It was the first day at my new school. I was excited and nervous. I am the first in my family ever to go to a Gymnasium (a German secondary school for grades 5 through 13, preparing for university entrance). Frau Heintz, the homeroom teacher for class 5b, was calling the roll. "Andreas Ludowsky?"
"Here!" a thin boy with thick curly hair whom I didn't know answered.
His name began with an L. That meant my name would be coming soon. I began to think wildly, Please don't call me, forget me, skip my name. But it didn't help.
Frau Heintz called, "Sieglinde Steinbrecher?"
"Here," I whispered barely audibly. But she hadn't heard me.
"I said Sieglinde Steinbrecher! Where is she?"
This time I spoke a bit louder. "I'm here." I couldn't help sounding a bit whiny. Some other kids laughed. How I wished that I had a more modern name, like Daniela or Ann-Katrin. Why was I stuck with such an old-fashioned name?
But at least the worst was over. The roll call had gone better this time than in elementary school, where everybody had repeated my name over and over again and had kept saying how stupid it was. I had just leaned back when I heard a voice behind me I knew only too well. Sabine von der Heide, my worst enemy. She'd been at my old school as well. "Hey, it's Oma. Grandmother is in our class again!" she was saying to her best friend Birgit. "We'll have some fun with her. In fact, we can start right now!" The next thing I knew, somebody had pulled the long braid hanging down my back. I turned around, even though I knew who had done it. Sabine sat there, with her fake, sweet, innocent smile. "Why, Grannie dear, how are you? What big teeth you have!" she said. Birgit could hardly contain herself with laughing. She looked like she was going to burst. I also thought I was going to burst with anger. I had to keep it in, but I couldn't. I could feel my face getting hot, in a moment I would scream at that stupid girl, when . . .
"Sabine von der Heide? I repeat, Sabine von der Heide?" Frau Heintz was still calling the roll, and now it was Sabine's turn. She hadn't noticed it while she'd been annoying me. She raised her hand, looking very embarrassed at having missed her name. I couldn't help grinning a little; it felt like I had paid her back.
But I knew it was going to be a hard year. Just like all the other years since first grade. That was the first time I had ever been in a class with Sabine. Already then she had noticed I was a good teasing victim. That's also when she had started calling me Oma. As we'd gotten older, Sabine had teased me about other things as well. I wore old-fashioned clothes, not Calvin Klein jeans or Gap clothes like her. She talked a lot about boys and pop stars. That didn't interest me at all. I preferred reading books. I was sure that all the kids at this school were snobs who had parents that were doctors or professors and earned loads of money. My mother was a supermarket cashier who barely earned enough to raise her three daughters.
And I was right about the hard year. Every day at recess Sabine, Birgit and their other friends would pull my hair and tease me. They stuck their feet out when I walked by their desks so I would trip. One time, Sabine grabbed my worn leather satchel and started throwing it across the room to Birgit. Moments later it was flying around the classroom. Even kids who usually left me alone were joining in the fun. I felt miserable. There was nothing I could do but wait till the teacher came. Or until they got tired of it. If I tried to snatch my bag back, they threw it around even more. Or they laughed at me during P.E., when I couldn't run fast enough or wasn't able to make a basket.
At home, nobody really cared that I was unhappy. My mom was too busy taking care of my little sisters. And as for my father, well he'd left us when I was only six, just before my youngest sister was born. The one time I had asked my mother for help in first grade she'd answered, while she changed the baby's diapers, "You can't run to me every time a little thing goes wrong at school. You're a smart girl! Stand up for yourself! Deal with it. The others will grow up sooner or later. Then they'll leave you alone." I'd hoped that would happen. For four long years I'd hoped. Sometimes I'd even wished something bad would happen to me, that I would break my leg, or get really sick, so that everyone who teased me would feel sorry. Or that I'd come to school and find that everyone was friendly and would apologize for the mean things they'd done. I'd really believed things would be better at my new school. But they weren't. Nothing ever changed. And it looked like they never would.
This was how I was feeling when Alison arrived. The weather had become cold and wet. Every morning I bundled up in my old thick brown coat and braved the wind. I think it was a Friday, because I remember thinking, as I battled the stormy weather, that very soon it would be the weekend, when I could stay home, relax and finish my library book, Robinson Crusoe. I could be alone on my island before Monday and the terrors of school began again. I reached school, and pushed open the heavy door. Thankfully, I stepped inside. At least in here it was warm and dry.
I walked up the stairs and down the third-floor corridor. I entered my classroom, the third door from the left. I sat down in a hurry, hoping that nobody would notice me and start getting on my nerves.
Moments later Frau Heintz walked hurriedly into the classroom. To everyone's surprise, she was followed by a new girl. She began, "Class, this is Alison Sheperd. She's just arrived from America and is going to be in our class from now on. Her father just became a professor at the university. She doesn't speak much German yet." I looked at Alison. She had dark brown hair and skin the color of light milk chocolate. She was slim and tall. Her face showed no expression.
Behind me I heard Sabine say to Birgit, "Wow! A real American girl. Maybe she's met some movie stars."
Frau Heintz was scanning the classroom. Her eyes settled on the empty seat next to mine. "Alison, go sit over there next to Sieglinde. She's the best in English." Then she looked at me. "Sieglinde, please let Alison share your English book." She cleared her throat. "Andreas, please read out exercise number three on page seventy-two."
Moments later Andreas read out loud with a very strong German accent, "How do I get to the train station? Go down Park Street, turn left on James Road . . ."
When the bell rang for recess, I crammed the English book into my bag and then looked up again so I could put in my pencil case as well. Then I noticed that Alison was looking at me. I gave a weak smile. She smiled back. I pulled together all my courage and said, hoping my English wasn't too bad, "How do you like it in Germany so far?"
"It's not bad, but I wish it would stop raining!" We both laughed. "Your name is Sieglinde, right? That's a pretty long name. What do your friends call you?"
I didn't know what to say. How could I tell her I didn't have any friends? "Oma," I muttered.
"Oma?" she repeated, "Doesn't that mean Grandmother?" she asked.
"That's weird. What do they call you that for? Do you mind if I call you 'Siggy' instead?"
"Of course not."
We both got up to leave the classroom when I unmistakably heard Sabine's voice. "Wait, Alison!" She pronounced it "Ellison." "Wait! We would like you something to ask."
"Lived you in New York in a skeescrapper?" Birgit asked.
Alison was puzzled. "A what? Oh, you mean a skyscraper." She shook her head. "No, only very rich people do."
"Was you once in Hollyvood?" Jan wanted to know. "Has you seen a movie star there?"
"I've never been to Hollywood," she replied. "And I'm not interested in meeting movie stars anyway. I prefer reading a good book!" Then Alison turned to me with a grin. "C'mon, Siggy, let's go!" Together we walked out of the classroom.
The next few days were the best I could remember. For the first time ever I had a friend. Someone was talking to me, laughing with me, not at me, and the best thing was, nobody seemed to bother me when I was with Alison. They respected her and admired her for being so self-confident.
One day, about a week later, Alison asked me if I wanted to go to the movies with her. I was overjoyed. "Of course I'll go," I said. "I've heard that Cast Away is a really cool film, it's based on Robinson Crusoe and it's showing at the cinema in English, why don't we go see that?" We decided to meet at three o'clock on the corner by the Turkish grocery store across from the cinema.
That afternoon I sang while I warmed up some leftovers for my sisters. Never before had I finished my homework in such a short time. As soon as my mother got back from work, I cleaned up and got ready to leave. My mother had been delayed so I was very late. I ran along the street and took a shortcut through the park. I rushed around the corner, panting and ready to apologize for keeping Alison waiting, when, to my surprise, nobody was standing there except the mailbox. I was very confused. Where was she? What if she didn't like me anymore, either? I waited a few minutes. She didn't come. I looked at my watch. The movie would begin in ten minutes. What should I do? I walked a short way down the block to see if she was coming. She wasn't. I walked further and heard voices coming from behind a high brick wall. I stopped to listen. I heard a harsh, deep male voice. But there was another voice as well. A voice I knew. A steady, high voice with an unusual edge of fear in it. I crept along the wall and slowly peered around the edge. I was shocked to see some teenage boys standing in a half-circle around a small, huddled figure with dark brown hair. They all had clean-shaven heads and were wearing tall black leather boots. I knew what that meant. I'd seen pictures like that in the newspaper. They were Neo-Nazis.
"Give us your money!" the tallest boy was saying.
"I don't have any!" Alison whispered in broken German.
"If you don't give it to us right now, you'll be very sorry, you stupid foreigner!"
How could they be doing this to her? It wasn't fair. I wanted to start screaming at them, I wanted to kick them in the shins, but I knew that wouldn't stop them. I needed to find help. Now I was worried. What if I couldn't find anybody? What if they really did hurt Alison? I saw the boys advance toward her. I needed to do something fast. Suddenly, I remembered the Turkish grocery store. Herr Erkan, the storekeeper, would help me. I'd gone to his store many times on errands for my mother. He just had to help me. Without thinking twice, I ran across the street. I almost forgot to look both ways. I burst through the door.
Mr. Erkan and his customer looked up. "Herr Erkan . . ." I gasped. "Herr Erkan . . . my friend . . . Neo-Nazis . . . they're bothering her . . . want her money!" Mr. Erkan dropped the apples he was weighing and called to his son, who was sorting cans on the shelves. "Mehmet, come, we must help the little girl!" Both of them dashed out with me ahead.
As soon as we could see the boys and Alison, Herr Erkan started to shout, "Leave her alone! Don't you dare touch her! I'm going to call the police!" For a moment it looked like the boys were going to attack Herr Erkan, but then they changed their minds. They hurried out of the yard so fast that neither of us was able to stop them. "If only we had gotten ahold of those fellows . . . !" Herr Erkan said.
"That shouldn't be too much of a problem," Mehmet said. "I think they go to my school."
Alison slowly scrambled up, visibly shaking. "Thanks a lot," she said, nodding to me and the two men. "I thought I was lost for sure. They were really mean!"
"Luckily not all Germans are like that," Mr. Erkan said, grinning at me. I translated that for Alison.
"That's for sure." Alison grinned at me as well.
For a moment we were all quiet. Then Mr. Erkan said, "Well, I guess we'll go now. But don't forget, if you ever need help again, don't hesitate to ask us." The two of them left.
When they had gone, Alison looked at her watch and said, "If we want to make that movie we'd better go!"
And that's just what my best friend and I did. We had rescued each other.