I lied to a six-year old yesterday. She’s not mine, but she’s collectively mine in the way that children belong to all of us.
She was curled on my lap and I put aside the copy of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs we had been reading. She smelled of firewood and cookies and was snuggled up on me in the way that only puppies, kittens and little kids can manage. To disturb them is to destroy a moment even though your leg might be falling asleep or you’ve lost all feeling in an arm; so you don’t move. You don’t move because you know you’ll never get that delectable instant back. This child I adore looked up at me with brown trusting eyes on the verge of tears. I looked down at her, at the impossibly white whites of her eyes and lied my head off.
I spend almost as much time with this little girl and her four-year old sister, as I do my own daughter who’s a college student. Eighteen months ago, the family was transferred from Germany to Connecticut and I became their English teacher.
What started as just a job, quickly became much more. I think it’s because they remind me of my own children at that age. When they play “dog” using their father’s work I.D. lanyard as a leash, they really believe they are dogs, in the same way that my son really believed he was a frolicking zebra in his homemade Halloween costume. They delight in the stacks of library books I bring to their house and leave there for weeks on end, despite the polite overdue emails I receive from Woodbury Library.
Like tiny catapults they fly across the room when I arrive at their house. They kiss me when I leave and ask, “How many sleeps until you come again, Wheelya?” They memorize every story about my family and can imitate my husband’s snoring and know the names of all our pets. For a birthday, I gave them a huge bag of dress-up clothes and high heels. On wiggling ankles they escort me to my car in sequin stilettos and sit in the front seat to explore all the treasures contained within. The six-year old always sniffs the vanilla scented air freshener that dangles from the direction signal lever in the same joyous way that I inhale the Chanel No. 5 that sits on my vanity.
The week before Christmas, the family went home to Germany for the holidays. On Dec. 17 my phone rang while we were eating dinner. Normally I wouldn’t have picked it up, but this time I did. It was Kathrin, the mother of the family, calling me from Germany. The connection was terrible and for some reason, everything I said repeated back through the receiver like an echo, but I had a feeling I shouldn’t hang up. I could tell that she was crying and there were long, long pauses when I wasn’t even sure she was still there. Kathrin had seen the coverage on CNN and Google.
“We know one child, only one, at Sandy Hook Elementary. She went to nursery school with the girls until she and her family moved to Sandy Hook. We are very good friends.” Kathrin said she and her husband had reassured themselves that there was a perfectly logical reason why the family hadn’t responded to their emails. That morning they found her name on the list of children who had died at the school. “How do we tell the girls?” she implored.
We talked for almost an hour. There were agonizing moments of silence when neither of us could speak because we both knew what “telling the girls” meant. It meant more than telling them the horrific news about their friend. Their innocence would be stolen when they learned that bad, bad things can happen to you in a school, a movie theater, a shopping mall.
I thought of the six-year old who hoped Nikolaus would leave a highlighter in her shoe on Dec. 6 — St. Nicholas Day. A highlighter; that’s all she wanted. That afternoon, she insisted we do her homework with the fluorescent treasure that Nikolaus had brought. She held it out for me to admire, but not in the way that Kim Kardashian might flaunt a new bauble. She held it out to me with pride.
Yesterday was my first day back with the family since the Sandy Hook Massacre. Kathrin and I had an hour to talk about it all before the school bus came. I had a feeling the six-year old would want to talk about it, too. When her mother left the house to pick up her little sister at nursery school, the moment came, right in the middle of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.
“Wheelya,” she asked quietly. “Do you know what happened?”
“Yes, honey, I do.” I blinked.
“I like when you call me Cupcake,” she said and my chest tightened.
“They all died, even the principal and the teacher,” she continued searching my face. “We will never see her again and neither will her mommy and daddy and they are very sad.”
“That’s right,” I agreed. “But you know what I think is important? I think it’s important to remember her, to talk about her. I bet her mommy and daddy would like that, too. It would make them happy for you to remember the good times you had together.
“Like at the pool?” she asked.
“Like at the pool.” I nodded.
“What did she do?” she asked
“What did she do?” I asked, not understanding. Then I realized she meant what had she done wrong in order that someone had punished her, had killed her.
“Oh, Cupcake. She didn’t do anything wrong, none of the kids did. She was just in a classroom with a very bad man. But that bad man is dead now and he can’t hurt anyone else.”
“She had curly hair,” she said curling into my sweater.
“Remember how I told you that you go to the exact same elementary school that I went to?” I asked, wrapping my arms around her. I felt her nod against my chest.
“My brother went to your school, too and my mother worked there. I know a lot about Ridgebury School,” I said.
“You do?” she asked looking up at me with total concentration and absolute trust.
“Yes, I do. And I know that a bad guy could never, ever get into Ridgebury School. Your principal would never let him in and neither would the police. What happened in Sandy Hook will never, never happen at your school,” I assured her.
We cuddled for a few more minutes and then she picked up the book. We read about a fictitious town called Chewandswallow where it rained pickles and snowed cheeseburgers and although the citizens’ lives were endangered by the threats of these food storms, they relocated to a different community where all was safe.
Desperately wishing I could believe it myself, I lied to a six-year old yesterday.
Velya Jancz-Urban is a writer who grew up in Ridgefield.