“Lexie?” I said on the first day of fifth grade. “Are you nervous about school?”
It was 6:10 a.m., and I was in the hall outside my big sister’s bedroom, leaning backward against her door, talking largely to the air. Lexie used to hang a NO PEARL sign on the door to keep me out, but these days I was welcome in her room as long as I was (a) fully clothed, since Lexie still didn’t approve of underwear visits, and (b) prepared to start a meaningful conversation. Like, I couldn’t interrupt her homework or her violin practice to say, “If Bitey died and then came back to life as a human, do you think he would ask me to marry him?” (Bitey is our cat.) Or, “Have you kissed your new boyfriend yet?” Actually, I thought the kissing question could start a very meaningful conversation, but Lexie never seemed to want to discuss either her boyfriend or kissing with me.
There was no answer from within Lexie’s room. In fact, there was no sound at all in our apartment. That was probably because it was 6:10 a.m. Everyone was still asleep. Everyone except me, Pearl Littlefield. I was nervous about starting fifth grade. And I was curious to find out whether Lexie was nervous about starting high school.
“Lexie?” I said again. “Lexie?”
I heard a thump from my parents’ room and decided to lower my voice.
“Lexie?” I said in a loud whisper.
“Pearl, WHAT?” replied my sister suddenly, yanking her door open. I fell into her room and landed on my bottom. “What are you doing? It isn’t even six fifteen yet.”
I got to my feet. “Are you nervous about school?”
Lexie clapped her hand to her forehead and flung herself on her bed. “You’re asking me this now?”
Well, duh. It was the first day of school. When was I supposed to ask? “I need to know,” I told her.
Lexie rolled her eyes. Or at least I think she did. She’d already closed her lids, but I could see that her eyeballs were rolling around underneath. “I guess so,” she replied finally. “Everyone is nervous on the first day of school, Pearl.”
“No, not everyone. I don’t think JBThree is nervous.”
JBIII is my new best friend. His complete name is James Brubaker the Third, but I shortened it to JBIII, which when you say it out loud it’s JBThree.
“So maybe you should talk to JBThree,” said Lexie, “and let me go back to sleep.”
Her alarm rang then and she made a face at me, but frankly, it wasn’t as mean a face as she would have made a few months ago. She turned off the alarm, patted me on the shoulder as she headed for the bathroom, and said, “You’ll be fine, Pearl.”
* * *
An hour and a half later I called good-bye to Mom and rode to the lobby of our apartment building with my father and Lexie and Lexie’s cell phone. There’s no cell-phone reception on elevators, but my sister had gotten a head start on her phone call by already speed-dialing her best friend Valerie’s number. Now her thumb was poised over the Send button, prepared to press it the very second she stepped out of the elevator, so as not to waste a moment contacting Valerie about important high school business. But she didn’t have to do that. When the elevator doors opened there were Valerie and also the two Emmas sitting on the couch in the lobby across from John, my favorite doorman. They were wearing a lot of black eyeliner and staring at their cell phones and not talking. But when they saw Lexie they jumped up, and the four of them started squealing and hugging like they hadn’t just been together the afternoon before.
“Bye, Dad! Bye, Pearl!” called Lexie, and she and her grown-up high school friends rushed out the door and onto Twelfth Street.
When you’re fourteen you don’t need an adult to take you to school, even if you live in New York City. When you’re ten you do. Also, just so you know, when you’re fourteen you get to have a cell phone and your own personal computer. When you’re ten, you don’t. (Well, I don’t.)
Dad and I walked past John, who gave me a high five and said, “Break a leg, Pearl,” which is a nice thing to say, not a mean one, except you’re supposed to say it to actors not students, but whatever.
We stepped outside and I looked across Twelfth Street, and there was JBIII coming out of his building with his mother who wanted to take a first-day-of-school picture. JBIII posed for one half of one second, and then joined Dad and me for the walk to Emily Dickinson Elementary.
“Remember the first day of school last year?” I said to my father. “You walked Justine and me to Emily Dickinson. This year you’re walking JBThree and me.”
“Things certainly do change,” replied Dad, and I thought he looked a little sad. That was because there had been a lot of changes in our lives besides who I walked to school with.
We turned the corner onto Sixth Avenue and passed by all the familiar places in our neighborhood: New World, which is a coffee shop, and Steve-Dan’s, which is my all-time favorite store because it sells art supplies, and Cuppa Joe, which is a new coffee shop, and Universal, which is a dry cleaner, and the Daily Grind, which is another new coffee shop. Over the summer Lexie and her friends started going to the Daily Grind to order Mocha Moxies, which they say are coffee drinks but which really look like giant milk shakes. Whenever Lexie starts talking about how she’s grown-up enough to drink coffee what I want to say back to her is, “Mom and Dad don’t squirt a tower of whipped cream on top of their coffee,” but one thing I have learned lately is when not to say something.
When Dad and JBIII and I passed Monk’s, which is a gift store, I could feel JBIII’s eyes on me. Well, not actually on me, which would be gross, but suddenly I could tell he was looking at me and I knew why. We were now one half of a block away from Emily Dickinson, and JBIII and I had decided that no matter what anyone thought, we were simply too old to be walked right up to the door of our school by a parent.
“Dad,” I said, “JBThree and I are ten years old now.” (JBIII was actually a lot closer to eleven, while I was just barely ten.)
“Yes, you are,” agreed Dad.
“And we think that—” JBIII frowned fiercely at me and I tried to remember the exact speech he had made me memorize the day before. “I mean,” I said, backing up, “and we feel strongly that we should be allowed”—JBIII poked my arm—“that, um, we’re responsible enough to walk the rest of the way to school by ourselves. Every day.”
“You can stand here and watch us,” said JBIII. And then he added quickly, “Sir.”
“Well…,” said my father.
Dad has let me do this 2x before, but now JBIII and I were asking to do it regularly, and my father has a teensy problem with change, whether it’s good or bad.
“Please?” I said, and now JBIII glared at me. He had also warned me not to whine. “Please, Father?” I said calmly.
“I suppose so.”
“Yes!” I exclaimed.
“Thank you, sir,” said JBIII.
“But remember—I’ll be watching you.”
“I know,” I said. “Don’t kiss me,” I added, and JBIII and I ran down the block. Just before we reached Emily Dickinson I waved backward over my shoulder to Dad.
JBIII and I wound our way through the halls of Emily Dickinson. We passed by the first-grade room that Justine Lebarro had been in the year before, and then we passed our old fourth-grade room. There was Mr. Potter, our teacher from last year, talking to his new students.
We kept on walking until we came to room 5A. I peeked through the doorway, then stepped back and flattened myself against the wall like a spy. “She’s in there,” I whispered to JBIII. “Ms. Brody.”
Our teacher was new to Emily Dickinson. All we knew about her was her name.
JBIII peeked in, too. “She looks all right,” he whispered to me.
The truth was that she looked very, very young, like if you switched her pants and her shirt for a white dress and a veil she could be a bride. I kept that thought to myself, though, because I could just hear Lexie clucking her tongue and saying to me, “A person can get married at any age, Pearl.” But still in my head all brides were young.
“Afraid to go in?” said a voice from behind JBIII and me, and we both jumped.
I turned around to see Jill DiNunzio, who is a person I could live without.
“No,” I said, doing an eye roll.
“So what are you waiting for?” she asked.
“Well, not you. Come on, JBThree.”
JBIII and I marched into our new classroom, leaving Jill behind.
Fifth grade had officially begun.
* * *
Ms. Brody let us sit wherever we wanted, at least to begin with. So JBIII and I chose seats together in the last row. I had always wanted to have a best friend to sit with on the first day of school. And it was a relief not to wind up sitting directly in front of the teacher’s desk like I did in Mr. Potter’s room so he could keep an eye on me.
I watched Jill look around and take a seat by the window. I expected her to save seats for Rachel and Katie, but before I knew what had happened, Ms. Brody had closed the door to our room and said, “Welcome, fifth graders.”
I raised my eyebrows. All the seats were taken.
Jill-Rachel-Katie had been split up. I almost jumped out of my chair and cried, “Yes!” but adults don’t usually like that sort of thing and I wanted to make a good impression on Ms. Brody so she wouldn’t be too mad the first time I left my homework papers under my bed or ran out of steam on a vocab assignment. (I am not a big fan of vocab.)
Ms. Brody began to talk about the things we would be studying in fifth grade, so I turned my attention to Jill and how she probably wouldn’t be able to wield any power in our classroom all by herself. By the look of things, she didn’t have any close friends at all in room 5A. And I had JBIII.
I could tell it was going to be a good year.
Next I thought about Lexie being in high school. I wondered what she and Valerie and the Emmas were doing right at that exact second. Then I thought about Bitey for a while, and then my parents, and finally I heard the word “homework.”
Homework? Really? On the very first day of school? This seemed unfair.
“I want you to write an essay about your summer vacation,” Ms. Brody was saying. “Please outline what you’re going to write about, and then write from the outline.”
Hmm. I thought that over. How would Ms. Brody know whether we had written an outline? I could probably skip that step.
“And please hand in both the outline and your essay tomorrow,” Ms. Brody finished up.
I glanced at JBIII, all prepared to make a face about the awfulness of fifth grade, but he was taking notes on practically every word Ms. Brody said, since one thing he always does is every single assignment.
* * *
When school finally ended and JBIII and I were walking home ten steps ahead of my father (I didn’t want to be rude, but really, it wasn’t as if I hadn’t walked the route to and from Emily Dickinson about 900x in my life), JBIII said to me, “Our essays are going to be pretty long, Pearl.”
“I guess.” I didn’t want to think about homework just then.
“Let’s go to your apartment and start them right now. We have a lot to write about.”
I wanted JBIII to come over, but I did not want to start my homework. “Let’s draw,” I said to him, thinking longingly of my art supplies.
“Nope,” said JBIII, but not in a mean way. “I want to do a good job on our first assignment for Ms. Brody.”
“All right,” I said at last.
As soon as we’d eaten a snack of apples and cheese sticks, JBIII and I sat down side by side on the floor of my bedroom. In the old days we would have settled in the family room, which is really the family room, living room, and dining room all in the same space. But recently the family room had become my father’s office and he was sitting there now, glaring at his computer screen.
“Now,” said JBIII in a businesslike voice, a pad of paper propped against his knees, “first things first.” In his neatest printing he wrote MY SUMMER VACATION–OUTLINE across the top of the first sheet of paper. He moved his pencil to the line below. “One,” he said aloud, and wrote a Roman numeral one.
Oh, yeah. You’re supposed to use Roman numerals on an outline. An interesting thing about Roman numerals is that JBIII has one in his name. III=3 in regular numbers.
I watched JBIII scratch busily away, making notes about his summer, and I tried to remember how Roman numerals go. Then I thought for a while about Rome, which made me remember an exhibit on Rome that had been at the Museum of Natural History on one of the worst days of my life. It was the end of third grade and our class had taken a field trip to the museum and suddenly I couldn’t find my classmates, only dinosaur skeletons, so I shouted, “Help! Police!” and got quite a few adults, including Mrs. DiNunzio (Jill’s mother) and our teacher, in trouble for losing me. After that, the other third graders would whisper “Help! Police!” in my ear whenever they wanted to annoy me, which was pretty often, since they already thought I was a big baby. The incident at the museum might not have been so bad if there hadn’t been two other incidents that year, one involving Show and Tell (which how was I supposed to know you don’t have Show and Tell anymore when you get to third grade in Emily Dickinson Elementary?) and one involving my tinkle. Yes, there was an accidental wetting of my pants, but I don’t want to go into the embarrassing details here. All you really need to know is that the whole year was embarrassing and that Jill and Rachel and Katie thought that every bad thing that happened to me was hilarious. Then we all turned up together in the same fourth-grade class, but by the end of that year JBIII and I had become friends, so I didn’t care so much about Jill-Rachel-Katie.
“Pearl?” said JBIII.
“Aren’t you going to start your outline?”
I looked at JBIII’s paper, which was all spotted with Roman numerals and notes to himself. Then I looked at mine, which was blank.
“I’m still collecting my thoughts,” I told him, and luckily at that moment, JBIII’s mother phoned because she wanted him to come home.
When he left, I sat down at the desk and opened my notebook. After a very long time I wrote MY SUMMER VACATION–OUTLINE across the top, and then I made a capital letter I on the next line, which is how you write a Roman numeral one.
I stared and stared at the I, and at last I turned to a clean page in my notebook. What would be much, much more fun than writing an outline would be making questionnaires for my parents to fill out at dinnertime. I wrote Mom’s in pink ink and Dad’s in green:
This was Mom’s questionnaire. I made a similar one for my father.
Then I settled down to start my outline. Next to the Roman numeral II wrote: My dad got fired.
Copyright © 2012 by Ann M. Martin