We were building Central America in my classroom. That tiny slip of countries between Mexico and South America was the subject of my unit in sixth grade social studies, so I asked for volunteers, and parents and students chipped in to buy us a plywood platform that covered eight desks, modeling clay, miniature trees, vegetation and other model pieces from a father’s architect firm, chicken wire, and paint.
The kids could have worked all day on the project, and thrown the other subjects out the window. Students arrived an hour before school, stayed in at lunch, and remained until dark in the evening, all to work on Central America. One night, I found myself with five boys working on various areas of the board. Gary was one of them.
He had transferred to the school that year. I never saw his transcripts from his other schools, and his parents did not attend Back-to-School Night. From the start, he struggled. He was smaller than the other boys, painfully thin, with a yellow cast to his skin. I had tried to call his parents to discuss his lack of progress in my classes, but there was no answering machine and notes I sent home went unreturned. Mostly, Gary slept in class and turned in blank tests. Central America gave him a reason to live. He loved working on the project, and would take meticulous care crafting mountain ranges and rainforests. He told me he wanted to go there someday.
So there we were, five o’clock in the afternoon, the sun long since disappeared from the late autumn sky. Gary was painting his mountains with cans of spray paint, and we were all a little high from the fumes. “Mr. Martin, can we get extra credit for helping so late?” Carlos asked. I told him I was keeping track.
“My mom was really mad at my last report card,” Steve offered.
“My dad gave me the rice and beans,” Gary said.
“Rice and beans?” Carlos laughed. “You mean that’s all he gave you to eat because of bad grades? That’s messed up.” They all laughed, even Gary.
“No, he made me kneel on the rice and beans, not eat them.”
We all put down our tools, glue, and paint cans. “Gary,” I said as evenly as I could, “what do you mean?”
“When I get bad grades, my dad puts a tray on the floor and dumps in rice and beans before they’re cooked, when they are really hard. Then I have to kneel on them while holding a half a bucket of water, sometimes for an hour.”
“What does that do?” one boy asked.
“You should see my knees,” Gary said. “They look like pizza when I’m finished, and sometimes, the blood soaks through and my mom has to throw the pants away.”
After I dismissed the boys, I found the principal, a nun named Sister Maria, and I told her what Gary said. She picked up the phone and dialed the 800 number for Child Services. She gave the information to the operator—Gary’s name, address, the school name, the reporting teacher (she used her own name for this, telling me she would take the responsibility), and other pertinent information. After she hung up the phone, she told me I did the right thing for Gary.
I was nervous the next day. Gary was unfazed, his usual self in class, staying in at lunch to work on the project. I kept waiting for the authorities to descend on the school, but it was an ordinary day.
The next day, Gary slept through reading class, and came alive for Central America. No storm troopers landed, and no helicopters hovered over the building. After school, I stood out on the second floor landing and watched over the playground as the kids went to their carpools and walked home. The playground was still busy when I heard a piercing scream, inhuman, like an animal being torn apart. I looked around the area beneath my perch, trying to find the source of the sound. Kids were running, mothers were herding their children away. Then I saw him. Gary stood at the fence, his hands gripping the mesh. He was screaming, long, wordless, blood-curdling shafts of sound.
I ran, down the stairs, across the playground to the fence. When I reached the boy, he began flailing at me. “Noooo! Nooo!” he shrieked. He pointed up the street. I looked in that direction and saw a battered car pulled at an angle to the curb with police cars behind. Two figures were out of the car, lying face down in the street. The cops had their guns drawn and were gingerly approaching the figures. “They have my mommy!” Gary screamed. “They are taking them, nooo!”
I grabbed Gary around the body and pulled him from the fence. I wanted to get him inside, out of sight of the incident down the street. Maybe I could settle him down. Outside the fence, an unmarked police car pulled to the curb. Two men in suits with guns in holsters at their waists got out of the car. One opened the back door, and a woman with a briefcase got out. They looked at me through the fence, and then glanced up the street. Gary was kicking and screaming. All the parents and students stood open-mouthed, staring at the spectacle.
In a few moments, the woman and Sister Maria came out on the playground and over to where I struggled with Gary. Sister Maria tried to quiet the boy. “Gary, this woman needs to speak with you.” He would have none of it.
“Come with me, Gary,” the woman said.
“They are taking my daddy,” he screamed in her face.
Suddenly, the two plainclothes police officers were next to us. They bundled Gary up and carried him away. I was stunned. I was only vaguely aware of the car screeching away from the curb. In seconds, it was all over. Gary was gone. One cop car remained down the street while his parents’ battered vehicle was towed away.
I went back to the classroom. The sun slanted through the windows, and I could smell the ocean just a few miles away. Sister Maria was suddenly in my doorway. “You did the right thing,” she said without prompting.
“I did not expect that to happen.”
“No, no!” she fired at me. “Do not think that way! You did the right thing. What his father was doing to him was abusive.”
“Maybe, but Gary did not seemed bothered by it. He was very matter-of-fact about it. Now I’ve destroyed a family.”
“You did nothing of the sort. It is not right to make your kid kneel on rice and beans until his kneecaps bleed. You did the right thing.”
After she left, I slumped at my desk. The sun flooded the room with late afternoon light. Central America sat in one corner, nearly completed, towering mountain ranges, rivers, rainforests. I pulled out a large magnifying glass that some teacher before me had left in the desk. I focused the rays of light on my desk blotter, and one by one, burned tiny holes in the felt. I wanted to destroy the model. It was all I could do not to smash the plywood into slivers and fragments, to annihilate Central America. I didn’t. I packed up and left the building.
The next day, I let one of the students take the whole project home in his father’s truck. Sister Maria told me she finally got answers from the watch commander at the police station. Gary’s father had felony warrants for his arrest. That was the reason for the major league take-down in the street. “You did the right thing,” she kept insisting.
I never saw Gary again.