Estimated reading time — 5 minutes
“Speak louder, please.”
I put my hand up next to my ear from the back of the room, signaling that she would need to raise her voice.
She took a deep breath. I could see anxiety turning her cheeks beet red, as strands of blonde hair began to fall out of the same nappy pony tail she wore everyday. There was something about her so familiar, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. With her face glued to the paper, too afraid to make eye contact, she quickly sputtered out,
“Hi my name is Paisley Jackson, and this is my poem called ‘My Family’.”
Paisley was a shy little girl. In fact, she was one of the quietest students I ever had in my 10 years of teaching. Which I guess being the youngest of 11 will do that to anyone. Surprisingly, she was very smart, unlike the rest of her siblings who were dumber than a box of rocks. Lord, the Jackson kids were such a headache, except for Paisley of course. I just wish I could’ve given her more opportunities to improve her future.
Don’t get me wrong, I tried to help Paisley, I really did. I gave her clothes, food, and even had funds lined up for her. But, living dirt poor in a shack out in the middle of the desert, was a bad hand to be dealt in life. Besides no matter what I did, it wouldn’t have made a difference, everyone knows that the cycle of poverty is almost impossible to break.
I crossed my legs, pen in hand, preparing for yet another bland story about a family I’d never get to meet. If you’ve ever worked with underprivileged kids, you’d know that guardian involvement is quiet rare. When it came to interest in their daughter’s education, Paisley’s parents were no exception.
“I have two mommies. One named Betty who can make good spaghetti. I call her Mom, she’s the one that’s married to my dad Tom. One named Claire with pretty yellow hair. I call her Mommy, dad calls her his project, his hobby.”
Being smack dab in the middle of Utah, I’ve seen hundreds of polygamist families, so this didn’t strike me odd. Besides, even though polygamy is illegal, I try to keep my nose in my own business.
“Mom takes care of us all. She can do that because she’s so tall. Mommy wears a pretty silver bracelet. She wears it because she’s so famous.”
Wouldn’t be the first time I saw kids coming up with stories about celebrity parents to add excitement to their ordinary lives. I just didn’t expect it to come from Paisley.
“Mommy has me and Tommy. He’s one of my older brothers. Mom is a lot older. She has all the others.”
I cringed. That meant that one of Paisley’s mothers had given birth to 9 children. I couldn’t imagine going through that many pregnancies.
“Dad says me and Tommy are a gift from God. He’ll never hit us with a rod. His pride and joy is Tommy, but he says the only person he truly loves is Mommy.”
I looked up from my grade book, with the line about a Rod catching my attention. However, this wasn’t the first time one my students have accidentally reported abuse. Truth is, CPS picks and chooses who they want to help.
“Mom is having another baby. She’s mad Dad wants to name it Daisy. Mommy can’t have no more kids. Her last one died of SIDS.”
Shifting in my seat, I scribbled down a note reminding myself to deliver my daughter’s old baby clothes to the Jackson’s shack. As a mother myself, I know babies can be expensive.
“Dad says she did it on purpose, because she wanted to run off and join the circus. Mom says it wasn’t her fault. I promised to keep that secret in the me-and-her vault.”
I shook my head in sadness. How could someone blame a grieving mother for something she couldn’t control?
“Mommy was the one Dad chose. He watched all of her school shows. They were joined in the night. Daddy says inside her is a lot of fight. Mom is just a cover, Dad doesn’t really love her.”
I threw my hand up, a gesture meaning “stop” I had taught my students, but Paisley didn’t look up. She continued to read, oblivious to my disappointed frown. Obviously one of her siblings put her up to this as a joke.
“Mommy says she needs to get out. She wants to show me what life is all about. Dad gets mad, it’s his biggest pet peeve. Mommy is sad, she just wants to leave.”
“Mommy sings to me her favorite song. Mom says Dad’s head is wired wrong.”
Shaking my head, I sighed. Another child with so much potential, and such a kind heart, was stuck in the middle of a lovers quarrel that didn’t even involve her.
“Last birthday, I wanted to take Mommy to see her favorite basketball team. Mom made me a cake with frosted buttercream. I got to go see the Knicks, but Dad said he made a mistake he couldn’t fix.”
“Nothing is the same anymore. I don’t know why for sure. Now Dad cries at night alone. He asks God “What have I done?” To Mom he no longer tends, she hopes the baby will make amends.”
Paisley rose her head up with a smile, looking for my approval. Although I was appalled at the inappropriateness of her poem, I didn’t want to break her spirits. She clearly was very proud of it, and scolding her for something that wasn’t her wrongdoing, was just going to send that little girl back into her shell that I’d been trying to break for months.
So instead, I clapped, making the rest of the class (who were too young to understand the gravity of the situation) applaud too.
“Mrs. June, I brought a picture of Mommy for extra credit, it’s got one more part of the poem. Can I show the class?”
I nodded my head, thinking there couldn’t possibly be any details worse than what she already presented.
Paisley reached into the front pocket on her old worn out hand-me-down dress, pulling out an old, aging photo. She flipped the flaking picture around, displaying it as if it were her most prized possession.
My blood ran cold. I finally figured out why Paisley looked so familiar to me.
In what seemed to be a school photograph, smiling ear-to-ear exactly like Paisley, was a young woman by the name of Claire Daisy. She was a High School student, popular for her ability to gain the lead in every school play, that went missing without a trace 12 years prior. She was last seen leaving theater practice late one night, but then she just vanished. No sign of a struggle. No witnesses. No evidence. No body. Nothing. Her case was covered on every news station in Utah for a while, because of how peculiar it was, until people lost interest.
Paisley happily continued. I was so in shock I couldn’t stop her, as she read off the back of the picture.
“There is one thing I don’t understand, and maybe you’ll have the answer at hand. If Dad’s love for Mommy will never sway, why did he treat her that way? Mom lays her head on a nice soft bed. But Mommy sleeps in the basement under a big slab of cement.”