Elizabeth headed the ball and skillfully let it drop near her feet. As she tried to pass off to her teammate, Central’s right-winger lost her balance and careened into Elizabeth, sending them both sprawling. For a moment Elizabeth couldn’t breathe. She tried to stand, but her legs buckled. There was only one person on the bench to replace her. Oh, no, she thought, not Kristen! She’s not ready yet. But Coach Fulton was already sending her in.
It didn’t take Central long to discover that they were dealing with a beginner. When the pass came, Kristen dribbled downfield. Central moved in and pressured her. She tensed, lost her concentration, and tripped over the ball. Central gained control and quickly scored the winning goal.
As the field cleared, Kristen slowly walked away, pulling a wad of crumpled paper from her pocket.
Elizabeth hadn’t known Kristen long. She wasn’t an easy person to get to know, but she seemed to need a friend. Elizabeth knew she was discouraged—maybe discouraged enough to quit. Even the practice sessions were tough for her. Perhaps that was because she didn’t have any friends to buddy practice with.
“Kristen, wait up,” Elizabeth called.
Kristen looked up, surprised. “Sorry about the game,” she said quietly, shoving the wad of paper into her pocket. “I guess I just wasn’t cut out for soccer. The team would be better off without me. I can’t seem to do anything right.”
Elizabeth didn’t know what to say. She put her arm gently around Kristen’s shoulder, and they walked away together. It isn’t just soccer, Elizabeth thought. At school Kristen had a difficult time following directions. She couldn’t remember what their teacher, Mr. Kelly, told her to do. She often wrote numbers and letters backward. And she just couldn’t seem to pay attention, even though she tried very hard.
“A learning disability” was what Kristen’s special teacher, Mrs. O’Brien, called it. For some reason, Kristen’s brain wasn’t able to process information normally. The right messages didn’t always get through, just as a phone call doesn’t go through when the wires are jammed or broken. Because of her difficulties, Kristen spent a part of each school day with Mrs. O’Brien, who helped Kristen and other children like her.
Elizabeth had never met anyone like Kristen before. The more time she spent with her, the more she noticed all those wads of paper that Kristen always had in her pockets. She wanted to ask her about the paper, but the two of them were just becoming friends, and Elizabeth didn’t want to spoil it. Perhaps Mrs. O’Brien, who knew Kristen well, could help her understand Kristen better.
“Kristen is a very bright girl, as are many learning disabled children,” Mrs. O’Brien explained when Elizabeth stopped by the next day after school. “She’s making progress, but slowly. Unfortunately, she’s been hurt too often by thoughtless teasing. Many children just don’t understand. They never take the time to get to know her. That’s why she’s so shy about making friends.”
“Do you know why she always carries those little wads of crumpled paper?” asked Elizabeth.
“That’s something Kristen will have to tell you herself.”
I’ll ask her at soccer practice, Elizabeth decided as she hurried to the soccer field.
“Kristen,” she began slowly when practice was over, “I’ve been wondering why your pockets are always full of crumpled paper.”
“It’s nothing much, just doodles,” said Kristen.
“Really? May I see them?”
Reluctantly Kristen reached into her pocket and retrieved a wad of paper.
Elizabeth put it on her knee and smoothed it out carefully. “Kristen, this is me!” she said in surprise. “You’ve drawn a sketch of me!”
“Sometimes—especially when I’m feeling discouraged—I doodle. It helps me feel better,” Kristen explained nervously.
“This is terrific, Kristen! Do you have any more?”
Kristen emptied the contents of her pockets and handed them to Elizabeth. “I have lots more at home,” she added, feeling more confident.
There was a sketch of Kristen’s puppy chewing an old sneaker, a drawing of their teammates playing soccer, and a picture of E. T. Elizabeth was astonished. They were really good! “Has anyone else ever seen these?” she asked.
Kristen shook her head.
“Well, they should!” A smile spread across Elizabeth’s face. She knew what to do to help the other kids at school to look beyond Kristen’s difficulties and get to know her better. “I have an idea,” Elizabeth said. “Come with me.”
First they went to see Mr. Kelly, then they hurried to Kristen’s house, where they gathered all of her drawings and mounted them on construction paper.
When their classmates arrived at school the next morning, they found the walls of their room covered with Kristen’s artwork. “Hey, that’s me!” several of them shouted.
“Who drew these?” others asked.
“They’re terrific!” they all agreed as they milled around, trying to see all the pictures.
After they had settled down, Mr. Kelly announced, “The artist is someone you all know. It’s—”
“It’s Kristen!” Elizabeth blurted out before Mr. Kelly could finish. She began to applaud enthusiastically. And the whole room clapped with her.