Following the theme of Triple T’s Spring Daily Thread, I thought it might be a good time to tell the story about “Our Sanctuary”, which helps the birds, bees, trees, and most importantly, kids.
Before we bought the “big house”, we were living in “the little house” which backed up to the school property on the north side of the school. My step son was 5yrs old when I came into his life. We spent a lot of time together for reasons I won’t go into. He was young and learning but had a particularly hard time being compassionate, and was overly fearful – about anything. It wasn’t normal, especially for a boy, and I did my best to address the issues.
I fed the birds at our kitchen window. We named a pair of nuthatches Gertrude and Seymour, and my stepson was fascinated. He was terrified of spiders, snakes, bees, roaches, any kind of bug, and would squeal like a teenage girl. I brought home some autumn gourds to decorate for Halloween. A spider was amongst the gourds and he immediately wanted me to “squish it”. He was overly upset and I was unphased. I hallowed out one gourd and hung it by the kitchen sink. “Fred” the house spider, lived with us for years. Bizarre? Yes, but it worked.
Once, I caught him in the backyard, swinging a tennis racket, killing wood bees. He knocked one into a birdbath. While he watched the woodbee struggle, upside down in the birdbath, and he said, “I’m watching it drown.” I moved to saved the woodbee and he blocked me, “Don’t do that, the bee will sting you and kill you!” Straight-faced, I looked at him and said, ‘The bee’s wings are stuck because of the water tension. If I help this bee, he will go home and tell all his friends I’m the kind and gentle woodland princess and not to hurt me.” My step-son looked at me and was clearly, baffled. Then, I stuck my finger out to the bee, and the bees legs grabbed hold of my finger. The bee rested on the top of my finger, while his wings dried in the sun. I arose and pretended to talk to the bee and my stepson. Pretty soon, the bee flew away. From that moment on, he was convinced I was a woodland princess with special powers over flora and fauna.
We were on vacation and visited a butterfly house, when suddenly, hundreds of butterflies landed on me. They were all over me. Other visitors were taking pictures and in awe when my step son de facto stated, “She’s the woodland princess. They like her.” Other things happened with horses, birds, even fish, which added to my allure.
We bought the “big house” and I thought everyone was happy, but I caught my step son crying one day as we were packing and moving. I asked him why he was upset and he revealed he was worried about Gertrude and Seymour, and that the birds and his wood bees would die if we were not there. Fred the Spider was already firmly ensconced in the new house. Interesting problem, I thought about what to do.
Slowly, we moved the birds with us, or so my step son thought. Every few days, I would move the bird feeders further to the back of the little house’s lot. Finally, I moved the bird feeders to the back of the lot of the big house. He watched, diligently, waiting for nuthatches to appear. And what do you know, nuthatches appeared at the big house.
He was 7yrs old when we bought the house in March, and unknown to me, the legend of me being the woodland princess had grown. He was telling kids at school about my special powers.
About the same time, my step son’s mother decided to enroll him in an expensive after school program and he was no longer allowed to spend vast amounts of time with me. Typical ex-wife behavior. I get it. Yet, I seemed to adopt other kids.
Again, the big house is next door to the town’s school. The 4th grade classrooms have enormous windows which look out into our walled brick garden. There’s a slim single driveway between the windows and our brick wall. The school’s foundation is higher thus the windows offer a perfectly angled view into our backyard. Yes, we can imagine, 90yrs of 4th graders have let their mind wander to what is happening with flora and fauna, instead of paying attention to a teacher. Compounding the distraction, our home was abandoned for 23yrs, thus, the brick garden took on the appearance of a wild forest. Because I set up the bird feeders, bird houses, and a few bird baths, the backyard had even more activity than before. They could see me, in the backyard, digging, and clearing, and feeding birds every day.
To the kids, it was confirmation bias that, indeed, I was a woodland princess. I had no idea. Instead of the legend of the house being haunted, I became the “good” woodland princess who moved in. Ahhhh, the mind of a child.
As the men tackled the large items inside the house, I worked on the exterior front gardens and landscaping, which was a barren wreck. We pulled nasty overgrown holly bushes out with dump trucks. I dug and planted, planted and dug. We had a wonderful wrought iron half fence in the front but only spotty grass because of big oak trees. I created large winding beds along the fences, of azaleas, hostas, thousands of irises and perennials. The bed between us and the school was 150′ long and 15′ wide in spots. I planted azaleas but it would take a while for them to grow. I went and bought 6 flats of impatiens, which barely made a dent. I bought more, and more, and eventually, about 90 flats of impatiens to fill that spot. The kids at school were let out to wait for their parents in front of the auditorium, which is about 100’ from where I was planting. Curious, they would come up to the wrought iron fence to talk to me. Sometimes, they even helped me plant. One kid made diagonal rows, by color and shade. I could see the pattern he was creating. “Great job!”, I said, as I went on and on lauding the artistry of what he was doing. That kid was Anthony.
Throughout the spring, the kids would find injured animals on the playground and rush to tell their teachers. The kids insisted they be able to bring the injured squirrel or bird to me, because I could somehow, heal the animal, and the animal would then live in “our sanctuary”. It became a “thing” and the teachers allowed them to come, still in eyeshot of the children, to our back door. I would reward them with chocolate chip cookies and all was well. Often, I found 8-10 kids would deliver one wounded bird…. for the cookies.
One morning, a young boy appeared in my kitchen and was desperate for help with a blue jay. The bird had an injured wing. He introduced himself as Anthony and shook my hand like he was 40yrs old. I recognized him, vaguely. He informed me he would be back, after school, to pick up the bird, so HE could nurse the bird back to health. No cookies, no hugs, like the other children. He was very matter-of-fact. Suddenly, my reputation was on the line. What to do? About an hour later, my husband walked through the back door and said, “What the hell are you doing?” I had a clump of mud on the kitchen counter and was digging for worms. I had an eyedropper out, trying to feed it water. I was trying to keep that baby bird alive until 3:00pm. My husband thought I was out of my mind, but killing my reputation of “woodland princess” would be worse than telling the kids Santa didn’t exist.
After school, Anthony picked up his bird and thanked me politely. In a flash, he was gone.
Anthony, was always the last to be picked up and I started to pay attention to him. His family was poor, by his dress, and his haircut was homemade, but I liked him. He waited, dutifully, until after 5:00pm for his mother. Over a few weeks, Anthony and I became friends. He would bring me pretty rocks and help me do all kinds of things. We talked about what he learned that day and I often had an extra sandwich or leftover spaghetti for him. The kid was starving, but he was a growing boy. I tried to befriend his mother. She acknowledged me, always from the car, but wasn’t interested. Anthony seemed embarrassed by his mother but told me all about his dad, who had a pet alligator….., which he wrestled. “Hmmmm”, I thought.
One day, I wasn’t outside, but the front door was open with work crews moving in and out. Anthony appeared in the house and tapped me on the shoulder as if we had an appointed schedule. I was removing the old wool carpeting from the big staircase, which had been nailed to the stairs. I was struggling and Anthony offered to help. There were 19-25 nails in each stair and there were 31 stairs. I only know that because Anthony told me. Anthony removed every single nail, and had the nails lined up, by stair. Anthony provided me with a total and an average nail count, per stair, separating out the overage for two landings. 732 nails.
I took a few steps back and took a long look at Anthony. The realization hit me like a flood. Any adult who went through the avalanche of IQ testing during the 60’s and 70’s can spot a kid with similar attributes. Yeah, I was one of those kids. I started asking Anthony questions geared to test his IQ and spatial reactions. Normal kids don’t count, sort, or average a number of nails. Normal boys don’t design landscaping with the ability to imagine what it will look like, filled in. I recalled he was the one who did the flowers in a pattern, diagonal and by shade. Anthony’s brilliance was right under my nose. I tried to speak to his mother about him but she was skittish. Within a few days, school ended and Anthony was gone. Our garden bloomed and Anthony’s design was so spectacular, strangers stopped to photograph their children in front of my flowers.
Summer drummed along and we finished the renovation by September. Immediately, the school became one of our best customers. People were flown in for programs on how to teach teachers how to teach better, and the programs were held, conveniently, at our house. We held elaborate dinners for the school admin staff when professionals came in from out of town and I became friendly with the school admin. The #2 and #3 execs became good girlfriends and used to help me cater other parties. Yes, some of the teachers ribbed me about being the woodland princess and we all laughed. I had forgotten about Anthony and had not seen him all school year by the time the first frost killed his impatiens.
When Thanksgiving rolled around, we were doing trial runs on our turkeys. The #2 and #3 were in my kitchen and we were doing ‘girl talk’, when the conversation turned to a problem child at school. They were trying to decide what to do with him. He had been suspended several times. He had been to ISS repeatedly, and they were considering expelling the child, which was almost never done. His prognosis was HYPER ADHD and he would NOT sit still in class, always a problem for every teacher he had. I was working away and not paying much attention to their conversation (school stuff – none of my business).
They were talking about the boy’s family and how uncivilized/poor/redneck/slovenly the family was and one of them mentioned they even had wild animals as pets. The women in the room had their noses in the air as if they could smell the “stench of lower class” and wanted NOTHING to do with this kid. They were all nodding in agreement when one suggested a call to DHS to remove the child from his home because they heard a rumor the father had an alligator and was teaching the boy to wrestle the alligator.
An alligator? I stopped and spun around from the kitchen sink. My eyes were wide. “Are you talking about Anthony?”, I was almost screaming. “Well, yes, but we don’t confirm names.”, they were squirmy when realized they had revealed something they probably should not have said. I was undone. I went on a diatribe about Anthony and how spectacular he was. I was emphatic, championing my little friend. I was dogmatic, “There was no way in hell Anthony was a behavior problem.” and “there’s no way in hell a kid with ADHD can take out 732 nails in one sitting”. I challenged their prognosis, openly. I demanded to see Anthony… which they could not legally do. I even offered to take Anthony, which they could not legally do. I was furious, irate, beside myself, and my red hair was on fire. I talked to my husband about it that night.
Calming down, the next day I called #2 girlfriend and asked for Anthony to have his IQ tested. She reminded me, sternly, that anything said in my kitchen should NEVER be the subject of public knowledge, however, she and #3 had already agreed to talk to the parents about the boy. I was happy about it and drove around the school to see Anthony one afternoon. He told me he was in a lot of trouble at school. He shuffled his feet. He was half the kid he was the prior spring. It made my heart cry but he hugged me when I left – something he had never done before.
Anthony’s parents came in for the meeting, but could not do the IQ testing mid-year. It was expensive and they didn’t see the need. “What do you mean?”, I howled at my girlfriends. They explained that kids are evaluated in 1st, 4th, 6th grades, paid for by the district at a cost of about $250/kid for gifted programs. Only those who are suggested by teachers get ‘evaluated’ because of the overall cost. Obviously, Anthony was not suggested previously. To do an off year test would be in excess of $1375, and the simple fact was, his parents could not afford it. I was heartbroken.
In the meantime, another teacher professional, with a card deck full of PhD’s, came to visit me to consult for the school district. She had visited several times over a few months and we became very friendly. It was close to my birthday and HER birthday. She was talking about what she wanted for her birthday – to extend her mother’s silverplate pattern to get to 12 place settings. She described the set and on a hunch, I went to my toolbox and found a set of 6. I bought them in a garage sale for less than $20, handed them to her and said, “Happy Birthday = problem solved”. She asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I mentioned Anthony and the problems we were having. She knew about my objections already but she narrowed her eyes and told me she could test the child and she would be happy to do it for free. It was like God sitting on my shoulder.
I found Anthony that afternoon, and she tested him in our dining room, before his mother arrived to pick him up from school. What I did was probably illegal. What the PhD lady did was probably illegal as well. Yet, when the result came in, Anthony had a 168 IQ. No turning back now. I went to see the Superintendent and told him what we did. He understood. He also returned the check for $1375. Without telling me, my burly husband had spoken to the Superintendent and financed the bill. He couldn’t get mad at both of us. It was the 90’s. Today, I probably would have been arrested.
Anthony was placed in the gifted program, where he thrived, along with my step son. He graduated and became a Rhodes Scholar. Along the way, I lost my mystique of being a woodland princess but it didn’t matter one damn bit. The kids were more important. I often wonder what became of Anthony, but I still have his pretty sparkly rock on my desk. I’m looking at it now…. Kind of like that rock, Anthony was a diamond in the rough. He was a good kid who deserved a chance. I can’t plant an impatien in the spring without thinking about him.