At some point in this long, troubling year, I started pulling up into the school driveway to pick up my daughter after school, ending a two-year banishment to the street a block away, where my instructions were to sit in the car don’t get out don’t wave don’t talk just wait for me. What changed? Her various complaints and entreaties, the weeks on crutches, a friend’s betrayal, her math teacher’s dismissal, the weight of her backpack, the heat, the stress fracture in her left navicular, or maybe just the compounded angst of an emotional eighth-grader and her overwrought mother.
Most days found me idling in line with the parents who arrive twenty minutes early for the 2:30 bell. That’s when I started to see them, the special kids.
The special kids get out of school ten minutes early to board the special bus before the crush of the four hundred others. At first, I was reluctant to look, really look at them, seeing the slow-moving pack of kids and attendants only as a sign of my daughter’s imminent appearance. But I did start to see them and even knew them in a way. I knew who would be talking to themselves, head nodding, arms waving, running ahead or lingering behind, and who would be tugged by the hand or nudged roughly ahead with each shuffling step.
Every day I saw the boy with the bandana. I began, in fact, to look for him. He never missed. He was short, at least a foot shorter than either the girls or the boys so that he looked like a young child with a broad forehead, drooping mouth and thick glasses. His back was hunched and both feet turned out by forty-five degrees. He pulled a wheeled backpack behind him, and with a rolling totter on the inner edge of his shoes, he passed out of sight.
The bandana tied around his neck looked sporty, I thought, and he was always smiling. I wanted to believe that he was always smiling, that he was happy and proud, with friends and classmates, toting a backpack full of books and a sense of belonging. Then one day I realized what the bandana, gathered under his chin like a mop, must be for. It wasn’t sport. I saw him for real then, and I thought about his parents. Chastened, I wondered why the hell I thought I had any problems.
School will be over next week. My daughter and I will leave all of this year’s worry and stress behind. She will have a fresh start and new friends. Both of us are ready for that. But there is someone I will never be able to say goodbye to, the one I’ve never even said hello to, the boy in the bandana, being shoved to the bus and leaving me behind with nothing to wipe the tears.