Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

English Quarterly


Deborah Howe

"Luke's here, teacher!" one of the grade two students announced.

"Yes, I can see that," I felt like saying, but I bit back the words, remembering the promise I had made to myself to stop and think before I spoke. I looked up at the clock: 10:30. I had been wondering when it would start again. For a week now, he'd not been late at all.

I opened the class register and penciled in a slash, indicating for anyone who cared to look, that Luke was present today. At least he'd made it before noon. I checked myself to keep from asking why he was late.

Ever since the beginning of school in September Luke had arrived late at least three days a week. I would always say the same thing.

"Luke, you're late. Where's your note?" But he would seldom have a note.

"I was sick," he would say.

"Again?" I would ask with doubt in my voice. He would just look away.

I looked at the handsome child as he entered the classroom. Tall for a seven year old. Broad shoulders, round face, beautiful blue eyes that seldom made contact with mine.

I remember seeing him once in the grocery store. There he was, alone, with a shopping list and pencil, marking off each item as he placed it in the cart.

"Your mom must really trust you to let you get the groceries," I'd said.

I was really thinking this was too big a responsibility for a child his age.

Luke just shrugged his shoulders and looked away. Maybe he sensed my dismay. Or perhaps he was thinking that if he didn't look at me I would disappear or at least stop asking questions.

I was always asking him questions. Why are you late? Is that all you have for lunch? Why don't you go home at lunch time? Where's your note? Luke would just look away and shrug his shoulders.

He refused to look at me that day last week. We were both sitting outside the office, listening to a shouting match between the principal and Luke's mom. She was enraged. She was screaming and swearing, her voice breaking through the closed door of the office. How dare we say that she wasn't taking care of her kid. It was none of our business why Luke was late so many mornings or why he didn't go home for lunch.

But with the tunnel vision all too common among those of us in control, we believed it was our business. A child of seven shouldn't have to spend lunch time on the steps of the corner store eating chips and pop. Luke's mom would have to do better. I shiver, now, thinking about it. I really thought she just didn't care. Yet there she was protecting her child with all the ferocity of a trapped animal.

The meeting had been my idea. It was supposed to be a calm discussion. We would all sit down together and work out some solution. The principal and I would tell her we knew what was going on and that it would have to stop. Luke wasn't really sick all those mornings. We would explain how important it was that Luke get to school on time. How he needed supervision and a good nutritious lunch.

I don't know what actually happened. Maybe it was poor communication between me and the principal, I'm not sure. But I knew the moment I heard the slamming door that the situation had taken on a life of its own. The yelling and the accusations weren't part of the plan. And there I was, shut out of the "discussion" and feeling as helpless and as embarrassed as Luke. Teachers and students passed by, surprised by the uproar. Luke looked down at the floor and I found myself looking guiltily at the door.

I remember how she stormed out of there, grabbing Luke by the arm and dragging him with her. I ran down the corridor after them, not sure what to say but knowing I had to say something. She turned around and glared at me. Her eyes were wild and her face mottled and red. I was terrified but tried not to let it show.

"Please," I begged her. "Let's go into the classroom and talk." She told me to go to hell. Then, quite suddenly her voice died. She turned and came back. Maybe her anger was spent or perhaps she just needed to talk.

I don't remember who started the conversation, or how it changed in tone but I do recall my feeling of shock when she began to cry. Half turned away from me with her hand gripping Luke's shoulder, she told how the authorities had taken her little girl away from her just last year. For a few minutes the anger crept back into her voice. She had her daughter back now and wasn't about to lose either one of her kids again. She said it was hard caring for the two children by herself. Sometimes she had to work during the day and couldn't afford a baby-sitter just to get Luke's lunch. As she told her story her eyes darted around the room but never in my direction. She leaned against a table clutching Luke to her with one arm, holding his shoulder with the other.

I looked at Luke. How small and vulnerable he seemed. His head was bowed but I could see the tears running down his cheeks. His hands, clenched in front of him, were trembling.

I wanted to say I was sorry for making their life harder by always asking them to explain things-things they couldn't or didn't want to explain. Sorry for being part of the problem and for thinking she didn't take care of her kids. But my apologies went unspoken.

Now I looked at Luke, trying not to be noticed, as he entered the class, the morning half over.

"Luke's here," someone echoed.

"Good morning, Luke," I said, trying to keep my voice as pleasant as possible.

He said nothing. He just looked the other way.

Deborah Howe is a Resource Teacher at Elwood Elementary School, Deer Lake, Newfoundland.

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