My parents taught me to take responsibility for my actions. I wished I could push the blame onto someone else, but really, I’m the one who picked up the Sharpie, and I’m the one who wrote “THIS SCHOOL SUCKS” on the side of the auditorium. I was only 16, so in hindsight, I’d like to plead insanity. To add to my case, I would point out that I didn’t run off as soon as I’d finished writing – but I used my phone to take a picture of my work. Then I texted it to a friend.
So yeah, insanity. I can see that now, looking back on it. But at the time, I was just oblivious.
Since I was generally a good kid, and everyone was really surprised that I was the culprit (and that I confessed so easily), I got off cheaply. (At least that’s what everyone kept telling me.) That’s how I found myself spending the first half of my summer working mornings with the painting crew that was putting a new coat on all the buildings in the east wing of the school – including the auditorium.
There were limits to what I was required to do, obviously. This wasn’t the most traditional form of punishment, but it was years ago, in a small town, and my parents were teachers so they didn’t have that sense that some parents have nowadays, that you have to protect your children from the school authorities. They wouldn’t have agreed to this method of punishment if I’d been required to do anything dangerous or that uncomfortable. And, of course, my dad was nearby the whole time, working in his classroom. He said he would have been working there anyway, but honestly I felt guiltier making him come to school 5 days a week on his summer vacation, than I did about any of the rest of it.
Late one Thursday morning I was moving empty paint cans to the dumpster brought in by the painting crew. I paused when I’d finished, wiped my hands on the rag I’d learned to carry stuffed in my back pocked, and looked up across the softball field, where a children’s summer theatre group was just letting out. The kids were scattering – some with their parents, some on bikes, some in twos or threes crossing the parking lot and heading out to the rest of their summer day. I envied them.
I was rolling up tarps when I heard a babbling stream of little girl voice. A moment later, the little girl in question appeared from around the corner of the science wing, holding the hand of an older man. “Why do we have to go home?” she asked.
“Because it’s time for lunch,” he said, calmly and reasonably. He apparently had some practice at fielding streams of questions.
“Why do we have to eat lunch at home?”
“Because Grandma was already making it when I came to pick you up,” he said.
Just then, a flock of blackbirds that had been rummaging around the dumpster for crumbs took off and exploded into the air in front of them. Rather than looking startled, the little girl looked delighted.
“Where are they going?” she asked, tugging on her grandfather’s hand.
“They’re probably flying home for lunch,” he said with a smile, nodding at me. I nodded back, and smiled at her.
“Why do birds fly?” This question, it seemed, was directed at me. He raised his eyebrows at me, giving me permission to answer.
“Um…” I stalled, finding myself put on the spot. “Well. They’re too small to defend themselves on the ground against predators, so they have to fly up into the air to get away from danger.” I had really been going for something more fanciful and childlike, but where her grandfather probably had years of practice, I was new to this.
But she nodded at me solemnly like it made all the sense in the world, and then she started shaking her grandfather’s arm back and forth. He bent down and she whispered something in his ear, and he looked around.
“A restroom?” I asked him. “It’s around the corner, by the main office.”
“Thank you,” he said, and she echoed it. They headed off around the corner, at a slightly quicker pace this time.
I finished rolling up the tarps, stacking them against the side of the building neatly. I would have to go find the rest of the crew soon, but I had an idea in my head that I might stall until it was after 12:30, at which point the crew would go to lunch, and hopefully they would tell me that I could just come back tomorrow. I thought about unrolling all the tarps and rolling them again. I thought about just hiding around the corner of the building and waiting out the next 15 minutes. I thought about all the other good reasons there were for “Why do birds fly?” But I still couldn’t come up with anything better.
I thought about asking her why she thought birds flew. I bet she could come up with a better answer.
“Annie?” The grandfather came back around the corner. “Have you seen my Annie?” he asked me, in that denial stage just before panic.
“No, I haven’t. Is she in the restroom?”
“I don’t think so,” he said, “but I didn’t go inside. Would you…?”
“No problem,” I said, following him back around the corner. The door was pushed open, but he lingered back, not willing to go into a women’s restroom even in this case. I walked in.
“Annie?” I asked. “Is anyone in here?”
I pushed open all the doors, but it was a 5-stall bathroom and there was clearly no one in there. In the mirror I could see the reflection of the grandfather, standing in the doorway now, clearly past denial.
“Where did she go?” he asked me.
“She didn’t come out?” I said.
“I was in the men’s restroom,” he said, pointing across the breezeway. “I told her to wait for me when she got out, but when I came out she wasn’t here. I thought she might have come back to talk to you some more. She liked your answer, about the birds,” he said, which pleased me, when I remembered it later.
“Well, she can’t have gone far,” I said.
He agreed, nervously, and we split up to look for her. I went right out of the breezeway, past the main office and around the side of the wing, where there was a large field and some tall hedges, which would surely be inviting to a child. Although I poked my head around every hedge, and called her name, I didn’t see her anywhere. I shaded my eyes and looked across the street at the trees. The school grounds were, maybe not surprisingly, deserted on this fine summer early afternoon.
I met her grandfather back in front of the breezeway, both of us empty-handed. He was looking a bit pale, and I worried about him in the summer sun, but I worried more for the little girl.
“Maybe we should call someone,” I said, wishing I didn’t have to be a part of this, wishing that it wasn’t happening at all.
“In just a minute,” he said. “There’s a creek across the street, isn’t there…?”
There was, and I remembered myself in 3rd or 4th grade, standing on the edge of the playground and gazing at the gully, where we all knew the creek ran. Everyone wanted to go over there, but no one (at least, none of my friends) was brave enough to risk getting in trouble.
I jogged across the street, thinking it was out of nervous energy. I realized later that a deep dark part of me wanted to spare this stranger, in case something bad was waiting down in that gully. It wouldn’t be pleasant for me either, it might give me nightmares, but they would go away eventually.
But there was nothing down there – just green tules in the algae-skinned, slow-moving water. I turned and scanned the front of the school again: nothing.
“Okay,” he said, slowly, “my cell phone is in my car. I’ll get it.”
“I have a phone,” I said, already pulling it out of my back pocket. I hesitated – were you supposed to call 911 from a cell phone? Should I call the police department directly? Was there a delicate way of asking that? Just as I had made up my mind to just call 911, a small voice broke the sweaty silence between us.
We both turned immediately, and this time we could see her. Even from a distance, everything about her stood out in sharp focus to me. Her jean shorts and purple t-shirt. Her brown hair, neatly parted into two pigtails. Her smooth, unbruised face. Her healthy, unbroken body.
She was standing on the shallowly-pitched roof of the science wing – the very same wing my painting crew was working on that day. “Grandpa, look!” she shouted again, and pointed toward the other end of the wing, where a large flock of seagulls was hanging out, resting, squabbling over spoils. She started walking toward them.
“Annie, no!” he cried, and started running back across the street toward the school. I passed him easily, but I rounded the building and raced down the wing until I found the ladder that she had found – the one we hadn’t yet put away. I climbed quickly and efficiently to the top, then carefully stepped up and over the roof to the other side. I saw her immediately, sitting neatly, head ducked, far away from the edge.
I could hear her grandfather shouting to her to stay seated, to not move a muscle, that we were going to get her down. She looked up at me and her eyes were full of tears. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay,” I told her, and took her hand, feeling cautiously victorious. We crossed back up and over the roof, and as we went over the top, I called back to the grandfather to meet us on the other side. Then I had a slight dilemma as to whether I should let her climb down by herself.
“Can you climb down? If I lower you on to the ladder?” I asked, and she nodded. I carefully, so carefully, lifted her and slid her down until her feet struck a rung and the roof was at her chest level. By that time, her grandfather was below her, and I could tell he wanted to climb up and carry her down, but he kept his feet on the cement, impatiently waiting for her. She only had to climb down a few rungs before he grabbed her around the waist, hugging her tight. I had to look away, to try not to intrude on their moment.
He set her down, then knelt as well as he could to look her in the eye. “Annie, all I’m going to say is that you know far better than to do something as foolish and dangerous as that. But I’m sure your mother will have more to say to you.” She looked chastised and a bit frightened, but I figured that was warranted.
“Thank you,” he told me.
“You’re very welcome,” I said. “It was no problem.”
He gave me a wavery, but grateful, smile, and shook my hand. Then Annie shook my hand solemnly. “Don’t go climbing on any more roofs,” I told her, and she shook her head.
They walked away, holding hands again, perhaps a little tighter than before.
At this point it was almost 1 and the crew was long gone. I decided I was done for the day, and I could explain myself later. My punishment was almost up, anyway. As I was crossing back to my dad’s classroom, he came walking around another corner.
“Oh hi,” he said. “I was just looking for you.”
“I think I’m done,” I said.
“Great, should we get lunch and head home?” he asked.
“That sounds awesome,” I said.
Impulsively he reached out and ruffled my hair. “I’m glad I found you,” he said, half-jokingly. “I was starting to get a little worried.”
I smiled at him. “I’m all good.”
At the far end of the wing of classrooms, 6 or 7 birds suddenly took to flight, and in an instant, they were gone.