind of loud in the other room, so is it okay if I stay for a few minutes?”
“Okay,” said the rack of coats.
“I’m Mrs. Rundle,” said the voice. “But you can call me Sillypants if you want to.”
He parted two jackets just enough to see pants in a cross-legged position on the floor. They did not look silly at all, but the hems rose just enough so that he could see socks with cartoon, wink-faced butterflies. He wanted to say, “You mean Sillysocks!” but he wasn’t completely ready to stop being invisible.
The small shoes were the first to grow impatient with hiding. They shuffled from toes that pigeoned slightly forward, as if ready to jump. The curtain parted as his arms became hungry to be brave.
“I think you’re Marshall, is that right?” she asked him, with a soft emphasis on Marshall in a way he had never heard before. A way that told him she felt that it was important to be Marshall.
He looked at her socks as an affirmation.
“Yes,” she said, “they are certainly happy butterflies, but they do want to escape from my socks and start flying around the classroom and cause all kinds of mischief.” That was the moment his eyes connected with hers, because the little boy with the adult-level circumstances realized that this teacher could see the amazing playground outside of the literal world. Grownups weren’t supposed to be able to see it.
Her eyes reflected the ceiling lights in a way that made them appear extra sparkly. They looked at him like he was wonderful and he didn’t understand. As if she sensed his awkwardness she said, “I put on this shirt this morning and then realized it has a magic button!”
Marshall’s eyes followed where her finger pointed. They looked into her eyes again for confirmation. Then back to the finger pressing on the round button. When he heard a squeak his eyebrows floated uncontrolled towards his hairline, like the rise of helium balloons coming untethered.
“Want to try it?”
His index finger extended from the curled fingers as if they gave it permission to venture forward. For that moment he was allowed to be three years old; the only weight on him whether or not the button would be magic for him, too.
And it was.
He pushed the magic button several times, each time rising higher on his toes as he reached out, and each time, as self-consciousness gave way to innocence, reacting more gleefully. Until he almost couldn’t hear the squeak above his own laughter.
Sillysocks laughed, too. Her eyes became rimmed in the moisture that sometimes happens when someone laughs so hard that they’d better pee their eyes or they will pee their pants. If there was sadness in her tears, it was the adult fear that this boy might never know how perfect he was because his circumstances were so unfair and so unlucky.
She would never know that this deposit of worth survived more than two decades and is sometimes the only thing that separates him from free fall. When a child feels that his mommy left because he did something wrong, he can sequester himself in a closet; but a man knows that even nonsensical shame can be inescapable. Yet he remembers the feeling of those soft arms of value and belonging, and he still believes in their magic.
Illustration: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, March 2017