My daughter’s favorite story was one she called “Daniel’s Rock.” A far cry from Frosty the Snowman, I could count on being asked to recite it as Christmas approached. I’d begin when she’d picked up the small rock that sat on the southeast corner of my desk and had nestled herself in my lap.
The opening words never changed. “The last time I ever saw Daniel, he gave me this rock and told me about his boxes. It was a long time ago, before you were born.”
Daniel entered my life when I was a teacher. Before entering the room, he leaned against the doorjamb of Room 202, where I taught 5th grade. For a moment, he just eyed all of us. Blond bangs obscured half his face. His sneakers and checkered shirt were too big for him. His jeans had rips in the knees.
He had made his entrance in the school of a quaint lakeside village. Slate walkways, brass mailboxes, Williamsburg-colored shutters.
Daniel told me his last school had been in a neighboring county. “We were doin’ peaches there.” Before that it had been an hour south, he told me matter-of-factly, as if he’d given this little speech plenty of times. “We were doin’ onions then.”
And then, maybe because of all his practice at this, he simply smiled and became — because he had no time to waste — a part of the class. If he saw anyone snicker at his unfortunate wardrobe choices, he did not show it. Until the afternoon kickball game, the boys eyed him suspiciously.
Daniel led off the first inning with a strong kick that earned him an effortless home-run jog around the bases. With that came a modicum of respect.
Next it was Charles’s turn. He listlessly approached the plate. Charles was the least athletic, most overweight child in 5th grade that year. After his second strike and accompanying eye rolls and muffled groans of the class, Daniel edged up and spoke quietly to Charles’s dejected back.
“Forget them, Kid, you can do it.”
Charles warmed, smiled, pulled in his chest and then struck out anyway. But it was that precise moment — oblivious to the social order of this jungle he had just entered — that Daniel gently began to change things. He taught by example only. By November, we would all be gravitating toward him. He taught us how to call a wild turkey. How to tell if fruit was ripe before you bite into it. How to treat each other, even Charles. Especially Charles.
He still didn’t know any of our names. He referred to me as “Miss,” when he needed to. He called every other person in the room “Kid.”
The day before Christmas vacation arrived that year with the class bearing gifts for their teacher. My style never varied much from year to year. I’d open the department store box and spout some effusive appreciation, always worrying that there would be a few kids whose parents couldn’t engage in this ritual.
Daniel stood off to the side, attempting a casual pose. He seemed slightly confused. Neither of us understood why I needed another silk scarf, but I pretended to.
That afternoon, he walked to my desk and bent low, close to my ear so only I would hear him.
“Our boxes came out last night,” he said without emotion. “We’ll be leavin’ soon.”
As I caught on, my eyes filled. He countered the awkward silence by telling me about the collection of boxes his family had accumulated over their years of transience.
“We got them good, sturdy ones,” he told me. “That way you don’t have to go to the liquor store for new ones. That way you’re set.”
A boy of few words, he went on at length until I swallowed hard and regained my composure. Then deliberately, and with great style, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a gray rock. He pushed it gently across my desk until it sat directly under my eyes.
Still blinking away tears, I was unsure what exactly I was looking at, although judging from the ceremony involved, I sensed it was something remarkable.
Without moving his eyes from mine, he said, “It’s for you. I found it this morning. I polished it up special.”
And the end of the story was always the same, too. “He’s a grownup now,” I would tell my daughter. Together we wondered aloud where Daniel was, what he looked like, and what kind of a person he became.
It would be years before she realized the story of Daniel’s rock was as much about me as anyone else — the lessons learned by the teacher. From the boy who lived month-to-month out of boxes, who never even knew her name.
“Do the end,” my daughter would say. And she would place the stone in my hand. I touched it gently, just the way it was given to me.
“Hi, Kid.” The same words every year. “This is Miss. Merry Christmas. I hope your boxes are finally gone.”