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Mama Calls Me Tommy
I knew Tommy was unique the moment he walked into my classroom that Wednesday morning. Getting a new student is always an interesting ordeal. The other students, already in their seats, looked Tommy up and down. He stood his ground, even though his entire body betrayed his apprehension. He stood there, eyes flicking back and forth. His collar was askew, and his Spiderman lunch box was dented and scratched.
“Hello, young man,” I said in a kind voice. “My name is Mrs. Sullivan. What’s yours?”
He looked up at me, back to the class, then up to me again.
“Thomas,” he said in a soft voice.
“Thomas? That’s a strong name. What’s your last name Thomas?” I wanted to make him feel comfortable, feel like he was in a safe place.
He took a deep breath, then slowly, slowly, came out of his shell.
“Cooper. Thomas A. Cooper. But my mama calls me Tommy because ‘Thomas’ is my papa’s name and she don’t like talkin’ bout him all that much.” He started talking faster and faster. He opened up and acted like he’d known everyone in the room his whole, albeit short, life. “Me and Mama, we live together in Room 218 at the place on Lancaster Drive. Our room’s on the second floor, so I get to ride the elevator every day!”
His voice was like one you’d expect to hear on a cereal commercial: full of life and energy. After he finished introducing himself, he looked up to me and smiled.
“Well, class, lets go around the room and introduce ourselves to Tommy.”
Each student stood up, said their name, then sat back down. Tommy was a cute kid, so all the girls blushed and giggled when they made eye contact.
“Well, now that everyone knows you, why don’t you choose a seat? You can put your book bag and lunch box in the cabinets along the wall.”
He waddled over to the cabinets, found an empty spot, set all of his things inside, then took a seat. The rest of the day went well. Tommy made friends and became a part of the class with ease. I’m glad; kids from Lancaster Drive sometimes have a hard time fitting in here at Greenwood Elementary. Living under the shadow of the factories, smoke rolling out all day every day, their families tend to be less fortunate, blue collar, and very, very rough. I could tell by his tattered clothes that this was the case for Tommy’s family.
In the weeks to follow, Tommy excelled at everything. English, science, history, and even math, which was challenging for most of my other students.
Then he started missing school.
About twice a month, Tommy wouldn’t be at school for a day, then come back the next day with a red mark on his cheek or leftovers of a black eye or bloody lip. Any time I asked him what happened, he would say, “I fell down the stairs,” or, “I got hit by a baseball at recess.” But it was obvious he was being abused. So, one day, after Tommy missed three days straight, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
I pulled Tommy’s file and verified his address. Once school ended, I drove to the apartment complex on Lancaster Drive, took the elevator to the second floor, and found the door marked ‘218.’ The hallway had a terrible odor to it--like dirty laundry and rancid meat. I knocked several times before Tommy himself finally answered. His eyes brightened with excitement at seeing me, then flushed with embarrassment as he turned to hide his swollen cheekbone.
“What are you doing here, Mrs. Sullivan?” he asked in a faint voice.
“I came to check on you, Tommy. You’ve missed three days of school in a row.”
“I haven’t been feeling very good,” he said quickly. “I think I’m getting sick.”
Ignoring his attempt to lie to me, I asked, “Is your mother home? I’d like to meet her.”
“Hold on.” He closed the door a ways and ran back into the apartment. I heard him trying to get his mother’s attention, as if she were asleep. I inched the door open until I could see Tommy, his back to me, facing a couch, shaking his mother to consciousness. A small coffee table that sat next to her was covered with cigarette buds and a half-empty bottle of vodka on its side laying in a puddle of its own contents. She jumped, squinted at the light, and waved her son away.
“What’d you wake me up for, boy? You know I gotta work tonight!”
“Mrs. Sullivan is here, Mama.”
“‘The h*ll is that?” she asked.
“My teacher, Mama. She wants to talk to you.”
Finally coming to her senses, she sent Tommy to his room and came to the door. I tried to appear friendly, but just the sight of her disgusted me. Her hair was disheveled, her skin was blotchy and wrinkled. Dirty, oversized clothes covered her frail frame.
“Can I help you?” she sneered as she lit a cigarette.
“My name is Alice Sullivan, I’m a 3rd grade teacher at Greenwood Elementary. Tommy transferred to my class a few months ago.”
“May I come in, please?” I was still standing in the hallway.
She didn’t even answer me; she just turned and walked back to the couch, leaving the door open for me. I stepped in and closed the door. The hallway smelled like a flower garden compared to that apartment. It reeked of sweat, smoke, and alcohol. I fought the urge to gag as I sat on the edge of a chair already facing Tommy’s mother.
“Miss Cooper, lately I’ve--”
“I ain’t no teacher, lady. You don’t gotta call me ‘Miss.’ My name’s Becky.” she tossed the bud of her finished cigarette onto the coffee table, then lit a second.
“Becky,” I said, reigning in my patience, “I’ve noticed lately that Tommy is missing a lot of school. And, he also has had. . .marks on his face.”
She shrugged, tapping the tip of her cigarette into an ash tray.
“Must get into fights at school. He’s always been a handful.”
“Well, since I’ve had him in class, he hasn’t made any enemies. He gets along with everybody. And he has one of the highest grades in the entire 3rd grade. That’s out of over 200 students.”
“Well he ain’t no good ‘round here! Don’t know how to fix anything when he breaks it. Can’t make his own food. Doesn’t know how to be quiet when I’m trying to sleep.”
“So you hit him?” I’d had enough of trying to be nice, enough of being polite. I was going to give this woman a piece of my mind.
She paused a second, then fired back, “You accusing me of something?”
“Are you going to try and deny the fact that you beat your son?”
“I don’t beat Tommy! A smack in the face is just good, strict parenting.”
I was appalled. “The whole side of his face is swollen! How can you possibly think that’s good for him?!”
“I think you need to get out of my house. Now!”
“I’ll tell you what you need to do.” I was on my feet now, raising my voice. “Quit treating your own son like he’s some stray dog that won’t leave your porch! He’s a good kid, and he deserves better than to be treated like an animal!”
Becky also stood, looking threatening for as small as she was. “Leave my house. Now! Before I call the police!”
“If anyone is going to call the police, it’ll be me!” I shouted. I stormed out of the apartment and out of the building.
I was in a rage as I drove back across town and into my driveway. I slammed the front door on my way in. Mike, my husband, was already home. I could smell that he had already started dinner. I barely noticed it was my favorite: Chicken Parmesan. He poked his head around the corner. “Hey babe. Dinner’s almost ready.” He noticed I was starting to cry. “What’s wrong?”
I told him about Tommy and the marks on his face. I told him about my trip to Tommy’s apartment and the argument I had with his mother.
“It’s not fair,” I said through the tears. “We want a baby so bad, but we can’t. But people like that have kids and don’t even deserve to be parents.”
Mike and I had been married for almost two years, and we’d been trying to conceive for half that. But for some reason we couldn’t.
“Life just isn’t fair,” Mike said. “That’s just the way it is.”
Tommy wasn’t at school any more that week, or the next. I talked to our guidance counselor and she told me Tommy’s mother had pulled him from Greenwood permanently. I called the apartment complex. The landlord told me that the Coopers had moved out just two days after I paid them a visit.
So that’s how it was. One more child that fell through the cracks. One more case of abuse overlooked; forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind. Until I got a phone call later that year.
During lunch one day I went to the office to check if I had any phone calls. One, in particular, caught my attention. I didn’t recognize the number, and they hadn’t left a message. When I called back, an older woman answered. “Lora Andrews, Social Services.”
Confused, I introduced myself and explained I missed her call.
“Oh yes, Mrs. Sullivan. I called because I was looking for the file on a former student of yours, a Thomas Cooper.”
That was the first time I’d heard that name since my argument with his mother. “May I ask why you needed it?”
“Well, his mother has been arrested. Solicitation, I’ve been told. So we took Thomas into our custody. You see, he has no other known relatives, so he’s been enrolled into foster care. So I needed his records to transfer to his new school. And if he gets adopted, I’d need it for that as well.”
I was shocked. I mailed the information to Mrs. Andrews, then spent the rest of the day in a daze. Poor Tommy. I thought to myself over and over, Who could go through something like that? At such a young age, no less? Life just wasn’t fair.
When I walked into our house, Mike met me in the living room. We had plans to go out that night. “Hey honey,” he said with a kiss. “How was your day?”
I didn’t even really hear him, my mind was so consumed with thoughts of Tommy. “Sit down, Mike,” I said. “We need to talk.”
“Is something wrong?”
“You know how we cant seem to conceive?”
He knew all too well. It pained him deeply that we couldn’t have a child of our own. He wanted a baby as much, maybe sometimes more, than I did. “Did you get the test results back?” he asked, looking nervous. “Is it medical?”
“No, no. It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
I looked down at my hands and fidgeted. I bit my lip. I didn’t know how he would react.
“What if we,” I looked up to meet his gaze. “What if we adopted?”