The late-morning Nigerian sun sets the sky ablaze, forcing me to squint. I can’t tell for sure which two boys scuffle in the dusty courtyard, but I fear I know the smaller one. Regrettably, in the month I have been volunteering at this primary school, I’ve come to recognize the haphazard swinging of his arm and those jaunty—forward backward sideways—steps.
“Mba! Mba! No! Stop!” I shout. My quick strides slice through the crowd of chortling children. I clumsily grab for the wrist of the shorter, angrier boy. The beleaguered boy. My beloved boy. I wrap my arm around his narrow waist and pull him away, astonished at the strength his adrenaline rallies.
The older boy, smug that his eleven years trump my boy’s nine, struts, unrestrained, away from us. I open my mouth to call him back, but then see the headmistress and the boys’ teachers hurrying across the courtyard. My heart, gripped so tightly with dread it could fit into small, pummeling fists, knows and loathes what comes next.
I decide to pretend it didn’t happen. We sit on a low wooden bench in an otherwise empty classroom, and I commit to optimism. Smiling widely, I gesture to the handful of children’s books I had gathered at the school’s library. “Which one would you like to read?” I ask.
As I watch his eyes scan the book covers, I again see him crouched fearfully in a corner, shielding his face from the whip of his teacher’s bamboo stick. I again hear his haunting wails.
“Biko, that one, Auntie.” He points to The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
I say how much I love that book and reach into the pile to pick it up. I open it, but instead of seeing the picture of an oversized leaf on the first page, I again re-live yesterday’s beating in my mind. I wonder if he has recovered more successfully than I have.
I do my best to immerse myself in the book, inspired by how mesmerized he seems. The images of foods foreign to him—a pickle, Swiss cheese, salami—differ considerably from the Nigerian cuisine he knows: yams, rice, plantains.
I finish reading, and am about to ask which book we should read next when he says, bewildered, “Auntie, the caterpillar eats too much, then goes in the cocoon, and comes out a butterfly?”
“Well, there’s a little bit more to it than that.” I suddenly realize how misleading the book is about this metamorphosis. “The caterpillar eats enough so he’s not hungry when he is in the cocoon because he has to stay there for a while. He goes into the cocoon, where he’s safe and where he can grow, and when he’s ready, then he comes out as a butterfly.” I point to the picture in front of us. “And see? Look what a beautiful butterfly he is!”
Again, watching his eyes flicker over the page, my mind wanders. But this time, I do not think of yesterday. Instead, I savor the value of cocoons: places of potential and havens of hope. And I realize this is precisely what I want for him. I want to spin a cocoon—safe, sturdy, secure—so he will have the opportunity to retreat. To grow. To change.
I think back to a question my friend Catherine asked of a caterpillar we saw along a canal in England last spring—“I wonder what kind of butterfly you’ll be?”—and I smile at my boy, pondering the very same thing.
Without warning, the cocoon soon ruptures. For reasons I do not know, my caterpillar is ordered on his knees in his classroom. I think (or maybe just hope) the terror in his eyes will diminish after he turns his back to me.
“I’m not going to flog you.” His teacher’s words contradict the bamboo stick in her hand, but I believe them. Does he?
Meanwhile, his classmates somehow know to form a line. They stand single file in front of him, one friend before and after another. They all know: the teacher, the classmates, and worst yet, the boy on his knees. Ritual perhaps to them, but brutal to me, my caterpillar is not, in fact, flogged by his teacher. He is instead slapped. Kicked. Pushed.
By his classmates.
One by one, each seven-, eight-, at the oldest nine-year-old administers their own disciplinary action against their fellow student, punishing him for I know not what crime. A girl, the one who has permanent crinkles around her eyes from smiling her sweet smile, resolutely smacks him on the side of his head. A substantial strike, I think, but the teacher instructs her to try again, suggesting this time she punch him in the back of his leg. The girl obliges. Easily.
A good friend of my caterpillar moves forward in his characteristic large strides. He roughly pulls at my caterpillar’s forearm, causing him to fall face down on the bare, concrete floor. Laughter. This friend maintains his characteristic toothy grin the whole time.
The brutality before me is dizzying. I do not even know how to question the origin, the purpose, of this cruelty. But I do know that this should not be. And I know the compassion of my caterpillar’s heart. The other day, this boy who can barely read and write put to paper essentially a prayer: “I love Anty Kerry” he told God. It is the most delicate love letter I have ever received. How he is forced to endure, I cannot fathom.
Suddenly, I realize that I am gently rubbing my thumb against my fingers, just as I had caressed the frayed paper my caterpillar had sheepishly handed me. I glance at my hand, now empty, and abruptly leave.
Again, my caterpillar and I sit side-by-side on the same low wooden bench. The empty classroom feels too big, and my attempts at feigned brightness too small. Sunshine slants in through the windows, and I can’t help but think how the windows are nothing more than holes in the wall.
We sit, still and without agenda. After a while, I ask simply how he is doing today. He burrows his chin deep into his chest and mumbles indiscernibly. I achingly wonder—what burden should make a nine-year-old’s head too heavy to hold upright?
Before I can ask him anything else, he roughly turns away. I stare at his back and hanging head.
I reach out to touch his shoulder, but stop at the memory of a recent moment. A few days ago, a boy in my caterpillar’s class sat alone, crying quietly. I watched my caterpillar scurry to sit beside him. Wordlessly, my caterpillar placed his right arm around the boy’s shoulders, and then, in an act of grace I had not prepared myself for, tenderly wiped the boy’s tears away.
Gazing at my caterpillar’s hunched shoulders, I imagine a pair of wings beginning to burgeon. I smile. I wait.
Eventually, he turns back around. His head still hangs low, but now our arms lightly touch. I bite my lip in hope.
“There you are!” I greet him. “I missed you.”
He still avoids my eyes, but his chin lifts—slowly, and with promise.
“I missed you, too.”