(The following is an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress.)
On my first day of elementary school, I packed my little backpack and my mom drove me to Clemens Crossing Elementary. She walked me to the first grade quad, a giant room separated into four classrooms with cubical-like dividers. The moment she let go of my hand to send me off to class, I tensed up. There were so many kids, so many faces I had never seen before.
I could hear the other three classes in the grade’s shared quad all day long and had trouble paying attention with all of the noise and chaos around me. Even though I adored my first grade teacher, Mrs. Heart, I missed my small kindergarten classroom where I knew all of the other kids, where the lights were soft and there were toys and games. I didn’t like sitting at the little wooden desks surrounded by giant maps of the world and posters with letters and charts on them. I was expected to do assignments and was judged on how well I completed them. I had to go to P.E., which meant playing group games in the huge, echoing gymnasium.
Having to do anything out of the ordinary made me anxious. Even seemingly simple obstacles like trying to figure out how to solve a math problem, spell a word, or play kick ball could be challenging. In those moments, I had trouble focusing on anything other than my discomfort. I was terrified of messing up, of making a mistake.
I felt shy around the other kids. I acted friendly toward them and talked to them when I could think of something to say. The first friend I made at school was a girl named Maia. She looked a lot like me at that age: scrawny with long black hair, but her skin was paler and her hair straighter. We got together a lot outside of school to hang out at each other’s houses and take bike rides around the neighborhood. If Maia wasn’t around at recess, I picked a tree to sit under and became an observer. I watched the boys play four square and the girls climb the jungle gym and wondered why it was so hard for me to get up and join them.
It was in first grade that I learned that being sick meant I didn’t have to go to school. When I had the chicken pox, I got to stay home for a whole week, relaxing and scratching and watching TV. But it wasn’t until the beginning of second grade that I started trying to stay home from school every day.
Each morning, I woke up and went through my checklist:
Does my head hurt?
Does my stomach hurt?
Is my nose stuffy?
Does my forehead feel hot?
I could always find something wrong with me. If nothing else, I woke up with a tight, queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I usually decided that, even though I was probably fine, I still couldn’t possibly make it through a whole day at school. I’d just have to stay home again.
My routine didn’t vary much.
Still lying in bed, I’d yell, “Mom!” If nothing happened, I’d call out for her again. “Mom!”
I closed my eyes. Seconds later, I heard footsteps coming down the hall, and she appeared in my doorway. I opened my eyes when I heard her come in, like I had been too exhausted to keep them open in my weakened condition.
“I don’t feel good,” I’d say. “My stomach hurts,” or “My head hurts,” or “I think I have a cold.”
“I’ll get the thermometer,” she’d say, usually accompanied by a sigh.
I kept the thermometer under my tongue long after the beeps went off. That made it go up a little. Most of the time, my temperature was normal. Sometimes, especially if I had what she called a “low grade fever,” I could still convince her that I needed to stay home.
My pain wasn’t made up. Sometimes I had to exaggerate how bad it was to get out of school, but it was real pain. When I thought about getting out of bed and dragging myself to school, my stomach clenched up. I imagined all the things that could go wrong. Maybe the teacher would yell at me. Maybe Maia wouldn’t be there to keep me company at recess. Maybe they’d make us run in gym class, and I’d get really tired or fall and embarrass myself. Maybe I’d have to sit alone at lunch. The possibilities were endless. It wasn’t worth the risk. It was safer to stay at home, curled up in bed resting, or lounging on our big beige saucer chair in front of the TV in our kitchen.
If both of my parents had to go into work on a sick day, my mom drove me to the Sick Child Daycare. It was half an hour away at Harbor Hospital in Baltimore near her work. I didn’t like having to walk through the hospital and see people in wheelchairs and bandages, but once I entered the daycare, everything was fine. The room was gently lit and it didn’t smell funny like the rest of the hospital. It was warm and cozy, full of other kids like me, kids who didn’t feel good.
When I arrived, I was handed a sheet with lunch options that I got to check off. I, along with my fellow sick companions, played Nintendo for most of the day. They had Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, so I got really good at both. At lunch, a tray with a chewy hamburger, a carton of apple juice, and soggy fries was delivered. For nap time, they put on the movie Fantasia, and we rested on thin blue mats placed on the floor in front of the television. I got a little scared during the part where Mickey chops the broom up with an axe, and then the splinters come to life and flood the room with water.
My mom took me to the hospital gift shop after she picked me up. I looked at happy teddy bears holding “get well” hearts and browsed their huge section of greeting cards. If it wasn’t my stomach that was hurting, my mom bought me M&M’s at the front counter.
As my sick days added up, my mother had to get stricter. One day, she told me I had to go to school, so I hovered above the toilet in my bathroom making gagging noises and flushing the toilet dramatically. She didn’t buy it. It got so bad that on a day I was truly sick, she picked me up and carried me to the car. We only got as far as the garage before I threw up all over the concrete floor.
One morning, toward the end of my second grade year, I went through my usual routine. My mom examined the thermometer, and said, “You don’t have a fever.”
I knew that; I had seen the results before reluctantly handing it over to her.
“I’m not going to school,” I said.
“You can’t miss any more days, Alana. We need to go now. Get dressed.”
She sounded serious, but I wasn’t giving up yet. She stared at me, arms crossed against her chest, until I finally got out of bed. She left the room while I pulled a dress over my head and stockings on my feet.
I slowly made my way down the stairs and into the kitchen. When my mom saw me, she rose from the kitchen table, slipped on her sandals, and adjusted her glasses. She picked up her purse and waited by the door leading out to the garage.
“I’m not going,” I told her.
“Yes, you are,” she said firmly. “Let’s go.”
I held my ground, stockinged feet planted firmly on the floor. Her face was tight with anger, a state I rarely saw her in.
She stomped out of the kitchen. I had won.
Then she returned, my shoes in her hand, and grabbed my arm. She dragged me to the car, drove me to school, and pulled up in the parking lot.
“You can’t drag me into the building,” I screamed, tears running down my face. “You can’t! Everyone will see you.”
My mom ran a hand through her short salt-and-pepper hair and didn’t say anything for a couple of minutes. Soon the whole flood of kids had gone inside, safely in class. Except for me. I sat in the front seat of the station wagon, tears dripping down to my chin and onto my purple dress. They left little wet spots, perfectly round. My shoes lay sprawled next to my feet where my mom had thrown them at me.
“Stay in the car,” she said.
My mother disappeared into the school, and I wondered what she was going to do. She couldn’t make me go in. I knew that much. A long time passed, maybe ten minutes, maybe fifteen. Then she emerged through the double doors followed by the principal of the school. My mother was saying something to her while she nodded, face stern.
The principal waltzed over to the station wagon in her stumpy heels and frumpy red dress and opened my car door.
“Alana,” she said. “We need you to come to class now.”
I sniffled and slid my shoes onto my feet. It was over, and I had lost.