When Eddie hurried into his classroom that Tuesday morning, he bumped into something just inside the door and started to fall. His classmates laughed. Eddie was used to that. He liked the attention, even when Miss Enns got cross.
He tried to catch himself by grabbing onto the object he had tripped over, but it moved away as if it had wheels.
It was an empty wheelchair. Why was it here? He tried to ask Miss Enns, but she was writing the day’s study plan on the board.
As the tardy bell rang, Miss Enns faced the class. “You’re not in your seat yet?” she said as Eddie darted down the aisle, hopping over Joe’s outstretched foot and ducking Mike’s fist.
“What’s that for?” Eddie said, but Miss Enns ignored the question and took roll.
She didn’t say one word about the chair before the arithmetic quiz or while she wrote the week’s spelling words on the board. By then, nobody could think about anything but the wheelchair.
Finally Miss Enns pushed the chair in front of the class. “Do you know what this is?” she asked.
They all did.
“My cousin brought it from the hospital. Today we’ll experiment with a different way of moving. Who’s first?”
Eddie’s hand shot up. He always wanted to be first. He got more attention and laughs that way. If nobody knew how to do something, he could make really funny mistakes.
“Rebecca, how about you?”
Rebecca hurried to the chair, her curls bouncing. Miss Enns helped her fasten the seat belt. Rebecca tried to return to her desk, but the chair wouldn’t go straight. She bumped into Nancy’s desk and got caught on the edge of Joe’s. “I don’t like this,” she said, and she unhooked the belt. “The steering’s too hard.”
“Eddie?” Miss Enns said.
Eddie was into the chair within a moment. This was great!
“You seem to like the wheelchair, Eddie. Do you think you can stay in it all day?”
“Sure!” Eddie said with a grin. Just then the recess bell rang.
But maneuvering the wheelchair wasn’t as much fun as Eddie had thought it would be. For the first time ever, he was the last one out of the room at recess. Everybody got in his way, and wheeling was slow. When he approached the boys’ room, the door slammed shut as Nick left. Eddie swung the chair next to the door and waited for someone else to leave. Nobody did. As he tried to open the door, he banged his toes hard. Finally he wheeled himself alongside the door and slipped inside as he tugged it wide. That was much harder than he had thought it would be, because the wheels kept catching on either the door or the door frame. Finally he made it.
Inside, he faced another problem. Miss Enns had dared him to stay in the wheelchair all day, but—well—for certain things, he couldn’t. He didn’t want to go ask her exactly what to do. He knew he should play fair, though, so he wheeled himself as close as possible before he unhooked the belt.
Washing his hands was awkward, too, and leaving the rest room was almost as hard as coming in, except that he could push against the door with the chair. Even so, he still banged his toes again.
Next, at the water fountain, he discovered that he wasn’t up high enough to get a drink from the chair.
As he wheeled himself down the hall, he saw that the outer door stood open. It was a beautiful day. But a low metal ridge ran across the bottom of the doorway, and it was hard to get the wheelchair across. By the time he did, Eddie’s hands were red and sore. Outside, there was a large cement landing with one step down to the playground. Eddie knew that if he gave himself a push off the step, the chair might tip over and he could really hurt himself.
On the playground, his classmates tossed the basketball back and forth. “Hey, guys,” he yelled, “over here! Help me down. I want a turn.” Nobody paid attention. And when recess ended, everybody else pushed by him as if he wasn’t there. By the time he wheeled himself back to class, he was very tired. He felt grumpy.
Miss Enns was threading film for a movie. “Please take notes on this film, class,” she said.
Eddie couldn’t reach his desk to write anything. He had to sit at an angle because there wasn’t room for the wheelchair behind his desk. He could hardly see the screen, and his hands were throbbing.
At lunchtime, Miss Enns brought Eddie a tray and set it on the end of the nearest table. Eddie had to sit there, away from his friends. “They act like I’m not here,” he muttered angrily.
Miss Enns put her hand on his shoulder understandingly. “That’s often the way it is for people who are different.”
“But I’m not different. I’m still me.”
She nodded sympathetically, then took her own tray to join the other teachers.
After lunch Eddie didn’t even try going outside. It was a long lunchtime alone in the cafeteria.
The afternoon seemed endless. By now, Eddie’s arms and shoulders ached from wheeling himself everywhere. He broke the lead in his pencil twice and had to stretch his very tallest to reach the pencil sharpener. When an ambulance went by, he was the only person who couldn’t see it, and he stayed in alone for the afternoon recess. He wanted to go to the bathroom again but was too sore to wheel himself that far and struggle with the door again. Nobody had laughed at him once. They’d only acted as if he wasn’t quite there.
When it was time for social studies, Miss Enns didn’t have them open their books. Instead, she asked, “I want to know what Eddie has learned from being in that wheelchair today.”
“I hate it!” Eddie blurted. “Nobody pays attention to me. It’s work, moving and steering. My arms ache. I have blisters on my hands. And it’s terrible going to the bathroom, ’cause the door opens the wrong way!”
Somebody giggled, but Eddie didn’t look up to see who. “I couldn’t even think of one silly thing to do to make people laugh. I never want to be in a wheelchair again.”
“You’ve been a really good sport, Eddie,” Miss Enns said. Speaking to the whole class, she announced, “We’ll have this chair all week. Everyone will have a turn to spend an hour or so in the wheelchair, and I hope that you will all stay in it long enough to understand at least a little of what Eddie went through today.”
“Why are we doing this?” Eddie asked, standing up to give relief to his muscles.
“Next week we’ll have a new student. Ron’s been in the hospital almost a year, but he can return to school now.”
“And he’s in a wheelchair,” Eddie guessed.
“Right. He may not ever walk again, and I want you all to understand at least a little of what that’s like for him.”
“He needs help with the bathroom doors,” Eddie said, remembering his own struggle. “If you put him next to me, I can help with that stuff, because I know about it.”
Miss Enns smiled. “I thought that I could count on you,” she said as the bell rang, and Eddie knew that today he’d learned an important lesson.