Alice was a button with no purpose. At least that’s how she felt. Her destiny wasn’t for some elegant ballgown or a powerful businessman’s shirt cuff. It wasn’t for the casual Hawaiian button up or a warm winter jacket, or even decorative like on some scarves or hats or sweaters that she didn’t know existed. Alice was a plain jane, white, four holed, plastic backup button. She was the kind that was rejected for everyday use and packed away into a small plastic bag, attached to the inside tag of a garment. In her case the garment was a size 6X white cardigan of no particular name brand that ended up on the shelves of a discount outlet.
At first Alice harbored hopes of one day being freed from that little plastic bag where she played understudy for one of her many twins on the front of the bright white little girl’s cardigan. She felt sure that her future owner would file her away until the day when one of the other buttons popped free from that shoddily crafted sweater, and there she would be, ready to replace another at a moment’s notice. But then they day came that she was lifted from the shelf and placed in a shopping cart and taken to a home. Nail clippers carelessly severed the plastic wire attaching her to the cardigan and she was thrown into a basket full of satchels filled with extra buttons. Alice sighed. Buttons, buttons, buttons.
In that basket of buttons she came to terms with the fact that there was little hope of being chosen for replacement and getting out to see what the world had to offer. She took a look at all the buttons surrounding her: big buttons, shiny buttons, buttons made of sparkling material, buttons of cloth with metal holes in the back but smooth on the front. She noticed buttons for men, buttons for jeans, buttons that looked like they had lived 100 lives yet still they remained there, in the bottom of a button basket. Furthermore in that basket of buttons Alice learned she wasn’t quite as perfect of a replacement as she had hoped. One of her four eyes hadn’t been punched through all the way, leaving a thin layer of plastic that skewed her view of the world and made her a little less attractive as a benchwarmer in the button world.
Max, on the other hand, was a child made perfectly. His eyes took in the wondrous world with no problem and he heard everything, from his parents arguments to the chirping birds outside his bedroom window. He followed along the top percentage of height and weight requirements for any growing kid. His features were already striking for a 7 year-old and everything about him was proportionate and neat. He could have easily charmed the world, except for the fact he didn’t live in the same world as everyone else. Physically Max was a model child, but his mind wandered to where others his age did not. It was as though he knew childhood was fleeting and he wanted to indulge in every comfort before it escaped him. He was slow. He was slow to learn to walk, slow to dress himself, slow to potty train and slow moving. He was capable of the expected tasks for his age, but preferred to be shepherded by those expected to help him. Or he wanted to complete them on his time frame and no one else’s, and he left his teachers and parents exasperated, frustrated and tired.
Max was juggled between school and rotating babysitters, as his parents were so concerned with providing financially for him (and themselves), that they didn’t make time to provide him with their own attention. When he was younger he was evaluated by specialists who said he would grow out of his own world, but on his own time. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with Max, he was just moving at the pace he felt comfortable with. Max loved to make up stories, ask questions and retreat into his own fantasies. The urgings and hurriedness of his parents and teachers rolled off him, and he felt none of the impatience or rejection or frustration that his caregivers often placed on him. He was completely complacent because he knew nothing better, or nothing worse, or nothing else.
Max had been through a handful of babysitters that guided him to and from school, playing intermediary between the quick kisses and hugs that accompanied his parent’s hellos and goodbyes. But in the first months of his 7th year, the babysitter who had been with him for the summer months gave a premature goodbye and left his parents in a pinch. That’s how Lou, the teaching assistant in his 1st grade class, came to care for Max. She was patient, kind, and had an imagination that rivaled Max’s. She also had the drive and enthusiasm and care to share with the 24 kids in her assigned class, with a little extra love for Max, who always took his time.
Lou was an artist at heart but teaching helped pay her rent and filled a hole in heart left by the early death of her parents and her inability to have children of her own. Her days were now filled by Max. Morning pickup, the day at school, then the afternoon walk home, and sometimes all the way until his bedtime, when one parent or another would barge through the door apologizing profusely for their now-expected lateness. At school, Max and the other kids did not want for anything. They had all the resources they could ask for: art materials, space, books, playgrounds, snacks. It was a wonderland of creativity. As a teaching assistant Lou was required to do small group project work with a portion of her class. Lou wanted to create something beautiful.
So it was because of these visions of beauty and grandeur that Alice ended up in Lou’s class. A school-wide plea to parents for buttons was sent out by Lou, and Alice along with the rest of her button basket made the trip to Max’s classroom. Lou introduced her small group of students, Max faithfully by her side, to mosaics. She showed them pictures of how small tiles made beautiful images around the world: in the churches of Italy, the parks of Barcelona, the homes of Paris, and even in their own backyard—the subways of New York City. She explained how one piece of material could be rather insignificant on its own, but when placed together they created magnificent scenes.
Lou’s group worked every Wednesday on their projects. Each of her 5 students had a tray where they could save their work and their materials. Most of the kids completed a new mosaic each week— a haphazard picture made of pieces of tile, or tissue, or glass glued not quite purposefully on a hard cardboard background. Not Max. They had been working each week for almost a month now, and Max had yet to glue anything. Max liked the buttons. He liked how they were smooth and shiny and varied in color. He dumped the whole button basket on his tray and began sorting. Alice was freed from her plastic bag and joined the ranks of the other white buttons. When Max had made a rainbow of buttons on his tray, he started moving them with his hands. Slowly. He moved the whites to one side, creating a large circle. He took blue buttons and formed them into lines. He dumped all the black buttons back into the basket. Max didn’t like black.
Back and forth, up and down. Max played with the buttons, rearranging them to fit an image he carried somewhere in his mind. Lou watched and waited, knowing that Max had an intention and plan. She encouraged him the same way she encouraged the other students, who sometimes looked at books or pictures for their mosaic inspiration. Max only looked into his mind. Alice, on the other hand, was just thrilled to be out in the open—to be touched and moved and held and placed. She felt pleased to have a purpose other than what might be expected of her. She was excited to have a permanent place in the world. Or at least she hoped.
Max arranged and rearranged the colorful buttons. Lou watched and Alice waited. Until finally, Max felt ready. He took his hard cardboard canvas and spread glue across the whole thing. He looked at his tray of colorful buttons and he looked at his blank canvas. And then, for the first time in his life, Max moved—fast. One after another he grabbed buttons from his tray placing them purposefully on the drying glue. Max grabbed Alice and she felt alive and Max felt intent. She felt she had purpose and a place and moment. She fell into place, wet glue stuck to her back, alongside other smooth white buttons. And after ten minutes of concentration Max stopped. At that moment his imaginary world had merged with the actual world, and he could finally share what he saw every day in his mind with the people he loved the most—which was mostly Lou. Lou saw what Max had created and didn’t feel surprise or pride or joy. She felt only the same reassurance and love that she knew each day watching Max, but she also felt understanding, at seeing Max’s mind displayed so clearly on his own terms.
Lou hung the mosaic on the wall of the class across from a large window looking out into the schoolyard playground. When the sun faded that night, and Max and Lou and the other teachers and kids left the room, Alice continued looking happily out the window. She looked out into the empty yard until the sun recessed enough that she could see her reflection in the window. And at that moment she found herself in the middle of a pure white, single cloud floating in a blue sky of buttons that hovered and blended seamlessly into a blue-green button ocean. Alice could feel the lightness and brightness and love that filled that single cloud, and she felt happy to stay there forever, instead of on the sleeve of a plain white, size 6X girl’s cardigan.