A tiny rural district in Iowa, some years ago, before the mandate:

He was about as tough looking as they come, new to our school district as a junior. As we teachers greeted him in the hall every morning, he constantly flipped his long, straight hair out of his face and nodded curtly in return, then looked away. The chains hanging from his clothing rattled as he sat down in class or in the lunchroom, but otherwise he did not like to draw attention to himself. 

It was a tiny rural district without big-city angst or bullying; his kindly classmates in the class of 22 accepted that he was not one for idle chitchat and quietly gave him his space. He was never late for classes, and he was attentive and alert, but he rarely spoke or volunteered any answers. When classmates asked him to join them after school or on the weekend, he always had the excuse of having to get his little brother home. 

The boy and his 8-year-old brother had arrived in town just in time to register for the first day of school that August. Every morning he carefully thrummed his motorcycle into a parking space, with his little brother clutching his old leather jacket to hold on. There was only one helmet, and it was always fastened securely on the little brother’s head. They couldn’t take the bus, he said, because their house was on the outermost pick-up road of the district, it wasn’t quite clear where, but both boys seemed well adjusted and healthy, so no one’s antennae pricked up. 

The 8-year-old was happy and talkative, but he never mentioned his parents or anyone other than his brother, his hero. He was clean, and his clothes, like his brother’s, were always clean, too, and he had the typical cold-weather necessities of warm jacket, gloves, and boots. 

End-of-semester conferences rolled around just before Christmas vacation. A big snowstorm was expected that night, so teachers and parents were in high gear to finish and get home. The boy arrived at school with his little brother tagging along. His parents couldn’t make it because they were working, he said. His face looked pinched and drawn, and worry lines etched his forehead. The boy made the rounds of his high school teachers, and then, to our surprise, headed down the opposite corridor to hear what the elementary teachers had to say about his little brother’s progress. 

One of our staff was a kindly woman with eyes in the back of her head and a knack for sniffing out a back story from a mile away. She sensed when something in a student’s life just seemed off. It was this sixth sense that rang alarm bells when the boy asked her, on his way out of the building, if she knew how to order fuel for a furnace. They didn’t have any heat, he told her, and he thought their propane tank might have run out of fuel. 

Was he sure? He wasn’t sure, but there was this glass thing on the tank that showed a needle pointing to some red squares. Had his parents ordered fuel last fall? He didn’t know. Could they call the Co-op and order more? Their phone wasn’t hooked up. Could his parents drive into town tomorrow and talk to the Co-op about filling the tank? A blank, helpless stare.

The bereft look in the boy’s eyes told her he had run out of options, and not just with the fuel tank, she sensed, and then his whole story came tumbling out in a rush. The father of the boys was in jail, and their mother was in drug rehab. The boy had been horrified to find out he and his little brother would be split up in foster care, so he devised a clever ruse. He somehow led officials to believe that his family had moved into a house owned by his aunt. The boys were indeed living at their aunt’s house, but the aunt lived in another state and thought the entire family was living in her house.

The boy was the stalwart protector of his little brother. It was he who woke him in the morning, made sure he ate breakfast, laundered his clothes, and even — this was over the top — even checked out books at the library to read to him at night. Deprived of parents, he had become the best example of what parents should be. 

There was no mention of parents when she took the boys home to spend the night with her family. After the little brother was tucked into bed in the spare bedroom, she told the exhausted boy that she and her husband would call the Co-op for an emergency fuel order that night, enough to keep the pipes from freezing. She had a plan in mind for the boys, too.

She contacted social services and created a solution that was acceptable to all. The boys remained together, another aunt became their guardian, and they remained at school the rest of the year. Mom eventually got out of rehab and joined them.

I think of him on these frigid days, his bravery, his fierce devotion to his little brother. I wonder where they are now, if they are happy and still intertwined in each other’s lives. 

And shame on Iowa, I think. Those tiny districts that were so good at fostering scholarship and kind intervention were wiped off the map with the school-size mandate that threw them into a mania of merging and sharing. Iowa traded the money saved by closing schools for losing first place in student achievement, and worse, emptying small rural towns of their souls.