Caleb With Copper Hair
Sometimes I wonder if I remember this particular person more for the lessons he taught me or for the color of his hair. I find my mind settling into his section of my memory any time I see someone with red hair. Once, when I saw a neighbor’s portly ginger cat sunbathing in the windowsill, the memory of him shouted in my head:
“MY HAIR AIN’T RED! IT’S COPPER!”
I remember his face well, though I can’t recall his name exactly. I have resolved that, for the sake of this story, his name will be Caleb. He was average height and size for a seven year old boy, but his extra large hand me down clothes made him look small. His oval head was dwarfed by a pair of round, green glasses three sizes too large, which he habitually slid up the bridge of his nose. His hair was dry, stiff, and obviously cut by his mother into something resembling a mullet. Dark freckles covered his skin — which for some reason reminded me of my mother’s old leather purse.
It was in Mrs. Krane’s first grade class when I first met Caleb. I was the new kid starting late in the school year. When I walked into the classroom, I was surprised by the desk setup, as they were pushed together, allowing three students to face one another. It was explained to my mother, during our tour, that the desks were arranged this way so the students could help each other with difficult problems.
“I let the children decide where they want to sit on the first of every month,” the teacher maintained. “Unfortunately, there is only one empty desk, where she will have to sit for the remainder of the month.”
My assigned seat happened to be next to the two runts of the class. No one wanted to sit next to them and everyone wanted to make fun of them. Other students had marked them with a big ‘O’ for ‘Outcast’ and had given them names they thought were more suited to them. Caleb was Grasshopper Face, Stinky Pants, Ginger, and Kool-Aid Head. Jacob, a blond boy who regularly sucked his thumb, was called Baby Thumb-Sucker, Thumb Lover, Thumb Face, and Egg Shirt. The other children took pride in never missing an opportunity to chant these names at the classroom omegas until Jacob cried or Caleb punched someone.
When the teacher told the two boys I would be sitting with them, they were both friendly and, once they were confident I was trustworthy, shared with me their “treasure”. They both looked around to ensure no one was watching, and Caleb pulled a battered metal cookie tin out of his desk. They both stared at it with solemn expressions on their faces until Caleb finally opened it as reverently as possible. Within the round, dented cookie tin was a collection of crayons.
These were not just any crayons, they explained, these were the BEST crayons, carefully selected, collected and put into the tin for creating great works of art. They said I could use them whenever I wanted, too, now that I was their friend. I was initially unimpressed by their crayon collection — my grandma had the same amount of crayons in the same kind of tin, and there was nothing special about them. The first time I used them, however, I understood why those crayons were amazing. Some were oily, some waxy, a few produced a chalky, greasy texture on the paper. They were truly unique and special crayons — just like the young men who collected them.
Then came recess, a wilderness in which many different personalities and boundless imaginations come together. It is on the playground that most kids learn valuable social skills and stay healthy through play. For some children, recess was the best part of school. For other children, like Caleb, recess was a war zone.
It was a dangerous place where insults, flying objects, and name calling was rampant. As a result, he was always on high alert and ready for a fight should anyone decide to bully him.
I recall one incident when a bug was hurled in our direction and hit Jacob dead in the center of his forehead. Its orange innards ran down to the tip of his nose, and Jacob immediately burst into tears. Caleb rounded on the bug thrower, a tow-headed boy named C.J. (the worst bully in school), and without pause, threw sand into his smirking face.
“I HATE YOU, C.J.! GO AWAY!”
“MY EYES!” C.J. shouted.
Just then, C.J.’s loyal followers heard his distress and ran from their separate victims to defend their mighty king. Joe, bully tribe’s second in command, put his hand on C.J.’s back.
“You okay, buddy?”
“NO,” C.J. said, “I can’t see!”
“That donkey butt ginger threw sand in my eyes!”
Caleb picked up another handful of sand and threw it at the bully boys, “I AIN’T GINGER! MY HAIR’S COPPER! MY MOM SAID SO!”
The bullies that were not on the front lines of the sand attack stepped past their blinded comrades and shouted at Caleb:
“GO AWAY, GRASSHOPPER FACE!”
“YOUR MOM’S CLEAVAGE IS GINGER TOO!”
The boy who shouted the last taunt received a knuckle sandwich right to the kisser.
Caleb tried to shake the pain out of his right hand, but his knuckle had split open on the boy’s tooth. Blood ran down his fingers, dripping and splashing on the ground. The bully boys piled on him, punching, grabbing, ripping, and screaming. Within seconds the playground aides blew their whistles, hauling the roughed up boys to the nurse’s office. Worrying about Caleb during a fight was not an issue — even if it was with more than one kid, it was assured that he would deal more damage than he was dealt.
A small number of things set him off, but the big ticket item that never failed to enrage him was the mention of his hair color. Even the teacher herself was subject to his fury, and received a raw chewing out when she once handed him red yarn for his self portrait project. His anger did not stop at people either, as he also disliked ginger colored animals of any kind. When all the boys would gather around an ant hill with hot sauce and magnifying glasses, he would say:
“Them ants are red heads anyhow. Let ’em drown in hot sauce an’ burn up.”
Later in the school year, there was a period of time when Caleb stopped coming to class. Jacob never stopped crying during that time, because the bully boys were relentless. When Caleb returned, he seemed changed in a way. His exterior was more unwashed and disheveled than usual. The copper mess on his head looked as if it had been rolled in shortening and doused with desert sand. His feisty fire was burning as bright as ever, though, and he returned to protecting the other kids from the bully boys.
As time went on, their bully pack tired of the retaliation from Caleb on the playground, and took up hazing the less popular children in the cafeteria. They harassed Jacob especially, taking his food and tossing it about until it was inedible.
“Them guys are idiots,” Caleb would say. “Here, take my lunch again.”
My father had my sister and I at his house one weekend, and we were laying on the floor in front of the T.V., letting our hefty dinner digest. The news was on. Dad watched it every night, but I never paid much attention as it was boring adult stuff. That particular night, however, was different.
On the screen was a parking lot, completely empty save for a 1994 Chevy Van G20. The news reporter was talking about a big company closing forever, stripping many people of their jobs.
“Here in the parking lot of what used to be a thriving business is parked the van where one of its former employees now lives with his family,” she said.
She opened the van door and the camera showed inside. On each seat there was an arrangement of blankets, making in total three make shift beds. There was a beautiful red headed woman surrounded by piles of dirty clothes and jugs of water. Four ginger haired children sat around her, one of whom I recognized as my friend Caleb. I was excited to see someone I knew on T.V.
“Daddy! I know him! His name is Caleb and he sits next to me in class! He’s my friend.”
As I watched Caleb play with his unwashed siblings, it occurred to me that people were usually on the news when something bad happened. I asked my father what it meant to be homeless, and he looked away — uncomfortable with telling his little girl about the harsh realities of life. He turned the T.V. off and announced that it was bed time.
I ended up moving away a short time after the news cast, but Caleb has always stuck with me for several reasons. He had less than most of the people in that whole school, but still he gave everything he had to anyone in need. Caleb’s courage and loyalty toward his friends was unwavering. He gave his lunch away on a regular basis, even though it was most likely the only food he would receive throughout the day. The most important thing I think is that his smile and positive attitude never faltered.
I envision him today as a successful business man who lives in a big house. I see him kissing his beautiful wife. I picture him surrounded by a loving family, and they all have copper hair. Not red. Copper.