“Leila, do you want to play with us?”
Leila knew who was talking, even if she couldn’t see their face. Andy Stewart, the small kid with big glasses. Leila turned over her shoulder to see that Andy was clutching a kickball. He gestured with his head over the diamond.
“We need one more person to make the teams even. You’re really good at it!”
“Sorry, Andy,” she responded. “I’m just not in the mood.” A gust of November wind scattered the fallen leaves across the blacktop. Leila stared intently down at the golden, orange, and brown leaves. They were dead and dry and went wherever the wind chose to take them: a controlled freedom.
“Are you sure? You know, you might warm up a bit if you came a played with us. Aren’t you cold in just a sweater? Come on, Leila, it’ll be – “
“I said no, Andy!” Leila turned to face him as the angry words flew out of her mouth. She saw from Andy’s shocked expression that she had startled and possibly upset him, but she didn’t care. Why couldn’t he just leave her alone?
“O – okay,” he said, turning away. After a few steps he turned back and said, “If you change your mind, you can still come play.” And he ran off to join the other kids at the diamond.
Leila huffed and stalked off, muttering to herself. Of course she was cold; her sweater was old and thin, almost completely worn away at some parts. But she didn’t have a jacket and this was the only long sleeved item she owned.
With an exasperated sigh, Leila sat on a swing and began to gently rock back and forth. Normally, she was good at kickball, but her body was still sore from hiding in the closet last night and from… what had happened afterwards. Glancing to each side to make sure no one was paying attention, Leila gently rolled up the sleeve of her sweater. Angry, dark bruises from where her father had grabbed her and hauled her out the closet were snaked around her tiny wrist. She gently touched them with her finger and winced when a numbing pain shot up her arm. Leila pulled her sleeve down over the bruise and thought about how she would continue to cover it up. She had already worn the sweater so many times and though it was fall, people would notice that the sweater was the only garment she was wearing. Maybe she could find some bracelets to wear for a couple of days until the bruises lessened in their harsh coloring.
Leila quickly glanced up and saw her teacher, Miss Fairway, coming towards her. She dropped her gaze down to her feet, which barely scrapped the ground from the swing.
“Leila, are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Miss Fairway,” Leila replied.
“Hm,” Miss Fairway said. She sat down in the swing next to Leila’s. “Are you sure?” She tucked a strand of her blond hair behind her ear as another gust of wind blew in.
“I’m sure,” Leila said. Miss Fairway’s eyes widened just a bit, in shock. Leila hadn’t meant to speak so harshly; Miss Fairway had always been nothing but kind to her. Miss Fairway smiled down at Leila, despite Leila’s angry attitude. “Why aren’t you out playing with the others?”
“Sometimes I like to be by myself.”
“So do I, sometimes,” Miss Fairway agreed. “But you’ve been like this for a few days now. Did one of the boys or girls say something that hurt you? Have they been mean to you?”
“Okay. You’d tell me if they were being mean to you, right?”
Leila did not respond. Instead, she kicked a small stone that lay in the divot created by so many feet tearing against the ground. Around her Leila could hear the playful screams of the elementary children as they enjoyed their recess.
Miss Fairway and Leila sat for a few minutes in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. After a few moments, Miss Fairway turned to Leila and asked, “Are excited for next year, Leila?”
“What’s so special about next year?”
“You’re going to be in sixth grade! You’ll move up to the middle school and meet a whole bunch of other kids! Maybe you’ll meet some new friends. I’ll tell you right now, Miss Leila, middle school is a completely different scene than elementary school. There is no recess, for one thing and – “
“No recess!? You mean we have to sit in a classroom all day?” Leila turned to Miss Fairway, her eyes wide.
Miss Fairway smiled at the fact she had gotten an emotion out of Leila. “No recess,” she repeated. “So.” Miss Fairway lowered her voice, glanced around, and moved in closer, like she was about to tell Leila an important secret. “I would enjoy all the recesses I can, while I’ve still got them.”
Leila smiled but it soon faded. She resumed her glance at the ground and said quietly to herself, “I can’t wait to grow up.”
“Oh,” Miss Fairway laughed. “I don’t think growing up is such a remarkable thing.”
“No,” Leila said. “I mean it. Grown-ups get to do so much more than kids.” She angrily kicked the ground and whispered, “They have all the power.”
Miss Fairway sat in silence, unsure of how to respond to the small girl complaining about power.
“You know,” she said, “power isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“Don’t tell me that,” Leila whispered. “I know what power looks like.”
The bell to signal the end of recess rang and saved Miss Fairway from formulating an answer. Leila hopped out of her swing, but the end of her tattered sweater caught on the chain and was pulled up on her arm. Leila made a hasty retreat back to the swing to untangle her sweater from the chain. She glanced quickly at Miss Fairway before running to join her class as they lined up for lunch time. Miss Fairway sat for a little bit longer on the swing, contemplating what she had just seen. In the brief span of time before Leila had pulled her sweater sleeve back over her wrist, Miss Fairway had seen a dark bruise, circling Leila’s wrist like a macabre bracelet. Miss Fairway absentmindedly rubbed her wrists as she remembered the similar bruises she once had when she was Leila’s age.
Miss Fairway quickly walked to the social worker’s office. She knocked on the door, politely but urgently, and tapped her foot as she waited for an answer. After a few moments and a couple more knocks, the social worker opened the door.
“Miss Fairway,” she said, a bit surprised. She turned to speak back into the room. “I’ll be right back, Andrew,” she said. Gently, she closed the door behind her and stepped out to meet Miss Fairway in the hall.
Miss Fairway glanced around, making sure no one was in proximity to eavesdrop. “I think Leila might be being abused.”
Mrs. Lewis’ eyes grew a bit. “Leila Forsythe?”
Miss Fairway nodded in affirmation.
“What makes you suspect it?”
“I was just out with her at recess and the sleeve of her sweater was pulled up,” Miss Fairway said. There was a dark circle of bruises around her wrist; like someone had grabbed her, hard.”
Mrs. Lewis thought about it a moment. “Is that all you’ve seen?”
Miss Fairway sighed inwardly. She knew where this conversation was headed and she didn’t like it. “Yes, but I’ve noticed changes in her behavior and her grades are slipping which is all –“
“I know the signs of child abuse, Miss Fairway,” Mrs. Lewis said. “And I don’t mean to discredit you. I’m only saying that the police most likely won’t investigate without further evidence.”
“How am I supposed to find more evidence?” Miss Fairway asked, her voice rising a little. Realizing that she was becoming worked up, Miss Fairway cleared her throat and said quietly, “I had bruises very similar to that when I was her age, Mrs. Lewis. And they weren’t from a brother pulling me along because he was excited to see the circus that had come to town!”
“Miss Fairway –“
“I’m sorry,” Miss Fairway said. “I’m sorry. I just…” she stared at the brick wall thinking back to all the arguments she had had with her parents. The yelling and screaming and tears. “I don’t want to see this continue. I know, firsthand, what can occur because of abuse and no child deserves it. I will go and talk to the police myself if that’s what needs to happen, but if I can prevent what I suspect to be abuse, then I will.”
Mrs. Lewis smiled. “I have no doubt about it. But,” she glanced at a clock that was hanging in the hallway. “I do believe your class is returning in a few minutes. Do what you must, Alicia, I need to get back to my student.” She grasped Miss Fairway’s hand and smiled before she returned to her office and closed the door.
Trying to calm herself, Miss Fairway walked back to her classroom and sat at her desk for a few minutes in silence. She had to help Leila. Even if Leila didn’t want her help, Miss Fairway would never forgive herself if she didn’t do something. It was so hard to watch others suffer, to just stand by. And yet, so many people seemed to manage it so easily. It was a mystery of society that Miss Fairway suspected she would never find the answer to.
Slowly, her students filed in and found their seats; still chattering away trying to finish conversations started during their lunch time. All except Leila, who sat quietly in her chair with her hands folded demurely in her lap as she started at the ground.
Miss Fairway thought back to last week even, when little Leila had been so filled with life and energy. Now, she seemed so drained, almost cut off. As though she was an observer of life and not a very important participant.
Miss Fairway couldn’t allow herself to be distracted. Yes, Leila’s possible situation was important and very pressing, but Miss Fairway had to think of her other students and the reason they were here.
“Okay, class,” she said, grabbing some papers and standing up behind her desk. “I want you all to take out your math sheets: we’re going to go over our multiplication facts.”