“Aria?” Mrs. Moore called out in her friendliest sing-song voice. “Aria, can you unmute yourself and tell us what you’re thankful for today?”
Aria hid in the corner of her screen so that one eye disappeared out the side of her box on the computer screen. Twenty-four popsicle sticks. There were twenty four sticks in Mrs. Moore’s jar that she used to call on students. Usually Aria could hide inside that jar. Aria had become an expert at hiding. Not today.
“Come on, honey,” the teacher coaxed. “We want to see what your leaf says.”
Aria held the orange construction paper leaf up to the camera lens so it covered her entire face. The class would see her answer—Choklit rasins!—in her neat, small letters. People were always commenting on her writing—how someone so small could have the control to write such miniature letters. Sometimes she thought about writing bigger so they wouldn’t look twice. But then it might be too easy to read.
“I see your leaf,” Mrs. Moore observed, her voice still cheerful. “Can you move it back so we can read what it says?”
Aria sat still in front of her computer. She could hear her mom hovering in the doorway behind her. A creak in the wood floor gave her away.
“Aria, is your mommy there? Can she help you?”
Aria was dizzy with the sensation of all the eyes on her. In school, the other kids had lots of places to look. Some looked at the papers on their desks. Some looked at the posters and cut-outs and art on the walls. Some looked out the windows at pigeons on the blacktop. It was easier to hide at school. Now, on the computer, there was nowhere else to look...except the kids who were drawing on their desks or spinning their pencils. Last week Wren had even given himself a haircut on Zoom, turning the dull scissors for a moment from the paper leaves to his golden curls until the kids started snickering and Mrs. Moore said simply, “Wren, your scissors are for paper.”
Aria wondered why people did things to be looked at. With twenty-three classmates looking at her, plus the teacher and now her mom, Aria could feel her voice withering inside her throat. It was best to get this over with. She had already called enough attention to herself with her hesitation.
She looked at her square in the corner of her screen and adjusted her leaf so the letters were visible to the class.
“Thank you! Does that say chocolate raisins?” Mrs Moore asked breezily.
Aria nodded, dipping her chin once behind the orange paper leaf.
“Yummy. Who else is thankful for chocolate raisins?” At her teacher’s prompting, Aria watched many of her classmates give the hand signal—pinky and thumb swaying on the trunk of an elbow—the way they had learned to silently agree with one another.
The class was moving on. Aria ducked under her desk and thought of quiet things—a giraffe, the wind moving clouds across the sky—until her cheeks stopped tingling. Then, with her name out of the jar and safe for now, she returned to her little box to join the students’ silent symphony of hand gestures.
Indoors, the silence was strenuous. Aria noticed that people always tried to break the silence. If she was quiet for long enough, it made people uncomfortable. They would shift their bodies, repeat their questions, even begin to guess at her answers, putting the words in her mouth for her. Aria’s favorite was when people tried to trick her with something that sounded funny. I know—your favorite color is polka dot! or three plus two is kangaroo! Sometimes she even cracked a smile, but she never offered words. Sometimes she wished she could. When kids were comparing their scrapes and bruises, or the workers in the grocery store asked if she would like a sticker. But the words got lost somewhere between her stomach and her mouth. Her throat would swell with them until it ached. So most of the time she didn’t try.
But outside, the silence was friendly and inviting. The silence didn’t ask anything from her; it only offered. That’s why Aria’s twenty-minute exercise break was her favorite school-day ritual. Today she walked the empty sidewalks of her neighborhood and enjoyed what the silence offered. Birds had conversations from the rooftops and telephone wires. Brittle tan and yellow and brown leaves crunched under her tennis shoes. If she was really quiet, Aria could hear the whir of hummingbird wings in the bright bird-of-paradise flowers and the fuzzy red kangaroo paws. Aria repeated the names of the plants silently in her head. Bird-of-paradise. Kangaroo paw. Even their names relaxed her. They were so colorful and descriptive.
She could picture each bird-of-paradise as a fancy orange fowl with a thick crest of purple feathers perched jauntily on its head, lending that mere flower an inquisitive appearance. Today Aria saw a whole flock of the tropical birds soaring on the wind that jostled their heads together on thin, swaying stalks. They seemed to be leaning in to each other to whisper their secrets—migrating birds reconnecting amid a pause in the journey to their ancestral wintering grounds. Aria could hear their leaves cackling in the wind:
How was your summer?
Who did you mate with this season?
Oh, just Darkwing again. He’s a silly bird, but he builds epic nests…
Yes, four healthy eggs, all hatched.
Aria missed whispering secrets. This was the reason for speaking—the leaning in for special ideas shared in close confidence, the giggling in unison. Ideas worth sharing made someone giggle. Not this contrived I’m thankful for chocolate raisins… where she felt nothing but the ache in her throat. It was like the difference between the leaves that crunched under her foot, alive and crisp, their veins rendered in exquisite detail, and the floppy paper replicas she cut out with safety scissors for her gratitude tree in school.
Aria was only six and a half, but she knew the difference. Of course she knew the difference! “It’s not the same, Aria whispered into the wind, and the wind carried her voice away toward the mountains like it usually did on windy days.
Only today, something different happened. The wind whispered back! It started as a tickle in Aria’s ear as strands of her own dark brown hair fluttered at her temples. Then it swept past her shoulders and twisted the strings of her hoodie before running up the sidewalk to play in a pile of leaves. The wind caught the leaves in a swirl and juggled them in the air for several seconds.
Amid the whoosh of wind and shudder of leaves, Aria was sure she heard a soft voice. “Same is not the point,” the wind sighed in exasperation. “I’m different every day. Look what I can do.”
With a big, breathy laugh, the wind put on a show for Aria, silently tickling seed pods and directing a choir of softly singing leaves before disappearing around the corner. This secret made Aria giggle.
She stood with her shoes rooted in one spot while she waited for her mom to catch up. “Did you see that?” Aria breathed.
Aria’s mom was a good listener. Not as good at hearing sounds in the silence as Aria was, but if anyone else could hear it, Mom would have.
“That was a nice gust,” Mom said with more enthusiasm than reverence. It had been a secret for Aria alone.
Mrs. Moore had already pulled Aria’s name out of the jar once. To be called on twice in one day would just be bad luck. Aria relaxed into her wooden chair, sliding down until her chin slipped below the frame of her box. The other kids took turns describing what they’d done for their exercise breaks—karate practice, chasing sisters, riding bikes, climbing stairs.
“Aria.” The sound of her own name hit Aria like a gale. “What did you do for your exercise break?” Mrs. Moore asked.
She had not raised her hand, of course, but neither was Mrs. Moore pulling sticks from her jar. Did her secret show in her face, she wondered? She looked at her image on the screen and took a moment to try to freeze her smile into an inscrutable blankness. But Aria could not smooth the giggle that teased the corners of her mouth.
“Did you get outside?” Mrs. Moore prodded.
Aria focused on the corners of her mouth and the pink still showing in her wind-kissed cheeks. Her lips stayed shut.
“Well, you look like you had fun,” Mrs. Moore concluded before calling on Maggie.
An unexpected sadness ballooned inside of Aria. She knew her teacher would move on if she kept quiet long enough. That’s always how it went. Usually it was a relief. Today—this time—was different. Aria felt the air leak out of her secret and the magic dissipate in the silence and stillness. The class moved on.
“We have time for one more person to share,” Mrs. Moore eventually announced.
Aria’s stomach made a whirlwind. She didn’t want to let her secret fade away. Her hand drifted into the air, carried by some unseen jet stream.
“Okay, Coltrane,” Mrs. Moore called.
Coltrane had played with his dog.
Mrs. Moore instructed the students to find Chapter 9 in their math books.
Aria sighed deeply into the still air of the spare bedroom. She reached for her math book and scattered a pile of paper leaves onto the floor. They fell soundlessly—red, orange, yellow on the brown wood floor.
Aria followed along with her teacher:
There were seven leaves on a tree. Two blew away. How many leaves are left in all? Draw a picture and a number bond.
But Aria couldn’t concentrate on her picture and number bond. She picked up seven leaves scattered on the floor and turned one over in each hand. She imagined the wind carrying those leaves away in a gust, all the way up to that mysterious place in the folded velvet mountains, two paper leaves chasing her voice. Would they ever catch it?
That evening, Aria felt the secret flurry in her chest again as she sat down to write what she was grateful for. Her small, careful letters drifted across a flat red leaf:
“Every day is different,” she whispered to herself. “I am different every day.”