The Butterfly Cage

Fiction / Erica Kanesaka Kalnay

:: The Butterfly Cage ::

Sampson arrives early. He scurries through the door and crashes into me for a hug, his unzipped coat trailing like a cape behind him. Sampson is fast. This fact is even spelled out in his IEP:

Emotional/Behavioral Challenge 8: When Sampson escalates, he may injure staff/peers and destroy property. He is also known to run away from supervision. He is fast.

At first, I am annoyed that Sampson has cut into my preparation time, but he seems to be having a good morning. I ask him to help me transfer the chrysalises from their jar to the butterfly cage. The cage is made of mesh and shaped like a bell, suspended from a wire frame. The chrysalises cling to our fingers and shudder when we lift them. Sampson and I touch them gently to the branches inside the cage until they stick and go still. Sampson holds one up at eye level and laughs as it jiggles. He looks up at me with an expectant expression, his dark eyes wide and his mouth thrown open. He’s inviting me to laugh with him, waiting for it, demanding.

Sampson has always loved the butterflies. When the caterpillars first arrived in their tiny plastic jar, I taped it at eye level on a shelf in the exploration center, and he never wanted to play anywhere else. He’d stand in front of the shelf, his back to the other children, and get lost there for hours. From behind, he was just the delicate shape of his skull under his buzz cut, his uniform shirt half-tucked, and his hands wriggling through the air, mimicking the caterpillars.

I’d asked the children to each bring something for the butterflies’ habitat. Most brought twigs and pine needles and leaves in little plastic baggies. Camila brought a bag of blue pebbles from the dollar store, the kind that usually go inside a goldfish bowl. Sampson’s grandmother forgot to send him a baggie, and Sampson lost it as soon as he found out. He spent the rest of the morning in the safe room. When he was finally allowed to reenter after recess, he marched straight to the library and found a butterfly “little reader.” He held it up to me with both hands, like an orphan holding up an empty soup bowl. I was touched by the formality of his offering.

“They need to learn about themselves,” he’d said. “So they can understand themselves.”

“Okay,” I’d said, and placed the book next to where the cage lay in wait for the chrysalises to form.

When the other children arrive, I call circle time and place the butterfly cage in the middle of the carpet. I’ve told the children to glue their butts to their spots, but everyone wants a closer look. Two little boys use adaptive seating that helps anchor them to the ground. The rest of the children lean as far forward as they can without their butts coming unglued. They remind me of a group of penguins hesitating at the edge of a cliff overlooking icy water. I know that one of them will take the plunge, and then the rest will follow.

Of course, it is Sampson who does it. He reaches into the middle of the circle and pushes at the cage. It starts to swing on its frame, and the chrysalises tremble.

“Stop it,” I say. He was being so gentle an hour ago.

Sampson gets back in the S.M.A.R.T. position. Straight back. Mouth quiet. Attentive eyes. Restful hands. Thinking brain.

I take the cage around to each child and point to the chrysalises tucked behind the leaves.

“What do you think those are?” I ask them. We read a book on butterflies the day before.

They stare at me.

“Poop!” says one little boy. That’s his favorite word. He likes the reaction it gets.

“Benji?” I ask another.

You can see the giggles bubbling up inside Benji. He wiggles around to hold them in, looking at me with sideways eyes.

“Poop,” he finally says in a tiny, squeaky voice.

I look around the circle for someone to save me. Aside from Sampson, Camila is my most academically advanced student, a girl with long-lashed eyes and heavy cheeks. She always sits serenely amongst her squirming peers like a little monk.

She looks at me, her mouth hanging open. “Bug?” she says.

“Nah!” Sampson is sitting beside her. He’s so angry that he rises to his feet. “It’s called a pupa. You a bunch of goddamn fools.”

The other four-year-olds stare at him. “Yes,” they seem to be thinking, “Poop-ah.”

“Fuckers!” Sampson adds, for effect.

“Sampson, do you need a time out?” I say automatically.

Sometimes I think Sampson hates the robotic way I respond to his behaviors more than the actual orders. “Come on,” he seems to say, like a little devil that buzzes around my ears. “Admit that you feel something. Admit that you hate me.”

He drops his butt back down onto his spot and shoots me his evil eyes. When the other children do that, I want to laugh at their childish hostility, but with him, for a second, I think I see a flash of true malice.

I continue with the lesson. I teach the children a poem about the butterfly life cycle. I teach them to do the “butterfly handshake,” where two people link thumbs and wiggle their fingers side by side. I tell them what a “butterfly kiss” is, how one person bats their eyelashes against another person’s cheeks like a butterfly’s delicately beating wings.

“When you go home today,” I say, “you can give them to your mommies and daddies and the people you love.” Many of the children don’t live with their birth parents, so I’m usually careful to add that.

“Teacher, Sampson is bothering her,” says one little girl, and I look over to see Camila with tears running down her cheeks, hugging her chubby arms over her little potbelly. One arm has tiny stab marks from a ballpoint pen all over it. I’m amazed at how she’s not crying out loud. Sampson has a pen in his lap. He must have taken it from my clipboard. He looks away. Not to play innocent, but to dismiss me.

“Get up,” I say. I get up myself. I am towering over him. This is something I’m not supposed to do. I should be staying at his eye level and speaking calmly, deescalating the situation.

“Give it,” I say. I twist the pen out of his hands.

Sampson kicks me in the shins, and then I’m not sure what I feel, pain or anger, because I’m not allowed to feel anything anyway. There’s a procedure for what has to happen next. I’m supposed to become the adult in one of the line drawings in the Crisis Intervention Manual: “How to Restrain a Child Under Seven.” The drawing shows you how to sink to the floor and hug the child from behind, how to keep the child’s arms crossed over his chest. The child’s left hand in your right hand; his right hand in your left. I do this to Sampson. I am supposed to wait for backup, someone to clear away the other children and any dangerous objects. We are alone. My assistant has been pulled into another room, as usual. Instead, the children act of their own accord, herding themselves silently to their table spots by instinct. At any other time, I would have found their obedience touching.

I’m supposed to count in my head to calm myself. I count to 100. With each number, the waiting seems to become more impossible. Sampson kicks and thrashes beneath me. The muscles in my arms start to tire. His hands are so small and unformed that they feel like Play-Doh in my own.


When Sampson’s grandma comes to pick him up at 3:00, I am sitting at the art table with two little girls who string Froot Loops onto yarn in an afternoon daze.

“Get your coat,” Sampson’s grandma says by way of greeting. Sampson is splayed like a sea star in the library, counting the lights bulbs on the ceiling. His morning episode has tired him out. He gets up and grabs his coat and backpack from his cubby. Then he pauses and comes back to give me a hug. He is the kind of preschooler who seems to hug you with his whole being. The surprising strength of his squeeze almost stops my breath.

“I told you to hurry up,” says his grandma. She is a tall, black woman, young for a grandma. I’ve never seen her speak anything but orders to Sampson, but unlike some of the other guardians, she takes time off from work to come to every IEP meeting. When I lost my voice in November, she slipped me ginger powder in a gold pouch. “Just mix this with hot water,” she’d said.

Jennifer, my carpool, stops by my classroom at 7:00. We load our milk crates back into her trunk in the illuminated parking lot. The drive home is dark, just like the morning one, only now there is traffic and the occasional jaywalker. Bundled figures stand at the bus stops holding plastic grocery bags. It’s been snowing for a few hours now. Jennifer’s coupe skids down the street.

Jennifer and I completed teacher training together the past summer. We both went to the boot camp where they gave us matching water bottles and lunchboxes. We stood in an assembly line to fill them with sandwiches and Kool-Aid before swarming out over the city. We were a small army of young teachers ready to fight educational inequality. But now Jennifer is the only other teacher I still speak to. She drives to soccer practice every day after dropping me off at my apartment. I admire how she has something else in her life that still matters.

Once I’m safely inside and I’ve checked all the windows and locks, I sit on the couch with my milk crate beside me. I have lesson planning to do. First, though, I open up the crime map on my cell phone. Little icons pop up all around me. A man with a moneybag, a man in a mask, a little fist, a little gun. When I press the refresh button, sometimes a new one appears, and sometimes one doesn’t, but it happens often enough that I can’t let myself stop.

I do this for more than an hour until a new icon appears just down the street from me, a shadow of a man in a doorway. I go to the window to look for the flashing lights of a police car. I don’t see them.

Instead, I see a black man walking through the still-falling snow. He has a shovel thrown over one shoulder. I watch him draw closer. It’s like watching a silent movie. At last, I start to hear the sound of his footsteps trudging up to my door. I imagine myself in one of two scenarios: in the first, he uses the shovel to smash through my front window and climbs inside and holds a gun to my head. In the second, he knocks on the front door. I’m stupid. I open it for him. He asks if he can shovel my driveway for a few dollars. Then he hits me over the head with the shovel.

The real man before me bangs on the door. Of course, I don’t answer. I stand frozen behind it, and he tries one more time, and at last I hear his footsteps retreat. I’m uncertain if I’ve just come close to death or if it was only an ordinary moment.


My third month of teaching, I was mugged in front of the Laundromat. Jennifer came to sit with me in the emergency room. Late at night, the place was like a police procedural, each bed a different episode blocked off by mint-green curtains. The scenes flashed by me: a gray-faced woman begging for painkillers, two boys hugging their mother in silence, a man lying face down on sheets stained with blood.

“It’s a pretty thin case,” one of the police officers had said to me. There were two of them. They looked professional, efficient, bored. The nurses didn’t seem to think I needed to be there, either. The men on the street had pistol-whipped me, but I had come away with only some scratches and bruises and a black eye. The officers suggested I move to the suburbs.

“Are you sure you can’t give us a better description?” the second officer asked me. I repeated myself: three black men about my age, early twenties, winter coats. One had glared at me at the bus stop, following me with his eyes. A block later, he’d jumped back out in front of me. “Give me your money,” he’d said.

The other two men came up from behind me. They pulled my jacket over my eyes at first, so I couldn’t see anything. “I’m a teacher,” I’d told them, as if that would help.

“We’ll try,” the first officer said. “But, honestly, it’s not much to go on. Lots of guys fit that description.”


When April comes and the snow finally melts, it feels unnatural. The birds start chirping, and the neighborhood children come out to buy thick slices of mango from the man with the cart. Old men in t-shirts sit on the porches, their hands pushed into their pockets.

“Hey there, blondie,” they say. “Flash me that smile.” I know each of these men by name: Pete, Momo, Raheem, Jeremiah.

“Lookin’ good,” they say. “Lookin’ good.”

I worry that these things might lull me into complacency. The longer days invite people to stay out later, but when darkness hits, it’s like winter again, and we all burrow back.

One morning, when I get to my classroom, I find the netting of the butterfly cage streaked with red. The butterflies have emerged. They rest in the middle of the cage, slowly opening and closing their wings as if in shock.

“What happened?” Sampson asks me when he gets to school, and I tell him it’s just the juice from their wings, which is true. He pauses a while to evaluate that, as if I might be telling a lie. It occurs to me that some of the children might be frightened. I should have explained this to them in advance.

“Why aren’t they flying?”

“Their wings still need to dry,” I say. “That’s why they’re flapping them like that.”

“Oh,” Sampson says. He seems satisfied. He is on his best behavior all morning but goes to peek inside the cage during each transition.

“They didn’t get shot,” he explains to the other children. “That’s just juice.” I’m thankful that he’s doing it for me. The other children believe him.

I’m given fifteen minutes for lunch, and it takes about five to walk from the gym to the teacher’s workroom and back, so really only ten to myself. On my way to pick up the children, the cacophony of shouting starts from far down the hallway and crescendos by the time I reach the gym’s double doors. The children can’t play outside because of stray bullets. They crash into the padded walls of the gym and scream at the tops of their voices. When I have to stop them at this play, they seem confused. “Did you hit someone?” I’ll ask them, and their eyes will dart around. They’ll have no idea.

The recess monitor, Mrs. Johnson, blows the whistle, and the children stampede toward the line. One little girl crashes into me and leaves a sweaty spot on the front of my shirt. The children’s foreheads are so drenched in sweat after recess that it beads up and glistens from their hair.

I notice Sampson at the far end of the gym, peering into the cage for the balls.

I call to him. His name has become my refrain. I say it so many times each day that it’s become almost meaningless. Sampson, Sampson, Sampson. Whenever I say it, I feel like I’m a child myself, with my eyes closed and my arms outstretched, playing Marco Polo. Sampson will respond for an instant and then drift off somewhere else, and I’ll have to call out again.

Mrs. Johnson walks over to him. “You heard your teacher. Go line up,” she says. I envy for a moment the rapport that she has with him, the rapport all the other staff can have because they don’t have to be the ones to discipline him.

Mrs. Johnson whispers something to him gently. She takes his hand and walks him to the back of the line. Many of the children struggle with transitions. Some of them have been shuffled between parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and distant cousins and foster homes. This has left them unable to walk from one room in the school building and into another. They fall to pieces when asked to put away the blocks and pick up the crayons instead.

We march back to the classroom and put out the mats for naptime. All the children, except Sampson, sleep as fiercely as they just played. Sampson asks if he can nap by the butterfly cage, and I say okay. He spends the next hour nudging the cage just slightly when I’m not looking. I know it must be him, but whenever I turn, he’s lying back on the mat, peacefully staring up at the cage swinging above his head. The butterflies are flying now. They crash into each other and into the mesh walls like heated gas.

After naptime is bathroom time, then circle. When bathroom time comes, I put the girls and boys in separate lines, and one group waits along the wall while the other group takes their turn. Some of the children fall asleep while they’re waiting, and I have to jiggle them back awake. Some start crying, and others start poking their neighbors. The ones in the bathroom ask me to zip up their flies and buckle up their belts. The whole process takes almost half an hour. Once we get back for circle, I’m fifteen minutes behind on the lesson and worry about what will happen if an administrator walks in the door. I decide to just do a shared writing exercise. Together on the board, we’ll write something like this:

Today, the butterflies came out. They are red and black and orange. They were slow, but they can fly now! We love butterflies.

I go to get the butterfly cage. The butterflies aren’t there. Just dead leaves and pine needles and Camila’s blue stones from the dollar store.

I know that only Sampson would be smart enough to open the cage and close it back up again. The top has a drawstring that needs to be knotted, and he’s the only one who can tie his shoes.

“Sampson,” I say.

He walks over.

“Stop here,” I say, and even though I know I shouldn’t, I reach into his pockets and turn them inside out. Little pebbles and some Skittles fall out, but nothing else. “Did you open the butterfly cage?” I say. I pat him down again.

“No,” says Sampson. He seems strangely calm. There’s no exaggerated rage at my allegation.

“I need you to tell me the truth,” I say.

He looks up at me plainly. Then, as if to spite me, he simply says, “Huh?”

I make Sampson sit with his head down at the table while the rest of us finish circle. We practice breaking words into sounds and putting them back together. Bag. B-a-g. Bag. Top. T-o-p. Top. We clap our hands as we do this.

I notice Camila has started crying again. She cries at least once a day. But this time, extra big, heavy tears run down her dirty cheeks, forming gullies. She stares down at her hands. They’re stained red with butterfly mush.

The other children look on in shock.

I pick Camila up and carry her to the sink. She is heavy, but I don’t let myself drop her. I set her down on the plastic stool and adjust the faucets until they run warm. I wash her hands with soap and water, scrubbing each chubby finger inside my own. It feels almost as if there are no bones inside her fingers, as if they’re made of rubber. I make sure the butterfly parts have gone down the drain, and I dry her hands with brown paper towels. I wet a paper towel and rub it all over her face to wipe away the tears. She squeezes her eyes shut to let me do it. The other children wait in silence, watching.

When I’m done, I let everyone have choice time. I give Sampson permission to leave the table. He goes straight to the butterfly cage and peers inside it. He gets down on his knees and looks under the shelves and behind them. I wonder myself where the other butterflies went, whether I’ll find them squished at the bottom of Camila’s backpack or whether I’ll find them scattered about the room: one dropped dead in a bin of Tinkertoys, one pressed between the pages of a book.

After a while, Sampson stops searching and slinks over to the block area. I watch him snatch a block from Camila. Her hands stay there empty, as if in offering, with the same open palms that held the crushed butterfly. Sampson holds the block up as high as he can. He is almost on tiptoe. He whacks it down hard over her head.


That evening, as Jennifer and I wait at a red light on Jefferson, a black man walks through the traffic, winding his way between the stalled cars. He strolls from windshield to windshield and taps on each one, probably asking for money. I brace myself. My hands feel automatically for the lock, although I’ve checked it several times already.

“He’s going to get run over,” I say.

“He’ll be okay.” Jennifer seems uninterested. She isn’t even watching him. She just stares ahead at the light.

“I wish they wouldn’t do that,” I say. I’m talking about all the jaywalkers that cross here on Jefferson. Then I say something I know I shouldn’t. “Don’t black men know we can’t see them in the dark?”

Jennifer lurches out of her daze.

“What?” she says.

I envy how uncomplicated her anger is. It’s visible all over.

“You can get out and walk,” she says. She leans over me to unlock the door.

I’m suddenly terrified, for so many reasons. “I’m sorry,” I say.

“You should be.”

But I’m not sorry. I’m furious. I hate myself, and I hate Jennifer, anyone who would judge me without knowing my fear. The light turns green, and the man steps onto the embankment. The cars start to move.

For a moment, I’m not sure whether Jennifer still wants me to get out or not. We’re in the far left of three lanes of traffic. She switches on the turn signal and looks over her shoulder.

“You don’t understand,” I now tell Jennifer by way of apology. “I’m scared.”

“I know,” she says, “But you’re still being racist.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Yes, it is.”

Jennifer pulls to the side of the road. As soon as she’s done this, I realize that I didn’t think she would actually stop.

I get out, and Jennifer’s car merges back into the traffic. I am standing on a bridge. Beneath me is a highway that splits across the city like a wound.

I don’t want to move. I know that as soon as I do the terror will strike. I will become like a woman in a horror movie, tripping over my own feet. I see myself moving in stop motion, in the blue lights that flash from the surveillance video poles.

No, I tell myself. It’s okay. The man has walked off the other way. The shadows dancing around me are my own, made by the headlights as they rush by.

I’m really only a few blocks from my apartment. I run home. I make it there and lock the door.

After a few minutes, my heart starts to quiet. I sit on the couch. Jennifer has my milk crate in her trunk, and I need it to prepare the next day’s lessons. I pull out my cell phone, hoping to find a message from her. Nothing.

I flip to the crime map. The little icons pop up across the city.

I sometimes wish crime maps could look into the future, that I could have seen an icon before it happened to me.

“Why did you take the butterflies?” I’d asked Camila that afternoon, after I’d filled out the Incident Report Form and the Injury Documentation and the Behavior Referral. Sampson had been taken away to the safe room, and Camila was sitting in my lap with a fish-shaped ice pack pressed up against the purpling welt on her forehead, melting ice dribbling down her cheeks instead of tears.

You’re not supposed to ask that question as a teacher. “Why did you. . . ?” But sometimes you just can’t help yourself.

“They were pretty,” she’d said.

It was that simple for her.

The crime map on my phone goes dark, and I just sit there. I think of Sampson’s unsurprised face as I’d turned out his pockets.

I realize that I don’t know how to tell a preschooler I’m sorry.


The next morning, when Sampson escalates, I count to 100.

26. . . 27. . . 28. . . 29. . .

What do you do when you can’t start over again?



From the writer

:: Account ::

Although I am myself multiracial (half Japanese and half white), I have chosen to tell a story about racism in education from the perspective of a white teacher in a predominantly black school. I realize that there are aspects of both this situation and the very act of writing about this situation that call for us to be wary. Still, I ultimately believe this is an important issue for non-black Americans to confront, so I have tried to write about the topic in the best way I know.

My motive in telling this story is to urge us to think critically about race in our public education system. Particularly, I would like white Americans (or, as in my case, partly white Americans) to reflect upon what whiteness means in these settings. Research shows that what would truly benefit students of all identities would be a greater number of black teachers and black leaders in schools across the country. Yet, most of the existing stories of white teachers in predominantly black schools are hero narratives. The reality is, I think, far more complex than these hero narratives acknowledge—and often far more troubling.

While this story is purely fictional, I have taught in a variety of education settings very similar to the one I imagine here. I have also experienced a mugging similar to the one depicted and had to confront my own biases in the aftermath. Mostly, though, I still struggle to make sense of some of the things I witnessed in schools in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Brooklyn. And while I entered urban education with good intentions, I now find myself forced to question the role I played in an education system that perpetuates discrimination.

When it comes to the story itself, one particular fear of mine is that the narrator, while clearly unreliable, seems to call for too much sympathy. I do not want readers to apologize for her. But I do want white Americans to recognize that racism can have its own “banality of evil.” Racism is all too viscerally present in police shootings, but racial violence takes many forms, and I believe non-black Americans must be careful not to let these horrific acts displace racism elsewhere. The situation I depict here is, in contrast, quite ordinary. It’s that very ordinariness that should trouble us.

I support the #BlackLivesMatter movement and hope that Americans will listen to and elevate black voices. I believe this is the only way to begin dismantling the discrimination entrenched in our education system and other institutions. For me, the story’s concluding sentence is not only a question that the narrator must ask herself, but a question that lies at the heart of American history.


Erica Kanesaka Kalnay reads, writes, and makes art in Madison, Wisconsin. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New York University and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin. You can find her online at and @ericakanesaka.