Critical Reading Unit



Critical Reading Unit
Tenafly Middle School
Critical Reading Unit
A One-Marking-Period Course for Grade 6
By Janet Chai, Andrea Florczak, & Juliana Meehan
Copyrighted Material; for Classroom Use Only
UNIT PLAN ........................................................................................................................................................... 3
17 going on 18 by Anna Quindlen ......................................................................................................... 7
A Day at the Zoo by Jack Prelutsky ....................................................................................................... 9
Abandoned Farmhouse by Ted Kooser ........................................................................................... 10
All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury ............................................................................................. 11
Changed by Naomi Shihab Nye ............................................................................................................ 15
Eleven by Sandra Cisneros ..................................................................................................................... 16
Failure is a Good Thing by Jon Carroll .............................................................................................. 19
Hope by Gary Soto...................................................................................................................................... 20
I’m Nobody by Emily Dickenson ......................................................................................................... 21
In New Jersey Once by Maria Mazziotti Gillan ............................................................................. 22
Aprender el inglés by Luis Alberto Ambroggio............................................................................ 23
Learning English by Luis Alberto Ambroggio ............................................................................... 23
Meteor Watch by Naomi Shihab Nye ................................................................................................ 24
Momentum by Catherine Doty ............................................................................................................. 25
Mr. Entwhistle by Jean Little ................................................................................................................. 26
My Dad is Better Than Your Dad by Andy Griffiths ................................................................... 27
Oranges by Gary Soto ............................................................................................................................... 28
Priscilla and the Wimps........................................................................................................................... 29
Public School #18: Paterson, New Jersey by Maria Mazziotti Gillan ................................. 31
Purple by Alexis Rotella .......................................................................................................................... 32
Shells by Cynthia Rylant .......................................................................................................................... 33
Smoky Night by Eve Bunting ................................................................................................................ 36
Survival of the Fittest by Soledad O’Brien ...................................................................................... 39
Taco Head by Viola Canales ................................................................................................................... 41
Thank You, M’am by Langston Hughes ............................................................................................ 43
The Candy Bite by Viola Canales ......................................................................................................... 46
The Follower by Jack Gantos................................................................................................................. 48
The Little Boy and the Old Man by Shel Silverstein ................................................................... 51
The Marble Champ by Gary Soto......................................................................................................... 52
The Rider by Naomi Shihab Nye ......................................................................................................... 55
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost ............................................................................................... 56
They Are My Friends by Margaret Atwood.................................................................................... 57
Vacation by Rita Dove .............................................................................................................................. 60
Vocabulary Lesson by Ann Wagner ................................................................................................... 61
Tenafly Public Schools
Curriculum Continuum Template
Mindful Teachers…Mindful Design…Mindful Students
Subject Area: Language Arts
Grade: 6
Team Members: Janet Chai, Andrea Florczak, Juliana Meehan
Created: July, 2011
Unit Name: Critical Reading (one-marking-period course)
Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts:
L.6.4a-d, 5,6
Students will be able to independently use their learning to...
Approach texts—fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry—with a critical eye
and uncover perspectives and messages
Read for the purpose of stimulating and extending thought
Read for enjoyment
Uncover layers of meaning in the world by viewing it with a critical eye,
extending beyond texts to include issues and people
Enduring Understandings (Meaning):
Students will understand that...
Readers read with particular lenses; shaped by/acquired through personal
history, preferences, viewpoints, experiences, and these lenses impact what
and how they read and make meaning from a text.
Critically analyzing texts uncovers the writer's and the reader's personal
lenses, allowing the reader to draw varied meanings from the reading.
By comparing and contrasting texts we arrive at deeper understandings of the
world and ourselves.
The world is fraught with layers of meaning that take a critical eye to uncover.
Reading changes the reader.
Reading invites interpretation - a text may have several meanings, dependent
not only on the writer's perspective but also that of the reader.
Reading helps us realize things in the world and gives us new perspectives.
Discussing a text leads to greater understandings and insights.
Writing about a text leads to greater understandings and insights.
Essential Questions (Meaning):
Students will keep considering...
What particular lenses do you bring to your reading?
How do books reshape our understandings?
What can we learn from books about ourselves? About each other? About the
What strategies do active readers use to comprehend text?
What is the proper way to conduct a classroom discussion? How can we
engage in class discussions around our reading in a way that builds and
strengthens us as a reading community?
What is the value of a classroom discussion?
How do we write about reading in a way that illuminates others about our
reading experience?
How does writing about our reading lead to greater understanding and
Performance Tasks (Acquisition):
Students will know…
How to make meaning from our reading
How to analyze texts through various lenses and uncover deeper, possibly
hidden, meanings
How to summarize and reflect on a text, verbally and in writing
How to write about reading, supporting ideas with evidence from the text
How to conduct a classroom discussion in which multiple viewpoints are
presented, considered, and respected
How to work with peers in uncovering meanings from texts
How to compare and contrast texts—verbally and in writing—to gain deeper
Skills (Acquisition):
Students will be skilled at...
Composing brief critical responses to their reading on a regular basis
Practicing a variety of comprehension strategies, including (but not limited to):
drawing inferences; making predictions; visualizing; responding to reading
through short and long writing pieces; deciphering figurative language;
learning new words through context clues, word roots, and connotation
Comparing and contrasting their own viewpoints with those of their
Writing critically about ideas found in reading and supporting their ideas with
textual evidence
Sharing ideas and enhancing understandings through respectful and orderly
classroom discussion
Students will show that they really understand by evidence of...
Formulating questions and observations about whole-class texts in various
ways, including but not limited to Post-it responses, T-charts, T/S
connections, excerpting key passages, annotation
Engaging in orderly discussions of whole-class texts in which all viewpoints
are heard, considered, and respected
Quick-writes for analysis and discussion
Quizzes on selected reading skills, e.g., making inferences, supporting ideas
with evidence from text, understanding words in context, interpreting
figurative language
Frequent practice in writing about reading and supporting ideas through
textual evidence
Writing about reading through explaining and supporting their inferences with
textual evidence
Keeping a reading journal according to a rubric
Quizzes on selected reading skills, e.g., making inferences, supporting ideas
with evidence from text, understanding words in context, interpreting
figurative language
Engaging in orderly discussions of whole-class texts in which all viewpoints
are heard and respected
Provide a balanced mix of quality short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that can
be analyzed by the whole class
Ensure silent reading on a daily basis
Conduct frequent minilessons in discrete reading skills including but not
limited to teacher demonstrations followed by student practice in:
o Inferential thinking through read-alouds
o Word study: puzzling out words using context clues,
roots/prefixes/suffixes, connotation
o Writing about reading - supporting ideas and inferences with evidence
from text
o Discussing ideas uncovered through reading
Give frequent quizzes (formative and summative) on selected reading skills,
e.g., making inferences, supporting ideas with evidence from text,
understanding words in context, interpreting figurative language, new words
Allow time for sharing of successes at end of selected class periods
Guide students in analysis of themselves as readers (e.g., through evolving
lists of books read, abandoned, or considered for reading) orally and in writing
Require frequent writing about reading through explaining and supporting
their inferences with textual evidence; support students in how to do this
(gradual release of responsibility)
Students will keep a reading journal according to a rubric
Monitor progress through status-of-the class teacher forms; notes,
observations, and conversations; one-on-one conferences; one-on-one
reading assessment where indicated
Look for common misconceptions and skill deficits, including skimming rather
than reading for meaning, continuing to read inappropriate books (too
hard/too easy) or books that do not interest them, thinking that fiction cannot
teach truths.
Use high quality mentor texts for teacher read-alouds, modeling of thinking,
and student practice; see attached table of suggested titles. Aim to 30+ of
these texts (or others) in the course of the marking period, averaging 3 texts
per week for reading, annotation, discussion, and writing.
17 going on 18 by Anna Quindlen
December 01, 1994|
Got a letter from your mom the other day. Her description did you proud: "At seventeen
she is at the high end of meeting every parent's expectations, including mine," she wrote.
"An A student, captain of the tennis team, president of her high school service
But her tone was despondent, disappointed. You've started to smoke, and she wants me to
persuade you to stop.
That's not the way it works. Seventeen or 70, people quit smoking when they've
convinced themselves it's the right thing to do. But there are a few things I can mention.
There's the guy you may fall in love with someday who thinks kissing a smoker is as
seductive as licking the bottom of a dirty ashtray. There are the babies you might want to
have and the damage you could do to them if you are so addicted to smoking that you
can't quit when you're pregnant.
There are the yellow fingers and the yellow teeth. Your clothes smell. So does your hair.
It gets harder to stop every day.
In this very newspaper we ran a photograph of two fashion industry types wearing Tshirts that are part of a campaign to combat breast cancer. Each was holding a bottle of
designer water in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The mixed messages you receive
are confusing.
There's nothing confusing about smoking for me. I remember the day of the rehearsal
dinner for Jim and Mary's wedding, when my father-in-law picked me up at the bus stop,
his voice whittled away to a faint rasp. A cold, he said. Laryngitis. A year later he was
dead of lung cancer, still smoking up to the end.
Bill Cahan, the surgeon who has been an inveterate foe of the tobacco industry, sent me a
photograph of a diseased lung. It looks like an alien life form in a bad sci-fi movie. He
says I should remind you that smokers who take the pill face an increased risk of
hardening of the arteries, stroke and heart disease.
Joe Cherner, who founded an anti-smoking advocacy group, says I should mention that
you're being manipulated by the middle-aged.
"There's an entire group of adults whose careers depend on getting you to start smoking
by deception," he says. More than 400,000 people will die because of cigarettes this year.
You're part of the next wave, the new wave, of consumers, patients, fatalities. Welcome
to the oncology floor.
And meet Janet Sackman, who remembers 17 as if it were yesterday.
"When I was 17 I had the world in my hands," she says, and she's not exaggerating. She
was a successful model: soap and swimsuit ads, the covers of Life and Look. In 1949
they stood her on skis in a studio with phony mountains in the background and a fan
blowing her blond hair and made her the Lucky Strike girl. There was just one catch: "An
executive for the tobacco people said to me, 'It would be a good idea for you to learn how
to smoke. That way you'll look authentic.' "
So at just your age Janet learned to smoke. She went on to do Chesterfield ads on
television -- "You know, he's right!" she enthused when the announcer said that
Chesterfield left no unpleasant aftertaste -- and to marry and have four children. In 1983
she had her larynx removed and in 1990 she lost part of one lung.
She still looks great but she doesn't sound so good. Her voice box gone, she had to learn
to talk all over again, burping air through a hole in her esophagus just above the
collarbone. It took her about six months to say her first word; now she teaches others the
"I cough through that hole, I sneeze through that hole, and I talk through that hole," she
says in a mechanical croak. "I can't make any sound when I laugh or cry. I can't be
sarcastic and I can't tell a joke. I have the same monotone speech all the time."
"And I'm one of the fortunate ones," she added, "because I'm alive. I wish I had realized
how important my life was when I was 17. Tell her the single most important thing to do
for your looks and your life, is not to smoke. If she could hear me speak, she'd listen."
Your mother says you have a birthday coming up. Here's Janet Sackman's suggestion for
what you could give yourself as a gift: many many more.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.
A Day at the Zoo by Jack Prelutsky
Okay... here's a true story from when I was about twelve or maybe fourteen years old. I never
told it to my mother, because I'm sure she would have dropped dead on the spot. About a year later, I
did tell my father, who rolled his eyes and thought it was sort of funny.
It all happened in the Bronx in the early 1950s. The Bronx is where I grew up and hung out with
a guy named Bobby. We were great friends, because we had so much in common. Both of us could eat
more of anything than anyone else we knew, and we were both experts at drinking milk and making it
come out of our noses. We also got beat up by the same bigger kids.
The two of us also shared an interest in wild animals, and we were lucky to live just a couple of
miles from the Bronx Zoo, one of the most famous zoos in the world. We went there often and always
walked, not because we enjoyed walking all that much, but because we didn't have a whole lot of
money. By saving on bus fare, we could afford to get a few hamburgers or hot dogs along the way.
Then, while still digesting our food, we often worked on our belching technique.
Anyhow, it was the summer, and we were at the zoo. Both of us had cheap little cameras. I don't
remember what Bobby's was, but mine was an old Kodak Brownie that my father had loaned me. It was
a simple camera, good enough for taking close-ups of animals in cages, but practically useless for
photographing anything at a distance.
We'd spent an hour or so snapping pictures of seals and leopards and keeping our distance from
a certain famous monkey. The monkey was famous because he liked to throw his poop at people. His
aim was pretty good...that's why we kept our distance. We decided to go over to an area called African
Plains, a natural habitat ruled by lions, and without any ugly bars. A deep, very steep moat was the only
barrier that kept the lions away from the folks visiting the zoo.
I took a few pictures of the lions, but felt frustrated because my little camera made the lions look
like featureless clumps of tawny lint. I tried figuring out ways of getting closer...a lot closer. It occurred
to me that if I went down into the moat, I'd get really close to the lions. There were numerous signs
advising not to do this, but I paid them no attention. Bobby watched, with what I took to be admiration,
as I climbed over the short fence, crossed a short level expanse, and slid down a practically vertical wall
into the moat. As soon as I was at the bottom, I began snapping photos of the lions. This was great!
They were so close now that I was getting some really good pictures, the best I'd ever taken. I was so
involved with what I was doing that I failed to notice that several of the lions had taken an interest in
me, and were casually inching toward the moat.
That's when a zookeeper, on the point of hysteria, suddenly appeared at -the top of the wall. He
screamed so loud that he startled me out of my photographic reverie. "What the hell are you doing down
there? Are you crazy? Get back up here you idiot, and I mean now!"
I looked up at him, and replied innocently, "Why? The lions can't come down here. I'm safe. I'm
The zookeeper screamed even louder. "No, you're not. They can't climb up this side, but they
can get down to where you are...And they haven't been fed yet!"
A chill ran down my spine as I looked behind me and saw one of the lions leisurely sauntering
down into the moat, heading in my direction. I wondered if he could smell the burgers on my breath.
Suddenly, I was so scared that I began to belch uncontrollably. Still belching, I managed somehow to
claw my way up the top of the wall in a fraction of the time it had taken me to get down.... I'd never
moved so fast in my life. The zookeeper grabbed me by the collar and pulled me back over the fence.
He gave me a dirty look and said, "You've got to be the dumbest kid I've ever seen.
Now get out of here.... I don't want to see you again." By way of an exclamation point, he
added a not-so-little slap to the side of my head.
I took his advice without saying a word and left, noticing that Bobby couldn't stop
laughing. On our way home I swore him to secrecy.
And that's just one story I never told my mother.
Abandoned Farmhouse by Ted Kooser
He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.
A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.
Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm--a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.
From Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems by Ted Kooser 1980.
All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury
"Do the scientists really know? Will it happen today, will it?"
"Look, look; see for yourself!"
The children pressed to each other like so many roses, so many weeds,
intermixed, peering out for a look at the hidden sun.
It rained.
It had been raining for seven years; thousand upon thousands of days
compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain, with the drum and gush of
water, with the sweet crystal fall of showers and the concussion of storms so heavy
they were tidal waves come over the islands. A thousand forests had been crushed
under the rain and grown up a thousand times to be crushed again. And this was the
way life was forever on the planet Venus, and this was the schoolroom of the children
of the rocket men and women who had come to a raining world to set up civilization
and live out their lives.
"It's stopping, it's stopping!"
"Yes, yes!"
Margot stood apart from these children who could never remember a time
when there wasn't rain and rain and rain. They were all nine years old, and if there
had been a day, seven years ago, when the sun came out for an hour and showed its
face to the stunned world, they could not recall. Sometimes, at night, she heard them
stir, in remembrance, and she knew they were dreaming and remembering and old or
a yellow crayon or a coin large enough to buy the world with. She knew they thought
they remembered a warmness, like a blushing in the face, in the body, in the arms and
legs and trembling hands. But then they always awoke to the tatting drum, the
endless shaking down of clear bead necklaces upon the roof, the walk, the gardens,
the forests, and their dreams were gone.
All day yesterday they had read in class about the sun. About how like a lemon
it was, and how hot. And they had written small stories or essays or poems about it:
I think the sun is a flower,
That blooms for just one hour.
That was Margot's poem, read in a quiet voice in the still classroom while the
rain was falling outside.
"Aw, you didn't write that!" protested one of the boys.
"I did," said Margot. "I did."
"William!" said the teacher.
But that was yesterday. Now the rain was slackening, and the children were
crushed in the great thick windows.
"Where's teacher?"
"She'll be back."
"She'd better hurry, we'll miss it!"
They turned on themselves, like a feverish wheel, all tumbling spokes.
Margot stood alone. She was a very frail girl who looked as if she had been lost
in the rain for years and the rain had washed out the blue from her eyes and the red
from her mouth and the yellow from her hair. She was an old photograph dusted
from an album, whitened away, and if she spoke at all her voice would be a ghost.
Now she stood, separate, staring at the rain and the loud wet world beyond the huge
"What're you looking at?" said William.
Margot said nothing.
"Speak when you're spoken to." He gave her a shove. But she did not move;
rather she let herself by moved only by him and nothing else.
They edged away from her, they would not look at her. She felt them go away.
And this was because she would play no games with them in the echoing tunnels of
the underground city. If they tagged her and ran, she stood blinking after them and
did not follow. When the class sang songs about happiness and life and games her lips
barely moved. Only when they sang about the sun and the summer did her lips move
as she watched the drenched windows.
And then, of course, the biggest crime of all was that she had come here only
five years ago from Earth, and she remembered the sun and the way the sun was and
the sky was when she was four in Ohio. And they, they had been on Venus all their
lives, and they had been only two years old when last the sun came out and had long
since forgotten the color and heat of it and the way it really was. But Margot
"It's like a penny," she said once, eyes closed.
"No it's not!" the children cried.
"It's like a fire," she said, "in the stove."
"You're lying, you don't remember!" cried the children.
But she remembered and stood quietly apart from all of them and watched the
patterning windows. And once, a month ago, she had refused to shower in the school
shower rooms, had clutched her hands to her ears and over her head, screaming the
water mustn't touch her head. So after that, dimly, dimly, she sensed it, she was
different and they knew her difference and kept away.
There was talk that her father and mother were taking her back to earth next
year; it seemed vital to her that they do so, though it would mean the loss of
thousands of dollars to her family. And so, the children hated her for all these reasons
of big and little consequence. They hated her pale snow face, her waiting silence, her
thinness, and her possible future.
"Get away!" The boy gave her another push. "What're you waiting for?"
Then, for the first time, she turned and looked at him. And what she was
waiting for was in her eyes.
"Well, don't wait around here!" cried the boy savagely. "You won't see
Her lips moved.
"Nothing!" he cried. "It was all a joke, wasn't it?" He turned to the other
children. "Nothing's happening today. Is it?"
They all blinked at him and then, understanding, laughed and shook their
heads. "Nothing, nothing!"
"Oh, but," Margot whispered, her eyes helpless. "But this is the day, the
scientists predict, they say, they know, the sun. . . ."
"All a joke!" said the boy, and seized her roughly. "Hey, everyone, let's put her
in a closet before teacher comes!"
"No," said Margot, falling back.
They surged about her, caught her up and bore her, protesting, and then
pleading, and then crying, back into a tunnel, a room, a closet, where they slammed
and locked the door. They stood looking at the door and saw it tremble from her
beating and throwing herself against it. They heard her muffled cries. Then, smiling,
they turned and went out and back down the tunnel, just as the teacher arrived.
"Ready, children?" she glanced at her watch.
"Yes!" said everyone.
"Are we all here?"
The rain slackened still more.
They crowded to the huge door.
The rain stopped.
It was as if, in the midst of a film, concerning an avalanche, a tornado, a
hurricane, a volcanic eruption, something had, first, gone wrong with the sound
apparatus, thus muffling and finally cutting off all noise, all of the blasts and
repercussions and thunders, and then, second, ripped the film from the projector and
inserted in its place a peaceful tropical slide which did not move or tremor. The world
ground to a standstill. The silence was so immense and unbelievable that you felt
your ears had been stuffed or you had lost your hearing altogether. The children put
their hands to their ears. They stood apart. The door slid back and the smell of the
silent, waiting world came in to them.
The sun came out.
It was the color of flaming bronze and it was very large. And the sky around it
was a blazing blue tile color. And the jungle burned with sunlight as the children,
released from their spell, rushed out, yelling, into the springtime.
"Now don't go too far," called the teacher after them. "You've only two hours,
you know. You wouldn't want to get caught out!"
But they were running and turning their faces up to the sky and feeling the sun
on their cheeks like a warm iron; they were taking off their jackets and letting the sun
burn their arms.
"Oh, it's better than the sun lamps, isn't it?"
"Much, much better!"
They stopped running and stood in the great jungle that covered Venus, that
grew and never stopped growing, tumultuously, even as you watched it. It was a nest
of octopi, clustering up great arms of flesh-like weed, wavering, flowering this brief
spring. It was the color of rubber and ash, this jungle, from the many years without
sun. It was the color of stones and white cheeses and ink, and it was the color of the
The children lay out, laughing, on the jungle mattress, and heard it sigh and
squeak under them, resilient and alive. They ran among the trees, they slipped and
fell, they pushed each other, they played hide-and-seek and tag, but most of all they
squinted at the sun until the tears ran down their faces, they put their hands up to that
yellowness and that amazing blueness and they breathed of the fresh, fresh air and
listened and listened to the silence which suspended them in a blessed sea of no
sound and no motion. They looked at everything and savored everything. Then,
wildly, like animals escaped from their caves, they ran and ran in shouting circles.
They ran for an hour and did not stop running.
And then—
In the midst of their running one of the girls wailed.
Everyone stopped.
The girl, standing in the open, held out her hand.
"Oh, look, look," she said, trembling.
They came slowly to look at her opened palm.
In the center of it, cupped and huge, was a single raindrop.
She began to cry, looking at it.
They glanced quietly at the sky.
"Oh. Oh."
A few cold drops fell on their noses and their cheeks and their mouths. The
sun faded behind a stir of mist. A wind blew cool around them. They turned and
started to walk back toward the underground house, their hands at their sides, their
smiles vanishing away.
A boom of thunder startled them and like leaves before a new hurricane, they
tumbled upon each other and ran. Lightening struck ten miles away, five miles away,
a mile, a half mile. The sky darkened into midnight in a flash.
They stood in the doorway of the underground for a moment until it was
raining hard. Then they closed the door and heard the gigantic sound of the rain
falling in tons and avalanches, everywhere and forever.
"Will it be seven more years?"
"Yes. Seven."
Then one of them gave a little cry.
"She's still in the closet where we locked her."
They stood as if someone had driven them, like so many stakes, into the floor.
They looked at each other and then looked away. They glanced out at the world that
was raining now and raining and raining steadily. They could not meet each other's
glances. Their faces were solemn and pale. They looked at their hands and feet, their
faces down.
One of the girls said, "Well . . .?"
No one moved.
"Go on," whispered the girl.
They walked slowly down the hall in the sound of the cold rain. They turned
through the doorway to the room in the sound of the storm and thunder, lightening on
their faces, blue and terrible. They walked over to the closest door slowly and stood
by it.
Behind the closed door was only silence.
They unlocked the door, even more slowly, and let Margot out.
Changed by Naomi Shihab Nye
They said something mean about me
and didn’t notice it was mean.
So my heart wandered
into the rainy night without them
and found a canopy
to hind under.
My eyes started
seeing through things.
Like gauze.
Old self through new self.
My flexible body
went backwards
and forwards
in time.
It’s hard to describe but true:
I grew another head
with better ideas
inside my old head.
Eleven by Sandra Cisneros
(Excerpt from Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories
Random House, New York. 1991)
What they don't understand about
birthdays and what they never tell you is that
when you're eleven, you're also ten, and nine,
and eight, and seven, and six, and
five, and four, and three, and two, and one.
And when you wake up on your eleventh
birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you
don’t. You open your eyes and everything's
just like yesterday, only it's today. And you
don't feel eleven at all. You feel like you're
still ten. And you are--underneath the year
that makes you eleven.
Like some days you might say something
stupid, and that's the part of you that's still ten. Or maybe some days you
might need to sit on your mama's lap because you're scared, and that's the
part of you that's five. And maybe one day when you're all grown up maybe
you will need to cry like if you're three, and that's okay. That’s what I tell
Mama when she's sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.
Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings
inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the
other, each year inside the next one. That's how being eleven years old is.
You don't feel eleven. Not right away. It takes a few days, weeks even,
sometimes even months before you say Eleven when they ask you. And you
don't feel smart eleven, not until you're almost twelve. That's the way it is.
Only today I wish I didn't have only eleven years rattling inside me like
pennies in a tin Band-Aid box. Today I wish I was one hundred and two
instead of eleven because if I was one hundred and two I'd have known what
to say when Mrs. Price put the red sweater on my desk. I would've known
how to tell her it wasn't mine instead of just sitting there with that look on
my face and nothing coming out of my mouth.
"Whose is this?" Mrs. Price says, and she holds the red sweater
up in the air for all the class to see. "Whose? It's been sitting in the
coatroom for a month."
"Not mine," says everybody. "Not me."
"It has to belong to somebody," Mrs. Price keeps saying, but nobody
can remember. It's an ugly sweater with red plastic buttons and a collar and
sleeves all stretched out like you could use it for a jump rope. It's maybe a
thousand years old and even if it belonged to me I wouldn't say so.
Maybe because I'm skinny, maybe because she doesn't' like me, that
stupid Sylvia Saldivar says, "I think it belongs to Rachel." An ugly sweater
like that, all raggedy and old, but Mrs. Price believes her. Mrs. Price takes
the sweater and puts it right on my desk, but when I open my mouth nothing
comes out.
"That's not, I don’t, you’re not...Not mine," I finally say in a little voice
that was maybe me when I was four.
"Of course it's yours," Mrs. Price says. "I remember you wearing it once."
Because she's older and the teacher, she's right and I’m not.
Not mine, not mine, not mine, but Mrs. Price is already turning to page
thirty-two, and math problem number four. I don't know why but all of a
sudden I'm feeling sick inside, like the part of me that's three wants to
come out of my eyes, only I squeeze them shut tight and bite down on my
teeth real hard and try to remember today I am eleven, eleven. Mama is
making a cake for me tonight, and when Papa comes home everybody will sing
Happy birthday, happy birthday to you.
But when the sick feeling goes away and I open my eyes, the red
sweater’s still sitting there like a big red mountain. I move the red sweater
to the corner of my desk with my ruler. I move my pencil and books and
eraser as far from it as possible. I even move my chair a little to the right.
Not mine, not mine, not mine.
In my head I'm thinking how long till lunchtime, how long till I can take
the red sweater and throw it over the school yard fence, or even leave it
hanging on a parking meter, or bunch it up into a little ball and toss it in the
alley. Except when math period ends, Mrs. Price says loud and in front of
everybody , "Now Rachel, that's enough," because she sees I've shoved the
red sweater to the tippytip corner of my desk and it's hanging all over the
edge like a waterfall, but I don't' care. "Rachel," Mrs. Price says. She says
it like she's getting mad. "You put that sweater on right now and no more
"But it's not—"
"Now!" Mrs. Price says.
This is when I wish I wasn't eleven, because all the years inside of me—
ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two and one—are pushing at the
back of my eyes when I put one arm through one sleeve of the sweater that
smells like cottage cheese, and then the other arm through the other and
stand there with my arms apart like the sweater hurts me and it does, all
itchy and full of germs that aren't even mine. That's when everything I've
been holding in since this morning, since when Mrs. Price put the sweater on
my desk, finally lets go, and all of a sudden I'm crying in front of everybody.
I wish I was invisible but I'm not. I’m eleven and it's my birthday today and
I'm crying like I'm three in front of everybody. I put my head down on the
desk and bury my face in my stupid clown-sweater arms. My face all hot and
spit coming out of my mouth because I can't stop the little animal noises
from coming out of me, until there aren't any more tears left in my eyes,
and it's just my body shaking like when you have the hiccups, and my whole
head hurts like when you drink milk too fast.
But the worst part is right before the bell rings for lunch. That stupid
Phyllis Lopez, who is even dumber than Sylvia Saldivar, says she remembers
the red sweater is hers! I take it off right away and give it to her, only Mrs.
Price pretends like everything's okay.
Today I'm eleven. There's cake Mama's making for tonight, and when
Papa comes home from work we'll eat it. There'll be candles and presents
and everybody will sing Happy birthday, happy birthday to you, Rachel, only
it's too late.
I'm eleven today. I'm eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four,
three, two, and one, but I wish I was one hundred and two. I wish I was
anything but eleven, because I want today to be far away already, far away
like a runaway balloon, like a tiny o in the sky, so tiny-tiny you have to close
your eyes to see it.
Failure is a Good Thing by Jon Carroll
Last week, my granddaughter started kindergarten, and, as is
conventional, I wished her success. I was lying. What I actually wish for her is
failure. I believe in the power of failure.
Success is boring. Success is proving that you can do something that you
already know you can do, or doing something correctly the first time, which can
often be a problematical victory. First-time success is usually a fluke. First-time
failure, by contrast, is expected; it is the natural order of things.
Failure is how we learn. I have been told of an African phrase describing a
good cook as "she who has broken many pots." If you've spent enough time in
the kitchen to have broken a lot of pots, probably you know a fair amount about
cooking. I once had a late dinner with a group of chefs, and they spent time
comparing knife wounds and burn scars. They knew how much credibility their
failures gave them.
I earn my living by writing a daily newspaper column. Each week I am
aware that one column is going to be the worst column of the week. I don't set
out to write it; I try my best every day. Still, every week, one column is inferior to
the others, sometimes spectacularly so.
I have learned to cherish that column. A successful column usually means
that I am treading on familiar ground, going with the tricks that work, preaching to
the choir or dressing up popular sentiments in fancy words. Often in my inferior
columns, I am trying to pull off something I've never done before, something I'm
not even sure can be done.
My younger daughter is a trapeze artist. She spent three years putting
together an act. She did it successfully for years with the Cirque du Soleil. There
was no reason for her to change the act—but she did anyway. She said she was
no longer learning anything new and she was bored; and if she was bored, there
was no point in subjecting her body to all that stress. So she changed the act.
She risked failure and profound public embarrassment in order to feed her soul.
And if she can do that 15 feet in the air, we all should be able to do it.
My granddaughter is a perfectionist, probably too much of one. She will
feel her failures, and I will want to comfort her. But I will also, I hope, remind her
of what she learned, and how she can do whatever it is better next time. I
probably won't tell her that failure is a good thing, because that's not a lesson you
can learn when you're five. I hope I can tell her, though, that it's not the end of
the world. Indeed, with luck, it is the beginning.
Hope by Gary Soto
Maybe the dog I loved best will limp
Up the street and fall at my feet,
Not really hurt, just tired. "Smoky,"
I cry, and in crying send the sparrows
In the tree a limb higher. "I missed you,
I really missed you. Where did you go?"
I peel back his eyelids and view
An adventure-oh, how he dodged cars
And dipped his tired paws in puddles, how
He slept in ditches and bit a tribe of fleas
Camping in his fur. I see him topple
A garbage can and a rat with long whiskers
Run between his feet. I see him living
With a kind old woman by a railroad.
She ate a lot of stew, and shared her stew,
Until her mean son drove her away,
Leaving Smoky to wag his tail in dust.
"Oh, Smoky," I sob. I scan
The full story in his eyes. I see my dog
Sniffing the air, his nostrils flaring
For the scent of home, my home
With newspapers piled up on the roof
And duct tape on the broken front window.
Now my dog's collapsed at my feet.
"You're home," I say to Smoky,
"And you're never going to leave again."
True, our house appears abandoned
Ever since Dad left and left an oil stain on the drive.
But I'm here in this house of ours,
My mother and little brother are here,
And aren't those daffodils below the window
A sign of spring? I hug my dog,
Who disappeared when I was nine.
Now I'm twelve, a dodger of cars,
An ambler of ditch banks.
When I bend Over and bring him into my arms,
What do I feel but the weight of fur
And three lost years.
I’m Nobody by Emily Dickenson
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
In New Jersey Once by Maria Mazziotti Gillan
In New Jersey once, marigolds grew wild.
Fields swayed with daisies.
Oaks stood tall on mountains.
Powdered butterflies graced the velvet air.
Listen. It was like that.
Before the bulldozers.
Before the cranes.
Before the cement sealed the earth.
Even the stars, which used to hang
in thick clusters in the black sky,
even the stars are dim.
Burrow under the blacktop,
under the cement, the old dark earth
is still there. Dig your hands into it,
feel it, deep, alive on your fingers.
Know that the earth breathes and pulses still.
Listen. It mourns. In New Jersey once, flowers grew.
Aprender el inglés by Luis Alberto Ambroggio
para entenderme
tienes que saber español
sentirlo en la sangre de tu alma.
Si hablo otro lenguaje
y uso palabras distintas
para expresar sentimientos que nunca cambiarán
no sé
si seguiré siendo
la misma persona.
Learning English by Luis Alberto Ambroggio
Translated from the Spanish by Lori M. Carlson
to understand me
you have to know Spanish
feel it in the blood of your soul.
If I speak another language
and use different words
for feelings that will always stay the same
I don't know
if I'll continue being
the same person.
Meteor Watch by Naomi Shihab Nye
Leaving the car on a high hill in the dark,
we spread a tablecloth on the ground
and eat with our fingers –
grapes, gingersnaps, cheese –
staring at the huge sky.
This night feels ripe.
What will flash by?
We want stars to surprise us.
We want to be
Each streak of light, we cry out.
If you turn your head
For just a minute, you can miss one.
Focus on east,
You lose the ones in the west.
I think of people knowing one another
in the great spaces,
the brave arc of connection
between friends, lit up.
And all the quiet stars
holding their places in between.
Momentum by Catherine Doty
Your friends won’t try to talk you out of the barrel,
or your brag to go first, which has nothing to do with bravery.
And you’re so hungry to earn their love you forget
to claim first your, perhaps, last look at this mountain—
crab apples hanging sour in the sun, abandoned Buick,
a favorite place to play, dismantled and weathered
and delicate as a voting booth. Instead you dive straight away
and head-first into darkness, the steel drum that dusts you,
like a chicken part, with rust. Looking out, there’s nothing
to see of your friends but their calves, which are scabby,
and below them the filthy sneakers, shifting, shifting,
every foot aching to kick you off this cliff.
Their faces, you know, are blank with anticipation,
the look you see when they watch TV eating popcorn.
They’re already talking about you as if you’re gone,
as if you boarded a bus and roared out of earshot,
when one foot flashes forward and launches you.
You know as you feel that first solid slam you are lost.
The barrel changes shape with each crash to earth,
as you will later, assuming and losing lives, but this
is so true now: ankles flayed to the bone, cracked ribs
and crushed mint, the brittle, pissy sumac. Right now
the pin oaks are popping in their sockets, the hillside
wears your shoes, clouds pleat and buck. You know, of course,
that no one’s going second, and friends who tell this story
will use the word idiot, rolling their hands in the air,
but you know you know what your life is for now and rise up,
and just about scalp yourself on that tree limb above you,
another thing you couldn’t possibly know was coming,
another which, like your first breath, was not your idea.
Mr. Entwhistle by Jean Little
Mr. Entwhistle was our substitute teacher. He had big shoulders and a mean mouth. He
knew, before he'd laid eyes on us, that we were out to make trouble. And he knew how to handle
teenagers. Step on them hard, right from the start, and you'd have no discipline problems. He'd
show us who was boss the first time one of us stepped out of line.
Looking back, I can see that was how it started. But at the time, I had not gotten around to
noticing him, except to see that he was young. That's a nice change, I thought, and went back to
attempting to show Sandra Mayhew where she'd fouled up in the Math homework.
Mr. Entwhistle had started writing our names in on a seating plan. He knew all the tricks.
He wasn't going to put up with desk jumpers.
"What's your name?" he asked sharply.
I didn't look up, let alone answer. Sandra was finally catching on. It never once crossed my
mind that he was speaking to me.
"I said, `What is your name?"' he blasted, making a real production out of it. He was closer
to me. He had started down our aisle. So I glanced up. I still had not realized that I was the one he
was addressing. I sat there, gazing up at him, wondering why he was all charged up. I did not tell
him my name.
"All right. That does it!" he thundered. "You can go to the Office."
"Me?" I said in blank amazement.
I was bewildered. Yet he was glaring straight at me. His eyes were greenish with brown
spec ides. They seemed to be on the point of falling out. He was absolutely frantic.
"Yes, you. Oh, yes indeed, you! Perhaps next time you'll show respect," he babbled,
sidestepping to his desk like a giant crab and scribbling a note for me to take. I couldn't see what
he wrote but Pete Evans told me later that it was something about insubordination. I did see that
his hand was shaking. I sat there, stunned. I honestly believed that, any minute now, I'd wake up.
"On your feet!" Mr. Entwhistle shrieked. Maybe it only sounded like a shriek to me. But
his voice did seem to get louder every time he spoke.
I stood up slowly. Outside the open window, the sun was shining. Everything was green,
beguiling. "Come," it said to me. "Just come out and away." I considered it.
At the selfsame instant, some other part of me shouted, as angrily as Mr. Entwhistle could
have done, "Fight back, Kate. The bell hasn't gone. You have your rights. The others will back you
up. Fight!"
Then our eyes met and I saw that he was afraid. He was just a person. He had made a
mistake and now, too late, he knew it. He'd rage and bluster if I stood up to him. He'd have to. All
the same, he was wishing he could go back and start over. I've felt like that.
"Yes, sir," I said quietly, and reached out my hand for the note. Nobody moved. Nobody
breathed even. I was waiting for him to hand it to me; the rest of the kids, maybe, for me to start an
argument. I often do. Mr. Entwhistle... who knows?
Then it was as though someone said, "Will the real Mr. Entwhistle please stand up?” The
bombast went out of him. For one more moment, he hesitated.
"Never mind," he blurted then. "Sit down. We'll let it pass this time."
He tore the note in half, crumpled it up, and threw it at the wastebasket. Even though he
missed and the wad of paper landed on the floor, even though I'd won in some way, and he'd had to
back down, he looked taller.
Taking my seat I felt a bit taller myself. I shoved my hands out of sight when I saw that
they were trembling. Sunlight flooded the room.
"Way to go, Kate!" Sandra cheered in a too-loud whisper. I scowled at her.
"Shh," I said.
My Dad is Better Than Your Dad by Andy Griffiths
"My dad's better than your dad," says Buck.
"No he's not," I say.
"Yes he is," says Buck. "He's tougher for a start."
"Yeah, right," I say. "My dad's a black belt. Can't get much tougher than that."
"Yes you can," says Buck. "My dad's a double black belt."
"No such thing," I say.
"There is so," says Buck. "He beat up ten blokes once. With his bare hands."
"My dad beat up fifty blokes," I say. "With his hands tied behind his back."
"My dad beat up three thousand blokes," says Buck. "And he was completely frozen
inside a block of ice."
"Big deal," I say. "My dad's been inside a volcano. While it was erupting. Wearing
nothing but a pair of underpants."
"So what?" says Buck. "My dad's been to the moon-without a space suit!"
"Space travel?" I say. "That is so boring. My dad's got a time machine. He went back to
the Jurassic age and fought a Tyrannosaurus."
Buck snorts. "My dad reckons time machines are for kids. He prefers driving his
"My dad's got a Porsche, too," I say. "In fact, my dad is so rich his Porsche has got a
Porsche. He's a billionaire, you know."
"Only a billionaire?" says Buck. "My dad's a zillionaire!"
"Oh, did I say billionaire?" I say. "I meant krillionaire."
"Krillionaire?" says Buck. "There's no such thing."
"You've never heard of a krillionaire?" I say. "Gee, I'd hate to be so poor that I didn't
know what a krillionaire is. You know all those tiny shrimp things that whales eat? They're
called krill. Well, my dad gets his satellite to scan the ocean and he sees all these countless krill
in the water and because they're countless he uses that to describe how many dollars he has
because he has so many that it's impossible to count them all."
"Oh really?" says Buck. "Your dad is still working with outdated technology that can't
count all the krill in the ocean? My dad's satellite can see in so much detail that he is capable of
not only counting all the krill in the ocean but identifying each krill individually and giving a
name to each one. But krillions are nothing to him. Krillions is just a word he uses for his spare
change. He's so rich he owns practically everything on earth."
"My dad owns the earth," I say. "In fact, he owns the whole solar system."
"He doesn't own it," says Buck. "He just rents it. From my dad. My dad owns the entire
universe. All the stars. All the asteroids. All the UFOs. All the black holes. Everything. You name
it, my dad owns it."
He stands there with his hands on his hips. Smirking.
I shrug.
This is not over yet.
Not by a long shot.
"That may be so," I say, "but my dad can wiggle his ears!"
Buck groans.
He knows as well as I do that you can own all the universe you want, but if you can't
wiggle your ears, what's the point?
Now it's my turn to put my hands on my hips. "Well? Got anything to say?"
"Yeah," says Buck. "My mom is better than your mom."
Oranges by Gary Soto
The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn’t say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady’s eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl’s hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.
Priscilla and the Wimps
by Richard Peck
Listen, there was a time when you couldn't even go to the rest room around this school
without a pass. And I'm not talking about those little pink tickets made out by some teacher.
I'm talking about a pass that cost anywhere up to a buck, sold by Monk Klutter.
Not that Mighty Monk ever touched money, not in public. The gang he ran, which ran
the school for him, was his collection agency. They were Klutter's Kobras, a name spelled out in
nailheads on six well-known black plastic windbreakers.
Monk's threads were more ... subtle. A pile-lined suede battle jacket with lizard-skin
flaps over tailored Levi's and a pair of ostrich-skin boots, brassed-toed and suitable for kicking
people around. One of his Kobras did nothing all day but walk a half step behind Monk,
carrying a fitted bag with Monk's gym shoes, a roll of rest-room passes, a cash-box, and a
switchblade that Monk gave himself manicures with at lunch over at the Kobras' table.
Speaking of lunch, there were a few cases of advanced malnutrition among the newer
kids. The ones who were a little slow in handing over a cut of their lunch money and were
therefore barred from the cafeteria. Monk ran a tight ship.
I admit it. I'm five foot five, and when the Kobras slithered by, with or without Monk, I
shrank. And I admit this, too: I paid up on a regular basis. And I might add: so would you. This
school was old Monk's Garden of Eden. Unfortunately for him, there was a serpent in it. The
reason Monk didn't recognize trouble when it was staring him in the face is that the serpent in
the Kobras' Eden was a girl.
Practically every guy in school could show you his scars. Fang marks from Kobras, you
might say. And they were all highly visible in the shower room: lumps, lacerations, blue
bruises, you name it. But girls usually got off with a warning.
Except there was this one girl named Priscilla Roseberry. Picture a girl named Priscilla
Roseberry, and you'll be light years off. Priscilla was, hands down, the largest student in our
particular institution of learning. I'm not talking fat. I'm talking big. Even beautiful, in a bionic
way. Priscilla wasn't inclined toward organized crime. Otherwise, she could have put together
a gang that would turn Klutter's Kobras into garter snakes.
Priscilla was basically a loner except she had one friend. A little guy named Melvin
Detweiler. You talk about The Odd Couple. Melvin's one of the smallest guys above midget
status ever seen. A really nice guy, but, you know, little. They even had lockers next to each
other, in the same bank as mine. I don't know what they had going. I'm not saying this was a
romance. After all, people deserve their privacy.
Priscilla was sort of above everything, if you'll pardon a pun. And very calm, as only the
very big can be. If there was anybody who didn't notice Klutter's Kobras, it was Priscilla.
Until one winter day after school when we were all grabbing our coats out of our
lockers. And hurrying, since Klutter's Kobras made sweeps of the halls for after-school
Anyway, up to Melvin's locker swaggers one of the Kobras. Never mind his name. Gang
members don't need names. They've got group identity. He reaches down and grabs little
Melvin by the neck and slams his head against his locker door. The sound of skull against steel
rippled all the way down the locker row, speeding the crowds on their way.
"Okay, let's see your pass,” snarls the Kobra.
"A pass for what this time?" Melvin asks, probably still dazed.
"Let's call it a pass for very short people," says the Kobra, “a dwarf tax.” He wheezes a
little Kobra chuckle at his own wittiness. And already he’s reaching for Melvin's wallet with
the hand that isn't circling Melvin's windpipe. All this time, of course, Melvin and the Kobra
are standing in Priscilla's big shadow.
She's taking her time shoving her books into her locker and pulling on a very large-size
coat. Then, quicker than the eye, she brings the side of her enormous hand down in a chop that
breaks the Kobra's hold on Melvin's throat. You could hear a pin drop in that hallway.
Nobody’s ever laid a finger on a Kobra, let alone a hand the size of Priscilla’s.
Then Priscilla, who hardly every says anything to anybody except to Melvin, says to the
Kobra, "Who's your leader, wimp?”
This practically blows the Kobra away. First he's chopped by a girl, and now she's
acting like she doesn't know Monk Krutter, the Head Honcho of the World. He's so amazed, he
tells her, "Monk Klutter.
"Never heard of him," Priscilla mentions. "Send him to see me.” The Kobra just backs
away from her like the whole situation is too big for him, which it is.
Pretty soon Monk himself slides up. He jerks his head once, and his Kobras slither off
down the hall. He's going to handle this interesting case personally. "Who is it around here
doesn't know Monk Klutter?"
He's standing inches from Priscilla, but since he'd have to look up at her, he doesn't.
"Never heard of him," says Priscilla.
Monk's not happy with this answer, but by now he's spotted Melvin, who's grown
smaller in spite of himself. Monk breaks his own rule by reaching for Melvin with his own
hands. “Kid," he says, “you're going to have to educate your girlfriend."
His hands never quite make it to Mervin. In a move of pure poetry Priscilla has Monk in
a hammerlock. His neck's popping like gunfire, and his head's bowed under the immense
weight of her forearm. His suede jacket's peeling back, showing pile.
Priscilla's behind him in another easy motion. And with a single mighty thrust forward,
frog-marches Monk into her own locker. It's incredible. His ostrich-skin boots click once in the
air. And suddenly he's gone, neatly wedged into the locker, a perfect fit. Priscilla bangs the
door shut, twirls the lock, and strolls out of school. Melvin goes with her, of course, trotting
along below her shoulder. The last stragglers leave quietly.
Well this is where fate, an even bigger force than Priscilla, steps in. It snows all that
night, a blizzard. The whole town ices up. And school closes for a week.
Public School #18: Paterson, New Jersey by Maria Mazziotti Gillan
Miss Wilson’s eyes, opaque
as blue glass, fix on me:
"We must speak English.
We’re in America now."
I want to say, "I am American,"
but the evidence is stacked against me.
Years later, in a white
Kansas City house,
the Psychology professor tells me
I remind him of the Mafia leader
on the cover of Time magazine.
My anger spits
venomous from my mouth:
My mother scrubs my scalp raw, wraps
my shining hair in white rags
to make it curl. Miss Wilson
drags me to the window, checks my
for lice. My face wants to hide.
I am proud of my mother,
dressed all in black,
proud of my father
with his broken tongue,
proud of the laughter
and noise of our house.
At home, my words smooth in my
I chatter and am proud. In school,
I am silent, grope for the right English
words, fear the Italian word
will sprout from my mouth like a rose,
Remember me, Ladies,
the silent one?
I have found my voice
and my rage will blow
your house down.
fear the progression of teachers
in their sprigged dresses,
their Anglo-Saxon faces.
Without words, they tell me
to be ashamed.
I am.
I deny that booted country
even from myself,
want to be still
and untouchable
as these women
who teach me to hate myself.
Purple by Alexis Rotella
In first grade Mrs. Lohr
said my purple teepee
wasn’t realistic enough,
that purple was no color
for a tent,
that purple was a color
for people who died,
that my drawing wasn’t
good enough
to hang with the others.
I walked back to my seat
counting the swish swish swishes
of my baggy corduroy trousers.
With a black crayon
nightfall came
to my purple tent
in the middle
of an afternoon.
In second grade Mr. Barta
said draw anything;
he didn’t care what.
I left my paper blank
and when he came around
to my desk
my heart beat like a tom tom.
He touched my head
with his big hand
and in a soft voice said
the snowfall
how clean
and white
and beautiful.
Shells by Cynthia Rylant
"You hate living here."
Michael looked at the woman speaking to him.
"No, Aunt Esther. I don't." He said it dully, sliding his milk glass back and forth:
on the table. "I don't hate it here."
Esther removed the last pan from the dishwasher and hung it above the oven.
"You hate it here," she said, "and you hate me."
"I don't!" Michael yelled. "It's not you!"
The woman turned to face him in the kitchen.
"Don't yell at me!" she yelled. "I'll not have it in my home. I can't make you
happy, Michael. You just refuse to be happy here. And you punish me every day for it."
"Punish you?" Michael gawked at her. "I don't punish you! I don't care about you!
I don't care what you eat or how you dress or where you go or what you think. Can't you
just leave me alone?"
He slammed down the glass, scraped his chair back from the table and ran out the
"Michael!" yelled Esther.
They had been living together, the two of them, for six months. Michael's parents
had died and only Esther could take him in—or, only she had offered to. Michael's other
relatives could not imagine dealing with a fourteen-year-old boy. They wanted peaceful
Esther lived in a condominium in a wealthy section of Detroit. Most of the area's
residents were older (like her) and afraid of the world they lived in (like her). They stayed
indoors much of the time. They trusted few people.
Esther liked living alone. She had never married or had children. She had never
lived anywhere but Detroit. She liked her condominium.
But she was fiercely loyal to her family, and when her only sister had died, Esther
insisted she be allowed to care for Michael. And Michael, afraid of going anywhere else,
had accepted.
Oh, he was lonely. Even six months after their deaths, he still expected to see his
parents—sitting on the couch as he walked into Esther's living room, waiting for the
bathroom as he came out of the shower, coming in the door late at night. He still smelled
his father's Old Spice somewhere, his mother's talc.
Sometimes he was so sure one of them was somewhere around him that he
thought maybe he was going crazy. His heart hurt him. He wondered if he would ever get
And though he denied it, he did hate Esther. She was so different from his mother
and father. Prejudiced—she admired only those who were white and Presbyterian.
Selfish—she wouldn't allow him to use her phone. Complaining—she always had a
headache or a backache or a stomachache.
He didn't want to, but he hated her. And he didn't know what to do except lie
about it.
Michael hadn't made any friends at his new school, and his teachers barely
noticed him. He came home alone every day and usually found Esther on the phone. She
kept in close touch with several other women in nearby condominiums.
Esther told her friends she didn't understand Michael. She said she knew he must
grieve for his parents, but why punish her? She said she thought she might send him
away if he couldn't be nicer. She said she didn't deserve this.
But when Michael came in the door, she always quickly changed the subject.
One day after school Michael came home with a hermit crab. He had gone into a
pet store, looking for some small living thing, and hermit crabs were selling for just a few
dollars. He'd bought one, and a bowl.
Esther, for a change, was not on the phone when he arrived home. She was having
tea and a crescent roll and seemed cheerful. Michael wanted badly to show someone what
he had bought. So he showed her.
Esther surprised him. She picked up the shell and poked the long, shiny nail of her
little finger at the crab's claws.
"Where is he?" she asked.
Michael showed her the crab's eyes peering through the small opening of the
"Well, for heaven's sake, come out of' there!" she said to the crab, and she turned
the shell upside down and shook it.
"Aunt Esther!" Michael grabbed for the shell.
"All right, all right." She turned it right side up. "Well," she said, "what does he
Michael grinned and shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't know," he answered. "Just grows, I guess."
His aunt looked at him.
"An attraction to a crab is something I cannot identify with. However, it's fine
with me if you keep him, as long as I can be assured he won't grow out of that bowl." She
gave him a hard stare.
"He won't," Michael answered. "I promise."
The hermit crab moved into the condominium. Michael named him Sluggo and
kept the bowl beside his bed. Michael had to watch the bowl for very long periods of time
to catch Sluggo with his head poking out of his shell, moving around. Bedtime seemed to
be Sluggo's liveliest part of the day, and Michael found it easy to lie and watch the busy
crab as sleep slowly came on.
One day Michael arrived home to find Esther sitting on the edge of his bed,
looking at the bowl. Esther usually did not intrude in Michael's room, and seeing her
there disturbed him. But he stood at the doorway and said nothing.
Esther seemed perfectly comfortable, although she looked over at him with a
frown on her face.
"I think he needs a companion," she said.
"What?" Michael's eyebrows went up as his jaw dropped down.
Esther sniffed.
"I think Sluggo needs a girl friend." She stood up. "Where is that pet store?"
Michael took her. In the store was a huge tank full of hermit crabs.
"Oh my!" Esther grabbed the rim of the tank and craned her neck over the side.
"Look at them!"
Michael was looking more at his Aunt Esther than at the crabs. He couldn't
believe it.
"Oh, look at those shells. You say they grow out of them? We must stock up with
several sizes. See the pink in that one? Michael, look! He's got his little head out!"
Esther was so dramatic—leaning into the tank, her bangle bracelets clanking,
earrings swinging, red pumps clicking on the linoleum—that she attracted the attention of
everyone in the store. Michael pretended not to know her well.
He and Esther returned to the condominium with a thirty-gallon tank and twenty
hermit crabs.
Michael figured he'd have a heart attack before he got the heavy tank into their
living room. He figured he'd die and Aunt Esther would inherit twenty-one crabs and
funeral expenses.
But he made it. Esther carried the box of crabs.
"Won't Sluggo be surprised?" she asked happily. "Oh, I do hope we'll be able to
tell him apart from the rest. He's their founding father!"
Michael, in a stupor over his Aunt Esther and the phenomenon of twenty-one
hermit crabs, wiped out the tank, arranged it with gravel and sticks (as well as the plastic
scuba diver Aunt Esther insisted on buying) and assisted her in loading it up, one by one,
with the new residents. The crabs were as overwhelmed as Michael. Not one showed its
Before moving Sluggo from his bowl, Aunt Esther marked his shell with some red
fingernail polish so she could distinguish him from the rest. Then she flopped down on
the couch beside Michael.
"Oh, what would your mother think, Michael, if she could see this mess we've
gotten ourselves into!"
She looked at Michael with a broad smile, but it quickly disappeared. The boy's
eyes were full of pain.
"Oh, my," she whispered. "I'm sorry."
Michael turned his head away.
Aunt Esther, who had not embraced anyone in years, gently put her arm about his
"I am so sorry, Michael. Oh, you must hate me."
Michael sensed a familiar smell then. His mother's talc.
He looked at his aunt.
"No, Aunt Esther." He shook his head solemnly. "I don't hate you."
Esther's mouth trembled and her bangles clanked as she patted his arm. She took a
deep, strong breath.
"Well, let's look in on our friend Sluggo," she said.
They leaned their heads over the tank and found him. The crab, finished with the
old home that no longer fit, was coming out of his shell.
Smoky Night by Eve Bunting
Mama and I stand well back from our window, looking down. I'm holding
Jasmine, my cat. We don’t have our lights on though it's almost dark.
People are rioting in the street below.
Mama explains about rioting. "It can happen when people get angry. They
want to smash and destroy. They don't care anymore what's right and what's
Below us they are smashing everything. Windows, cars, streetlights.
"They look angry. But they look happy, too," I whisper.
"After a while it's like a game," Mama says.
Two boys are carrying a TV from Morton's Appliances. It's hard for them
because the TV is so heavy.
"Are they stealing it?" I ask.
Mama nods.
Someone breaks the window of Fashion Shoes. Two women and a man climb
in through the broken glass. They toss out shoes like they're throwing footballs. I've
never heard anybody laugh the way they laugh.
Smoke drifts, light as fog. I see the distant flicker of flames.
Across the street from us people are dragging cartons of cereal and sacks of
rice from Kim's market.
My mama and I don't go in Mrs. Kim's market even though it's close. Mama
says it's better if we buy from our own people.
Mrs. Kim's cat and my cat fight all the time, and Mrs. Kim yells at Jasmine in
words I can't understand. She's yelling the same kind of words now at the people
who are stealing her stuff.
They pay no attention.
I move behind Mama. "Will they come here?"
"There's nothing for them here, Daniel. See? They've finished with our
street. They're moving on."
Our street is emptying. One last man is staggering under a pile of clothes he's
taken from the dry cleaners. The plastic bags are still over them.
"We'll sleep together tonight," mama tells me.
She makes me wash my face and brush my teeth. I'm to take off my shoes
but leave on my clothes.
She puts me next to the wall. I hold Jasmine.
“I can't sleep," I say.
"Shh!"' Mama whispers. Close your eyes."
I do.
I guess I sleep.
Next thing I know, Mama is shaking me.
"Quick, Daniel! Get up!"
There's a terrible smell of smoke. Someone's pounding on our apartment
door. "Fire! Fire!"
I'm suddenly awake. "Where's Jasmine?" I run to the closet. Sometimes
Jasmine sleeps on a shelf.
Mama's screaming at me. "We can't wait. Jasmine's gone, Put on your shoes,
We rush down the stairs. Others crowd around us. The smoke makes us
Mr. Ramirez is in front of us carrying Lissa and the baby, who are both
"Those people are hooligans," he shouts over his shoulder. “Hooligans!"
Mrs. Ramirez is ahead of him. She is holding the cage with Loco, their parrot.
Loco's squawking something awful.
"Did you see Jasmine, Mr. Ramirez?" I shout.
He shakes his head, but I don't think he even hears me. Don't touch the
railing," he warns. "It’s hot."
Outside, the sky is hazy orange. Flames pounce up the side of our building.
Three fire engines scream to a stop. Fire fighters jump out, running, pulling
hoses. I see our window where Mama and I had stood. The fire hasn't reached it
"Is everybody out?" one fire fighter yells.
"Far as we know," another says.
"Did you see a cat?" I ask him. "She's yellow. Maybe she's still in there."
He glances down. "Probably not, son. Cats are plenty smart. She'll be long
A lady comes up to us. "There's a shelter you can come to," she says.
“Everyone follow me."
I’m crying because I'm not sure Jasmine is all that smart. What if she's
Some of the streetlights have been smashed. We walk along the sidewalk,
which sparkles with broken glass. There are empty cartons everywhere. A street
sign lies crumpled in the gutter. I grab hold of Mama because I think I see a dead
man with no arms lying there, too. But it’s just one of those plastic people that
show off clothes in department stores.
The lady looks back at Mrs. Kim, who is trailing along behind us. "Are you all
right?" she calls.
Mrs. Kim nods.
"We're almost at the shelter," the lady tells her.
The shelter is in a church hall. There are cots to sleep on and a table with hot
drinks. Two men are making sandwiches. I've never seen a bigger jar of mayo.
We see people from our building. They're talking about who did this. What
will happen to us?
"It's a sad, sad night," Mr. Jackson says.
I ask him about Jasmine.
He says he's pretty sure he saw her. "She got out, Daniel," he tells me. I hope
he's not just trying to make me feel better.
"Did you see my cat?" Mrs. Kim asks. "He is orange."
"He's the color of carrots," I say and I almost add, "and he's fat and...
But I don’t.
A girl gives me a mug of hot chocolate. I wish it had more sugar. When I
finish drinking it Mama says I should lie down. She's always making me lie down.
People keep coming. Some of them are crying. One woman screams and screams. I
hide under my blanket.
Then Mama says, "Daniel! Look!"
And there is the fire fighter who was at our building. He is standing in the
open door, with the smoky night behind him, and I see that he's carrying a cat
under each arm. That was how Mr. Ramirez carried Lissa and the baby. The cats are
howling, too.
"Jasmine!" The blanket's caught on my foot and I'm trailing it. "Oh, thank
you! Thank you for finding her!"
"The other cat is mine." Mrs. Kim takes her big, fat, mean old orange cat and
holds him close. I'm kissing Jasmine. She smells of smoke. "Where was she?" I ask
the fire fighter.
"The two of them were under the stairs, yowling and screeching," he says.
He takes a- mug of hot chocolate. I like him so much! I wish I had a whole barrel of
sugar for his drink.
"The cats were together?" Mrs. Kim asks.
The firefighter nods. "They were so scared they were holding paws."
I grin. "No they weren't!"
"What about our building?" Mr. Ramirez asks.
"The fire's out. You'll be able to go back in a day or two."
A woman puts down a dish of milk "Here kitty, kitty," she calls.
Jasmine jumps out of my arms, and Mrs. Kim puts her carrot-colored cat
down, too. The cats drink from the same dish. Milk isn't that good for cats, but I
don't say that either.
"Look at that!" Mama is amazed. "I thought those two didn't like each other."
Everyone looks at me, and it's suddenly very quiet.
"Did I say something wrong?" I whisper to Mama.
"No, Daniel." Mama's tugging at her fingers the way she does when she's
nervous. "My name is Gena," she tells Mrs. Kim. "Perhaps when things settle down
you and your cat will come over and share a dish of milk with us."
I think that's pretty funny, but nobody laughs.
Mrs. Kim picks up her cat and strokes him. She's staring at the wall. Maybe
she's not going to say anything.
But then she looks across at Mama. "Thank you," she says. "We will come.
Mama smiles.
I reach out and stroke Mrs. Kim's big old orange cat, too. "Can you hear him,
Mrs. Kim?" I ask. "He's purring!"
Survival of the Fittest by Soledad O’Brien
The racial slurs she heard as a child fueled journalist Soledad O'Brien's
drive to succeed
The O'Briens in 1967. Back:
Edward, Orestes, Soledad, and
Estela. Front: Cecelia, Maria,
Tony and Estela.
I'm 11. My sister
Estela is 14. We're
at a photo studio in
Smithtown, N.Y.,
not that far from
where we live. The
photographer says,
"Forgive me if I'm
offending you, but
are you black?" I turn the comment over in my head. I'm trying to figure out why
these nice-sounding words make me feel small and embarrassed. Estela, light
years ahead of me, starts to shred the guy. "Offend us? Offend us? By asking if
we are black?" He's white, and we're two mixed-race girls trying to get our picture
taken as an anniversary present for our parents. It's 1977. I'm this cheery,
optimistic kid who suddenly feels quite sunk.
Forgive me if I'm offending you… What is that supposed to mean? I am black; I
am also Latina, and half white through my Australian father. That isn't typical in
Smithtown, but there is nothing wrong with me. I just don't understand how it
could possibly be offensive to be black. This is the first time I remember feeling
like I might be disliked for who I am. But Estela is totally on it. She gives me the
universal body language for "We're taking a walk" and off we go.
I think this was the day it began, my life of perpetual motion. I was a middle-class
girl in a middle-class Long Island suburb, but my life became like those games of
dodge ball in the schoolyard. When you move, you can't get hit. You survive to
play again. By doing that, you come out the winner.
There was the day I was walking down the hall to science. An older kid, an
eighth-grader, came up to me. "If you're a [n-word], why don't you have big lips?"
he asked. It killed me that I could feel myself trying to formulate an answer, as if
the question merited one. There was no hostility in his voice. He wasn't much
bigger than me; he wasn't even scary. Today, almost 33 years later, I could pick
him out of a lineup. That day, I just pursed my mouth and kept moving. I wouldn't
dignify him with a response. I had to get to class.
I've been a journalist now for over 20 years. I sprint
from story to story. I am a big version of that little
girl in Smithtown, except now I'm walking toward
something rather than away from it. In interviews, I
force people to consider every word they say. I dig
in to the awkward question. I revel in making
people rethink their words. Nothing stops me. It's
not that I'm propelled by unfounded optimism. I just
see life as a series of victories, of wins.
I graduated with honors from a school where being half black and half white
meant that I was the brunt of bad jokes. I went to Harvard, just like my sister
Estela -- like all six of us siblings, in fact. I am by all objective measures a
successful journalist. I've gone on to marry a great guy, have four healthy kids,
anchor a network TV show, write books, give speeches, and produce awardwinning documentaries about challenging subjects like race.
That eighth-grader didn't hinder my forward motion one bit. Whatever became of
him, he was wrong about me. Whatever assumptions he made about me, I
refuted them by succeeding. Encounters like that changed me for the better. I
learned that I didn't need to stop and confront every injustice thrown my way.
That anger could teach me. That my experiences could help me identify with
people with whom I had little in common.
I knew that if I let anger take hold of me, every person who rubbed me the wrong
way would be paying for that guy back at the photo studio in 1977. Forgive me if
I'm offending you… I think life harbors the possibility that we can push forward
and come out better on the other end. In this country, one thing that’s certain is
that not far around the corner from every ugly thing there's something really
beautiful. And if you stop at every bitter comment, you will never reach your
Taco Head by Viola Canales
Mama used to pack two bean tacos for my school lunch each day. Every morning
she'd get up at five to make a fresh batch of flour masa. She'd roll out and cook one
tortilla at a time until she had a big stack of them, nice and hot, and then she'd fill each
with beans that she'd fried in bacon grease and flavored with chopped onion in her huge
cast-iron skillet.
And each morning I would sit at the kitchen table and say, "Mama, can I please
have some lunch money too, or a sandwich instead?" But the reply was always the same:
"Why, mi’ja? You already have these delicious bean tacos to eat."
It wasn't that the tacos weren't good; it was that some kids called all Mexican
Americans beaners, so the last thing I needed was to stand out like a big stupid sign. All
the other kids either bought their lunch at the cafeteria or took nice white sandwiches.
I started going to the very end of the cafeteria, to turn my back and gobble up my
Then I started eating each taco by first putting it in a bag.
It would take me all of five minutes to eat, and then I'd go outside to the
playground. I was always the first one there, often the only one for quite a while. But I
didn't mind, except on really cold days, when I wished I were still inside.
On one cold day, I so dreaded going outside that I started eating my second taco
rather slowly. "Hey, you!" someone shouted. I turned and found a big girl standing right
'smack in front of me, her arms crossed over her chest like bullet belts.
"What's in that paper bag?" She glared and poked at the bag with her fat finger.
I was stunned stupid. She grabbed the bag.
"Taco head! Taco head!" She yelled. In seconds I was surrounded by kids
chanting "Taco head! Taco head!"
I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole. Not only was I found out,
but the girl had caused my taco to fly open and splatter all over my white sweater.
This nightmare went on forever, until Coach Clarke, the girls' PE teacher, blew
her whistle and ordered everyone back to their seats.
"Sofia," she said, "don't pay attention to them. They're just being mean and silly."
She took me to the teachers' lounge and helped me clean up.
For two days after that, I went directly to the playground and didn't eat my lunch
until I got home after school. And then for two days after that, I ate inside a stall in the
girls' restroom.
The next Monday, Coach Clarke stopped me in the hall. "Sofia, how about we eat
lunch together in the cafeteria?"
When the lunch bell rang, I found Coach Clarke sitting in the middle of the
cafeteria, with students standing all around her. She looked up and waved me over.
"Here, Sofia," she said as she pulled out the chair beside her. "Everyone else was
begging to sit with me, but I said no, that I was saving this chair for you."
I sat down, feeling sick, nervous.
"How about we trade?" Coach said. She opened her lunch bag and pulled out a
half-sandwich wrapped in plastic. "I'll trade this for one of your tacos."
All the kids were staring at us.
"Oh, please, I really want to trade."
I hesitated and pulled out my lunch. I unwrapped the foil.
"Those look good," Coach said, reaching for a taco. "Better than any stupid
sandwich I've ever had. See for yourself Take a bite."
I carefully unwrapped the half-sandwich and took a little bite. It was awful,
something between sardines and bologna.
"Ha! Told you!" Coach Clarke said, laughing. "Here," she said, taking the rest of
the sandwich, "you don't have to eat it. Have your taco instead."
As I ate one and Coach Clarke ate the other, she kept making all these loud
mmmmm sounds. I knew everyone in the cafeteria could hear.
And the next day we ate lunch together in the middle of the cafeteria. We traded.
Again, her half-sandwich was truly awful. Do all sandwiches taste like something
between sardines and bologna? I wondered.
But this time, as she ate one taco and I the other, she told me stories about herself:
about how she became a coach because she'd fallen in love with sports at school; how she
loved playing soccer most but had also been good at playing field hockey and softball.
We laughed when she described the funny skirt she had worn playing field hockey.
I told her I liked to play soccer too, with my father and cousins in the street. Then
I remembered Clara and her stories, so I told Coach Clarke about Clara and how she told
me that I had inherited my great-great-grandmother's gift for kicking like a mule. I
hesitated, then said, "I wish I'd kicked the girl who made fun of me."
"Sofia, learn to kick with your head instead."
"Like in soccer?"
"No, like with your brain. And you know how you can really kick that girl, and
really hard?"
"By kicking her butt at school, by beating her in English, math, everything—even
Coach Clarke and I had lunch together the rest of that week. She asked me for the
recipe for the tacos. I had to ask both Papa and Mama for this, since Papa cleaned and
cooked the beans before Mama fried them.
After that, I wanted to "kick that girl" so bad that I asked Coach Clarke if I could
go to the library to study after lunch instead of wasting time on the playground. She
arranged it for me. She also told me, "Part of `kicking that girl' is to eat your tacos
proudly, and right in the middle of the cafeteria."
That year I kicked that girl in all classes and sports, especially soccer.
It wasn't long after my lunches with Coach Clarke that some of the other Mexican
American kids started eating their foods out in the open too. And sometimes when I
pulled out my lunch, I got offers to trade for sandwiches. But I always ate both my tacos
before heading off to the library.
Thank You, M’am by Langston Hughes
She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything
in it but hammer and nails. It had a long strap, and she carried it slung
across her shoulder. It was about eleven o’clock at night, and she was
walking alone, when a boy ran up behind her and tried to snatch her
purse. The strap broke with the single tug the boy gave it from behind.
But the boy’s weight and the weight of the purse combined caused him
to lose his balance so, instead of taking off full blast as he had hoped,
the boy fell on his back on the sidewalk, and his legs flew up. the large
woman simply turned around and kicked him right square in his bluejeaned sitter. Then she reached down, picked the boy up by his shirt
front, and shook him until his teeth rattled.
After that the woman said, "Pick up my pocketbook, boy, and
give it here." She still held him. But she bent down enough to permit
him to stoop and pick up her purse. Then she said, "Now ain’t you
ashamed of yourself?"
Firmly gripped by his shirt front, the boy said, "Yes’m."
The woman said, "What did you want to do it for?"
The boy said, "I didn’t aim to."
She said, "You a lie!"
By that time two or three people passed, stopped, turned to
look, and some stood watching.
"If I turn you loose, will you run?" asked the woman.
"Yes’m," said the boy.
"Then I won’t turn you loose," said the woman. She did not
release him.
"I’m very sorry, lady, I’m sorry," whispered the boy.
"Um-hum! And your face is dirty. I got a great mind to wash
your face for you. Ain’t you got nobody home to tell you to wash your
"No’m," said the boy.
"Then it will get washed this evening," said the large woman
starting up the street, dragging the frightened boy behind her.
He looked as if he were fourteen or fifteen, frail and willow-wild,
in tennis shoes and blue jeans.
The woman said, "You ought to be my son. I would teach you
right from wrong. Least I can do right now is to wash your face. Are
you hungry?"
"No’m," said the being dragged boy. "I just want you to turn me
"Was I bothering you when I turned that corner?" asked the
"But you put yourself in contact with me," said the woman. "If
you think that that contact is not going to last awhile, you got another
though coming. When I get through with you, sir, you are going to
remember Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones."
Sweat popped out on the boy’s face and he began to struggle.
Mrs. Jones stopped, jerked him around in front of her, put a halfnelson about his neck, and continued to drag him up the street. When
she got to her door, she dragged the boy inside, down a hall, and into
a large kitchenette-furnished room at the rear of the house. She
switched on the light and left the door open. The boy could hear other
roomers laughing and talking in the large house. Some of their doors
were open, too, so he knew he and the woman were not alone. The
woman still had him by the neck in the middle of her room.
She said, "What is your name?"
"Roger," answered the boy.
"Then, roger, you go to that sink and wash your face," said the
woman, whereupon she turned him loose--at last. Roger looked at the
door—looked at the woman—looked at the door—and went to the sink.
Let the water run until it gets warm," she said. "Here’s a clean
"You gonna take me to jail?" asked the boy, bending over the
"Not with that face, I would not take you nowhere," said the
woman. "Here I am trying to get home to cook me a bite to eat and
you snatch my pocketbook! Maybe, you ain’t been to your supper
either, late as it be. Have you?"
"There’s nobody home at my house," said the boy.
"Then we’ll eat," said the woman, "I believe you’re hungry—or
been hungry—to try to snatch my pocketbook."
"I wanted a pair of blue suede shoes," said the boy.
"Well, you didn’t have to snatch my pocketbook to get some
suede shoes," said Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. "You could of
asked me."
The water dripping from his face, the boy looked at her. There
was a long pause. A very long pause. After he had dried his face and
not knowing what else to do dried it again, the boy turned around,
wondering what next. The door was open. He could make a dash for it
down the hall. He could run, run, run, run, run!
The woman was sitting on the day-bed. After a while she said, "I
were young once and I wanted things I could not get."
There was another long pause. The boy’s mouth opened. Then
he frowned, but not knowing he frowned.
The woman said, "Um-hum! You thought I was going to say but,
didn’t you? You thought I was going to say, but I didn’t snatch
people’s pocketbooks. Well, I wasn’t going to say that." Pause.
Silence. "I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—
neither tell God, if he didn’t already know. So you set down while I fix
us something to eat. You might run that comb through your hair so
you will look presentable."
In another corner of the room behind a screen was a gas plate
and an icebox. Mrs. Jones got up and went behind the screen. The
woman did not watch the boy to see if he was going to run now, nor
did she watch her purse which she left behind her on the day-bed. But
the boy took care to sit on the far side of the room where he thought
she could easily see him out of the corner other eye, if she wanted to.
He did not trust the woman not to trust him. And he did not want to be
mistrusted now.
"Do you need somebody to go to the store," asked the boy,
"maybe to get some milk or something?"
"Don’t believe I do," said the woman, "unless you just want
sweet milk yourself. I was going to make cocoa out of this canned mild
I got her."
"That will be fine," said the boy.
She heated some lima beans and ham she had in the icebox,
made the cocoa, and set the table. The woman did not ask the boy
anything about where he lived, or his folks, or anything else that
would embarrass him. Instead, as they ate, she told him about her job
in a hotel beauty-shop that stayed open late, what the work was like,
and how all kinds of women came in and out, blondes, red-heads, and
Spanish. Then she cut him a half of her ten-cent cake.
"Eat some more, son," she said.
When they were finished eating she got up and said, "Now, here,
take this ten dollars and buy yourself some blue suede shoes. And
next time, do not make the mistake of latching onto my pocketbook
nor nobody else’s—because shoes come be devilish like that will burn
your feet. I got to get my rest now. But I wish you would behave
yourself, son, from here on in."
She led him down the hall to the front door and opened it.
"Goodnight!" Behave yourself, boy!" she said, looking out into the
The boy wanted to say something else other that "Thank you,
m’am" to Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, but he couldn’t do so as
he turned at the barren stoop and looked back at the large woman in
the door. He barely managed to say "Thank you" before she shut the
door. And he never saw her again.
The Candy Bite by Viola Canales
One Saturday morning, I walked into the kitchen and told Mama, "I'm not going
to be friends with Berta anymore. She's mean and selfish." I still hadn't figured out what
being a good comadre was all about, but I was sure I didn't want to make Berta part of my
"But Berta's your cousin, your best friend," Mama said as she stopped sweeping
and turned to look at me. "You've played together since you were babies."
"She might still be my cousin, but she's not my best friend anymore." I went into
the living room and started watching cartoons.
There was a knock on the front door. I glanced out the window and saw Berta's
hazel eyes and the red bow in her curly brown hair. I raced into the kitchen.
"It's Berta. Tell her I'm not here."
"You go tell her. What? I'm supposed to lie for you now?"
"Oh, please. I'll sweep the rest of the kitchen for you."
"I'll consider it if you tell me why all of a sudden you've stopped liking Berta."
Berta knocked louder. "Sofia! Sofia! Are you home?"
"Berta always takes a huge bite out of my candy bars, but when she has one she
puts her fingers on the tip so I can only take the tiniest nibble out of hers."
Mama shook her head. "Mi’ja ... go get two nickels from my purse and then take
Berta to the store to buy two candy bars—one for you and one for her."
The very next day Mama and I were walking to church for seven o'clock Sunday
Mass. I turned and saw Berta on the other side of the street, about ten paces ahead of us.
She was eating a chocolate bar. I glared at her, my mouth watering. Then I got mad.
"Is that Berta?" Mama looked at me.
"Eating a candy bar—right?"
"Sofia, why don't you go over and ask her to give you a bite?"
I started walking more slowly, letting Mama go ahead.
"Sofia, I'm talking to you."
"Go over and ask Berta for a bite of her chocolate."
"I ... don't want ... any."
"Oh, Sofia, don’t try that on me. I know you like your papa knows his bean pot.
You're loca about candy—chocolate especially. Now go over and get a bite. Remember,
you bought her a whole candy bar yesterday."
"But she'll only let me take a nibble."
"Well, if she puts her fingers at the tip again, you have my permission to go ahead
and bite them."
"I'm serious. Now go on." Mama turned me toward Berta and gave me a push.
I turned to Mama. She waved me off. I slowly crossed the street and turned to
Mama again. Still serious.
Berta was absorbed in her chocolate bar. I felt my blood hot and rushing, my
hands sweaty.
"Hey, Berta. . ."
She turned, her nostrils flared. She made her eyes into slits. "Oh,... hi."
I turned to Mama. She had caught up to us but was still across the street. Still
"Berta ... can I ... have a bite?"
Berta sighed like a big balloon letting out air. "Okay..." She took her candy bar
and put her fingers on the tip.
Mama nodded.
I took a huge bite. Berta howled and took a bite of my shoulder.
I kicked her like a mule. I didn't even bother to turn to look at Mama then.
As Berta's big teeth came at me for another bite, her mother, Tía Belia,
miraculously appeared and pulled her back. Mama caught me as I was about to kick Berta
on her butt.
We stood in our mothers' arms, panting, glaring, with sweaty red faces. Berta
clutched her candy bar like a trophy.
"Berta," said her mother, "now, share your chocolate with Sofia. Remember that
she bought you a whole candy bar yesterday. Break it in half and give her a piece."
Berta squinted.
"Berta ..."
With tears in her eyes, she took off the wrapper and snapped the candy bar in two.
One piece was much bigger than the other.
"Give your friend Sofia a piece." Berta handed me the smaller piece. "Wait. Sofia,
you take the piece you want."
I gulped, looked at Berta's watery eyes, and took the smaller piece.
The Follower by Jack Gantos
from Guys Write for Guys Read edited bv Jon Scieszka
My mother said he was trouble the first time I met him. His name was Frankie
Pagoda and he had just been catapulted across the yard like a human cannonball and
landed badly in ours. He was moaning as I stood over him, not knowing what to do. He
was on his back and at first he wasn't moving, but slowly he began to gyrate his arms and
legs like a stunned crab.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Frankie ... P—" he slowly replied. "Frankie Pagoda."
He was in a lot of pain, and here's what was going on. His older brother, Scary
Gary, who had already been in trouble with the law, had made him climb to the very top
of a reedy Australian pine tree with a rope between his teeth. Then he tied the rope to the
top of the tree and Gary tied the other end to the winch on Mr. Pagoda's tow truck. He
winched the tip of the tree all the way down so it made a big spring and then Frankie held
on like a Koala bear while Gary cut the rope with a machete. Frankie was launched like
the stones the Romans flung at the Vandals.
I was in my bedroom and Mom was in the kitchen; both of us had windows that
faced the back-yard. Then we heard that first whoosh! of the tree and Frankie hollering,
"Ahhhhhbh!" That was followed by a loud thud and a very soulful moan. And this is how
we found him—on his back with his arms and legs slowly stretching out.
"Are you okay?" I asked. He slowly turned over onto his hands and knees.
"Yeah," he said, wincing. "I've had worse."
Mom pointed at him as if he were a garden pest. "He's a heap of trouble," she said
to me. Then she said to Frankie, "If you have to hurt yourself, please do it in your own
He seemed to nod to that and I helped him up and he ran off. A few minutes later
we heard, "Whoosh!" Thud! "Ugh!" He was back.
"Something is messed up with those people," Mom said, chopping up onions that
evening. "Something's wrong in their heads."
Maybe there was something wrong with me, too. I was different from Frankie but
still, the first moment I saw him in pain, it occurred to me that I wanted to be in pain, too.
That evening my mother came into my room. "If I ever catch you playing with
that kid or over at their house, you will be in big trouble. This is just a friendly warning,"
she said.
"'Why?" I asked. "He's a neighbor and will probably be my friend."
"You should not be friends with kids who are a danger to themselves and others."
I got some courage up and replied, "That's what I love about him."
She pointed a red finger at my chest. "You are a follower, not a leader," she said
bluntly. "You are putty in the wrong hands. Don't get me wrong. You're a nice kid, but
you are most definitely a follower."
I sort of knew this was true but I didn't want to admit it to her. Plus, a little of me
still wanted to believe that I was strong, that I was my own man and a great leader.
But within a week I was Frankie's man, which was pretty scary because he was
Gary's man, which made me low man on the totem pole—or pine tree. The first time
Gary launched me, I hit a car. It was an old Mercury Cougar parked in their backyard. It
didn't have any wheels and sat on its belly like a cat crouching to catch a bird. I hit the
roof, which was like a steel trampoline. It dented down and popped up and I went
springing off the top. As I was in the air, I kept thinking, When you hit the ground, roll
and tumble and it won't hurt so much. This is what I had learned from watching Roller
Derby on TV. It was my favorite show and very violent, but the players always avoided
massive debilitating and life-threatening injuries as long as they rolled and tumbled
across the wooden track or over the rails and onto the rows of metal folding chairs. So, as
I flew through the air, I stared at the grassy yard and planned my clever descent. I hit the
ground with my outstretched arms and, instead of bouncing as if my hands were shock
absorbers, I collapsed into the group like a piece of space junk.
I dislocated the fingers on my right hand, bruised the side of my face, and
sprained my right shoulder. I limped home hunched over like Quasimodo and went
straight to my room. A few minutes later I was barking in pain from relocating the joints
in my fingers. I was so afraid my mother would see my bruised face that I stole my
sister's makeup and powdered my bruise. At dinner I couldn't use mv right arm. It hung
limply by my side like an elephant's trunk. I must have pinched a nerve on contact with
the ground that left my arm paralyzed. Perhaps for life. I ate with my left hand and food
kept falling down mv chin and shirt and onto my lap.
"What's wrong with your arm?" my mother asked.
"Nothing," I mumbled.
She sneered, stood op, and came around to my side. She grabbed my arm and
pulled on it like it was the starter rope on a lawnmower engine. Something deep inside
my shoulder went Pop!
"Arghhh," I sighed. The relief from the pain was heavenly.
"You are dumb as a post," my mother said. "I'm warning you—don't play with
that kid! He'll lead you to your death."
I couldn't help myself. The next day I felt pretty good and my teeth no longer
throbbed when I breathed through my mouth. As soon as my mother went into the
bathroom I ran over to Frankie's house. His brother Gary had rigged up an electric chair
with a train transformer. He ran copper leads from the transformer to chicken wire on the
chair and duct-taped it down.
"Don't be a chicken," he said demonically when he saw me. "Take a seat."
I did and it was torture at its most challenging. When I got home I looked at my
naked butt in the mirror, and it was singed with the same chicken wire pattern that was on
the chair. "Wow," I said. "Pretty cool."
The next day my mother did the laundry. She came to me with my pants, which
were singed with the same wire pattern. "You don't have to tell me how this happened,"
she said. "You just have to stop. Whatever drives you to do this stuff is a sickness. So I'm
grounding you for a while until you start displaying some sense."
Maybe I was sick. Maybe I was a follower. But I couldn't help myself. I wanted to
sneak back for more. I was just thinking of crawling out the window when I looked over
at the Pagoda house, and Frankie had his bike up on the peak of his roof. He was poised
to pedal down the slope and land in the pool, which was quite a distance from the eaves
of the house.
"Go'." Gary demanded. Frankie did. He pedaled as far as he could and yelled all
the way down and then was in the air. My vision was blocked bv a bush, and instead of a
splashing sound there was the springy metal sound of his bike hitting the concrete patio
and clattering around. In a minute Gary was hollering at him to stop being a sissy and to
get up and the dent in his forehead wasn't anything to cry over. I rubbed my hand over
my forehead. Perhaps a little dent in my own would look good, I thought.
The ambulance arrived in a few minutes. After some begging, Mom allowed me
to visit Frankie in the hospital, and later, once Scary Gary was sent off to a special
program for dangerous boys, I even snuck over to Frankie's house a few times. He
recovered just fine. And because he stopped doing dumb things for Gary, I stopped doing
dumb things for him. He was a follower too, like me. And when you put two followers
together nothing really bad happens. We didn't get hurt for a while or do anything too
stupid. About a month went by before I secretly hoped Scary Gary would return home
and rescue us from being so dull. I was bored out of my mind.
The Little Boy and the Old Man by Shel Silverstein
Said the little boy, "Sometimes I drop my spoon."
Said the old man, "I do that too."
The little boy whispered, "I wet my pants."
"I do that too," laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, "I often cry."
The old man nodded, "So do I."
"But worst of all," said the boy, "it seems
Grown-ups don't pay attention to me."
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
"I know what you mean," said the little old man.
The Marble Champ by Gary Soto
Lupe Medrano, a shy girl who spoke in whispers, was the school’s spelling bee
champion, winner of the reading contest at the public library three summers in a row, blue
ribbon awardee in the science fair, the top student at her piano recital, and the playground
grand champion in chess. She was a straight-A student and—not counting kindergarten,
when she had been stung by a wasp—never missed one day of elementary school. She had
received a small trophy for this honor and had been congratulated by the mayor.
But though Lupe had a razor-sharp mind, she could not make her body, no matter
how much she tried, run as fast as the other girls’. She begged her body to move faster, but
could never beat anyone in the fifty-yard dash.
The truth was that Lupe was no good in sports. She could not catch a pop-up or
figure out in which direction to kick the soccer ball. One time she kicked the ball at her own
goal and scored a point for the other team. She was no good at baseball or basketball either,
and even had a hard time making a hula hoop stay on her hips.
It wasn’t until last year, when she was eleven years old, that she learned how to ride
a bike. And even then she had to use training wheels. She could walk in the swimming pool
but couldn’t swim, and chanced roller skating only when her father held her hand.
“I’ll never be good at sports,” she fumed one rainy day as she lay on her bed gazing
at the shelf her father had made to hold her awards. “I wish I could win something,
anything, even marbles.”
At the word “marbles,” she sat up. “That’s it. Maybe I could be good at playing
marbles.” She hopped out of bed and rummaged through the closet until she found a can
full of her brother’s marbles. She poured the rich glass treasure on her bed and picked five
of the most beautiful marbles.
She smoothed her bedspread and practiced shooting, softly at first so that her aim
would be accurate. The marble rolled from her thumb and clicked against the targeted
marble. But the target wouldn’t budge. She tried again and again. Her aim became accurate,
but the power from her thumb made the marble move only an inch or two. Then she
realized that the bedspread was slowing the marbles. She also had to admit that her thumb
was weaker than the neck of a newborn chick.
She looked out the window. The rain was letting up, but the ground was too muddy
to play. She sat cross-legged on the bed, rolling her five marbles between her palms. Yes,
she thought, I could play marbles, and marbles is a sport. At that moment she realized that
she had only two weeks to practice. The playground championship, the same one her
brother had entered the previous year, was coming up. She had a lot to do.
To strengthen her wrists, she decided to do twenty push-ups on her fingertips, five
at a time. “One, two, three . . .” she groaned. By the end of the first set she was breathing
hard, and her muscles burned from exhaustion. She did one more set and decided that was
enough push-ups for the first day.
She squeezed a rubber eraser one hundred times, hoping it would strengthen her
thumb. This seemed to work because the next day her thumb was sore. She could hardly
hold a marble in her hand, let alone send it flying with power. So Lupe rested that day and
listened to her brother, who gave her tips on how to shoot: get low, aim with one eye, and
place one knuckle on the ground.
“Think ‘eye and thumb’—and let it rip!” he said.
After school the next day she left her homework in her backpack and practiced three
hours straight, taking time only to eat a candy bar for energy. With a popsicle stick, she
drew an odd-shaped circle and tossed in four marbles. She used her shooter, a milky agate
with hypnotic swirls, to blast them. Her thumb had become stronger.
After practice, she squeezed the eraser for an hour. She ate dinner with her left hand
to spare her shooting hand and said nothing to her parents about her dreams of athletic
Practice, practice, practice. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. Lupe got better and beat her
brother and Alfonso, a neighbor kid who was supposed to be a champ.
“Man, she’s bad!” Alfonso said. “She can beat the other girls for sure. I think.”
The weeks passed quickly. Lupe worked so hard that one day, while she was drying
dishes, her mother asked why her thumb was swollen.
“It’s muscle,” Lupe explained. “I’ve been practicing for the marbles championship.”
“You, honey?” Her mother knew Lupe was no good at sports.
“Yeah. I beat Alfonso, and he’s pretty good.”
That night, over dinner, Mrs. Medrano said, “Honey, you should see Lupe’s thumb.”
“Huh?” Mr. Medrano said, wiping his mouth and looking at his daughter.
“Show your father.”
“Do I have to?” an embarrassed Lupe asked.
“Go on, show your father.”
Reluctantly, Lupe raised her hand and flexed her thumb. You could see the muscle.
The father put down his fork and asked, “What happened?”
“Dad, I’ve been working out. I’ve been squeezing an eraser.”
“I’m going to enter the marbles championship.”
Her father looked at her mother and then back at his daughter. “When is it, honey?”
“This Saturday. Can you come?”
The father had been planning to play racquetball with a friend Saturday, but he said
he would be there. He knew his daughter thought she was no good at sports and he wanted
to encourage her. He even rigged some lights in the backyard so she could practice after
dark. He squatted with one knee on the ground, entranced by the sight of his daughter
easily beating her brother.
The day of the championship began with a cold blustery sky. The sun was a silvery
light behind slate clouds.
“I hope it clears up,” her father said, rubbing his hands together as he returned from
getting the newspaper. They ate breakfast, paced nervously around the house waiting for
10:00 to arrive, and walked the two blocks to the playground (though Mr. Medrano wanted
to drive so Lupe wouldn’t get tired). She signed up and was assigned her first match on
baseball diamond number three.
Lupe, walking between her brother and her father, shook from the cold, not nerves.
She took off her mittens, and everyone stared at her thumb. Someone asked, “How can you
play with a broken thumb?” Lupe smiled and said nothing.
She beat her first opponent easily, and felt sorry for the girl because she didn’t have
anyone to cheer for her. Except for her sack of marbles, she was all alone. Lupe invited the
girl, whose name was Rachel, to stay with them. She smiled and said, “OK.” The four of them
walked to a card table in the middle of the outfield, where Lupe was assigned another
She also beat this girl, a fifth-grader named Yolanda, and asked her to join their
group. They proceeded to more matches and more wins, and soon there was a crowd of
people following Lupe to the finals to play a girl in a baseball cap. This girl seemed dead
serious. She never even looked at Lupe.
“I don’t know, Dad, she looks tough.”
Rachel hugged Lupe and said, “Go get her.”
“You can do it,” her father encouraged. “Just think of the marbles, not the girl, and let
your thumb do the work.”
The other girl broke first and earned one marble. She missed her next shot, and
Lupe, one eye closed, her thumb quivering with energy, blasted two marbles out of the
circle but missed her next shot. Her opponent earned two more before missing. She
stamped her foot and said “Shoot!” The score was three to two in favor of Miss Baseball
The referee stopped the game. “Back up, please, give them room,” he shouted.
Onlookers had gathered too tightly around the players.
Lupe then earned three marbles and was set to get her fourth when a gust of wind
blew dust in her eyes and she missed badly. Her opponent quickly scored two marbles,
tying the game, and moved ahead six to five on a lucky shot. Then she missed, and Lupe,
whose eyes felt scratchy when she blinked, relied on instinct and thumb muscle to score
the tying point. It was now six to six, with only three marbles left. Lupe blew her nose and
studied the angles. She dropped to one knee, steadied her hand, and shot so hard she
cracked two marbles from the circle. She was the winner!
“I did it!” Lupe said under her breath. She rose from her knees, which hurt from
bending all day, and hugged her father. He hugged her back and smiled.
Everyone clapped, except Miss Baseball Cap, who made a face and stared at the
ground. Lupe told her she was a great player, and they shook hands. A newspaper
photographer took pictures of the two girls standing shoulder-to-shoulder, with Lupe
holding the bigger trophy.
Lupe then played the winner of the boys’ division, and after a poor start beat him
eleven to four. She blasted the marbles, shattering one into sparkling slivers of glass. Her
opponent looked on glumly as Lupe did what she did best—win!
The head referee and the President of the Fresno Marble Association stood with
Lupe as she displayed her trophies for the newspaper photographer. Lupe shook hands
with everyone, including a dog who had come over to see what the commotion was all
That night, the family went out for pizza and set the two trophies on the table for
everyone in the restaurant to see. People came up to congratulate Lupe, and she felt a little
embarrassed, but her father said the trophies belonged there.
Back home, in the privacy of her bedroom, she placed the trophies on her shelf and
was happy. She had always earned honors because of her brains, but winning in sports was
a new experience. She thanked her tired thumb. “You did it, thumb. You made me
champion.” As its reward, Lupe went to the bathroom, filled the bathroom sink with warm
water, and let her thumb swim and splash as it pleased. Then she climbed into bed and
drifted into a hard-won sleep.
The Rider by Naomi Shihab Nye
A boy told me
if he roller-skated fast enough
his loneliness couldn’t catch up to him,
the best reason I ever heard
for trying to be a champion.
What I wonder tonight
pedaling hard down King William Street
is if it translates to bicycles.
A victory! To leave your loneliness
panting behind you on some street corner
while you float free into a cloud of sudden azaleas,
pink petals that have never felt loneliness,
no matter how slowly they fell.
from Fuel: Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, 1998
Boa Editions, Rochester, NY
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
They Are My Friends by Margaret Atwood
The black door opens. I'm sitting in the mouse-dropping and formaldehyde smell of
the building, on the window-ledge, with the heat from the radiator going up my legs,
watching out the window as the fairies and gnomes and snowballs below me slog through
the drizzle to the tune of "Jingle Bells" played by a brass band. The fairies look
foreshortened, damaged, streaked by the dust and rain on the window glass; my breath
makes a foggy circle. My brother isn't here, he's too old for it. This is what he said. I have
the whole window-ledge to myself
On the window-ledge beside mine, Cordelia and Grace and Carol are sitting, jammed
in together, whispering and giggling. I have to sit on a window-ledge by myself because
they aren't speaking to me. It's something I said wrong, but I don't know what it is because
they won't tell me. Cordelia says it will be better for me to think back over everything I've
said today and try to pick out the wrong thing. That way I will learn not to say such a thing
again. When I've guessed the right answer, then they will speak to me again. All of this is for
my own good, because they are my best friends and they want to help me improve. So this
is what I'm thinking about as the pipe band goes past in sodden fur hats, and the drum
majorettes with their bare wet legs and red smiles and dripping hair: what did I say wrong?
I can't remember having said anything different from what I would ordinarily say.
My father walks into the room, wearing his white lab coat. He's working in another
part of the building, but he's come to check on us. "Enjoying the parade, girls?" he says.
"Oh yes, thank you," Carol says, and giggles. Grace says, "Yes, thank you." I say
nothing. Cordelia gets down off her windowsill and slides up onto mine, sitting close beside
"We're enjoying it extremely, thank you very much," she says in her voice for adults.
My parents think she has beautiful manners. She puts an arm around me, gives me a little
squeeze, a squeeze of complicity,' of instruction. Everything will be all right as long as I sit
still, say nothing, reveal nothing. I will be saved then, I will be acceptable once more. I
smile, tremulous with relief, with gratitude.
But as soon as my father is out of the room Cordelia turns to face me. Her expression
is sad rather than angry. She shakes her head.' "How could you?" she says. "How could you
be so impolite? You didn't even answer him. You know what this means, don't you? I'm
afraid you'll have to be punished. What do you have to say for yourself?" And I have nothing
to say.
I'm standing outside the closed door of Cordelia's room. Cordelia, Grace, and Carol are
inside. They're having a meeting. The meeting is about me. I am just not measuring up,
although they are giving me every chance. I will have to do better. But better at what?
Perdie and Mirrie come up the stairs, along the hall, in their armour of being older. I
long to be as old as they are. They're the only people who have any real power over
Cordelia, that I can see. I think of them as my allies; or I think they would be my allies if
they only knew. Knew what? Even to myself I am mute.'
"Hello, Elaine," they say. Now they say, "What's the little game today? Hide and
"I can't tell," I answer. They smile at me, condescending and kind, and head towards
their room, to do their toenails and talk about older things.
I lean against the wall. From behind the door comes the indistinct murmur of
voices, of laughter, exclusive and luxurious. Cordelia's Mummie drifts by, humming
to herself. She's wearing her painting smock. There's a smudge of apple-green on
her cheek. She smiles at me, the smile of an angel, benign but remote. "Hello, dear,"
she says. "You tell Cordelia there's a cookie for you girls, in the tin."
"You can come in now," says the voice of Cordelia from inside the room. I
look at the closed door, at the doorknob, at my own hand moving up, as if it's no
longer a part of me....
It turns colder and colder. I lie with my knees up, as close to my body as I can get
them. I'm peeling the skin off my feet; I can do it without' looking, by touch. I worry
about what I've said today, the expression on my face, how I walk, what I wear,
because all of these things need improvement. I am not normal, I am not like other
girls. Cordelia tells me so, but she will help me. Grace and Carol will help me too. It
will take hard work and a long time.
In the mornings I get out of bed, put on my clothes, the stiff cotton waist' with
the garters, the ribbed stockings, the nubbled wool pullover, the plaid skirt. I
remember these clothes as cold. Probably they were cold.
I put my shoes on, over my stockings and my peeled feet.
I go out to the kitchen, where my mother is cooking breakfast. There's a pot
with porridge in it, Red River cereal or oatmeal or Cream of Wheat, and a glass
coffee percolator. I rest my arms on the edge of the white stove and watch the
porridge, simmering and thickening, bubbles coming up out of it one at a time and
releasing their small puffs of steam. The porridge is like boiling mud. I know that
when it comes time to eat the porridge I will have trouble: my stomach will contract,
my hands will get cold, it will be difficult to swallow. Something tight sits under my
breastbone. But I will get the porridge down somehow, because it's required.
Or I watch the coffee percolator, which is better because I can see everything,
the pinpoint bubbles gathering under the upside-down glass umbrella, then
hesitating, then the column of water shooting upwards through the stem, falling
down over the coffee in its metal basket, the drops of coffee dripping down into the
clear water, inking it brown.
Or I make toast, sitting at the table where the toaster is. Each of our spoons
has a dark-yellow halibut liver oil capsule in it, shaped like a small football. There
are the plates, gleaming whitely, and the glasses of juice. The toaster is on a silver
heat pad. It has two doors, with a knob at the bottom of each, and a grid up the
centre that glows red-hot. When the toast is done on one side I turn the knobs and
the doors open and the toast slides down and turns over, all by itself I think about
putting my finger in there, onto the red-hot grid.
All of these are ways of delaying time, slowing it down, so I won't have to go
out through the kitchen door. But no matter what I do, and despite myself, I am
pulling on my snowpants, wadding my skirt in between my legs, tugging thick
woollen socks on over my shoes, stuffing my feet into boots. Coat, scarf, mittens,
knitted hat, I am encased, I am kissed, the door opens, then closes behind me, frozen
air shoots up my nose. I waddle through the orchard of leafless apple trees, the legs
of my snowpants whisking against each other, down to the bus stop.
Grace is waiting there and Carol, and especially Cordelia. Once I'm outside
the house there is no getting away from them. They are on the school bus, where
Cordelia stands close beside me and whispers into my ear: "Stand up straight!
People are looking?" Carol is in my classroom, and it's her job to report to Cordelia
what I do and say all day. They're there at recess, and in the cellar at lunchtime.
They comment on the kind of lunch I have, how I hold my sandwich, how I chew. On
the way home from school I have to walk in front of them, or behind. In front is
worse because they talk about how I'm walking, how I look from behind. "Don t
hunch over," says Cordelia. "Don't move your arms like that."
They don't say any of the things they say to me in front of others, even other
children: whatever is going on is going on in secret, among the four of us only.
Secrecy is important, I know that: to violate it would be the greatest, the irreparable
sin. If I tell I will be cast out forever.
But Cordelia doesn't do these things or have this power over me because
she's my enemy. Far from it. I know about enemies. There are enemies in the
schoolyard, they yell things at one another and if they're boys they fight. In the war
there were enemies. Our boys and the boys from Our Lady of Perpetual Help are
enemies. You throw snowballs at enemies and rejoice if they get hit. With enemies
you can feel hatred, and anger. But Cordelia is my friend. She likes me, she wants to
help me, they all do. They are my friends, my girlfriends, my best friends. I have
never had any before and I'm terrified of losing them. I want to please.
Hatred would have been easier. With hatred, I would have known what to do.
Hatred is clear, metallic, one-handed, unwavering; unlike love.
Vacation by Rita Dove
I love the hour before takeoff,
that stretch of no time, no home
but the gray vinyl seats linked like
unfolding paper dolls. Soon we shall
be summoned to the gate, soon enough
there’ll be the clumsy procedure of row numbers
and perforated stubs—but for now
I can look at these ragtag nuclear families
with their cooing and bickering
or the heeled bachelorette trying
to ignore a baby’s wail and the baby’s
exhausted mother waiting to be called up early
while the athlete, one monstrous hand
asleep on his duffel bag, listens,
perched like a seal trained for the plunge.
Even the lone executive
who has wandered this far into summer
with his lasered itinerary, briefcase
knocking his knees—even he
has worked for the pleasure of bearing
no more than a scrap of himself
into this hall. He’ll dine out, she’ll sleep late,
they’ll let the sun burn them happy all morning
—a little hope, a little whimsy
before the loudspeaker blurts
and we leap up to become
Flight 828, now boarding at Gate 17.
Vocabulary Lesson by Ann Wagner
We don’t have wars,
We don’t have mistakes in combat,
We have
We have
Friendly fire
Flawed intelligence.
And we don’t have death.
Preemptive strikes.
We have
We don’t have soldiers,
We have
Loss of life
Collateral damage
Peace keepers
What we do have is
A careful vocabulary.

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