She was 12 years old. But she somehow seemed older. Ungainly, awkward, embarrassed—it was a painful age. Our family had just moved to El Sobrante, and I was new, but even that very first day in class I noticed her. She was slower in just about everything, but there were a lot of kids in the class who had just arrived at that stage in life when arms and legs were getting longer. That wasn’t it. Somehow I could sense it—sort of an unwritten law in the tightly woven society of that classroom that barred her from the rest of the class. Almost no one would have anything to do with her—it was like a class creed.
That was the spring they put some of the fifth and sixth graders together in the same class. I remember a lot of muttering about “corresponding IQ’s” and the “revolution in the elementary school system,” but we didn’t care too much about that sort of thing. All that mattered to us was that we had to go to school.
At recess we would climb a rough dirt road that led to a huge field of long, tickley weeds, sprinkled with wild mustard flowers and tiny purple daisies and acres of golden poppies. It was a sin to pick a poppy, a brand of treason peculiar to Californians.
She would always trail behind us as we climbed up the hill. Sometimes I’d sneak a glance backwards. She wouldn’t even touch a poppy—she’d very carefully pick her way over to a clump of them and reverently inhale. I never could understand that. I could never smell anything, but she could detect a fragrance, I know—her face would betray the secret as a slight smile would form momentarily across her face. Then it would vanish.
Others of us would go running, hand in hand, across the field, or we would play catch or try to play baseball. We weren’t too good at baseball and would usually settle for a modified game of kickball. She would always stay apart from us. Not because she wanted to, I’m sure, but because she had to. It was the unwritten law.
But she withstood the giggling and smirking behind her back. It was behind her back enough so as not to incriminate any of her assailants, yet blatant enough to sting. Seemingly unsophisticated children could so easily hurt her. Yet there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t help her.
There was one other girl in the class who felt the same way I did about the situation. She was quiet. Linda would go over and talk to the girl sometimes. She would smile at her and heal over, just a little, the wounds of the day. She didn’t care about what the others thought. The girl wouldn’t ever say much to Linda, though. I think she was afraid. But every once in a while she would look at Linda and smile just a little.
I remember graduation time. It was the big event of the year. There would be graduation ceremonies for all the sixth graders. They would wear the choir robes, and all the fourth and fifth graders would watch, round eyed, and after the diplomas were handed out and all the handshaking finished, they would sing, “I Believe.” And the mothers would cry a little.
She was graduating that night. I was in the choir. I got to wear my pink flowered dress with the long bow that reached down the length of my dress. Linda was sitting next to me. She was holding a small white package with a fancy blue ribbon wrapped around it. When we were ready to sing, she inconspicuously slid it under her chair.
“I believe for every drop of rain that falls a flower grows …” The mothers cried a little. We sat down again, and Linda picked up the package. I had just about gathered up enough courage to ask her what it was, when it was time for the benediction.
It was over at last; the sixth grade class was a thing of the past. There were grins drawn across all our faces. Linda started walking across the room, and I followed, not knowing where else to go. She was looking for someone—then she saw her. She pushed her way over to the girl. Linda hesitated for a moment in front of the girl, then smiled a little, shyly, and handed her the present. “Happy graduation,” she said and walked away.
I’ll always remember the expression on that girl’s face. At first it was puzzlement. I could painfully read her thoughts. And then she started crying. Silently, to herself. And she walked out the door of the school.
That night I went home and cried. I didn’t really know why. But it hurt to think of the girl; and I hoped with everything in me that I would be able to feel for people like Linda did. And that things would get better for the girl. I wonder if she’s still crying.