Every year I ask my 2nd graders to draw a picture of whatever scares them most. We discuss the drawings in class. It helps the kids confront their fears and control them.
Sharks in the 70s. Clowns and nuclear bombs in the 80s. Serial killers in the 90s. Lately, guns and lockdowns. Some fears are silly, and others I can't even bear to talk about.
But since the beginning, one subject has appeared with astonishing regularity, two or three in every class.
Aside from slight variations in perspective and style, it's always basically the same picture.
A boy sits high in the trees that grow on the grounds of the middle school next door, on the opposite side of our playground fence. He's flinging rocks at terrified children below.
"God help the little bastard I catch throwing rocks," we teachers would say to each other.
But we never caught anyone. Middle schoolers are quicker than minnows. And the victims were no help, refusing to tattle or return fire.
My colleagues believed it was a perverse rite of passage: smaller children endured the abuse until it was their turn to throw rocks at future generations.
In class each year, I'd hold up an assortment of the perennial drawings.
"What are these about?" I’d ask. "Bullies?"
The kids would shake their heads.
"Ghosts," they'd say.
Here's the weirdest part. They always drew that boy the same way. Red hat, one eye slightly bigger than the other, brown shoes. How was I supposed to explain that? I couldn't.
All I could do was give those poor kids my speech about bullies, and stuff their drawings into my desk drawer with the rest of them.
Then last summer, the middle school chopped down the trees and built a new gymnasium in their place. All the teachers were thrilled.
"No more rocks," we said to each other.
*No more ghosts,* I thought.
So imagine my surprise when more than half my class drew that damn picture again this year.
Sure, the trees were replaced by the gymnasium and the ghost boy was gone, but the rest was the same--children crying, bleeding, flinching, crouching in the dirt.
I spread out the drawings on my desk and called up Tanner, a kid I trust to be a straight-shooter.
“What is this?” I asked. “The boy's gone. He can't throw rocks at you anymore.”
"Not at us," said Tanner, pointing at something in each picture. I dug out the drawings from previous years and Tanner went on pointing at those too. “He was aiming at her.”
A little girl. Lemon yellow dress. Hair in pigtails. I hadn't noticed her before because she'd been cowering with the other children, afraid.
Not anymore. In the newest drawings she was standing tall, chin up. Smiling.
Tanner spoke in a whisper, almost too soft to hear.
"And now there’s nobody to stop her."