cog·ni·zance /ˈkäɡnəzəns/ noun

  1. knowledge or awareness of something.
  2. something that has been learned through experience.
  3. identification with or understanding of the emotional state of another person.

Birdie didn’t want her sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Simons, or her classmates to see her tears. She wiped her face on the sleeve of her sweater, composed herself as best she could, and raised her hand. Quietly.

Her classmates carried on around her, engrossed in their in-class assignment. The scritch scratch of pencil on paper gave way to the soft tap of Mr. Simons’ shoes as he stepped over to her.

“Yes, Birdie?” He asked softly, keenly aware of the power of flow around him and not wanting to distract any other students.

“Can I use the bathroom?”

“Class is over in 5 minutes, can you wait?”

“No,” she tried to keep a whine out of her voice. “I really, really havta go.”

He sighed. “Fine, well hurry up and come back to collect your things after you’re done.”

She jumped out of her seat gratefully, causing a bit of a squeak that led him to make a shushing gesture at her. Without looking back, she walked softly for the door, pulling it open ever so gently before making it out to the hallway and dashing off in an all-out sprint to the bathroom.

There, she let the tears fall.

Back in the classroom, Mr. Simons glanced at the paper on Birdie’s desk before walking back to his own. What he saw made him stop short.

Birdie had just finished wiping her eyes and nose on a rolled up ball of toilet paper when she heard the bathroom door swing open and a gaggle of girls file in, noisily making the most of their free time during lunch period.

Nearly tripping over herself, Birdie scrambled to throw the soggy clump in the trash and rush back out the door. She didn’t want to talk to anyone right now. She just wanted to get her stuff and go to lunch.

She cautiously opened Mr. Simons' door, hoping to find at least a couple other students there, but no dice. To make matters worse, Mr. Simons was leaning against his desk, as if he was waiting for her. Was he waiting for her?

“Birdie, do you have a sec?”

Dang it, he was waiting for her. “Sorry Mr. Simons, I actually havta get to lunch.”

“Of course, of course, I just wanted to chat really quick about your in-class assignment.”

No! Today of all days he paid attention to her class work? “I’m sorry, I’ll do better.”

“Birdie, it’s okay.” His tone felt reassuring, which in and of itself was a little worrisome. But she paused anyway.

He held out her paper to her, and continued, “The assignment was a creative writing free write to create a story with your favorite character from another book. Your paper is blank.”

Birdie fought back a new round of tears threatening to leak through. “No, uh, I actually, like, wrote a bunch and then erased a bunch because I didn’t like it. But I can just undo, I mean rewrite what I erased, I’m sorry.”

Birdie felt Mr. Simons’ knowing gaze as she looked down at her high tops. “If that were the case, there’d be eraser smudge marks. As an English teacher, I’m pretty sure I know what those look like.”

Birdie kept her eyes downcast, but inside she was melting.

“Birdie,” Mr. Simons started cautiously. “Do you not have a favorite book character?”

“I just couldn’t choose, I just have so many.”

“You could have chosen a character from a book we read in class.”

“Yeah, but...I don’t know...”

“Or even a movie character.”

“We could do that?” Birdie perked up, incredulous that she hadn’t considered doing that.

“Well, no,” Mr. Simons frowned. “No, that would not have been in the spirit of the assignment. But any student who did that, well, I wouldn’t be able to tell what they did. But you, you are honest, and didn’t even try.”

“I would have if I’d known...” she mumbled.

“But why?” He still held out the paper.

She walked up to swipe it from him. “I don’t read books, okay?”

Mr. Simons’ frown deepened. “You’ve read the books in my class.”

“No,” she shot back, then simmered down. “I didn’t. I just listened to what the other kids said happened in the books. That's how I knew. Or I watched the movie if there was one.”

Birdie wiped at her eyes with the back of her sleeve, but when she removed her arm her vision still blurred. She couldn’t make out Mr. Simons’ expression through the veil of tears trying to break free.

“Birdie, it’s okay,” Mr. Simons finally said. “I want you to know that it’s okay. And I can help, if you are honest with me.”

“About what?” Birdie asked timidly, fidgeting where she stood.

“Why don’t you read books?”

“I dunno...I don’t like them?” It came out as a question, and Mr. Simons saw right through it.

“You don’t like the stories? Or you don’t like reading?”

“That one. I don’t like reading.”

“Why not?” Mr. Simons urged patiently.

“I don’t know!” Birdie wailed. “It’s just hard, okay! It takes too long and doesn’t always make sense.”

“That does sound tough,” Mr. Simons conceded. Birdie, who’d been stealing glances everywhere except at her teacher, finally turned her gaze to face him.

“It does?”

“Yes,” Mr. Simons nodded emphatically. “Y’know, it also sounds a bit familiar. I struggle with reading too.”

That made Birdie mad. “Teachers aren’t supposed to make fun of their students!”

“I’m not, Birdie. I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“But – but – you’re a teacher!”

“Yes, I am. And hopefully, a good one?”

Birdie nodded, and Mr. Simons smiled.

“So I promise I’m not lying or making fun of you. I do also struggle with reading. The books I ask you to read for class I’ve gone through so many times over the years that I practically know them by heart. That helps.”

Birdie looked aghast. “I can’t do that! That would take forever, or longer!”

“You know another thing I do? If I’m reading a new book, I’ll read the beginning and then skip straight to the end, just to see how the story will go.”

“We can do that?” Birdie asked, awed.

Mr. Simons laughed, but it was a warm kind of laughter, and Birdie felt her smile opening up with the sound. “Well, not everyone wants to. But if you skip to the end, then when you read you'll know just how long the book is and where it’s going. What do you think of that?”

“Maybe...” Birdie trailed off.

A shout from outside the classroom window broke through their conversation, as a group of boys playing catch devolved into a tug of war over the ball. Birdie, taken out of the moment, now clung to the opportunity to escape and eyed her bag at her desk.

Mr. Simons could recognize a student eager to leave. He didn’t let himself get offended. The memories of his own uncomfortable conversations with a teacher about this very subject swirled easily to the front of his mind. Except those conversations didn't happen until he was a senior in high school. Teachers had waved him off as “just another black kid uninterested in school” until his 12th grade English teacher actually, truly looked out for him and pushed his parents to be comfortable with getting him diagnosed.

“You should head to lunch,” Mr. Simons permitted, turning to walk back to his desk. Birdie breathed a full-body sigh of relief, grabbed up her things, and raced for the door. But before she stepped into the hallway, Mr. Simons pulled at her attention once more.

“Birdie, since you didn’t finish the in-class assignment, I do have a small task for you to do tonight, if that's alright.”

Birdie knew her escape was too good to be true, just knew she wouldn't be let off the hook that easily. Mr. Simons was going to give her an F, she was sure of it. It was her first time with letter grades, and she'd already get the worst one.

“Can you please go home tonight and write down a list of movies or TV shows you enjoy?”

Birdie blinked. “That’s it?”

Mr. Simons nodded. “Yep, that's your makeup assignment.”

Birdie shuffled in place, easing up to the idea. “Yeah...yeah, okay. I can do that!”

Mr. Simons smiled. “That's great. Please bring it in tomorrow.”

“Sure!” Birdie said excitedly, her mind now wandering to her favorite films and shows. “Is it okay if it’s a long list?”

“Go for it.”

“Okay! Thanks, Mr. Simons!” And with that, Birdie finally darted out of the classroom and out to lunch, where she could eat the food her dad packed her that morning and pretend she was like everyone else, feel that she was no different than any of her classmates. She wished she could get a letter grade in lunch.

Mr. Simons sat back in his chair and leaned, his feet propped up on his desk. He looked forward to Birdie’s list. He’d take that list of theatrical favorites and extrapolate out the plots she found interesting and genres she was drawn to. Then, he’d create a new list for her. A list of books he’d be sure she'd enjoy.