Dark, beautiful, yet vacant eyes, shift focus from the tree behind me to the children playing on the playground to the left of me. She is as small in stature as she is in presence, and yet I am magnetically drawn. But like opposing magnets our bodies reject each other. The closer I try to get to her, the farther away she retreats.
The fall season of running and coaching started a few weeks ago. I have a team of 12 third and fourth graders this session, including my own child. It is finally The Hare’s turn to be on my team. It is also the first team out of the last 3 that I didn’t already know all of the girls. Most of the personalities are recognizable, aside from one. This one is by far the quietest and most withdrawn. At first I thought there might be a learning disability but after a few practices I realized the problem lay mostly in our inability to communicate. English is obviously not her first language. Her mother has tried whole-heartedly to tell me in bits and pieces that she is thankful for our patience. She is thankful that we have tried to include her daughter in our lessons and running. I am thankful that she keeps coming back.
The other girls can sense that she is different and sit at arm’s length. No one picks her for their partner. The other girls aren’t mean, just not sure how to receive their team-mates differences. They do not engage. While we run, The Quiet One walks slowly around the school. She watches the children on the playground that are part of another program, seems to long for time on the swings. One afternoon she even left the running path, shuffling across the black top, until I called to her and explained again that we needed to stay together. Recess was over, practice had begun.
Yesterday I decided to bring Luna puppy to practice. She had been alone for longer than usual and I felt guilty about leaving her again. The weather has been unseasonably warm. Sunny and 60’s, perfect weather to be outside. Luna welcomed each girl with a body wiggle and wet tongue. The team of course responded in giggles and cheers. Everyone wanted a turn to snuggle 5 pounds of fluffy cotton and smell her puppy breath. All but one of the girls squealed in joy for our new visitor. The Quiet One just watched. As the running workout began something compelled me to hand Luna’s leash to her, “Would you mind walking Luna today? She really could use the exercise.”
A shaky hand reached out for the pink leash, grasping it firmly between dirt caked fingers. She looked at me for the first time and smiled. There was a light behind those eyes. At first it was a leisurely stroll, slowly sliding into a brisk jaunt until we were at the verge of running. Luna had taken the lead, following all the girls ahead of us. But even at a full-out run, it only required a mild power walk to keep up with Luna’s tiny stride. The Quiet One was still smiling as she willingly kept up with the dog. She turned to me and said, “I like this. She is really pretty.”
Another volunteer took over. Luna and The Quiet One managed to continue this power walk for a mile, an unbelievable accomplishment given that the weeks before we could barely help her run one lap, let alone four. What was also amazing was the way her body had softened towards the rest of the team. Each girl who ran by her said, “Good job!” or “Keep up the good work”, and she responded every time with “Thank you”.
At the end of practice Luna and The Quiet One were intimate friends, snuggling on the blanket as we finished our lesson. It was the first time the rest of the girls sat close to her, bodies brushing, shoulders touching. Some of the team-mates just wanted to lay a hand on Luna while The Quiet One held her, others were content to be near the center of attention, but all engaged in conversation. When I asked who met their running goal, even The Quiet One raised her hand.
We said our goodbyes. The Quiet One stood closer to me than usual, fondling the fur on top of Luna’s head.
“You had a great day today sweetie,” I whispered near her ear.
She smiled, our eyes locked.
“Yeah, I did.”