By Emerson Prentice
I reluctantly stood halfway up the crumbling concrete steps of Wexler Elementary, waiting. Pretending, if I waited long enough, the first day of fifth grade would, somehow, magically disappear. It was a crisp, fall morning. Not quite cold, but getting there. Golden brown leaves fell to the ground and blew across the cement. I only needed my shaggy gray sweatshirt, sweatpants, and a short sleeve shirt. It was my “first-day-of-school-doesn’t-really-matter-to-me” outfit.
Sophia walked up the steps past where I was standing, a huge, fake, smile painted on her face. She wore a dress that looked brand new, stiff lace with too-perfect red roses on the bottom. Sophia looked down on everyone. She was tall so that would be an easy habit to get into. But she didn’t do it because other kids were short. Sophia truly believed she was better than everyone else. I hated that she thought that, but I hated even more that I believed it sometimes.
Behind Sophia on the steps was, as usual, her frenzy of followers and wannabes. There were always different people following Sophia, so many that they needed to take shifts. Not like I’m counting or waiting for my turn to be Sophia’s friend or something. But also, deep down, maybe I’m a little afraid I’m that desperate.
After Sophia passed me and walked into the building, I started up the rest of the steps, not taking my eyes off my falling-apart shoes. That was the way the first day of school always started: with my head down.
Once I reached 5-427, I began breaking out in a sweat. It was hot inside the building, but, mostly, I was nervous. It was just the first day of school, but it felt way more important this year. I hadn’t had a single friend in all of elementary school and this was my last chance, my last year at Wexler Elementary. I was kind of sick of being the only kid who sat alone at lunch. But I had never really tried hard to be someone’s friend. And I was afraid that maybe I couldn’t. That the real problem was me.
I walked inside the classroom and picked the desk in the back right corner of the room. The seat I always chose. Sometimes, it’s just easier to hide in the corner. The whole reason you sit in the middle seats is to talk to your friends more easily. But I never had any friends to talk to. Of course, Sophia jumped into the desk in the very middle of the whole classroom. The seat she always chose. Because she had that many friends she needed to talk to.
I met Sophia, the first day of first grade. I was new at Wexler Elementary and I was lonely and even a bit scared, but I tried to act brave. I hopped off one of the yellow school buses and was marching right toward the front doors, head held high, when this tall, pretty girl bumped into me. I fell on the concrete and scraped my knee. I waited for her to say sorry, but instead she giggled a little bit and so did everyone following her. I wasn’t scared or sad or even mad. I was just so surprised. I didn’t know anyone who was that mean, so I avoided Sophia from then on.
That first day of school, I tried especially hard to avoid her. I hung my backpack on the back of my chair and sat down.
Then she came in: the new girl. I knew I liked her the moment I saw her. The way she was able to walk in different, but act the same as everyone else.
“Her name is George,” I heard Sophia whisper to one of her friends.
George looked for an open desk and just happened to pick the one right in front of me. I was glad. I’ve learned you can get to know a person really well just by staring at the back of their head.
Right away, I could tell that Sophia loathed George. The way she said George’s name made it obvious she didn’t like her. And every now and then, when George raised her hand and got a right answer, Sophia would look back at George, staring daggers. Then she’d put on that evil smile of hers–the one that adults believed for some reason–before whipping back to face Mrs. Akkerman.
Mrs. Akkerman cleared her throat. “Today, we will be starting our annual first day of school science project.” She glided over to her desk and picked up a small sheet of paper, taped it onto the whiteboard, and went back to where she had been standing. “You can all read your partner’s name off of the list, come up with a topic, and get started.”
I walked over with restraint. Every first day at Wexler Elementary, we did a project and every first day it seemed I was stuck with a partner I didn’t want. I ran my finger down the crisp white sheet, found my name and my partner’s name: George. Finally I was in luck. Now, maybe, I could get to know George and she could even be that first close friend I had been hoping for.
George came over to my table to start planning. “I was thinking,” she began, “that we should do a project on the average of how feet smell.”
Smelly feet? What kind of idea was that? I really just wanted our project to be good. “Or,” I said with a little force, “we could do something like how dense water is. That’s just complicated enough and all we have to do is look it up. Plus, it would make a really great poster.”
George just slowly shook her head. It was obvious she wasn’t going to budge.
“Do you want our poster to be like everyone else’s? Classic posters are always the worst. And some dumb thing we learned about two years ago?” George started pointed her finger at me while she scrunched up her face as if something smelled bad.
“Yeah, basically,” I admitted shrugging my shoulders. That was pretty much exactly what I was trying to do. Why did George have to be like this? Couldn’t she just accept that’s the type of person I am: someone who wants to fit in? Maybe I couldn’t be all perfect like Sophia. But maybe I couldn’t be brave and different like George either.
My body shifted in my seat. Really I was just waiting for a friend to come find me. Someone to sit with me at lunch. Someone to call me as soon as I get home. Maybe, I’m waiting for someone to help me stand up to Sophia, to help me win back some small war that I probably imagined to begin with; waiting for someone to help me be me. Not who they want me to be.
But then again, maybe I’d rather have a not-quite-right friend instead of ending up lonely and friendless, again.
George glanced at the door. Her hands trembled a little. She crossed her legs and uncrossed them a couple of times. Then she stood up bravely, as if there had just been something to be afraid of. She seemed on the verge of tears, too. I didn’t understand why, but I knew that feeling, unwelcome tears forcing their way out.
“So, you want to have a playdate tomorrow?” I offered, just to give her a second chance.
“I’m busy tomorrow,” George stuttered, an excuse for not hanging out with me definitely. I suggested more and more days but none worked for her. Soon it felt like, I’d suggested years worth of days.
“I’m leaving,” George sighed, but relieved, as if bricks had been lifted off her shoulders.
She had to mean leaving and coming back. She had to.
Then George walked away and right out the door.
“Wait, George!” Mrs. Akkerman called trailing after her. She couldn’t quite run because she was wearing high heels but she was going faster than she usually did. We could hear the tapping of her heels down the hallway. But I knew, George was long gone, at least for me. I want it to be Sophia’s fault that I have no friends. I want it to be her fault so bad. But this time, I’m not so sure.
I turned in a small circle. I decided to carry on with our project. I took a piece of poster board and two Sharpies. One for me and one for George. Just in case she does come back. This time, maybe I’ll be ready.