Gator Girl

Mr. Hansom’s third-grade class went to recess, the children running and climbing the monkey bars in the heat of the August sun. Eddie was the first to notice a shy young gator sitting on the other side of the schoolyard’s chain link fence, watching them play. The third-graders gathered near her and tried to touch her hard, shiny skin. They petted her snout. They asked her name. She said her mother calls her Girl, so they called her Gator Girl. They said, "Gator Girl, do you know how to add, subtract, divide, and play?" And Gator Girl shook her head no. Mr. Hansom came up behind them clapping his hands and shooing them away. They scattered, and he crouched down to Gator Girl and said, "How old are you, young lady?" But Gator Girl didn’t know.

Mr. Hansom called the principal, who called a wildlife expert named Jim James. Jim James arrived dressed in camel-colored khaki, in a truck like a cartoon of an African safari. He had a long metal pole with a loop at one end. He put this around Gator Girl’s neck and dragged her to the principal’s office. She switched and hissed and opened her pretty pink mouth, showing everyone the sharpness of her teeth. "She’s eight, almost nine," Jim James told the principal. "She slipped through the cracks. The system failed her. Poor Gator Girl," he said. "I wish we found you sooner."

Gator Girl never knew that she should have been in school for the past four years, but now that she knew, she felt guilty and stupid. She started to cry. "Alligator tears," the principal wondered aloud. "What are those supposed to mean?"

"They mean enroll her right away," Jim James said as he pocketed his check, waved good-bye, and left the school.

The principal led Gator Girl to Mr. Hansom’s third-grade room. All the children were quiet and stared as he told Mr. Hansom what Jim James said.

Mr. Hansom held his head in his hands. "She’ll be so far behind!" he said. "Can’t we put her in kindergarten?"

"Kindergarten? Look at how big she is!" the principal said, and he left Gator Girl with Mr. Hansom’s class.

Mr. Hansom sat Gator Girl between Eddie and Susie, and began to teach math. As he wrote on the board, 5 ÷ 8, he heard a gasp and snap and turned around to face the class. Everyone was staring at Gator Girl. And little Eddie was gone. "Where’s Eddie?" Mr. Hansom said, and Gator Girl shifted her eyes back and forth guiltily as slowly the class lifted their hands to point at her. "Gator Girl!" Mr. Hansom said. "Did you just eat little Eddie?"

The principal sat down behind his desk, his face stiff and furrowed over a terrified Gator Girl. "Eddie’s mother is so upset!" he told her. "Did you want to make Eddie’s mother upset?"

Gator Girl said no.

The principal was thoughtful a moment. "I suppose in a way, this is my fault. I should have told you the rules. In school, you cannot eat the children. You must have a pass to go the bathroom. And you always raise your hand before you speak."

Gator Girl raised her hand.

"Yes, Gator Girl."

"I’m sorry," she said. "Please don’t tell my mom."

When she returned to Mr. Hansom’s classroom, the children were seated at tables in groups of three, painting pictures. Mr. Hansom put her with three other children, Susie and Sally and Ralph, and told her to paint something from the last book she read.

"I’ve never read a book," Gator Girl said.

Mr. Hansom sighed. "Did you ever watch TV?"

She nodded.

"Paint something from TV."

Gator Girl painted a lovely scene: a smooth black surface twisting in the distance, cattails dancing in the breeze, butterflies flitting, bullfrogs filling their throats to croak, four black wheels spun overhead and reflected in the surface, along with something metal and orange and quickly moving. When she showed it to Mr. Hansom he said, "My God, that’s beautiful! . . . Is that the General Lee?"

Gator Girl nodded and showed her teeth.

"That’s amazing," Mr. Hansom said, but he looked at Gator Girl with as much suspicion as wonder.

At lunchtime Gator Girl watched the other children eat. Their peanut butter sandwiches made her feel guilty again for eating poor little Eddie. Some of the children offered her a cookie or a bite of banana, but she said no, she was full, of Eddie. Then Ralph asked if he could see. "You mean see down my throat, to see Eddie?" she asked.

Ralph nodded happily.

When Mr. Hansom returned, he found the children taking turns putting their heads down Gator Girl’s throat, jumping back just before she snapped her jaws shut, and giggling. Gator Girl was giggling too, and she was happy, because she was making friends. "Children!" Mr. Hansom yelled. "This is dangerous!" He grabbed Gator Girl by one of her front feet and led her to the corner. "You sit alone here and let the other children eat!" he said.

And the other children were quiet as they finished lunch, because they knew Mr. Hansom was being unfair to their friend.

After lunchtime they got a second recess, and several children, Ralph, Susie, Bobby, and Trey, all gathered around Gator Girl and said they wanted to be gators too. "How do you be a gator?" Trey asked.

"Like this," Gator Girl said, and she walked and swished around and hissed and opened her pink mouth wide.

So Ralph and Susie and Bobby and Trey all got close to the ground and walked and swished and hissed and opened their mouths wide.

"That’s good!" Gator Girl said. "My mom would even be scared. But whatever you do, make sure you don’t eat children."

The other kids promised they wouldn’t eat children, but within ten minutes Susie bit Bobby and there was blood. The two of them ended up in the principal’s office, along with Gator Girl.

The principal called the three kids’ parents and told them it was an emergency. The parents all agreed to come in. Soon Gator Girl was surrounded. Bobby’s mother kept him pressed to her thigh and wouldn’t let him even look at Gator Girl. Susie’s mother was the same way. "You’ve got to get rid of this Gator Girl!" Susie’s mother said. "What a terrible influence! She’s not even a child! She’s a reptile!"

But just as she said this, Gator Girl’s mom showed up in the doorway. "You say ‘reptile’ like you think it’s a bad thing," Gator Mom said. "This is why I never sent her to school. Because I knew it would turn out this way."

"The law is the law," the principal said. "She needs to be in school at her age."

"Yes, so they tell me. Well, you get what you deserve. I’ll be here to get you at the end of the day," she told her daughter, and swished away.

Gator Girl tried to hide her face, but her arms were too short to reach.

"There’s going to be an uncomfortable transition, of course," the principal said. "She’s not used to rules, to learning, to doing things our way. But we have an obligation to give this child every opportunity."

Bobby’s and Susie’s moms nodded, and after a thought, Susie’s mom said, "Instead of teaching the other children to act like gators, sweetheart, why don’t you let them show you how to behave?"

Gator Girl nodded and the three of them walked together back to Mr. Hansom’s class. The room was empty. "It’s music day!" Susie said. "Every Tuesday we spend a hour with Mrs. McGill, the music teacher, down the hall!" They were halfway to the music room when Mr. Hansom appeared and told Bobby and Susie to keep on their way while he talked to Gator Girl.

He led Gator Girl back into his classroom and closed the door. After a long, unsettling pause, he stood directly over her and said, "You haven’t used your brain in eight long years, have you, you stupid girl?"

Gator Girl was pretty sure she had, but she nodded. She felt so inadequate here. She wished her mother had been able to take her away.

"So what have you used?" he asked, and quick as a fish, he grabbed her tail and spun her around on the polished floor. She was startled, and then scared as he climbed on her. He pulled her front legs back and got her in a headlock. "Open your mouth, Gator Girl," he said. She would not. "Open it," he said again. And he grabbed her jaws with both hands and pried them open. He held her like that—terrified, humiliated—then he let her go. She ran across the room, knocking desks out of their rows, and started to cry. "Yes, you cry," Mr. Hansom said. "But as long as you’re in my class, you’re going to know who’s boss."

"I’ll tell, I’ll tell!" Gator Girl cried.

Mr. Hansom laughed. "No one will believe you, and if they do, they won’t care. You’re a reptile," he said, and he left the room.

When the children filed back in from their music lesson, Gator Girl lay under Mr. Hansom’s desk. The children saw her there, and said hi, and they asked her why she didn’t go to music, but she didn’t answer. She was still as a log floating in a pond. She only blinked her eyes and waited.


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