Wren stood at the back of the line, the very end of the line, as she always did, twirling the string of her pink hoodie around her finger. Ms. Ryan’s words boomed back at her from the entrance to the wooded path. “Children are disconnected from nature,” she told Ms. Lee, Aaron’s aide, as she swiped at her tablet. “Students thrive with twenty minutes of daily free play in nature. This is part of my new initiative.” She shoved the tablet toward Ms. Lee, allowing her a brief look. “I’ll rate their progress here.”
“An obstacle course...” Wren strained to hear the younger woman’s voice. “Isn’t quite free play.” Ms. Lee was new, charged with guiding Aaron through his tasks and assisting when the first-grade texts and worksheets unsettled him. He’d tug lightly on her sleeve, and she’d tuck her dark hair behind her ear and lean in to hear his whisper. But her kindness extended to Wren. Ms. Lee often appeared beside her when she trembled from the incessant classroom noise, or when tears gathered in her eyes, blurring the words on the assigned page. “Maybe they can collect stones,” Ms. Lee proposed, “or search for interesting leaves?”
“No, no. If it’s a free for all, they’ll throw rocks and use sticks to sword fight. My way will connect them with nature and encourage non-violence.” Satisfied with herself, she tucked the tablet under her arm. “Don’t worry, you’ll learn.” She clapped twice, demanding the children’s attention.
Wren glanced at Aaron, who was transfixed by a hummingbird dipping between a few wildflowers missed by the mower. A scrappy yellow sign on a plastic stake stood nearby. Wren studied the letters and attempted to sound them out. Pes-tici-de apple-cat-ion. It didn’t matter. She’d be in the woods soon. It didn’t matter that she heard the highway or saw a Doritos bag thrown on the path. She didn’t care if there was dog poop, or an old soda can left behind or even pes-tici-dees. She loved the woods. She tilted her head back, watching the leaves flutter in the wind.
Ms. Ryan addressed the children in a roar, as if an invisible megaphone hung just above her vocal chords. “Ms. Lee will stay at the back for the stragglers. I’ll stand at the finish to record times.” She turned and started down the path, calling back to them. “Be ready!”
Wren jumped at the shrill intrusion of the whistle that followed. The kids in line pounced forward in a single motion. Aaron covered his ears. Wren gasped as birds evacuated the treetops, taking to the clear sky.
Ms. Lee touched Aaron’s shoulder. He dropped his hands and walked toward the freshly trampled path. She motioned to Wren, and she followed. The woods welcomed her. She reached out her hands to touch the overgrowth as she walked. Yarrow, she thought as her fingertips brushed tiny yellow blossoms, hearing Nana’s voice. Japanese Knotweed, as she touched a white flower. An invasive species, Nana would say, with a beautiful aroma, don’t you think, Wren?
The shrill whistle startled her again, followed by Ms. Ryan’s squealing. “Ms. Lee! We need you!”
Wren watched her face tighten. “Stay close, ok?” Ms. Lee ran ahead. Neither child moved forward. Aaron stepped off the path, ducking under thick tree branches to a little cave-like spot. Wren bathed in the sudden quiet, as if someone turned down the volume of the world. She tracked the gentle buzzing of a bee, and soon stood next to Aaron.
“Look at this,” he said. His voice sounded different than she’d imagined, like Ms. Lee’s, like her Nana’s: soft, and kind.
“Wow,” she whispered, crouching down beside him to examine a small patch of mushrooms tucked between exposed tree roots. “It’s a little village.” She brushed her hands across the mossy carpet around them. Aaron nodded.
“Class, you’ve lost the privilege of nature time!” Ms. Ryan stomped down the path toward the school. The children followed, giddy and immune to her mood, except for Grant who limped along at the back. He’d jumped on a fallen log instead of over it as instructed. He jumped again and again, until his foot broke through the rotting wood, requiring the attention of Ms. Ryan and the strength of Ms. Lee to pull him free.
Ms. Lee appeared and smiled at Aaron and Wren where they hid. Wren hoped for a moment more before returning to the fluorescent lit, gray-walled room filled with letters and numbers and rules. She searched the ground. Find a pocket stone, Nana often advised. She found two. “Here,” she offered one to Aaron. “It’s to keep and remember this good day.” Wren slid the stone into her hoodie pocket. Aaron’s eyes widened as he studied the stone, then gripped it tight, the corners of his mouth lifted.
“We should head back.” Ms. Lee raised the low branches for them to pass under. Wren followed them out of the woods, past the Doritos bag and the yellow sign, and across the playground. She wondered if this was what friendship felt like.
Yes Wren, it is.
Amy Landisman is a writer and teacher. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Goddard College, and her work has been featured in the Pitkin Review, Boston.com, BlogHer and others. Amy lives in Connecticut with her spouse, three children, and her shadowy cat, Boo.