Tennyson Street School: joey

Joey: (n) a young kangaroo or other marsupial; a baby or young child

“What’s that for?” asked Angus, a freckled first-grader with a shock of strawberry blond hair cut into a fade-hawk, meaning he sported military sidewalls and a thick central mane of untameable thatch. Stripes had been shaved in above his temples.

“That’s Joey,” I answered, reaching for the pumpkin-orange stuffed animal perched on the low filing cabinet in the corner of my cubicle. “He’s a kangaroo, from Australia. He came all that way to be our Lab buddy.”

“Can I hold him?” Angus asked tentatively.

“Sure,” I said, handing him the toy kangaroo. Angus gave Joey a gentle hug, his eyes filling with worry.

“Sometimes, I get mad…and I hurt people,” Angus confessed quietly.

I gave him a sympathetic expression, saying nothing.

Sunny added, “Angus sometimes needs his book.” She nodded knowledgeably.

Esperanza chimed in, her low, monotone voice like an upbeat Eeyore perfectly pitched to explain, “It helps him calm down.” Angus looked appreciatively at his classmates.

“Just like Joey,” I said, smiling at Angus. “He sits here, by our ‘Better Choices’ compass. Do you remember what we will use that for?”

Angus shook his head slowly. “Nuh-uh.”

“If you are having a wiggly day, or a mad day, I might ask you to make a better choice, like write your words, or sit straight and strong. And Joey – “ I touched the top of the kangaroo’s head – “can help you make your choice.”

“Can we just hold him sometimes?” Espe asked.

“Of course. Joey likes hugs.”

“Can I hold him?” Sunny asked. Angus handed over the toy. Sunny gave him a squeeze.

“Can I hold Joey?” Espe asked. Sunny handed him to Espe. She smiled at him, cradling him on her lap and holding his soft paws in her fingers. Then she handed him back to Angus, who stood and carried him to the filing cabinet and set him on top.

I had been inspired by a teacher from my own children’s grade school days. In her room, she had a cuddle couch filled with stuffed animals and soft pillows. “Because some days are hard,” she had explained. This forgiving space existed in the Gifted and Talented class’s room. The teacher had been well-versed in the needs of “gifted” students, including comfort for an emotional immaturity that often lagged well behind their intellectual maturity.

It seemed to me that many children carried emotional burdens far too mature for their age. All kids want to do is fit in, be one of the pack. But that’s harder for some than for others.

My heart has always held a special place for the outsiders. Oddballs. Misfits. Angus was certainly one of these. Wherever his anger came from, gifts or curses, I, too, knew that big feeling in such a small body; it was scary, overwhelming.

“If you have a hard day, and I ask you to make a better choice, are you in trouble?” I asked the group now. Angus looked at his classmates, who immediately answered, “Nooo,” so he joined in.

“Right. We have our compass to help you make a new choice. And we have Joey.” I smiled at them. “And I’ll help you, too.”

Suddenly, Angus leaped to his feet and burst out, “You’re the nicest teacher I ever had! Can I give you a hug?!”

I opened my arms, and immediately my tiny doppelganger with his terrible haircut was holding on for dear life, clutching me around the waist and burying his small head under my ribs. I felt him in my gut, the hug and his feelings. As I looked down, he looked up. “Thanks,” he smiled. Then he sat down in his chair, and we had our lesson.

Next came the fourth and fifth graders. I predicted Violet, Alejandro, and Javier might roll their eyes and ask why we had a baby toy in our space.

“Oh, what’s that?” Violet asked, delighted.

“It’s like a stuffed rabbit,” Alejandro explained.

“That’s not a rabbit – it’s a kangaroo,” Javier corrected.

“Exactly right, Javier,” I said. “His name is Joey.”

“Can I hold Jonny?” Violet asked.

“Joey,” Alejandro and Javier both said.

“Can I hold him?”

I handed the toy to Violet, who seemed quite pleased with the little orange kangaroo. She hugged him with genuine affection and patted his paws together, then handed him back to me as we prepared to start our lesson.

“Where’d he come from?” Javier asked.

“Australia,” I answered.

He rolled his head in feigned exasperation. “No, really?”

“Sometimes, it can be frustrating to work so hard on reading and writing. It’s not always easy….”

“I think it’s easy,” said Javier.

“I think it’s easy,” said Alejandro, mimicking Javier’s exact tone.

Violet didn’t say anything.

“So – if you start to feel sad, or frustrated, or you need to make a better choice while you’re here,” I looked around at them all, “then you can hug Joey if you want. It makes some people feel better.”

We started our reading lesson. Alejandro, who read well below Javier’s level, copied Javier’s hurried whisper and quick page turns. He looked over at Javier constantly, as if they were in a competition. But at some point, he forgot to compete, and started reading the text by mistake. He turned pages more and more slowly. He continued reading after Javier had finished and was pestering Violet, who read even slower.

“Respect,” I admonished Javier. “Let people read at their own pace.”

Alejandro looked their way briefly, then looked toward the corner, and finally at me. “Can I hold Joey?” he asked softly. I nodded. In a couple quick steps he had retrieved the stuffed kangaroo and was back in his seat, finishing his book, holding Joey gently in the crook of one arm.

After the big kids and after lunch duty and after I ate at least part of my lunch, it was time for group with the kindergarteners. With “bubbles and hugs,” meaning bulging cheeks and arms wrapped across their chests in their no-talking-no-touching hall-walking behavior, they arrived into the lab – and then burst into squeals of delight.

“What is that?”

“Can I hold it?”

“I want to hold it!”

“What’s its name?”

“Sit for story time,” I motioned to the tiny excited faces. I pulled the kangaroo from its perch on the filing cabinet. “This is Joey,” and I held Joey out so they could touch him. “He’s a baby kangaroo. He is our new Lab buddy.”

“Hi, Joey!” squeaked Marisol. “He’s smy-wing at us!”

“Hi, Joey!” called out the other three.

“Is Joey really a kangaroo?”

“Really a toy kangaroo for us to be friends with.”

A slower, more thoughtful voice asked, “Can I hug Joey?”

“Yes you may,” I said, handing the stuffed toy to Micah. Micah was the slow talker in our group, but would also take his time figuring out each word in his beginner reader books. He held Joey gently and carefully.

“He’s soft,” he told us quietly, with the beginning of a smile.

“Can I hold Joey, Micah?” Micah handed the kangaroo to Katherine. She hugged the toy tightly and grinned. “He IS soft!”

“Can I hode Joey, Kaffwin?” Katherine handed the kangaroo to tiny Marisol. “Hi, Joey! You my fwend, Joey. I wuv you, Joey.” She hugged him again.

Now it was Brandi’s turn. Brandi was the tallest kindergartener. Originally, I had wondered if she was a year older, but she was not, even though her voice was deeper, her sneer was practiced, and she corrected me when I complimented her on her fancy denim vest with torn-off sleeves: “It’s not a vest, it’s a jean jacket.” Brandi was the toughest chick in kindergarten. 

I watched her watch Marisol cuddling Joey. I saw her hands start to move from her lap up to the top of the table. Finally, she couldn’t keep her cool facade any longer.

“Can I hold Joey, Marisol?” She shot me a glance, but I just half-smiled nonchalantly, communicating hey, no big deal, everyone else asked for the kangaroo, whataya gonna do, eh Brandi?

Brandi held the kangaroo close. She hugged him to her heart. She held him quietly for a long time, while the others got out crayons and coloring pages and chattered and giggled and told stories. Then she whispered to the top of his furry head, “I love you Joey.”