I know where Mrs. Jardin keeps the crowns, we all do. They are locked in a cabinet high above the utility sink in which we wash our paintbrushes and the yellow sponge erasers used for clearing the blackboard at the end of each day. Only on very special occasions, like a birthday, does she take a crown out of the cabinet and with great dignity crown the lucky king or queen of the day, a royal blue velvet coronet trimmed with silver foil for girls, a glowing red and gold one for boys.
This day is my day, my birthday, and I've been waiting all semester for the chance to feel the sweet pressure of that blue crown on my head. In the morning, Mrs. Jardin mentions something "extra special" for me that afternoon, and I hope our class mother, responsible for party refreshments, is bringing chocolate cupcakes with fudge icing, mine with six pink-candy-striped candles, one for each year.
Poor Lynnie, I think generously. Her teacher, Mrs. Connelly, who is young and pretty, unlike old Mrs. Jardin with the sticky, prickly porcupine gray hair, doesn't make much of birthdays, not even for first graders.
A published author, Mrs. Jardin is considered the best of the three first-grade teachers. Every year at the spring Book Fair, she sets up a table where she sells autographed copies of her books, which are wildly if locally popular, even though they were printed at her ownexpense. I know that even though she's scary and old, I'm supposed to be proud to be in her class. But my secret, kept from everyone like a picked scab, is that I wish I had Mrs. Connelly, even without the crowns, because her room is neat and clean and calm, not bubbling over with clamor and rickety excitement all the time.
Along with writing, reading, and arithmetic, Mrs. Jardin teaches us "etickette." Which means manners. The girls have learned to tuck needed Kleenex up our sleeves instead of stuffing our pockets with them. "Gentlemen" always open the door for "ladies" and slide out their chairs behind them at the table, slipping them back underneath their fannies just in time. That "patience is a virtue" and it is "better to give than receive" are maxims repeated like the eleventh and twelfth commandments several times a week, as occasions demand.
The morning yawns on through reading groups and arithmetic lessons into lunch, then recess, then art class. Finally, Mrs. Jardin teases me with a stern smile. "Well, this is someone's special day, isn't it?" She draws a footstool over to the utility sink, climbs on, and reaches up with a key to unlock the cabinet. Spellbound, I close my eyes, opening them again only after I hear the clunk of her footsteps back on the floor. She holds the red crown in one hand and the blue crown in the other. Why two crowns? Is there a boy with a November 17 birthday? Then there's a knock at the door, followed by Mrs. Connelly, holding Lynnie by the hand.
"Be good, Lynnie," Mrs. Connelly urges her, after nodding at Mrs. Jardin as if it has been prearranged. "Remember, you're a guest." Then she heads back out the door, leaving Lynnie standing up front, next to the teacher's desk.
"Since you and Lynnie are identical twins," Mrs. Jardin says, "do you two know what identical means?"
"I know! I know!" I wave my hand and jump up and down.
"That's good, Pammy. What about you, Lynnie?"
As usual Lynnie just bites her lower lip and looks at me.
"Lynnie, it means we look just the same, like our dresses!" I match my blue print dress to hers.
"That's right, Pammy." Mrs. Jardin smiles down at me. "We thought it would be nice for you to have your sister join us for the party."
That's when the terrible realization comes to me: The two crowns are for us, for Lynnie and me. But there is only one blue one, only one to crown a girl. Lynnie is already fingering it, tipping it on its side, preparing to pick it up and put it on her head.
I leap forward. "That's my crown!" I cry. "I've got dibs on the girls' crown!"
Swiftly, almost without moving, Lynnie ducks her head and eases the crown on top.
"No!" I wail. "This is my party! That's my crown. Tell her, Mrs. Jardin. She has to wear the boys' crown. She doesn't even belong here, she's just a visitor!"
"Now, hush, Pammy," Mrs. Jardin scolds. "She's your sister and a guest. A good hostess offers her guest the choice of crowns, doesn't she?"
Lynnie is smiling now, with a look of open triumph, her eyes sneering "nyah, nyah, nyah!" The beautiful blue crown matches the blue pattern in her dress so perfectly it almost seems she's planned it.
I lose my fight to keep my tears at bay.
"Come, come, Pammy. Have you forgotten your manners? You have a perfectly good crown right here. What's wrong with red? Now, be a big girl. What's gotten into you?" Mrs. Jardin's words cut into my heart like broken glass. I sniffle miserably and shake my head.
"Good, then put on your crown and let's have no more of this. Sometimes we learn from our disappointments."
I obey, my face pink, with both shame and anger.
Then someone laughs. I hear a muffled snigger. "Look, she's wearing the boys'crown--"
"Maybe she's not Pammy but Sammy!" someone whispers savagely.
I bite my lips to keep from yelling back. And I fight my desire to rip the crown from Lynnie's head, make her suffer the humiliation of wearing the boys' crown. How I hate her! I hate her more than I can remember hating anyone. I swallow and swallow and swallow: tears, bile, fury. I swallow the terrible injustice of life with a twin who steals your crown, and I swallow the injustice of being Pammy in the red crown instead of Lynnie in the blue.
In the morning I dread the bus ride from our house to the elementary school. Every time we pick up kids, the bus farts black stinky clouds. I hold my breath, but the smell still makes me sick. I stare out the window to keep from throwing up.
Finally we pull up to the school ramp. The bus shudders and dies. I grab my things, slide over the vinyl seat, and squeeze my feet into the aisle.
"Ow! Lynnie, stop pushing!" says Pammy, who is directly in my way. "C'mon, it's not nice!"
I ignore her. Right now being first is more important to me than being nice. Using my red plaid lunch box like a snowplow, I give her a shove, and when she stumbles I quickly wedge myself in front of her. Pammy was born five minutes ahead of me and because of that she gets to go first in everything. I'm always second. Today's our birthday, November 17--today we're six. Pammy's in Mrs. Jardin's class. Because of that I think I have a right to push ahead of her.
I wish we didn't have to go to school at all today. All Pammy can do is talk about the crown, and I don't want to hear it.
Mommy says I should be happy for her, but I'm not. I hate thinking about Pammy getting to wear that beautiful crown. My teacher, Mrs. Connelly, doesn't do anything really special for birthdays.
Mrs. Connelly is very nice and very pretty and she's not strict at all, except she wants things arranged just so. She puts our artwork and papers neatly on the bulletin boards with thumbtacks in all four corners, and she has stuck letters above the blackboard to help us remember the alphabet. Everything is neat. Mrs. Connelly makes us put things away where they belong before we go on to something else.
Mrs. Jardin has stuff everywhere and everybody knows she is the best teacher in first grade and only the smartest kids are in her class.
What I hate the most about not having Mrs. Jardin is the birthday crowns. I saw them once when I passed by in the hall and Mrs. Jardin had them out on her desk. They were carved of real gold--not silly tinsel or painted cardboard--and covered with diamonds and rubies. They sparkled like Christmas lights in December. Pammy says each crown has a center pillow of soft real velvet with nap so thick when you brush it in the right direction it's as smooth and silky as rabbit fur. The queen's crown is a bright royal blue and the king's crown is fire engine red. Today Pammy is going to wear the blue crown and I'm trying to pretend I don't care, but I do. I wish it was me who had Mrs. Jardin, not Pammy.
"Lynnie? Are you listening?"
I look around. My teacher hates it when I daydream instead of pay attention. I'm in for a scolding. But when my eyes find her, Mrs. Connelly is smiling.
"Lynnie, would you come up here please."
I get up so fast my pencil goes flying and I knock my chair over with a loud clatter. She grimaces. Tears spring to my eyes as I right the chair and walk carefully to the teacher's desk at the back of the classroom. I'm expecting her to be angry. Instead, her eyes twinkle and she's pursing her lips so tight I think she's swallowed some secret that's trying to come back up. She stoops a bit to my level the wayteachers do when they are trying to be friendly and puts a hand on my shoulder.
"I want to show you something, Lynnie," she says with a smile that dimples her cheek. She writes some numbers or letters on a piece of paper and puts it in front of me.
"Do you know what it says?"
I squint and concentrate, but I can't pretend I know. I shake my head and feel tears gathering. I won't be the crybaby! Not today.
"I'll give you a hint, Lynnie. It's a date." She points to each number with her finger and says it out loud. "Eleven, seventeen, nineteen fifty-two. Eleven means the month, November. Seventeen is--"
"It's our birthday today! Pammy and me!" I blurt out, my chest suddenly expanding with happiness. Maybe Mrs. Connelly decided to copy Mrs. Jardin and give me a party too. I can barely keep still. I can't stop my feet and knees from doing an excited little jig.
"Mrs. Jardin has invited you to join Pammy for her birthday celebration," says Mrs. Connelly.
Oh, no! And have to watch Pammy show off? Before I can say anything, she takes my hand, walks me two doors down to Pammy's classroom, plunks me in front of the class, and there I stand, alone and grinning like an idiot.
Mrs. Jardin tells Pammy to come up and join me. Perfect as always, Pammy closes her workbook, puts her papers in a neat stack, and places them carefully in her desk. She stands and pats smooth the front of her dress before she pushes her chair under the desk where it belongs and walks to where I stand. Pammy gives me a wan smile and turns toward the teacher. I see her staring at the two crowns Mrs. Jardin has taken out of their hiding place. A shiver of excitement makes me forget I'm not getting to wear one, and I rush over to see them up close. At first I don't believe what I see.
Those are the crowns? They can't be. On the teacher's desk, close up, these crowns are shabby and old, not shiny or grand at all. There isn't a single jewel and even the glitter doesn't sparkle. Thegirls' crown isn't gold, but cardboard covered with ordinary tinfoil. The blue velvet is thin and wearing away completely in places. Somebody's playing a trick--these aren't the real birthday crowns, are they?
Before I can say anything, Mrs. Jardin asks which one I want and I tell her. It all happens so fast it doesn't cross my mind to pick the red one just to be nice to Pammy. Of course I put on the blue one. I'm a girl. The red is for boys.