Willow came into my life four days after school began. Minutes before the morning bell rang, she walked into my first-grade classroom, hand-in-hand with a young, professional-looking woman. I mistakenly assumed the adult was her mother, but she was Willow’s case worker from the Alpine House, a transitional stop for children waiting to be placed in a foster home. Willow’s mother was battling addiction. Unable to control her disease and unable to care for her two children, she abandoned them. Willow’s father had been deported to Mexico and was estranged from the family.
Petite and thin, Willow clung to her case worker while her brown eyes darted around the room. The dyed-blue tips of her long, dark hair matched the neon flowers of her dress. She remained silent and still while the adults discussed how she would be picked up after school.
I am familiar with the face of trauma. I have taught on reservations and in high-poverty schools most of my 28-year career. Each classroom holds children who come from families facing devastating circumstances: incarceration, homelessness, hunger, domestic violence—the list goes on. Prolonged stress makes some children violent and others shut down. But Willow had coping strategies different from any child I had ever taught. She sought out safe adults and loved them fiercely. I quickly became a target for her intense affection.
Willow was persistent in her desire to always be near me. Whenever she saw the opportunity to slide her hand in mine or crawl into my lap, she seized it. If she couldn't sit next to me at morning meeting or closing circle, she withdrew quietly to a corner of the room. Instead of being with other children during playtime, she begged and begged for me to read to her. The intimacy of physical closeness while sharing a story soothed her restlessness.
Delighted, she would wait for me to sit in my rocking chair and without hesitation crawl into my lap. Willow had a stack of books for us to read together. Her favorites had themes of love, either between a parent and child or a princess and suiter. Nestling her head against my neck, she took in everything, pointing to the pictures and laughing at the characters’ antics. In that rocking chair, she could predict what would happen next, and the characters lived “happily ever after.”
We established a comfortable rhythm: on Mondays and Tuesdays, Willow made cards and presents for her mother, whom she would visit under supervision on Wednesdays. That was the day she came to school all dressed up wearing a grin that revealed every one of her enormous teeth. “Guess what happens todaaaay!” she sang, batting her doe eyes. The second half of the week, Willow shared stories about her visit and joyful memories of living with her mom. She seemed hopeful that those days would return. Life became predictable. Her foster family was big hearted. She came to school regularly, clean, fed and well rested. Willow started taking on new academic skills and spent more time away from me and instead playing with her peers.
Then in February, the toxicity of addiction consumed Willow’s mother. She was homeless, using heavily and found passed out in a dumpster. She showed up to their weekly visits covered in bruises and missing teeth. After her final arrest, she was presented with two options: jail or treatment. Willow’s mom wasn’t ready to abandon her drug dependence, but she also didn’t want to go to jail. Reluctantly, she agreed to treatment. So reluctantly in fact, that she disappeared the day before she was to be admitted. Willow didn’t know the specifics, but she sensed something was deeply wrong. Visits with her mother were cut off abruptly. The adults in her life weren’t able to reassure her if or when she would be reunited with her mom.
Willow became irritable and angry, frequently stomping her feet in frustration. She insisted that she hated reading now and refused to engage in any academics. In this agitated state, she snapped abruptly at her classmates. No longer did she greet me with a hug in the morning, but instead growled, "Am I the only kid in this whole school that has to live like this!"
Holding Willow’s hands, I whispered softly, “I know it has to be really hard being without your mom for so long. I can see how much you miss her.”
Sometimes acknowledgement would soften her enough to get through the morning; other times she would ignore the class and color in the back of the room. Weeks passed. Nothing changed.
Like a wounded animal, she slithered into my lap, wrapped her arms around my neck and let the tears fall. Quickly her soft sobbing turned into wails.
Then, one morning, she approached me with an aura of great maturity. “Ms. Brown,” she said, “did you have to go through stuff like this when you were a kid?”
Her question startled me. No other 6-year-old had ever asked me about the pain I experienced as a child. Usually students asked me if I was married or had a pet. The truth was, having a parent who struggled with mental illness and drug addiction was my storyline as well. The unbearable longing for love from a parent incapable of giving it is a struggle I have carried into my adult years.
I pulled down a picture of my mom from the shelf. In it, I am standing behind her wheelchair. “Like you, Willow, I had to handle tough things when I was a kid. My mom’s legs didn’t work very well so I had to take care of her. I don’t have a picture of my father, but he wasn’t a kind person. He was mean to my mom and us kids. He often disappeared for months at a time and we had no idea where he was.”
Willow didn’t speak. She just stared at me for the longest time with those large soulful, eyes as she absorbed my words. Then she slid her arms around me into a soft embrace.
“Ms. Brown, I love you.”
“I love you too, sweetie,” I said, stroking her hair.
Willow’s mother was found—as was a bed in a treatment facility. But Wednesdays came and went and there were still no answers as to when the long stretch of no visitation would end. It became more than Willow could endure. Her moods fluctuated between anger and resignation. A ravenous hunger grew in her belly that no amount of food could satiate. When she wasn’t eating, she was whining about how hungry she was. Her work with the school counselor along with her personal therapist wasn’t shifting a thing, and her foul mood spilled into every interaction. Willow was unraveling.
Two months passed without a visit. One day, after dropping the class off for their weekly time with the school librarian, I held on to Willow’s hand and we walked back to the rocking chair in the classroom. The lights were out, and the room was still.
“I can see how much you’re hurting, sweetie. Want to talk about it?”
Willow tucked her chin in as tears gathered in her eyes. “I miss my mom.”
Like a wounded animal, she slithered into my lap, wrapped her arms around my neck and let the tears fall. Quickly her soft sobbing turned into wails. Willow’s chest heaved, expressing her raw pain. We rocked for a long time. No words were spoken.
When she was done, Willow jumped out of my lap, wiped her eyes and announced with a smile, “I better go to the library!” And she skipped out of the room.
Consumed with awe and grief, I sat paralyzed in the darkness. My mind spun possible outcomes for Willow’s future, and yet her ability to connect on such a deep level and to rebound gave me hope. Images of myself as a child waiting at the kitchen window, nose pressed against the glass and hoping my father would pull up in his blue Dodge Dart, emerged. Tears spilled from my eyes. I wept for Willow. I wept for myself. And I wept for the children I had known through the years holding more pain than a young person should.
There are times when a student wriggles their way into your heart and takes up residence. Such love reverberates beyond academic walls and has the power to transform both student and teacher in ways they never knew they needed.
Brown teaches first grade in Bellingham, Washington.