Snake Charmers

The school’s outter walls are a dizzying pattern of smooth, black rocks lodged in cement.  Bikes are parked out front, aligned in teetering rows, some with baskets, some without.  We walk in like we always do: Dallas carrying a box of books, Rubin with his camera case slung over his shoulder, Mikey with the video camera, and myself, with my purse full of notebooks.

Light filters into the main hallway through a few open classroom doors, their rooms empty of children out on recess.  A woman saunters towards us wearing three different shades of green and a long skirt.  She introduces herself, casually taking bites of the apple in her right hand.  Her name is Shannon.  We will be reading to her third grade classroom.

The children are seated at their desks when we arrive.  Our presence creates a polite stir; heads crane in our direction, little girls stare at me intently, wondering if I’m what they’re going to look like when they grow up.  Shannon asks the class to please say hello.  They oblige with a symphony of immature vocal chords.  Each of us are introduced to the class by name.  Dallas.  Micky.  Rubin.  Jenny.  A motley crew.  Dallas Clayton and his strange, little entourage.

Shannon dismisses her class for recess.  Two children introduce themselves to me by first and last name as they shimmy out the door.  They are eager and smiling.

The classroom is not unlike my own growing up.  It seems most public schools look the same: boxy, mid-century utilitarianism awash in the same shade of beige and an accent color, usually a sour teal.  The inside of the room is yellow.  Old fashioned chalkboards feature multiplication problems and a drawing of the United States in purple and pink.  Diffused Portland light pours through a wall of windows facing a play area, passing through buttercup yellow curtains and onto the small desks.

Ten minutes pass.  Kids come back inside, hyper and chatty.  Shannon’s voice comes over the commotion, calm and smooth, “Boys and girls, please sit straight and tall.”  Almost immediately, the children come to attention, lifting their heads towards the ceiling and placing their arms on their desks.  This woman is a snake charmer.

Dallas asks for two helpers to pass out the books.  Arms shoot up and choices are made.  The room is momentarily filled with the disappointed thuds of unchosen hands.  I remember that feeling – wanting to participate so badly, wishing that I would be called upon.  I can’t even remember why it was so important.  It just was.

When Dallas finishes reading the book, he starts talking about dreams and aspirations.  He speaks of how in our sleeping dreams we imagine fantastical, crazy, amazing things.  But when we wake up, we often settle for dreams that are less exiting, less ambitious.  The point of the book is to remind us that we don’t have to settle or dream small; we can dream as big in our waking life as we do in our sleep.

Dallas opens it up to the classroom and the classroom shares their dreams.

A blonde boy with hair down to his chin raises his hand.  “I want to make a band … I play guitar.”  Dallas asks plainly, “Are you good?” and the boy says he is.  Immediately, Dallas asks Micky to go grab his guitar so he can treat us to a song later.

We move from hand to hand, dream to dream.

“I want to invent a robotic arm to climb on walls.”

“I want to be an actor and I want to own a lot of cats.”

“My name is Julius and I want to be an architect.  My former neighbor had a lot of Legos and we used to build things together.  I like diagrams.”

“I want to eat sushi every day.”

“I want to be an author and have a doggy day care and have a ton of families.”

“Stuff, stuff, and more stuff.”

A girl with long brown hair and broad shoulders corrects Dallas when he mispronounces the name written on her desk.  She talks rapid-fire about how she wants to do something with zombie cats and create a shot that can bring bugs back to life.

“I would like to be an artist,” says a petite girl towards the front of the class.  Her peers apparently think this is a good idea; enthusiastic guffaw-noises and thumbs up hand gestures indicate their faith in her ability to draw.

The class begins to unwind a bit and Shannon calls out in a language I have never heard before.  The class quits their chattering and sings back a response.  And there is calm.  Just like that.  “Whoa,” Dallas says, “What was that?”  It’s their secret language.  The kids respond to it well because it’s like being part of a club.  The call and response is so beautiful that even the children forget that they’re being asked to quiet down.  It turns an order into something entirely different, as though not demanding obedience, but requesting their participation in a particular mood.  Their teacher is magical.  She gets it, whatever “it” is.

Dallas calls up the blonde boy who dreams of starting a band.  The boy sits on top of a stool and Micky hands him his guitar.  “I’ll do ‘Seven Nation Army’ with lyrics,” he squeaks out, small and diminutive.

The first chords come, his little fingers moving along the strings.  I’m gonna fight em all.  A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back. Kids tap their toes to the beat.  And I’m bleeding and I’m bleeding and I’m bleeding right before the Lord. A boy bangs his head overzealously, barely able to contain himself within the confines of his desk chair.  The kid is good, amazingly good, and so very brave.  When he finishes, the class erupts in a supportive uproar.  It is apparent that there is not an ounce of jealousy amongst this group, only overwhelming and unerring enthusiasm.

Shannon mentions that the kids have prepared a few songs for us of their own.  Our group moves to the front of the classroom to watch the children bang on their handmade drums with wooden sticks padded at the tip with orange cloth.  Again, the language is one I am unfamiliar with, but it sounds soft and sweet and beautiful and I nearly cry in front of thirty little faces.  I want to tell this classroom that I hope they know how special they are, how unique and gifted and blessed.  Instead, I listen to the banging of the drums and words I don’t know and debate moving my future children to Portland just to sit in this classroom with this teacher named Shannon one day, because, honestly, it would be worth it.

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