Countless days I would lean my head back against the hard brick wall of my old primary school, allowing the sun to pour its light and warmth over my cheeks as I breathed in the fresh smell of the blooming of spring. Far-away laughter filled my ears as I opened my eyes and looked back down to the book in my lap, turning the page to welcome the next chapter. My eyes roamed left to right over the words that took to me to a different world, a better one, and a little voice in my head acted out the magical scenes written before me.
Students all around me ran about, playing silly games and jumping from one hopscotch square to the other, jump ropes being passed around and giggling girls chasing the boys. Friends hollered at me to join in on the games of Mary Mack, but on certain days I had no interest in doing so. All I wished for was to sit on the grass among them all and live vicariously through fictional characters and their lives that were created by brilliant authors with pens and imagination. Those friends understood and just shook their heads with a smile before returning to their own fun. Unfortunately, not everyone was as dismissive.
Many times, other students who were a grade or two older than me would march over out of boredom with taunting sneers lingering on their faces and determination in their eyes. The sound of their sneakers crunching against the dirt would cause my stomach to churn. I kept still as a rock whenever they neared, hoping that if I didn't move they'd walk right past me without a second thought. Those hopes, however, were crushed every time they did stop in front of me to snatch whatever book I'd been reading from my grasp before proceeding to kick dirt in my face, all while throwing their heads back and allowing their careless laughter to ring through the air. I'd bite the inside of my cheek, get up to brush off the mess, and try to stand up for my little ten year-old self best I could against those older, much taller bullies, but it was never to much success.
Sometimes, by either force of a teacher or by one being hurled my way, I would get my books back, though many times I'd only receive certain pages or even nothing at all except a few shoves and some harsh words. Over time I stopped reading when the recess bell rang and settled with joining into the crowd and jumping rope or chasing boys, like everyone else in my class did. I wasn't happy with it, but it seemed like a better option than being demeaned and put down every other day. One of my teachers, though, didn't seem to agree.
Mrs. York, the tough but adored art teacher of our building for many decades, was often the one to roam around the busy playground and monitor us all during recesses. I remember catching her eye each day while frolicking about and smiling at her, but after some time it got to the point where she no longer smiled back. I was left confused by this until one day during springtime when it was tauntingly close to the end of the school year.
She blew her whistle like every other day and everyone lined up along the sidewalk to be brought back to class. As I was walking toward the doors with my fellow classmates, a light arm fell across my shoulders and guided me away from the bustling groups of chattering students.
Mrs. York led me over to the other side of the building where I used to sit in a patch of thick green grass with my stories and pulled me down to now sit beside her. She looked at me for a moment, concern thick in her dark eyes and the space between her eyebrows creased with worry.
“I noticed you haven't been reading outside much lately.” At her words, I averted my gaze to the ground and absentmindedly picked a blade of grass from the earth, rolling it between my fingers instead of responding. She exhaled and grabbed my hand, holding it carefully in hers until the silence became too deafening and I finally looked up at her. “Listen to me,” she said. “Don't you ever let people make you feel bad, or strange, or wrong for enjoying the things you do, or for being different. Don't let anyone keep you from doing what makes you happy, young lady, even if it's something as small as reading instead of playing or if it's ever something bigger than that. You worry about yourself and what you think of your life, not what others think. If anyone ever gives you a hard time about anything at all, and I mean anything, you come to me. If you don't feel comfortable reading out here during recess, then you again come to me and you can read in my classroom instead. You understand that?” Her voice had been stern but soft all at once, and it was one of the first times I ever truly realized someone who didn't have to care about me, genuinely did.
“Yes ma'am.” I had nodded enthusiastically, a smile stretching itself across my round, reddened face that once again basked in the sunlight against that brick wall.
“Good,” her warm smile grew to match my own. “And don't you ever stop reading those books of yours. Who knows, maybe one day you'll even want to become an author yourself.”