By Matthew Dicks / Illustrated By Sean Wang
It’s June. Summer vacation is just a week away, and I can’t stand it anymore. I’m standing with my fifth-grade students as we prepare to enter the school and begin our day. The air is fresh. Leaves have returned to the trees. The grass is a vibrant green. It’s a glorious morning.
Except my students are ruining everything. They always do. School is always so much easier before the children arrive. Today they are complaining, as they have for so many days before this. I can’t take it anymore.
Their complaint is always the same: Why do we always go last? Why do you allow every other class to enter the school before us? Why can’t we ever be first?
The question, and the desire expressed by the question, are both so silly. Enter the school first? What’s the rush? Why are you so anxious to start your school day? Why would you not want to enjoy a few more moments of sunshine before beginning a day of reading, math and writing? A day of desks and chairs. Florescent lighting. Tile floors. A land of rules and structure.
Why is it so important for kids to be first, regardless of the reason for being first? These kids would want to be first in the lion’s den if they had the chance.
I don’t say any of this to my students as they whine at me. I’ve said it before. It changes nothing. Their need to be first is impenetrable. Eventually, they will grow out of it, or they will become one of those senseless, infantile monsters whom we see on the highways, weaving in and out of traffic with barbarous disregard for human life.
Then a student whines, “It’s not fair! This is so dumb! I don’t want to be last!” and something inside me snaps. It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, even though I had no idea that I was so close to breaking. The camel probably didn’t either.
“Stop!” I shout. “Enough! This beautiful day. The sun. The breeze. Leaves on the trees. Just open your eyes and look around. Take in the beauty. You never know what you might see!”
At that very moment, a miracle takes place. Two decades of teaching finally yields one of those moments that educators dream about but never really believe will happen.
As I say, “You never know what you might see!” a rabbit emerges from behind the gazebo and begins springing across the quad directly in front of us. I don’t see the rabbit, but one of my students does. She shouts, “Look! A bunny!”
Heads turn. The kids see the bunny hopping along the grass. A chorus of joyous sighs erupts. It’s just a rabbit. We see them all the time. But somehow, on this day, at this time, following my words, that rabbit is miraculous. Both to me and the kids. At last. The universe has offered me a little grace. Nature has lent me a hand.
The rabbit is a little less than halfway across the quad when the hawk drops from its hidden perch in a tree just behind the bunny and begins to glide low and fast in its direction. The joyous sighs quickly turn to screams as my students see the hawk and realize what is happening. We’re about to watch the bunny be murdered and eaten.
Somehow, the rabbit must know the hawk is behind it—directly behind it—because it suddenly finds a second gear and increases speed. On the opposite end of the quad, there is a small, paved path, a bit of open ground, and then the shelter of the forest. If the bunny can make it to the forest, it will be safe. If not, it will be breakfast.
The burst of speed gives rise to cheers from my students. They begin shouting in support of the rabbit.
“Hurry, little guy!”
“You can do it!”
The kids surge to the edge of the quad. I do some quick mental geometry and determine that it’s going to be close.
Even I’m shouting now: “Run, bunny! Run!”
The hawk flaps its wings and cuts the distance between it and the rabbit in half. It flaps again and it’s nearly atop the bunny. It’s about to die.
The rabbit hits the paved path, and the pavement seems to give its paws more purchase, allowing for another burst of speed. Then it enters the open space before the forest, but the transfer from pavement to dirt is disastrous. The rabbit slips and veers left before straightening itself for the forest again, losing precious seconds in the correction.
Now the hawk is atop the rabbit, talons extended, ready to strike. The rabbit isn’t going to make it. I want to cover the eyes of my students, knowing the bunny is about to be torn into by the hawk’s razor-sharp extensions.
Then it happens. In one final burst of speed—the rabbit’s final gear—it shoots ahead and disappears into the forest seconds before being caught by the hawk.
I can’t believe it.
The hawk veers off and lands on the branch of a tree at the edge of the forest and cries out in disgust.
The children erupt in cheers. They dance. They high-five. They hug. Some of them weep with joy. It’s like standing in Times Square at the announcement that World War II has come to an end. Uproarious pandemonium takes over.
A small boy standing beside me looks up, smiles, and says, “I was rooting for the hawk.”
In all of human history, I don’t think the universe has been so kind to a teacher as it was to me that day.
Just think: A teacher shouts, “You never know what you might see!” and then a life-and-death race across an open field materializes before our eyes.
It was astounding. If only every day of teaching should be so glorious.
Never again did my students ask to enter the school first. Never again would they whine or complain about spending a few extra minutes outdoors. It was the kind of lesson that comes along once in a millennium, and it made a real impact on my students. Me, too.
Teaching is hard. Regardless of the grade, the school, the town or the level of experience of the educator, teaching is an exceedingly challenging, often times thankless profession. These days, as politicians see the classroom as a place to make their bones with constituents and wage their culture wars at the expense of children and teachers, it’s harder than ever to teach.
Teachers need moments of serendipitous perfection. We deserve moments like this. I felt exceedingly lucky to have experienced one so perfect that day.
I suspect the rabbit felt even luckier.
Matthew Dicks is an elementary school teacher, bestselling novelist, and a record 55-time Moth Story SLAM champion. His latest books are “Twenty-one Truths About Love” and “The Other Mother.”
Sean Wang, an MIT architecture graduate, is author of the sci-fi graphic novel series, Runners. Learn more at seanwang.com.