I open my eyes and hear a Song Thrush outside. When I was little, my grandfather taught me the names of all the local birds and how to recognize them. His favourite was the Tree Swallow. He loved its shiny green feathers and the way it swooped and flew in the sky. I glance at the clock on the wall; it says 6:30am. I get slowly out of bed, not wanting to go to school.
Last Thanksgiving, Mrs. Kent asked the class to write an essay about something for which we were thankful. Most kids wrote about being thankful for having TVs or the latest computer games. I wrote about my grandfather. He died in October. He was my best friend. We would go to the apple orchard together to eat apples while we bird-watched. But this autumn we didn’t get to go because he was sick and a couple of weeks later he died. My life crumbled, like an old wall too tired to keep standing up, once he was gone.
In the essay I spilled my feelings (sadness, fear, dread, anger, questions, spite, longing, and darkness) onto the paper, not knowing that the teacher was going to read them outloud. So, when she did, it kind of scared the class and startled the teacher. They didn’t know how to react to what I wrote so they started to avoid me even more than before. I was never one of the group, but when Grandpa was alive it didn’t matter because he was the only friend I needed.
I drag on a pair of jeans and my orange turtleneck. I shuffle down the corridor into the kitchen where Mum is putting a bowl of oatmeal on the table for me.
“Sorry Sweetie, but I have to go to work,” she calls as she shuts the front door. “Have a good day!”
“Bye,” I mumble in response. It’s not her fault she has to go to work so early. Since Grandpa died, I’ve gotten used to being alone. I pour myself a glass of apple juice and eat my oatmeal. The sun has just started to golden the sky, rays of light seeping through the curtains. I make my lunch, grab my backpack and pull on my red and orange poncho. Out of the house the cool breeze caresses my nose and cheeks. I get my bike out of the garage. It’s leaf green and rather muddy.
In the spring air, on my bike, with the wind whipping my face, I feel like a bird. My grandfather used to say I was like a Tree Swallow, flying free, soaring into the clouds. After riding down the hill I go straight on a dusty path, then I turn right onto a track that runs the side of a field. By now the sun has really started spreading its light on the world. Jumping off my bike, I leave it leaning against a bush. I throw my backpack next to it and rush to my oak in the middle of the field. Its gigantic arms are waving at me. I wave back and climb up to the first big branch. Taking the next branch in my hands, I swing myself up. Up and up I go. Leaves brushing my hair and branches scratching my face. Reaching the top is always the best, the reason I climb my oak every day. To see the world as if I am on top of it.
I’m sitting on the very last branch (it’s a bit flimsy but I don’t weigh much). From up here I can see the rolling hills and the mountains beyond. As I look over the hills the cool wind ruffles my short brown hair. The wind up here is so much nicer than the wind down below. It’s always cool and carries the scent of the hills with it. I found this tree just after my grandfather died. At first I used it as a hide-away, and I still do, but now I come here to hide from the world, not just my grief. I wish I could let go of the branches and fly into the clouds. Not a worry in the world, nobody to tease me, not having to endure school where everyone avoids me. I would be free from all my troubles.
I stay up for a long time and then look at my watch. Shoot! I’m going to be late. I scramble down the tree. “Ow!” A branch scratches my cheek. It stings. Shoot, shoot, shoot. I run full pelt to my bike, grabbing my bag as I launch myself onto it. I ride as fast as I can, hoping the bell won’t ring before I get to class.
I pull open the classroom door just as the bell rings. My hair is windswept, my face is flushed and my cheek still stings a little but the man behind the desk doesn’t seem to notice.
“Glad you made it,” he says. “Please take your seat.”
I sit, wondering what’s going on. The man with the awesome ponytail behind the desk isn’t Mrs Kent. Someone kicks my chair and someone else whispers but then everybody quiets down as the man at the front starts to speak. “Good morning everybody. I’m going to be your replacement teacher for the rest of the year because Mrs. Kent has just had her baby. My name is Spencer Torents. I love words, dark coffee, and guitars. I also just got back from a month long bicycle trip in New Zealand. Now, I’d like to get to know you guys…”
He’s probably going to get us to write a page about ourselves so he can “get to know us.” It’s not that I don’t like writing (I love writing!), it’s just that I’ve learned not to put anything real onto paper.
“So, for homework I would like each and every one of you to make or bring something in that represents you. Then I will ask you to present it and yourself to the class and to me.”
My heart sinks. I thought I was going to like him but I can’t risk bringing in anything that matters to me.
The rest of the day goes by in a flash of talk and games and work. Mr. Torents knows how to teach and I feel a lot happier at school even though I’m still not part of the group.
The next morning Mr Torrents is at the back of the classroom holding some paper stars. “Alright everyone, put your books away and listen. We’re going to make our own galaxy of words. Every day we’re going to put up a new word so eventually we’ll have a whole sky full of words. Now does anyone have an idea for today’s word?”
Patrick, who moved here last month and who’s always very determined to prove himself raises his hand.
“Extraordinary,” Patrick says.
“Yeah, you mean extra-ordinary,” smirks Sarah to her neighbour.
“Ok…anyone else?” Mr. Torents doesn’t hear Sarah.
I raise my hand very slowly and quietly, half hoping he won’t notice me.
“Gregarious,” I blurt out. My face feels as hot as the sun.
“That word is as weird as the person who said it,” sniggers Sarah quietly enough that Mr. Torents doesn’t hear again but I do.
“Gregarious is a very good word Fern, thank you,” Mr. Torents smiles encouragingly at me. “Can you give me the…”
“I have a much better word, Mr. Torents,” Sarah butts in.
Mr. Torents ignores Sarah and keeps his eyes on me. “Fern, can you give me the meaning of gregarious?”
“It means fond of company,” I reply.
“I like the shape of that word. Do you want to write it on a star and stick it to the sky?” he asks me.
I don’t feel like doing anything in front of the class so I say, “No, thank you.”
“Does anyone else want to put it on the sky?” Mr. Torents addresses the whole class.
“Can I do it?” It’s Patrick again.
“Come up here then, Patrick. Do you know how to spell gregarious?”
“No, sorry.” Patrick looks a little sheepish.
“Can anyone help him?”
I know how to spell gregarious as easily as spelling “no, sorry” but I don’t put my hand up. I think Mr. Torents knows I know but thankfully he decides to just tell Patrick himself since no one else can spell it.
“G-R-E-G-A-R-I-O-U-S,” Mr. Torents spells out and Patrick writes the word on an orange star and sticks it to the sky, which is really just a big dark blue piece of paper covering the whole of the back wall.
At the end of the day, the bell rings and there’s a mad rush to leave, but I take my time, not wanting to be in the hullabaloo. As I walk out I say goodbye to Mr. Torents and he says bye back. I have bubbles of happiness inside that I’ve not felt for a long time. Outside I get my bike and start riding up the path. Sarah glances over her shoulder and sees me. She smirks and whispers something to her friends. When I’m just about to pass them, all five girls spread out across the path and I have to ride into the ditch, almost falling over so as not to hit them. Several happy bubbles pop.
As I reach the hill to my house I stand up on my bike and pedal hard. At the top, I put my bike in the garage. Inside I have a snack and then start thinking about what I should bring in for the homework task. I wonder if I should bring in a book.
* * *
Up at the top of my oak, I’m worrying about talking in front of the class and what people will think about the book I’ve chosen. I tried to choose a book that I don’t like too much because I’ve learned my lesson about sharing the things I love with other people. I look up and see two swallows dancing below the clouds. I wish I could stay here forever but it’s time to go to school.
Lowering myself down I catch my sleeve on something. When I look up to see what it is, I see a shiny green feather quivering in the fingers of my oak. I reach up and take it. It’s soft and silky and I stick it behind my ear. I wonder if it is a gift from my grandfather. I can hear his voice in my head telling me to be strong. I tumble the rest of the way down and ride to school.
* * *
It’s time for our presentations. Sarah is going first, as usual. She shows us a fashion magazine that has a bronzed, blond, way too skinny girl on the cover who’s not wearing enough clothing. Sarah seems to think she’s beautiful.
After Sarah, a few others have their turn and then Patrick goes. He holds up the frond of a fern and starts speaking, “Adiantum are different from all other plants because they don’t have fruits, flowers or seeds…”
“That’s a fern!” shouts Sarah. The class laughs and my stomach clenches.
“Quiet down class and let Patrick finish,” Mr. Torents frowns.
“I love to garden with my mom and whenever I get to choose a plant to grow I choose ferns because I love their form and they remind me of the forest where I used to go on walks with my family before we moved.”
Mr. Torents asks me to go next. I take a deep breath and stand up. I brush the hair out of my face and feel the feather.
“Hello, my name is Fern. My Grandpa died in October. We used to go bird watching together which is why I have brought in this feather.” I pull the feather from behind my ear and hold it up. “Birds may be something that not many of you think about very much, but imagine, every morning they are able to spread their wings and soar into the sky. I envy birds but I am also glad that I am a human because we can do so many wonderful and marvelous things. My grandfather taught me there would always be people in the world who would try to push you to the ground when you wanted to fly. But that there would also be people who would make your life one that you wouldn’t swap for any other. Who would care and laugh and dream with you. My grandfather was that person for me. He loved and cared and dreamed with me and I miss him a lot but I know that he would want me to remember him and smile.”
There is complete silence in the room. Then Mr. Torents starts clapping. The whole class joins in. Sarah looks confused. Glancing at Patrick, I notice he’s smiling at me so I smile right back.