by Zoë Calhoun
At nine a.m. and feeling fresh, you enter the cubby-lined lobby of New Adventure. You slide your time card into the retro clock—it stamps and releases. You put your purse and water bottle into your locker. You open the door for parents and give their children high-fives. You have prepared your best baby voice and a gracious grin. After fumbling with the door’s two locks, you enter the playroom—green plastic carpet, yellow walls, and a half-dome jungle gym. A seven-year-old boy runs to the half-dome wearing only a diaper. You don’t react. Two of your fellow staff members begin to chase him as he flings his diaper into the air. The poop scooping, scrubbing, and scraping has begun. You lunge at the carpet armed with Lysol and paper towels. You wish both the paper towels and the carpet were brown. You forget to use rubber gloves. Your sparkly smile fades as you blow your hair out of your face and massage the green carpet until the shit is gone.
Today, you are in charge of Jesus, a small Mexican boy who holds your hand gently. When left unsupervised, Jesus scratches his teenage sister until she bleeds. Both siblings have short, white scars that cross their beautiful, dark arms. You must make sure he eats and that he completes his art project. Jesus wears a hard plastic helmet and cool, cosmic leg braces that make his shoes swell. Usually, more equipment means more work for you, but his gear is deceptive. He plays with LEGOs, chases other kids, and does not need a diaper. You take his hand to stabilize his ordinarily precarious posture and guide him to the bathroom. Jesus sits on the toilet. Out of respect for his privacy, you turn your back to him. You don’t hear the piss on the porcelain you expect. In fear, you break your ethical standards and turn to see Jesus sitting on the toilet and smiling while he pees onto the floor in front of him. He laughs. He is a smart boy.
Before lunch, you are stationed in the art room where you mimic Jennifer, a bleach-blond high-school dropout and art teacher. When you chat with her, you try to avoid discussing specifics about your liberal arts college: rock-climbing walls, concerts, and school-funded trips to Madrid. She calls each child into the art room individually, sits them next to her, and completes their art project for them. You and Jennifer wind floral tape around a pen and a flower stem. She knows that the children do not benefit from observation, but it is impossible to complete art projects requiring such dexterity in any other way. The parents know their children did not construct the woven paper baskets or the flower pens, but still they pretend and congratulate them at the end of the day.
When you were growing up, your mom gave you a curfew, made you call her from the home phone of the house you said you were going to, and grounded you when even remotely appropriate. You remember crying and pushing her. You told her you hated her, and you became a successful adult. As a caretaker, you now practice what your mother used to preach. AJ, the most difficult of the daycare’s children, eats his own feces, slaps babies, and flings his lunch across the picnic area onto the heads of his peers. You see him throw a Barbie doll at Claire, a helpless angel in need of a defender. In your kind teacher voice you say, “AJ, you can’t throw things at people. Let’s go to time-out.” You know he does not understand you. The statement is a formality. You gently grab his little hand, hopeful that he will oblige you. He violently rips his hand from yours and sprints away. You run after him and grab his compact body. He flails as if you are hurting him or as if he is a fish recently pulled from water. He hits you in the face again and again. It does not hurt too badly—not badly enough to set him free. You accept the violence of your enforcement.
For this job, you need your male Hispanic coworkers on your side. When you get into trouble punishing troublesome kids, your boys protect you from the kicking, flailing, punching, and scratches to the face. Rico fights on the weekends for money. He has his daughters’ names tattooed across his forearms, which contributes to an aura that is further solidified by the intimidating silver piercings above his upper lip, known on the street as “snake bites.” He and his brother, Julio, are your friends. One time, as you walked to your car after work, Julio yelled, “Go, go, go!” and blocked the path of a pit bull that was running your way. You were the movie star and he was your bodyguard. Despite the six inches you have on these five-foot-five men, they are stronger than you and able to restrain most of the aggressive children. Even they have trouble with Raquel, though, as her thick arms can barely cross her body, like wrestlers on TV.
At twelve-thirty, you scream, “Luuunch tiimmme!” and most of the children stampede into the picnic area, though some have to be dragged. As they sit impatiently and smack their hands against the tables, you notice a difference between the kids with clean fingernails and the kids with dirty fingernails. You assemble makeshift junk food lunches for the kids whose parents can’t afford to send a sack lunch. Some of the dirty-nailed kids are sent only a bag of Cheetos for lunch. You give these kids juice boxes to wash down the neon orange puffs and a cup full of microwaved mac ‘n’ cheese if they finish them all—a reward. In her lunch bag, Luisa often has a hot dog and spinach in a bun with a can of Vienna sausage. She is a very clean child whose protective mother requires the staff to supervise her constantly. You thought Luisa’s clean fingernails meant her mom would assemble smart, healthy lunches, but instead she sends a can of meat with a side of meat. The kids living in Hispanic homes arrive with authentic tacos and quesadillas.
You have to feed the kids in wheelchairs. The violent ones will throw their food despite their persistent, medicine-induced hunger. Some will choke themselves. Others cannot eat at all, unless you count the liquid poured through a tube directly into their stomachs. Jennifer does the tube feedings and gives out the meds. An especially rebellious tube feedee eats crayons like carrots. He cannot go into the art room anymore. When Oscar forgets to throw away the packaging from his Lunchable before returning to the playground, you yell at him. He ignores you. Hector, a coworker, yells, “Oscar! Pon tu plato en la basura, ahora!” Oscar responds with urgency. Your boss tells your Hispanic coworkers that they cannot speak Spanish in the building because it disrupts communication and creates drama. You think it is magical and necessary. You ask for Rosetta Stone for Christmas.
Every day, you reject your mother’s attempts to give you a sack lunch. You can’t imagine eating something that you touched with your hands while inside New Adventure. No matter how many times you scrub your hands under scorching water for the length of the tune “Happy Birthday,” you don’t feel clean enough to eat.
Although you feel relieved when most of the kids leave at two p.m., you begin to wonder where they go. These kids, some of whom sprint out of the door while others are dragged, live with parents who cannot afford to pay for daycare beyond the hours that the state generally agrees to sponsor, from ten a.m. to two p.m. Grandmas, aunts, uncles, and sisters often pick up a child whose parents are still at work. Some parents send their children home on the “Van Tran,” a busing system. Everyday at two, you have to walk Esperanza to the “Van Tran,” help her step up the stairs, and buckle her into her seat, a task which always proves to be difficult as her body constantly jerks, like a malfunctioning robot.
The kids whose parents can afford to pay for childcare beyond the state-funded hours often send therapists to New Adventure. Claire, whose parents don’t pick her up until five, has a therapist who brings fancy leg braces and a wheeled walker. The therapist teaches you how to put the thick plastic braces onto her feet by jamming them into her heels and velcroing them around her bony calves. She tells you that she needs to be out of her chair and wearing these braces for three hours a day. You feel responsible for Claire’s development, but you know that New Adventure is understaffed and there is always shit to clean up and AJ to monitor. “Her parents should drop her off with her braces on,” the therapist told you. They never do. You are not surprised. Like many children at New Adventure, Claire’s parents are divorced. When they drop off and pick up Claire, they try to show her more love than their ex-spouse. Every day after two p.m., you take Claire out of her chair.
At three, the remaining kids eat a snack—anything from Lay’s potato chips to Otter Pops. You fill miniature paper plates with high-fructose corn syrup and salt. You have no other options—the cabinets are stocked only with the junk food that your parents told you never to eat. Your boss cannot afford healthier options, and the kids wouldn’t eat them anyway. As the hours pass, the number of children dwindles and their imaginations swell to fill the new expanses of space. You feel capable enough to oversee the small number of children and even begin your cleaning duties. Sensing a lack of surveillance, rebellion ensues.
Raquel, an obese red-headed preteen who wants to be just like the Disney mermaid Ariel, consistently pees her too-tight sweats everyday at four. You beg her to use the restroom three times in an hour. She sits in her urine-stained pants and calls you bithch! and sassily swings her red mane behind her shoulder with the back of a chubby hand. You notice patches of dirt underneath the chipped pink polish on her fingernails. You want to tell her that the mermaid Ariel would never pee her pants, but you don’t even know if mermaids pee and, anyway, that would be too cruel. You fear the strength that comes with her weight. She locks herself in the bathroom. You find a pin to jimmy the lock on the door, push it open with the help of another staff member, and force her clothes onto her body. “Now is when we walk away,” says Vanessa, a coworker and mother of a teenage boy named Cesar, who has Down syndrome. She knows obscure tricks for calming troublesome children, like compressing them against a mattress to sooth their nerves and prevent violence. You have befriended her.
At five, you retrieve your purse and your half-empty water bottle from your locker, you clock out, and spread hand sanitizer up and down your arms. Your eighth-grade science fair project proved that hand sanitizer is the least-effective method of removing germs, but you tell yourself that scientific advancements have been made. After you get into your car, you eat a chewy granola bar. You get home at five-thirty. You set your scrubs on top of the scrubs from the previous day—a different pile than your ordinary dirty clothes—and hop directly into the shower. You slide into a pair of sweats. You have worn them to bed for the last two weeks, but they feel sanitary in comparison to your work clothes. Turning on the burner to make a quesadilla while your mom reminds you that “dinner will be ready in a hour” completes your summer day.
You tell people that you continue to work at New Adventure because it has good hours and pays above minimum wage. You tell people the gross stories about cleaning shit off of the walls and from underneath fingernails. You tell people how you got the scratch on your face and about being coated with saliva on the parts of your body your scrubs do not protect. You feel unexpectedly prideful telling others of your hardships. You have earned your “uphill both ways” stories. Maybe you have made a child’s seemingly hopeless life seem less hopeless. You enjoy punishing kids as you think they might learn something from the experience. Maybe you enjoy punishing yourself. Maybe you enjoy countering your easy college life with harsh experiences you never thought you could face. For you, summer means nine weeks at New Adventure. After nine weeks, you get to return to your apartment with its granite countertops, and to your school, where professors invite you to dinner. You miss holding Jesus’ hand.