i can't believe the day's almost over
On Monday morning some mothers drive their children to the bus stop, where they achingly resist the urge to hug their babies. Instead they settle on forehead kisses so quick as to be nearly invisible. One boy stands slumped, breathing in the muggy air slowly, tired from being kept awake most of the night by lingering images from The X-Files. A mom rolls up in a Suburban and leans out the window: "Brittany, did you remember your keys?" Brittany scrunches her face, mortified, and rolls her eyes to Mia. Mia's got on a camouflage tank top, khaki shorts, two old string anklets, and white, silver-striped Adidas with the laces tied under the tongue. (White Adidas are the best shoes you can wear; Vans or Skechers are okay, too. If your Adidas are colored because your mom says white gets ruined too soon, you may as well be wearing Stride Rites.) Having decided that a sixth grader has to care more about her looks, Mia took a while to get ready today. She had her mom blow-dry her shoulder-length chestnut hair pouffy, but not too pouffy.
As Mia pushes her hair behind her ears, the seventh graders, weighed down by enormous backpacks, grill her:
"Do you like school?"
"Well, you won't by the end of sixth grade."
One of the most popular kids in her elementary school, Mia has the confidence that comes with having popular jocks as older brothers, plays soccer (the coolest sport), isn't afraid to try a never-before-seen hairstyle, and sasses just enough to crack the class up but still get away with it. She was the only girt not to cry at the end-of-fifth-grade pool party. So none of her classmates would guess that Mia Reilly has worries, too.
The only reason she didn't cry at the pool party was that she got it all out in private, the day before. She's anxious about middle school. If only she could wear her tall hidden-roller-skate shoes -- then she might not be the shortest in the school. After being with the same group since kindergarten, she's looking forward to meeting new kids from the two other elementary schools, but that's also what scares her: "How will I know I can trust them?" She's concerned about times tables and about teachers "from the Black Lagoon."
Another huge issue: Mia has to broker peace between Lily and their friend Alexandra, who aren't speaking after a fight this summer. They ended fifth grade best friends -- quite an accomplishment for Lily, who arrived, quiet and Southern and with no Adidas, in the middle of December. Lily and Alexandra spent practically all summer together, until one day Alexandra wanted to go outside to dance and Lily didn't. They argued and stopped talking to each other completely. "Alexandra has to be the boss of everything," Lily says. Seems to Mia like a stupid thing to fight over, but there it is. Getting them to make up "might take a little bit of time," she says, but "it's crucial, because I can't spend time with just one."
Dropped off by the buses but not allowed inside until the eight-forty-five bell, the students swarm outside the school building, a flat, cream-brick hexagon that lies in view of the big high school and the strip mall. A few eager boys peer through the front doors. They half shake hands or don't touch at all. The girls touch each other's hair. "Fine, don't say hi," one girl says to another. "I did say hi." The bell goes off and the students push their way inside, where Ms. Thomas snatches hats off heads. Teachers stand in the hall with homeroom lists, filtering kids down one hall or the other.
In homeroom Mia finds her assigned seat, up front. Lily sits in the back corner, wearing turquoise-plaid shorts, a white T-shirt, and a navy cardigan from The Children's Place. For an eleven-year-old she rarely slouches, conditioned from the discipline of ballet and gymnastics and a desire to one day be Miss America. Her dirty-blond hair spurts from a little ponytail; she hates the way it styles and wishes it were thinner. Her blue-gray eyes are always either cast down bashfully or (when she is sure they are not looking) studying the people around her, for clues on how to act. When her face is at rest, like now, it is inscrutable, but she will tell you she's pretty happy today. Last night she and Mia went to the Aaron Carter concert and screamed. Middle school all sounds interesting to her -- the lockers, the teachers, getting to sew in home ec -- and anyway, she doesn't fashion herself a worrier. Her answer to an annoyingly large number of questions is "I don't care," whether it's her mom asking what she wants for dinner or a friend asking what game she wants to play.
Split personalities are common among middle schoolers, Lily included. At home she is chatty and confident, not a hint of self-consciousness about her. She is an able caregiver to her siblings, nine-year-old Gabrielle, five-year-old Sean and the foster newborns who arrive one, two, three at a time without names. Among the neighbor kids she is something of a mother hen, leading the skit-writing and fort-building and chalk-drawing. When she is alone with Mia, hyperactivity takes over. Heady with the companionship of a true friend, Lily gets wacky. She cannot stop moving, tailing, touching, goofing. At school -- in any large group, in fact -- Lily rarely speaks, so her teachers would laugh if you told them this. Not Lily! Since she got to Maryland it's only every two months or so Lily figures she has something amusing to add to a lunch-table conversation. In the rare instances when, having appraised the sentence thoroughly in her head, she judges it worthy of emitting, everyone is like, "Uh, yeah."
Whereas Mia looks forward to meeting new kids, Lily's friends are set and she doesn't much care about making new ones. She learned the sign-language alphabet so they can communicate during class. Mainly, when Lily talks about friends, she is talking about Mia. "We're best friends," she's explained, "and we're the same height and same age. Our noses come up to the same place and so do our eyes. Her birthday is the day after my birthday. We were born twelve hours apart. So when my mom was having me, her mom was in labor. I call Mia 'M' or 'MM' or 'Mi' or 'Mia.' She calls me 'Lil' or 'Lily.' I have four names for her and she has two for me."
Lily has only one name for Alexandra -- "Alexandra" -- and though the two saw plenty of each other during orientation last week, she didn't use it once. When Alexandra came into the cafeteria that day, instead of seeking out Mia and Lily, she bounced over to Tamika, one of the few other black girls from their elementary school, which was somewhat of a relief to Lily, because she sees Alexandra as competition for Mia's attention. At the same time she was a little insulted. Today Alexandra is late; she is supposed to occupy the empty seat in front of Lily, who eyes it nervously.
The school computer has run Lily's first and middle names together: Lilyelise. During roll, when the rest of the kids are offering up corrections and nicknames to Mrs. Stokes, Lilyelise is too shy to say anything about it. The students are silent, and efficient Mrs. Stokes is already going over schedules -- no warm "Hi!" or "Welcome to middle school!" -- when Alexandra walks in, wearing a white button-down, a plaid miniskirt that wouldn't pass the fingertip test, and chunky black-heeled loafers. She finds her seat in front of Lily, who watches and then tilts her head down and keeps it there, through morning announcements, through Mrs. Stokes reviewing all the papers that need to be signed, through the questions about gym shoes and recess and what if my backpack doesn't fit in my locker, through the explanations of Homework Hotline and hall passes, until the bell finally rings and the kids set out on their favorite task of the day: unloading backpacks into lockers. The girls walk through the hall with Mia in the middle, Alexandra and Lily talking to her from either side, but not to each other.
When they walk into the cafeteria for lunch, the swim-team girls at one round table, already making progress on their bagels and sandwiches and Trix yogurt, call out for Mia. They've saved her a seat, but she leads the way to an empty table. Everyone there except Alexandra brings lunch from home; when she returns with fries, they are dispersed, and enthusiastically approved of. Lily listens as the girls discuss Mia's blue Kool-Aid, the classmate whose new house has closets the size of bedrooms, and Brittany's mother's bus-stop appearance. In the telling, "Did you remember your keys?" has become "DID YOU REMEMBER YOUR KEEEEEEYS?" but the girls still agree that this was preferable to a hug.
Ms. Thomas comes by the table and asks, "How was your first day?"
"Did they stuff you in the locker?"
She laughs. New sixth graders are just the cutest. Later in the year they'll turn a corner, and the teachers will wonder, "Who are you?" But for now most of them are overwhelmed, sweet, taking it all in soundlessly. In the cafeteria they raise their hands for permission to use the bathroom. The noise is one-fifth what it will be during seventh-grade and eighth-grade lunch. When Ms. Thomas counts down from five into the microphone, the room falls utterly silent, for which she congratulates them. "Welcome," she says. "It's nice to see people from all the feeder schools, and all over the world."
At recess, some boys chase a shopping cart. Keith West, the assistant principal, quarterbacks a football game. Mia marches to the soccer field with the swimmers, where they play against the boys and her shoe keeps flying off. Alexandra and Lily are left alone on the blacktop to speak their first words to each other in a month.
"What do you want to do?" Lily asks.
"Nothing," says Alexandra.
"I can't believe the day's almost over."
"Like my new watch?"
"Don't tell me -- you got it at Kohl's. I put the pink one on hold, but I can't decide." Maybe this isn't so hard.
When the whistle calls everyone inside, the boy who played Robin Hood in the fifth-grade play passes by. "Hey, Joel," Alexandra calls, "nice tights!"
Lily rolls her eyes -- at the boy having worn tights once, at Alexandra taunting him, at all of it.
Copyright © 2003 Linda Perlstein