When eight-year-old Callie arrived at school wearing the same clothes as yesterday and came into the office announcing, "I'm here for my second day," I knew we had a problem.
We don't often have children start their first day of school here at Martin Elementary in May, but it does occasionally happen. Never before though has a child just shown up with no warning and no paperwork. When Callie did, I had Mark, the guidance counselor, explain that she needed her parents to come in with her academic and immunization records.
Now that Callie returned wearing the same sparkly pink jumper, I decided to try and take care of this situation myself. Today, I had a clear schedule, at least as clear as a principle's schedule gets in a post COVID world.
Since Callie could barely see above the desk, I wheeled my chair around and sat beside her. "That's a very nice outfit," I started. "Didn't you wear that yesterday, too?"
I leaned in to see if she smelled. Sometimes when we have issues like this it’s a sign that children aren't getting proper hygiene at home. She didn’t smell terrible, but I could tell from the stains on her clothes that they hadn't been washed.
"It's my favorite," she said, showing her teeth, two missing from the bottom row.
"You know, just because it's your favorite doesn't mean you should wear it all the time. You do have other favorites, right?"
She closed her eyes tight, clenched her lips together and then started shaking her head. "No," she blurted out.
"Well, you do have other clothes, right?”
She shrugged. "I don't know."
"Do me a favor and let your mommy know that she should wash your clothes before you wear them again." She looked up at me, confused. "Do you know what washing clothes means?"
She huffed and then feverishly shook her head. I decided to move on. This was something I could bring up to her parents. What I really needed were the academic and immunization records so we could put her in the appropriate classes.
I picked up the handset and slid the base over to the edge of the desk. The dial tone pulsed in my ear. "Can you tell me your phone number so I can call your parents?"
She shrugged. "It changes."
I placed the handset back in the cradle. "So, you don't know your parent's number?"
"It's just my mom."
"I see. Do you know your address?"
"Not this one. This one's new. This daddy is new, too. He's not the same one from last week. But I like him better than the others."
I had to think a moment before proceeding with the next question. I knew we were getting close to the point where I’d be required to notify protective services. "Have you gone to any schools before?"
"Yeah, lots. I’ve gone to lots of schools."
I’m not sure that was a better answer than the one I expected but at least I didn’t have to call anyone yet. She followed me to the outer office where my secretary watched her while I found the guidance counselor. I let Mark know Callie was back and asked about yesterday.
“I ended up sitting with her in the cafeteria all day,” Mark said. “There was no way to contact her parents to come get her. The only thing she knew was the bus number she came on. So, when the bell rang, I walked her to the buses and made sure she got on the right one.”
Mark volunteered to watch her again since we couldn't let her go to class without her immunization records. He followed me back to my office and I could tell Callie was excited to see him. I spent the rest of the day on the phone and doing Option 6 paperwork.
At the final bell, I went to the lobby where they lined up for the buses. Mark was holding Callie's hand, waiting for the children to file through the glass doors. Teachers and administrators were at their stations making sure everyone got on the buses safely. I walked with Mark and Callie to bus 9 and asked the driver if he remembered the little girl.
“Yeah, I think so,” the driver said. “She was only on the last two days, right?”
“That’s right,” I answered.
The driver raised a thumb and pointed over his shoulder. “Pretty sure she got on and off at the Iroquois Apartments.”
I knew that was Section 8 Housing. “Make sure and keep an eye on her.”
“You got it.”
I watched Callie climb into the bus. She went down the aisle four or five rows and sat by herself. As the bus filled, I noticed no one sat beside her.
I thought about following the bus and seeing which apartment she went to, but when I told Mark, he thought it was a little drastic. I agreed even though something told me I should do it anyway.
When Callie never returned to school, I knew I’d let her down. Mark reassured me we did what we could, and you can’t save them all. Maybe you can’t, but the times you don’t, never leave you.
About the author
Kevin Joseph Reigle’s short stories have appeared in Beyond Words, Drunk Monkeys, Bridge Eight, The Dillydoun Review, Pensworth, Prometheus Dreaming, BQW, Bright Flash and others. He is an English Professor at the University of the Cumberlands.
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