So the First Day of School Wasn't as Bad as I Thought

March 30, 2008
By Marian Li, St. Augustine, FL

So the first day of school wasn’t as bad as I thought, but there was still something on my mind. That new girl, she’s different, different from us. Ms. Kristen, our teacher, was nice enough and my friends were the same as ever. The only one aloof was the new girl named Lily. I could tell she seemed a bit uncomfortable when I tried to start a conversation.
As I walked into the kitchen, my mom came, hugged me, ruffled my dark hair and said, “So Zack how was the first day of middle school?”

“Not bad”, I replied, “There’s this new girl that appeared in a wheelchair today, her name’s Lily.” My mom stiffened a bit when I told her about Lily and the wheelchair, but she relaxed just as fast, so I thought it was just my imagination.
I grabbed a freshly homemade cookie out of the cookie jar and munched on it as I raced down the hall into my room.

* * * *

The next morning, I shoved down my breakfast as I rushed out the door because I was late. As I ran, I made sure that the list I had created was safe in my pocket. When I dashed up the steps to school, I heard a series of clunks. I spun around and saw Lily trying to make her way up the stairs without falling. I approached her carefully, so that she wouldn’t be startled and lose her balance. While I watched, I sneaked behind her and gave her a gentle, but firm push that propelled her forward.
She turned around slowly and rested her baleful eyes upon me and retorted, “Thanks, but I didn’t need any help.”
After, she rolled away and left me there. I was thinking that there was something extremely strange about her.

Later, I ducked into my class, breathless and everyone began to stare at me. I inched forward uncomfortably and muttered some lame excuse to Ms. Kristen while promising her that it would never happen again. As I walked down the rows of seats, I felt someone still staring at me. I turned around and found myself staring at Lily. She still had a disgusted look in her eyes; I guessed that she was still worked up from the incident this morning. I learned that the handicapped didn’t like to be reminded of their disabilities so I looked away, trying to think of a way to apologize to her later.

“Ok,” Ms. Kristen announced, “Now that we have everyone here,” she eyed me and continued, “We can now go on talking about polio. Can anyone tell me the general idea of what polio is?”
A few people raised their hands, but I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t even have a clue what polio was. So Ms. Kristen called on Jackie, one of my friends.

“Polio is common virus that can make you crippled throughout the rest of your life, because kids around our age are the ones that get it the most.” Jackie explained.
A lot of my friends around me began to look at Lily. This made her shrink into the shadows, pretending to be part of the wall behind her.

“That’s right, but there is an antibiotic. An antibiotic is a medicine that can help you not get the virus, in this case polio. That’s why next week Dr. Steinberg will be coming into class to give everyone a dose of the new oral antibiotic. It’s by law, so are there any questions?”
One of my classmates raised their hand, it was Danny.

“Ms. Kristen, will the stuff taste nasty?” Everyone around him began to laugh; even Lily didn’t seem to feel uncomfortable.

I passed through the rest of the day pondering when I could get a chance to talk to Lily. Around noon Ms. Kristen announced that it was time for recess. It was the perfect weather, little breezes here and there. It was probably the best weather New York had yet. I rushed out and found Lily under the shade of the big tree out in the yard. I pretended to be strolling around and coincidentally walked into the shade.
I looked startled and said, “Oh. Hello, I didn’t even see you there Lily. I’m sorry about this morning, I shouldn’t have butted in.”
I waited a bit to see if she’d respond, yet she only stared at me with a chagrined looked on her face. I tried to start a conversation, but all that came out was a mass of stuttering. Lily’s face first turned into a questioned look and then she broke into a grin.
Soon she broke into a full smile and replied, “It’s alright. I sometimes get a little too carried away when I get a bit angry at some stupid thing. I just hate to be reminded about being handicapped you know?”
“I’ll just say I do,” I replied.
I was relieved and introduced myself and for the rest the day, Lily and I talked about general things, but mostly about ourselves. The day passed and it was time for the weekend. As everyone pushed their way down the stairs, I stayed back and helped Lily down each step. It took us a while, especially because of our chatter. It turned out that Lily lived just a couple of blocks away from me and she said that I could visit her over the weekend. As I walked into my house, I gave one last wave to Lily and closed the door. When I spun around, I found myself looking up at my mother, towering over me with an angry expression.
“Where have you been?!” my mom exploded, “You’re one hour late and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t take you that long to walk down the street!” My mom took a breath a continued, “You could have been kidnapped for all I know!” My mom kept belaboring me like this all the way until dinnertime, when my dad came home.
That night, my dad tried to keep the conversations far from school by talking about the latest news like Woodstock and what President John F. Kennedy was going to do about Cuba, but I didn’t care. When there was an interminable silence, I decided to give a report on what happened at school today. By the end of my story my mom had already gotten the truth of why I had been late to come home. But when I finished my story, both my mom and dad were silent. After some time, my dad abruptly changed the subject and that was how it was the rest of the night.

* * * *
The next morning, which was Saturday, I finished all my homework and decided to take up the offer to go to Lily’s house.
As I walked out the door, I called out, “Mom, I’m going over to Lily’s and I’ll be back before dinner! Bye!”
I grabbed my skateboard and raced out the door. When I got up to Lily’s front door, I parked my skateboard out in her lawn and rung the door bell. The door bell tune was still lingering in my ear when the door creaked open. The door stood ajar and there was Lily.
“Hey,” I said, “I decided to come over, if that’s okay with you.”
“Oh, yeah. Its fine,” Lily said, “Come on in, your just in time for the Flintstones. My mom and dad are out at my sister’s school doing something.”
As I walked into the hallway, I noticed that there were a lot of ramps and convenient things for a handicapped person lying around. For a while, Lily and I watched the Flintstones, Jetsons, and a few other shows. Soon enough, we got bored and read stories, like “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Island of the Blue Dolphins”, with different voice impersonations and we were cracking up in the end. We took a break and ate lunch. After, we turned on some music and began to talk. We talked about what we thought about the hippie problems that had occurred over the years and other things about daily life. Soon we got around to polio, which was a touchy subject for Lily.
“So, how exactly did you get polio…you don’t have to answer.” I warned. Lily looked out the window.
“I was supposedly born with the disease; it was in my family’s blood my grandma had it too.”
“That’s funny,” I replied, “See I had a cousin that always needed to be in a wheelchair whenever I saw him. I wonder what happened to him…”
We stayed on the topic for a while and then began to move onto other things. Finally there was a long silence and the shadows of the coffee table grew longer. In the background we heard “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles. When the song ended, I stood and said, “Well, I should be going now. I told my mom that I’d be home before dinner, so see you Monday?”
“Yeah, sure. We could meet up walking there.”
“Yeah, that’ll be fine.” I stood outside and there was an awkward silence.
“Well, bye!” and Lily began to shut the door. With one more farewell, I grabbed my skateboard and rode home.

* * * *

The next day, I woke up late. I went into the kitchen and found a note in my mom’s neat curvy handwriting and it said, “Zack, I went grocery shopping. Dad went to work so I got a ride with him, I may take a while because I need to walk home. Love…” There was my mom’s signature. So I had a whole afternoon to myself.
I ate my breakfast and returned to my room. I first began jumping on my bed and shouting a rhyme at the top of my lungs. Soon I got tired and took a break and got a quick drink to quench my thirst. I then decided to explore my parents’ bedroom. I hadn’t been in there in a while, but I still remembered where my mom kept her stash of family pictures. I tore down the hall and wrenched open the closet door. I got onto my hands and knees and crept under the large mass of clothes and dragged out a black wooden box. As I opened the box, the lid creaked. Inside, there were some modern photos of me on my bike, but there were some old pictures too. I picked up a yellowed paper that had stout and blocky handwriting and tried to read it, but all my effort was in vain. The ink was fading and there were splotches of wetted places which suspiciously looked like tear marks. I looked deeper and found a folded picture. When I opened it, another picture slid into my lap. I placed the two pictures side my side. In the pictures I noticed that the majority of the people were handicapped. In the smaller picture, I vaguely recognized the chubby face. Suddenly, the world seemed to spin around me. I bent closer towards the pictures. Then I looked back at the letter and stared back and forth between the three pieces of paper. It all suddenly seemed to make sense to me. The way my parents were hushed whenever I talked about polio. The small picture was my cousin. The same cousin I visited every now and then, but around a year ago, I just stopped visiting. The large group photo was black and white with frayed yellowed edges, but most of the people were in wheelchairs. I saw my parents and my aunts and uncles, but then I realized the only ones I knew weren’t handicapped. I heard the doorknob on the front door rattle and it brought me back to my senses. I stuffed the pictures and letters back into the box and shoved it back into the midst of all the clothes. Then I slammed the closet door shut and sped down the hall. I stopped in the kitchen trying to act natural, as if I just took a break from running.
My mom came in and said, panting, “Honey, Can you help me get all the groceries in?”

“Sure,” I replied as I strolled past her. When all the bags were in the house, I sat on the couch as I watched my mom place all the things away. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore and blurted out, “Mom, what happened to that cousin of mine? You know the one that was chubby and in a wheelchair and I used to play with.” My mom dropped the bottle of salt she was holding.

“How did you know?”

“Know about what?” I said with a curious tone.

“What do you know about Cody?” my mom said, her voice tight.

“Oh, Cody! That’s my cousin’s name! Oh, anyways l I wanted to see the photos you used to show me and I dug deeper though the stuff and found the letter, the group photo, everything.” I confessed.
My mom bent down to clean up the mess and pick up the salt and muttered to herself, “Well, I might as well tell him. He just needs the details and the doctor’s going to school tomorrow to give all the kids the vaccine…” She stood up and said, “Very well Zack, I’ll tell you as much as I know after I finish with these groceries.”
In due time, the groceries were stocked and my mom and I were facing each other on the couch. My mom took a deep breath and began.
“It all started with your great grandparents. You see, your great grandma had polio as a child and had passed it down from generation to generation. Your grandparents were lucky and were immune to the virus, but your other aunt, an aunt you’ve never met, wasn’t as lucky. The aunt you know, the mom of Cody the cousin you knew, she apparently had given it to her son without getting polio herself. Cody died, Zack. That’s why you stopped visiting. That letter was about your father’s oldest sister, she died too. See Zack, this is why you really need the vaccine. I guess Lily opened your eyes and showed you what polio was.”
My mother had come to an abrupt stop and began to tear up. For the rest of the night, my mom and I talked little. As I was drifting off to sleep that night, I wondered what life would be like if I got polio. Would my friends treat me differently? What would change?

* * * *
The next day, Dr. Steinberg came in and gave us a lecture about preventing polio and treating the victims of polio with respect. The oral vaccine didn’t taste as bad as any other medicine I’ve ever taken so it was okay. I was still a bit shaken up from the shocking news, so I told Lily and we discussed how healthy people could comfort or help the polio victims.
The rest of the year continued like this, Lily and I became better friends and everyone warmed up to her too, but this didn’t stay for long. After Christmas break, Lily seemed to come to school less and less, but whenever she was at school, always looked pale and sickly. Most of my friends were too polite to talk about anything and pretended they hadn’t noticed, but almost everyone could foresee what would happen next.
At the end of school, Lily passed away. Everyone in our class went to her funeral and as I sat there, listening to the plaintive tune in the background, I thought of all the times Lily made me feel better and every time she made me laugh. It soon began to rain and everyone was ushered under the tent, but I stood there, next to Lily thinking of every happy moment I had spent with her.

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