Wendy Chan walked into the classroom full of round, blue eyes and light hair. There was only one student who didn’t have pinkish, pale skin and pimples. He sat alone, in the front row. His skin was the color of dark chocolate. There was an empty desk on either side of him. Wendy sat down in the right one. It pinched her classmate in the waist, she noticed immediately. He was a round kid with a shaved head.
He turned his face toward her, then ducked his head quickly and went back to reading a comic book. Wendy leaned over. It was the newest X-Force comic. Wendy smiled. She loved comic books even though there were very, very few Asian heroines. She envied the taunt, strong yet feminine bodies, large eyes and flowing hair, which was always blowing upward.
The teacher was thin, with a pinched mouth and steel eyes. She had closely cropped gray hair but her skin was free of wrinkles. She introduced herself as Mrs. Beckman and then asked Wendy to stand up front.
“We have a new student joining us this year. Her name is Wendy Chan. Her family just moved here from Los Angeles. Since she’s entering in the middle of the semester, please be patient as she catches up.”
Wendy stared down at her shiny black shoes and bleached white socks. The shoes pinched her feet, but they were her nicest ones. Her navy blue dress—starched and stiff—was two sizes too big for her slim frame. Wendy felt like she was wearing a cardboard box. The dress, one of many, had been passed down to her by an older cousin. When Grandmother moved in with them, she mailed boxes of used clothing from the Hong Kong relatives to their home. The clothes may not have fit exactly right, but Grandmother made sure that they always looked brand new.
Grandmother picked and poked at her constantly. She was always yelling in Cantonese: “Stand up straighter! Eat more, eat more! You look like a praying mantis.” (You look like a stick-bug, she actually said.) “Why do you always bite your nails? You will never get married if you bite your nails.” Wendy wished her mother would intervene, but she was working odd hours and never seemed to be around.
Wendy’s family moved to Ohio because the air in L.A. had been bad for Grandmother’s condition. She was prone to respiratory infections and other numerous ailments. Wendy’s father now had to drive an hour to work in Columbus, but he said it was worth it to care for his mother. Her mother was a pharmacist and she quickly found a job about twenty minutes away.
Wendy had attended the public school for the first month, but her parents found it to be understaffed and ill-prepared to teach their daughter. So they enrolled her at New Covenant Christian School in October.
The classroom stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. She knew the Pledge by heart. She had moved to California from Hong Kong when she was four years old. She had only vague memories of her home there.
Wendy remembered little things, like the spicy smell of the marketplace and the open air balcony of their apartment on the twelfth floor. It was always full of green and growing plants. She used to play on the balcony under the watchful eye of her grandmother, pretending that she was Poison Ivy.
Wendy’s parents had left Hong Kong without her. She hadn’t understood that they were coming back for her. She cried for weeks. After Wendy’s father secured employment and her mother enrolled in pharmacy school, they came back for their only daughter. Wendy didn’t recognize them when they walked through the door. It had been six months.
Wendy didn’t know the second Pledge that the classroom recited. They faced a different flag with a white cross on it. She felt her face become hot as she moved her mouth wordlessly. The class sat down. Mrs. Beckman told everyone to bow their heads as she prayed. The words made no sense to her. What did that mean, “In Jesus’ name, amen?” She chewed on her fingernail. Her mother had promised that if Wendy would stop chewing her nails, she would take her to get her nails done. Wendy remembered this and sat on her hands.
When they finally opened their books, Wendy expelled a deep sigh of relief. She had covered this grammar stuff last year. She completed the first assignment in ten minutes.
The boy beside her was tapping his pencil on the desk. Tap, tappity tap, tap, tap.
“Morgan, stop that,” said Mrs. Beckman.
Morgan put the pencil down. His eyes were blurry. His left leg started shaking. Up and down. Up and down. Faster and faster. Wendy was mesmerized. This boy never stopped moving.
“Wendy, are you finished?”
Wendy looked up to see Mrs. Beckman’s pointed face mere inches from her own. She opened her mouth but no words came out. She nodded quickly.
“Then why don’t you come up here and read the answers aloud.”
Wendy tried to stand but her legs were weak. She bumped into Morgan and flew backwards. Trying to catch herself on the desk, she gripped only the edge and pulled the whole thing on top of herself. The class broke into an uproar.
“Stickgirl can’t stand up,” someone in the back of the room shouted.
“Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Laughter pierced the air.
Mrs. Beckman called for silence.
Morgan shimmied out of his seat, lifted Wendy’s desk off of her, and offered his hand. She held it. It was surprisingly steady and firm. Wendy dusted off her skirt and straightened her knee socks.
“Thanks,” she whispered.
Morgan shrugged, but his eyes lit up. He turned away and shoved his plush body into the tiny desk.
Wendy walked up to the front of the class and placed her textbook on the podium. Some of the children were snickering. Mrs. Beckman clapped her hands twice. “Enough.” She motioned toward Wendy. “Proceed.”
Wendy cleared her throat. Her voice came out in a whisper. “The answer to number one is adjective. An adjective describes a person, place or thing. The answer to number two is noun.”
Morgan glanced up at her and she lost her place on the page. He was erasing furiously. Little beads of sweat formed on his forehead. Her gnarled fingernail found the next question. Her mouth was dry. Too dry to speak. Finally, Mrs. Beckman spoke up.
“Thank you, Wendy. Let’s let someone else answer the next five questions.” Mrs. Beckman called on a blond girl with turquoise-colored, plastic glasses, who was raising her hand as high as she could.
Wendy sat down very carefully. She arranged her pens and pencils in order of size. She folded her hands in her lap. After class, she thought, I’ll ask Morgan if I can borrow his comic book.