This piece was written for the third round of SuperChallenge #5 at YeahWrite.me. I didn’t win, but was really pleased to make to the final round. The prompt required me to include this exact phrase: He fled; I followed. CW: childhood trauma, suicide risk
Charlie was the kind of kid that haunts you.
I found out he would join my class in mid-October. His foster mom phoned me to give me some background. Her daughter, Kay, was a wisp of a girl who looked to the side when she talked and covered her ears to block loud noises.
“I want Kay to have a brother,” she said. “I figured since she has problems, another child with problems should fit right in to our family.”
I kept my opinions to myself. “I’ll look forward to meeting him tomorrow.”
Six-year-old Charlie had a wide smile that showed off his missing two front teeth, although we didn’t see it that first day. The other kids were curious and tried to talk to him, but he just shook his head and sat quietly. He kept his head down and his shoulders hunched, keeping himself as small as possible.
In those first few days, I encouraged him to participate and tried to find out what he knew. Not surprisingly, he was behind, as children from trauma often are. Just what trauma he’d endured was never shared with me, confidentiality trumping classroom learning.
When he did start talking, it was often loudly, yelling, “I can’t do this!” Then crayons were snapped, papers torn, books sent flying.
At least once a day he would run out the door. I would catch him before he could leave the building.
I spoke with my principal, the psychologist, the social worker. Legally we couldn’t get him services without due process. We pieced together a team to be on call for Charlie while we followed procedure, so I could teach the other nineteen students. But each adult who came to help treated him differently. One gave him sympathy, another tough love. A third ignored his scowl and walked him around the building chatting about anything other than his behavior.
Two weeks in I went back to my principal and explained the problem. “He needs consistency. Get a sub to cover my class when I’m not there and let me work with him.”
She agreed. The sub acted as an aide until Charlie’s anger welled up again. Then I’d coax or carry him to an empty classroom we used for storage, where we’d wait for calm. As I stayed out of the way watching, he would topple boxes, beat the walls, yell at the Fates. When his heaving breaths began to calm, I would ask if he was ready to put everything back. He’d slowly stack up the boxes and we’d return to class to start over again.
He still raced for the door. I would stand holding the door shut while he shoved it with his considerable six-year-old strength.
One time I asked, “Where would you go if you made it outside?”
“I’d run out in the street so a car could hit me. I don’t want to live.”
I don’t remember what I said to that, but I know I stayed outwardly calm, while inside my heart hammered against my chest.
Charlie would yell and cry at school. I would wait till I got home, where I would jump in the shower so I could cry alone.
Meanwhile, his tantrums were increasing in his foster home. He threatened his sister, and her mother couldn’t have that. Charlie would have to go.
But first another placement would have to be found. We all waited and tried to cope, Charlie most of all.
Our daily drama at school increased.
He resisted; I encouraged.
He cried; I comforted.
He fled; I followed.
He destroyed; I mended.
He railed against the chaos of his life and I gave what stability I could.
The special education director, Sara, called me just two weeks before Christmas. “I’ll come this week and work with him in another room. You need to be with your class.”
Back in my classroom, I smiled at the kids’ excitement and enthusiasm, although part of me was still off with Charlie, wondering how he was doing.
We had three peaceful days.
On Thursday, while we wrapped the gifts students had made for their parents, the office called on the speaker. “You need to get upstairs.”
When I entered the room, Sara sat in a chair, her arms wrapped around Charlie as he struggled, bloody bite marks on her hand.
I took him from her. Sitting crossed legged on the floor, I pulled him into my lap and rocked him, murmuring in his ear, “It’s all right. Calm down. It’s going to be all right.”
Charlie was gone the next day.
A year and a half later fate granted me a gift.
I took my daughter and her friend to a nearby waterpark. It was a perfect day for swimming, with a scorching sun and clear sky. As they played, I sat off to the side watching. My eyes strayed to a group of about ten kids with a young woman. I thought I recognized Charlie among them, looking more relaxed than I’d ever seen him.
I asked the woman, “Is that Charlie Elliott?”
“Yes,” she said. “We’re here for a summer camp field trip.”
“He was in my class last year. I never knew what happened after he left.”
“He has really nice foster parents.” She smiled. “He’s happy. They’re thinking of adopting.”
Charlie, floating on his back with his arms wide, smiled at the sky.
Here’s the judge’s feedback.
What the judges really liked about Charlie:
- Solidly told story conveys huge emotions without lapsing into dramatic phrasing. The nonjudgmental narrative keeps tension higher than a “moral” stance would, while the narrator is up front about their own emotion. Prompt is incorporated solidly in a grouping of similarly structured phrases which sound natural in the writer’s voice.
- The parallel structure surrounding the prompt’s inclusion is quite effective.
- The tension built well early on. The series of four-word sentences work very well here.
Where the judges found room for improvement:
- The ending is emotionally satisfying and of course one is happy for Charlie, but the essay has a chance to be impactful rather than just emotional by eliminating that ending and instead talking about the statistical outcomes of fosters – it would be interesting to see it told that way. A lot of sentences have a strong two-part division which creates an almost hesitant storytelling voice; the paragraphs and pace other than this are nicely varied, which makes it stand out even more.
- Charlie’s sudden change at the story’s end feels unwarranted and a little too easy, and part of that stems from the abrupt shift in the narrative.
- The part right before the ending felt abrupt – the reader needs something more. The epilogue does provide some closure, but feels a bit tacked on and neat in comparison to the feel of the rest of the essay.
Note: Names and minor details have been changed for confidentiality, but major events are true.