The One Thing

Don't by Carmen Selam of the Institute of American Indian Arts

Don’t by Carmen Selam of the Institute of American Indian Arts

There were many times when Nelson would sit in his chair when all the kids were gone and speculate how he ended up teaching on the reservation. On long days, when all the lesson plans were done, he’d lean back and begin dreaming. One particularly warm day, as he closed his eyes, instead of the usual flying dreams he had, he awoke on the floor, looking at Ms. Woo sitting at her desk writing.

He was back in kindergarten, and it was naptime. But he found himself fake sleeping with one eye open and then two, scanning the room, looking at the books on the shelves and the colorful posters. There was an alphabet snake by the door, and smiling planets taped to the ceiling. The class windows stretched from one side of the room to the other. He could see the blueness of the sky and the trail of a plane flying way up there. Just then, a low rumble shook the room, which stirred a couple of the kids, but they continued to sleep off their snacks of apple juice and cookies.

His dad had told him not to fear those rumbles, as they were the result of some of the large planes that took off from the nearby landing strip. He understood that his father, being a member of the military, went to work supporting whatever it was they used those planes for. He knew that his family lived on a military base, and all the kids in his class were picked up after school by parents who wore the same clothes as his dad, some in green and some in blue.

One thing he didn’t understand was why his fire drill buddy, Lily, had left a few days ago and never came back. Ms. Woo said that her daddy was stationed to another air base, and so they moved away. But what did “stationed” mean, he asked himself. Was it like changing the station on TV? Whatever it meant, Lily was gone, and he was afraid he might not be able to make it out of the school at the next fire drill without her help. He hadn’t been this scared since the first day of class, when his dad left him with Ms. Woo and disappeared behind the swinging double doors, and waved bye to him through one of the little square windows. He cried and cried, so Ms. Woo sat with him and said not to worry, that they were going to have fun and promising that his dad would come back later. After he had calmed down, Lily came to his table and shared a coloring book and some crayons. Later that day, his dad really did come back, and all was right with the world again.

In the weeks that followed, Ms. Woo became his favorite person in the whole world. He couldn’t explain it, but everything about her was smart. She looked smart, dressed smart, talked smart, walked smart, and read stories like she was the smartest person ever. There was not a thing in the room that she did not know. Every color, every shape, every number, every letter, every book, every kid, everything and everyone had a name, and she knew what it was.

He especially liked the dresses she wore because they had flowers on them and they made her look pretty. When she stood she was always tall and straight, and when she spoke all the kids would turn their heads, anticipating a smile and an exclamation of “Story time!” or “Get out your sleeping bags!” or “Recess!” to which a line would form immediately at the door, no questions asked.

One time he raised his hand and asked her why she always wore flower dresses. “Well,” she said, “I like flowers because I came here from Hawaii where they have big flowers with lots of colors.”

Another boy raised his hand and asked, “Where is Hawaii?”

“It’s very far away, across the sea. I had to take a big plane to get here, and travel a long time. But, let’s see…have you guys ever seen the moon at night?”

“Yes, yes!”

“Well, the moon is even further away than Hawaii. In fact, if we were standing on the moon, the earth would look like this,” she said, pointing to the globe in the corner. She went to the globe and rolled it to the center of the room. The kids stood around it and she continued, “Now, if we were standing on the moon, you’re mommies and daddies could look up into the sky and wave to us from right about here,” and she pointed to a spot on the California coast. “But, if my mommy and daddy were waving to us, they would be right here,” and she pointed to a little island in the middle of the ocean.

“Ohhh,” the students all exclaimed.

“Ms. Woo, Ms. Woo, you know what? My daddy knows Hawaii,” said Jake, an excitable kid.

“He does?”

“Yeah, yeah! He told my mom one time that building a bridge to Hawaii would be easier than understanding her.”

At that, Ms. Woo let out a laugh so big the children laughed with her, even though they didn’t know why. All they knew was that it was loud, happy, and fun. When she got her breath back, she said, “Jake, thank you. You just made my day!”

Nelson, still lying on the floor, heard Ms. Woo say to him without even turning her head, “Nelson, I can see you blinking your eyes.”

Nelson whispered, “But I can’t sleep, Ms. Woo.”

“Well,” she said as she looked down at him, “Remember, your dreams are there to help you, but you need to sleep to have them.”

“Okay, Ms. Woo,” and he closed his eyes.

Back in his classroom, some drool had begun to slip out of a slight smile on Nelson’s face.

Pat Natseway (Hopi/Laguna Pueblo) is a student in the MFA creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

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