When Uncle Dave lifted me off the plane and set me on the ground, heat waves greeted me, radiating up my legs. It took me a minute to get my balance. After two and a half hours of sitting in twin engine plane, buckled up with my sister, Becci, and squished into the tail of the plane with two other gals, my legs were cramping.
I could smell tar and gasoline, comforting smells, reminding me of home. The airstrip at home is made of tar, and I used to rub my hands in the cool gasoline when Daddy filled up the Volkswagen van.
Uncle Frank met us. He stowed the luggage in the back of the blue van and we jostled up the gravelly, twisting road, that led to the boarding school. The campus was on the site of General Douglas MacArthur’s Post 7, United States, army base in Irian Jaya, Indonesia. It lay at the base of a mountain. I was relieved to arrive on campus because of the turmoil in my tummy. But I totally forgot about my tummy when I saw the magnificent waterfall flowing down the mountain behind the dormitory, and I took a deep breath of wonder.
The kids in grades 4-8 unloaded their suitcases and disappeared into the “big” dorm. Uncle Frank shut the door of the van once again, and after starting the engine, began the short trip up a small hill upon which sat the aluminum barracks for Douglas MacArthur’s troops. This was the “little” dorm for kids in first through third grade, and since I was in second grade, this would be my new home.
Aunt Dee and Uncle Jim helped us off the van. Other boarding school kids swarmed around to greet us with a loud buzzing of voices. Jenine, David, and Jonathan, who had been on the plane with me, had been here the year before, so they knew most of the kids. Aunt Dee introduced me to some of my dorm mates: Rachel, Susanna, Shannon, Theo, Harris, and another Johnathan. Although I nodded to each one, I wrinkled my brow in frustration. These were only a few of my dorm mates. How long would it take to learn everybody’s name?
Uncle Jim kindly carried my two suitcases to the second-grade girls’ room and said, “Aunt Dee will be here in a minute to show you around.”
I sat down on the bunk bed nearest the door and held my doll, Betsy, tight. My tummy was tied up in knots and I trembled with mixed emotions. Meeting the other kids was scary, so I was thankful to be alone for a minute, but I was also curious to see what my new home would be like.
I didn’t have long to wait before Aunt Dee peeked in the door. “You ready?”
Setting Betsy gently on the pillow, I followed Aunt Dee outside, where a hot breeze caressed my face.
“The drinking fountain is over there,” said Aunt Dee pointing at an oblong metal box against the wall of the breezeway. I had never seen a drinking fountain before and wondered how to get water from it.
Aunt Dee continued showing me around. “This little room on the right is for the first graders. The living room, where we have devotions before bed, is just beyond that. Uncle Jim and I live in the apartment behind the living room.”
“What are devotions?” I asked timidly.
“Every one in the dorm meets together to sing praises to Jesus, listen to a Bible story, and share prayer requests,” replied Aunt Dee.
“Oh, OK.” That didn’t sound too intimidating.
Going back through the breezeway, Aunt Dee continued the tour. “The third graders are in this room next to yours,” said Aunt Dee, pointing to a door on my right. “Behind the second and third-grade girls rooms are the boys’ rooms. The bathroom and the showers are to the left over there. Just beyond the bathroom is the laundry room. There are extra blankets in there in case you get cold.” Getting cold was the last thing I was thinking about. Even with the breeze blowing, it was hot and humid.
Leading me back to my bedroom, Aunt Dee said, “Go ahead and start unpacking. You are the first second-grade girl here, so you get first dibs on which bed you want. It’s 11:00 now, and we’ll be eating at noon.”
Once Aunt Dee left, I began to feel afraid, and my tummy started to hurt again. What bed should I take? Which set of drawers should I choose? Where are Jenine and David and Jonathan? I hadn’t seen them on the tour. With all the questions looming in my mind, I didn’t bother to unpack my suitcases. I picked up Betsy, the only familiar thing in these strange surroundings, and climbed onto the bottom bunk next to the door where I had sat before. As I lay on the pillow, my tears started to flow again, and this time I didn’t even try to stop them. I was exhausted emotionally. Everything was so new and I had no one with whom I could share my confusion. I missed my home at Sowi and my mommy and daddy. I buried my head in the pillow, so no one could hear me, as I cried myself to sleep.
I jumped wide awake when Aunt Dee opened the door.
“I’m sorry, Sharon,” apologized Aunt Dee. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I’d like you to meet Cindy, one of your roommates.”
Setting down Cindy’s suitcases, Aunt Dee said to Cindy, “You’ll need to unpack after lunch. It will be ready in a few minutes.”
Getting up, I rummaged in my suitcase for my brush. Where had Mommy put it? Then I saw it: my light blue hair brush. Mommy used it to put my hair up in a ponytail earlier this morning. I grabbed it, took out the ponytail holder, and quickly brushed my hair. I didn’t bother to take the time to try and put it back into a pony tail.
Cindy kindly waited for me and led me down the hill to the dining room, a great big building that had windows all the way around the front and the sides. It had been the mess hall for the soldiers on base. I could see long tables laden with food and children sitting on benches. When we opened the door, children’s voices echoed in the dining hall. I wanted to sit with someone I knew: Jenine or David or Jonathan; or maybe one of the ‘big kids’, my sister, Becci, or Lorraine, or Pam. But I hadn’t seen them since arriving. Should I sit with Cindy?
I looked around for a familiar face, but there were no extra seats at those tables. Wishing I had sat with Cindy, I finally found a table with room to squeeze onto the end of the bench. The buzzing of voices surrounded me. I knew no one. Fear engulfed me. I sat quietly with my mind frozen, unable to take in anything new. My tummy was hurting again. I was tired of it hurting all the time. It hadn’t hurt at home. I couldn’t eat the peas, mashed potatoes and meatloaf that were served for dinner. They looked OK. Mommy served meatloaf at home and I ate it with enjoyment, but right now, I knew I wouldn’t be able to swallow a morsel. I was thirsty and took a sip of water. It was warm. When we were finally dismissed, I went back to my bedroom and began the arduous task of unpacking my suitcases.
I was randomly putting socks and underwear and shirts and pants in every drawer. When Cindy joined me after lunch, she asked how I was doing.
Hesitantly, I shared with her the confusion I was having in trying to arrange my clothes in the dresser.
“Here, let me help you,” Cindy offered. Coming over to my open drawers, she helped me reorganize my drawers, showing me how to neatly put my socks and underwear in the top drawer, and my shirts and shorts in the second drawer. Then together we hung up my dresses and I finished unpacking by putting my shoes on the closet floor.
Thanking Cindy for her help, I helped her unpack her suitcases. It felt good to be working together.
The afternoon was quite an adventure as more kids arrived. Aunt Dee introduced me to my new roommates: Alice, Chris, Viviane, Joleen, Tosha, and Heidi. I already knew Cindy, but I had trouble memorizing everyone else’s names all at once. I was quiet, holding Betsy tight, watching my roommates greet each other. I seemed to be the only new girl.
Cindy invited me to walk down to the dining room with her again for supper, and we sat at one of the long tablels with several other second-grade girls. Now, I didn’t feel quite so alone. I mostly listened to what the other girls talked about. But my tummy didn’t hurt quite so much, and I was able to nibble a slice of bread without the peanut butter and jelly.
After supper, Aunt Dee knocked on the door and called us for devotions. We sang, Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so... and Deep and Wide and Climb, Climb Up Sunshine Mountain. Although I knew the songs, I couldn’t sing. My mind began to wander back to my home, where I would sing these songs with Mommy and Daddy. I started to get that lump in my throat again and the familiar knot in my tummy as I imagined what might be happening at home. Mommy and Daddy are probably having ‘devotions’ together, too, before bedtime. I’ve got to stop thinking about home. I just can’t start crying again.
My dormmates started leaving the living room, and I realized that I had totally missed the story and the prayer time.
Devotions over, I made my way to the bathroom. The toilet stalls were on the left and they smelled like someone had peed on the rough cement floor. The open shower stalls were on the right. There weren’t even shower curtains. I decided not to take a shower.
As I was leaving the bathroom, I heard a buzzing overhead. Looking up, I spied huge black moths flying around the ceiling lights and humungous walking sticks hanging from the rafters. A large space between the top of the wall and the ceiling allowed the bugs to get in. I almost stepped on some pincher beetles in my hurry to get away from the walking sticks. A couple of the beetles were flipped on their backs, hissing helplessly and wiggling their legs, trying to flip back over.
Before I could escape the buggy bathroom, I overheard one of the girls saying in a taunting voice, “Look! Those huge walking sticks are still hanging from the ceiling. I wonder who will be the first victim to have one drop down on them this year.”
I’d never really been afraid of insects before, but the thought of a walking stick dropping down on me made me shudder. I had already exited the bathroom when I heard another voice, a kinder voice, say, “Don’t tease the new kids like that. You know that has never happened!”
Feeling a sense of relief, I made my way back to the bedroom. Even with seven other girls in the room, I felt so alone that first night.
After tucking myself into bed, by holding Betsy tight, and pulling the top sheet up over my shoulders, I laid in bed trying to sleep. I could hear the familiar chirping of chichaks, and although I hadn’t seen any of the friendly little brown lizards, I felt comforted. But it didn’t take away the feeling of fear that gripped my heart about what tomorrow would be like.
When I woke up that first morning at boarding school, I didn’t know where I was. It all came back to me in a flash: the good-bye, the plane ride, supper, devotions—and ugh—the bathroom. Then I remembered it was the first day of school. No one else was awake yet, so I snuggled in bed with Betsy. It seemed like just a few minutes passed before there was a knock on the door.
Aunt Dee poked her head in and said, “Time to get up!”
We were required to wear dresses to school, so I went to the closet and picked out my favorite. Most of the girls seemed to know each other and were chattering merrily. Not knowing what to say, I dressed in silence. I brushed my hair and parted it down the side, but when I tried to put the barrette in my hair the way Mommy had shown me, it just didn’t want to go right. I finally gave up and parted my hair down the middle.
A slim brunette approached me. “Hi, my name is Viviane. What’s yours?”
“Sharon,” I replied.
She watched me intently as I made my bed and tucked Betsy under the covers. Her eyes were kind and tender. I felt no fear or shame.
“That’s a cute dolly. What’s her name?”
“That’s a pretty name. Would you like to sit with me at breakfast?”
“Oh, I’d love to! Thank you!” I was excited Viviane had asked me to sit with her, because I didn’t want to have to figure out for myself where I should sit.
“You looked really tired last night,” said Viviane.
“Everything is just so new and different.” My voice got shaky, and I thought I was going to cry again.
“It won’t be long and this will feel like home.” Viviane reached for my hand and gave it a squeeze. “Let’s go.”
We managed to find places at the table where my flight-mates, Jenine and David, were sitting. There was oatmeal for breakfast with cold toast. The oatmeal tasted strange.
“The oatmeal is yucky, isn’t it?” commented Jenine, when she saw I was not eating mine. “They don’t put salt in it. This goat-meal isn’t fit for animals.”
I watched as David put peanut butter in his oatmeal. He glanced up and saw me staring. “The only way I can eat this goat-meal is to put peanut butter in it. You should try it.”
“Maybe next time,” I replied. It felt good to be greeted and talked to in a kind way. It gave me a glimpse of hope that maybe I would learn to like it here after all, and that this could become my new home.