Summer of 2007 was relentless.
First, the move, which, in a matter of weeks, abruptly shifted my life from one of sidewalk chalk games and friendship bracelets to one of sitting alone on a short red bench watching never-ending games of hopscotch and dodging pitying stares.
Second, my father and his new job teaching in a far far far away country for what seemed like forever (four years). This new job that forced me to watch him pack bag after bag, preparing for a departure that I couldn’t pretend was an extra-long vacation no matter how hard I tried. This new job that kept me dreading dreading dreading all summer a moment that grew closer with every packed suitcase.
Flash forward to another moment I had been dreading all summer – the first day of school. I was the new kid. My new peers had grown up together. As I looked around the classroom, I could already tell that fitting in would be hard for any new kid, let alone one who was painfully shy and blushed for no apparent reason.
My plan to blend in and become invisible was already falling apart, but by the time the teacher started calling roll I scrapped the idea altogether. I braced myself for the raised eyebrows and questions as she scanned down the list of Emilys and Katies and Elizabeths. She called each name without skipping a beat – Emma? (here) Matthew? (here) Jonathan? (here) – until she reached one that made her pause and chuckle. “I’m sorry but I’m going to butcher this …” I immediately sunk into my chair. If my life was a movie this moment would be accompanied by the sound effect of a needle being dragged across a record.
As I sat there listening to the shrieks of laughter on the playground my cheeks burned just as they had that morning when my classmates giggled at the teacher’s pronunciation of my name.
I kicked the dirt under the bench with my new sparkly red flats. I knew Mom would be mad when the shoes she’d bought special for my first day came home scuffed, but at least it’d look like I played instead of sat on a bench alone. (Should I stick on some Hello Kitty Band-Aids too and pretend I scuffed my knees playing tag?) The playground was pretty lame anyway. My old school’s slides were way bigger, and we had a rock-climbing wall. (At least that’s what I told myself.)
Every time a student or teacher passed by, I pretended to be fixated on a fascinating rock on the ground. I didn’t want to look up and see them staring. But even though I was lonely and really really really wanted to slide down those slides, I wasn’t as sad as I expected. I had moved two times before and was far more upset then (kindergarten was ruthless).
I was already dreading going home and facing my mom’s endless questions (How was the first day of school? Was anyone mean to you? Did you make friends?) and the reality that my dad was leaving in mere hours. Seeing his office empty and unusually tidy. Picturing the lonely nights in front of my long division problems. I didn’t want to face this reality that I couldn’t run away from or ignore like I was ignoring the fact that all the teachers were shooting me sympathetic looks.
Remembering that my dad was leaving in two days made my stomach twist and tears prick my eyes. I absolutely was not going to cry in front of all these people. Someone once told me all you have to do to stop yourself from crying is drink water, but I didn’t have any, and then I remembered that someone else once told me that swallowing a watermelon seed would make a watermelon grow inside me and I had disproved that many times so maybe that person who told me that I could stop my tears by drinking water was a big fat liar just like Mr. Eat a Watermelon Seed and Die – so, I just kept my head down and held the tears in and waited for the sweet sound of the whistle that meant the end of recess and sitting alone and stares and thinking about my dad and the thought in the back of my mind that I might have to sit on this bench alone for the rest of the year.
It took everyone a while to learn my name. Some people still snickered and ogled when a substitute teacher mispronounced it, but I never sat on that red bench again and I played hopscotch every day during recess and I actually started speaking up sometimes and I figured that maybe this new school wasn’t so bad after all.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.