Mrs. Gardner was kneeling next to LeShawn, a 5-year old self-proclaimed master of finger painting. His fingers with coated with green and yellow paint, and he smeared these colors in large oscillating circles on a thick sheet of paper.
“What’re you drawing?” Mrs. Gardner asked.
Mrs. Gardner stood up and surveyed her preschool classroom. The room was her creation. The posters, paintings, and toys were hers from previous classrooms and lifetimes. The set of alphabet letters in little blocks were hers. The colored carpets that had towns designed on them, hers. The plastic fruit on her desk and the Beanie Baby collection, hers as well. If she could put her mattress in the classroom, she would spend her nights here.
On the opposite end of the room sat a boy. His name was Toby. Mrs. Gardner liked to keep tabs on him. Toby hardly socialized; instead, he would paint and pace in class, and when he was outside, he would draw pictures in the dirt. Mrs. Gardner would gently bring him back in the group when it seemed appropriate, but other times she would simply watch him as he rustled around in his own world.
Toby had a row of pens placed in front of him. He was sitting cross-legged on the ground, touching each pen in what appeared to be a very particular and precise order: he’d skip every other pen and then go back and touch the ones that he’d missed. Then he repeated the pattern with his other hand. Then he’d do it all over again until each finger had touched each pen. The process went very quickly as Mrs. Gardner watched from the middle of the classroom. She saw him go through this procedure three times, meanwhile ignoring the students at her feet. She walked over and attempted to disturb his process.
“Toby,” she said, “are you going to draw something?”
Toby shook his head and continued poking at the pens. His pokes pushed the pens out of place, for they were spaced evenly from one another, but then the pokes from his other hand would push them back into their original position.
“Is there something you want to do with the pens? Maybe we could make some shapes out of them.”
“No.” is all he said.
“Then can you tell me what you’re doing?”
Toby shook his head again and continued his poking. His brow was rumpled up, his cheeks pushed upwards on his face, his dingy blonde hair dripping over his forehead and into his vision.
“Are you sure?”
He nodded his head.
“I could join you.” Mrs. Gardner said, letting the statement hang in the air like a question.
Toby stopped and looked up at Mrs. Gardner. His eyes looked glassy like the edge of a fish tank. Mrs. Gardner held his gaze for as long as he allowed.
“Just for a little bit?” she asked.
Toby picked his head up and began pointing at the pens, “You touch this one, then this one, then this one. Then you touch this last one. Then you go this one, this one, this one, and this one. Then you do it with the other hand. Then the other fingers.”
Mrs. Gardner bent down and started touching the pens the way Toby described. She got through the first row of pens before Toby jumped in, “You did it wrong! You supposed to start with the left hand. You started with the right. Undo it. Undo it and started with the left.”
Mrs. Gardner sat back on her heels, “How am I supposed to undo it?”
“I don’t know!” he yelled.
“Okay, Toby. That’s alright.” Mrs. Gardner cupped her hands over her mouth in contemplation. She removed her hands and held them above the pens, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
He let out a grunt, “Just wave your hand over the pens and ask if you can undo it.”
Mrs. Gardner nodded her head and complied. Toby watched with thin eyes. She waved her hands over them and asked, “Pens, may I take back what I did?”
She looked up at Toby for recognition to see if she’d completed the task the way he’d described, but instead of seeing a face of assertion or approval, she saw Toby’s head sunk between his shoulders. His bangs blocked her view of his face, but after waiting a few seconds, she saw a tear drip off his nose and into his lap.
“Dear,” Mrs. Gardner said, “It’s okay.” She got up and sat next to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. She looked to the teacher’s aid, Ms. Perry, who was across the room helping LeShawn put the paints away, and beckoned her to come over.
“Ask again.” Toby lamented.
Mrs. Gardner obliged, “Pens, may I please take back what I did?”
Ms. Perry looked on with confusion as Toby’s tears continued to melt off his nose like candle-wax.
“Toby, can you tell Ms. Perry and I what’s wrong?”
Toby shook his head. Sitting there, he didn’t look like the four year old child that he was. He looked younger, infantile even. Like a child propped up in its crib, like a baby waiting for its mother to come home.
“Can you tell Ms. Perry?”
He shook his head.
“How about me? Can you tell me what’s wrong?”
He didn’t nod his head but he didn’t shake it either. Ms. Perry got the signal and went back over to the other side of the room to help LeShawn, who’d opened up the paints again.
“Was I able to undo it?” Mrs. Gardner asked.
“Yes,” Toby whispered, “but the pens don’t want you touching them.”
“They think you did enough.”
“But the pens can’t talk, sweetie. How can you know what they’re thinking?”
“They didn’t say anything,” Toby said, “That’s how you know.”