The old gentleman shaved, showered, and got dressed just like he had done for the last two months, but today … today was going to be different. Since coming out of retirement, he had wondered whether he had made a difference to anyone in his past career or the new one he had just started at the elementary school.
Stiff bent fingers buttoned his shirt front and cuffs and then struggled to pull on the vest. Checking himself once more in the mirror, the question rose again in his mind. Had he made a difference? The answer finally came to him in the middle of the previous night’s restless sleep and was now weighing heavily upon his soul.
Gone was the happiness he had once felt. His reflection in the mirror looked different today, showing the true weariness of his advanced age. As he let out a resounding sigh, the brightness in his eyes dimmed a little. Shuffling slowly to the car, the man felt much older than his sixty-five years as he faced the sad reality of the answer to his life’s question.
He had not.
And today was the day he was going to hand in his notice.
After clocking in at the school, the front office administrator informed him, “You’ll be helping one of the kindergarten teachers for the day. First hallway on the right, just look for the giant red crayon.” Hearing this news, his mood brightened a little. He’d been in the red crayon room before — filled with Littles and one amazing teacher with 34 years of experience.
Walking down the hallway he folded the resignation notice and placed it in his pocket — intending to hand it in at the end of the day. The heaviness of that decision didn’t help his legs and feet feel any better; they still ached from the day before. The other teachers told him it would take a couple of months for the pain to go away, but he wasn’t used to being on his feet all day. Perhaps he never would.
Arriving at the giant red crayon, the school day was already well under way for eighteen Littles. After spotting him, the teacher walked over and opened the door, welcoming him into her classroom as she had done a dozen times before — all without missing a moment of instruction.
He’d quickly learned she stayed on a tight schedule, and the Littles thrived under her way of teaching. If he could do it all over again, the old man wished that he too had been an elementary school teacher … but no. The best he could do now was to help out — with what little help an old man can give in a kindergarten classroom.
He watched as they sat on the carpet reviewing the alphabet, numbers, sounding out sight words for the day, months of the calendar and days of the week. Once back to their tables, he helped demonstrate how to write the letters or words that they had been working on, although his penmanship was not much better than theirs.
And as always, anytime he was in their room, he gave special attention to the shy little boy who hadn’t spoken a word to him even to this very day.
He was the littlest of the Littles, and why he hadn’t spoken, the old man didn’t know. Lessons on colors, math, vowels, consonants came and went as did lunch and the special for the day — music. And throughout, on occasion, the old man sat next to the little boy offering up help.
Oddly the little boy reminded him of himself at that age — another shy little boy so many years ago. Over the last two months, they had walked side by side down the hallways many times together, but a connection hadn’t been made. Now it never would.
Time had run out.
There was only one thing left to do for the day, and that was recess, then school dismissal would come. He would hand in his resignation, then walk away from the elementary school for the last time, resigned to the fact that over the last two months, he hadn’t made a difference at all.
Then it happened. While walking back in from recess, the old man passed the shy little of Littles. As he did, he caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye. It made him stop and wait.
A small hand had been raised.
The little boy kept looking forward and kept his hand raised … until the old man held it. Then the little of Littles looked up and smiled. They walked back to the room in silence, but the message was loud and clear.
Without knowing, the old man had made a difference in one person’s life. But more importantly, without knowing, the little boy had made a difference in his.
The old man continued to work at the elementary school for the next 10 years until he died one night in a sleep at peace with the world and knowing that even the smallest amongst us or someone well past his prime can indeed make a difference if they care and truly love what they do.
Just like the old man had found … a long, long time ago in an elementary school not far away.
[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories weekly in The Citizen since 2001.]