The Prince From Senegal
I once read that geniuses did not need a lot of sleep, and while I never thought of M as another Einstein, I was nevertheless a little disappointed that she needed a lot of sleep. While most of the other students in Ms. Whitelaw’s kindergarten class, slept at eight or nine, M went to bed promptly at seven, and slept until seven the next morning.
With my husband working until the wee hours of the morning to accommodate his colleagues in Tokyo, I had the evenings to myself, and I spent most of them reading the New York Times, and watching television now and then. One of the programs that I tried not to miss was “Law and Order,” the Emmy-award winning police drama set in New York City. I enjoyed its courtroom scenes, and I challenged myself to identify familiar sights and landmarks. I once saw a face I knew very well on the witness stand, and it was none other than that of Linda, the mother of M’s classmate, Nikki.
It was a night for “Law and Order,” and I had just settled into a comfortable position before the television when I heard M screaming from her bedroom. She was having a nightmare, and this had never happened in the past. I soothed her back to sleep, and I missed that week’s “Law and Order” episode.
The next night, the same thing happened. M was screaming in her sleep, and I sensed real fright in her cries. The screams continued for a few nights, and I began to worry. I was contemplating a visit to the pediatrician when I stumbled on the possible reason behind the screams.
I had very few rules around the house, but there were no exceptions to those rules. One of them was that no food was allowed anywhere but on the diningtable. M ate all of her meals properly seated at the diningtable, including her afternoon snack. And while she drank her glass of milk, and munched on a homemade cookie or brownie, we talked about her day in Ms. Whitelaw’s class.
M: Mommy, did you know that Abu can do something with his eyes.
Abu was the Senegalese boy who sat next to M. I met his father once, and he introduced himself as a diplomat. Diplomats were a dime a dozen in New York City. Midtown Manhattan, the UN area was crawling with them, and New Yorkers were known to disdain diplomats and their parking violations. Abu called himself a prince though, and M was very impressed.
M: He can make his eyes disappear.
Warning bells went off in my head!
Mommy: Really? How?
M: I don’t know. I am too scared to look.
Bingo! Just like the cops in “Law and Order,” I had my prime suspect.
The next day, I went to see Ms. Whitelaw to discuss Abu and the case of the disappearing eyes.
Ms. Whitelaw was a very experienced teacher, and she immediately had a heart-to-heart with Abu. On that very day, Abu found himself sitting next to Ms. Whitelaw, by himself. M went back to sleeping undisturbed, but now and then, she would get up startled.
I took M to school every morning, and I often stayed with a couple of other volunteer moms to help with the day’s activities. We would sit with the children as they took turns at the newly installed computers, or we would prepare the materials to be used during art class.
I welcomed Ms. Whitelaw’s invitation to assist her in class. It gave me the chance to witness M’s learning experience, and to observe her interactions with other children. By spending time in M’s class, I became acquainted with teaching methods that I then proceeded to try at home.
I was also able to keep an eye on Abu, the prince from Senegal.
All the children loved Ms. Whitelaw very much. She had long blond hair, and always wore a long black skirt and a crisp white shirt. It was M’s extreme good fortune to have her as a teacher not only in kindergarten, but also in first grade, and it was a privilege to be her friend as well.
Ms. Whitelaw never lost her temper, and she never raised her voice, but none of the children ever wanted to be called aside for a quiet talk. And Abu had frequent quiet talks with Ms. Whitelaw.
But Ms. Whitelaw had just but one pair of eyes, and they were not always focused on Abu.
And one day, when Ms. Whitelaw was not looking, I saw him do it. I saw Abu go towards M, look her in the eyes, and roll his very black eye pupils to the top of his eye sockets. And two white circles were left staring at M.
M did not even try to run away. She simply put her hands to her eyes, and kept them there until Abu walked away.
I could not help myself. Against my better judgement, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I went up to Abu, and I said very softly, but very firmly.
Mommy: Abu, the next time you do that to M, I am going to take you to the window, and hang you upside down by your toes.
Abu never bothered M again.
And I confessed my crime to Ms. Whitelaw. Just like all the children who have been taken aside for a quiet talk. Ms. Whitelaw made me promise not to take matters into my own hands again, but I sensed that secretly, she was delighted that I did just this once.