I thought a lot about Penelope today.
I put up my Christmas tree, a great improvement over Ugly Tree from last year. I’ve got presents to wrap. Lights to hang, cards to send, cookies to bake. So much to do, so little time.
When I was teaching my first year, I met Penelope. A six year old beyond her years, with dark eyes and hair. Penelope had a sense of beauty and wonder that went beyond most children. She commented on the ways shadows moved on walls, light through leaves, and brought in flowers to decorate her desk. She adored reading, devouring any story I gave her. She needed something beyond what the others were reading, so I found a set of children’s poetry books. She found and fell in love with Walt Whitman. “Walt’s my kind of guy,” she said, cradling the book of his poems to her chest. “He sees all the things other people don’t see. His world is so beautiful. I hope when I grow up, my world will be beautiful like his.” Every free moment she spent immersed in his poetry, until the book’s bindings came loose and the cover wobbled.
One day, Penelope came to school dressed like her elder sister–black lipstick, spikes, eyeshadow. “I’m a goth,” she announced dramatically.
“Oh my,” I replied. “Well…you’ll have to be sad all time, and cry…and…” I paused for effect. “Write…bad…poetry.”
“Bad poetry?” she cried. “What would Walt Whitman think?” She fled to the sink, scrubbed off the makeup and pulled off the bracelets. That was the end of her Goth phase.
Around Christmastime, Penelope arrived at school, eyes shining. Her mother had put up the most beautiful tree. It had sparkling lights, ornaments, and best of all, a slew of shiny, wrapped presents. This was a child who rarely could afford to eat on weekends, so this was truly extraordinary. She wrote stories about the tree, drew pictures, imagined what might be in the boxes. Her mother had a new job, so maybe this was the start of something. The first grand holiday Penelope could remember.
Two weeks later, Penelope slumped into her seat as the bell rang, her eyes red-rimmed from crying. I sat down with her, gave her a hug, and asked what was wrong. “The brakes went out of our car,” she said softly. “We had to pay for the brakes, so…”
So…every shining gift had been unwrapped and returned to the store. Her mother, too sad about the gifts, took down the tree and packed it away. Every decoration, card and hint of holidays had been thrown away. Penelope’s hands shook as she spoke. “We’re getting brakes for Christmas, all of us,” she said, biting her lip. She was clearly fighting tears. “We don’t cry,” she added, “because that’s just life. That’s…what happens.” After a long hug, she said, “May I go to the pillow corner?”
Of course she could. She took that battered Whitman book and laid down on the pillows, and it was silent for a long time. I carried on with the rest of the class, but as I cycled around, I heard her wavering voice: “And you, O my Soul, where you stand/ Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,…”
At the end of the day, the children packed up. We had made some ornaments. She held hers up and said, “What should I do with this? I have nowhere to hang it.”
I thought for a moment, and said, “Do you have a tree outside?”
“Yes,” she said. “But my mom…might not like it. I’ll find a place. There are…other beautiful places in the world.” She left the room, and I started cleaning up. At some point after school, she must have come back in, because that ornament was hanging on my computer.
Her holiday was as bleak as expected, and when she returned, she needed more pillow and poetry time to recover. She never spoke of the ornament, so neither did I. She immersed herself more in poetry, and found beauty in the world…but not trust. Her eyes were wary after that.
I offered her the book at the end of the year, but she didn’t take it. I think the classroom was a safe space for her, and she didn’t want her worlds overlapping. I found that book on my daughters’ bookshelves the other day, still creased from Penelope’s little hands.
I wish I could say things ended well for Penelope. They didn’t. What fragile world she did have cracked beneath the pressure of foster homes, social services, abuse, and finally, drugs. I did talk to her once as a teenager. “My life isn’t good anymore,” she said. “I was happy when I was with you. I remember all your books. It was a beautiful time. But that’s not my life anymore. There’s nothing beautiful here.”
I think of her at Christmas, wishing she had a tree, lights, glitter, to be able to see the world the way she could once. I’m afraid she never will.