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Voices: Missing Person

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James sits next to me and unfolds the day's Metro section. "Will you read this to me?" he asks, pointing to a story on the lower half of the page.

James looks at the newspaper, eyes serious and wide. His 14-year-old body is slim, not from growth spurts but from malnutrition and lack of sleep. He is the poorest student I have. All of September, he slept under a bridge. Now he lives with his father, a senior member of a violent gang. I've met Dad once, at a dismissal reinstatement. He has no phone.

"Sure, which article?" I say, smoothing the paper. James points to a headline: "Local Man Shot in Bar."

"That's my uncle," James says. "He got killed." He puts his chin on his fists that rest on the table.

"You read to me," I say, moving closer, my arm touching his. "I'll help if you get stuck."

Haltingly, but with determination, James reads about the murder. His uncle, accused of picking the pocket of a customer in a bar, refused to empty his pockets and was shot by the offended patron. James reads every word, stopping after each sentence to paraphrase. He doesn't want to miss a thing.

"Is he in the obituaries?" I ask.

"What's that?" James says. We turn the pages and read and talk. James knows the words "eulogy" and "condolences" from his vocabulary lists. He doesn't know if he will be allowed to go to the funeral.

As he reads, I look closely at him. He's wearing faded, baggy blue jeans that aren't quite long enough to be fashionable and a tight, black sweat shirt, sleeves pushed up to hide the poor fit. His skin is ashy; he hasn't asked for lotion this morning as he usually does. At least he's clean; the kids won't make fun of his smell.

Before today, James had been gone for two solid weeks. His attendance has always been bad, but such a stretch is unusual. With no "attendance specialist" and a single social worker stretched between five schools, no one else has noticed. I used to ask James where he had been, but now I just welcome him back. Occasionally, I give him lunch money or act as his advocate in disciplinary scrapes.

When we finish reading the paper, James says, "Thanks, Ms. J." He is always polite.

"Any time," I reply, smiling as he rises to join the rest of the students who have been working with my student teacher.

As he walks away, I have no way of knowing that this will be the last day I ever see him. I have no way of knowing that he will simply disappear, that he will not show up on the roll of any school in the district, that no one--no administrator, counselor, or social worker--will search to see what has become of this engaging, sensitive child. I have no way of knowing that I will start carrying a photo of him in my wallet. James will not be forgotten by at least one adult in a system that failed to protect him from a life he did not choose.

The author teaches secondary school English in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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