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Half a Brain and Two Double O One

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Her name was Jess.

She told me everyone called her Jessica. Except her mother. Jess’s mother called her Jessie. Jess told me, though, that she wanted me to call her Jess because she thought it was more chic.

She said that. Chic.

I met her at the after school daycare at Walden Elementary. Judy, my mom’s best friend, was the program manager. When her fifth grade supervisor moved to Florida with her husband, Judy was frantic to find another supervisor. Mom volunteered me, and I got the job. I didn’t mind so much. The pay was good, starting at ten dollars. I only worked three hours a day, and no weekends. All I had to do was entertain a couple of kids for a few hours. I never dreamed it would be more than that.

It was on my first day that I met Jess. Judy explained the fifth graders had gone outside with the fourth graders, and would be back in a few minutes.
“Go ahead and introduce yourself to the third graders, Ruby. If you stick around long enough, they may be yours someday.” She winked at me before heading over to the kindergartners, who were having Craft Day. It was getting a little hectic over there. Five-year-olds and hot glue guns usually don’t work too well together.
“Hi,” I said to the seven third graders playing Monopoly in front of me. Their supervisor, a teenage boy named Bernie, told them to shut up. He nodded towards me. They all stared at me with wide eyes, but blank faces. “Uh. I’m Ruby.”
There was silence, and I decided I might need to rethink this job decision. Maybe I wasn’t good with kids after all. In fact, I was probably just awful with kids! Awful. Awful. Awful!
“Ella,” snapped one of the girls. “I’m Ella.”
Once Ella had given me her approval, however rough it was, the others seemed to accept me, too. All of them followed with an introduction of their own (Jill, Sarah, Luke, Michelle, and James) except one. I noticed for the first time she was sitting a few feet from the others, and not playing the game. She had paper and a crayon in front of her, but she wasn’t drawing. She was just sitting.
I decided to sit next to her.
“Hi,” I said. “Whatcha doing?”
The girl, who was so blonde her hair was almost white and who was as pale as flour, stared at me. It was so intense, it was almost like she was reading my mind.
“They say I only have half a brain,” she said, in a voice that was much higher than I expected, “but that’s not true.”
I was my turn to stare. I had no idea how I was supposed to respond to something like that.
“I had a stroke, see,” she said. She lifted her hand from under the table. It was a crumpled mess, like someone had stomped on it and hurriedly attempted to put it back together. “That’s why my hand’s like this.”

I nodded. “Oh.”

“I’m Jess,” she said. She proceeded to explain about her name to me, and then asked what I wanted to be called. She claimed everyone should have a choice about what they wanted to be called because, after all, it was what everyone would call them the rest of their life.

“Ruby, I guess,” I said. “No one really calls me anything else.”

Before Jess could respond, which I knew she was going to because her mouth was wide open, the fifth graders returned from the playground and Judy dragged me over to introduce myself to my group.

I soon fell into the swing of things at Walden. I realized that supervisors kept to their groups. It was a rare occasion to find the fourth grade supervisor speaking to the first graders for any reason. This made it so much harder to speak with Jess.

And I had to speak with Jess. She was special. It was easy to tell. I was the only one who cared, though.

None of the other kids seemed to like her. Maybe it was her limp. Maybe it was her tendency to make blunt comments with little thought of the consequences. Maybe it was her colorless hair and face. Maybe it was even her obsession with being a “grown-up.” I don’t know. They just didn’t like her.

Ella seemed to hate her the most. She always led the chants, and soon half the playground would be singing about how they hated Jess.
“Jessica, Jessica,
Has no friends.
We will hate her
Until the end!”

At first, I felt terrible when all the other kids went off to play and Jess came to talk to me. No other supervisor had this problem, and it made me feel awkward. I also did not want Bernie to think I was stealing Jess.

But then one day I realized he didn’t care at all about Jess. It was during snack, and I noticed Jess wasn’t eating anything. I was curious, and confused. My fifth graders were handing out snack, and I knew they wouldn’t skip Jess. Then I saw it. Ella had Jess’s cupcake. Bernie had to have seen, but he did nothing

I erupted. I was more than furious, and couldn’t contain myself. I stormed over to Ella and Jess, forgetting supervisors should deal with the disciplinary actions of their own groups only, and said, “Ella! Why do you have Jess’s cupcake?”

“She gave it to me.”

One look at Jess told me she didn’t.

Without thinking, I grabbed both cupcakes. Ella screeched with objection, but I ignored her. I handed one cupcake to Jess, and ate the other in one bite right in front of Ella. She stared at me for a second in surprise before she started to cry.

While Judy didn’t approve of my methods, she didn’t punish me either.

After that, I realized that Jess wasn’t safe with Bernie anymore. Sure, no bodily harm would come to her. She wouldn’t die. But there are worse things than death.

I asked Judy if it would be all right if Jess would be in my group from then on. I explained the third graders didn’t seem to like her, but my fifth graders did. It was true, too. My fifth graders did seem to like her. They all talked to her and even her to play on occasion.

Judy relented. Jess joined us.

Jess loved the change as much as she loved me. She called me her pretend sister, but looked sad when she told me I was her two thousand and first one. From then on, she called me “two double O one.” She said it was my special name, like she was Jess.

We always had long talks after that. Sometimes, my fifth graders would listen, and other times not. Jess asked about boyfriends, Buddhism, and income taxes. She wanted to know the difference between a sprain and a facture. She wondered what an Oxford comma was, and where Cambridge was located.

The fifth graders embraced her like a lost sibling. You could hardly tell she was a third grader. She even had a best friend with my kids; a girl named Laura Parks, who was as protective of her as she would be her own little sister.

Then Mrs. Black, Jess’s mom, found out she was no longer with Bernie and the third graders. She was furious, to say the least.

“You think I don’t know?” she yelled at me. It was after all the kids had gone home. We were in the empty classroom, and Jess waited outside the door. I prayed she couldn’t hear. “I know! I know she’s different! Believe me, I know! But she needs to learn to deal. She was to face the real world soon! Babying her won’t help! Just because she had a stroke doesn’t mean she’s retarded! She doesn’t even talk to the other kids—only you! You need to leave her alone! Understand?”

Judy said Mrs. Black was a ***, but put Jess back with Bernie.

Surprisingly, Ella was more pleasant to Jess, and in turn so were the others. I think it was Laura and the fifth graders who affected them. They, the fifth graders, were old enough to understand mind games, and played them well. They constantly invited Jess to do things in front of Ella, purposely excluding the other third graders.

I couldn’t have been more proud of my fifth graders.

The end of the year was a sad one. My kids wouldn’t be back; they were moving on up to Tyron Wilson Middle. They all gave me little presents, and I gave them gift cards to Dairy Queen. Each card was inscribed with a little note, reminding the kids how much I loved them. There were tears in most of our eyes that day.

Except Jess. Jess couldn’t have been happier. She said she was one more year closer to being in my group for real. She said, “See you later, two double O one! I love you so much! See you next year!”

When I came back the next year, though, Jess wasn’t there. I was surprised, wondering if perhaps the family had moved. I waited a week to be sure she wasn’t merely sick before I asked Judy what was up.

“You didn’t hear?” Judy asked me, looking confused. “I’m very surprised! I was sure that Mrs. Black knew that you loved Jess, and that Jess loved you. She had to know that you were Jess’s hero. I can’t imagine Jess not speaking of you at home.”

“What happened?” I asked, growing nervous.

“Ruby—Jess…Jess died. She’s dead.”

I stared at her blankly. I couldn’t comprehend. Dead?

“Brain complications. From the stroke.” Judy put a supportive hand on my shoulder, and squeezed. “Will you be all right? Do you want to take the rest of the day off?”

I shook my head stiffly.

After that day, though, I never went back. I just couldn’t bring myself to see them—Ella and Bernie and Luke and Judy—without Jess. Seeing the other kids grow a year older just made me remember that Jess would never get her only wish: to be a grown-up.

If I shut my eyes tightly, and block out everything else, I can almost hear Ella and the other kids singing, their voices echoing in my head like a hymn in an old Cathedral.
“Jessica, Jessica,
Was my friend.
I will love her
Until the end.”





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