The classroom blinds are shut to keep out the morning sun
which still angles through the thin slats. Bands of daylight falling
in too-sharp contrast to the room, blurring the images on the board.
Today, the bog turtle has been picked to watch. A thick-shelled mute specimen
representing an entire endangered species. I walk in and out of the seated rows
asking students to stop talking, joking, phones not-so hidden in their laps,
“What’s the problem facing this species?” I ask, waiting,
in spite of the sea of disinterested faces, still waiting for words.
Habitat destruction, is the answer we are waiting for, I’ve been told.
Instead, another question, called out too loudly by the boy in the back
with dark eyes, the boy that talks too much, “Why should I care?”
he asks, angrily, “What did that dumb turtle ever do for me?”
everyone else looks, waits for my answer. His words,
meant to challenge me, are also sincere. And, what would you say?
If you were me? To this child who spends his days in front of screens,
and plastic packages forced opened, filled but not nourished, what do you care
when his parents work one job after the next, and barely surface between,
what would you do, if a boy who only knew the earth stuck to his shoes?
And what would you say to the puzzled boy who asked me last week
what a heron was, another one who only knows a world that blares
and tames. “What’s a heron?” I asked back, stalling, struggling,
groping to find a comparison to something else he would know.
Yes, I could describe the bird, what it eats, its body, its shape
long legs, large frame, neck that swoops down like a U,
but what about all the rest? The shimmering water at the edge of the wood,
the blue creature hoisting its great long legs across the surface,
the rushing current bubbling white against the old-man backs of rocks,
the creek’s morning mist-breath lingering below a canopy of trees,
bird knees hinging backwards to lift its body, the powerful wing-strokes
as it finds its way back home. My eyes following it, feeling its absence.
“Just put ’em in a zoo”, another student says of the turtle, smacking her gum,
“then they be safe.” The girl who had to quit her favorite sport last week,
so that she could hurry to leave one set of concrete walls for another,
so she could hurry from this numbered set of classrooms, to board buses,
and check-in to the shelter that she and her mom had to go back to again.
And what next? Maybe tomorrow I will put down these textbooks and go off
to teach a class of pandas, raised in captivity, about just what they should love
in the cool bamboo of mountains they’ve never seen, and how the light shines
between the long green stalks of the morning, how it casts slender reflections
that fall to earth at your feet, like soft bars you can walk right through.
“What did it ever do for me?” they might ask, with stained furry faces, and
black circles around their eyes, meant for somewhere else,”Why should I care?”
And what if one day we’ve asked every plant and animal we can get
our hands on, every unfurling may apple, tree-snag, darter fish, wren,
what each of them ever did for us, until we are left with nothing
but the answer. In a hushed wood of absence, maybe there we will begin
agreeing about what they gave us, and what should have changed,
while we were busy learning how to lose our way.
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