Nine-year-old Annie peered through the chain-link fence. Where is he? she wondered. The shrill bell had announced the end of the school day. Children ran across the playground, clinging to a backpack, a spelling list, or a work of art. But Carl was nowhere to be seen. He was always the last one to leave school. A few more children trickled out.
Finally the gray door of his special-education classroom opened, and Carl plodded across the black pavement. When he saw Annie, he started waving excitedly. He smiled so big that it made his face look lopsided.
“Hi, Carl,” Annie said, walking over to meet him. Ignoring his excitement, she grabbed his elbow and started for home, gently pulling him along. “Hurry up—we’re late.”
Carl’s large feet turned in, and he limped as he walked. Annie was careful where she walked so that she wouldn’t bump him and throw him off balance.
As they made their way up the hill, Annie thought of the cold grape juice bar in the freezer at home. She was eager to get home and relax on the couch. But at the rate Carl was going, she’d probably miss her favorite television show. If only Carl could walk faster! His large shoes stumbled along the sidewalk. He was just so clumsy.
“How are you doing, Carl?” she asked. Carl smiled. “Good, then let’s keep going.” Annie marveled at his twisted hands. On Monday she had tried to open a clenched fist and hold his hand, but she couldn’t unfold his fingers. Today she just guided him by an elbow. When he grunted and rubbed his face with his fist, Annie leaned away, afraid that he might fling his arm at her as he had yesterday. Finally they neared the top of the hill and Carl’s house.
“Here’s a step, Carl. Step up,” Annie said as they reached his front porch. He just stood there. “Come on, Carl, you’re almost home.” She stepped up and tried to pull his large body after her. He resisted. “Come on, Carl.” He didn’t budge. “Oh, Carl!” Annie whispered in despair, throwing her hands up.
Carl turned and headed for the grass. He sat down clumsily and began rubbing his fists over the green spears. The grass tickled his hands, and he began giggling.
Annie set her backpack on the porch and walked over to him. “Get up, Carl, it’s time to go inside,” Annie said. She tugged at his arm, but he was much too big for her to lift. “Oh please, Carl!”
Now what do I do? she wondered as she looked down at the chunky boy gleefully stroking the grass. She felt totally helpless.
The door opened, and Mrs. Rich walked outside. “Oh dear. I hope Carl hasn’t been too much trouble today,” she said. “The people at school are still strangers to him. When he gets to know them better, he’ll be as good as he is at home.” She took Carl’s face in her hands. “Carl, you need to stand up.”
Carl slowly pushed himself to his feet, almost falling over as he stood. Mrs. Rich took his arm and led him up the stairs to the door.
“Thank you, Annie dear,” she called over her shoulder. “You’re a tremendous help!”
Annie managed a smile, grabbed her backpack, and said good-bye. When she entered her house next door, she didn’t even bother to turn the television on. She knew that her favorite show was over. “Mom,” she called. “Mo-o-o-om!”
“I’m out here!”
Annie opened the back door and went over to the greenhouse. Her mother was on her knees, packing black soil into a pot. The greenhouse was warm and smelled of fertilizer and plants.
“Oh, Mom, I’m through!” Annie exclaimed. She paced the greenhouse as she let off steam. “I don’t think I can do it one more day! He’s so big and clumsy, and his hands are all twisted. It was horrible today!”
“Whoa, Annie. Settle down,” Mom said. “I suppose you’re talking about Carl.”
“Yes! This is only the third day I’ve walked home with him, and I’m going crazy! He’s just so … so strange!”
Mom turned over a wooden crate and motioned for Annie to sit down. “Honey, you’re just not used to him yet. It’s only the third day. Carl is mentally disabled, and in that respect, he is very different than we are, but he is cheerful and kind. He just takes some getting used to.”
“Mom, if I keep walking Carl home, I’ll always be the last kid to leave the playground, I’ll never get to go to a friend’s house after school, and I’ll miss cartoons every day!”
“You’re right—it is a bit of sacrifice. But if you think of Mrs. Rich taking care of Carl every day and night, maybe a fifteen-minute walk home will seem bearable.”
“Oh, Mom, it’s a three minute walk that ends up taking fifteen minutes!” Annie said, shaking her head. “I want to help Mrs. Rich, but I just don’t understand Carl. He doesn’t talk, he slobbers, and sometimes he suddenly makes strange noises. He scares me.”
“Annie, Carl is different, but. …” Mom stopped and looked around the greenhouse. Her eyes stopped on an old tin pot. She smiled and picked it up. The silver tin was rusted and dull, but inside was a brilliant fuchsia-colored begonia plant. “Annie, what do you think of this?”
Annie smiled at the beautiful flowers. Of all the plants in the greenhouse, this one always caught her eye because of its beautiful color. “I love your begonias, Mom!”
“But do you think it’s beautiful even in this old pot?”
“You don’t even notice the pot because of the flowers.”
“Exactly! That is why I put this flower in this pot. It’s the same with Carl. His spirit is so beautiful that it shines brightly even in an imperfect body.”
Annie stared at the flower.
Mom held up the clay pot she had just filled with soil. “We were given bodies that are whole and nice-looking—like this one,” she said, running her gardening glove over the soil. “There is a flower buried deep inside, but you can’t see it yet. With a little light, water, and tending, it will be beautiful too. It’s the flower that counts, not the pot.”
“Do I have a flower in my pot?”
Mom smiled and reached over to give Annie a hug. “Of course! You have a beautiful spirit too. I just think that you and I may need to work a little to make our spirits as loving and kind as Carl’s.”
“Give ourselves some water and light?”
“Mom, do you think that walking home with Carl will give some water and light to the flower in my pot?”
“Definitely! Whenever we do the right thing or help others, our spirits become more beautiful.”
Annie picked up the tin pot. “Well, it was nice when he was so happy to see me. … I think I’ll keep walking with Carl.”
Mom smiled. “I thought you might.”
“But Mom, Carl will still act crazy and stumble up the hill. He’ll still make strange noises. Will I ever be able to see the beauty inside him?”
“I think you already see it at least faintly—and you’ll see it more and more clearly as you help him each day.”