As I set up for our kindergarteners’ and first graders’ OWL class, several books are showcased on a side table. One is titled, One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dads, Blue Dads by Johnny Valentine.
A mother signing in her son in motions me outside, “Are you going to be reading that book about dads?” she asks.
“Not the whole thing, but I will be using it to show examples of families led by two dads. Today’s topic is all kinds of families,” I explain.
“That’s fine. I just want you to know that Henry lost his dad last year. He probably won’t say anything; he rarely does, but I thought that was important for you to know.”
I walk back in the room with a heavier responsibility. I remember the story in the local paper. His dad “died unexpectedly” which at 35 usually means suicide. The article mentioned that donations for the family would go to our local mental health clinic. Indeed he had lost his dad.
Henry is six. His brown eyes take up most of his face. For some reason he’s decided that I’m OK and he snuggles on my right side. After we sing “I’m unique and unrepeatable” we go around our circle of sixteen little ones and everyone shares how many people are in their family. We go counter-clockwise and Henry is first. “Two,” he says, “my mom and me.” Most kids there represent the traditional family-of-four-model with a mom, dad, and siblings. About halfway through the circle someone says “ten” and includes all their pets and then the first half of the circle that has already shared is devastated because they didn’t share their pets and they want to increase their totals. Which is to say they are typical kids who lose their minds if the word dog or cat is mentioned. Everyone must say something about their Bingo or Sassy or Chester or Rascal.
After sitting so long, we barely make it through a long story in the curriculum about a family reunion that includes families of all kinds. Partway through we stand up to let our wiggles out. Later on we act out part of the story. I panic as I see I still have a page and a half to go and then I abridge text on the spot. Some of the kids are playing with the anatomically correct dolls. One has pulled off a girl doll’s legs and has her walking on her vulva. Other kids are whispering, and Will shoots a pretend laser across the circle and I remind the kids of the expectations for listening. But Will sits picking at his frog boots and glances up briefly as I show the line-drawing illustrations. He is the one listening intently.
Two rounds of “The more we get together” help us release our wiggles and it’s time to draw a mural. After we set the ground rules for no coloring on other people’s drawings and sharing supplies, we are off to create a family mural. I notice Henry hang back and cross his arms.
“I don’t want to draw a fff…family,” he tells me, dropping his chin lower.
“OK, what do you want to draw?” I ask.
“I’ll draw with you,” I tell him, “really anything… I’m pretty good.” This is stretching my artistic abilities, but I want him to feel included and accepted.
He scratches his belly and I see a dinosaur on his sweater.
“Should we draw dinosaurs?” I ask.
“Definitely not,” he says, “but an eagle would be OK.”
I start with the wings and he encourages me with a nod and a “cool.” Then he takes over for the head and I add the beak and he sketches in tail feathers. Turning his head 45 degrees, he says, “I think it looks more like a hummingbird.”
My shoulders fall. The difference between an eagle and a hummingbird is huge. I ponder for a moment if eagles prey on hummingbirds — if they can catch them.
“But those are cool too,” he adds.
I draw a nest with an egg off to the side. He speckles the egg with a marker.
“Do you think that’s a mother bird?” he asks me.
“What do you think?” I ask
“It’s a father bird,” he says with certainty.
“Of course,” I say with authority, “I can see that.”
“I lived in a divorced family for a while like in the story before…” he adds, hard at work coloring the nest.
“My parents were divorced too,” I say, following his lead and looking away from him.
“Now we should draw a dinosaur,” he asserts.
He holds out his sweater while I carefully eyeball-trace the Stegosaurus. It turns out decent. I imagine if other Late Jurassic reptiles could talk they’d agree, “That looks like Old Steggie.” I am pleased that at least the plated dinosaur didn’t also resemble a hummingbird.
He puts his hand on my shoulder, “It looks good. I’ll color.”
At the end of mural project, Henry asks if he can cut out his drawing. The co-facilitator kindly tells him that we are saving the mural for the end of the class celebration. He looks disappointed. I’m not sure what the drawing means to him, but it means something.
I realize that celebrating families isn’t a celebration for everyone. Maybe Henry didn’t want to draw pictures of his family and leave a spot for the missing one. But somehow, through a botched attempt at a winged friend, maybe he heard me say, “Henry, I have no idea what that’s like for you, but it sucks about your dad,” and maybe in his own way he was able to say, “Yeah, it does.”