Today, we are thrilled to present “Family, Family” by Jeannine Ouellette, the second-place winner of our Fall Fiction Contest. In “Family, Family” a Waldorf school teacher grapples with the extent to which she can protect a particular first-grade student from social hardships, and the extent to which she should shelter him in the first place. “Family, Family” is tender but blunt, quiet but cutting. So curl up, and enjoy.
Selected by Kelly Link
“Leo’s baby was made of the longest unbroken strands of discarded wool yarn he had collected from his many false starts on his scarf, those discards he’d stuffed into the bottom of his calico knitting bag. In that sense, Leo had fashioned this baby from his own failures.”
The thing about Leo Whittaker is that although he was not liked, he was not unlikable, as some children certainly are. Grown-ups, especially teachers, won’t always acknowledge this, and I don’t particularly care to acknowledge it myself, truth be told. But it’s a fact—some children are simply foul. Not Leo, though. Not at all. Leo was just a bird-boned slip of a boy with blue veins pressing through his clear skin like a curvilinear map of rivers. He was a placid child who committed none of the usual offenses that tend to mark first-graders. He neither picked his nose nor pushed and shoved the girls nor licked the bottom of his shoes nor tugged at his penis absentmindedly throughout the school day. And even for a first-grade boy, Leo wasn’t the slightest bit dirty or smelly—although, to be fair, none of our students at Rolling Meadow Waldorf School were dirty or smelly. They were too well-heeled for that. Some of our families did reject chemical deodorants—so inevitably those children would ripen by sixth or seventh grade. But I digress.
If anything, I found Leo more charming and likable than most seven-year-olds, what with that sweet, clear diction of his, those dark raisin eyes, that uniform of green corduroy pants (green “for grass” and corduroy “for the extra nice feeling of it”) and bright argyle sweaters. I admired his tidy lunches of almond butter on sourdough, dehydrated pineapple wrapped in waxed paper, and glass jars of sauerkraut (homemade—his mother also fermented her own sourdough starter, yogurt, and kombucha). Speaking of fermentation, Leo shared his mother’s knowledge of the art and science of it, on which he sometimes expounded. “In Latin, ferment means to leaven,” he told me early on that September. “That word is old-fashioned,” he explained. “It means to wake up. Or turn something into something else.”
Leo was an advanced reader in first grade, which set him apart, because we didn’t formally teach reading at Rolling Meadow until second grade or even third. We felt it was better overall not to pressure children too soon with abstract academics. But Leo already had the key to the kingdom, and was often absorbed in one of those Eyewitness Books about Egypt or wild animals or what have you. And then there was his fascination with our dolls, those sweet flannel things stuffed with clean wool with their round heads sewn perfectly smooth and faceless—all the better for imagining—and framed by silky, close-cropped hair. “Dolls are for Little House,” the other boys often chided Leo. And it was true: in our school, dolls did belong primarily to the Little House—that’s what we called the low, asymmetrical nursery school building on the east side of our grounds. The Big House, a two-story brick building across the field, held classes one through eight, or—as we all said simply—“the grades.” The Big and Little Houses were separated by a hundred yards at most, but Humboldt’s cosmos may just as well have lain between us as far as the children were concerned. After all, the Little House was for making porridge and playing house and napping on cots in the afternoon, a soft babyish place filled with soft babyish toys, while the Big House was for real school, a place of wooden desks and chalkboards and days filled with numbers and letters and lesson books. The only real remnants of the Little House in our first-grade classroom were those three special dolls hand sewn and ferried over in Moses baskets by the Little House teachers on the first day of school—as a blessing. As I have said, Leo found them enchanting.