My Toothless Teacher

It had been a one-step-forward, two-steps-back day for me. At 6:00 A.M. I tiptoed into my parents’ bedroom. “Psst, Dad, my alarm clock didn’t go off.” It was not until we were halfway to school that I realized my socks were each a different color, and that I had forgotten the homework I had stayed up until midnight to finish. Even though I slipped into the classroom only three minutes late, I was marked tardy by my smiling, but sharp-eyed teacher. You can probably guess that with such a terrific beginning, the rest of the day went downhill fast.

An unbelievable series of setbacks led to the final indignity, which occurred as I was running across the lawn to catch the bus for home. Almost as though there were a plot against me, they turned on the sprinklers.

By the time I staggered off the old yellow school bus, checked the mailbox, and plodded up the driveway, the only thing that kept me on course was the therapeutic thought of an afternoon with no obligations. Not one single thing I had to do. Just my own time—all mine!

As I drooped along nearing the house, I noticed a strange car. Upon shutting the back door and throwing my books toward the kitchen table, I called, “Whose car?”

“It’s mine and Dad’s,” came a six-year-old voice in answer. And who should come shooting around the corner but Aaron, my first-grade, out-of-town cousin. He sprang at me with a flying leap, wrapping himself around my legs in glad greeting.

“Uncle Dick brought Aaron along to help him,” Mom explained. Each time he came on business, Uncle Dick brought a different son, and this was Aaron’s turn. His first time. A big event.

Aaron is a beautiful boy. His blonde hair, blue eyes, and broad smile make me proud. He looked great standing there in little tennis shoes, faded jeans, and a gap-tooth grin that all but shouted, “I know you’re glad I came!” Ordinarily he’d be right. But not today.

So while everyone was caught up in conversation, I took a small year’s supply of cookies and started downstairs. Then I heard it. The big news was that Aaron was to stay with us the whole afternoon. My afternoon! I would be expected to spend my own private, precious time babysitting!

I slammed the bedroom door and turned up the radio extra loud, pretending I didn’t hear Mom’s call. Then I flopped down on the bed to figure out how I could make up a final in Algebra. I would have solved that, and other world problems, too, but the bedroom door was thrown wide. An eager Aaron was suggesting, “Hey, pal, let’s do something.”

“You go right ahead,” I muttered, turning my head away. Aaron pulled on my pant leg. “C’mon, Brad, let’s go for a walk.”

“Oh, joy, a walk!” I thought with a thud. But who could resist that full-face grin? Off went the radio, on went my jacket, away went my afternoon. Aaron grabbed my hand, dragged me up the stairs and out the door.

With explosive excitement Aaron began to show and explain all the mysteries of the world. Holding a dandelion under his pixie chin, he explained, “You know, if you like butter, you’ll get a yellow shadow. Try it, Brad.” And sure enough, I like butter.

Aaron’s next nature lesson concerned a cunningly soft, striped caterpillar discovered by fortunate accident. With profound observation Aaron remarked, “The reason caterpillars have so many legs is cause their moms had lots of legs, too. All babies are like their moms.”

As we built finger bridges for our caterpillar to make its ticklish way, my excitement grew to match Aaron’s. I began to see the world through freshened eyes. I had forgotten how much fun climbing a tree could be, or playing pirates in the leafy branches. The game was barely used before Aaron traded it in on a new entertainment.

“Look at those neat lines, Brad,” Aaron called, as he heaved a fistful of small pebbles into a spring puddle. They made neat ripples, and I watched them ripple and wear out against the shore. I stood wondering how I could have let myself forget all this. How could I have become so grown-up-busy as to forget the black-bordered pastel of butterfly wings, the crisp smell of wild flowers, the snow-nourished spring greenery of my mountains? How could I have passed them by day after day?

I had forgotten how high you can go on Grandma’s swing, or how good the sun feels after months of winter bundling. I had become so mired with mundane problems, I had forgotten to enjoy life. Only 16 years old and already I was so engulfed in monumental anxieties, I had simply forgotten small pleasures.

I picked up a pebble to jar the stillness of the small pool again. Then I noticed that Aaron was kneeling down all curled into a small-boy ball.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m being a rock. Can rocks feel, Brad?”

“Well, you’re a rock. How do you feel?” By now I was chuckling.

“I feel hard. C’mon, Brad. You be a rock, too.”

It seemed like forever that I lay curled up in the sun with a slight breeze creeping beneath my jacket. I loved it. I hadn’t taken the time to get that close to my earth for so long.

Aaron, the rock, was first to break our stony silence. He whispered, “Didn’t God make a beautiful world? And all for us. Boy! He must love us rocks.”

“You bet!” I agreed as I draped Aaron, the all-American twerp, around my neck with a swoop of joyful energy. Life was suddenly fresh, new, beautiful!

I was sorry to see Aaron go that evening. Really. What a world of good he had done his doddering old cousin as we had stretched out together on that moist, grassy hill, with eyes for nothing but the cloudless blue sea above. His chubby hand had reached for mine.

“Hey, Brad, let’s always be pals just like we are now. Pals forever.”

Behind my eyes I felt tears forming, childlike tears of joy. I rolled over to squeeze that miniature boy wonder.

“Yeah, pals,” I pledged. “Pals forever.”

[illustration] Illustrated by Dick Brown

Brad Wilcox is a high school senior and priest from Provo, Utah. Besides writing the above story, he has also won a $4,000 scholarship in a national writing contest.