My car pulls into the lot and as I exit it, I see Debra, her hand to her brow, scanning the horizon. She is the self-appointed herald of the pre-K class. From her perch atop the jungle gym she shouts, “Selam! Mom!” Assured that Selam has heard her, she resumes her post.
Selam doesn’t need the announcement. She is waiting, as always, near the gate, her pink sun hat tied to her head. She plays by the gate in the afternoon, because that’s when I come. In the morning outdoor time I am told that she she ventures down to the slide and the climbing bars, far from the edge. But in the afternoon, she’s always there, always within eyesight of the gate. She meets me half-way as I circle around the steps leading to the gate. Her hand trails on the chain link, and I am obliged to meet it–our fingers touch. I’m not sure who is the prisoner and who is free, until I unlatch the gate and step inside. “I missed you,” she says. I cover her face in kisses. I pick her up, ask her if she ate rocks for lunch, put her down. She puts away her required three toys, says goodbye to the teacher and we are free.
We go inside the building, and greet her classmates and their parents as we make our way to her room. Around us the building swirls with activity. A pair of twins chase their sister down the hall. Two women swing their toddler between them as they head to the pool. Three solemn boys in matching clothes and matching kippah sit on a bench. I suspect they were told not to move. A teenager stomps three steps ahead of his father. An older woman pushes a baby stroller toward the door.
In her room, there is artwork in her grey bin. She has painted something today. Neither of us know what it is. She says it’s a shark, but that’s what she always says when she can’t remember. I like the green and purple swirls. There is also a pre-paid envelope addressed to Country Living magazine. Inside, she whispers, is a letter to her daddy, “the pretend daddy what lives behind the sofa.” I carefully put it inside my bag. Selam has a father, three brothers, four sisters and five dogs that live behind our sofa or sometimes in her Tinkerbelf house, location unknown.
On the wall, the children have posted a chart. Each child’s name is there, and they have colored squares to record the size of their families. Apparently family members behind the sofa do not count, so Selam has colored in two yellow squares. We are the smallest family. Three children have six colored squares.
“They are the biggest,” explains Selam.
“They have to have big cars,” she adds.
“They have to take turns.”
“I don’t have to take turns.”
“Well, not at home, but you do at school.”
“Acause of my brothersisters are pretend.”
“Our family is little.”
She shrugs. “I like it.”
She grabs my hand and we wend our way out of the building, to the lot, to the grey car that carries us back to the apartment we call home. Our path takes us back past the playground, where Debra is still on duty.
“Ben!” she calls, “mom! dad! brother! brother!”
The button clicks twice, and two short beeps signal success. Selam climbs into the car, lunchbox in hand.I snap the button, and shut the door.
“Megan! Daddy!” echoes as I open my own door.
I wave goodbye to Debra, still hard at work. She doesn’t see me though. Her father has arrived. “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaddy!” she cries, running to the gate, to the latch that only the grownups can reach, to the gate that opens toward free.