(ALL NAMES AND DETAILS CHANGED TO PROTECT CONFIDENTIALITY.)
Some of you know I’m a school counselor and therapist. This year has been interesting as I’m at two schools, one of them without a school counselor (I’m supposed to be a “higher level” service.) This means I get them all: the kindergartener who won’t get out of the car (and of course the parent is trying public school for the first time) the severely handicapped little guy who bites everyone, the playground scuffle gone bad.
Then, there are the more serious situations.
I pick up a newly enrolled fourth grader from class after teacher refers her for “adjustment issues.”
Bedraggled curly black hair hangs in an olive-skinned face, hiding big green eyes. Her mouth is a closed purse, body rigid, arms tight around a book she brought for cover. I get her to my room and close the door with an exaggerated sigh of relief.
“Peace and quiet at last.”
I’ve laid out art materials on my desk. A fresh box of 64 Crayolas, irresistibly open, a fan of colored pencils, a box of brand-new markers surround a stack of printed mandala patterns, which I’ve found have a calming effect on kids and adults alike.
She brightens, a subtle effect like a dimmer switch turning up a notch. She sits down and without further ado, chooses colored pencils. I’m interested in her color choices- red and black.
“How do you like Hawaii?”
“Where are you from?” I’ve got my own pencil and paper out, and am drawing alongside her, an old psychologist’s trick. Join the client, and match their body language. So here we are, just two girls coloring.
“Hm, that’s a long way off. What’s your favorite thing about Hawaii so far?”
“The ocean.” She looks up through that tangled mass of hair, an uncanny effect. Those lambent eyes remind me of a feral cat in the underbrush, sizing me up for safety and food. “I like the ocean.”
“Well we’re way up here on the volcano. Do you get to go to the beach much?”
“When Dad gets his ankle bracelet off. Once a week. He has to check in and fill out a form.” The dimmer switch has turned back down.
Crap, I think. If this is the custodial parent, what happened to the mom? I know I won’t get there today, but I know I need to.
“Interesting. What do you think of the kids here?”
“They're nice.” With a little prodding she produces a list of girls she hopes will be her friends. Fortunately for her, even with those eyes she “passes” for hapa– mixed Hawaiian/Caucasian. Acclimating socially is often harder for the purely haole kids. (See previous blog entry, Grown Here Not Flown Here)
“So what’s the worst thing about moving to Hawaii?”
She takes a long moment to answer this. She’s pressing the paper really hard, filling the mandala with red and black.
“We don’t have anything,” she finally whispers. “We live in one room.”
It comes out that Dad has the only bed and she’s on a futon on the floor of a tiny living space. They have a TV, but no computer, cable, radio, or even phone.
“So what do you do?”
“Read. And draw.”
I think of the isolation, stuck up on the mountain in a tiny space with a father who’s just got out of jail after doing a nickel—a father she’s barely met before being shipped over from a drug-abusing mom.
At the end of the hour I send her off with a backpack of donated school supplies from Keiki Cupboard and the box of brand-new colored pencils, crayons and markers for good measure along with a stack of mandalas. Next time I’ll give her books- the library has been cleaning out.
If that’s all she has, then let there be an abundance.
I’m upset. I’ve been seeing this green-eyed girl (I’ll call her Angie) first every week alone, then in a group of girls to help her make friends over the last three months. Her situation with dad, who got his ankle bracelet off, hasn’t improved.
She’s been in a car accident (a red flag as she was out five days) and recently the thin, twitchy, heavily tattooed father sent her in with a note in her backpack that he’s going to rehab and he’s turning over custody of her to a friend.
All we have is a hand-written note and a driver’s license picture, and the man’s squinty eyes, bewhiskered face and palpable attitude are not reassuring. My crimewriter mind goes into overdrive, worrying she's being traded for drug debts. (I hate that my lurid imagination is often right.)
I go to talk to her to see how she is—and she’s absent, two days before Spring Break. This can’t be good.
I talk to my principal and she calls Child Welfare, and the police. We find out there’s an arrest warrant out for dad, and that no one knows where either of them are. A few days later we find out dad has been captured by police, and Angie sent to relatives in Texas somewhere.
I hope this will be the final stop on her journey. I hope she remembers Hawaii, knows she was cared about. I organize goodbye cards from her class, because I’m not the only one disturbed by her abrupt departure and haunted by those feral green eyes.