Every morning at 6:30 the red lights of the school bus blinked at the end of our driveway. My sneakers crashed through the neighbor’s yard, breaking the top layer of snow. I hoped to catch the yellow dinosaur before it heaved away again.
I caught it. I started down the bus aisle, my nose hairs beginning to thaw, the ice on my jeans melting.
Shelly waited for me in the second seat. Inevitably. A blond girl from the neighboring trailer park, Shelly had some stripe of autism. She was one year ahead of me in high school and about a hundred years ahead of me in the school of hard knocks. She had these great blue eyes.
Sometimes I walked right by, telling her that I had promised to sit with someone else. Not strictly true.
In the halls of Haverling High School Shelly’s name served as an expletive. She talked loudly, constantly. She didn’t smell nice. She didn’t act nice, for that matter. The worst mockery a male could receive was, “You love Shelly.” No one wanted to be seen with her.
But Shelly wanted to spend the morning bus ride with me. Inevitably. There in the blue bus seat, in her clammy hands, she held a string. Cat’s cradle. Cat’s cradle takes two. You maneuver the string between your two sets of hands, careful lest you interrupt the architecture and wind up with no cradle at the end.
Make the magic over again with me, she said with her eyes.
And again, and again, and again. I hesitated, then sat. She could talk. I could listen. We each possessed the little girl skill of cat’s cradle. So we had cat’s cradle, and her stream of dramatic chatter and me saying “uh-huh,” all the way through the frozen neighborhood to school. Until my pinkies wanted to break.
We flooded into the halls at 7. I had the locker next to a blond cheerleader’s.
Shelly came by to hug me. I made the hug as quick as I could, wishing more than anything that she would go away. Everyone could see! Shelly lived almost next door to me. But I would rather love my neighbor in secret.
My name, Chelsea, means “harbor.” Its meaning matches my deep ache to become a safe place for other people—a refuge, a shelter. And the public school, so full of contemptuous language, so dangerous to human dignity, needs harbors. Where, in that moment of shame, had my harbor-heart gone?
I think it happens to all of us. The things God calls us to, names us for, become the things we struggle hardest against.
Like every human, I pulsed for relationship. But not with Shelly. I craved the clever company of the football stars, though I never would have admitted it. But the football stars, in their brand-name sneakers and spiteful wit, would never have offered me the umbrella of acceptance that I enjoyed with Shelly.
Like parents sometimes say of their children, I learned more from Shelly than she could have learned from me. With her I never felt not good enough. And she sat there every morning, waiting for me with the string that our four hands could make into a cradle.