I’ll call him Michael. It’s my brother’s name, a safe one for this real-life story.
Michael was four years old and new to church. His mother needed to work so they’d have a safe place to call home. Sometimes “work” meant that men, strange men, stayed over. Men who scared Michael.
Vacation Bible School was supposed to be fun. There’d be snacks, and crafts and games and music. Oh, it was the music that Michael loved more than anything. He loved how dancing made him forget, just for a moment, that there’d be a stranger in his house. Miss Sheila brought Michael and a bunch more kids to Vacation Bible School. She took all the kids in the neighborhood whose momma said yes when she offered to drive them. She’d bring a school bus full of kids if she had one, just to get these babies out of the house. On the way Miss Sheila reminded them how much fun they’d have. Michael was excited.
The church was big, the ceiling much taller than at home. Kids were gathered in groups, more kids than Michael had ever seen. Michael was told to stay with his group leader. He couldn’t remember her name. He wanted to go home to his Momma.
The music started and the leader stood in front of everyone. She held something that made her voice loud. But her face was kind. Michael liked her which is why he got up and grabbed her leg, clung to her. He didn’t mean to hit her when she asked him to sit down, but he did. She passed him back to Michael’s group leader who passed him to another when he hit her. Finally someone led him away from the sanctuary, needed to explain the rules of Vacation Bible School.
I’ve been volunteering with Vacation Bible School for many years and I’ve never met a child who touched me more than Michael. He was the child no one wanted to be around. He was an angel one moment, defiant the next. The first day with him was pure torture. I did not know his story. I did not understand his actions. Nor did anyone else, nor did they want to. He ended up with my group because, quite honestly, no one else knew how to handle him. I didn’t either. I don’t have an advanced degree in childhood education, but I do know there was a reason why Michael acted out, why he hit, why he crossed his arms in a tight cocoon around his body.
As I led him outside I said, “Michael, I understand it’s hard being in a new place; but we don’t hit. We just don’t.”
He looked at me in a way that sent chills up my spine. There was a meanness inside him. His brows came together, his arms crossed tight in what looked like defiance, but was actually the only self-protection device he had.
Then he said, “you’re not gonna be my friend. He turned, curled himself tight.” His voice, the whine of a broken child, pierced my big-bad-adult stance. I didn’t think. My heart acted out and did exactly what “the rules” say I shouldn’t do. I gathered Michael in my arms and hugged him. Hugging isn’t allowed these days. Heaven forbid we touch a child that isn’t our own.
The force of his hug, the desperate need for love knocked me off balance. Michael clung to me like a piece of driftwood in the ocean. I squeezed. He squeezed harder. He was strong. Releasing him I said, “Sweetie. I am your friend, but we don’t hit our friends. Got it?”
He said he did.
Returning to music class, Michael did all the moves better and faster than the big kids who made up my class. We formed a line and left the room heading toward snack time. Snack time is a sit down, cross-your-legs time where children receive goldfish on a napkin and water in a cup. Snack time is also story-time, when a volunteer reads as the children munch. Listening to stories keep them occupied. Michael didn’t have to tell me he was hungry, I knew it in my heart. I didn’t yet know about Michael’s home environment, but I would with the next class change.
After positioning the students in a semi-circle I took my place in a chair. As expected, the older boys in my group began getting into each other’s space causing me to sit in the floor with them. The moment I crossed my legs, Michael climbed into my lap. Picked up my hand, patted it, squeezed. We were friends.
Frowning, one of the elders said, “Miss Renea, Michael shouldn’t be sitting in your lap.”
I had broken another rule. Don’t hold children.
We finished snack and headed into the activity room where exercise is fun. This is Miss Sheila’s expertise. As the children were getting settled in I pulled her aside, said, “tell me Michael’s story.”She told me things that broke my heart, caused my eyes to pool, tears splash from my lashes.
Story time is the place where bible verses are read, repeated, and hopefully retained for years to come. It was obvious to the group leaders that Michael was too young for my class, but that didn’t matter. We were all about to learn that at 4 years old, Michael could already read. After story time was over Mr. Joshua took Michael’s hand and shook it, said “I love you little man.”
Writing those words just now cause tears again. Because I know in my heart that if God doesn’t intervene in Michael’s life he won’t hear those words often.
During crafts, Michael bounced into the room, touched every color, called it by name, then counted the numbers on the wall. While the older children colored outside the lines, Michael created masterpieces. He knew all his colors. Crayons quickly became a security blanket. I don’t need an advanced degree in Early Childhood Development to see that Michael has the potential for greatness.
“You’re a smart boy,” I said while he sat in the floor and colored. “How did you get so smart?”
Without looking up he said, “My Mommy.”
“What’s your Mommy’s name?” I asked.
Michael stopped. He lifted the crayon to his mouth, tapped it against his bottom lip and thought. “Hmm, I don’t know what my Mommy’s name is. Why don’t I know her name?”
I laughed. “That’s because it’s Mommy you silly goose.”
The next day I was running late. By the time I arrived, children were seated in their groups. The scowl was back. he was afraid. He had no friends. “Michael!” I said waving. He ran. I reached out. He placed his hand dark against mine. He is my friend. Rules be durn’d when it comes to a child who is living a real-life hell on earth. The rest of the week was a blur of hand holding, dancing, drawing and hugs.
“I want to adopt Michael,” I announced at the dinner table to my husband whose face bore the look of complete shock. I’d been reporting on Michael. Telling about his remarkable ability to reason, to memorize and recall words almost instantly. “I don’t care that his mother loves him. I love him too. He is special. Something bad is going to happen to him, I can just feel it..” I excused myself from the table and locked myself in the bathroom.
Now I know what y’all are thinking. Who am I to want another woman’s child? I wish I had an answer. The best way I can explain it is that I have a strong sense of despair about Michael. Perhaps this is because I worked for a criminal court judge, because I know the statistics; know what happens to young boys who have men walking in and out of their lives; know that some mothers have no choice, absolutely none, when it comes to feeding their children. I find myself glued to the television, terrified that I’ll hear about him on the news. I want them both in my home, safe, loved, protected. In all the years of meeting children such as Michael it is the way he clung to me, the way he made me love him that sears him into my heart. Michael’s mother is a good Mother. Any mother who has a child reading at four years old is a wonderful mother. She is doing everything she knows to do, which is why I wrote her a note at the end of Bible School telling her how much Michael loved her, how smart he is, how if she ever needs help she should call me.
But she didn’t call. She moved. Michael is gone. Relocated to the other side of Atlanta. For a short time Miss Sheila brought him to church. Michael would smile, wave, and run to me. I would kneel down scoop him into my arms and squeeze, pouring every drop of love I had into him. Those women, the ones who told me not to touch, hug, love, they frowned, but I didn’t care. The people who make those kind of rules can just get over it.
God tells us all that the most important commandment is love. He is the ultimate rule-maker. I am accountable to him.
I just wish that loving Michael didn’t hurt so much.
Michael has been on my heart a lot lately. When I ask Miss Sheila about him she just says, “he’s gone.” And I cry. Big ole heart-broken tears. I know I can do nothing, absolutely nothing, but pray for Michael. So I pray the prayer of someone who is powerless, someone who sees the potential in this child. I pray with my face on the floor, with tears wetting the carpet. Pleading that God protects him, keeps him safe, and that Michael will always knows that I am his friend. And so I ask you today, if you read this blog, please pray for Michael. God knows his real name.
Thank you for reading, for praying, and for sharing this post. Subscribers are always welcome.
Renea Winchester is the author of: Mountain Memories: True Stories and Half Truths from Appalachia an ebook released September 2013, and In the Garden with Billy:
Mercer University Press will release her latest: Farming, Friends and Fried Bologna Sandwiches, in 2014.