Peter came to his first day of second grade in a purple robe. Most of the kids arrived with their parents, not Peter; he walked into the class found his desk and sat without saying a word.
Mrs. Sanders wasn’t sure what to do. The first day was difficult for the students, a new class, a new teacher, a new group of friends, and a new way of doing things. Most second graders squirmed in their desks waiting for Mrs. Sanders to start class; Peter sat looking toward the ceiling, his right hand near his chin, index and forefinger raised as if he were preparing to bless someone.
“Good morning, children,” Mrs. Sanders began in the sing-song voice all second grade teachers knew and used. “My name is Mrs. Sanders. Can you say, ‘Good morning, Mrs. Sanders,’ when I say good morning to you? Let’s try that. Good morning, children.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Sanders,” the class said far too loudly.
“Well, aren’t you all full of energy this morning? Did you all have a good summer? I sure did, but I could not wait to start school this year, because I knew all of you would be here.”
Peter raised his hand. Mrs. Sanders hesitated. “Yes?”
Peter stood next to his desk before speaking. “Mrs. Sanders, someone has touched my robe.”
The class was quiet. The squirming stopped. “Someone has touched your robe?”
“Yes. Someone has touched my robe and because of their faith I will heal them.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Sanders paused and drew her hands together by her waist, “we should all be respectful of each other’s things and we shouldn’t touch others unless it is okay.”
“I would like to heal the child who has touched my robes.”
Mrs. Sanders smiled, “Well, Peter, this is a public school. We will have to save the healing for recess.”
“Okay,” Peter turned to the class, “Whoever touched my robe, come see me at recess and I will heal you.” He sat back down, retook his pose, and stared off into the distance.
Mrs. Sanders moved on without pause, but after a moment she noticed half of the class was no longer listening to her and was instead staring toward the ceiling to see what Peter saw. “Children. Children. I need your eyes up here. Let’s take out a pencil and paper and prepare to write about your summer.” The class complied and Mrs. Sanders directed the students in her loving way. When the class was working, she moved around looking to see what the children were writing. When she came to Peter’s desk she was shocked. Colored pencils were spread out across his desktop and there, on his paper, was a large red, illuminated M. The detail stopped Mrs. Sander’s breath, little blue birds flew around the giant M and thick brown ivy branches spread out around the page diminishing into small vines as they moved away from the letter. Peter was highlighting the bottoms of the ivy leaves with a dark green pencil when Mrs. Sanders stopped and bent down, “Did you just do this?”
“Yes, my child,” Peter said without looking up.
“My goodness, Peter. It is lovely.”
“Bless you,” he said turning his face toward her. From a distance, Peter appeared to be just another grubby second grader who’s face needed a good scrubbing, but now that Mrs. Sanders was close she could see that someone had scribbled a brown mustache and beard on his face in eye liner pencil. “Can I finish this tonight and give it to you tomorrow?”
“Certainly, Peter. It is beautiful. You take as much time as you need sweet pea.” Peter turned his face back to the page and continued. Mrs. Sanders walked around the room looking at each child’s paper feeling let down with each second-grader’s effort: Crooked letters, sloppy writing, misspellings, and grammar that would shock an Appalachian.
At recess, Mrs. Sanders watched Peter from behind the classroom window as he walked in his purple robe. He did not climb on the monkey bars, he did not swing on the swings, and he was not interested in playing games. He strolled, left hand holding his robe so it didn’t drag on the ground, right hand in the air making the sign of the cross as he walked. Peter’s lips flexed and protruded in bold movements as if he were speaking to a large group. Mrs. Sanders held her breath as she watched hoping that someone would draw Peter into their circle of friends.
Peter wandered the playground for another minute and then approached another boy. Mrs. Sanders’s jaw tighten as she watched. The two boys talked, Peter gestured a few times, touched the other boy on the forehead, and then continued his walk. The second boy followed. Within ten minutes Peter had talked to, blessed, and assembled a dozen boys into his flock, all of them trailing behind as Peter strolled through the mob of children towards the swings.
Grace Schrader was swinging high into the morning air when Peter and his flock approached. Peter motioned and his followers grabbed the chains of her swing stopping her with a jolt. Mrs. Sanders heart raced as she shoved the classroom door open and began to move toward the group in quick, full steps. She could not see what was happening, but before she could move ten feet, Peter had finished his business with Grace. The bell rang and the crowds headed back to their classrooms.
As the children filed in Mrs. Sanders waited for Grace, “Grace, can I speak with you a moment? The rest of you go into class, sit down, and wait.” Mrs. Sanders waited a moment, “Grace, what happened…Grace, where are your glasses?”
“Peter healed my eyes. I don’t need them anymore.”
“What?” Mrs. Sanders bent down next to Grace, “Peter did what?”
“He healed my eyes. I touched his robe and he healed my eyes. He rubbed mud on my eyes, and now I can see.”
“He did what?”
“He got some dirt, spit in it, and rubbed it on my eyes. Now I can see without my glasses.”
Mrs. Sanders looked at Grace’s eyelids; she could see where Peter’s grubby little fingers left their muddy mark. “Okay, go in and sit down.”
Mrs. Sanders spent most of “Math Time” worrying. She could not quiet the inner dialogue spinning in her head. Somehow, she wasn’t sure how, but somehow all of this was going to fall on her doorstep. She was going to be asked why she didn’t do something about the little boy who had gone mad in her class. She tried to teach math, but her heart wasn’t in it, she wanted a cigarette, three shots of Crown Royal, and a bowl of Ben and Jerry’s.
The staff room was already noisy by the time Mrs. Sanders arrived to eat lunch.
“Hey, Rhonda, one of my kids told me last period he became a disciple of one of your kids,” Mr. Raymond blurted out before she had taken two steps into room. “Sounds like you’ve got a real live one on your hands this year.”
“Yes, Peter Jones. Who had Peter Jones last year?” Mrs. Sanders asked as she moved toward the long table.
“Peter Jones?” Mrs. Miller said. “I had Peter last year. He was very quiet. What’s he doing this year?”
Before Mrs. Sanders could answer, Mr. Raymond cut in, “He’s dressed up like little Jesus walkin’ around the playground converting disciples. I’ve got two in my class after last recess. By the end of today he will have the whole second and third grade converted.”
“Is that right, Rhonda?” Mrs. Miller asked.
“Yep, pretty much. He showed up this morning, all by himself, dressed like he was ready for Halloween. He healed Grace Schrader during first recess and now she is insisting that she doesn’t need glasses any longer.”
“He healed Grace Schrader!” Mr. Raymond laughed, slapping the table, “I’ve got a few to send his way if he is healing kids. Tommy Maddox, anybody know Tommy Maddox? Woo, what a piece of work this kid is.”
“Well, good luck contacting Peter’s mother,” Mrs. Miller said. “She’s a tough one to find. Phone’s disconnected. No email. I don’t think she showed up for a single conference. I talked to her just once when I ran into her in Wal-Mart. I wouldn’t have recognized her but Peter saw me and started yelling my name. Cute kid. I think she told me her husband had been shipped out to Iraq. Does that sound right? Anybody know the family?”
None of the teachers responded. “Great,” Mrs. Sanders said digging into her lunch bag. “Any advice?”
“Stay on his good side. I hear his father can be a real fire and brimstone kind-of guy,” Mr. Raymond laughed pointing at the ceiling.
Outside, on the playground, Peter’s twelve disciples gathered around the domed monkey bars and watched as he climbed to the top. The recess monitors, Mrs. Ware and Ms. Mendez, were mediating a dispute on the kickball field and did not notice the little boy dressed in a purple robe climbing to the top of the dome. What the monitors did notice was the silence that covered the playground. When the monitors turned back to the play area they saw what would be termed from this day forward as “The Sermon on the Monkey Bars.” Little Peter Jones stood like the spike on a German Pickedhaube helmet atop the dome; all of the Meadow Lane Elementary school students surrounded the little boy in the purple robe in a silent trance. There was no pushing or screaming, it was silent.
The playground monitors had not been trained to deal with situations like this, so they did not interrupt. “This is a bit weird,” Ms. Mendez said to Mrs. Ware.
“Well, I’ll have something to talk about around the dinner table tonight,” said Mrs. Ware.
“Yah, how was your day honey? Oh, it was good. I watched a little boy dressed in a purple robe perform a miracle. He got every kid on the playground to shut up at once,” Ms. Mendez said.
“Do you think we should have him come down?”
“And interrupt this silence? No way. If he falls he’s just going to land on top of the kids. This is a win-win for us,” Ms. Mendez said out of the corner of her mouth.
“I like the way you think, Ruth. Is he reciting from the bible?”
“Sounds like it. Weird.”
“Yep, weird. Who is that kid?” asked Mrs. Ware.
“Dunno. I don’t recognize him. I’ll tell you this; I like him. He can come preach here every recess.”
Peter preached to the multitude in King James English, “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” He did not rush through the language like a student who memorized something for class, but he spoke in a practiced, perfect tone. He paused. He turned toward different groups. He moved his hands dramatically. He raised his voice to a shout and shook his fist. He comforted and cajoled. He spoke with a conviction that moved even Mrs. Ware and Ms. Mendez, and when the recess bell rang the students did not move until Peter concluded with, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. Bless you my children.”
As Peter climbed down from his perch the crowd parted and then scattered as if nothing unusual had happened during the first lunch recess of the year. Peter returned to class, sat in his seat, and stared at the ceiling until a note came from the office requesting his presence. Ms. Sanders bent down next to Peter and handed him the note, “Don’t worry sweetie, you’re not in trouble. Someone just wants to talk to you.”
Peter turned to Ms. Sanders, looked her in the eyes, “I knew one of you would betray me.”
Peter was gone the rest of the day.
After school Mrs. Sanders prepped for the next day, she added the number two to the timeline; she watered the plants, and went through the student paragraphs about what they did during the summer. A few of the students had gone to Disneyland, one had traveled to Dinosaur National Park, but most wrote about watching TV or playing video games. After finishing the papers Mrs. Sanders realized that Peter’s was not there. She got up, walked over to Peter’s “work station” and looked inside the belly of his desk. It was empty except for a single sheet of paper sitting in the back corner. Mrs. Sanders reached in, pulled out the paper, looked at it, and collapsed. She curled into a ball sobbing. She held the paper away from her body as if trying to escape from it, the illuminated letters, words, and image pressed into her brain. Bright red text flowed across the page, surrounded by elaborate ivy, running around the corners of the page and ending in a small skull in the bottom right hand corner of the page. The five words burned into Mrs. Sanders: “My daddy died this summer.” Filling the space on the page was a stick figure drawing of a man hanging from a tree.