Beth Daniels, the new teacher's-assistant at Homestead Daycare, turned her head in the direction of the scream, scanning each child's face, looking for the one in pain - and found her, standing by the swings. Hurrying, Beth tripped over the old tree's root in the center of the playground, hobbled a few steps, then dropped to her knees. Ice-blue eyes, framed by closely-cropped blonde hair that stuck out wildly, met Beth's own brown ones. Beth saw no bumps, no bruises, no blood. The child twisted, seeking freedom from Beth's hold on her shoulders.
"Ellie, what's wrong ?"
Like shutting off a water tap, the tears stopped. Ellie planted her feet. Indiscernible words exploded into the air. A tiny index finger waggled in Beth's face as fast as the tail of an excited puppy.
"Ellie swing !" the child demanded.
"Ellie, the swings are all being used. You'll have to wa--"
"Het! Ellie swing now !"
Beth glanced toward Sarah, the senior teacher.
"She always swings. She needs to do something else."
Screaming nonsensical words, Ellie ran across the playground and huddled beneath the tree. Pulling her coat tighter against the chill, Beth approached the child who sensed rather than saw her coming.
"Het ! Go!" Ellie pointed in the opposite direction.
Beth stopped, torn between hugging the child and disciplining her.
"Line up !" Sarah called.
Beth took Ellie's hand and tugged. Slowly Ellie stood. Confident that the child would follow now that the tantrum had ceased, Beth relaxed her hold. In a heartbeat Ellie stood by the swings, one hand clutched the swing's chain, the other planted on her hips. With a gimlet stare she dared Beth to come and get her.
As Beth took a step, a voice from behind cut through the November wind. "Ellie, get over here ! Now !"
Ellie didn't budge. Changing tactics, Beth turned her back and joined the children waiting to go inside, calling over her shoulder, "Let's go, Ellie. Lunch is ready."
Ellie approached the door dragging her feet. Beth smiled. Ellie stiffened at the gesture of friendship. Frowning, Beth felt the knot in her stomach tighten. In all of her fifteen years working with children, there hadn't been a shell she'd failed to crack. Ellie's just might be the first.
As the week passed autumn's chill - and Ellie's - deepened. No matter what Beth did for her, the child was quick to cut her down with a mere glance. Looking for the gap in the hedge, Beth questioned Sarah, as they watched a frustrated Ellie work a jigsaw puzzle.
"Ellie and her brothers haven't been in this country long - six, maybe eight months; they're from Russia."
"Ah, so that's what she speaks from time to time."
"They understand more English than they speak. Ellie gets help at her other kindergarten class in the afternoon. The boys are learning on their own. After their father died, the mother abandoned them. Ellie was left to care for both the younger ones. She fed them by stealing food and looked out for them on the streets. It's hard for her to allow someone else to take over, even her foster parents. She needs time. She doesn't trust that anyone's going to be there for them tomorrow."
A little knowledge gave birth to much understanding; Beth's offended spirit softened.
After snacktime the children played while Sarah and Beth set out craft supplies. Ellie ignored the call to clean up.
"You can finish coloring at home, Ellie."
Over the rim of her glasses, Ellie watched Beth plop crayons into a plastic tub.
"Ellie, put the paper in your mailbox and the crayons on the shelf."
"Het ! Ellie finish first !"
She snatched a crayon and scribbled black streaks across the meticulously colored bird. Beth leaned across the table, hands on either side of the coloring paper, the crayon bucket between her arms.
"Ellie - put - the - crayon - away - now."
"Het ! Ellie finish first !"
"No. Ellie will finish at home."
Ellie raised her head. Nose to nose. Challenge pulsed in the air. Beth covered Ellie's hand with her own.
"Drop it, Ellie. Now." The crayon dropped into the bucket. Beth released her hold. "Put the paper in your mailbox and sit with the others."
Ellie mumbled. Beth didn't need a Russian-English dictionary to understand.
Beth interrupted her in mid-sentence. "You will not talk to me like that. "
"I don't care if you don't like me. Do it anyway."
"Ellie ! Enough !"
The child quieted. Beth replaced the crayon bucket on their shelf, then joined the others. Sulking, Ellie put the paper away.
During craft time she refused Beth's help. At lunchtime Beth offered Ellie fish sticks, her favorite. Ellie refused them. She accepted them from Sarah.
As the days passed Beth praised Ellie whenever she could, especially her newly-found ease at doing jigsaw puzzles. She offered her extra pickles or fish sticks at lunch. Daily, Ellie's sourness chipped away at Beth's confidence.
The air smelled of snow the day before Christmas vacation. Phone in hand, Beth considered "calling in sick" . As she dialed the center's number, she remembered what Sarah had explained about Ellie's need for consistent dependability from someone. Her teacher's heart bled. She hung up.
When Beth entered the classroom, Ellie was sitting alone at a corner table, her brows drawn together in concentration on the look-alike pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I know how you feel, my dear. All the pieces of you are still jumbled up look-alikes to me.
Seizing the moment, she asked softly, "Ellie, can I help you ?"
Ellie eyed her warily while holding a puzzle piece in the air. Beth prepared to duck. Ellie pulled out the chair next to her.
Beth laid a piece into the framework. The child snatched it up.
"No. Not there."
She pushed it into its proper place. After choosing three more pieces, she rapidly fit them in place.
"Ellie, you're amazing. How'd you get to be so good at puzzles ?"
Smiling wryly, tapping her temple, she said, "Ellie smart."
Beth chuckled. "Yes, you are, my dear."
Heads bent, they worked the puzzle together and talked about Santa and hoped-for Barbies - and barrettes; Ellie's hair was now long enough for barettes. In her excitement, Ellie peppered her improving English with Russian phrases.
"Really ? That's so neat !" Beth agreed.
"You understand her ?" Sarah asked with big eyes. Beth hadn't known anyone was listening.
Watching Ellie's face and gestures, Beth replied, "Sometimes."
At recess Ellie let Beth tie the hat strings under her chin.
"You come swing with me ?" she asked.
"Can't today. I'm leaving early."
Ellie pouted. "No, you stay until Ellie leave for school."
"Honey, I'm sorry, I can't. Your mittens are on. Get in line with the others."
Once inside the playground gate, Eillie ran to the swings. Beth counted heads, wished Sarah a Merry Christmas, and lifted the gate latch. A heavy thud slammed against her. Her left knee buckled and she grabbed the gate for support.
Ellie's arms squeezed her thigh. Beth hunkered down to return the hug. She drew a sharp breath - Ellie's icy eyes had melted into azure pools of acceptance; an unseen hand had pushed the final puzzle piece into place.
Walking toward her car, Beth's heart danced with the falling snowflakes.