I stand tall, but everything inside shrinks. The thing is, I feel real bad. I mean, I felt terrible when the neighbor's dog died, never mind if a baby had died. I just didn't know it was a sad card like that. All I could see were beautiful yellow flowers. And all I could imagine was how happy I was going to make her.
I'm so tired of this conversation. We've had it a hundred times, even though my third-grade teacher told her that I might just be slow, that my mom shouldn't expect too much of me. My mom's eyes got all wide and shiny when she heard that, and I felt sad and embarrassed for her having to be my mom.
“Well,” the guy says, “if you know anything about coins, you know that a coin with a flaw in it is far more valuable than a regular coin.”
Something isn't right with it and it's worth more?
As I walk back to my seat, I think of how when Dad left, he said that when we look at the steel pennies, we need to remember that we are unique, too. And also, that things will go back to normal for us—that he'll be home before we know it.
Mr. Daniels gives Oliver a thumbs-up, and I think how cool it is that they have the ear-pulling signal. That way he doesn't always have to tell Oliver that he's doing something wrong in front of everyone. I know what that feels like and I'm happy that Mr. Daniels cares so much. Most teachers seem to like their students to be all the same—perfect and quiet. Mr. Daniels actually seems to like that we're different.
But now, on top of all those other big wishes that I carry around, I have one more. I want to impress Mr. Daniels. With every tiny little piece of myself, I just want him to like me.
Besides that, Shay, Jessica, and some other girls all have these woven friendship bracelets. And I have never had the kind of friends who have matching bracelets, but I have always wanted them. It's like the bracelet tells the world that the person wearing it has someone who cares about them.
I'm not perfect, but at least I'm not mean.
And then my heart sinks, because I realize that I just was.
I guess I did it because I was lonely. Now I know that there are worse things than being lonely.
The next morning, I am trying to decide if I should turn in my paper, knowing Mr. Daniels will probably think I spit it out in two minutes. The truth is that it cost me my whole night and a headache that was so bad, it reminded me of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland always yelling, “Off with her head!” Just because I thought that would be a relief.
People act like the words “slow reader” tell them everything that's inside. Like I'm a can of soup and they can just read the list of ingredients and know everything about me. There's a lot of stuff about the soup inside that they can't put on the label, like how it smells and tastes and makes you feel warm when you eat it. There's got to be more to me than a kid who can't read well.
“Do you know what it means to think out of the box?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“It means that you are a creative thinker. You think differently than other people.”
Great. Just once, I want to be told I'm like everyone else.
“It's a good thing to be an out-of-the-box thinker. People like that are world-changers.”
“I laugh. “Uh, no, thanks. I'd rather wear handcuffs.”
I can't believe Shay charges her friends for something that's supposed to stand for loyalty and friendship. And I can't believe they paid.
It comes from a place so deep inside, it's like it's coming out of the ground. “I just... I just want to fit in for once. I mean, I really do. Just to be the same as everyone else.”
“You are smart, Ally. And you are going to learn to read.”
A chill runs through my whole body. I don't have any choice but to believe him, because I can't go another day thinking things will be like this forever.
I walk over to the garbage and drop it in. Watch it twist and spin as it falls. I look up and lock eyes with him and wish I had the words to tell him how grateful I am for his helping me. In this world of words, sometimes they just can't say everything.
“People ask what you want to be when you grow up. I know what kind of grown-up I want to be. But I don't know who I am now.” Albert stretches his legs out. “There are always people ready to tell you who you are, like a nerd or a jerk or a wimp.”
And I think of words. The power they have. How they can be waved around like a wand—sometimes for good, like how Mr. Daniels uses them. How he makes kids like me and Oliver feel better about ourselves. And how words can also be used for bad. To hurt.
I guess maybe “I'm having trouble” is not the same as “I can't.”
Shay sounds like someone completely different. The Shay I know, always so quick to pick a fight, now has a voice that sounds like a kindergartener.
“Sorry, Mama.” She brushes a tear from her cheek.
Normally, I'd be giving him all kinds of reasons I can't do this. But the thing is, Mr. Daniels could hand me a book as heavy as a boulder and I'd try to read it.
Just because he asked me to.
As I draw, I think about my sketchbook and how I love it but don't draw in it as much anymore. It used to be the only thing that made me happy. Now I have other things, too.
And looking around the room, I remember thinking that my reading differences were like dragging a concrete block around every day, and how I felt sorry for myself. Now I realize that everyone has their own blocks to drag around. And they all feel heavy.
I feel like I'm going to cry. Thinking how Albert has come to school every day with those bruises for all this time. We always asked him what it would take for him to fight back. Turns out it was protecting us.
I want you to know how sorry I am about the bumpy road we had for a while. I'm proud of all the strides you're making. All the hard work you're doing. We should have picked up on your learning differences before, but you were so bright... and, well, I hope you'll give me another chance to help.