The first year of nursery school was about showing up, hanging your coat on a hook, and becoming part of the pack. But "baby doll" Francine was a special case. It took her some time before she allowed us to bring her in.
We called her "baby doll" because, unlike the rest of us shabby-clad, skinned-kneed townie kids, Francine showed up everyday to our church basement nursery wearing frilly dresses, patent leather shoes and spotless white socks. While the rest of us sailed by our teachers, Linda and Leanne, with the ritual "Good morning!" and on to the long breakfast tables, Francine stood slack, like a sickly chick in the winged protection of a teacher’s arm. When the teachers called our names for attendance we yelled out "here!" each in our own special way. But when they came to Francine's name, she made us all fidget as she stared silently down until the teachers moved on, saying, "OK Francine, maybe tomorrow we'll hear your beautiful voice!"
And when our pack went off in tumbling knots to turn blocks into towns, to squirm on the floor pretending to be worms, or to dress up like princesses, cooks, and bank robbers, Francine usually stood to the side with her perfect clothes, her sad face, her strange silence.
When I was a little older, my mother would explain that Francine lived in an abusive household, that her parents dressed her like that and punished her if she came home dirty. But four-year-old me didn’t know that. I just trusted my teachers.
I watched as Linda would lead Francine over to a table where Cheryl was drawing horses. She would sit with them smiling and laughing, drawing along with Cheryl and encouraging Francine to make her mark on the page. Leanne would hold Francine in her lap during our frantic games of duck-duck-goose and clap the timid girl's hands inside her own, cheering as we chased each other around the circle.
I guess it was in this way that my teachers taught me that Francine was a vulnerable member of the pack who we all needed to watch out for. And while the process was gradual, I remember clearly the moment I knew I understood this.
It took place during one of our routine morning roll calls. For a few moments every morning, we faced the full weight of the silence that followed after Francine’s name was called. But our teachers never gave up on Francine. They never stopped calling her name with the cheerful confidence that someday she would speak up.
And then one day, with no warning, Francine smiled slyly and uttered "here" in her own quiet way. Our teachers hugged her, and we all jumped to our feet applauding as if someone had entered with a collective birthday cake. It was a small gesture, but I understood that something powerful had come to pass. Trust had been won, an obstacle overcome -- a quiet victory for the pack.