THE UMBRELLA

She came in early, as usual, to get settled in before the parents arrived leading their kids in by the hand. Mrs. Goldston usually got in later, even though she was the teacher. She didnít seem to need tranquility or preparation, just a quick cup of coffee as she hurled her coat into the closet, and plunged into the needy world of workbooks and crayons, flying in a million different directions held together by her veteran instincts, and the energy of her paraprofessional. The teacher went home at night fresh and unflustered, to the reward of taped soap operas; the para went home like a candle burned nearly to the end, a little melted mound of wax and a brave wick refusing to surrender its flame. She had her own family, a tired husband and a little daughter cared for, during the day, by Ďgrandma.í Since rain was in the forecast, the para had come in with her umbrella even though the sun was shining: a little yellow umbrella covered with tiny, childish angels who seemed more like teddy bears. She set it aside in a corner of the long wooden closet, dangling from a hook. It was she who set the room up in advance, made sure that the workbooks were in the racks, that the rexos were brought up from the copy room which was hidden in the dampness of the basement, that the heading was written on the blackboard, that the shades were up and the windows either opened or closed, that the books for her reading group - the wild, backward kids who Mrs. Goldston left to her Ė were available in a neat stack on the table in the back of the room, next to the little play corner with its dwindling supply of toys.

It was an exhausting job, and a rewarding job; it drained her and gave her little pieces of gold in the midst of trying to satisfy a thousand irreconcilable wants and heal a thousand open wounds. She was part nurse, part mother, with children clinging to her and trying to climb inside her soul as though she were a kangaroo with a pouch for all of them. Sometimes they made her want to hang herself, but they loved her madly, and she loved them, too. At times, it was like watching crazy pets on Americaís Funniest Videos: cute and absurd little puppies chasing their own tails, or cats chasing hysterical owners around the house with a mouse hanging from their jaws which they wanted to give as a gift. No circus ever made clowns as funny as kids. At other times, the love was profound and deep; the children ceased to be amusing and became mighty, it was as though God was speaking to her and these children were his words; she was overcome by joy, by little things that held the sky up, and also by sorrow that made her reverent, as she pulled bodies from the sea. The child who wept on Fatherís Day, when they gave him crayons to make a card to the father he did not have; the boy whose mother was hit by a truck, landing like a barely-begun angel on the front page Ė for her, beautiful flowering wreaths were laid at the intersection; the girl whose pet rabbit, the subject of her first story, ran away from home never to be seen again. Tears of men make you wet, like water, but the tears of children sear, like acid.

The para was always there for them, through thick and thin, with humble, strong arms, loving but sometimes angry. When Mrs. Goldston was angry, it was because her life after them was being disturbed; the energy she needed for her own joy was being wasted before she could get home. When the para became angry, it was usually because injustice was rearing up its ugly head, using the innocent form of children to gain a new foothold in the earth, to sustain itself once the old and the fierce had passed like ghosts to wherever it is that the triumphant and the evil go. The para was a realist, but she also cared.

Thatís why, when Gary tried to take over playtime, she would have nothing of it. He had four toys: the fire truck, the police car, the school bus with the little wooden kids, and a car which someone else had made with tinker toys, to which he had now added a battering ram, which gave him the right to own it, too. Meanwhile, Billy and Jose were empty-handed and upset. The para, who had just brought the girls back from the bathroom line-up, came in to find things this way, while Mrs. Goldston was up at the front desk making red checks and circles on a pile of rexo sheets, with the speed of a horse running a steeplechase.

"Mrs. Collado, Gary wonít let me have the truck!" Billy complained at once, while Jose said, "Mrs. Collado, Gary took my car away. He pushed me!"

The para stood there for a moment, towering over the children like Gulliver surveying the wars of the Lilliputians. She had to look twice, because sometimes Billy and Jose spun tales to get their way; they could easily have invented Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan. But in this case, the imagery was crystal clear. Everything was in Garyís play zone, he was playing with it all at once, and beyond the crowded glory of his game was the emptiness of the rest of the mat. "Gary," she said, "let the other boys have something to play with."

"No!" he yelled, defensively. "I need them all!"

"How could you need them all? Do you have four arms? You have four toys and only two arms."

"The fire truck is putting out the fire on the school bus or the children will die. The ram car just hit the bus, thatís why itís on fire, and the police car is chasing the ram car. I need it all."

The para smiled at the range of the boyís imagination, but then, again, insisted: "Gary, you either have to let the other boys play with you, or give them each a toy. Itís not fair that they have nothing."

"They donít know how to play!" he retorted, cutting her off with weird engine sounds and the rat-a-tat of the police men firing at the ram carís invisible occupants. Of course, on the one hand, she respected the complexity of his game, but on the other hand, it just wasnít right that Billy and Jose got to do nothing but sit there. Billy started to sniffle, and whimper, that manipulative little cry which must work so well with his mother but which the para couldnít stand; it made her feel like leaving the toys in Garyís hands, but she knew that wouldnít be right. Besides, Jose was looking at her with absolute trust that she would solve the problem. So one more time she told Gary, "Look, youíre going to have to give something to the other boys, and thatís it. Itís not fair that you get to play with all the toys and they have nothing."

Once more, he told her, "They donít know how to play. They just push the truck around with their hand."

"Gary, they play their own way. If the way they play makes them happy, thatís what matters. You play your way, they play their way. Now just give them something!"

"I want the ram car," said Jose. "I built it, and he took it away."

"No you didnít, liar!" said Gary.

"Youíre the liar!"

"No, you are!"

"You want playtime to end?" demanded the para, as Mrs. Goldston looked up. That made the children quiet for one minute, before Gary said: "He just built this part!" He pointed to the body of the vehicle, everything except for the front. "He built the boring part. I added the ram. Now itís a ram car!", and he crashed it into the police car, with appropriate screams.

"Well, that was a very clever invention," the para said, congratulating him. "But since he built most of it, you should give it back to him now. You can play with it another day."

Gary protested, but the para was insistent. "Fine!" shouted Gary at last, furious. He ripped off the part he had added, the ram, and pushed the car over to Jose, saying, "Here, take your ugly car back! I hope it crashes!"

Once more, the para had to warn Gary, and then to reassure Jose, who had become very upset; she told him that his car was very beautiful even without the ram, and that he had done a wonderful job in building it. Then Billy and Gary had a tug of war over the fire truck, which the paraís sharp command "Stop!" brought an end to; her fiery eyes, headed towards ending playtime, brought a drastic, bitter concession from Gary, who finally pushed the school bus over to Billy, telling him, "Fine! The bus is still on fire! The kids are all going to die!"

Billy started to cry again, until the para told him, "Now that you have the bus, you can play with it your own way. If you donít want the bus to be on fire, it isnít. Itís that simple." As he remained unconvinced, the para bent down and said, "Here, did you ever blow out a candle? On your birthday cake?"

Tentatively, the boy nodded.

"Well, here, letís blow out the fire on the bus. In just the same way."

"You canít," said Gary, "thatís not a cake, thatís a bus. You need a fire truck."

"Weíre giants," said the para. "Look how small that bus is compared to us. Come on, Billy, letís blow the fire out. One, two, three!" And the two of them blew furiously over the bus, while Gary said, "Ew, youíre spitting in the kidís faces!", until the fire was finally out, and Billy could settle down to play his own tame game of driving the kids to school.

The para knew that something about Gary irked her, and she believed he could probably sense it and for that reason was not as cooperative with her as the other children were. Yes, she knew he was only a kid, and this was, in fact, the place where kids learned to get along with others, to control their anger, to overcome their tendency to hoard, to come to understand the importance of sharing, to value kindness. When a kid was learning to count from one to ten, you didnít ask him to divide 130 by 14. When a kid was learning the alphabet, you didnít ask him to read Harry Potter. Gary was a little boy and in the right place for a budding tyrant who needed social adjustment. He was a work in progress, much imagination and intelligence buried within his meanness, real gold in this rough and unappealing rock. She shouldnít hold his aggressiveness against him in the same deep way you would for an adult, but she couldnít help feeling outrage whenever he pushed another child around, either. Maybe it was because of what she had seen in life. Her own parentsí struggle, trapped on the flypaper of unfairness; visions they swallowed each day like nails put on their plate by their bound legs. Her grandparentsí tale of working for "the company": the incredible hammer of a multinational which beat a whole town into submission, turning its broken childhood into a swimming pool in another country. Old grandfather told her, riding slowly in his rocking chair like a cowboy into the sunset: "For them, we chopped off pieces of the sun until there was no day. Then we gave them the moon in a basket, and picked the stars like fruits, and there was no night. Always, my dear little granddaughter, make your sweat count for something." For the para, where she was now, this little job in the shadow of Mrs. Goldston, surrounded by turbulent shining kids, was something new, a great achievement for her family, like being a neural surgeon or rocket scientist would be for some other families. She was now in a place where she could dream of rising higher, and of lifting her own children even higher than herself. But, she had decided, forever won over by her poor father who, in a dilapidated coat with his rough hands bleeding from the weather, used to bring her candy from the store, that she would not leave her heart behind, no matter how high she climbed. That she would fight for the human heart everywhere she lived and breathed, beginning right here with these kids. No matter how little you had, you shared it. You did not try to seize the earth for yourself, you unlocked it like a garden for all the people who God made to be your brothers and your sisters. To the hungry, you gave bread. To the thirsty, you gave water. To the naked, you gave clothes. To the homeless, you gave shelter. You did not join the army of men who chopped at the pillars that hold up the sky to get at the gold and silver in those pillars, you did not mine the universe until it collapsed. You did not unburden yourself of generosity, compassion, and nobility as though they were chains, so that you could run faster. You did not let the cold turn you into a creature of the cold, a fur-covered beast, you shivered instead, and used your nakedness to steer the world back towards love. And it all began here, in this sweaty little classroom, with its stubborn, hard-to-open windows, its creaking floorboards and its noisy radiators that filled winter days with a terrible groaning racket. Gary must learn, and would learn, the value of sharing; Billy and Jose must learn, and would learn, the importance of never letting go of the expectation of justice.

This day, as all others, followed its natural course, secretly attached to the rotation of the earth which seemed to be merely the progress of a clock on the wall. The day had its ups and downs, its laughter and its tears, its effortless coasting and its mountain climbing. And then, it was over. There were good-byes and hugs, kisses to the tops of the heads of the departing little ones, greetings and momentary chats with the parents, and then the empty schoolyard with the skies above them darkening every moment, clouds that could wait no more descending. Before the para could clear away the dayís mess, exchange jokes with the old janitor and his giant dust mop, and get out of the building, the rain had started to fall, huge and heavy torrents smashing down on the earth in spite of every idea of the sun that had ever been thought. At times, as gusts of wind roared through the streets, the lion at the beginning of March, the rain seemed to fly sideways. Her head covered with a pretty scarf, her long spring coat, worn too soon, quickly drenched, she tried to force her way back home, through the flooding streets.

The wind gave her no reprieve. Sensing at once her point of weakness - the delicate umbrella covered with angels - it charged into its flimsy fabric, resisted only by the fragile metal frame which she had opened like a flower. The gust swept in savagely, nearly blowing the umbrella out of her hands, she spun around like a dancer to prevent the umbrella from being blown inside-out, closed it protectively as the rain lashed against her, then, as the wind gave way once more to pure rain, she opened it, already as soaked as if she had jumped into a river, but still fighting for dryness. For another block she walked, squinting even under the umbrella, as water dripped from her hair and scarf, from the time she had been exposed, into her eyes. Then suddenly, it struck again, more unexpectedly this time, to fool her. Before she could react, the wind had rushed in and inverted her umbrella, it was whipped back over her head with a devastating whoosh, the mechanism twisted, the umbrella protruding outwards in a V with the wrecked metal frame on the outside. "Damn!" she cursed. Her umbrella had just been killed. She tried to fix it as the rain battered her, but it was inflexible, now, warped, half torn away, it was an umbrella with rigor mortis. "Damn!" she said again. Tasting the water in her mouth, she dropped the broken umbrella into a garbage can. She retied the saturated scarf on top of her head, pulled up the collar of her coat and held it tightly shut with her frozen hands, and leaning forward to push through the wind, continued home. All along the way, littering the sidewalk, she saw ruined, mangled umbrellas, umbrellas defeated by the wind, and abandoned in the rain. She felt so little; so little in the storm.

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