Jimmy Sparrow
By: Brad Cole

It was the beginning of November, snow had started to fall and frosty ghost breath steamed out in my every shout. Jimmy began to untie a dusty colored puppy from one of the concrete pilings underneath the school that protected the building from constant floods. It was probably a dog he had stolen, I thought, while bending down again to look at the 12 year old, Alaskan native boy. He had just ran out of my classroom and torn up student artwork stapled to the hallway. Now he was outside lurking and scheming like a medieval troll beneath the building, laughing and sneering at every attempt I made to gain his cooperation, to try to help him. He knew this three to four foot high space beneath the building was his territory. He looked like a kid playing a game of hide and seek, wearing a pair of torn tennis shoes, running and giggling through the tundra mud while hauling a leashed puppy.

“Jimmy, just wait. Let me talk to ya for a second,” I yelled again, still hoping to catch his attention, to gain his confidence.

But it seemed that the more attention I gave him the more of a game it became. I could hear him talking and laughing to himself as he ran out the opposite side of the building and started down the street. So I gave up.

Engulfed in a feeling of frustration my mind retreated back to when I first arrived at the school, only a few months previously. I had grown tired of the unrelenting shallowness of mainstream America. I wanted to see what life was like in a remote Alaskan native village, something that would contrast strongly with modern America, before I found myself too deeply entrenched in a lifestyle rut. Hoping to find something left of an ancient Eskimo culture that would make it a meaningful experience, I applied for a teaching job at the school in Emmonak, a village bordering the Bering Sea, in the mouth of the Yukon River. It was a place where most of its’ eight-hundred souls still lived off the land and there were no roads out of town.

As the school year began I soon learned that one of my main jobs as a special education teacher would be to deal with Jimmy Sparrow. He was undeniably the biggest behavior problem in the school, and no teacher previously ever had much luck with him. Suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, he was of average height and build, with a broad forehead, short dark cut hair. He had a haunting look in his eyes that would probe your face as you spoke to him. His lips were thick, forming a perpetual pout, with a flat nose that was always runny, as though he lived out in the cold. He walked in a swagger, like John Wayne did in the movies. His hands were incredibly dirty and chapped, and the aide would often wash his clothes when he came to school.

Feeling humiliated I made it back to the classroom. My classroom aide, Crystal, was a stout native woman in her sixties, who had probably raised more children than I had taught, being new to the field. She was getting ready to go home and putting on her coat as I walked into the room. I was physically relieved that there would be no more students for the day.

Seeing me walk past she said, “You better call his father. He never cares about him anyways. The kid runs around town day and night with no supervision at all.” Her face had turned grim and her voice scornful. She looked the way I felt, I thought.

“I know.” I said while walking toward the phone. “Maybe he has heard something about when Jimmy’s leaving for Nome.”

“He needs to go there. At least they’ll keep him locked up and out of trouble at the boarding school.”

“Only if he doesn’t burn the place down,” I said while dialing the familiar phone number.

Crystal had just left when the voice of the father answered the phone.

“Hello, Mr. Sparrow? Well, Jimmy decided to walk out of my class and left the school again today.” I hated being the bearer of bad news to a man who I heard had a difficult life. And his drinking did not help either.

“Oh, that’s his choice. He’ll come home later on.” His voice sounded very glum.

“Have you heard anything about Nome?”

“Only that the paperwork hasn’t been finished.” He paused and then continued, “I don’t know what he’s thinking but whenever I bring it up he says he’s not going.”

“I know these things can be rough on a kid.” I paused for a second then said, “I should let you know he had a puppy with him today. I don’t know who it belongs to.”

“I’ll take a look at it when he gets home.” Suddenly the tone in his voice sharpened, “You know that it’s because of the way people in this village treat him that animals are his only friends.” He stopped to see if I would say anything and then he went on, “I know he has a hard time learning things but people never liked Jimmy because he was too different.”

I replied, “If he could only make some good friends and keep them, it could make a big difference,” but I knew that it would never happen. Unfortunately, now his new friends will probably be other problem children sentenced to the same boarding school.

“He’s not as stupid as people think. He’s just different. His grandfather used to take him out hunting and taught him about the wild. But when he died Jimmy felt like he was all alone.” He stopped short as though deciding not to talk any farther. Then finally he said, “I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”

That evening I left the duplex I had rented from the school to go out on the boardwalk for a stroll. The boardwalk sat three feet above the tundra and was wide enough for two people to walk side by side. I started from the school and headed into a small cluster of homes; they were the typical, pre-fabricated pink and beige colored buildings, designed for the arctic and they all looked alike. There I met Michael and David, two kids who were from eight to ten years old. After school they practically lived on the boardwalk, which became a playground for the neighborhood, mostly because much of the surrounding tundra was still swampy from the summer’s warmth.

“Can we come?” shouted one dark haired boy with no front teeth and a running nose.

“Where are you going?” added his friend who was a little taller.

“Out to the graveyard,” I replied while stopping to talk to them. I had recognized both from the school.

“But there is a bear out there!” shouted the short one.

“I’ve been out there a number of times and never saw a bear.” I turned and continued my walk down the boardwalk.

“Jimmy has seen it and he says that he even talks to it,” said the taller boy.

“The next time I see Jimmy I’ll ask him to explain that to me,” I said.

“I’m not going out there,” said the short boy and stopped, hoping his friend would too.

“I’ll protect you if we see a bear,” I spoke trying to reassure him. “If he tries to bite you, I’ll beat him up.”

“I’m coming!” shouted the taller boy. Then he went on, “We’ll beat up the bear if we see it, won’t we?” With that comment the two boys followed me.

The boardwalk sloped down to a muddy street and then started again on the other side of it, leaving the village housing area and tunneling through a thick forest of willows. For about a hundred yards we walked until the trees suddenly opened up to an endless tundra where laid a small cluster of earthen mounds with white crosses standing behind them. Some were at odd angles due to the permafrost being unstable. Plastic flowers hung carefully on a few of the crosses, otherwise only scattered willows mingled in with the bushes and grasses of an arctic wilderness.

After seeing that there was no bear I doubted I ever would see one. The two boys looked as subdued about the place as though it was haunted.

“You ever had a bear in a good wrestling leg lock?” I said. The two boys looked at me and shook their heads.

“No? Boy, if they don’t settle down quickly it can hurt you as much as it does them.”

The joke failed so we talked about hunting rabbits as we turned and headed back on the boardwalk to the village.

It was later that week as I was walking down a perpetually muddy street to the post office a man on a four-wheeler stopped to talk to me. I soon recognized him as the village police officer. He was in his early thirties and of average height and weight. The way his eyes flashed out to look at me gave him a stern, military appearance.

“Have you heard the latest? Some woman has filed a compliant against Jimmy. She says that she woke one night this week and saw Jimmy just standing there next to her bed. She screamed and then when she saw who it was she yelled at him to get out of the house. When he left, she gets up to lock the front door but then finds him again standing in the living room. I guess he finally left, but that kid is going to get shot someday if he keeps breaking into people’s houses.” Then he went on, “He’s one of those kids that in the old days they would of left him out in a snow bank.” I just shook my head listening.

He was just about to leave when he turned around to add, “Can’t help feeling a little sorry for him though, poor kid. Did ya know his mother committed suicide?”

“Nope, nobody ever mentioned it to me before.” I looked directly into his eyes to make a point and added, “It would be rough to live with something like that.”

“That’s his real problem. He doesn’t have anyone to take care of him.” Then giving a short wave he grabbed the handle bars of the four-wheeler and drove away. A small barking dog ran out from beneath an old house and started chasing him down the soggy road.

Jimmy missed school the following four days, but he had missed most of school during the fall. He came in on Monday the following week and the morning classes went pretty well. But as the afternoon started he showed signs of being tired and irritable.

I asked him about what he had said to the young kids about the bear he talks to, hoping to get a conversation going, but it seemed like a sensitive subject. He looked at me suspiciously and then poured out more of his verbal abuse. Saying things like, “You’re stupid” and “You’re not my friend.” Seeing that I was not getting anywhere with him I stopped the discussion and walked away; but then he blurted, “The bear’s my friend.”

Out of curiosity I turned and asked, “How do you know that?”

He fell silent and thought for awhile and then said, “Because he lives outside and that’s where God lives.”

“Who told you that?” I asked.

“My grandpa,” he said.

At this point he got up out of his chair and started to pace around the room. When I made a comment about him getting back to work he grabbed the stapler on my desk and threatened to throw it. Having seen him through this restlessness before I knew it was a prelude to him wanting out of school. It was a ritual that he enjoyed performing, showing everyone that he did not care about school or teachers and all they had to offer. He seemed to think that he was bigger than the system. That it was something he could laugh at and walk away from.

After throwing a chair on the floor and disturbing the other students he walked briskly out the door and down the hallway. I followed to prevent him from damaging anymore of the artwork hanging on the walls. Once outside he grabbed a kid’s bike near the front door and started peddling down the street. Seeing him go I realized that he had not brought a coat with him to school and there was light snow falling but melting once on the ground.

I knew there was nothing I could have said to change the situation. Jimmy had his own agenda and was following it well. He probably knew during the morning that he would leave school by the afternoon.

“You better call the father again,” my aide said as I returned back to class.

I was just about to pick up the telephone when the Principal walked into the room saying, “I just got a call from the village police. They’re ready to pick up Jimmy and take him to Nome. He’s in school today, right? Can you get him?”

“Jimmy just walked out. I was about to call his father.”

“Well that’s OK. He can’t go very far. They’ll probably pick him up by this evening.”

Then looking at my aide he adds, “Even if he finds out there isn’t much he can do. I don’t think he can get money to take the next flight to Anchorage.”

Later that evening I saw Jimmy, despite the cold he was still dressed only in a gray sweatshirt and denims, walking past my house and down the boardwalk. I decided to run outside and talk to him and find out where he was going. I thought he would have been picked up by the village police by this time.

It took me less than a minute to grab my parka and catch up to him. I could feel the bitter void of his eyes as he turned around to look at me. “Hey Jimmy, I thought I’d come out for a little walk. You headin over to a friend’s house?” I said.

“No,” he said.

“It’s about time for supper, isn’t it? Where’re you going?” sounding as friendly as possible.

I noticed an odd expression on his face and I could not tell if it was sadness or anger. He stopped walking and then said in a soft voice, “Out to the graveyard.”

“You go out there quite a bit, why is that?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” Then he looked down and when his eyes came back up to meet mine he said, “I guess it’s because my mom is buried out there.”

Taken back by the gravity of his statement I fell silent. He turned and continued his walk down the boardwalk. Standing there for a moment I watched him go. There was so much about the boy I did not understand and wished I could. He was too young to be just another lost soul.

The Village Police Office was across the road from the school. It was one of the larger buildings in Emmonak, two stories, and contained a courtroom, a couple of small offices and jail cells, and the main work room for the police officer.

As I walked into the main office I could hear a voice calling out from the VHF radio that was hung up on the wall next to the desk.

“I just saw him headin toward the graveyard,” I told the Police Officer as I saw him sitting behind the desk with his feet up on a stool. He was the same officer I met and talked to a week before.

He put down the magazine he was reading and said, “Good. I’ve been looking for him since this afternoon. The call came in that they want him to report to Nome. They got his room ready.” The officer jumped up, grabbed his coat and radio.

“OK if I come along? If he gets nasty maybe I could help to settle him down. I’m his teacher you know."

Breaking a slight smile he said, “Sure if you want to.” Then we both quickly left the office.

Moving at a fast pace across the road, past the school and down the boardwalk, it took less than five minutes to reach the graveyard. A wind had risen and the sun was beginning to settle into a bright glow toward the southwest. We tried to walk as quietly as possible on the boardwalk, so not to scare away Jimmy. As we came near the end of the walkway the officer spoke suddenly in a subdued tone of voice, “Oh God! Look at that!”

I looked straight ahead about fifty yards to see Jimmy was standing on the tundra with a bag in one hand and using his other hand to throw out meat, feeding a large brown bear. The creature was four times the size of Jimmy and standing on all fours calmly in front of him, taking the offered food like a dog would from his master.

We both jumped down from the boardwalk to the soggy ground and hid within the surrounding forest of willows. From there we watched warily.

The officer turned toward me and whispered, “He must of lured that bear. They can smell moose meat for a long ways.” After a short pause he added, “We need to be careful. We’re going to have to wait until he gets done feeding the bear to approach him.”

My heart pounded hard as an Eskimo drum beat and my knees started to ache while squatting, hiding behind the boardwalk. Jimmy could barely be heard talking to the animal. He did it quietly and calmly so not to frighten it. To him it was just a large dog.

Suddenly a voice screeched over the VHF radio carried by the officer, causing Jimmy to twist around and see us. He yelled out, “You’re not going to get me!” With the bag of meat in hand he bolted across the tundra. The brown bear roared and then charged Jimmy, knocking him to the ground. It pounced on, bit and tore at his limp body in a wild frenzy. Then the bear grabbed the bag of meat that was lying next to his motionless body and started to feed from it.

The officer recovering from his shock grabbed his pistol and fired it into the air so not to hit Jimmy. Hearing these shots and carrying its food the bear ran into the tundra brush and disappeared from sight.

“Dam it! I should of turned it off!” cried the officer. There was a pale stony look on his face. He continued, “I have to call the clinic. We’re going to need a stretcher.”

Afterwards we walked over to the body and the officer knelt down next to Jimmy. “I can’t feel any pulse.” He put his head on Jimmy’s chest and said, “No signs of breathing either. Looks like his bleeding has stopped. If he’s not dead now he probably will be by the time he gets to Anchorage.”

Seeing the large bloody marks covering the body made me sick. I could barely stand up.

“Can’t the clinic do something?” I asked.

“They’ll bandage him up and then send him to Anchorage on a plane. That’s all they can do. We don’t have doctors out here.”

He looked up at the sky as though to get some fresh air and said, “I wonder if he had it planned like this? Somehow it seemed that he was expecting us.”

“Someone could of told him you were coming to pick him up,” I said.

The officer started to apply what bandages we could make from tearing up our shirts. But Jimmy remained cold and lifeless.

Being in a state of shock I could only feel a cold tundra wind that curled itself about me. I looked up to see the sun going below the horizon, its glow was disappearing. A star had appeared in the deepening blue sky.

Perhaps the officer was right and all this had been planned out by Jimmy, I thought. Jimmy always liked to be in control of things. Then I had a surprising thought, I remembered what he said earlier: “the bear lives outside” and “that is where God lives”. I put my head down and said a quite prayer.