“Honey, do you have your lunch?” I watch my mother’s lips in the rearview mirror of our car. She is worried, which makes sense since it’s my first day at a new school, despite being three months into the school year.
“Don’t worry, Mom. It’s right here. I also have my backpack, my new notebooks, crayons, and a book in case I have free reading time.” I’m trying to calm my mother down, which is ironic because really I should be more nervous than she is. After all, I’m the one starting a new school in the middle of the school year, and to top it all off, I also have a secret to weigh me down.
“Okay, Jenny. Did you remember to bring a pencil?” My mother’s brow furrows in the mirror, and I know I can’t stop her worrying. It’s a big deal. There is what to worry about.
“Yes, Mom. I have a pencil.” I dig around in the bottom of my bag and pull it out, holding it up so she can see it. It’s pink and sparkly, with a cupcake pencil topper. The kind of pencil any normal second-grade girl would have. Meaning any second-grader other than me. It reminds me of the hurdle I will have to cross soon. Convincing the other second graders that Jenny Ashton is a normal second grader. I shudder, but try to hide it. Mom sees anyway.
“You don’t have to do this, Jenny. You could go back to your old school. There was nothing wrong with your old school.” But we both know that there was.
“It’s okay. I’m ready.” I sit up tall and pull my long brown ponytail over one shoulder. I am ready to face the world. “Let’s do this.”
“If you’re sure you’re ready.” Mom turns the key in the ignition and starts the car, but I don’t hear the sound of the motor. As we pull out of our driveway and head down the street, I am lost in thought. That’s it. No turning back now. We’re on our way. I turn away from the rearview mirror and stare out the window as we drive. I think back to my old school, the one I attended from kindergarten up to the first three months of second grade. I am glad to be free of that place.
“Hi, Jenny! How are you today?” my old teacher, Miss Leslie, used to say every day as I walked into the classroom. She would bend down on one knee and speak slowly, enunciating every syllable, as if I were a baby. As if I hadn’t been taking speech therapy and practicing reading lips since I was two years old. I am so tired of being treated like a baby. That’s part of why I’m switching to a new school.
At least I had friends in my old school. Joey, who could actually hear a little, and liked to draw. Maria, who could sign so fast I had to tell her to slow down so I could understand her. I wonder if there will be fast talkers in my new school. Oh, and Kaitlyn, my best friend, who left at the beginning of second grade. Another reason I didn’t want to stay there.
A movement outside the window catches my eye, returning me to the present. It’s a piece of trash—a popsicle wrapper—dancing in the wind. It makes me mad when people throw their trash on the ground. Even trash has a place in this world and it’s not dancing in the wind, fun as it looks. I hope the kids at my new school don’t think of me as trash.
The ride goes by too quickly. Here we are. The school building looks tall and imposing. Kids of all ages stream toward the doors. Everyone knows where to go except me. I glance at the rearview mirror again. “Do you want me to come in with you?” Mom asks. I do, but not really. That would only make it worse. If I can’t do this myself there’s no point in doing it at all.
“I’ll be fine. Have a great day, Mom!” I bounce out of my seat, backpack in hand and ponytail swinging, not looking back to see if Mom has anything else to say. I will be fine. I have to be. If not, I’ll have to go back to my old school. That cannot happen.
I join the crowd of children and follow it through the doors of the school. I have fifteen minutes to figure out where the other second graders are. I asked Mom to bring me early so I don’t have to worry about being late if I get lost inside the building somewhere. It’s definitely big enough to get lost in. I take a deep breath and decide to do this the smart way. I head for the office.
Pushing open the door, I see an elderly woman with silver hair pulled back into a bun and glasses that slip down her nose just a bit. She pushes her glasses up and smiles at me. “Hello! And you are…?” She doesn’t talk too slowly, and her words seem friendly.
“I’m Jenny. I’m new here. Can you show me where to find the second grade?”
“Ah, our new student. I’d be delighted to.” She gets up and comes around her desk, which I notice gives the appearance of being neat despite being covered in papers. She doesn’t take my hand, the way Miss Leslie would have. Instead, she holds the door open for me and walks beside me down the hall and to the right. I think she’s still talking, but I am too nervous and excited to pay attention. The big moment is almost upon me.
Suddenly, I notice that the secretary is no longer beside me. For a second, I panic, alone in the crowd that fills the halls. Then I feel her hand on my shoulder, leading me back to the door she stopped at before. Oops. I didn’t notice she had stopped. Inside the room, rows of small student desks face a large teacher’s desk that stands in front of the whiteboard. The teacher, whom I met last week, sits at her desk, writing something. She doesn’t look up, but the three girls sitting on the floor next to the cubbies just inside the room do. Actually, two girls look up, and then one of them taps the third girl and she looks up, too.
I move further into the room and turn so I can see the secretary and the girls at the same time. The secretary is speaking again. I think she just introduced me to the other girls, because they are all looking at me, and the secretary is saying, “…and these are your new friends, Lizzie, Kaitlyn, and Molly.” My eyes go straight to Kaitlyn, the girl in the middle, who needed a tap to notice I had come in, and I know. I know it is Kaitlyn Jones, my best friend. And I know she knows my secret. Will she tell? Did she tell the others about her?
I barely notice as the secretary says goodbye and disappears. I forget to thank her for bringing me, but I know I can find her again if I need to. If the teacher looks up and notices me, I don’t notice that either. Molly and Lizzie smile at me and say hi, but I don’t really look at them. I freeze up, staring at Kaitlyn. I know why she didn’t notice when I walked in. She can’t hear. She’s deaf from birth, like I am. What should I do? I want to run to her and throw my arms around her, but if the others know we already know each other, they’ll want to know why.
Kaitlyn has a funny expression on her face. Then she grins, and steps forward. “Sorry,” she says casually, “I didn’t catch your name. What was it again?”
“Jenny,” I say, only a little shakily.
“And I’m Kaitlyn. We’re playing cards. Want to play?” Her grin is a little too goofy for a second, and then the look passes, and we sit down on the floor. Molly begins to deal her pink sparkly cards into four piles, and the moment is over. And suddenly, I know everything is going to be okay.