Degree of Difficulty


Second day of eight-year-old walking herself home from school. I step out onto the front porch to see her coming, wave, and then duck back in to make sure the cats, who have been bunching up around my ankles, are all still inside.
This leads to trying to silence the dishwasher, which has suddenly begun clanking. I find the lost spoon and place it in a reservoir, thinking “that child oughta be here by now”. Had an oxygen tank from earlier errands, still half-gassed, so I strapped that on and popped out to see if something shiny had happened.

Child was nowhere to be seen.

“Maybe she came in the back way,” I say, and unlock the patio door. I step out through the back and follow the sidewalk to the mailbox nook, where the open back gate is.

No child. I retrace my steps, go back through the place and up the walk toward the main drag.

I find her two doors away, facing a closed door with a blank look on her face.

“I was knocking,” she says, clutching a half-sheet of paper with our address written on it.

I indicate the paper, and then the address on the door she’s facing. “Not sure if those folks are home. Our house is over here.”

We repair to our rooms. Okay, so she flubbed. No big. Her all red-faced, clasping a giant soda to her skinny little chest. We sit down at the kitchen table-homework comes first.

“I was on “green” all day today,” she announces (she had been in small trouble the previous three days, for talking while the teacher was talking, and refusing to do the classwork).

“Very good,” I say.

She’s pulling her “agenda” notebook out of her backpack. No homework folder. I ask after that item.

“I forgot it,” she says. I’m a little suspicious. I open the agenda notebook, to see what the homework was supposed to be. Word cards, she was supposed to make word cards, like math flash cards. I smell a rat.

The girl does not like reading. She is not very good at it. But she did well yesterday.

“Well,” I say, “we’ll read some. Your assignment says 20 minutes a day. We should be able to finish your book (Good Enough to Eat, by Brock Cole) today. I started yesterday–you start today.”
She begins, haltingly, sounding the words out to herself, sort of. It takes a lot of prompting to get through the first page. Then my turn, and the next. We never finished her next turn.

She had a “make-me” fit. Gave me the face, told me “reading is hard. Things are hard. It’s too hard for me to walk home from school. I was tired before I left.”

She’s rubbing her eyes and staring at something invisible in the near distance, alternately, making the pouty face.

“Soooo, reading is hard. And things are hard. Everything is hard until you do it for a while. Then it gets easier.”

I understand what she’s trying to do. She’s trying to create an excuse, to be let off the hook, like she has some kind of medical condition. She indicates several small scratches, two on her chest and one on her thumb, that she says Buster gave her, unprovoked. “I showed these to my teacher today,” she announces.

“And why did you do that?” I ask.

Stone face. Prompting eventually elicits the “I-dont-know” response. “They hurt,” she says.

“Scratches sometimes do,” I reply, not unkindly. “So why did Buster scratch you?” Maybe I could get at the truth.

“He just did.” Buster isn’t that kind of cat. He doesn’t scratch unless he has a good reason.

“I see. So what do you suggest we do about the walking-home thing? I’m not able to come and get you. Do you want me to meet you at Main st.?” (this isn’t the name of the street, but you get the idea)

“Yes.”

Thursday is when my oxygen tanks are delivered. There isn’t any particular timetable-they’re not that organized. I wait whole days, sometimes. This is why she’s been set to the task of walking herself to and from school in the first place-I can’t leave the apartment.

“I guess I’ll just have to watch for you from the door. I can’t leave because of the tank delivery.” She knows this. “You know that.”

She makes the pouty face.

I make the pouty face back. “Are we gonna have a staredown now?”

She looks away. “Okay. So we’ve established that you don’t want to watch tv or go to the pool today,” I begin. “And we’re starting to work on the special thing (the scooter I’ve ordered for her).

“So tell me, what is it that you want to do? You wanted to learn to tap-dance, right?”

She nods.

“And learn Karate. And Spanish. Are you under the impression that these are all easy things?”

Realization waps her between the eyes.

She looks at me, with a tear beginning to form where she’s been rubbing the eye.

“Yes. To me they’re easy.”

“I see. So you don’t need to learn them then. Fine.” I sit back in my chair.

“And songs,” she continues. “I want to write songs. That’s easy for me.”

I stifle a laugh, mostly.

“Sing your song for me,” I say.

“I wrote half of one,” she says.

“Sing it to me.”

“I don’t remember it.”

“Don’t you think you should learn to read and write so that this doesn’t happen again?” She can print some, but doesn’t have any real facility.

“Yes. But it’s hard. I can play guitar, that’s easy.”

Picture me incredulous. “Cool. I’ll go get my guitar, and you can show me.”

“I can play a couple of notes,” she says.

Reality has intruded yet again.

“I can see that we’re done reading for the day. You have chores.”

She has an erasable whiteboard with two chores on it. Her job is to sweep the bunny area and under the birdcage, and to feed and water the bunnies.

“Sweeping is too hard.”

I can see where this is going. “So what task would you rather perform?”
“Mopping,” I’m told.

“You have to sweep first,” I point out.

Pouty face.

“Get the broom.” I go turn off the tv, for there won’t be any Disney or Nick Jr today. Probably no swimming. I’d opt for go to bed without dinner but that’s not an option these days.

Kids.

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