Adolfo reached into his pocket for his smart phone during afternoon snack recess. It was Tuesday at around 2:30 p.m., and the classroom aide was seated across from Xander at the lone, long table in the middle of Franklin Roosevelt Elementary School’s multipurpose room. Xander’s face was aimed downward, and he was studying the text on his plastic cookie wrapper, so that all Adolfo could see of him were the thick blonde curls atop the boy’s head. Adolfo, whose family all had straight black hair, thought those curls made the boy look like he was descended from the ancient Greeks.
Adolfo sometimes played a game where he had Xander try and guess the temperature at present in some exotic locale. Then the man would search the web for the actual temperature, and he would tell Xander how close or how far he was from the correct figure. It was a way to pass the time, and sometimes it sparked conversation. Conversation was healthy for this boy who rarely socialized with kids his own age.
At the moment, though, the Internet didn’t seem to be working. Adolfo kept getting a message that his browser could not be loaded every time he refreshed the screen. With a sigh, he put the phone on the table and smiled at Xander.
“Xander, you’ve been having a great day. What kinds of things are working for you today?”
The boy didn’t pick up his head from the wrapper.
“Xander Thompson, this is Starship Command, come in please.”
This got a smile from the boy, but he still didn’t look up.
“So what kinds of things have you done today? What do we still need to work on?”
The boy sighed, meeting Adolfo’s eyes for the first time.
“I. Don’t. Know.”
His voice was deep and strong. Adolfo noted that it could have been borrowed from a man in his thirties.
“I was impressed with your eye contact today. You’ve been doing great to look right at Mrs. Rowland when speaking in class. I also liked how you asked for a break when we were in the middle of the five-paragraph essay. You knew you needed to give your brain a time-out.”
“That was really mature of you,” the man added.
“And I got all of my division problems right on that worksheet,” offered the boy, who was wearing a blue t-shirt with a red-and-black Angry Bird in its center.
“Yeah. That was great.”
Adolfo nonchalantly picked his smart phone back up, dialed in his 4-digit passcode, and tapped a button to load up his browser’s homepage, nytimes.com. It seemed to be working. Still peering down at the phone, Adolfo continued with the conversation.
“A thing we might work on, and I know I’ve said this before…”
The man suddenly stopped when he saw that the entire screen of his phone was filled up with a single headline. It was four words long: “Life Found on Mars.”
“Umm, this is weird,” he said, his forehead breaking out in folds.
The first thought he had was that someone had hacked the periodical’s website. He clicked on the headline to get to the article, but a message popped up letting him know that he had exceeded his allotted amount of ten articles that month.
He quickly went to Google’s webpage and typed in a single word: “Mars.” Hundreds of articles popped up from just that day. All of them trumpeted the discovery of life on the Red Planet.
Adolfo still was skeptical, but he suddenly felt like he had downed several caffeine shots.
“Oh my God,” Adolfo said in a hushed tone. “I’m not sure I believe this yet, but it looks like they found life on Mars?”
It came out like a question because he almost couldn’t believe his own words.
Xander was looking at Adolfo now, but nothing in the boy’s expression suggested excitement or understanding.
“Like in outer space — they found aliens,” the man said, trying to impress him now or at least get across the importance of the event.
This time Adolfo didn’t wait for a reaction from the boy. Instead, he turned his attention back to the phone, clicked on an article from the Guardian’s website, and began to read the first few, brief paragraphs.
“Microbes, a half mile below the surface, 1/10th the size of a human cell, water, microscope, laboratory.”
The words stood out as if they were in giant, bold lettering.
Adolfo looked around now. The kids further down the table were staring at him like he belonged in a strait jacket. He suddenly wished there was an adult around to share in his excitement.
If it was true — and the evidence thus far seemed to suggest that this was the case — then this was a momentous day. He had read enough science fiction to know the implications of the discovery. Yesterday when he woke up, Earth’s life was unique, one of a kind. And today, it was not. It was suddenly an exciting time to be alive.
He considered calling his wife, Anna, but decided to wait another 45 minutes until the end of the school day. He probably couldn’t reach her anyway. As a fourth-year veterinary student, she was working harder these days than anyone he knew at the university’s animal hospital across town.
He was seriously considering ducking into the main office to alert the school’s receptionist to the news when a pair of very loud, angry voices coming from behind him made their presence known. Adolfo’s facial muscles tightened.
“You’re the bitch, bitch!”
And then: a slap in the face. Another.
The classroom aide put his phone down on the table, lifted his leg over the bench where he was sitting, and rose to survey the scene: two girls wrestling in the empty space between the table and the stage. He knew the girl with the pink sweatshirt’s name was Sandrine, but he didn’t know the other girl’s name. He witnessed this girl – black fleece, hair tied back in a bun — toss Sandrine by the sleeve for a few feet across the ugly, gray-and-white-tiled floor.
Adolfo approached swiftly, positioning himself between the girls. When he looked over at Sandrine on the floor, she looked feral, eyes blown up twice their normal size, thick brown hair going in every direction. There was no doubt she was going to try and get some payback.
“Sandrine, please take it easy,” he pleaded, but he could tell the words meant nothing to her in that moment.
Adolfo put his hands out to try and ward Sandrine off as she picked herself up and barreled in his direction.
She careened left at the last second in an effort to get around him.
Adolfo adjusted accordingly. This wasn’t the first time he’d been in the middle of a 6th grade girl fight. Sandrine crashed into him, but steadied herself fairly quickly.
She tried one more time to get around him, faking one way and going another. He was falling for none of it.
By this time, the assistant principal had shown up, and he held the other girl’s hands behind her back like she were in handcuffs.
“Girls, that’s enough — Sandrine, step outside, cool down,” Mr. Fraser snapped, taking on a much more authoritative tone than Adolfo could ever muster. The principal’s index finger pointed at the door.
Sandrine screamed something unintelligible, but did as she was told.
“Adolfo, I know this isn’t your job, but can you go outside with Sandrine?” the assistant principal said, turning in his direction. “Joelle and I are going to have a chat in the meantime.”
“Hey Louis, did you hear?” said Adolfo suddenly, using the principal’s first name.
The assistant principal made a question mark with his face.
“They found life on Mars.”
Adolfo immediately regretted his comment.
In his black sweater and tan Dockers, Mr. Fraser didn’t say anything in response, just made an exaggerated face, as if he was constipated.
Adolfo decided not to continue with an explanation.
“Sorry, umm, I’ll go track down Sandrine now,” Adolfo uttered, his face betraying his embarrassment.
He walked over to where Xander was sitting, seemingly unaffected by the scene.
“Xander, I should be back in a few minutes. If the bell rings and I’m not back yet, go straight to class, and I’ll meet you there.”
Xander didn’t make eye contact, but Adolfo knew he’d heard him.
When Adolfo got outside, he didn’t see Sandrine over by the outdoor lunch tables. He let out a long sigh and began to walk the campus in search of her. He was a little sad to leave the cool comfort of the air conditioning in the multipurpose room. The sun was warm on his neck, but there was a slight breeze. As mid-September days went in brutally hot Sacramento, California, this day was better than most.
He rounded a corner and looked in on the grassy area of the D-wing, home to the 5th and 6th grade classrooms. Xander’s classroom was located in this wing. There was a group of girls and two boys standing around by one of the closed classrooms. He knew they were supposed to be at the playground area, but he decided to move on with his search rather than stop to chide them.
He continued on past the recess fields and did a quick scan of the area. Next he moved onto the C-wing. There was a girl named Jasmine leaning against the brick wall next to the girl’s bathroom.
“Is Sandrine in there, by chance?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said the girl with bright red hair and a light blue headband. “She’s pretty upset.”
“I figured. Do you know why they were fighting?”
“Joelle and some other girl were calling her a fat slob.”
“Oh,” he said. He opened his mouth to say something more, but stopped. Nodded instead.
He couldn’t remember if Jasmine was present at the time of the fight or not.
Then the bell rang to signal the end of recess.
The girl with the headband went away without a word. Sandrine still had not come out of the bathroom.
He wasn’t sure how long he should wait. Xander would have gone back to class. He would be okay, Adolfo told himself. They were doing independent reading, which the boy typically enjoyed. And then it would be time to go home pretty soon after that.
Adolfo heard someone blow her nose inside the bathroom.
Then she walked out.
“Hey,” Sandrine said back.
“Feel like talking about it?”
“Nah,” she said, shaking her head.
“You’ll get in less trouble if you explain what happened — why you went after each other.”
“Why do you think?”
She gave Adolfo a look like he was a complete and utter moron.
“Girls can be awful,” he said.
“You can’t curse, Sandrine.”
“I hate this school,” she said quietly, almost inaudibly.
He’d heard kids use this line a number of times in the handful of years he’d worked at the school.
As he was thinking of what to say next, he observed Mr. Fraser approaching them.
“Everything okay, here?” It was a friendlier tone than the one the assistant principal used before in the multipurpose room.
“I hope so,” I said, looking at Sandrine. The girl’s eyes were down on the floor.
“Sandrine, I know what happened,” Mr. Fraser said gently. “I’m sorry it did, but we do need to talk about it.”
The man held out his left hand, signaling that she should lead the way to the office. Sandrine slumped her shoulders as she walked away. Adolfo felt bad for the girl; he hoped Mr. Fraser would go easy on her.
When they were gone, the classroom aide started to head back in the direction of the D-wing to check in on Xander.
Passing the playground area again on his way over, he spotted Xander on a swing. Adolfo sighed and then walked over.
Xander had his hands on the chains and was getting some pretty good air.
“Xander, what are you doing out here? Does Mrs. Rowland know you’re on the swings without supervision?”
The student ignored the question.
“Did you need a break?”
“Okay, and then you’ll go back to class? School’s over in a few minutes.”
Xander didn’t say anything, but he did catch his feet on the pebbles on the ground to slow the swing down.
“Xander,” Adolfo said again when the boy had come to a stop.
“Yes!” the boy finally replied, as if in annoyance.
Adolfo took a seat on an empty swing beside the boy. The swing rocked him back and forth gently.
“Xander, do you remember before when I said they found life on Mars?” Adolfo asked without turning in the boy’s direction.
“Well what do you think, buddy?”
He didn’t respond.
The boy still didn’t answer, and Adolfo gave up. Xander started up on the swing again.
A minute or two later, the bell rang to signal that school was over. Adolfo had lost track of time.
“Xander we need to go,” the man said, hopping off the swing. “We’ve gotta get your stuff in the classroom – don’t wanna miss the bus.”
Xander caught his foot in the pebbles again. Then he got off the swing set and began the walk back to class. Adolfo trailed him.
When the 5th grader reached his classroom in the D-wing, he pulled at the door, but it was locked. There were a few kids and parents milling around on the quad, but the D-wing was deserted. There was a piece of paper taped to the door. It read “be back in a few minutes, Xander (and Adolfo).”
“Great,” he thought to himself. “Guess we missed her,” Adolfo said nonchalantly. “Hopefully we still make your bus, though.”
Xander’s bus usually didn’t leave until fifteen or twenty minutes after school ended. Adolfo guessed that they would be okay.
Xander didn’t say anything, just pulled at the door a second time, then a third – each time harder than the last.
“Xander, take a breath,” Adolfo advised the boy.
But Xander kept pulling at the door, grimacing and crying now as he did. Adolfo approached the door, bent down, and planted himself in front of the boy, so that he had a good view of his student’s face.
“Xander, listen to me,” he said quietly, but firmly. “I want you to take three deep breaths. It will help you.”
Xander didn’t say anything, but the aide could tell by the boy’s facial expression that he had gotten through.
The boy took three quick breaths.
“Okay good, now listen to me. I want you to take three more, but these have to be really big, I mean crazy big.”
Xander took his breaths and then turned to look at Adolfo.
“I should sit down,” the boy said.
“That’s a good idea, Xander.”
Xander removed his hand from the door handle and gently lowered himself against the wall. Adolfo remained standing.
“What do they look like?” the boy suddenly asked a few moments later.
“The aliens,” replied Xander.
“Oh, it sounds like their microscopic — microbes is the word they’re using. So smaller than anything you can see with the naked eye.”
“That’s boring,” the boy said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Why do we care if we can’t even see them?”
“It’s a good question, Xander. I guess it’s because any discovery of life outside of Earth is important. It means we’re not by ourselves out here.”
“It also means,” continued Adolfo, “that it’s very possible there’s other life out there, and that life might be intelligent.”
“Like laser-gun-shooting, warp-speed-traveling aliens?” Xander asked.
Adolfo raised an eyebrow in mock alarm.
“I can’t believe I’m having this conversation — this day is crazy, buddy,” the man remarked. “I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but today will be a day you’ll remember for the rest of your life.”
“How much longer do we have to wait, you think?” the boy asked.
“I don’t know, a few minutes more.”
“How much longer exactly?”
“I’m not a timer, Xander,” joked Adolfo.
Xander gave up. Adolfo took a seat beside the boy. They chatted for another minute or two. When they ran out of things to say, they just gazed up at the vast blue sky until Mrs. Rowland showed up.