Our new house is small and nondescript. It has two bedrooms and one bathroom, and a tiny backyard with sparse grass. Along the perimeter is an ugly, pink cinder-block wall lined with thorny, bristling rose bushes. Inside there is the table and the rug on the floor and three chairs. There is a small couch and a bamboo plant in a large round glass jar. My room has only my bed and the small desk with a lamp that casts a greenish glow across the hardwood floors. There is one window by the desk, and when I look out of it, I can see the grass and the sky and the large maple tree fingering the breeze in the yard next to ours. In the late afternoon the tree casts looming shadows on the grass.
I miss our home in Vietnam. It was cozy and comfortable, and outside I could see the papaya tree with the large green fruits hidden under its broad leaves. We never got to harvest the fruit this year. We stayed as long as we could. But the end of the war chased us away, and we fled to America. The journey on the ship was long and arduous. We were crowded together with many other families, waiting… And now, here we were, in a whole new country, with no knowledge of this place.
* * *
I shrink in my seat, trying to make myself seem as small as possible. This is school, where I am the odd one out, where I am alone. I know nothing. I want to fade into the background, or drift out the door back home. But where is home? Home is not here. Home is Vietnam. I don’t care about the war. I want to be home.
“We have a new student today,” my teacher says, beckoning me forward. Shyly, I stand up and walk to the front of the room in awkward silence. “Everyone, please say hello to Mai.” Ms. Nelson smiles encouragingly. I look up at her, pleading with my eyes to let me leave this room. She seems to understand and nods faintly. I rush back to my seat, my cheeks red, trying to ignore the stares of other students.
“Class,” Ms. Nelson says, “please open your silent-reading books.”
I look across the room. Students are opening their books and reading in silence. I stare down at my desk. I have no book. I don’t know English. The whole world is shattering around me, and I am watching—helpless—from afar.
Ms. Nelson notices me. She quietly walks over and squats beside me. “Do you have a book?” she whispers, her voice kind.
I look at her mutely. Tears well up in my eyes. Ms. Nelson sympathetically pats my shoulder and looks around the classroom. “Hmm…” she says. “Ah—Laura? Do you mind helping Mai?”
The girl sitting at the desk next to me turns her head. She smiles when she sees me, and Ms. Nelson helps scoot her desk closer to mine. Satisfied with the arrangement, our teacher walks away.
“Hi,” Laura whispers with a kindly smile. “I’m Laura.” She says each word slowly and clearly.
I grin and point to my chest. “Mai.” I like this girl. She understands me.
She smiles back, her eyes shining happily. “Welcome to school.”
Laura shows me her book. I look down at the letters dancing across the page. I frown and shake my head and point to the words.
“Hmm.” Laura appears thoughtful. She raises her hand, and Ms. Nelson walks over to her. They whisper for several minutes, and finally Ms. Nelson nods. With a smile, she walks back to her desk, pulls out a green slip of paper, and gives it to Laura. Laura stands up and beckons for me to follow. I walk out of the door behind her, and in silence we move down the hall.
Laura halts at a door and opens it. I stop and shake my head, but she beckons to me with a smile. Curiosity draws me forward, and I let the door close as I step over the threshold. I am awed by what I see. Shelves and shelves of books—tons and tons of them, all lined up neatly in rows. Each one is like an opening into a different world; I long to sit down in one of the comfortable cushy beanbag chairs and stay there forever, poring over the stories. In Vietnam, I used to sit in the chair by the bookshelf with a story and read until darkness obscured the pages.
“Come over here,” Laura whispers, and I follow her as if in a trance. She sits down at a desk, and I sit down beside her. She picks up a small pencil and a clean sheet of paper and begins to draw the alphabet. I watch her, awed by the fluidity of her motions, how quickly and easily she moves. I trace each letter with my finger as she writes them, and she tells me about the sounds they make.
I learn fast. By the time the allotted amount of time is up, I can understand seven simple words and can say the entire alphabet. I am happier than I have been in a long time.
* * *
The week progresses. Every morning, instead of reading, Laura and I head to the library where she teaches me more and more words. I marvel at Laura’s patience and kindness. I drink up the new words like a small plant. I love them all. Earth. Moon. Flower. Bat. Car. Jump. Violet. When every lesson is done, I want to jump and scream and shout. But I don’t. I don’t want to shatter the lovely whispering quiet of the library.
One day moves into another, and finally it is Friday. I skip to the bus stop, and wait. It pulls up, letting out a stream of noxious exhaust, and I hop on, choosing my customary seat in the back. The bus turns away from the curb. Three stops later, Laura hops on and sits down beside me. We exchange smiles.
School begins, and Laura and I head to the library for the lesson. We sit down at the usual desk, and she immediately shows me a sentence. “Can you read this?” she asks.
I look at the letters. They float in my mind like birds circling above my head. I try to catch each one by the tail as it flies past; I trace the letters with my fingertip. And then my heart skips a beat. I can see the words. I understand their meaning. I smile happily and look up into Laura’s hazel eyes. “Yes.” I answer her question. Then I look down at the paper again and with the pencil I circle the six words: Do you want to be friends? “Yes.”