“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?” Sam sang the words to the classic children’s book as he struggled to put on his baby sister’s shoes. “I see a little girl looking at me!” He reached up and tickled his almost-three-year-old “Sister” ‘till she laughed. She was tired and he couldn’t fix that. Tired made her grumpy, but he could often fix grumpy. And sometimes he could fix hungry. Sam was only four, but if he climbed up on a chair, he could reach the sink to fix her a bowl of cereal and water. He’d never seen the Brown Bear book, but once when he was in the doctor’s office waiting room, he listened to a mother read it over and over to her son.
Their mom, Cassie, did what she could. Years of struggle with mental illness had taken its toll. There was just enough food to skinny by. There was often heat when it was cold in the small, rent subsidized apartment. The Department of Children and Families knew how hard Cassie worked to keep these children. Cassie was in therapy and trying a new combination of medications that seemed promising. One of the conditions of the Department of Children and Families’ service plan was that the kids had to go to preschool.
When the teachers met Sam and Sister, he stood with his hand on her back, silently reassuring her. Sister looked excited to be around the pretty toys. Sam looked exhausted. The teachers consulted with Sam. They learned from him that at home there was no such thing as regular bedtime, bath time or meals in their house. Clean laundry was a rarity. Still, it was better than when there was more food and heat and a raging father who filled their days with fear.
For days, Sam stood to the side of the room and watched the teachers like a hawk. After the first week, the teachers let him know that they felt it was their turn to take charge of Sister. Sam nodded quietly. For seven hours during the days, they would tend to her. They would wash her face, comb her hair, put socks on her feet and find clean clothes for her if they were soiled. They sang to her and read to her and taught her games. When she burst into rages with emotions so much bigger than her little life knew how to handle, the teachers came close to her; they held her and they would not let her go. Sam and Sister and the other children ate and rested together on a regular schedule. And for the first time in his life, Sam played.
On Monday mornings, Sam would wake Sister up early, excited for the week at pre-school ahead of them. When it was time to go to Kindergarten, not only did Sam know his colors and his letters, he knew “Sister” would be loved at school. His teachers had read them Brown Bear so many times that he knew it by heart. At the end of the Going to Kindergarten Party, Sam gave a long hug to his favorite teacher.
“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?” she whispered to him as they rocked in their hug.
“I see a Teacher looking at me,” he answered.