For ten years, I taught elementary and middle school at a small private school in Minneapolis—an arts-based school where teachers stay with their classes from grade one through eight. The gap-toothed kids who were my first batch of first-graders, and the only group I taught for eight years, are now in college. As they were graduating from high school last spring, I came across an essay I had written about one of them. It was published originally in The Rake Magazine in 2004, when the student was in fourth grade and changing schools so that she would no longer be in our class, and I would no longer be her teacher.
I figured she probably had no memory of me having written and published an essay about her so long ago, so I took the opportunity to send it to her along with my congratulations on her graduation. I felt a little funny reaching out across so many years, but I also figured she might enjoy the story. She did. "I am so grateful to you for writing this and even more so for sharing it with me now," she wrote back to me. "I have to admit that I shed a few tears while reading it. Thank you for the years that we shared together, it's so much of who I am today. This is the best graduation present I have received yet."
Of course, she wrote that before her graduation party, and I am confident she received much better gifts in the end, but to this day I have received only a few gifts as moving as Esme’s Box. Here is the essay I wrote back then, almost ten years ago. We’re all older now—but the ravages of the world and the need to protect each other remain just the same.
IN A SWEET LITTLE HOUSE several miles south of mine, a girl named Esmé keeps a box on her dresser. In the box is a collection of necklaces—a painted chime ball, Thor’s hammer, a polished unity stone, and her favorite, a sterling angel. These are all trinkets I’ve given her over the years that I’ve been her primary class teacher. Next year, she’ll be going to a new school, which made us both cry as we said our good-byes and exchanged gifts and letters, celebrating the school year’s end. It was through Esmé’s parting letter to me, four pages carefully handwritten in dull pencil, that I learned how closely she guards those gifts. I’m moved by the way she keeps them enshrined in a special box, and even more so, I’m humbled that she does so, as she explained, to “protect your family.”
To protect my family. Surely I’ll never put one of my children on an airplane, or send my daughters to baby-sit, or watch one of them fall uncontrollably in love, or walk out my own front door into a world of lost keys and slippery roads and dread diseases and real-estate bubbles without thinking of Esmé’s box.
You bump into a lot of people in your life. Some of them are extraordinary in their goodness. There’s no way around it. I tend to think of these individuals—and I’m not among them—as old souls who’ve been by this way before. Many times before. They’ve acquired a certain wise patience for those of us who are still bumbling along in our selfishness and our spite. “You’ll grow out of it,” they seem to say, “sooner or later. And if you don’t, there’s always your next lifetime or the one after that.” It’s this very acceptance that makes the extra-good people stand out. They’re not like me, always in a hurry to improve themselves and everyone around them—a trait that’s a dead giveaway of the many remaining practice lives to come.
My sister just had a baby, her first. A perfect little boy named Henry. He’s a few weeks old now, recovering nicely with his parents, who are frequently worried about his well-being. At first he did not poop, and so they called the doctor, who suggested putting a thermometer in his rectum to “dislodge” any remaining meconium. I think Henry overheard, because he immediately let loose, and has been doing so with gusto ever since. But it’s not always so easy.
Two days after Henry was born, he and his mom and dad were hanging around nursing and napping in their “family-style” hospital room in the East Village when a nurse stepped in to announce that it was time for Henry’s bath. “Be back in a bit,” she said as she took Henry a few doors down the hall to the nursery. But she never came back. Instead, a different nurse rushed into the room to announce that there’d been an incident, and my sister and her husband needed to come right away. Henry, the first nurse said, had stopped breathing and turned blue during his bath. He needed to be admitted to ICU immediately. “He looked fine,” my sister told me later on the phone, defeat hanging heavy on the line, “but it turned out I didn’t have a choice.” So Henry was taken off to the ICU, three flights up, and my sister spent the next twenty-four hours going back and forth to nurse him, camping out in the ICU as much as they’d let her. In the small plastic bassinets around her she saw babies in pain, impossibly small babies, like featherless birds, bodies taut with the effort of screaming.
My sister is thirty-eight. I’m thirty-six. When I’m thirty-eight, my oldest stepchild will be twenty. When I was twenty-two, I was married with a house and a baby and another soon to be on the way. Neither my sister nor I knew what we were getting into when we had the audacity to produce innocent, perfect new beings. Nobody knows, no matter how many times they do this foolhardy and brazen thing. If we knew we would simply have to change our minds, not because it’s so much work, and you never sleep again, and oh, the pain and the misery—not because of any of that, but because not a single one of us is big enough or strong enough to shield somebody else from the ravages of the world. No other inadequacy could ever be more painful than this one. And that, I believe, is why Esmé keeps my gifts in her box to protect my family, and why it will always make me cry to think of it: Because she is loving and wise enough to know that I could never be powerful enough to do all the protecting myself.