I still wonder where they went, where they are now. My father dropped me off at school that morning thirty minutes early so he could drive across the state for a new construction job, his hands squeezing the steering wheel of his old truck and a wad of dip bulging in his mouth. It was August in Florida. The air conditioner in our fifth-grade classroom was broken, our town being too damn poor to have anything that worked. I sat at my desk and drew pictures of houses I daydreamed about living in—almost anything would’ve been better than our two-bedroom trailer overrun by cats. Sweat meandered down my forehead and spine, although Ms. Hill had opened the windows and door in an effort to cool things down.
She looked angelic as she prepared to start the day, the way she floated around the room, her brown hair swaying around her shoulders and red bow fluttering near the top of her head. The way sunlight poured through the windows, her skin tinged with gold. The way she whispered to herself, as if she were in a trance.
But as soon as I looked away from her and continued drawing, she slammed a book on her desk. Two other children were in the room, Alex and Mary. We stared at Ms. Hill, and then at each other, unsure if we should say or do anything.
She stood in front of a window and gazed outside, arms crossed over her chest, fists clinched and knuckles turning a cloudy white. She remained like this as the other children in our class entered through the open door, one by one, backpacks slung over their shoulders. After everyone had arrived, we sat at our desks in an unfamiliar silence.
A shadow slid across the doorframe, a shadow with an unusual shape. We turned our heads in that direction. Even Ms. Hill broke her gaze and watched.
Cautiously and slowly, a sandhill crane took several steps inside, its long legs bending at sharp angles before its feet, each with three toes and claws, clicked against the tile. It must have been four feet tall, a patch of red skin on top of its head, a bright red that contrasted with its feathery gray body. It stopped near the first row of desks closest to the door and stretched its neck upwards, and from its long, pointed beak came a high-pitched, rattling call, each burst of sound lasting several seconds and echoing throughout the room.
The crane, having our full attention, became silent. Its head moved slowly from side to side as if it were taking stock of us—judging us, maybe. I know it sounds strange, but much later, when Alex and Mary and I had become adults, we met one afternoon and spoke about what happened that day, each of us coming to the same conclusion: this animal had some kind of special knowledge, things that can’t be taught and learned in school. Here was this crane, living in the wild, arriving to show us there’s another way to be.
Without saying goodbye, without saying anything, Ms. Hill went over to it and stroked its gray feathers. She bent over and whispered something, and together they turned and walked out the door, into an incinerating light.