The first time I fell in love I was 16, and she was 5.
It wasn’t romantic, of course, but it was certainly love. I was her teacher, of sorts. It was a child development class during my sophomore year of high school. We ran a preschool, and each of the big kids was paired with one of the little kids. I was with Winni, pound for pound one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. She could write her name and was working on reading when I first met her, a year before she was even going to start kindergarten. Most of the other kids in the class were still working on coloring anywhere near the lines. But she was not the most social kid I’ve encountered. She did not speak a word to me, or to anyone else, until school had been in session for two months. I was thrilled when, in December, she finally told me that her favorite color was purple. I think I beamed for a week.
As she became more comfortable, she began to talk to me more. She expressed displeasure that they spelled her name wrong when I read her Winnie the Pooh. She would have me draw with her. She would tell me that there was a tiger behind me, and then growl and jump on me when I turned to look. But she was still incredible shy with the other kids, and I wanted more than anything to break her out of that cycle.
One day in March, she was writing at a table with a few other kids. Kate was using the purple crayon that Winni wanted. Kate, the angel, gave it to Winni, who smiled, took it, and said nothing. I pulled her aside- I wanted her to understand she had to thank Kate for that little kindness, because that was how you treat people. We were there for 15 minutes and Winni was not happy with me. She wouldn’t look at me. I knew it made her excruciatingly uncomfortable, and I hated forcing her on it, but I had to. She had to.
And finally, miracle of miracles, Winni found Kate just before the end of class and thanked her for letting her use the crayon. I’m not sure Kate knew what she was talking about, but I did, and Winni did, and that was all that mattered. She still wouldn’t meet my eye after class, but everything was different. I knew this was big.
Over the next few weeks, Winni became exponentially more social. She and Talia became virtually inseparable, and I was having to get her to quiet down sometimes. It was amazing how much she blossomed.
And then she was gone. Not a month after her thank you to Kate, I arrived in class and she wasn’t there, and she wasn’t coming back. Her mother had brought her in that day and told the class that the family had to leave right away. I never got an explanation, I never got to say goodbye, and I never saw her again.
I carry a picture of the two of us in my wallet, taken during those last few days when she was at her best. I used to fantasize about looking at my class roster when I begin teaching and seeing her name on the list, 10 or 12 years after we’d met. I wondered what she’d be like, what she’s like now. She turned 10 in December, and I like to think that she’s doing as well as she was this time five years ago.
I fell in love when I was 16, and I got my heart broken worse than I ever could have imagined. I understand why people say that they would give anything to spend one more day with someone they cared about, because there’s no substitute for that closure. Saying goodbye hurts, but not saying getting to say goodbye hurts forever. I’m never going to forget this girl, even though I only knew her for a few months. I miss you, Tiger. I hope I helped.