The first day of seventh grade our teacher, Mrs. Mahoney, took attendance. Each name was called and answered. None of them were new. We had all known each other since at least fourth grade. My name, always the last to be called, finally came.
I responded, “Here!”
But unusually, she didn’t stop there. One more name was called. “Zachary, Sophie.”
There was silence, punctuated only by the occasional whisper or giggle. Mrs. Mahoney called, a faint frown creasing her forehead: “Sophie? Are you here?”
Still there was no response. Now we were all paying attention, and we all saw the empty desk at the very back of the room. The shadowed chair sat vacantly under our stares.
Just then there was a ding! from the front of the room, and everyone whirled back around to look at Mrs. Mahoney’s computer on her desk. Our teacher read her message quickly, and her frown deepened.
“It seems that Sophie will not be joining us today,” she told us finally. “She has… other matters to attend to. However, she wishes you all a wonderful day at school.” Mrs. Mahoney made a mark on her clipboard, and then smiled around at us. “First on the schedule is math. Pencils out, please.”
* * *
During recess we all gathered by the wall of the school to discuss the mysterious “Zachary, Sophie.” John, one of my friends, spoke the loudest.
“She’s new,” he announced. “Did you hear her? She wishes us a ‘wonderful day at school.’”
“She’s taunting us, this hoity-toity Sophie,” scowled Winnie Adams. “Acting all high and mighty. Being snobbish.”
“And what other matters do you think she has to attend to?” John added. “Sleeping in?”
This idea was instantly seized upon by the rest of us.
“Playing computer games!”
We hated “Zachary, Sophie” for not coming to school. We hated her for being new. We hated her for having other matters to attend to. In other words, we hated her for no reason at all.
* * *
For the next six days, “Zachary, Sophie” had no response at attendance. Every day, just after roll call, there would be another ding! She had other matters to attend to, she told us, and she would be unable to come to school. However, she wished us, her “fellow classmates, a wonderful day at school.” Every day we hated her more; we would gather in the courtyard at recess and sneer at “Zachary, Sophie” and her “other matters.” I was among them, but John was the unofficial leader of our group.
“Fellow classmates! As if she has the right to say that at all,” he said one day. We all agreed.
“She hasn’t even talked to us! Or seen us, or known us at all,” I added.
“She hasn’t even learned anything with us! She’s not a fellow anything,” John said indignantly, and off we were again.
“I hope she never comes to this school,” Winnie said darkly. But on the seventh day, “Zachary, Sophie” showed up in the front row—in a manner of speaking.
* * *
As soon as we walked in, we could tell something was different. Mrs. Mahoney met us at the door.
“Frances, I would like you to move to the back row, to the empty seat,” she said as soon as she saw Frances, who was one of Winnie’s closest friends.
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” cried Frances, indignant.
“I’m not punishing you,” Mrs. Mahoney told her. “I just need your seat in the front.”
We all looked towards Frances’s desk in the front row and saw, to our surprise, Mrs. Mahoney’s open computer. As we filed in and took our seats, we all glanced at the screen curiously. Finally we were all settled. We waited for Mrs. Mahoney to take up her clipboard and take attendance, but she didn’t. She took up her computer instead.
The class studied the face on-screen. It was a girl’s face, with brown hair. That was as much as we could tell, because the image was of extremely bad quality.
“All right.” Mrs. Mahoney tilted the screen towards us. “Now, this is my class. I’m taking attendance now.”
Who was she talking to? The picture on-screen?
She put the computer on her desk (screen facing us), and ran through our names.
“Here,” I said. There was a pause.
“Zachary, Sophie,” Mrs. Mahoney said, with an air of finality. The rest of us were already whispering, taking the extra time we knew would follow to put in a few last words of conversation with our friends before math.
But then a clear voice cut through the whispers. “Here,” it said.
All of our heads jerked up, and we all stared with shock at the face on the screen, the face of “Zachary, Sophie” at last.
* * *
Because I was the last name before “Zachary, Sophie,” I was the one in charge of the computer. I was to direct the camera to whoever was speaking in class, to the board up front if Mrs. Mahoney was writing on it, to the page of my book if we were reading together as a class. I was warned severely not to break the computer, or there would be “dire consequences.”
“I would also like you to bring Sophie out to recess to be part of the socialization there,” Mrs. Mahoney added. “She’s never been to school before, so she doesn’t quite know how this works. Please include her in your conversations.”
At this, everyone exchanged glances.
* * *
At recess I dutifully took Sophie out to the wall, where we all looked at each other with helpless stares. Finally John turned the computer towards him.
“My name is John,” he said. “The class is going to need some privacy right now. Would you mind if I closed the lid of this computer? Just until recess is over.”
“Of course!” Sophie agreed. “Absolutely. If that’s how you do it.”
She had barely finished before John slammed the lid closed.
That recess, we had a very heated conversation about “Zachary, Sophie.” This continued every recess for the next few months.
We would complain that she was so lazy that she couldn’t even drag herself to school every day. That she got to start thirty minutes after us (which she did, halfway through math), and much more. Sophie believed everything we told her about school, and would eagerly submit to the closing of the computer for recess “privacy.”
Several times during class she told us that she had “other matters to attend to for the rest of the day” and would turn off her camera to leave; it angered us that she was allowed to do this. Our hatred grew; we began taunting her at recess instead of closing the computer, and she would go along with all of it because she believed that this was what people did at school.
We would pour out all the things we had said about her to her very face (on-screen, of course) and watch her expression contort a little as she tried to pretend this was normal (because that was the only way she would fit in at school) and laugh later when the computer was closed.
We became cruel, but we didn’t care; we buffeted her with insult after insult and she endured it all with a wavering, cracking smile. “Zachary, Sophie” was being revenged; we were hungry for vengeance and we did not stop.
The whole time Mrs. Mahoney believed all was well and normal. She would ask us, and Sophie, how she was doing, and we would all say she was fitting in well. Sophie said so too with total conviction, because she believed she was. Mrs. Mahoney had no reason not to believe us.
One day, at attendance, there was a ding! from the computer. Sophie, who was due to start the call a half-hour after attendance, was not there yet. We all turned our heads curiously.
“Sophie has some other matters to attend to,” Mrs. Mahoney informed us. “She wishes her fellow classmates –”
“A wonderful day at school,” we finished.
“Zachary, Sophie” was gone again.
* * *
The next day came another ding! We all watched as Mrs. Mahoney read her message. She looked, to our surprise, surprised.
“Well, how wonderful!” she said at last, turning to us. “Sophie will be joining us tomorrow!”
“She finished with her ‘other matters’ and can call again?” Winnie asked innocently. Mrs. Mahoney beamed.
“More than that. She’s coming in person!”
* * *
At recess we assembled with a degree of uncertainty. We did not know how to feel: should we be triumphant? Afraid? John decided for us.
“This is great. Now we can tell her everything and see the reaction in person,” he announced.
“Tell her that it isn’t how school really is? Tell her that it was us, acting on purpose?” asked Frances. John nodded.
“We could write a note, and put it in her desk,” I suggested. John nodded again, and Winnie spoke.
“Mrs. Mahoney has ordered me to vacate my desk and move to another one,” she told us. “She’s going to take my desk for the day. Because it’s ‘closest to the door’.”
“She needs her own preferred spot, does she?” But Winnie shook her head.
“That’s not all. She’s not going to be coming on the bus with us—and she’s going to be an hour late. Can you believe it?”
John looked thoughtful. “Write the note now. I’ll tell you what to write.”
He did, with the rest of us chiming in. We held nothing back; we told her the truth about school and recess “privacy.” We expressed our disgust at her “lazy habits”: not bothering to come to school, waking up late and being late for class, going to “attend to other matters,” which, let’s face it (we wrote), were nothing but matters for your own pleasure. “It’s not a matter of life or death. It’s not even medical issues. You’re just lazy. We know everything,” we wrote.
And when we had finished, we each signed the note. There was no apology.
* * *
The next day we all tumbled into the room with palpable tension and excitement. At attendance, when she got to “Zachary, Sophie”, Mrs. Mahoney paused and smiled.
“Let’s wait for her for this one,” she said.
During math we all got distracted. Mrs. Mahoney made three mistakes when teaching us a new concept, and the rest of us passed tense, excited notes behind her back as she vigorously erased the errors and rewrote them.
Halfway through, she simply gave up. “Well, since we’re all so distracted anyway, why don’t we make a welcome banner for Sophie?”
She took out a long sheet of paper and spread it out on the floor. We wrote, at her suggestion, ‘WELCOME TO SCHOOL SOPHIE’ in big letters. We drew our self-portraits (also at Mrs. Mahoney’s suggestion) and labeled them with our names. We were just finished when there was a ding!
Mrs. Mahoney rushed to the desk. “I hope she didn’t cancel,” she said worriedly, but then she lit up. “She’s here! Coming through the halls. Everyone, stand in front of her desk and hold up the sign. When she comes in, let’s all cheer. Up now!” Excitedly she ushered us into a huddle around Sophie’s desk, holding up the sign. The class exchanged eager whispers and several hushed giggles.
Soon we heard voices, faint but clear. “It’s fine! It’s fine, I’ll do it with these. I can do it, it’s not far.”
“That’s her,” Frances whispered. “I recognize the voice.” We all did. Mrs. Mahoney grew extremely twitchy. I vaguely wondered what Sophie meant by what she had said.
There was another voice, her father’s, and then silence. Well, there were footsteps. And rhythmic thuds.
“She’s stomping her foot!” Winnie whispered incredulously, and we all exchanged discreet, disapproving shakes of the head.
Then the footsteps stopped, and we could all tell that she was right outside the open doorway. There was the sound of breathing.
“Okay, here I go,” the voice said finally.
With that, “Zachary, Sophie” swung into the room.
* * *
Our mouths had been preparing to yell aloud in what Mrs. Mahoney would decipher as cheers, but suddenly they all collectively fell open. The banner was nearly dropped, and we all froze.
“Zachary, Sophie” was before us. Her brown hair swung around from the momentum of moving, and she was smiling at us earnestly.
Her left leg was completely nonexistent.
* * *
In a flash I—we all—understood. The reason why “Zachary, Sophie” only ‘came’ to school by video call was that she couldn’t go to school; the reason why she ‘came’ thirty minutes after the rest of us (an hour today) was that she needed more time than the rest of us to prepare for the day; the reason why she had “other matters to attend to” was because she had to go to the doctor all the time.
Horror and remorse struck me like a bullet, and surged greater when I remembered the note, the cruel words we had written. “It’s not a matter of life or death. It’s not even medical issues. You’re just lazy.”
We had been so wrong.
“Cheer!” Mrs. Mahoney whispered behind us.
Somehow we managed to cheer weakly in our surprise. John was speechless. Winnie looked like she might cry. Frances did her best to woo-hoo and wave the banner in her hands, and the rest of us did the same.
Behind the feebly waving, cheering group, I slowly turned around. Carefully I put my hand in Sophie Zachary’s desk and removed the note.
I put my hands behind my back, tore it into shreds, and then I cheered as loud as I could.