I’m sitting here today, with Christmas barreling down on me, thinking about what is and isn’t special. This reminds me that, a few years back, my mother was gifted a charm bracelet. Unfortunately, I don’t live close enough to her to describe with any accuracy all of the charms currently hanging from it. But, as my mother is a woman who has been married more than fifty years, has five grown children and four grandchildren in her present and something as unique and lovely as a lighthouse in her past, there are some fairly safe bets. I’ve never worn a charm bracelet myself, and that’s probably for the best. The weight of the thing would likely render me immobile. You see, as someone who tends to think in writing, I can spot and squeeze the special out of anything. My sentimental vision is blurry like that. This past week, though, I was handed a moment the specialness of which was so searingly present as to make it crystal clear.
I often meet with several different tutors that I oversee in one particular school. This happens more for efficiency’s sake than anything else, although the school itself has its various charms. To be clear, those charms are primarily kids, very young students with very dark skin all in uniforms built of khaki and red. The uniforms have the effect of making the kids look like they are either a day late for church or years too early for a business meeting. The result is an almost weapons-grade, knock-you-out type of charm. I have left that building breathless before; in fact, I do so every time. And that was before I met A.
A is a break-your-heart boy right out of the gate. The red of his shirt brings out the color in his cheeks. He smiles right at you when he meets you. He’s got a close-cropped head that he likes to rub, and then he smiles at you again. I’ve spoken with others who’ve met him, and this is his standard drill, but he changed it up a bit for me. When I met A, I shook his hand, he smiled at me, sat down, rubbed his head, smiled again, and said, “Why your eyes blue?” Flustered, I responded that, well, I’d been born with blue eyes, to which A replied, “Uh-uh, everyone’s born with brown eyes.” He then proceeded to deliver the sad news that my eyes would only get bluer and bluer until, one day, I’d go blind. There was no sense in arguing that I might just not go blind. I tried. I was told it was “going to happen” and then given another sweet smile.
To say that A is an attentive student would be a lie. He’s an energetic, attention-seeking boy with little time for the slow, specific steps involved in learning how to read. He did, however, have plenty of time for me. Throughout his tutoring session, A checked in with me at a nearly compulsive rate. He shot me grins and sidelong glances and turned his whole body, repeatedly, so that he could look me full in the eyes. It was as if he suspected that my blue eyes had been a kind of disguise meant to trick him into believing that anyone ever had been born with not-brown eyes. His own eyes were such a remarkable shade of chocolate syrup that the color seemed to bleed a bit onto the whites. I had plenty of time to check them out while he stared deeply into mine.
By the end of A’s session, when he leapt up to hug his tutor, I seemed to have convinced him of something. It felt like he could now at least acknowledge the possibility of a sighted person with bright blue eyes. He’d just met one, after all. He stopped on his way out the door to ask me to remind him of my name. When I said it, he immediately used it to wish me a good afternoon. I’m not going to lie about how good it felt, at forty-three, to be found visually remarkable in any way. A charming kid in a red shirt had gone and made my day.
Once back of the office, I pulled A’s file. I do this with every student that I encounter through an observation. It’s collateral interest, of a sort, as my real purpose is to check in on my tutors, but I do it every time. I had thought, after his reaction to me, that I would be reading an account of a sheltered life. I’ve never felt worse about being wrong. On page one, when asked about his home and his family, A told his tutor that his dad lived “in jail” and that he, A, lived “in the hood.” He was also poor, as was every child at his 100% poverty school, but I knew that. I also knew that he was hungry that morning. He said so, three times. He had arrived at school too late for the free breakfast and then made up a “big hamburger” when his tutor asked if and what he’d eaten at home that day. It was ten in the morning. So, my brown-eyed boy in the red shirt had an empty belly, a parent in jail, and an overactive mind. Knowing all of this made me think what I always think: What do I do now, knowing this? and Why are there such hard young lives?
I honestly don’t know how to pull all of this together, how to tie it up nicely, but I’ll try. Eye color is a polygenic trait, like skin color; it has no impact on vision. I met a boy last week who had never met a person with blue eyes. He was a black boy with brown eyes. His dad lives in jail. Someone is raising him to say please, thank you, and have a good afternoon. He’s seen a lot of movies, which is why he was certain that I would go blind; when people go blind in sci-fi, their eyes turn blue and then go white. This story makes me giggle, but it also makes me cry. He turned his body, repeatedly, to check on my blue eyes. The blue stayed, which amazed him. I’d like to plant myself in his and other hard young lives, to always stay. But I can’t, so I will wish him a million good afternoons. Because this boy is special in the dearest sense. He is one of my charms; he hangs on me, inside of me. I felt the fastener pierce my heart, the strongest muscle that I’ve got.