A few years ago, I taught as needed in a nearby county juvenile detention center. One winter, the one with all the record blessed rain, (2018 was it?), one end of the detention hall gymnasium was hopping with Pacific tree frogs. They were everywhere. Despite that the wetland they once lived in had been filled, buildings constructed, they still came to what was now only a wet spot in the sod, suburbia’s carpet. Of course, it attracted the kids, some of which I worried might take their frustrations out on these little guys, so I stood watch whenever I was assigned to the gym. There was one young woman who was incarcerated because of her tendency toward violence. I will call her Erica. This is not her real name. She and I stood side by side. I stooped over to scoot a few of the tiny frogs through the bottom of the door, thankfully a crack just big enough they could escape through.
“What are you doing?” she sneered at me.
“Helping them escape,” I said.
“Can you help me escape? Fit me through there?”
“You are the queen of your own destiny. You can “escape” any time you decide you want to,” I answered.
She scoffed. I told her I would be right back and returned with my thermal lunch box with a zipper top. I asked her to help me gather a few of the frogs because I was going to take some of them home, get them out of there, give them a garden, a place to live. To my surprise, she bent down and we started putting frogs in my lunch box. She was very gentle with them. When she caught a particularly big one, she closed her fist around it. I winced. She was going to squeeze it to death, I just knew it. But she didn’t. She opened her fist and it stayed in the palm of her hand, sitting, looking at her. She stared back.
“Well, that one wants to go, obviously, and it’s name is now Erica. Hurry up,” I said, unzipping the top. “Get him in here.” As if saying goodbye, she took another second with “her frog”. There they were, looking at one another. Fighting back tears because it was just one of those moments that proves to be a kind of gift, I pivoted the lunch box toward her. She slipped it into the lunch box while I tried very hard to keep the others in. She actually let out a small laugh. Something I had not seen her do in my time there, laugh or smile.
When I got home with them, all fine, I counted ten, I let them go in the front of the house, by the geraniums. Years later, there is a population of frogs that have lived on my front stoop, front yard, ever since including one that is bigger than the others I am convinced is Erica (the frog; I hope the real Erica has worked things out and is thriving somewhere). I can’t say these are all “Detention Center” frogs but I can say, before this, no frogs ever took up residence like these frogs have but now things have gotten worrisome. They are showing up in anything wet, anything that holds water, such as the intentionally deep bowls under the geraniums (and the three tomatoes) and quite accidentally, an old plastic pitcher I use for watering. I fill it and leave it out overnight so the chlorine can evaporate from it. I never remember seeing a clump of frogs in it in the morning. But we are California in denial. We are in a drought. Fire is just one breeze away started in one clump of nonnative grasses. My frogs are not in denial, and they need me more than ever now. So I added a bucket, vegetation. I add water nearly every day to their little ecosystem of one old pitcher and one bucket. By 8 a.m. every morning, they are all gone, off feeding or whatever frogs do during the day. By 6 p.m., they are all back, now counting five, hanging out by their life-saving little pools, usually close together. This is the first summer this has happened. I am very dedicated to getting them through this next hellish summer and in turn, they will get me through it as well.