Welcome to my short story blog. These posts will be updated as I write new material, and develop new ideas. I don't plan on frequent posts, as this type of material takes longer to develop than my other blog, Travelighter. I welcome comments from you, and hope these are inspirational and enjoyable.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Oliver's Puppy Story


 “Once upon a time,” Oliver chuckled, and Libby had to smile at the silly beginning.  “A young dog came to live with a young family.  He worked hard at learning what was expected of him, and found that it was really quite easy to do what he was told.  Except for one thing.  When they left him alone at home, he became very unhappy, and very forgetful.  He forgot that he wasn’t supposed to drink out of the toilet, and he wasn’t supposed to chew up the towels (they were so much fun to pull off the rods and rip to shreds), and he wasn’t supposed to drag the newspaper all over the house.  When his people got home, he tried to show them how glad and relieved he was that they were back, but all they did was scold and punish him.  So he became more afraid of times they would leave him.  “Not the best logic,” Oliver said, “but a dog can’t be expected to understand everything.”
     “Back to the story.  One day, they left him and didn’t come back.  Not at his dinner time, not when it got dark, and not when it was bedtime.  He ripped up two towels and pulled the rest off the wall.  He spread the newspaper all the way down the hall.  Which came in handy when he needed to do his business.  He drank half the toilet water and drooled all the way onto the hall rug.  But the newspapers absorbed some of it.  He was so bored he took a nap.”  Libby laughed, picturing the dog’s antics through the house.
     “But he became more afraid, the longer his people were gone.  He became more forgetful, and forgot he wasn’t supposed to howl in the house.  The howling made him feel better.  At least it wasn’t so quiet any more. When he stopped howling, it was fearfully quiet, so he howled some more.”
     Oliver paused, while the sound of the fearful quiet settled around them.  “Now dogs don’t think in words, I guess, but they seem to some times.  He wondered where his people were, and why they didn’t come home to him.  Maybe they were afraid of the mess they would find when they got there?  No, that couldn’t be it.  Maybe they got lost?  Maybe they needed directions to get back?  He howled louder so they could hear him and find their way home.”
     By this time Libby was laughing out loud.  The silly dog filled her with a vivid picture of confusion and loneliness.  “Oh, Oliver, what does he do?  What does he figure out?”
     “Well, using typical doggie logic,” Oliver grinned back at her, “he decided to try to get out of the house.  Not to escape or leave, but to go and find his people and help them get home.  Get home to him, to his house.”
     “He jumped at the front door, which of course, was locked and secure.  He scratched and dug at the back door, and pushed at the little door he usually used to get to the yard, but the flap was tightly shut, and wouldn’t budge.  He wandered around the house, wondering what to do next.  A cool breeze rustled across his ears.  Looking toward the fresh air, he noticed the curtains blowing in the little girls’ room. The window.  It was open. 
    He jumped onto the bed, and found he could reach the windowsill with his paws, and look out.  Hmmm. Long way down.” 
     Libby laughed again at the dog’s thoughts anticking at the window.
     Oliver continued, “This story is fun.  It keeps growing, but I’d better get to the point.”
     “You’ve made me laugh and cry because it’s so funny.  Thanks.  I needed that.”
     “Then, mission accomplished.  I’ll stop now.”
      “No, no!  You have to tell me what that crazy dog does next!  You have to.”
      “As he is looking down the street, lights come around the corner.  They attract his attention, and he watches them.  They get closer to the house, and slow down, and then stop in front of his house.  He can’t see the car from his window, but he hears a familiar voice, then several familiar voices, and realizes it is his people.”
     “Does he think to run out of the room, down the hall and to the front door?  No.  He tries and tries to get out the window, to jump out and go see them.  He begins barking and howling, desperate to get to his people.  But he can’t do it.”
     “Since he is so busy barking, he doesn’t hear the children coming down the hall.  Suddenly their voices are right behind him, telling him to stop the ruckus and get off the bed.  Another rule he’d forgotten.”
     “He leaped at them, almost knocking them over and expressing his enthusiasm and joy with all the wiggles and waggles he could muster.  The children laughed and tumbled with him for a few minutes.  When the parents came to the room, it was to remind them that it was late and they needed to get ready for bed.  He tried to greet them in the same manner, but it wasn’t received as eagerly.”
     “The mom let the dog out the back door, but now he didn’t want to go.  He wanted to stay with them, inside.  She shoed him out, he took care of business and came bouncing back in through the doggie door to greet them all again.”
     “In his doggie understanding, he just hadn’t been able to see that with patience, they would have come home, that it wasn’t all his antics that brought them back. But he knew, now they were home and he was happy again, taking care of his people.”

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Cora Lives On


                Tyler had a challenge filling the hot, sticky Maine summer days with something other than swatting flies and wiping the stinging, salty sweat that dripped into his eyes. Seemed everyone in the fifth grade, except himself, was away at camp. Playing, alone, even thinking was difficult. Thursday, at lunch, his mom asked him to go visit his grandma at her house nearby.
                “Mom, I hate going there. The house smells old and musty. She just rocks and snoozes and doesn’t even know I’m there. It’s boring.”
                Without waiting for his mother’s response, Tyler ran out the door. He wandered off into the nearby woods and headed toward the ocean. The bracken of the woods, the close overhanging branches, and the rustling leaves underfoot would offer relief from the heat.  The ocean breeze, blowing over the rocks,  would chase the flies and fill his nose with the smell of salt and kelp.
                He took the trail to the coast cut through the thick underbrush. When he reached the rocky coastline, a blast of cool air soared up over the bluff.  He turned north, going the way opposite he and his friends usually took to their favorite rocky beach. Making his way among the rocks and shrubs,  he watched the seagulls, smelled the salt spray and heard the heavy waves smash against the rocks. Coming to a quiet inlet where the bluff dropped down to sea level, he headed inland to explore. Foundered on rock and mud was an old sailing vessel, completely surrounded by water. Tyler scrambled along the shoreline to get a closer look.
                It was low tide and the high water marks almost covered the hull. A couple of broken lobster traps lurked in the mud nearby. Pieces of splintered wood floated in the murky, quiet water between the ship and the shore. The smell of old and decay lingered in the air. A big hole had been cut in her side, with the remains of a dock sticking out of the water. Growing out of her foredeck was a tree, and anything recognizable was rusted or rotted.
                Tyler, in his imagination, saw her as a beautiful sailing ship, sails unfurled and tight in the wind, her hull racing across the waves on the open sea. There he was, Captain Tye, standing legs astride on the bridge, arms folded, sailing home from the Indies with his merchant crew. A whale spouted nearby, but he was no whaler. He spotted a distant pirate ship, but easily outran it, his speed no match for them. His cargo would be precious to them, but it was to him, too, and he raced on toward home, racing time and wind, carrying teas of exotic flavors, beautiful fabrics, flowers no one at home had seen, spices, jewels, and a parrot of his own. Every great sea captain must have a parrot, and he taught his to say, “Aye, Aye Captain Tye!”
                His imaginary voyage took him late into the afternoon when the shifting tide made him realize he needed to hurry home. He would be in trouble for not going to his grandma’s. His thoughts stayed on the ship as he worked his way back through the woods, seeing waves crested and storms conquered.
                At dinner, he tried to avoid questions by asking a flurry of questions. “What kind of ship was it? Why was she abandoned? Could she be re-built? Could she be beautiful again?”
                “Tyler,” interrupted his mom, “Do you remember that I asked you to go to your grandma’s?”
                “But I don’t like to go there. It was too hot to sit there and watch her doze off.”
                “She needs you, Tye. She may not look like she is enjoying your company, but it means a lot to have you drop in. Her days are long and having you over gives her something to think about. Tomorrow, I want you to spend the whole morning with her and help her around the house. Do you understand?”
                “Yes, Mom,” Tyler grumbled.
                He walked to the library in town after dinner to find information related to the ship. He discovered an era of clipper ships, the beautiful three or five masted schooners with as many as twenty-one sails, built in the 1800’s and early 1900’s for speed on the open ocean. Tyler looked at photographs of some of the vessels, and learned of the most famous clipper ship, the Flying Cloud, which set a time record in 1851 between New York and San Francisco that wasn’t matched for over one hundred years. He tried to find anything about the ship he had seen.  The closest he came was information about a ship museum in Bath, Maine, not too far from his home. Tyler ran home to bargain with his parents to take him there on Saturday.
                Friday, Tyler walked slowly to his grandma’s. He swept the porch, picked strawberries and helped her clean up the kitchen. While they sat on the porch together, Tyler told her about the ship he saw and the clipper ships he read about at the library. She looked drowsy, her eyes closed, but he talked anyway, his own voice filling the stillness. Once, when he paused, he noticed she was smiling. He asked, “What is so funny?”
                “Tye, did you know your grandpa used to sail? He had a little schooner he took out whenever he could. He loved the sea, and he loved talking about boats, just like you are doing right now. You remind me of him.”
                “Really, Grandma? How far south did he ever sail? Was he ever caught in a storm? Did you sail with him?” He sailed questions that his grandma patiently answered until the morning flowed into the afternoon. He had no idea he had a history of sailing lore in his family. No wonder he loved to think about it.
                Saturday morning he was eager and hopeful to learn the answers to his questions.  At least some of them.  In the museum, he saw pictures and paintings of schooners and their captains. He ran his fingers over the wooden models of the ships, their smooth brass and polished wood. He saw displays of the cargo and passengers they carried and the races they ran around the continents or along the coast.
                Tyler began to understand why the beautiful ships had to be scrapped and set aside. They endured tremendous storms which weakened their structure, and although they served many productive voyages, their glory was short when they were replaced by stronger metal steam driven ships. Re-building the wooden ships today would be impractical and outrageously expensive. He still needed to know, though, what about his ship?
                Nervously, he approached one of the docents at the museum, explained about the ship he had found up the coast, and asked, “Do you know anything about her?”
                “Yes,” the guide replied. “She is the Cora F. Cressy, owned by a family that had three merchant sailing ships that sailed up and down the east coast. She had the highest bow of any sailing vessel on the east coast and she was one of the few five masted schooners. Unfortunately, she was obsolete before her first voyage as the technology of steam ships passed her by. Because she weathered a severe storm off the coast in 1924, she was known as the Queen of the Atlantic Seaboard. After her last sea voyage, she was sold and converted into a floating nightclub in Boston, then sold again and moved to where she is today, a hole cut into her and a dock built to farm lobsters in the hull. Now, she is just a breakwater, a sad shadow of what she used to be.”
                The guide showed Tyler a painting of the Cora speeding across the ocean waves, her sails tight in the wind, her five masts and tall bow regal and proud. He told Tyler, “What appears a worthless object today, can be remembered as a thing of beauty and usefulness.”
                Tyler thought of his grandma, her body weak and worn, though her smile was still strong. He thought of her house, the paint peeling, and realized that age affects everything. It was sad not to be able to re-build the Cora in all her glory, but in his imagination he could see her strong against the waves, the sunrise behind her, the horizon distantly misty ahead of her. As the Cora could live on, his grandma would live on too, strong in his memory.
                Tyler went to the souvenir stand and bought a couple of post cards to show to his grandma. He couldn’t wait to visit her and tell her of all he had seen and learned. On the way back to the car he asked his dad, “Could we paint grandma’s house this summer? Can I help you?”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Great Aunt Rachel

     Don burst in through the door. The living room was already full of kids. He scowled at them, dropped his backpack and his soaked hat in the corner and headed upstairs. He was the only kid allowed upstairs, since he was family. The others were all day kids. After school care. But it wasn’t his house, either. His aunt Sheila and his great-aunt Rachel lived here.  The two of them, in this house, together, with seven extra kids every afternoon. And himself. Ten people in this house all afternoon made him want to scream, and he was sure the house wanted to yell and pop its seams, too. Especially on days like today, rainy and too cold to be outside. He went upstairs to the bathroom, washed up, and went into the third bedroom. He picked up the book he was reading and flopped onto the bed.
     From downstairs, he could hear the bustle and chaos. His aunt had caught his eye, nodding and smiling at him as he headed up the stairs. She was putting a bandaid on Jimmy’s knee. That kid could go through a box of band-aids in a week, it seemed. He was always banging or bumping into something. Or, falling. Don wondered what he could have done to himself inside the house. Usually, he was outside, jumping around or stumbling on his own feet.
      Jewel was playing the piano. He could tell it was her because of her soft voice singing along. She always sang when she played, even if there weren’t words. She would make something up, or just hum the melody. She did have a pretty voice. His aunt taught all of them piano, the notes and stuff, on Thursdays. The other days they were supposed to practice if they didn’t have a piano at home. Jewel had a piano at home, but she still played here. Every day.  Like she actually enjoyed it.  Music wasn’t his thing. He didn’t mind listening to music on the radio, but making it himself seemed unnecessary. Why bother when there were already so many musicians who could play better than him anyway? For him, the lessons were a pain and he practiced as little as possible.
     Someone was banging pans in the kitchen. He could hear the sink water running. Laughter, giggling. Probably from Maria. She was a quiet girl, except when she got to giggling, and the weirdest things would make her giggle. Crazy.  He heard his aunt talking, sounded like it was coming from the kitchen. Maybe they were baking something. On most of the afternoons, his aunt cooked something yummy for all the kids, and usually, she had some of them helping her. That was part of her services offered as after-school care: teach the kids cooking, music (piano), and help them with their homework. She taught them other stuff, too, she played games with them, and they worked in the garden when it was nice outside. Not like today.  His aunt was probably having Maria bake something. Maria seemed to actually enjoy working in the kitchen.
     Don’s unread book sat on his chest while he listened to the sounds below. A Lego bucket dumped. Tyler and Pat would be the ones shuffling around the colorful plastic pieces. They didn’t have Legos at their house. Their parents were into thoughtful games, like Chess.  Not noisy, messy games. Don figured his two aunts were probably the only single aunts in town that had three giant buckets of Legos. His aunts both loved to wander around thrift stores and they would pick up any odd assortment of Legos they found.  He liked to play with them, too, but not when all the kids were there. Too crowded, too noisy for him. He played with the Legos on Saturday, when he was there by himself, when his dad had to work and his mom wanted the house to herself to clean and whatever she did by herself. When all the kids were here, he preferred the quiet bedroom.  It was almost like his own room. No one else ever stayed there.
     The smell of chocolate chip cookies drifted up the stairs. Tempting. He was a little bit hungry. Maybe he should go downstairs and see what was going on.  He went and sat on the top step, watching the room below.  Jimmy and Jennifer were working on a puzzle. Tyler and Pat were building some weird Lego monstrosity that held a resemblance to an aircraft carrier. Jewel was still humming, playing the piano. David and Maria must be the ones in the kitchen with his aunt. He wondered where Aunt Rachel was. He hadn’t seen her yet.
     The hand that ruffled his hair surprised him, but he knew at once it was her. She must have been in her bedroom and slipped up behind. She sat down on the step beside him. He smiled at her, she grinned back at him. She understood him, his distance from the crowded houseful.  It always amazed him when he thought about her age. Eighty-eight. He had seen much younger gals who looked much older than she did. Perhaps it was her tanned face, her easy movements, her eager smile. She didn’t seem old at all, at least not like you’d expect at her age.
     She said, quietly, almost a whisper, “I think I smell something cooking. Shall we brave the crowd and go check it out?”
     Don laughed. Sometimes the full house got to her, too. But it seemed a good way for Aunt Sheila to make enough money to cover their expenses, and it did seem to help keep both of them young. His Aunt Rachel sometimes said that children’s laughter was the best medicine she knew. They went downstairs.
     Pat looked up at them, “Hey, look at our ship! It is going out to bomb the enemy fleet.”
     “Yeah, once we build the enemy ships,” chimed in Tyler.
     “You are standing in the ocean,” said Pat, with his active seven year old imagination.
     “Oh, sorry,” said Aunt Rachel. “Don, watch out for sharks!” The boys laughed as Don and his aunt tiptoed through the piles of Legos.
     In the kitchen, Maria stood at the sink, rinsing off the mixing bowl. David sat at the table, his math book open, his notebook and pencil next to it. A long, flattened brown grocery bag stretched down the middle of the table, filled with cooling chocolate chip cookies. Aunt Sheila was sliding more cookies off a tray, fresh out of the oven. She looked over David’s shoulder. “Aren’t you supposed to write the number you are carrying up over the next number you multiply?”
     “I just do it in my head.”
     “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. You may be able to do it now, but when the math problems get bigger and harder, you’ll need to know how to write it down.” She turned as Don and Aunt Rachel came in. “Right, Don? Don’t you need to write it down with the math you do now?”
     “I do, but I could never do it in my head like he does. Maybe he can think better if he does it that way.”
     “Hmmm, maybe. Seems to me he should do it the right way.”
     Aunt Rachel picked up a cookie from the table. “Just checking to see if these are edible.”
     Maria turned from the sink. “I made the dough all by myself today, using the mixer and everything. Aunt Sheila just watched me. Are they good?”
     “Mmmmm. I may need to try another one to be sure,” Aunt Rachel said. “Good day for baking. That rain has been going all day.”
     “The kids got soaked walking half a block from the school. Good thing your bus drops you off so close, Don,” said Aunt Sheila.
     Don shrugged and picked up two cookies. “I had a hat.”
     “Maybe you could help David with his math. He is having trouble figuring out what to do.”
     Don snorted. “Wish I could have math that was that easy. Mine now is half letters and fractions and weird hieroglyphics. Why can’t they make it easier to understand?”
     Maria turned from the sink, her hands on her hips. “It isn’t really that hard, David. Let me show you.”
     Under his breath, Don mumbled, “Miss Smarty.”  Aunt Rachel scowled at him. Maria, one of the younger kids, always seemed to be ahead of the others in math. It came easy for her, which irritated Don.  He didn’t like math, and didn’t understand anyone who did. How it could all make sense was beyond him. He took his cookies and turned to leave the room.
     “Don,” said Aunt Sheila, “Please, tell the others to come and get some cookies.”
     “I heard that!” said Pat, dropping the Legos and pushing past Don into the kitchen, Tyler close behind. 
     “Jewel, snack time,” Don told her.
     “Aren’t you going to join us?” she asked, pausing in the middle of her song.
     “Got mine.” He held up the half of cookie he had left. “Jimmy and Jennifer, you too,” he told them.
     “Coming, this piece goes right here,” said Jennifer, putting in the last edge piece.
     “Don, come back into the kitchen with us,” called Aunt Sheila. “I have an announcement.”
     Don groaned. His aunt was great at coming up with things they could all do together. He didn’t want to do anything together with the other kids. He wanted to be by himself.  Read his books.  Why did some people always want to be organizing parties or projects or outings? Why didn’t they just leave people alone? His teacher at school was the same way. Let’s all do this, she would say, or let’s plan this together. Not me, he thought. But, he turned back, leaning on the door frame.
     “We are adding another child tomorrow.” Don wasn’t the only one who groaned. Aunt Sheila laughed at them. “Don’t worry, I think you will all really enjoy this little person.” She paused, looking around the room at them. “Sandy is five months old. He lives across the street, and his mom is going back to work in the afternoons. She noticed we had a lot of kids here, and thought it would be good for Sandy to have so many kids to play with.”
     Silence. Don looked around. His wasn’t the only horrified face.
     “We won’t be able to dump the Legos on the floor. He’ll eat them all!” whined Pat.
     “He’ll crash all our boats and cars and stuff,” said Tyler.
     “We won’t be able to have anything small, anywhere. He’s just a baby,” said Jimmy.
     “I can’t play the piano if he’s sleeping,” complained Jewel.
     “I’m surprised at all of you,” said Aunt Rachel. “There is always room for one more person, and a baby especially, will be fun for all of you. Think about how much fun Sandy will have with you, and how much all of you can teach him.”
     “Why do we have to teach him anything? We should be able to play and have fun in the afternoons.”  Jimmy folded his arms across  his chest and scowled.
     Aunt Rachel stood back and watched them all. Her expression was hard to read. Don watched her. She spoke. “What if Aunt Sheila here, decided all of you were too noisy and too messy and ate too much and were too much trouble? What would that mean for each of you? We make adjustments for others. I rest earlier. I help Sheila get ready for all of you. Wouldn’t it be better for Sandy to be here, in a house, with all of you? Think how much you all could learn from him.”
     “Like what?” grunted Tyler.
     “Like patience and tolerance and compassion.”
     “Those sound like old fashioned words,” said Jewel.
     “Old fashioned, or just unusual? That is why they are important to learn.”
     Aunt Sheila held up a hand. “Something I didn’t mention. His mom was willing to split the pay with those who will take care of him. I would be available to help, of course, but one, or several of you, if you want, would be his babysitters. Not me.”
     The room was quiet, the kids thinking about it. Aunt Rachel looked at Don, nodding her head at him. He shook his. Nope, not him.  Nobody said a word.
      Aunt Sheila looked at him, too. “Don, I was thinking it would be good for you to do. He could take his nap up in the bedroom, and you could read there, with him. You stay later than some of the others, so you would be more available. I think it would be good for you to do, to earn some spending money, too.”
     Everyone in the room was looking at him. He felt uncomfortable. Why were they expecting him to be excited about this? What a pain.  “No way.” He walked out and went upstairs, to be by himself.
     Aunt Rachel came into the room with him, and sat down next to him. He rolled on to his side, turning away from her. “Don.”
     “You want to know when I had the most fun in my life?”
     Don turned to look at her. It was not what he had expected her to say. “Okay.”
     “During the war, I was working in an office, busy with newspaper reporters, military liaisons and publishers. We worked all hours of the day, anytime there was any sort of breaking news. Which was most of the time. One of the publishers lost his wife. Not a war casualty, some kind of illness. Don’t remember, now. He had a baby, and to keep up with the workload, he would bring the baby with him. His family was overseas or something, so they couldn’t help. I ended up taking care of that little boy. I thought it was ridiculous, me, a trained typist and stenographer. You know what, we had a blast. Sometimes I even took him home with me for overnight, if things at the office were really crazy. We went to the park, I took him shopping with me, we rode the bus around just for fun. He brought a sense of normal that I didn’t have then. We laughed. There wasn’t much too laugh about during the war, but we laughed together.”
     Don sat up. “What was his name?”
     “Samuel.  Called him Sammy. You know what he liked best? Reading. He was only ten months old, but he would sit and sit while I read to him. We didn’t have any children’s books, but I would read the newspaper, or I’d write up some silly story and read it to him. I bought some little children’s books for him, and we read them hundreds, hundreds of times.”
     “What happened to him?” asked Don.
     “You know, I don’t even know. His father left, transferred to another office in another city, and they were gone. I felt like someone had died. I thought, if I ever had children, I wanted a boy like Sammy. But, I ended up never having children. Just him, for those six months, but what a time we had. He learned to walk, he started talking, he would eat anything I fixed for him. Those were good times. Good memories.”
     “Aunt Rachel, if I took care of Sandy, would you help me? Maybe we could do it together? Would you like that?”
     “Sure, I could use a little spending money,” she laughed. “Maybe I could buy some toys for him at the thrift store.”
     “You have to be the only eighty something year old who would buy Legos and kid toys at the thrift store.”
     “Why not? They say you have a second childhood when you get old.”
     “I wouldn’t mind watching him if we could do it together. That would be fun. We could put a gate on the stairs, and keep him up here, just us three. Then he wouldn’t be messing up the other kid’s stuff all the time. What do you think?”
     “I think it’s a great idea,” said Aunt Rachel. “Shall we tell your Aunt Sheila, and see if there are any cookies left?”

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Ben Is My Teacher

    “Why do you have to take notes on everything, and write everything down?”
     “I like to write.  Then I can remember it, mull it over, and re-think it if I want to.”
     “That is so weird.”
     Sue shrugged.  “I write.  It’s what I like to do.  I write down words as they come to me.”
     “No, no, not you that’s weird,” said Jordan.  “It’s weird that I was just reading in my history book about Benjamin Franklin, and that’s what he did.”
     “Yah.  In his autobiography, he tells how he would take an article he liked, read it until he understood it thoroughly, then try to re-write it just like the author, and then compare his to the original.  He said sometimes, after awhile, he actually got better than the author.
     “I thought we weren’t supposed to copy other people’s writings.”
     “No, of course not.  But, for learning, think what would happen if we could study some of the great writers, and copy and write until we got as good as or better than they were. Our English teacher would be surprised and impressed, I’m sure.”
     “She would go into shock,” said Sue.  “She knows I like to write, but is never happy with what I do.  There is always something wrong – something I miss. She’s a perfectionist.”
     “From me,” said Jordan, “she would be happy to have a completed assignment.  I get distracted and never seem to be able to follow through on an assignment, and turn it in incomplete.  It’s better than an F.  What do you say we go home, pick a newspaper article or essay or something, and meet at the library after school tomorrow?”
     The next afternoon Sue and Jordan met at the back of the library under the big north facing window.  “Did you look for a newspaper article?” Sue asked.
     “I found two possibilities last night.  I picked a letter to the editor about some new law being put into effect.  It seemed well written, with complete points.”
     “Cool.  Mine is a short essay on child abuse from our literature book.  I liked the way the author made his points and thought it would be good to study that one.”
     “OK.  So what do we do first, oh great teacher?” Jordan said, smiling.
     “I’m not your teacher – Benjamin Franklin is,” Sue said. “This was your idea, anyway.”
     “OK Ben, what’s first?”
     “I looked up the autobiography and made a list of his steps.  Number one is to make a list of the thoughts and sentiments or main points of each sentence.”
     “That sounds too much like school,” complained Jordan.  “What are sentiments, anyway?”
     “I know, an old word, but I was trying to use Franklin’s term.  I think it means feelings or attitudes or the way the points are expressed.  You’ll like the next step,” said Sue.  “It’s to wait a few days.”
     “Now you’re talking!”
     On Saturday the two met at the park with their notebooks.  They sat at a shady table under a huge, spreading oak tree.  Jordan wistfully watched a baseball game going on across the field.  “Don’t know why I let you talk me into this.”
     “Because you wanted to surprise your teacher, remember?  You are the one who suggested this project.”
     “Right now, baseball sounds like fun.”
     “How about we give this twenty minutes, then go see if we can join the game.”
     “You got it!  What are we doing today?”
     “Re-writing the main points in our own words.”  They pulled out the lists they’d made of the main ideas and thoughts and began to write their own versions.  Neither of them finished in the twenty minutes, but they made enough progress to feel they’d earned the baseball game.  On the way to the field, Jordan asked Sue about the next step.
     “Next step, comparing what we wrote to the original.  I thought we could compare each other’s too.”
      “I get to be the teacher with the red pen – awesome!”
       The kids on the ball field called out to them.
       “We’re coming,” shouted Jordan, and ran ahead of Sue.
     The next time Sue and Jordan met, they had each compared their writing to the original, and were surprised at how differently they had written.  There was much room for improvement.  They took home each other’s papers to have time to read the original and their friend’s copy.  Sue even re-wrote Jordan’s piece in her own words.  They suggested changes to each other, and found that their discussions at school took on new meaning as they challenged and evaluated each other’s ideas.  Discovering they actually enjoyed discussing ideas and concepts was a surprise to them.
     A week later, they got together at the park and re-wrote their papers again.  This time the work went much faster and it seemed much easier.  The topics were making much more sense, and the ideas were flowing onto the paper.  Both noticed a big improvement in their writing capabilities.  Jordan even liked the way she made one point better than the original.
     Sue told Jordan that another method Franklin used was to jumble the thoughts into confusion, then put them back together into a logical and orderly arrangement.  They took their lists of ideas, tore the paper into strips, tossed them into Jordan’s hat, and attempted to sort them all out.  They laughed at the disordered thoughts.  “This is like those three part books we used to have as toys.  The top part was heads, then the middles, then the legs.  We’d flip the pages and laugh at the big football dude in a tutu, or the lady in a chef’s hat with a cowboy belt and ice skates.  Remember those?”
       With a little shuffling, they put the ideas in order.  Jordan commented that the topics made more and more sense each time they worked with them.  “Like thinking about them makes it sink in and stick inside my head.”

     A few weeks later, their English teacher asked Sue and Jordan to stay after class.  The girls looked at each other, reflecting the other’s worried expression.  Miss Satory asked them, “Girls, what happened to both of you?  Your papers were excellent.”  Jordan gave a nervous giggle and Sue let out a sigh of relief.
     “We’ve been studying with a – a tutor,” said Sue.
     “She must be very good.  Who is she?” asked their teacher.
     “Actually, it’s a ‘he’, and he died,” said Jordan, trying unsuccessfully not to giggle.
     Miss Satory sat back and folded her arms as they both dissolved into giggles.  “Girls, explain.”
     Sue explained how Jordan found The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and thought it would be fun to apply his method of improving his own writing.  They’d been practicing and working on their own for several weeks, using his methods.  Miss Satory began to laugh with them once she understood their serious little joke.
     “Very impressive, girls.  How would you like to teach the whole class what you have learned?”
     “Oh, no, Miss Satory.  They’ll think we’re really weird and geeky.”
     “I don’t think so,” their teacher replied.  “Wouldn’t most of the students be willing to raise their grade a letter?  You could almost guarantee it with your method.”
     “Ben’s method,” corrected Jordan, lapsing into a nervous laugh again.
     “Yes, Ben will be the teacher.  You will just be sharing his style.  I will help you set up the power point and the assignments, and your assignment will be to grade the other students’ work.  How would that be?”
     “Never thought I would want to be a teacher – no offense Miss Satory – but this could be fun.”
     Sue and Jordan looked at each other to see if they were in agreement.  “Never thought my little idea would grow this big,” said Jordan.  “Ben Franklin, help us all!”

Monday, August 22, 2011

Running Into Fear

Outside, she leaned against the wall. Running away. The easiest way out. Easier than staying to apologize or attempt to explain, again. Her friend, Skye, stepped out onto the patio beside her.
                “Shawna, what’s wrong?”
                “Embarrassed, I guess.” Clumsy me, you know.”
                “You are far from clumsy. You’re a runner, after all. He bumped into you, it wasn’t your fault the vase dumped over.”
                “It was my elbow.”
                “So? He was noisy enough about it, yelling at that other guy who tripped him. It was funny, really, like dominoes,” said Skye.
                “Yeah, but it seems I’m always in the way, causing something.”
                “Or, is it just how you perceive it?”
                “Skye, you know how I am.”
                “Yes, all too well, and I think you’re silly. Afraid of what people will think of you. So what if they think?”
                “That’s easy for you to say. You have the great looks, the great hair, the great brains…”
                “Shawna, stop it. Who won the race last spring? Who made the scholarship list?”
                “Just barely though, and if that other team hadn’t stumbled they would have won. “
                “There you go again. You’re ridiculous. Let’s go back in. It’s cold out here.”
                “Do I have to?”
                “Yes. Just forget it, get a grip.”
                “Skye, you go first.”
                “Hopeless, absolutely hopeless,” Skye laughed and shook her head.
                Shawna and Skye walked back into the room, Shawna painfully aware of glances in her direction, Skye walking tall and confident.

                Shawna ran the track after school, keeping ahead of the larger group of girls on her team. The wind in her face, her ponytail bouncing, her feet touching the ground as lightly as possible to pull forward into the next step as she covered the track, she loved the sense of running.  She loved the long distance runs best. Not so much the speed, but the strength and endurance of pacing herself for the long haul. She finished her distance matching steps with the girl beside her.
                After the training, their coach gathered the girls on the bleachers. The cool breeze rustled around them, stirring curls, brushing ponytails, cooling the sweat off their arms and legs.
                “OK girls, you know we do a fundraiser each year.” The girls all groaned and adjusted positions for an uncomfortable listening session. “This year, the board voted to give a banquet, cooked and served by the team members.”
                “Cooked by us? You’ve got to be kidding.”
                “I’m a runner, not a waitress.”
                “Right, like we’re gonna  run around in frilly little aprons.”
                The coach raised his hand to interrupt the complaints. “There will be cooks that will be guiding you. Some of the moms offered to form a decorating committee, which will organize the serving team.
                “Who will we be serving?” one of the girls asked.
                “Parents, neighbors, whoever buys the tickets.”
                “We have to sell the tickets, too? Whose idea was this?” the girls complained.
                At the back of the group, Shawna cringed. She hated selling anything – anything actually, that involved talking to people. She got sweaty and nervous and panicky and choked, her thoughts jumbled and all she could think of was getting away – quickly. Then, maybe, she would have to serve tables, too? She prayed silently for a job hidden in some corner of the kitchen.  She’d be glad to chop onions – anything that she could do by herself. From her thoughts, she heard the coach talking again.
                “We have divvied up the tasks between the twenty seven of you. Each task, on a piece of paper, is in this box. You’ll draw one, and no trading.”
                Grumbles, eyes rolled.
                “No exceptions,” the coach said.
                “I’ll draw first, let’s get this started,” said one of the popular girls. Shawna watched her put her hand in the box. “Greeter,” she announced her paper.
                Of course, she would draw that, and she’ll be good at it, Shawna thought. Glad at least, that I didn’t get it.
                One by one, the girls drew their papers, some happy to announce their draw, waving it triumphantly in the air, others disgruntled, making faces, thumping back into their seat.
                Almost last, Shawna drew from the three papers left in the box. “Waitress.”
                “They’ll all get served quickly,” one of the girls quipped.
                “Or it will be dumped in their lap,” giggled another.
                Silently, she walked back to her seat on the hard bench.

                Later, she met Skye at the corner for a late evening walk.  
                “Couldn’t have been worse, what am I going to do? I dread the day so much I’m thinking of quitting the team.”
                “Right – like that’s going to happen. Running away is what you’d be doing.”
                “I could still run on my own.”
                “What will you learn if you just keep running away?”
                “I run away so I won’t have to talk to people.”
                “What about the fun of the competition?” asked Skye.
                “I do like the competition,” said Shawna. “It challenges me to push harder, to show me what I can really do as I match or push beyond the other girls.”
                “See,” said Skye, “You can relate to others, you can be part of a crowd.”
                “Only if I don’t have to talk to them. I can run without talking.”
                “But, see, you just have to change your perspective. Think of the waitressing as a competition.”
                “I am too afraid. What am I going to do?”
                “You are going to breathe in and out just like you do when you are running. You are going to put one foot in front of the other, just like when you are running. You are going to move your arms and hold your head up just like you do when you are running.”
                Shawna sighed. “And probably drop a tray right in front of everyone. My knees will be just like the jello I’m serving.”
                “Is that how you think before a race?” Skye asked. “Do you imagine yourself tripping and falling flat on your face in front of a crowd? Do you imagine your shoe coming untied and catching your foot in it?”
                “No, of course not.”
                “What do you imagine?”
                Shawna imagined the start line at the beginning of a race. “I think of the finish line. I look ahead to each lap, think of pacing myself, feeling the wind in my face, my ponytail bouncing across my shoulders, my muscles strong and tough, my shoes hitting the ground with a solid rhythm. You know what?”
                “What?” asked Skye.
                “I don’t even think of the crowd or the bystanders. I never even see them.”
                “Interesting. The crowd cheering you on doesn’t get through?”
                “Not at all. I hear wind, my feet, my heart, my thoughts, nothing else.”
                “I’m wondering how you can apply that to being a waitress.”
                Shawna laughed, “They will think I’m deaf if I don’t pay attention to them.”
                “There you go again, thinking of what others will think of you. Who cares?”
                “That’s easy for you to say.”
                “Is it? How do you know that?”
                “You make it look so easy, natural.”
                “That’s like assuming all thin people are naturally thin and can eat anything they want. Maybe they are thin because they work very hard at it. Appearances may not mean what you assume.”
                “But Skye, you talk to people easily, it looks natural for you. Smooth, effortless, easy.”
                “Sure, that’s what you think.”
                “Isn’t it?” Shawna asked.
                “No,” said Skye, “It is not. When I play the flute in a concert, in front of a full auditorium, my hands are so clammy  I can barely hold my instrument. My breath comes in short, wispy spurts. My tongue and my lips are dry and parched. I have to close my mind and create a bubble. Maybe like you do when you run. For me, my bubble is the music stand, the sheet of music, the notes on the page, the smooth silver of my flute, the musicians around me. Maybe like choosing what window you are going to look out. Your view is limited by that window. You don’t see the back yard through a front window, or the west side through an east window. The view is chosen and within those limits, that’s what you see.”
                “I don’t really see how that would help.”
                “OK, think of it this way. Now, what do you see or feel when you talk to people?”
                “Panic.  My throat tightening up, my jaw clenching, their eyes glaring into my face.”
                “Think of a different scene.”
                “Like what?” Shawna asked.
                “Like a friendly face, smiling at you. Like your face, relaxed, smiling back. Think of complimenting their shirt or their hair or their friendly smile. Think of being calm, peaceful, breathing in a calm rhythm, like I would to the beat of the music.”
                “Or, like stepping lightly around the track, focused on the finish line.”
                “I don’t even have to win. Just keep moving, keep trying, keep running.”
                “Or, keep passing the plates, and keep smiling.”
                Shawna took a deep breath. “Just like running. But not running away. Running toward the finish line, not away from it.”
                “Hey. I’ll buy your first ticket,” said Skye.

Saturday, June 11, 2011



     Carlie stared down at her desktop.  The classroom bustled around her as books were passed out and the assignment written down.  She looked blankly at the book in front of her.  Little Princess.  She didn’t bother writing down the chapters assigned.  Wasn’t this a kid’s book?  What was the point of reading a story about some cute little girl who turned out to be a princess after all?  That was just like her teacher – a pretty, petite, pleasant lady who believed in happy endings.
     Happy endings?  Not for me, Carlie thought.  Maybe for somebody else, but not me.  No, for me there is just endless ridicule, emptiness.  Pointlessness – a word full of nothingness.  Her thoughts ran dismally on as the class was dismissed and she tucked the book in her backpack.
     At home, the evening was the usual yelling and chaos.  Her dad came home tired and frustrated and he took it out on her and her brother.  They were always in his way, too noisy, too clumsy, too lazy.  Nothing was right or soon enough or to his liking.  Her mom would leave dinner on the stove before she left for her late shift.  Carlie and her brother would eat, their dad would eat later.  They never sat at the table together, never talked and laughed about their days.  Their only connection would be an accidental meeting in the hall, or when he came into their rooms to yell at them.
       Late that night, with the house settled in quiet, Carlie tucked herself into the corner of her bed with pillows. Her lamp on the night stand glowed softly, the lavender candle flickered reflections onto the ceiling.  She picked up the Little Princess and thumbed through it.  A phrase caught her attention.  If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside.  It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in a cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”  She skimmed ahead another page until another line caught her eye.  “’A princess must be polite,’ she said to herself.  And so when the servants, taking their tone from their mistress were insolent and ordered her about, she would hold her head erect and reply to them with a quaint civility which often made them stare at her.”  Quaint idea – polite, elegance under scorn, but not realistic, Carlie thought.
     She thumbed back toward the beginning.  Why did these sentences jump out at her?  “It’s true,” she said.  Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess.  I pretend I am a princess so that I can try and behave like one.”  Behave like a princess?  What did that mean?  What princess ever had to deal with the ridicule and scorn and shame she was dished every day from the people in her own family?  Her image of a princess was more of a spoiled, demanding, the-world-and-everyone-in-it-belongs-to-me kind of an attitude.
     She began the book and read until early in the morning.  The candle sputtered, distracted her from the book.  She turned out the light, and thought quietly until she drifted off to sleep.
     In class the next day, Carlie’s teacher focused her lesson on the clash of the cultures between England and India.  Carlie had read half of the book, but hadn’t written the assignment answers.  She heard twitterings about the outdated customs and culture.  Had they all missed the point about the people and how they each dealt with life?  Maybe she understood more because she had read ahead.
     At her desk at home she quickly wrote out the homework questions.  The  who and what and when responses were easy.  Harder, were the why questions.  Why did Sarah respond that way?  Why did Miss Minchkin despise her?
     Fascinated by Sarah’s plight and her response to her struggles, Carlie jotted down the words Sarah used to help her overcome: polite, generous, quiet, heart always full, kind, sweet, self-controlled, calm, dignified, cheerful, patient – she added a few of her own interpretations: elegant, gracious, regal, dignity.
     Carlie’s father burst in the door, yelling and storming about the dishes left undone.  She had left them, waiting until her dad finished his dinner. Quietly, calmly and almost sweetly, Carlie stood up and started toward the kitchen.  Inside, she was seething at the interruption, but at least she had controlled her tongue.  Pretending to be a princess was very hard work.  Dishes were easy compared to this challenge.
     Carlie stayed after school to help her teacher coallate assignment papers.  She wanted to talk to her.  Could she really respond to ridicule as a princess would?  What was to lose?  After all, she was being ridiculed anyway.  Would her teacher think it was ridiculous?
     Tentatively, Carlie shared her thoughts.  Her teacher was quiet.  Carlie forged ahead, plowing through the surface crust and turning up the raw soil underneath.
     “Mrs Welsh, don’t you see how impossible this is?  When my dad yells and my brother is rude and my friends misunderstand me – it’s one thing to read it on a page, and another altogether to act it out.”
     “Yes, Carlie, I know.”
     “How can you know?  You are pretty and smart and grown up and –,“ the look on her teacher’s face interrupted her.
     “Carlie.  Be very careful of assuming appearances.  Often, more often than you know, those who look easily happy have worked very hard to be that way, and others who are glum and self-absorbed have no idea how easy and happy their life is.”
     “What do you mean?”  Carlie asked.
     “I wear a wedding ring and go by Mrs., but I’m divorced.  Divorced because of a car accident that killed our baby and left me with serious injuries.  My husband blamed me and couldn’t forgive or reconcile or attempt to understand.  We lost everything to medical bills and we lost each other to our grief.  I had to start from ground level – maybe even the basement.”  She looked up at Carlie.
     “Understanding myself came first.  Who I was, what I wanted to do, how I wanted to help others.  My search was answered in teaching.  Your search may end somewhere else, but always learn your joy, learn to smile, keep your purpose in giving of yourself to others.  If you expect others to give to you, you will be disappointed.  But, if you give, and give when it is hard, you’ll be happy.”  Mrs. Welsh laughed.  “Enough preaching.  Let’s finish up these papers and go home.”
     “Yes,” said Carlie.  “Home to my dad who will yell at me and my brother who will pester, but where I can answer politely and kindly and patiently and pretend to be a royal princess.”
     “Don’t forget to smile, your Highness.”
     “Don’t tease me.”
     “Sorry, I meant it as encouragement.  What did Sara say, something about the triumph of being a princess when no one knows you are?”
     “That reminds me of a question.  We don’t have many real princesses any more.  What would you compare to being a princess nowadays?”
     “That’s a good question.  Maybe I’ll use that as an essay topic for the class.  What do you think?”
     “Celebrities maybe.  Or the children of the celebrities who are born into the wealth and glamour and fame.”
     “Children of celebrities is a good analogy.  It’s not what they do, but what their parents did that gives them their position.  But, Sara takes her thinking a little farther, as far as the depth of character she attempts to emulate.  Too many celebrities live their lives without any understanding of the value of character.”
     “Like in the magazines at the grocery store check-out line.”
     “Think about what gives you your value.  Is it your clothes, your friends, your neighborhood, your money, your grades, your talents, your fame? Those are outer, external things.  True value comes from deeper within, things no one can take away from you.”
     “Like what I learn, how I respond to people, my attitudes.”
     “Exactly.”  The janitor walked by outside the classroom door. “We do need to leave before he locks us in.”
     “Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.  It helped.”
     “No problem.  We didn’t finish the papers, but you still helped out.  I appreciate it.”
     “I’m sorry about your baby, and your husband, and I’m sorry I assumed your life was perfect and easy just because of how you look.”
     “It’s O.K.  Remember that people are deeper than they seem.  Even your father.”
     “Oh.” Carlie had a strange thought.  “If I am a princess, does that make him a king?  Not sure I like that one.”
     As they walked out of the building, her teacher told her, “Whether he acts like a king or not, you can still behave as a princess.  Remember that.”
     “That reminds me of another question.  Isn’t the image of a princess usually more of a bossy, demanding, the-world-owes-me attitude?”
     “Hmmm,  or, is it really the wanna-be princesses who have that reputation?  The step-sisters or the next in line or the ones fighting to claim what they think should be theirs.  Isn’t it the true princesses in the stories who are gentle and kind and giving? “
     “I see.  The happy ending, the usurper loses the plot for the throne, the right person wins in the end.”
     “Don’t you believe in happy endings?” her teacher asked.
     “Right now, it is hard to see a happy ending.  More like a long, steep exhausting climb.”
     “Think of the view from the top.  Keep the end in sight.  It will be worth the climb.”
     Carlie opened the door for her teacher as they walked toward the parking lot.  “I guess I won’t see the view if I don’t have the courage to take the climb.”
     “What do you think the view will be like?”
     “Beautiful, I see for miles and miles, lots of trees and mountains and sky and clouds and valleys and more mountains way off in the distance.”
     “More mountains to climb, there are always more mountains ahead.  Just take each one as it comes.  Between each mountain is what – a valley.  Valleys aren’t bad places.  They are part of the path on the way to the next mountain. And Carlie, help others climb their mountains.  That’s the best part of being a princess, sharing all you have with others.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


    Laura squatted down next to the flower bed, dug her trowel deep into the soil to loosen a spot and tucked the little pansy plant into the hole.  The row of new flowers extended along the rock border filling in the gaps between the bigger shrubs.  She bought them on the weekend at the home improvement store with her dad, and now, after school, she was planting them, one by one, along the row.  She scooted the dirt in around the root ball and with the trowel tamped it down with her hands.
     The sound of thudding feet echoed behind her.  She looked up to see the neighbor girl, Andrea, running by.  They waved, the footsteps thudded past.  Laura continued planting, tucking the baby plants in every few inches.  The new blooms, purple, yellow, lavender and peach brightened the front border.
     Footsteps thudded behind her again.  This was an afternoon ritual, her neighbor running up the street, down the other side and back again, time after time.  Laura stood up, motioned to her and walked to the sidewalk where they met.  “How many times do you run this each day?”
     “I lose count, can’t remember if I already counted seven or if this is actually eight.  So I just time it on my watch – thirty minutes.”
     “You do this every day?”
     “Yeah, six days a week.  I love to run.”
     “Why don’t you go farther?  Why not go to the school track, why stay just on this block?”
     “Johnny, my little brother, sits on the porch and reads.  He loves to read.  My dad doesn’t get home until six.  I have to watch him.  If I stay on the block, I can watch him and run.”
     “How old is Johnny?”
     “He’s eight.  He is happy to sit and read his books.”  They both looked down the street and could see his black sneakers propped up on the white porch railing.  “He sits in the swing while I run.  I can see him from almost anywhere on the block.  Especially when he sticks his feet up like that.”
     “He must really like to read.”
     “Always,” Andrea laughed.  “Well, I’m off, the timer is ticking.”
     Laura watched her jog down the street and wondered why she was so driven to run.  Maybe she just enjoys it, like I like to garden.  Well, whatever.  She turned back to her planting, pulling a few weeds as she kneeled and worked along the row.

     Tuesday after school, Laura walked to the county park, turned right on the side road and followed it along the edge of the hill around to the back of the park. Three hawks circled overhead as she walked, hovering, watching her.  Behind a tall chain link fence was the community garden.  She met a group of foster kids one day a week for her senior volunteer project, and together they worked a small plot of the garden, growing tomatoes, peas, beans and squash.  The kids enjoyed goofing around, getting their hands dirty, and squirting each other with the hose.  She looked forward to being with the kids, watching their enthusiasm and discoveries with a little piece of nature.
     Two large teen boys sat on a fence railing on the curve of the road.  Laura glanced at them, but quickly looked away.  She didn’t like their haughty expressions, their hovering, watching her.  They weren’t familiar faces from her school.  She picked up her pace, walking quickly and purposefully.
     “Hey, who dressed you, your little sister?”
     Unconsciously, she looked down at her clothes, unable to think what she was wearing.  Jeans and a t-shirt, what’s wrong with that, she thought?
     “And that hair.  Do you mop the floor with that stringy thing?”  The two boys nudged each other and laughed.
     “Looks like she tried to mop the lawn, with those grass stains on her knees.  What is she, a flower girl?”  They weren’t even talking to her, just entertaining each other.
     Laura knew it was better not to make eye contact, not to answer the bullies.  It was hard, though.  She could think of several barbed quips to hurl at them, but instead, amused herself with just thinking them, smiling.  Quickly, firmly, she walked past them.
     Until she was around the corner, they continued laughing at her.  “Look, she has clippers in her back pocket, what planet did she fall off of?”
     The other one said, “Is that a girl who looks like a boy, or a boy who looks like a girl?  Maybe it doesn’t know what it is.”  They laughed at their own amusements.
     At the gate to the community garden, Laura clicked the latch and took a deep breath.  The kids arrived in a county van.  She was glad they didn’t have to walk by those boys.  They had enough of their own problems without others creating insecurities for them.  She did look down at her knees.  Yup, grass stains from yesterday when she was kneeling in the grass.  Didn’t bother her, though, she liked to wear evidence of her favorite pastime.  She did not like how uncomfortable she felt, though.  Did her long straight hair really look like a mop?  Did she really look like a boy?
     These thoughts dissipated as Jimmy, Sam, Sarah and Tucker burst in through the gate behind her, full of questions and energy.  The hour passed quickly and productively and happily.  When the county driver offered her a ride out to the corner, she accepted, not wanting to risk encountering the guys again.  Not because she was afraid, she told herself, but because it was simpler to avoid them.

     Wednesday, after school, Laura mowed the lawn.  There was always something she could find to do in the yard.  She liked the break it gave her in the afternoon before she started her homework.  On one of her passes across the lawn, she noticed Andrea and Johnny sitting next to each other on their porch steps.  Andrea’s head was bent over, her arms hugging her knees up tight to her shoulders.  Why wasn’t she running? 
     Laura shut off the mower and walked to their house.  Johnny looked unhappy, unsure what to do.  Andrea was crying.  Laura looked at Johnny, questioning.  He shrugged.  Quietly, she spoke.  “Andrea, are you ok?”  No response.  “Andrea?”
     Andrea jumped and looked up wildly, like a frightened fox caught in a trap.
     “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.  I saw you out here and wondered if you needed help?”
     Andrea had trouble speaking.  Johnny helped her.  “Some boys picked on her on the way home.  They told her she looked like a boy.  They laughed at us, said we looked stupid.  I thought they were, but they hurt Andy.”
     Laura bristled.  “Did they touch her?”
     “No, just hurt her feelings, I guess.”
     Relieved that it wasn’t worse, Laura chose her words carefully.  “Did you talk to them?”
     “No, but I told Andy to just keep on walking.  When I called her ‘Andy’ they laughed really loud.  Did I do something wrong?”
     “No, of course not.  Did you know who they were?”  She caught Andrea’s eye.  She shook her head. 
     Johnny said, “Big bullies.  Just guys who think they’re big and tough.”
     “Yes,” said Laura, “Guys like that have something to prove, I guess.”
     “But why do they have to pick on Andy?  She didn’t do anything to them.”
     Gently, Laura asked, “What did they say to you?”
     “I looked like a boy.  I do have short hair, and it’s curly.  Does make me look like a boy, I guess.  Not pretty, like your hair.”
     Laura couldn’t help laughing.  Andrea looked hurt, withdrawn.  Laura reached out her hand and touched her knee.  “I wasn’t laughing at you.  Just yesterday, two boys made fun of me and said my hair looked like a stringy mop.  So I know how you feel.”
     “It looks pretty, not like a mop,” Andrea defended her.
      “Thanks.  At first, what they said bugged me, but then I thought, it is my hair, and no matter what they say, I am still a girl, still me and I do what I do.  They are just silly and wrong about me.  But it did still hurt a little.”
     “Yea, guess I shouldn’t take it so seriously.”
     “No, you shouldn’t. But, it could make you think more about who you are, what you want to be and what you want to do.  Be bigger than they are.  Better than them.”
     Johnny said, “If they pick on my sister again, I’ll give them a big one-two punch like the boxer guy on my computer game!”
     “Oh, no you don’t!  That just makes it worse.  Gives them what they want.  If you ignore them, you don’t give them any encouragement or attention.  That’s what they really want, attention, but they don’t know how to get it in reasonable ways.”
     “Guess we all have our troubles,” said Andrea.
     “Is that why you like to run?”
     “I just feel so much better when I run after I get home from school.  If I was frustrated about something, I seem to be able to work it out when I run.  Even if I was tired, I feel better after I run.  Maybe I should invite those bullies to run with me.  I could outrun them, I’m sure.”
     Laura laughed, “Yes, you probably could.  But it is better for you to just leave them behind, don’t talk to them.  Picture yourself outrunning their taunts, so they don’t even reach you.  Their words just fall onto the ground and wither up.  Can you do that?”
     “I think I could.  And not running because I’m afraid and running away.  Running because I am fast and strong.”
     “Good girl.  Johnny, you help, too.  Be tall and strong and courageous, walking with your sister. Protect her, but not with your fists.”
     “Can I kick them?”
     “Funny.  No.  Do you understand what I mean, to be confident and take charge?”
     “Sure, just like that brave general guy who led the army in that book I’m reading.”
     “Yup, sounds good.  You guys want to come over for some ice cream?”
      “Yippee!”  said Johnny.
      “I’ll write a note to my Dad in case he comes home early. We’ll be right over.”