Vuela, Vuela, Mariposa

“Did your butterfly hatch?” Beth asked Noah on Tuesday evening. She’d gotten back from a nursery school fundraising meeting just in time to say goodnight to the kids.

“No,” he said and reported that the chrysalis had fallen off the branch and onto the floor of the cage. Señora C had warned him that when that happens sometimes the butterfly dies inside or emerges maimed.

The whole second grade at Noah’s school has been raising Painted Lady butterflies ( They arrived at the school as caterpillars, built their chrysalises and in some cases, had already emerged as butterflies. Noah’s been singing the songs for the butterfly release ceremony at home for weeks. I particularly like the lyrical “Vuela, Vuela, Mariposa” (“Fly, Fly Butterfly”), but he’s partial to “Soy Insecto,” (I’m an Insect”) which is sung to the tune of “Alouette,”(

The next day when Noah came home from school, I asked about the butterfly again in as casual a tone as I could manage. It hadn’t hatched. Noah wondered if it might come out without a head or wings. We decided it could not live without a head, but it might live, but never fly, without wings. I briefly imagined asking Señora C if he could bring his injured butterfly home if it was alive but could not be released with the others at the butterfly celebration on Friday. Then I remembered the cats. Better to leave it to Señora C’s mercy than theirs.

I wondered why I cared so much about the butterfly. Of course, I’m protective of Noah and I didn’t want him to be disappointed if everyone else’s butterfly hatched and his didn’t, but he didn’t seem all that anxious about it himself and his teacher had done a good job gently preparing him. Maybe it reminded me of those seeds he planted in kindergarten when he was having such a rough year. They never sprouted, even after Señora A let him plant new ones. I don’t want to go back there. Everything is going well in Ms. G’s class. Noah is always talking about it and he even said once it was “non-stop fun.” He doesn’t talk as much about Señora C’s class. For the first few weeks of school he was convinced she was just pretending to be nice and at any minute she might turn mean. (We have the second-graders who told him last year that all the second-grade teachers were mean to thank for this.) Then, eventually, he seemed to forget about her impending meanness. He stopped talking about it anyway.

My main concern for Noah in her class is the trouble he’s having focusing on the “problema del día,” a word problem they are supposed to solve when they first come into the classroom. He usually doesn’t finish it. He says he gets distracted thinking about other things or looking at the air vents in the ceiling and then time’s up. Early in the year, Señora C wanted to keep him in at recess to finish them but she must have changed her mind about that because she never did it. I’m unsettled about the problema del día. I’m not sure how important it is to her. She’s never contacted us about it. I guess we’ll find out at the annual parent-teacher conferences in November if I don’t email her about it first. I’m also not sure why Noah is having such trouble with it in the first place. He loved the problema del día in Señorita M’s class last year. Beth thinks it might be because he has Spanish in the morning this year and last year it was in the afternoon when he was already in the swing of school. He’s a morning person, though, so I’d almost expect the opposite, for him to flag as the day goes on.

Whatever the reason, we see similar behavior at home when he’s doing his homework. I remember writing last year that Noah always did his math homework in a snap while he could drag out the language arts assignments almost indefinitely. This year it’s the opposite. He can still take his own sweet time with his English homework, but often he gets through it pretty quickly. That’s almost never true of his math. Señora C sends home six to ten pages of homework on Fridays. It’s due the following Thursday. Most weeks we try to get Noah to finish the whole packet over the weekend because it takes him so long we’re afraid to leave it until the weeknights. Sometimes it eats up the whole day.

You may have heard parents complain that their kids get too much homework, that it has no instructional value and cuts into family time. This isn’t that blog entry. I believe in homework and while I’m not sure he needs quite so much, I don’t think it’s too hard. He’s doing third-grade math this year and I think he could probably do even more advanced math. One recent weekend when he was supposed to be doing his homework, Beth discovered he’d put it aside in order to practice what he calls “hourglassing” numbers. It’s a method of averaging he invented. He calls it that because of the symbol he puts between the numbers that looks like an hourglass. Instead of adding the numbers together and dividing by two, he divides the numbers by two and then adds them together. The result is the same, of course. But he doesn’t even know he’s invented a new way to average because they haven’t gotten to averaging (or division) at school yet. Meanwhile, Beth observed, as he was doing this, time was slipping through the hourglass and his actual homework remained undone.

Noah had Thursday off school for Yom Kippur, so I knew we wouldn’t find out about his butterfly until the day of the celebration. I was planning to go. I wanted to see him and his classmates recite and sing their bilingual butterfly poems and songs and I wanted to see his friends’ butterflies released, but I was a little sad that his probably would not be among them.

There’s a concrete amphitheater with two sides on the playground. Students sat on the long side and parents and siblings on the short side perpendicular to it. There was a bustle of activity as volunteers passed out lyric sheets to students and parents alike while teachers brought out the mesh cages that held the captive butterflies and their temporary habitats. Students walked around showing the audience a long poster board with butterfly photographs on it. Finally, the celebration began. The teachers quizzed the students on butterfly trivia in English and Spanish. I learned a few things I didn’t know. Caterpillars have six eyes, for instance, while butterflies have only two. Also, caterpillars’ bodies have six segments, three of which become the chrysalis and three of which become the butterfly.

The poems and songs came next. A teacher accompanied the children on the guitar. When they got to “Soy Insecto,” I realized that despite the fact that at least one hundred children were singing, I could hear Noah’s voice clearly singing: “Cabeza, thorax, abdomen/Abdomen, abdomen/Oh oh oh oh.”

Then the teachers released the butterflies. It wasn’t the dramatic explosion of wings into the sky I’d imagined. Once the lids were unzipped from the cylindrical cages, a few butterflies fluttered cautiously out, then a few more, while others stayed in the cages. The teachers lifted them gently out and shook them into the sky. I tried to get a picture but they were small and fast and I was too far away. It was exciting enough for the kids though. Every time a butterfly emerged there were shrieks from the bleachers.

Eventually, the kids were allowed out of their seats and Noah came over to see June and me. “Where’s your butterfly?” I asked, after we’d chatted a bit.

He motioned to the sky. “Up there,” he said.

“It hatched!”

He nodded. It occurred to me to wonder if Señora C had emptied Noah’s butterfly’s chrysalis on the sly. All the class’s butterflies were in the same cage so there was no way to tell which one was which once they hatched. But if she’d been planning to do that all along, why would she have even told him it might not live? I decided to believe the butterfly was with all the rest of them flying above the playground or resting on the pavement.

Ms. G was passing out popsicles and we all got one. (This was the highlight of the butterfly ceremony as far June was concerned.) I asked Ms. G if she had any more instruction planned (it was twenty five minutes before the end of the school day) and she said no, that children whose parents had come were free to leave with them.

So we left school early. Noah wanted to pretend we were robbers plotting to steal all the school’s computers. I said we could, but I wanted to ask him about some real things first. Okay, he said.

“Do you remember at the beginning of the year when you were worried Señora C would be mean?”

“Uh huh.”

“Do you think she’s mean now?”

“Not really.” He hastened to add that those second-graders had told him that just one of the second-grade teachers was mean and he didn’t know which one it was but now he knew it wasn’t one of his teachers. This was revisionist history, but it seemed important to him to save face for his misperception, so I didn’t question it.

“How about the problema del día?” I asked. “Are you finishing it most of the time?”

“Weeeell….” He paused. “I finished it today!” he concluded brightly.

“Great,” I said, deciding to leave it at that.

“We’re robbers now, okay?” Noah said, tired of this boring reality-based talk. And in a way, it felt like we were robbers, cheating fate by swapping a mean teacher for a nice one and a dead butterfly for a live one.