A few days after I was offered the teaching assistant job, the principal suggested I walk over to the school sometime to look at it from the outside—even though I’d be starting off on Google Meets, hopping in between the two third grade classes. This was long before any news of vaccinations for teachers would reach us, and the pressure from parents and administrators to get kids back into classrooms hadn’t boiled over yet. The elementary school building looked just like any other American public school building I saw on TV when I was back home, watching imports of American childhood on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon: the usual warm red brick with boxy architecture, peach-colored linoleum floors, and an empty and quiet playground despite the sunny weather.
And starting off on Google Meets was strange, especially given that I had still held the untenable position that “kids aren’t real people”—which annoyed an ex when I told her. Though what I meant, sincerely, wasn’t that I didn’t regard their feelings as real. I just figured that my kids weren’t cognitively sophisticated enough to be persons quite yet. “Persons” in the philosophical sense of being a person, of having what I back then vaguely called a “self”—as if I even knew, in my haze of post-graduation depression, what it even meant to be a person, let alone be in possession of self-hood. I was just scared that I wouldn’t be able to talk to them and that they would hate me, and I was obviously being an asshole about it. I only know all of this now because I miss them.
Then two months into the job, we were all sent back in person, and my kids were so much smaller than me, which I hadn’t realized earlier because I had only seen them until now as equally sized Google Meets rectangles. I wasn’t emotionally prepared to play both spectator and mediator between the various slights my kids inflicted on one another in the classroom and playground. I felt ridiculous: still getting carded at bars and clubs but escorting people’s children to the gym, to the bathroom, to the park…I couldn’t see their faces anymore beneath the masks they wore in the classroom, except when they would eat lunch and I could see their teeth, shimmering.
“You’re such a weird adult, Tawanda” said Poppy to me one day, after I made another bad joke in a sad attempt to get the third graders to like me. But it was true, in their eyes, anyway, since most of the other teacher assistants weren’t as hell-bent on joining their kids in dodgeball games during gym class. I was especially jumpy with my brown and black boys, Mahid and Abai, who both loved Naruto, and would flash various hand-signs and jutsus at me while walking across the hallways, to the point that I would often catch a stray rasengan hurled at me while walking past their desks. And my kids would ask me large, shiny questions after school on the playground where I’d sometimes ride past, before going home – but not too often because I didn’t want to creep their parents out (but also to convince everyone at the school that I had a life outside of work).
TAWANDA. YOU’RE FAMOUS. I GOOGLED YOU AND YOU’RE ON THE HARVARD WEBSITE.
I’m not famous. Why are you Googling me? Please stop Googling me. Did you finish the punctuation worksheet?
THERE’S A PICTURE OF YOU ON INSTAGRAM WITH A GIRL. IS SHE YOUR GIRLFRIEND?
No, she’s not my girlfriend. I don’t have a—I think you need to put a question mark at the end of this sentence instead of a period. What do you think?
OH, THAT MAKES SENSE. THANKS. ARE YOU WORKING HERE TO HIDE FROM PEOPLE THAT YOU’RE FAMOUS?
There are too many stories to keep a hold of. I still don’t understand all of what happened to my heart that year with them, being elsewhere now, but still holding all of them here with me.
Jimmy, for instance, had a habit of refusing to come to class, much to the exasperation of his mother. One morning, one of the lead teachers asked me to walk to his house and try to fetch him before the end of the morning meeting block. She was texting his mother while I was handing out the rest of the brown bags to my kids for breakfast. I agreed, despite the light snow. The teacher gave me his address—it’s only four minutes away, said Google Maps—and I put on my jacket and trudged along the wet road, until I came upon a pretty tall colonial house that was fraying a little. After ringing the doorbell, I was met by a tall teenager with a long face, Jimmy’s older brother. He said I could wait in the living room if I wanted to. A cat walked across the long carpet, which was sprawling with books, and hung out by my leg. Then Jimmy appeared, his face surprised to find me there, and he sat on a chair across from me, played around a bit on the piano while I tried goading him to come with me back to the classroom. He made a few more goofy sounds, realized his fingers wouldn’t remember whatever song he was trying to show me, abandoned the keyboard, grabbed some popcorn and a granola bar and his jacket and books—and we found ourselves outside trudging away again on the wet road to school.
For the next two months, I’d end up grabbing Jimmy every day from his house, and we’d take the four-minute walk together to 40 Granite Street. A school social worker figured we should wind down the pick-up spot bit by bit to help him become independent, so we did: after a couple of weeks he met me at the corner, then he’d meet me outside the school entrance, then eventually he seemed to realize he could just get there by himself, walking with his mother before she went to work—and he always did after that.
And then there was Rosemary, the poet. At some point Rosemary asked me what my plans for the next year were, and I told her about the job offer I still had standing from this hedge fund before I had graduated last year, how I’d be moving to New York next year—and I saw her face fall a little. I wanted to spend another year with her. I wished I could have just one more year with all of them, but I already signed the hedge fund contract long ago. My current work visa allowed me to switch to that job but not stay in this one, given the strange minutiae of the American immigration system. I tried to explain all of this stuff to her but it didn’t land because she was nine and, in all honesty, likely has never had to think about immigration in her life. Still, I promised her that I’d come visit them some time—a promise I haven’t been able to keep so far, but one I think of often when taking a bus or train to some other city from New York.
A few weeks after that conversation, Rosemary said one morning she had something to show me and so I walked over to her desk and crouched to meet her, fishing something out of her backpack. She produced a notebook from the jumble of books within the bag and handed it to me. I opened it up, and she has crudely drawn a title into its first page in large squiggly mock-cursive. The Book of Dreams, she called it, and in its subtitle: dedicated to Tawanda Mulalu. My face started feeling mushy and warm, as if I was going to cry, and my nose was snuffy because of my allergies, but the release didn’t burst out or anything. But I was standing there holding this book in my hands and my chest felt as if there was some creature calling around inside of it, alone, and scared. I thanked her and paged through the book, whose early pages were filled with poems in Rosemary’s large, frazzled handwriting. Beautiful, strange, syntactically troubled poems—with only the strange voice a nine-year-old could muster.
I assumed she didn’t want me to keep it, because there were so many pages left to be filled in it, so I handed it back to her and thanked her and told to keep working on it and let me know how the rest of it goes. And I told her how honored I felt that she showed her book to me and asked if she’d read one of her poems out loud with her voice. She read a few of them to me by the teacher’s desk while I squished my body lower into the blue balance ball chair so I could hear her at her height. I took pictures of her book, showed her some of the poems I was working on that felt reasonable to show to a nine-year old, one of them being a poem where she appeared, about the day she was pretending to be a cat on the classroom floor and came up to me and meow-ed. And we laughed together. Then I gave her a sheet of math problems to work on.
Tawanda Mulalu was born in Gaborone, Botswana. He is the author of Nearness (The New Delta Review, 2022) and Please make me pretty, I don't want to die (Princeton University Press, 2022). His poems appear or are forthcoming in Brittle Paper, Lana Turner, Lolwe, The New England Review, The Paris Review, A Public Space and elsewhere. He mains Ken in Street Fighter.