“If you should meet a butterfly, upon a summer’s day…”
When I opened the door to Patricia’s classroom, she decided that I wasn’t a part of her world. Being deaf makes that decision an easy one. She simply didn’t make eye contact with me. I was not part of her reality. I did not exist.
My lesson went reasonably well and the other children responded enthusiastically. But they knew intuitively that Patricia was shutting me out and they tried their best to compensate. I was hurt and amused in equal measure. Over the next few weeks, I tried new ways to get through to her. I knew she loved animals and birds, so I brought pictures and snippets of information about their particular feeding habits. Patricia raised a bored eyebrow. She’d known all that anyway. Sympathy from the class ate away at my dignity and I decided to shift the focus away from this tiny girl with a genius IQ. She had overcome tremendous physical challenges with her formidable strength and she clearly saw me as an intellectual lightweight. As an outwardly confident middle aged woman, I was still dependent on the approval of others. Patricia didn’t need it at all.
A breakthrough came on the day I decided to create a lesson around mothers and what they mean in our lives. I knew Patricia’s mum was a paediatrician in Nigeria and so I opened my lesson with that piece of information. A tiny slit in her armour appeared – and stayed for the duration of that discussion. It closed again, but it was enough. I left her classroom in a light-hearted mood.
My next lesson on the angels in our lives, left her cold…until we each created one for the pin board. Patricia threw herself into the task and a pink angel with circular gold wings emerged from her energetic scribblings.
“What’s her name,” I ventured.
“Angel,” she retorted.
Despite her snappy response, I could see that she was immensely proud of her creation and my heart expanded when a warm smile lit her face. But as I moved to hug her, she turned her back on me. She wasn’t having any of that. I stepped back and knew that once again I had been put in my place – on the edge of her world but not part of it.
Spring arrived eventually and the annual concert was looming. As I was also the Sound Perception and dancing teacher, it was my responsibility to make this happen. I needed to choreograph a dance for each class, including Patricia’s. Patricia hated the SP lessons. She wasn’t good at dancing. Her fragile body just wouldn’t cooperate. She went through the motions reluctantly and made sure that I knew her feelings about it. She was on my mind, as I listened to music and mulled over the right selection. A catchy tune called, “If you should meet an elephant…” kept replaying itself in my head. I found the track and replayed it several times. I could picture all the animals and allocated children to each one. Elephant, crocodile, octopus… and suddenly it hit me. Patricia needed to be a butterfly!
When Patricia’s class teacher brought the children to the next dancing lesson, I explained to each child what animal they would be. Patricia eyed me sceptically as I turned my attention to her. Her face changed. “A butterfly?” Her eyebrows betrayed her interest.
“A beautiful pink butterfly.” I tried not to look too eager.
Her smile lingered a little longer than usual. “Butterflies have antennae,” she informed me.
The needlework teacher got stuck into the daunting job of creating costumes for each child. With the help of the class teachers, costumes began to take shape and finally the day arrived when all the children needed to try their own one on. I was in the middle of a lesson down the passage from Patricia’s classroom, when a little pink butterfly flew into my classroom. She was beaming and twirled around the room, until the children laughed in delight.
“You can fly back to your classroom now,” I said eventually. She disappeared and just as I started my lesson again, two antennae re-appeared around my door.
”Shall I fly back?”
“Of course. You’re a butterfly.” And she was.
The curtains sashayed open and the first few notes of, “If you should meet an elephant on a summer’s day…” filled the packed hall. The elephant thumped across the stage, followed by a crocodile and then a bright green octopus. They linked arms and danced, widening their circle to welcome every new animal onto the stage. Finally it was time for the butterfly’s grand entrance. I signalled to my colleague and she kept her hand on Patricia’s shoulder until the right note struck. I dimmed the lights and flicked the spotlight onto a striking pink butterfly flitting across the stage. Radiant and sparkling in her sequined costume, Patricia’s antennae bobbed up and down, as her presence radiated around the school hall.
I faded the last few notes in time to the curtains closing and the animals skipping into the wings. And then she turned back. Our butterfly wanted one more round of applause and when she flew across the front of the curtains, the audience rose to salute her.
Patricia had finally allowed me into her world. I did not take it for granted though and each successful lesson with her was a personal triumph. But as the next few weeks passed by, I noticed that she opted to sit out of many dance classes. “I’ll watch today,” she’d announce and I didn’t question it. Her energy seemed to be seeping away somehow. It was probably nothing. I was probably overthinking it. “I’m going home soon,” she said one morning.
I crouched down to meet her eyes. “Yes. The Christmas holidays are around the corner.”
“My family will be happy to see me.”
I found the butterfly track and turned up the volume. “Don’t forget to fly for them.”
“You’re silly. I’m a grasshopper now,” she announced before skipping back to her classroom.
I arrived at school before Patricia’s class teacher did on that fateful morning. The children were already playing on the field. Strange…they were usually still in the hostel. An ambulance was parked at the entrance. The local GP was walking down the steps as I approached them. A sea of sombre faces lined the passage to the girls’ section. I turned to face Patricia’s teacher. “Come. We’ll see her together.”
I ushered my colleague up the stairs and into the juniors’ room. Patricia was curled up in her fluffy blanket and her long braids spread across the pillow. The air smelt of her sweetness and I put my hand on her cheek, still expecting it to be warm. I willed her chest to move, for breath to escape her nostrils. The medics hung back politely, waiting for us to move aside. It was time to take her.
“She’s at peace,” I said, even though I was unsure. “Our pink butterfly is an angel now. Her spirit is soaring where we can no longer reach.”
The service went by in a blur of flowers and butterfly balloons. Family members spoke bravely, holding on to each other as they remembered Patricia. When it was all over, I followed the procession to the graveyard and watched as the tiny coffin was held high above the ground. I had not shed a tear. I’d simply allowed all the grief to surround me like a cloak. But now, as Patricia was lowered, I noticed the pink bobbles of the antennae peeping out of the box. My tears came then, huge undignified sobs, which shook my body against a colleague’s comforting embrace. I clutched a handful of rose petals, added them to the pile already in the hole and watched as family and friends carefully passed the spade from one to the next, to sprinkle earth.
…So many years have passed by since that day, but every time I drive along the Hout Bay Main Road, past the cemetery, I see the small white angel who guards Patricia’s tombstone. And on occasion, I’ve seen a butterfly hovering there too.