His mother woke him early. It was a Thursday morning, the first day of first grade. She dressed him in a new IZOD collared shirt. It was green with a white alligator on it. She had bought it from a large clothing store in the mall. He hated the mall, and especially that store. He hated getting lost in the immensity of the place, the chaotic order of things, and the shoe department. At six, he was too aware of getting lost, of being kidnapped, of being seen on the back of a milk carton.
After getting Marcus dressed, she doused his straight black hair — cut unevenly by some unskilled hairstylist at the local hair cutters — with water, and combed it into place for the time being. Then, with a smile, she stepped back and did a once over to make sure everything was nice and neat and tucked in and tied and so on.
With a huff, Marcus folded his arms and looked off to the side. She was very pleased with herself. She nodded her approval, and he headed off to the kitchen to eat breakfast. He was particular, and breakfast was the same each morning, consisting of toast, cheerios, and o.j. He felt it was a substantial breakfast. She was not allowed to stay at the table while he ate. He preferred solitude, which he could see he would embrace even more now that they had a new dressing ritual.
“Ready?” she asked after she had brushed his teeth at the kitchen sink.
He nodded, and she handed him his backpack. He lied. He wasn’t. Is anyone ready for something new and significant and different? He thought to himself as he took the bag from her and followed her out to the car.
On the way, she prepared him for “real school.”
“Kindergarten and pre-school were a warm-up for the big leagues,” she said.
Though Marcus loved baseball, the useful analogy didn’t quell his nerves. She went on to explain in preschool and kindergarten, the children were confined to a small playground with those similar in age, and could only watch the bigger kids as they played and ran and fought and did other big kid things. But now in first grade, he would be going to lunch with first through eighth graders. He would be on the same playground, swinging and playing and sliding next to the “big kids.”
The thought slapped him across the face. He looked at his mother with knots in his stomach. She smiled, helped him into the car and held the door open.
She asked, “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
“I don’t feel good.”
He meant it. Big kids, big playground, and big cafeteria – He was freaking out.
She patted his head. “You’ll feel better once the day gets going. Who knows, you might make a best friend today.”
Then she closed the door and went to her side. She slid into the seat and started the car. Neil Diamond, singing “Oh Sherry,” blared out of the speakers and she turned the music down. As they backed out, she was all smiles and hummed along with good-ole Neil.
His parents had decided to send him to a private school, housed on the grounds of an old church consisting of three domed buildings which held the church sanctuary, the elementary classrooms, and the gym. In front of the domes, a vast half-moon driveway served as the unloading dock for the first through fifth grades. The lawn in front of the domes was filled with palm trees, bent and twisted in all manner of shapes. Patches of grass wove their way around the trunks of the trees.
Marcus took it all in as they edged their way into line and waited for his time to get out. He watched out the window as child after child got out of their cars and walked toward the big domes. When they neared the teacher helping the children out of the car, his mother reached behind his seat and patted his kneed. He placed his backpack on his lap.
The time had arrived.
“I want you to have a special day. I love you.” She blew him a kiss.
The teacher opened his door. “Hello, there,” she said.
No turning back. At that moment, as the teacher held the car door open for him, as he dropped to the sidewalk, backpack over his shoulder, Marcus crossed the mystical portal into first grade.
“I love you,” his mother called, and the door slammed shut.
Marcus froze as the car pulled away. He kept thinking that this was a nightmare; she would stop the car, turn around and get him. But the red Honda Civic just kept moving down the road until it rounded the last corner and disappeared.
“Come on.” He could feel the teacher’s hand pull him toward the domes. He followed her, his eyes on the sidewalk.
“What grade are you in?” she asked.
“First,” he muttered.
“Ah, Mrs. Evans class. She’s a wonderful teacher.”
She led him to the classroom dome. It was musty; the lights were dim; the walls were white and bare except for the occasional water stains that snaked it’s way down from the ceiling. The carpet was old and worn and water stained as well. The farther they ventured, the more it smelled like a wet shoe.
Reaching the center of the building, they stopped at room 103. There were no windows, just a door. Muffled noises came from the looming door. The teacher opened it slowly and poked her head into the classroom. She spoke, but Marcus couldn’t hear what she said. He peered around her and caught a glimpse of a girl in a red dress passing by the door.
“Go on in,” the teacher said and let him pass.
Marcus stepped into Mrs. Evans room and halted. Kids were everywhere – at their desks, at the pencil sharpener, at the trashcan, at the bookshelves. Noise, chatter, and banging filled the air. Mrs. Evans stood and approached him.
“Marcus Williams? Is that your name?”
He nodded, “Yes,” to her, afraid to speak. His eyes widened as she approached him. She was enormous. Wider than she was tall, she seemed to roll toward him as she spoke. For a moment he thought he wondered if she would crush him in her path.
“Why, Marcus, are you feeling well?”
He nodded another yes.
She bent low; a waft of stale rose perfume filled the air around her. Her glasses slid off her face.
“You’re as white as a ghost. Come and sit down.”
She slowly turned and waddled toward an empty desk in the back of the room. He picked up her glasses and followed her.
She pointed. “This is your desk.”
He could see that it was: his name, written in bubble letters on a sheet of colored paper, had been laminated and taped to the top of a brown desk. Marcus handed Mrs. Evans her glasses.
“Why, Marcus, thank you so much. I was wondering why everything was so blurry.”
She took the glass, perched them back on her nose and inched by his desk, knocking over a chair. He watched as she managed to squeeze behind her desk and fill up her chair.
Marcus couldn’t move. A trance-like state took over. He watched the kids talk, bang, read, and slam their desks open and shut, but found himself unable to move or speak.
“Marcus, have a seat and please put your supplies away,” Mrs. Evans said.
Her voice broke the power of the spell. Marcus pulled his chair out and sat down. The desktop lifted up to reveal a storage space for his pencils, erasers, rulers, paper, and so on. Marcus unloaded his backpack’s contents into his desk. Once he finished, he spied the other packs in the corner and joined his to the pile.
And that was the routine – that was how each day began. He would get out of the car in the driveway, make his way down the musty hall, enter this other dimension through the door, and sit at his desk until everyone had put their backpacks down. Then he would get up, put his backpack with the others. Marcus did this, without notice, for the first few weeks.
He was happy with this because Marcus was “chubby” – his mother liked that word better than fat – but he knew, at six years of age, that he was fat, and he would do anything to keep from being noticed.
One morning, while Marcus sat quietly at his desk, listening to the teacher, the boy next to him looked his way. Marcus caught his stare out of the corner of his eye. Mrs. Evans had just moved the boy next to Marcus that morning, the first child to sit next to Marcus.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked.
“Marcus,” he whispered.
“My name is Carl,” he whispered as he pulled a G.I. Joe action figure out of his desk and put it on his lap. “This is G.I. Joe. Cool, huh?”
Marcus gazed at the toy in sheer wonderment. He was no dummy. This was a momentous occasion. This was a real G.I. Joe action figure. This was another boy sharing his real G.I. Joe action figure with him. He had never seen one up close, just on the Saturday morning cartoons.
“Wow,” Marcus exclaimed.
He didn’t realize how loud he had said, “Wow,” until he noticed the classroom was quiet. The hush seized Marcus by the back of he neck. He looked up to see Mrs. Evans staring at him. The entire class was staring at him and his new friend. Marcus glanced at Carl, and he was red in the face.
“Mr. Marcus,” Mrs. Evans scolded, “I was in the middle of a lesson. Would you like to teach it?” She paused for a long time. Then, “Would you?”
Marcus was stunned. She hadn’t spoken to him like that before. No adult had ever raised their voice at him. In a split second, he scanned his memory and knew that he had never been in trouble before. He didn’t know what to say.
“Mr. Marcus. Mr. Marcus! Answer me.”
He stammered, “Nnnnnooo.”
“Then please refrain from speaking out of turn.” She stepped toward Carl. “Mr. Carl, I will gladly take that toy you have in your lap.”
Carl weakly handed it to her. She snatched it and took the G.I. Joe doll to her desk.
“I will give it back to you at the end of the week. Hopefully, Mr. Carl, you will learn your lesson and not bring toys to school.”
She returned to the front of the class and resumed teaching. Everyone turned back to listen, except for Carl. He glared at Marcus. He caught the evil look and quickly fixed his eyes on Mrs. Evans, hoping Carl would go away, hoping against hope that he would forget G.I. Joe’s captivity.
But Carl didn’t forget.
At lunch recess, Carl made sure that Marcus remembered his sin.
“Thanks a lot, Marcus,” he bellowed as if Marcus had brutally severed his right arm.
Marcus tried to ignore him. He moved away from the slide, and stood off to the side of the recess yard, wishing he were home with his mother.
“Now I can’t play with my new toy!” Carl screeched across the yard. “I just got it yesterday!”
Marcus felt horrible; there had been no intent to harm. But the damage was done. And he found myself wishing to never talk to anyone again.
Carl ended his verbal assault with a loud, ungodly, deep-throated, “I hate you!”
That finished Marcus off. He couldn’t believe it: no one had ever said they hated him. In fact, no one had ever said anything that cruel to Marcus ever! He was at a loss. He felt the sting of rejection and his only response was, of course, the worst possible thing he could have done: he cried. Years later, when Marcus played the scene out in his head, he pictured himself running over and slugging Carl in the face. Or kicking him in the shin. But instead he wept like a little baby.
Carl pounced on the blubbering. At that moment, he became a shark that had smelled blood in the water and went in for the kill.
“Ah, poor Marcus, he’s gonna cry! Wahhhh! Wahhh! Baby Marcus! Baby Marcus!”
Carl chanted this over and over and over, the words pounding Marcus into the ground. Carl saw the effect he was having and decided to make it worse by dancing in a circle around Marcus.
“Baby Marcus! Baby Marcus!”
Marcus had nowhere to flee, trapped on the playground until the recess whistle blew and everyone made their way to the duty aide and formed a line. He waited in a corner of the yard until the last possible minute. Then shuffled his way to the back of line.
Carl spotted him and stepped out and shouted, “Baby Marcus!” until the teacher smacked him on the head and made him get back in place.
The line moved forward and Marcus with it, his head down. He didn’t notice the little girl in front of him. A little taller than Marcus, her hair was in pigtails, and she wore a red dress. She was the girl he had seen the first day of school.
As they walked, she said, “My name is Anne. I’m in your class.”
Marcus looked up. She smiled at him.
“Why are you crying?” she asked.
He lowered his gaze, embarrassed at the truth.
“Will you play with me at the next recess?” she asked.
He was tongue-tied. He didn’t know what to say. She asked him again.
Finally, Marcus said, “Okay.”
She smiled again. His heart melted.
“Marcus, I’m Marcus.”
“I know,” she said.
Weeks had passed, and no one had asked him to do anything. Carl was the first person to talk to him, and Marcus had blown that potential friendship to high heaven. Now, this little girl, Anne in the red dress, was asking him to be her friend. A moment of hesitation blew the fact that she was a girl, which was kind of icky, clear out of his mind. He decided he wasn’t going to be picky.
Anne and Marcus played together at the next recess. For a girl, she had a startling imagination. That and the fact that she didn’t like Barbie’s and other girly stuff, but instead loved superheroes, like Marcus, won him over.
A collection of puddles that had formed in the concrete islands in the parking lot during a rainstorm the previous night was the ideal spot to launch their friendship. She was Wonder Woman, and he was Aquaman. Their mission, destroy the Legion of Doom, led by Lex Luther, who had recently invaded Aquaman’s underwater kingdom and threatened the lives of his people. As Wonder Woman, Anne answered the cry for help and fought with him when no one else had.
“I have come to help you, Aquaman,” she said in her deepest, grown-up woman voice.
“Thank you, Wonder Woman,” he responded, playing as though battle fatigue had bested him. “I was beginning to think I was alone in this war.”
“You are never alone, Aquaman. Not when Wonder Woman is near.” She jumped up on the curb, put her fists on her hips and looked off into the distance.
Recess had never been so fun and had never passed so quickly. A subtle sadness descended on Marcus when the times ended each day.
Besides being a great Wonder Woman, she played soccer and was as fast anyone in the class, even Carl. Frequently, during P.E., she was a team captain and always picked Marcus first for her team. He was slow, but because of his width, he played goalie. Her mantra was that every good soccer team needs a good goalie.
Later on in the year, one day after P.E., Anne and Marcus stood at the back of the line, waiting to return to class. They had beat Carl’s team again. She was excited, having scored the winning goal, a first for her. She was laughing and giggling and talking all at the same time. Neither noticed Carl’s looming presence until he pushed his way in front of Anne and got in Marcus’ face.
Shocked and scared, Marcus stepped back and tripped over the curb.
“Oh poor, Marcus, look at him,” Carl said.
As he spoke, standing over Marcus, a smile crept across his face. His eyes traveled down the length of Marcus’ body and stopped around his waist area. It was too late to do anything about it: Marcus’ shirt had hiked up, and his gut was hanging out.
He pointed at Marcus and said, “You’re fat!”
Those two words, like two giant cymbals, smacked on either side of his head, reverberated through his mind, shook his soul, snapped his spirit. Marcus gazed upward and Carl’s grinning face blocked out the sun.
He chanted “You’re fat!” over and over.
Everyone knew he was fat, but they had the common courtesy not to say anything. Marcus curled up in a ball.
Amidst the taunting, Marcus couldn’t see or hear Ann. Carl just laughed and went to get back in line, but he never made it. Anne waited for him and delivered a right cross that shook Carl’s world. She caught him square on the jaw and then dropped Carl to the ground with a jab to the gut. A loud wail erupted from Carl’s stomach as he gasped for breath and grabbed his jaw.
Her smiling face filled Marcus’ vision. She extended her slender hand and helped Marcus to his feet. She dusted off his back and then was whisked away by another teacher, escorted to the principal’s office. She later told Marcus at recess that she received three swats for her punches.
She smiled and said it was worth it.
They sat side by side all recess long. Marcus felt shame for his weight, his lack of fighting skills, the fact that Anne had to save him.
Anne had a white rock in her hand and scratched something on the sidewalk. When she was done, she pulled him to his feet and they looked down at what she had written.
“Marcus + Anne” and underneath that “Friends Forever.”