Months after an embarrassing incident at school, Emerson is faced with a difficult decision
The most traumatizing thing that happened to me in all of elementary school took place in the fall of third grade.
What is this? Oh, what happened to poor eight-year-old Emerson? Did a dear pet die? Was she tragically injured?
No. Stuff like that doesn’t really happen to me. The worst moment in that year was possibly the most embarrassing thing to happen to me. Ever. Or at least it seemed like that. And it had consequences.
It all started on a sunny November afternoon near the end of the school day. Ms. Algieri, my teacher, sent us outside to put an assignment in our backpacks, which were hanging on hooks on the outer wall of our classroom. I wandered outside with everyone else and unzipped my backpack. When we had put the paper in, we walked back to the class for science. Or most of us, at least. Not me. I didn’t head back to the class. Somehow I forgot about science and decided it was the end of the day. Absently humming a cheerful tune, I hitched up my backpack and skipped over the blacktop, around a row of classrooms to the playground.
That morning, my friend Ashley and I had decided to meet there at the end of the day so we could walk to choir after school together.
I noticed that her class hadn’t been released yet. Mr. Kahl always holds them back later than us. At least he hands out Jolly Ranchers. Maybe Ashley will have some—sour apple or blue raspberry, hopefully.
I skipped over the tanbark and clambered up to the top of the jungle gym. I was sitting there when my teacher came hurrying out over the blacktop toward me, black flower-print dress bobbing up and down with her bouncing jog. Her round, freckled face and dark smiling eyes, normally paired with a wide smile, were now squeezed into an expression of worry.
I couldn’t see why, though. Why was she running toward me, anyhow?
Suddenly time seemed to stop. In a glance I realized there were no other kids anywhere on the grounds, with the exception of a pair walking through the breezeways to a bathroom together. Normally, the place was flooded with students walking home or stopping at the playground. I froze. I realized my mistake.
I began to panic, and my face turned bright red, prickling uncomfortably. Looking around, I wondered how I had ever missed the silence and stillness of the grounds.
I chanced a glance at my classroom, which had one big window with a nice view of the playground. I knew this view very well. Sitting in the classroom you could easily see the part where I was climbing. The window was dark, and from my angle I couldn’t see my classmates inside. My imagination formed a detailed picture of what their faces looked like at the moment: Sophie staring in curiosity, Jamie in confusion. Bella whispering to Olivia. I was sure Diego and Jonah were holding back giggles.
My imagination also created a very detailed and fleeting image in my brain of what my classmates were seeing right now, looking out the window. Me, sitting eight feet off the ground, backpack on, an hour before class had ended. To this day, this view my imagination created seems like a memory. My imagination was rampaging, running wild, making everything worse. The prickling became close to unbearable. This was absolutely terrible.
Everyone, looking at me. Teacher, worried. Me, mindlessly wandering the playground when school hadn’t even ended.
I quickly shot down from the playground and headed to Ms. Algieri. I didn’t dare look her in the eye.
“I-I’m sorry,” I stuttered. Tears built up and pressed behind my eyeballs.
No. Nonono! You can’t be crying! You’re in school right now! Your classmates await you! But I couldn’t stop the persistent tears. Before we had even come back to the classroom, tears were full-out streaming down my face.
I hung up my backpack, still staring at my shiny, navy blue sneakers, and absently noted that my shoe was untied. I heaved a loud sniff. I tried with all my might to keep a neutral face, but my face was bright red and my eyes were puffy.
Before I stepped into the classroom, I wiped my face on my sleeve. Hard. All the heads of my classmates turned and stared at me. This brought a new round of hiccupping sobs. I covered my face in my hands and stood there for what seemed like hours, when in reality it was no more than ten seconds. Then Ms. Algieri had the sense to excuse me to go to the bathroom.
At first I just casually strolled out of the classroom, trying to look calm and careless. I looked at none of my classmates. But then the reality of life set in, and I began to jog out over the blacktop to the safety of the secluded bathroom stalls.
When I got there, I sobbed in a stall. Soon my friends Nao, Katherine, and Sofia came over to comfort me. They mostly patted me, handed me wet paper towels, and quietly murmured soothing words. I don’t really remember much about that. Just that I was very grateful that they didn’t laugh (out loud, anyhow—some silly voice in my head confidently informed me that they were holding back mountains of giggles). On top of everything else, I also had a new reason to be embarrassed because I had seen how puffy and red my face was and how tearstained my cheeks were in the bathroom mirrors.
My imagination was rampaging, running wild, making everything worse. The prickling became close to unbearable.
Eventually I calmed down, and my friends and I headed back to class. People still stared at me, and I had tears in my eyes for the rest of the day. Small sniffs could sometimes be heard from my seat if you listened hard enough. I never cried again, though.
In the weeks that followed, I could never bring myself to tell my parents about what had happened. It was too embarrassing. I couldn’t relive it in any way.
Weeks later, the parent-teacher conferences loomed near. Wow. I had always wondered about the PTCs. I always had to stay home and wait for what seemed like forever for them to come back. Whenever I asked about the parent-teacher conferences, my parents gave a vague sentence or two like, “Your teacher likes you, Emmy. Good job.”
This year, for whatever reason, I was particularly keen on the parent-teacher conferences. The mystery about them gave me a bit of a chill. They were that conversation behind closed doors. No child of my grade had ever witnessed what happened in the parent-teacher conferences. If only I could find out for myself.
Just so happens, I was about to be given that exact opportunity. Weird how that always happens in stories, huh?
On the day of the parent-teacher conferences, I heard the garage doors scraping open and a car driving in. I instantly knew what that meant. I grinned and eyed my sister, Odessa. The door opened, and my father stepped in.
“Daddyyyy!!!” I screeched, jumping into his arms with Odessa hot on my tail. I loved hugging him. His arms were big and warm and wrapped around me perfectly. After a bit of hugging, he asked me a question.
“How would you like to come with me to the parent-teacher conferences today?” he asked me.
I was just about to say, “Yes, I would like to come,” when a small notion in the back of my mind struck.
“Um, I’ll think about it,” I said, doing my best to keep my mind and face cheerful. The notion in my head needed some consideration first. It whispered, in a small but persistent voice, What if something bad happens? What if Ms. Algieri mentions something bad that you did? I knew that no matter how hard I tried, I would probably cry if she said something like: “Emerson needs to pick up on her multiplication. She’s very behind.”
Oh, Emerson. Pull yourself together! a stronger voice scoffed. You’re awesome! Your grades are fine. You’re a good student. You’re a nice kid. You don’t get in trouble.
Oh, but wait. Are you sure that nothing happened this year? Nothing? Hm? Hmmm?
Suddenly it hit me. There is one thing, I thought. That one time I accidentally left school early . . .
I was beginning to panic, just a teensy-weensy bit. But Ms. Algieri won’t mention that . . . why would she? Besides,
Ms. Algieri is such a nice person. I don’t remember anyone ever getting in big trouble with her. She would never give anyone any sort of discomfort.
You don’t know that she won’t. You don’t know much of anything about parent-teacher conferences! All you know is that the teachers tell the parents about what happens in school. Even though she might feel sorry for you, she would have to mention it, right? It certainly did happen in school.
My panic was increasing by the second.
Y-you don’t know that she’ll mention it! I told myself. Y-you’re not sure!
But what if she does mention it? Then you’d cry. In front of Ms. Algieri. Again.
Suddenly it seemed very possible that Ms. Algieri would mention The Incident again.
There was, of course, the outside chance that she wouldn’t mention it. So I weighed what options I had in my mind.
If I went to PTCs with my dad, then I would make him proud because I was brave. But . . . if Ms. Algieri did mention The Incident, then I would probably cry. And then I would shame my father even more than if I had just stayed home.
If I stayed home, my dad would be disappointed in me for not coming with him. And if Ms. Algieri mentioned The Incident, my dad might confront me about it later, probably bringing tears, but I wouldn’t cry in front of my teacher.
I could also tell my dad why I was afraid to go, but that would bring the crying right there and then. But he could help me figure out what to do, of course. He was much older than me and would know just what to do.
I considered each of these options, noticing with a jolt of terror that they all included me bursting into tears at some point. The crying seemed inevitable. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t sure that Ms. Algieri would bring up The Incident. But it just seemed so possible!
Being fearful as I was, I wanted to take the route that would mean the least trauma for me.
If I had been older and more thoughtful about the matter, I would probably have chosen option three. Having my dad help me out could only result in something pleasant because he was very good at solving problems, and it would get things over with quicker. Although it would be scary to tell him everything, the outcome would be best.
But, I was only in third grade. So option two seemed most appealing to me. It meant postponing all the crying till later.
Only one problem arrived here. And that would be telling my dad straight up that I didn’t want to go. That would take some courage, courage that I surely had somewhere in me. Maybe.
Going up to him and telling him my answer to his question seemed a daunting task beyond my capabilities. Such a terrifying feat I had never faced before.
I had to tell him. I had to, now, or else I would have to go with him and face the horrors.
The hours of the afternoon were spent worrying and trying to summon enough courage to talk to my dad. Soon three o’clock melted into four, and four melted into five. I glanced at the clock and jumped. Five o’clock! Oh no! Daddy would leave to go to the PTCs in thirty minutes! Panic and chaos ruled my brain.
I was called to dinner. I shuffled along, lost in thought. I had to tell Daddy my decision soon!
Fear pressed my forehead, giving me a headache. I shifted my food around on my plate. The half hour slipped by quickly.
Eventually the time came. Daddy would be leaving any minute.
“So, have you made your decision yet? You better hurry—we’ll be leaving any minute!” he shouted, grabbing his coat.
I had to tell him. I had to, now, or else I would have to go with him and face the horrors.
I took a deep breath and, staring anywhere but his piercing blue eyes, squeaked, “I-I don’t want to come to the parent teacher conferences.” I glanced up at his face.
My father looked at me in surprise, and said in a seemingly indifferent voice laced with disappointment and shame, “Alright, then. I was going to let you ride bikes with me if you wanted to come.”
I loved biking. Really loved it. Smoothly gliding over rough streets, propelling myself forward with an effortless nudge of foot to pedal. It was like flying, only without heights. Inhaling cold, fresh air that whipped my long brown hair out of my face. Cool breeze kissing my cheek. As long as there were no big hills, biking was bliss.
I bit back tears. Clearly, Daddy said that being brave would have a reward. Oh, if only he knew why I refrained from coming along with him.
After he left, I sat on the couch and pondered life. I should be feeling relieved, I thought. I got it over with. But somehow making my father disappointed in me to avoid certain trauma didn’t feel right.
You did the right thing, I assured myself. What else could you have done?
I sat and thought about my decision until Daddy came back a half hour later.
I jumped. Oh no! Would he confront me about what Ms. Algieri had said?
“Hi Daddy,” I said. “What did Ms. Algieri say? Anything interesting?”
My dad simply noted that Ms. Algieri liked me, and I was a good student. I waited with bated breath for any word of The Incident. He had finished talking. Not a peep about it.
“Is . . . that it?” I asked, perplexed.
“Yep,” he responded. “Well done in third grade!”
“Okay then . . .” I felt my face prickle and knew it was turning red. All that trouble I went through, the fear, the near crying, the shame, the embarrassment, for . . . nothing?
My dad didn’t notice my face turning red. I walked away and sat on the couch. That notion I’d had in my head—it had seemed so convincing. And yet I’d taken all these unnecessary measures to try and avoid something that had never happened.
I should have told him in the first place, just to avoid all this difficulty. Hiding it made everything so much worse.
And it always would.