I’m standing in the hallway trying to keep my friend who was named for a Beatles song from leaving the line. His class is heading out for recess, but the hallway is full of distractions and people to bump into. “Not Eleanor” is very good at accidentally bumping into people. Then his teacher approaches me.
“Umm, do you have a minute to stay here and watch N.? I have to take the class out to recess, and he’s still at his seat.” I look back into the classroom. There is N., sitting with his back to us, facing the window. I can’t mention his name, but let’s just say it’s biblical in the ark-building sense. I leave “Not Eleanor” and his classmates and head into the room to see what’s up with N.
He has a mask over his nose and mouth, and I can barely see his eyes above the mask. His brow is furrowed, and I can’t be sure, but I’m fairly certain that his lower lip is protruding under that black mask. It seems that he has been named well, because N. is an old soul. He takes life quite seriously. I am not sure what is bothering him, but thinking back, I remember that earlier in the math lesson his teacher had informed him that something that he had said to a struggling classmate was “not very helpful.” She was right, but this may be weighing on N. Then again, there are myriad other local, national, and global issues that may be on N.’s mind.
I sit down on the window sill across from N. and try to investigate. N. is not in the mood for conversation. He is also not in the mood for recess. I ask him if he wants to talk about what is bothering him. No answer. I note how hot it is in the room, what with the southern exposure and the hyperactive heater that I’m seated above. No response. I mention that the temperature outside is a comfortable 55 degrees. I point out the sun and the clear blue sky. N. is unimpressed. I look at my watch. We’re five minutes into his recess time. “Are you sure you don’t want to go outside?” I ask. N. shakes his head. This seems like progress to me. A gesture.
After a few more unsuccessful attempts at conversation, I notice behind him that a crowd is gathering in the hall. They are looking at a banner that has just been put up to celebrate our One Book, One School kick-off. “I wonder what they’re all looking at,” I say innocently. N. turns his head to look. More progress. “Oh, it’s the banner that Mr. Lawrence made for our new book,” I continue. “Have you seen it?”
N. shakes his head, but he seems curious. I’m thinking I may be onto something. “It’s really cool, N. You see that red background on the banner?” He turns his head to look. “It has little miniature pictures of everyone in the school.”
“It does?” He SPEAKS! My hopes rise.
“Yeah. I think Mr. Lawrence said there are like 3-to-5 pictures of every person in the school. Do you want to take a look?”
N. stands up, and we head to the door. We cross the hall and stand in front of the 6-foot long banner. It has the title of the book, The Year of the Dog, printed in the center, but sure enough, the background is all tiny portraits from picture day. We start scanning the tiny images.
“Oh, there’s A. She’s in my class,” N. proclaims. His spirits are rising. “Oh, there’s my friend O.” I peer at the image and recognize another of N.’s classmates. He finds another classmate, and then he finds his teacher.
“Oh, there’s G. He’s my fourth grade buddy.”
N. is very good at finding other people. I’m hoping he doesn’t get discouraged about the fact that he hasn’t found his own picture yet. In my head, I begin preparing the mathematical explanation for this phenomenon. “You see, N., it has to do with the fact that you probably know about 75 to 100 individuals in this school, which means that there are somewhere between 225 and 500 pictures on this banner that you might recognize, while there may only be three images of you. The odds are very low.” But of course, I resist this explanation. It’s tedious. Plus, he probably already knows this.
N. is undaunted. He continues his search. Recess time is slipping away, but N. does not seem concerned. “Hey,” he says, “this is sort of like Where’s Waldo? But instead, it’s Where’s N.” I’m so relieved, not only does he sound upbeat, but he is also playing along with this ‘call everyone by their initials’ thing, even if he did blow Waldo’s cover.
We find Ms. Reid four times. We find three more of N.’s classmates. I point to a picture. “Is this you, N?”
“No, I don’t have hair that long. Well, I did once, but I didn’t like it. It got in my eyes.” N. has become quite chatty. “This is hard. I still can’t find myself.” N. does not appear frustrated. He persists.
It occurs to me that Grace Lin would be so excited by this conversation. In The Year of the Dog, the main character, Paycee learns that in the Year of the Dog, the loyal companion overseeing the year helps people to find themselves…in the metaphoric sense. Paycee spends most of the book determined to figure out who she is meant to be. Now I’m thinking, “How clever of Mr. Lawrence to make this banner,” for here we stand, staring at the sea of possibilities, determined to find ourselves.
Just then, N. blurts, “Hey, here I am.” Smiling, with his eyes, he points to one of the tiny portraits, and sure enough, it’s him looking dapper in a striped button-down shirt with his short dark hair and a big smile. “And look, I’m right underneath G., my fourth grade buddy.”
“Boy, that’s pretty incredible that you found your picture in that huge crowd…and you’re right next to your buddy!”
I ask N. if he wants to head out to recess, and he decides he’s ready. We stroll down the hall, musing about life’s challenges, like finding yourself, here, in this complicated Year of the Tiger.
Postscript: I congratulated Mr. Lawrence on the genius of creating a banner that so cleverly fit the theme of our whole-school book. He responded with foolish honesty, “Oh, that’s funny. It never even entered my mind.”