©Elizabeth Levett Fortier, 2013


I ran across a picture of Takuto in my desk this morning. It’s the one I took in class on the first day of school to put up on the writing wall. He’s looking up at me from his drawing, his work, with one hand on the table and the other holding firmly onto a fat, black crayon. I remember Takuto’s hands as a little bit chubby, almost more typical of a four-, rather than five-year-old. But his hands were very capable and very strong for a little guy.

I look at my own hands now and I notice how they’ve aged. I’m proud of my hands and the things they can do. I’ve learned to knit and sew and paint watercolor cats, though I’m still working on playing a song with more than two guitar chords in it. When I was little I remember watching my parents do so many amazing things and I longed to be like them. I wanted to learn how to do all those cool, grown-up things. My mother could pull the thread so tightly when sewing on a button, form the dough carefully so each cookie would bake to glorious perfection, smooth the sheets with grand authority after washing, or caress one of her children so tenderly as to melt away any demon that threatened to harm us or cause us anxiety.

I used to sit with my mother and compare her hands with mine. My mother’s hands were over fifty by then. They were freckled and red and the whorls on her fingertips had all but worn off, replaced with lines from endless cleaning, cooking, and soothing. In those moments I had no knowledge of the vagaries of time. A child doesn’t look at a beloved elder’s wrinkles and think, “My, what a shame.” We love them for what they can do, and we want their magical powers for ourselves. I remember the thrill of learning to tie my own shoelaces and braid my own hair. It’s lovely to have things done for us, but I can say on good authority and after many years of serving people under the age of 8, we feel amazing when we learn to do things for ourselves. And the grown-ups we love the most are the ones who show us how. That’s why, when I was little, there was nothing more engaging for me (besides fort building) than hanging out with my dad and handing him his wrenches and hammers. He was mine in the world of rust and steel, measuring tape, and architect’s drawings, in the world where objects were all actual size.

When my mom suddenly died in her early seventies, I was grateful that her hands (the skin on them having grown so thin you could almost see through it) would never endure the intrusion of hospital needles. A child’s hands pulled me out of my grief about a month after her passing. On a school picnic, 5-year-old Jessin Ulloa (who was planning to be in my first grade the coming year) got a vice grip on my hand and pulled me into a dead run across a green field. Hand in hand we ran, laughing till we reached the fence, and I was reminded of being alive. I’ve been running ever since. We have a sacred bargain with children. They love and accept us with our wrinkles and flaws, and we must show them how to do all the amazing magic tricks, how to find a salamander under a rock, and how to draw a crayon castle against a watercolor sky.

I made this silent pact with Takuto: “Trust me, I’ll show you how to do cool stuff.” Forming a bond would prove to help me reach him and help him, just as it has with so many other young children. Besides the obvious barrier of language, Takuto presented some other, not-so-obvious walls I’d have to scale in order for him to have a good year in my class. He had had a hearing loss at one time, and his speech had been slow to develop. He also had a curious stray eye that seemed to impede his vision. This particular “quirk” was made all the more endearing by Takuto’s unruly mass of shiny black hair. Takuto had been in the Kindergarten class next to mine the year before. He was unable to communicate much verbally and this must have caused him great frustration. His teacher told me he was stubborn. (Stubborn, as in tired of feeling powerless at such a young age!) I started looking out for Takuto right away and secretly smiling at him. It became apparent that he would repeat Kindergarten in my class since he was such a young student, and since the mastery of basic language and self-regulation skills eluded him. (He still took deep naps almost every afternoon.)

By the time Takuto started in my class in August, I belonged to him. Our deal was sealed, he would be my helper and I would teach him to do all the cool stuff big people do. He loved the routine, loved the predictable schedule and repeated language. He loved learning how to change the signs that hung in the learning centers, and how to move the magnetized labels on the daily calendar. He adored making signs with bold black writing and arrows to indicate direction. He was especially proud whenever he ended up at the front of the line and got to hold my hand while crossing the yard. The other students loved Takuto and cheered him on as he learned more and more English each day. He quickly mastered all the other children’s names and was always chosen to help pass out the writing books. He would stride quickly around the room like a general, matching the names on the covers of the books to each waiting child, his arms piled with notebooks. I didn’t find Takuto stubborn; I found him fascinating and usually charming, especially when he would fall asleep during read-aloud (after long minutes of valiant struggle). He’d wake up later and stumble over to me like a little bull, putting one hand on each of my knees and leaning forward so I could put my hand on his back. His face would be warm and his hair would be damp, but he was determined to wake up and play with his pals.

Takuto compensated for his inability to speak or write in complex sentences by saying and writing the simple words at his command over and over. He always chose art or writing center at choice time, tirelessly cutting up small pieces of colored paper on which he’d write the names of his classmates and simple words. By late fall, his little messages had become like official documents and he passed them out with great ceremony. At the holiday sing-along, I had to pry him away from the entrance to come up on the stage. He’d posted himself at the theatre doors in his suit jacket, tie and (always) shorts, passing scraps of paper with names on them to people coming in (like tickets).

I showed Takuto how to make little books; and after that he tested the capacity of my stapler several times a day. At sharing time he’d sit on my read-aloud chair to present his most recent works to the class. Often each page had only a number written on it in bold, black marker, but Takuto read page by page, pausing to face the book out with a quick, left to right sweep so his work could be properly viewed. He insisted the others listen patiently and they did. In fact, if any one of them moved or whispered he would call them out in a horrifyingly accurate imitation of his teacher. I tried to help him once when he got stuck on a page, and he wrenched the book out of my hands, surprising me with his strength. “I got it!” he said. It was one of his favorite sentences. The sign for me that Takuto was happy was that he was always busy—earnestly using any skill I taught him to construct and carry out his own, increasingly complex projects.

Finally March came. The time for Takuto and his family to return to Japan. On his last day at our school, our intrepid hero came to school as always, ready for the day. But at a certain point it was clear that the transition he was facing was too much to bear. All his hard work invested in making a place for himself here was now something else, something changed, once again and forever by the grown-ups in life taking control out of the smallest hands, as grown-ups must so often do. When the librarian came to read to the class, Takuto put his head down on his table and wouldn’t leave his chair to join the others. I was not about to try to coax or push him. I pulled up one of the small chairs and sat down close. I smoothed his soft, black, cow-licked hair and said, “I know. It’s okay.” That day I was wearing my favorite necklace, a chunky silver chain with a little square pendant on it. A small silver frame encloses a tiny, hand-painted picture of two very small hands. Takuto looked up at me and reached over for the pendant. He took it between his small fingers and examined the image closely. Then he looked at me and smiled slowly. In a moment immune to the vagaries of time, I realized humbly that somehow I’d done all right by this child. I went over to my desk and brought back some paper and crayons so Takuto and I could color pictures together one more time.


©Elizabeth Levett Fortier, 2013

Elizabeth Levett Fortier teaches kindergarten in San Francisco’s Richmond District. She is the author of Beauty Secrets of the Stars, a memoir of love and friendship, and is a visual artist, too. Elizabeth is also a songwriter, sings, and plays percussion in an acoustic three-piece group with her husband, David. Their music is available at

One Response to “Two Small Hands by Elizabeth Levett Fortier”

  1. Stunning portrait of a young learner and his teacher, the bond created through that relationship. Thank you, Elizabeth, for painting such a clear picture of the deep experience of teaching, in its most grounded sense.

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