"It's going to be ok, Charlie. We've been talking about this for weeks, remember? You're going to have fun and make lots of friends."
He continued to scuff his shoes in the dirt. But what do I say? What do I say to a little boy who was once happy, energetic, and outgoing, who now seems to be perpetually sad? Whose brown curls no longer bounced along as he ran, but rather sat inert and cast forward to only occasionally bob.
"You ok, Charlie?"
"Ready to go in?"
"Yeah," he said, as we shuffled into the block building.
Once inside, I reminded him, "We won't be here long. Remember, we're going to hit the park on the way home."
"Hi there! How are you folks today?"
"Yes? Oh. Hi. We're good."
"My name is Ms. Cantrell. I'll be your son's teacher this year. Is this big guy him? What's your name?"
Charlie stood there, head cast down, not speaking. "His name is Charlie."
"That's good. I'll get to know him and his name better once class starts. Can I get yours, too?"
"Oh. Sure. My name is Michael. Michael Gibbs."
"Good to meet you, Mr. Gibbs. Is this your first time at our school? I always ask because sometimes we've had older siblings."
"Oh, no no. First time for us. Both of us. Not for school, but for this school. Charlie was in Preschool previously."
"That's always good. Seems that the children who have a schedule in Pre-k or at home seem to fall into a routine better once we get into the swing of things. Well, I just wanted to come say hi and chat for a minute. For now, we have some papers on each child's desk. If you could, please get those filled out and back to me as soon as you can. The rest go back home with you to keep."
As I reached for the packet and a pen, I saw from the corner of my eye...
"Do you think you can tell me your name now?" Ms. Cantrell had squatted down now next to Charlie. She was talking softly, and looking directly at him. "That's ok. Your Dad said your name was Charlie. May I call you Charlie?" Finally, Charlie looked up, and shook his head 'yes'. "Great. I can't wait to see you again tomorrow. Maybe you will let me be your friend. Ok? Bye, for now, Charlie." With a small wave, our Orientation at Highland Hills Elementary was done.
On the way home, I worried over how the year was going to go for my Charlie. It had been a rough year. When Janessa and I separated, I never imagined that she would separate from our child, too. I never thought that a mother could just walk away and not CARE. Who does that? Not just mothers, but any parent. It's never been something I could understand. And to be honest, it was never something I, myself, ever thought to experience. So when she just walked away and left everything, I couldn't believe it. I was shell shocked, as they say. So was Charlie. And he seems to have never snapped out of it. His life has been a fog since that day.
I think it would help if I actually knew what happened, but I don't. I came home from work, found Charlie alone in the house, in his room. No Janessa. Not even a sign of her. He wasn't crying or upset. Just asked me over and over where his Momma was. I had no answer.
"I wanna go home."
"Ok, but we need to stop by the store first. Want to pick out some snacks for school?" As usual, there was no answer.
This had become our routine. He always asked to go home. Never wanted to go anywhere else. Never wanted to play like a normal kid anymore. I never pushed, fearing what would happen if I did. Charlie was never bad... he just never wanted to interact. And it scared me.
Today I wanted to push just a little.
"Do you want to help pick out your snacks? I want you to have what you like. But nothing too crazy, I want you to still have room for dinner with Dad every night!"
"Yeah, every night. I like our dinner time. Don't you?"
"So, we should pick something you like, but won't fill you up to the brim. I'm thinking those PB crackers you like so much. Or maybe the cheese ones. We can save cookies for after school or dessert. What do you think?"
"Ummm... peanut butter."
After months of near silence, I was feeling RELIEF. Would he keep talking?
"What about to drink? Do you want juice? Chocolate milk? Or just to take your water?"
I sat waiting.