Here’s what I think I understand about the Hulk: when he turns green, when his jeans rip, when he starts to growl and his body mass triples in size, it’s not because he wants this to happen, it’s because something in the world is happening that upsets him so much the monster within bursts out.
Hadley and I watched the Hulk on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood once. She was 18 months old and wearing overalls, and standing right in front of the TV because that’s the only way she’d watch it. She saw the Hulk though, and climbed onto my lap, and I thought, “Mr. Rogers, what are you thinking, dude?” but we kept watching because I was pregnant and exhausted and if we couldn’t watch Mr. Rogers, what could we watch? Mr. Rogers reached for the Hulk and said something like, “It must be hard to be this mad.” The Hulk nodded. Hadley slid off my lap and stood on the floor again. She kept a hand on my knee.
I’ve known a fireball of a girl I’ll call Savannah for over a year now. Every week she bounces into the library telling me five different very important things at the same time. She yells. She’s always yelling. It is her volume, not her mood. If she’s happy, she yells. If she’s angry, she yells. Like most 5- and 6-year-olds, she has no filter and what comes out, comes out at Jumbotron level. And if she starts to cry, which happens almost every time I see her, she makes the Hulk look weak.
The thing is, she means well, but she has a short fuse. It’s as though she sparkles with emotion — like a walking night light — but it’s too much to carry. Too much to hold on to. She must let some of it loose.
“I see you have Savannah,” I said to her teacher at the beginning of the year.
“Oh, I asked for Savannah,” this teacher said. “I said, ‘Next year, she is mine.’”
I got the shivers when she said it. She spoke with the force of a love so strong, that it felt like a different sort of giant green monster was in the room — fiercely wanting to do whatever it took to make the situation better.
Love turns us this way at times.
And so she has Savannah, and Savannah has her.
I don’t know when the shift happened exactly, but it’s moments like the one with Savannah’s teacher that make me wish for something else. When I walk into a classroom to deliver a book or on some other errand, and I see teachers standing at the front of the room, or kneeling next to a student, or walking a class through a concept they’re learning for the first time — as I used to —something monstrous stirs inside me.
Or the other night when my husband Jesse and I were flipping through the channels on TV and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet was on. A few scenes before Mercutio dies and I said, “Stop. We have to watch this.” It’s the greatest performance of Mercutio’s death I’ve ever seen, and so Jesse watched with me while I annotated every second up until Mercutio declares, “It’s a scratch,” making it hilarious and tragic at the same time, and I was quiet, and in my classroom again with my students watching this scene — all of us in love with this ridiculous boy who had a chance to let the monster loose but not to tame him, and never to set him free.
“I want to teach again,” I said to Jesse as Mercutio lay dying, and Romeo sobbed and sobbed over his childhood friend.
This is where I’ve been for a while — wanting to teach again, but 100% certain I don’t fit into that world anymore.
On Halloween morning this school year, I was shelving books, and as I normally do, stopped to read some of what was supposed to be put away. I opened up a book of poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks, partly because I wondered which child checked the book out. Normally, in this school, it is the rhyming books of poetry the kids ask for. Rhyming is so fun and catchy and silly in kindergarten and first grade.
The other reason I took a look was because the first writing conference I ever went to was hosted by Gwendolyn Brooks. I was in 5th or 6th grade and maybe I won a spot because of something I wrote, but I think it is more likely that my parents signed me up. I don’t remember a thing Ms. Brooks said, but I do remember being in a group with another girl I only knew from playing floor hockey against, which meant she was the enemy. It turned out, though, that she was hilarious and we spent the day laughing and writing poetry and running around on the playground on breaks, and so I paged through Brooks’ book of poems decades later to pay tribute to things unseen, and things we think we must hold on to, and things we learn we must let go of so that we can be propelled forward.
It was this poem that I read:
Robert, who is often
A Stranger to Himself
Do you ever look in the looking glass
And see a Stranger there?
A child you know and do not know,
Wearing what you wear?
That morning, Jesse and I were having a conversation about what I was going to do with the rest of my life for the umpteenth time. “You’re afraid to let that part of yourself go,” he said.
Which part of myself? Where will she go? What will she turn into? What will I do without her?
So I keep her with me, and we walk around not miserable, but not content either.
Savannah’s teacher dressed as Little Red Riding Hood that Halloween. I know because Savannah made it loud and clear in the hallway. I could hear her even though I was tucked away with Robert and Gwendolyn Brooks on the other side of the library.
“YOU’RE LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD! YOU’RE LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD!”
I walked to the library door to see, and sure enough, Savannah’s teacher was draped in a red hooded cape, holding a woven basket to take to Grandma’s house.
Savannah was an angel, jumping up and down in shimmery white and her tulle wings were flapping.
“I’M THE BIG BAD WOLF BUT I’M AN ANGEL!” Savannah declared and I laughed out loud at the truth of what she said and the joy in how she said it. She is a wolfish sort of angel, but that wolf is changing into something else. Anyone who spends more than five minutes with her can see that. The wolf is big, there’s no doubt, but she isn’t bad, just fierce. There will be a moment when Savannah the Angel will have to figure out how to reconcile this part of herself with the world. Until then, she will have to feed it, and the wolf will grow as Savannah grows, and one day she will have to set the wolf free, let it run wild, never knowing if it’ll come back.
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