Bad Reputation

James O'Brien

She started kindergarten last week. They'd been waiting for her. Had been since that morning four years ago, when she and I were dropping off her brother at his classroom and she got away from me, 10 paces out in front was all, but more than enough for her to pirouette and pull down on the little red box on the wall marked "Fire Alarm" and fill the halls with a great clang that emptied the school.

I wrote a column (confession) about it then, and she has heard the story so many times by now that when the "emptied the school" part comes, she grins and scrunches up her face on cue--as if she relishes the telling, but also as if she enjoys adding fresh hues to her bad reputation.

I saw her in the sunlight the other day, playing out in front of the house with a stick and a plastic school bus she'd duct-taped together, while her brother and mother and I played Scrabble inside. All at once, the three of us looked up from the board and watched her through the window. We laughed at her ingenuity and beauty and solitary spirit, and I knew then that I wanted to write about her, as a way of holding her, I suppose, because she started kindergarten last week.

"I hope you have pictures," said the smiling old woman on the bike path the other day. She had never seen my daughter before, but when she got a load of the dress, cape, sunglasses, helmet, and red ruby slippers connected to the chugging, churning legs, she could see it was something that needed capturing just as it is now.

Her older brother, who started fourth grade last week, thinks this is a dumb idea for a column. He took a break from standing on his head in the other room, came into my office, saw the words on my screen and the pictures of her strewn across my desk, and said, "People will just go, 'So what? What's so great about your kid? My kid's great, too.'" And he might be right. Or jealous. For the most part, he's good at not showing it--and good at being the person who makes her laugh harder than anyone else, especially since she takes such pleasure in torturing him.

She was quiet the first two years. Slept. Barely said a thing. Then she pulled the fire alarm and announced her arrival to the world. Now she is the unofficial toastmaster of our neighborhood, making her several-times-daily unbidden rounds to visit the neighbors and the neighbors' dogs, children, grandchildren, cats, and kitchens, and in doing so, somehow showing us all how to live by believing that no door is ever closed to her, and by bringing us all together with her brazen belief that it is her inalienable right to do whatever she wants to do right now.

The other night, our neighbors Gene and Marion hollered from across the street. They recently sold the family hardware store at the end of the block and are getting ready to retire and sell the house they raised their kids in. They came out with a homemade purple and green genie costume they'd found during their cleaning, and gave it to her. She put it on, and I stood on the sidewalk watching as she went from door to door, showing off, spreading the love, furthering her legend, and living out what Julie Miller sang in one of the best deadpan intros to a guitar solo ever recorded: "1, 2, 3, 4, tell the people what you are."

She is going to break hearts. I see it whenever she sits in my lap long enough to let me brush her hair and put it in a ponytail, and her eyes go from warm and needy to steely and independent in a blink. She loves people but doesn't need them; she is happy just being, and all the adults who think she's going to be a great artist, astronaut, singer, actress, or dancer don't understand that the secret to her success is her oft-incanted phrase, "You get what you get and you don't have a fit," and that she already knows she's made her mark.

In those moments I see that boys, and girls, all those poor future saps, will write poems and songs and articles about and for her; boys like a friend of mine, who, after seeing her Olympian little body swim and do ripple-less cannonballs for the first time a couple of years ago, called me up with this song on his lips:

You're gonna splash
Wherever you go
You're gonna crash
Like a wave
People will run
Run from the fun
But let 'em all run
Run to their graves
'Cause you're a party getting started
Everywhere you go
Bound to be brokenhearted and make angels
In the snow
Bound to love, bound to hate, bound to give and bound to take
Bound to make a
You're such a beautiful tornado
You could blow the century down
And still deserve a standing 'O'
For any beauty you had found
You're bound to be
Someone who
People promise big things to
You're bound to cry
Bound to crash
Bound to make a

Maybe my son is right. Maybe this is a dumb idea for a column. What I told him is that sometimes you write about something that's close to your heart, a blessing you're trying to count, and if you do it well enough, maybe it will make people think about what's close to their hearts, and that's the most you can hope for. If he'd stuck around long enough, I would have also told him that you can't really care what anybody thinks about what you do, and that you don't write because people will think it's dumb or smart; sometimes you write because you need to be close to, or restore your faith in, something beautiful and true.

Besides, I had to write about her today. It's my responsibility as a journalist. I am sworn to report that last Wednesday around midday, a great clang filled the city. Local history tells us that the clang was merely a test of the emergency weather sirens, but canny citizens now know there is no coincidence: She started kindergarten last week.


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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