In college, I went on a date with the son of my mother’s coworker. I couldn’t remember if his name was Jason or Justin, so I spent the entire night maneuvering my way out of saying his name. He... [+]
She spoke gently to him, wearing an encouraging smile. The boy rarely looked into her eyes, keeping his gaze on the green and white squares of the floor. He continuously slid his thumb over the fingers of his left hand like he was trying to make that snapping sound—only there was no sound. His right hand clenched his red spiral notebook and pencil with a death grip. The more children entering the room, the faster his thumb flew.
“Good morning, everyone,” Mrs. Dolby said cheerily, “Please take your seats and get settled. We have a new student joining our class.”
The room grew pin-drop silent as the students stared at the boy who didn’t seem to want to look at them. When he did raise his head, his eyes were filled with fear. The children could feel his fear. The boy quickly looked away and down. Intermittent whispers, like leaves scraping each other when the wind blows, popped up here and there.
Mrs. Dolby introduced the newest member of her class. “Boys and girls, this is Jamie Peterson. His family moved here from California. I know you’ll make him feel welcome in our class and help him find his way around school too. Right?”
“Yes, Mrs. Dolby,” the children replied in singsong.
“Jamie, you sit in front of Mike. Mike, please raise your hand so he can find his desk.”
Jamie hurriedly took his seat, and the day’s lessons began.
Mike leaned closer. “Hey, Jamie, it’s nice to meet you.”
For the first time, Jamie responded. He turned his head a little toward Mike. “Thanks.” His left hand was slowly coming to a rest.
Donnie, sitting next to the new boy, was observing it all and moved nearer to him. “It speaks... You know you’re really weird.”
As if Mrs. Dolby had eyes in the back of her head and ears pointed in the direction of her class, she interrupted her writing on the board and whirled around. “Donnie,” she said with “the look” on her face, “I think you need to apologize to Jamie.”
Donnie squirmed in his seat, surprised that his teacher heard his remark, and mumbled, “I’m sorry.” The daggers in his eyes betrayed the sentiment.
“Okay,” Jamie answered, not looking in any particular direction.
“Let’s stop here. I see the bell for lunch will be ringing in just a minute or two. Please line up.” Mrs. Dolby barely finished her sentence before a mini-stampede raced to the front of the room. “Don’t run and stay in a nice straight line for me. Last one out, remember to shut off the lights and close the door.”
The bell rang. The students followed their teacher like little ducklings. She turned to look at her brood and noticed one at the end of the line was straggling a bit. “Jamie, please keep up with the class.”
“Okay.” He quickened his pace.
Surrounded by the cafeteria chaos, Jamie’s silent snapping began again. It continued until he had his lunch on his tray.
Feeling very vulnerable, he located his class and sat a few seats away from everyone. They noticed him for a moment and then continued their usual lunchroom conversations.
Mike, looking at Jamie, felt sorry for him. “He’s all by himself. We ought to go sit with him.”
“Are you crazy? That kid is strange. There’s something wrong with him,” Donnie hissed, “I don’t want to catch what he’s got. What about you guys?”
The other boys glimpsed at Jamie and turned back to Mike.
“Donnie’s right. He’s weird, Mike. We don’t want to sit by him,” Chuck admitted.
They were all in agreement—all of them except Mike. A twinge of not doing the right thing unsettled him, but he didn’t want to go against the group. Knowing them, they would treat him like he was just as weird. Mike rationalized since Jamie hardly talked; there was no point in sitting by him. He probably didn’t want anyone near him anyway.
It was the same at recess. Jamie sat alone on a bench while the others played kickball, swung on the swings, and climbed on the shiny monkey bars that reflected the afternoon sun. The only place he wasn’t by himself was in the classroom. The others had to sit by him then. They had no choice.
Mrs. Dolby was observing everyone’s behavior around Jamie. She was concerned, but she wasn’t going to intervene—not yet.
After supper that night, with his homework done, Mike sprawled on his bed, remembering the school day. He didn’t want to watch his television shows or play any of his video games.
At lights out, his dad and mom kissed him and wished him sweet dreams. They noticed something was troubling their son.
“Hey pal, do you need to talk to us about something?” his dad asked.
“No, I’m okay.”
“Mike, remember, you can talk to us about anything.”
His parents gently closed his bedroom door. In the darkness, Mike stared at the glowing stars and planets his mom helped him stick to his ceiling. He knew he had to work this out on his own.
The next morning at school was uneventful, and in the cafeteria things played out much the same. Jamie sat alone, a few seats away from the rest of his class.
Donnie laughed, “Look at that freak. He’s just scribbling in his notebook. He’s not even eating.”
The other boys laughed too.
Mike had made his decision. It was now or never. He stood up. His hands were on his lunch tray.
“What are you doing?” Tommy asked him.
“I’m going to sit with Jamie.”
“You’re just as nuts as he is,” Donnie said and looked around at the other guys.
They weren’t laughing.
Mike picked up his lunch, walked the few paces to Jamie, and sat next to him. He saw what Jamie was doing. He wasn’t scribbling in his notebook. He was drawing an elaborate spaceship with stars and planets.
“Wow, Jamie, that’s really good.”
“Thanks. I like astronomy.”
That was the most words Mike ever heard the new boy speak.
“I like it too.” Mike was excited at having something in common with Jamie. “I’ve got stars and planets that glow in the dark on the ceiling of my room.”
“Nice.” Jamie started eating his lunch. He wasn’t alone at school anymore. He had a friend.
The two boys talked about space travel, the atmospheres of the different planets of the Milky Way, and building bases on the Moon.
It took a little while longer, but because of Mike, the other boys realized Jamie was a great guy, and pretty smart too. Whenever they had trouble in science or math, they knew he would be able and willing to help them.
“So, that’s how you and Uncle Jim became friends, Dad?”
“It sure is.” Mike grinned at his daughter.
“Best friends,” Jim added.
“What’s your job again, Uncle Jim?”
“I’m an astrophysicist. It’s a big word. I study the stars and planets. Everything to do with space. Sometimes, I use a huge telescope.”
“I like telescopes. Dad just got me one. Could I see the one you use, Uncle Jim? Would that be okay, Dad?”
“If it’s all right with Uncle Jim; it’s all right with me.”
Smiling, Jim said, “Okay. I’ll show you planets, I’ll teach you about their atmospheres, and we’ll talk about the bases on the Moon.”