Monday, September 1, 1997
Dear Whoever Gets This Letter,
I used to hum happy songs on my way to school. Today I just kept my mouth straight and made up excuses to stop and pretend to tie my shoes. It was the first day of the fifth grade, which I heard is never easy. When I finally reached the flagpole outside of William Henderson Elementary, I kneeled down by the dewy grass to tighten my already double-knotted laces. I wanted to make myself small and easy for groups of friends to step over me. Their backpacks were mostly empty and the girls didn’t look back once.
In case you find this letter, you should know that our school is in the Upper Peninsula, not in the downstate part of Michigan that’s shaped like a hand. Some people here say we’re in God’s Country because it’s so beautiful, but the truth is that a lot of mapmakers forget to even include us on their maps because so much of the land is just forest and abandoned mines. My mom always jokes, “We’re actually everything that The Hand let go of,” but she never laughs when she says it. I think that’s her way of saying that sometimes life can get hard because God gets busy in other places or reads the wrong maps. Maybe she’s right, or maybe the people who say we live in “God’s Country” are right. I am not so sure sometimes. I guess you should also know that everyone calls me Ellie. It has never been my favorite, but I guess you can call me that too.
Anyway, the first day of school can be a tough one because over the summertime friends miss a lot of each other changing. Some of us get taller or different haircuts and some of us get new trampolines. Some of us move houses or get more secrets.
This first day was extra tough because a lot of my friends have decided that I am too weird. They say it is weird that I sometimes call myself a boy, and they don’t like me now for some other reasons too. These friends are all girls, but we actually like a lot of the same things. We like seeing dogs on the street, Hula-Hooping, ice-skating, watching Boy Meets World, and eating pepperoni pizza. Do you like those things? It’s okay if you like other stuff too. To be honest, I don’t really care if the person reading this is a boy or a girl, but for some reason picking sides seems to matter more now than ever.
Hope your day was better than mine.
Tuesday, September 2, 1997
Dear Whoever You Are,
I hope that you find this letter, and that you’ll read it and won’t throw it away. I have some things to tell you. I hope that’s okay. I’ve been just feeling kind of alone.
This summer, all of my BFFs—Courtney, Gina, and Mary—just wanted to read magazines that have quizzes for fun, horoscopes, and things that the stars say. They didn’t even want to go berry picking like we used to. Instead we had makeovers, and they called me “the most improved” when they gave me eyeliner. A few of them even used yellow highlighters from their back-to-school shopping to make their hair more blond-looking. You’d think they would have known highlighters are for books, because they all have professor parents that teach at that big university across town. The point is that these friends started a new club at the end of summer vacation without me.
It happened when Courtney had a big slumber party, and almost everybody got under the backyard trampoline that was the size of a swimming pool. They huddled together, and pointed at me from under the shade until it was obvious I was un-invited. You would have thought I had mad cow disease. The thing is, I don’t.
I have to admit, I got the idea to write this letter while I was at that slumber party. Courtney had a lot of balloons that stood so confidently around the table full of presents, but there was one pink balloon that got away. I bet I was the only person in the backyard to notice since they were all too busy laughing over that “I’m a Barbie girl in a Barbie world” song. The balloon floated up and up until it was too far to see. Watching it disappear gave me a bright idea. If I attached a letter to a balloon, and secretly let it free from my bedroom window, it could be a way to meet someone new. At the very least, I could meet someone who wasn’t at that dang party.
I stood there alone on the deck with the party balloons for so long. I felt my arms and ears getting burned by the sun. All the confetti cake was gone and the chip bowl was empty with only yellow crumbs on the bottom. Courtney’s unwrapped presents sat lonely on the table. I tell you what, her new pink hunting jacket, the T-shirt that said boy crazy, and bottle of cucumber melon lotion all just stared at me. There was nothing in that backyard for me. The song on the boom box changed, but the girls kept laughing and pointing. Even that stupid bobblehead owl perched on the fence gave me a funny look.
I finally went inside through the noisy screen door. Courtney’s big sister was watching me too. I don’t think she likes me so much either. She’s a high schooler and wears purple spray to smell like a celebrity. She stuck to her side of the room, and turned up the volume on her music video countdown show when I picked up their house phone to call my mom.
All Mom said was “Ready yet?” She said it loud over Dad’s TV in the background. I nodded my head as if she could hear me.
I tried my best not to look at Courtney’s big sister when I hung up the plastic phone. I swear she didn’t move an inch the whole time. I rolled up my sleeping bag and looked for my socks super fast, trying not to block her view of Tim McGraw singing in a palace. I put on my backpack and left behind the goodie bag with a pencil and scoubidou keychain on purpose.
On the front steps, I sat down next to an ant castle and watched the little bugs build their home with rocks. I don’t know how they carry things that seem so much bigger than them. The concrete felt cold on my legs, and Mom was taking forever to come pick me up. Five red pickup trucks, two white ones, and so many teenagers on bikes passed by, but not my mom’s noisy blue car with that peeling “906” area code bumper sticker. I bet Mom was busy buying radio bingo cards or putting pop cans in that grocery store machine. Or maybe she got busy watching TV with Dad. I don’t know.
I have to admit, though, after about twenty minutes of alone time, one person joined me on the front porch. Her name is Sofie Gavia. She sat only a few inches away and watched the street with me. I hoped right away that none of the girls from the backyard could see us together like that. I’m surprised she left the trampoline at all, but I guess she was mostly quiet at the birthday party too. I think she was only invited because some of the moms are PTO friends, which is just a secret club for parents to talk about school in their free time for some reason.
I didn’t really want to talk to Sofie even though she’s really, really nice. I just wanted to be alone and keep quiet, but I didn’t want to be alone either. It’s kind of hard to explain. I tried turning my knees away from Sofie so she would get the hint, but she broke the silence anyways.
She turned her head and said “I like your shoes” like she meant it. You should know that my shoes aren’t anything special. They’re just white with green laces. I tried ignoring her, but then she said, “Do you want some of my lemonade?” and she held her red cup closer to me. Don’t judge me, but I decided to reach for it. When I turned around, I noticed that Sofie and I actually had matching scraped knees. You didn’t hear any of this from me, though. Word gets around fast and pretty much everyone who was at that dang slumber party is also in Mr. B’s class with me this year.
Yesterday, on our first day of school, I was just hoping to hide behind my notebooks all day long, make things easier for everybody. But that didn’t work for me at all. Instead, Mr. B gave us our first big lesson. He tried to teach us the important lesson of walking into a room with more confidence. Courtney’s big sister had warned us about this if we got Mr. B for the fifth grade, but it sounded way less scary back when I had my friends. How am I supposed to walk into a room with confidence if nobody wants me there? Do you know what I mean?
It was bad. We all had to stand as straight as we could along the white brick wall, taking turns leaving and coming back to the classroom with our hands on our hips. Mr. B shouted, “EXPAND!” and wrote it in all capital letters in the top corner of the chalkboard that never gets washed away. He then said, “You can become bigger than this room.” How the heck am I supposed to “EXPAND!” when everyone cool now uses bubble-letters and makes themselves into small groups under backyard trampolines? A lot of the other kids in my class crossed their arms and looked nervous to try their walks, but I still think that they all had better walks than I did.
I’m starting to think that people only were ever nice to me because I used to be the new kid at school from White Pine. When I was brand-new, everybody wanted to say hi when I walked into the room. Now I’m just regular, or maybe even less than regular. I could tell Sofie had a hard time with her walk too. We both had to do it three or four times until we could look up from the floor. I hope nobody noticed that she and I have that in common. If people didn’t already think that I’m weird, they are for sure going to think that now, right? Actually, please don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.
I will say that Dylan Beaman walked so confidently in the first round. He moved slow and steady in his Red Wings jersey. His posture was all the way straight and his shoes lit up too. I wish you could have seen it. My old friends sure did talk about him a lot, so I feel pretty lucky that Dylan and my last names are close to each other in the alphabet and so our assigned seats are right next to each other. It made it a little easier not to hide behind my notebook all day long or anything like that.
When Dylan Beaman got to his desk today, he pulled out his folder that has a lightning bolt on it and said “Hi.” He really did say hi to me. I thought about telling him that I like storms too. Instead, I fixed my headband and made sure all my freshly sharpened pencils were lined up perfectly in rainbow order. I just hope I didn’t totally blow my chance of getting another “Hi” from Dylan Beaman this week. Maybe one day, my confident walk will be as good as his. That way, Dylan will see it and realize that maybe we have a lot in common, even though my paper folders are just plain-colored and my shoes don’t light up.
When did the word hi get so hard. Why did walking get so hard? Maybe there is something wrong with me after all. I just wish Courtney didn’t always fold her arms when she looks at me now. We didn’t even say hi to each other, and we have already had two whole entire days of school. We haven’t spoken ever since I blew it at her stupid slumber party. I wonder if I will be invited to one ever again.
If you still have your friends, maybe you can give me some ideas on how to get mine back. Even though we’re now in fifth grade, my old BFFs look pretty enough to be in middle school. All three of them crimped their hair like cowgirls for the first week of school. I didn’t even think to do that. I’m starting to think that I should pretend my parents went to college or moved to Houghton from somewhere fancy, like Milwaukee or Lansing. Maybe I should pretend to be a girl again. I don’t know. For now, I guess it’s good that all our last names are so different and so all of those girls sit in different parts of the classroom.
It’s also good that Mr. B has so many inspiration posters in his class, because I have somewhere to put my eyes when I feel anybody looking at me now. One of the posters says Do your personal best, and another one has a big rainbow on it. My favorite poster has a big picture of cheese, but I can’t exactly remember what it says. Sofie’s seat is actually right under that one. I wasn’t going to tell you this, but she turned around and waved to me just as our very first class was starting. Nobody else saw it, I think. I just looked down at my Little Mermaid Band-Aid and wondered if Sofie’s knees had already healed.
If I could make my own inspiration poster, it would say It’s more fun on top of the trampoline anyways because that’s where you can jump, pretend you’re an astronaut, or have a flat place to draw all the things you can see from real high up. I’ll draw a picture of my poster in this letter for you. That way, you can hang it up where you need inspiration or maybe just use the paper to make a hat if you hate your haircut. Mine’s growing funny too. I didn’t get a haircut this summer, but I did get more secrets. I can’t tell them to you right now, but maybe someday soon.
If you find this balloon letter, please leave your response buried under the WELCOME TO HOUGHTON: BIRTHPLACE OF NATIONAL HOCKEY sign next to Portage Bridge. You can’t miss it. I’ll check there tomorrow or the next day. I love getting mail, even though it hardly ever happens.
Tuesday, September 9, 1997
Good news, I found a quarter on the floor in the cafeteria today. I put it in my pocket right away and used it to buy a balloon at that blue gas station kitty-corner from the Family Videos. The cashier’s name is Björn. He asked me, “Is it your birthday?” It’s not, but I do think balloons are a nice way to celebrate something even if nobody else does. There’s hardly anyone ever in that store, so I bet he was just trying to make some nice conversation. Anyways, I hope you get this letter just when you needed someone to say hi to you too.
I hate to ask this, but are you thinking about people you miss? I am all the time.
My friends and I all used to draw together at lunchtime. We would make flowers and clouds, and Gina even showed us how to do cool-shaped S’s and even 3-D boxes. I spent most of my time at lunch today drawing on my yellow foam tray alone. I mentioned in my last letter that I would share a secret, so here it goes. It’s a really good drawing secret. My go-to doodles are jellyfish and wheels of Swiss cheese. They might seem really different from each other, but in drawing them they actually look exactly the same. The only real difference is that one of them has arms that reach down into the water. The other one just stays a circle.
The cafeteria is not a good place for secrets because it’s one of the biggest rooms at school. It’s also the same place we have gym class and Jump Rope for Heart assemblies, and every word echoes off the walls. The tables are long and brown, and somehow feel lonely even when we are all squished together side by side. Is there anyone you can tell all your secrets to? My old friends and I used to tell them to each other at recess. I’m really starting to wish I didn’t tell them my secret about being a boy. Maybe some things should just stay secret.
Back when things were okay, Courtney, Gina, Mary, and I would sit by this big maple tree in the little woods behind school. We called it our Secrets Tree. Sometimes we would pull petals off of nearby daisies to ask, “He loves me? He loves me not?” I’m not sure any of us knew who “He” was. But now, the girls kick boys’ legs under the tables. Their feet sometimes bounce the surface, which makes it hard to have a steady hand for drawing. I bet people don’t ask daisies for love advice anymore.
The fifth grade isn’t like other years. We used to have burping contests with boys and girls together. Now burping contests are boys-only and my old friends have squeaky new laughs. The girls laugh extra hard when Dylan Beaman pops his potato chip bag super-duper loud. He presses into the yellow plastic with all his strength until the air jumps out real fast and makes a sound as like thunder. He always bites his lip and smiles afterward, like he knows he can do big things in this world. Do you ever accidentally laugh when you don’t really mean it? I hate to say it, but sometimes I giggle with everyone at Dylan Beaman’s pop-sound too, even when it hurts my ears more than my plastic headband.
But today was special. Dylan Beaman opened his potato chip bag like a normal person, and then he actually shared some of the insides with me. That was nice, because I didn’t have anything good in my lunch to trade with him, like one of those juices in the shiny pouches or a Ring Pop. I took the tiniest chip, but it still tasted delicious. To top it all off, he then said, “You can join in on the burping contest if you want to.” Can you believe it? He for sure knows that it’s only boys now. For a second, it felt like he really got me.
Of course, all my old friends turned their heads when I followed Dylan to the other side of the long table. I couldn’t hear what they were gossiping about, but I didn’t even care. I kept my eyes on Dylan’s American flag shirt and noticed that he got the tiniest haircut last night. The shaved sides were smoother than ever when he looked behind his shoulder to make sure I was still there. He smiled, at least I think he did. Maybe he remembered from last year that I’m pretty good at burping after eating apples and taking sips of chocolate milk. I actually got third place for the whole entire fourth grade.
As soon as we sat down, I remembered again that those days are over. It was real obvious that I’m not like the other boys in class. Their voices are much bigger. They like to wear green camouflage and hide their moms’ catalogs under their beds. They stomp their feet and shout each other’s names like they really mean it at every burping contest. They never did that back when girls were allowed to burp too.
I looked over to my old friends to see if it was also obvious to them that I didn’t belong there, but they had already forgotten about me. They were all leaning over their brand-new cootie catcher, pointing at the different folds. What’s worse—when I looked back to Dylan and the rest of the boys-only burping contest, they had already skipped over me, cheering on somebody I don’t even know.
When Dylan Beaman said I could join, I didn’t realize that it was only to watch from the sidelines. I don’t think any of them cared about how good I could be. The whole time I just smiled halfway and played with my hangnail until it bled. Two of the boys leaned over me and gave each other high fives like they forgot I was in the middle. I thought my carton of milk was going to fall over. I betcha I would have had success if I had one of those fancy pizza Lunchables or if I joined the homeroom basketball team and spun a ball on just one of my fingers like Michael Jordan. Maybe that way, the boys would have let me play or decide to invite me more than just this one time.
Maybe it’s a good thing Dylan Beaman wanted me there watching. At the last slumber party with my old friends, almost every girl screamed when Courtney shared her dream of riding bikes and eating fudge with Dylan on Mackinac Island. We then had to practice saying our names with his last name over and over again. I would be called Ellie Beaman. I kind of like how it sounds, but I could never think about doodling that name since our desks are right next to each other. I hope you are good at keeping secrets, because I wouldn’t say this to just anybody. I hope I eventually have good things in my lunch to trade with Dylan Beaman. That way, he would be happy to see me and we can try the burping contest again. That’s even more than just saying hi. I don’t know.
I’ve considered taking my lunch to the bathroom stall just to make lunch easier, but I’m worried that’s never going to happen as long as the lunch aids are in charge of us. The aid in the doorway wears pants just like my mom, the kind that make those loud swish-swish sounds whenever she walks. The lunch aid also has a red plastic whistle around her neck for when we get too loud or when it seems like someone is going to get into big trouble. If I tried to leave, she would blow that whistle super-duper loud. I don’t want everyone and their brother looking at me just because I want to do something different. Don’t you know that having a little privacy is why I would want to go to the bathroom stall to begin with?
What would you do if you were me? It has only been like seven days of school, and I still don’t really know where to put myself. Maybe nowhere is the right place to sit. Do you ever feel like you made up the good times? Does that happen to everybody? With any luck, maybe I will find someone to draw on the lunch trays with me. If you happen to find this balloon, please write me back soon. I have been checking for letters under the WELCOME TO HOUGHTON sign nearly every day after school. Maybe you and I will draw together or share chocolate milk there one day? I don’t know, maybe if you wanted to.
P.S. What do you think of the name Sawyer? I think it’s nice.
Copyright © 2020 by Lexie Bean. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.