The dragonfly nymph had been climbing up and down a willow branch all day inside one of our classroom habitats. My little ones watched him climb, excitedly announcing to the class his every move and clapping with glee because they knew that this was a sign that the nymph was getting ready to make its final climb out of the water where it would crack out of its skin and become the shimmering flyer it was meant to be.
Dragonflies make this final climb in the sheath of night, cloaked from predators when the dragonfly is in its most vulnerable state-when it cannot yet take flight, nor can it retreat back into the water.
We left school that day knowing that an adult dragonfly would likely be waiting for us the next morning.
When morning arrived and I pulled my bike up to my classroom door, I couldn’t help but laugh at the line of little ones who had their faces pressed up against our windows. They were peering in, looking for our dragonfly and when I unlocked the door and let the little ones in, our outside windows were left with a row of fingerprint and nose smudges that made me giggle.
New dragonflies seek the light and we’d found all of our previous dragonflies patiently waiting in our windowsills.
We looked in the windowsills.
We looked in the habitat and, sure enough, attached to the willow branch was the ghostly exuvia, with a hole where the dragonfly had broken out of its skin.
Then we saw it.
The dragonfly was on its back beside the tank. Two of its wings were fully formed. Two of its wings were crumpled and stuck to the desk.
In the cover of night, something had gone terribly wrong. The dragonfly had fallen from the willow branch before its wings were set and as the wings dried, they dried stuck to the desk.
“I think he’s dead, Mrs. McCauley,” one of my little ones said solemnly.
“Maybe. Let me see.” I put my finger to the dragonfly’s legs and he grabbed on, but his wings remained plastered to the desk.
It was at this moment that another one of my little ones entered the room. She’s a gymnast, a high-flying daredevil of a kid who flips around the bars like walking is her second language and flying is her native tongue.
The gymnast broke her elbow when she took a fall in gymnastics class. She wore a bright green cast on her arm.
She crowded around the dragonfly with us and when I explained what had happened she simply said, “He’s like me. What are you going to do, Mrs. McCauley?”
I didn’t know. I stood there for a minute watching the dragonfly struggle to free his wings from the desk. I watched my little ones watching the dragonfly.
“You have to do something,” said the gymnast.
“I know. I’m just trying to think of what. I’ve never seen a dragonfly with injured wings like this, so I’m not quite sure how to help. Let me think.”
“Shhhh, everybody, shhhh. Mrs. McCauley has to think so she can save him,” a little boy said with his finger to his lips. A hush fell over them and the pressure was on.
“Go get me a damp paper towel and I’m going to try re-wetting his wings.” I sent one of my little ones to the sink and she hurried back with a soggy paper towel.
The dragonfly beat his two strong wings against me as I wet his crumpled wings, which began to release from the desk.
“It’s okay, little dragonfly, Mrs. McCauley isn’t going to hurt you. She doesn’t even let us kill spiders,” a little boy said reassuringly.
I sponged the dragonfly off the desk and he crawled onto my finger, trying in vain to pump fluids into his crumpled wings. The wings shivered, but remained deformed.
“We’d better keep him for a while and see if he can get his wings to straighten out.” I slipped him into the wire cage we keep our new dragonflies in before we transfer them to the creek.
Later that morning we had another dragonfly emerge from its skin.
“My dad says that sometimes when animals are hurt or sick, putting them with a healthy animal helps them heal,” one of my little girls said. ”Let’s put them together in the cage and see if that helps the wrinkled one.”
We put the pair of dragonflies together in the releasing cage. The healthy dragonfly flitted and buzzed around while the other one sat watching. We passed the cage around so each child could see what was happening.
“He looks sad,” many little ones lamented.
“What’s that word you were telling us about yesterday, Mrs. McCauley?” the gymnast asked.
“The one about summer, how it’s sad that school is ending, but happy that summer is beginning.”
“I think the dragonfly is feeling bittersweet-happy that his friend can fly, but sad that he can’t yet. Kinda like how I feel watching my friends play on the bars at recess.”
“That makes sense to me.”
We kept the pair of dragonflies in our classroom most of the day, but as the end of the day drew near we knew we had to release them or they would starve.
We hiked out to the creek with our pair of dragonflies. A little boy gently stuck his finger under the dragonfly with fully formed wings. He lifted his hand into the air and the dragonfly took flight, zipping to the creek.
The other dragonfly had yet to fly at all, not even flutter from one side of the cage to the other.
“Maybe if we hold him up in the air, he’ll fly,” another little boy suggested. ”Maybe when he feels the air on his wings, he’ll know what to do.”
“It’s definitely worth a try,” I agreed. The little boy lifted the dragonfly on his finger and into the air.
I wish I could tell you that this story has a happy ending, that the dragonfly with crumpled wings took flight and soared into the sky.
It was a Green Darner and we placed it on a green branch near the creek where we hoped it could camouflage from predators long enough to get its wings working.
On the day my little gymnast got her cast off, her dad offered to take her out for ice cream afterwards. She asked if she could go to school instead because she didn’t want to miss a thing. Her dad just shook his head and drove her to school, reminding her she can’t go on the bars just yet. I have a feeling that the gymnast will be back to her high-flying ways in no time, but she’s right there’s bittersweetness in watching her friends flip on the bars while she sits on the sidelines and watches.
There’s a bittersweet feeling to the end of the school year.
As the year draws to a close, I think often of the crumpled dragonfly and of my little ones who I’m going to have to let go of so very soon.
Most of them are absolutely soaring. Reading 100 words a minute, writing amazing stories, even tackling multiplication.
But a handful of my little ones came to me broken, with badly crumpled wings. Each morning, they’d beat against me because letting anyone close when they were in such a vulnerable state was terrifying.
So often I didn’t know what to do, how to fix such acute breaks of the heart. So often I found myself needing a moment to watch them and think of a new ways to try to help them. For some it was enough and they eventually found their wings.
Others remain too scarred. On the last day I’ll hug them a final time and hope that someday when they feel the air on their wings, they’ll find it within themselves to take flight.