“Ms. Cassani Davis, can you help us?”
A student has run over. She is shy and determined. She has just entered 2nd grade.
“With what?” I ask.
“Just come,” she says.
Don’t underestimate the playground quests of children; the Odyssean epics that unfold each day among leaves, rocks, wood chips, and flowers. The worlds that exist in the several hundred square feet that have been deemed “safe.” (And, more enticingly, in the feet that haven’t.)
I can’t resist the call of duty, so I follow her down to the gnarled tree, where several of her friends wait in its shade.
It’s easy to be fooled by their printed dresses and their Mary Janes, and their sweet voices, and the ribbons tied in their hair by their mothers. But 7-year-old girls are tough. They concoct plots. They write spells. They come home covered in dirt. They jump, tumble, and fall, and get up again. They hunt bugs. Everything is still possible.
They point into the branches, murmuring.
“We can’t get it.”
I squint, and try to see what they see. A cicada shell, dangling amidst late summer leaves, translucent like old tupperware. They have already found one, they inform me. But there are many more to collect, that they can’t reach.
Of course, they have enthusiastically overestimated my height—there’s no way I can reach the insect-skeleton with my hand, even on tip-toes. Luckily, I’ve finished my smoothie, and wield a plastic bottle.
“Stand back,” I announce, grandly. Shrieks, oohs, mutterings. The girls shuffle back.
I toss the bottle up once, and miss. A few gasps. Words of encouragement. Try again! I bend down, quickly pick it up, aim, and toss up again. A small sound, like the plucking of the guitar string, and the cicada husk flutters to the grass.
A friend in Mary Janes darts in to pick it up, and cups it gently in her palm. We bend over to examine the creases in the magnificent crystalline structure. It’s perfectly preserved, even after the living, symphonic insect of summer has wriggled free.
I taught 2nd graders last year; this year, I have 4th graders. Already, I can tell the difference. Though separated by only a few inches, and two digits, 4th graders are no longer so sweet, so keen to please. They are rambunctious, stubborn, independent. They know more. (Or think they do.) They can hide their feelings. (Or think they can.)
A member of my new class has wandered over, drawn like a moth to the hubbub. His transition lenses are darkened. He is a head taller than the other girls, and strong. “Cool,” he says, inspecting the shell. He joins the quest to look for more cicadas, and knocks the next shell down with a well-aimed, coordinated throw of a stick.
“What if humans shed their skins like that?” I muse, as we inspect the tree further, hunting for more shells.
“Why would they?” He says it, more than asks. “That would be gross. Look! A slug must have been here.” He points to a slimy trail streaking the bark. It glints with tiny rainbows.
At the end of recess, I spot one my former students, now a 3rd grader, sitting on a bench near the sand pit. He is reticent to greet me. “I’m not one for saying hi old teachers,” he says, matter-of-factly.
Summer is over. Skins have shed. Another year ahead.