When I was a girl, I had a face full of freckles. My mom said they were angel kisses, but I knew better. My fourth grade math teacher, Mr. Fry, called me a freckle factory, and that was exactly what I felt like. He would sneak up beside me while I was figuring multiplication tables and grab a fistful of them right off my face. “Egad!” he would shout in his best mad professor voice. “I do believe I’ve got one!”
And with that, he’d dash up to his desk, upsetting papers and bumping elbows along the way, his tweed blazer flapping and argyle socks flashing in time to his leggy strides. With freckles practically bursting through his fingers, he’d shove his hands into the old pickle jar he kept by the blackboard, next to the sparrow’s nest he found in his backyard. Clapping the lid on tight with an exaggerated sigh of relief, he’d peer in at my freckles to see how many he had captured. He always tried to count them so that he could record the number in his great red SCIENTIFIC JOURNAL on FRECKLE PHENOMENA.
Unfortunately, there weren’t very many numbers to record since Mr. Fry was not very good at capturing freckles. No matter how careful he was, the jar always came up empty when he withdrew his hand. This never failed to come as a deep and sorrowful surprise to all of us because Mr. Fry was forever taking pains to make sure he didn’t lose a single one. Maybe they are just hiding at the bottom of the jar, we’d suggest. This was a logical idea, Mr. Fry would say, scratching his gray hair into a frantic, staticy orb. Hadn’t he just read a book about how freckles were sometimes sneaky like that? With renewed fervor, he’d put on his old horned bifocals to get a better peek. None. Maybe they are just sticking to the lid? Out came the magnifying glass. Nope. Try binoculars? Fancy comet-finding telescope? No luck. Mr. Fry could never find the freckles once he put them in the jar.
I didn’t let these setbacks affect my opinion of Mr. Fry in the least, and they didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm for the sport. If anything, they made him all the more determined.
Once, he tried to scare the freckles off my face by throwing a damp paper towel ball at me while I was laboring over long division. I guess I was more startled than my freckles because they all hung on tight when I jumped, and Mr. Fry didn’t get a single one. But even if he managed to pinch a freckle or two off my nose or arm, the freckles always seemed to get loose on him by the time class was finished. Mr. Fry said that was on account of the fact that freckles are very smart, despite their humble appearance. He couldn’t seem to outwit them long enough to keep them caught. He said that if he didn’t get a little better at keeping them locked up, pretty soon we’d have a freckle epidemic on our hands. They might just overrun the whole school! Right then and there I imagined up a whole math class full of freckle-faced fourth graders all because of my freckles getting out and finding themselves new homes.
But it never happened, so Mr. Fry never got much concerned about the amount of freckles he was freeing. He just went about trying to capture new ones every day. It must have been hard work, but he never complained. My mom said that was because Mr. Fry had perseverance. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but it sounded like a good long word, the kind of word that might explain what it means to give your best to something, to keep trying no matter how many times you fail, and to never give up on dreams that don’t come true right away. If that’s what perseverance meant, then I thought my mom was right. Mr. Fry had a ton of it.
But I thought Mr. Fry had something else, too. I thought Mr. Fry had a way of looking out into the first row of a fourth grade math class that allowed him to see more than just a bunch of sticky kids who couldn’t add fractions. I thought that maybe all of Mr. Fry’s perseverance was really something else altogether, and that maybe Mr. Fry wouldn’t like freckles so much if it wasn’t for the factories that made them.
I graduated from the fourth grade with very little fanfare. Mr. Fry kept us the whole class period on the last day of school. But he didn’t teach. He pulled us around him in a big circle on the floor and read us stories, like we were kindergarteners. With a voice drenched in conviction, he read Oh, the Places You’ll Go! until I truly believed I was destined to become something great.
Then suddenly, the bell rang. Everyone got up to leave, except Mr. Fry. He sat in the empty circle by himself, watching us go. I knew what he was thinking. He was thinking about freckles, and about how he didn’t have any, and about how the pickle jar by the blackboard was stuck being empty because of it. I realized then that sometimes the easiest things to catch are the hardest things to hold on to, and the hardest things to let go. Like freckles, and angel kisses, and fourth grade math teachers who look at a row of kids who can’t add fractions and see something more.