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Winner of the Fall 2019 Personal Narrative Contest with the Society of Young Inklings.

Self Portrait

A new friendship forms after a harrowing shared experience

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!”

Clap, clap!

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!”

Clap, clap!

We were dancing on the mat in the kindergarten classroom. Music was blasting from our teacher’s magical silver box, which was sitting in the corner on a little plastic chair. Our teacher, Ms. Winnie, stood facing us while we danced, swaying to the music and clapping her hands along with us.

Clap, clap!

I loved dancing time. Other than playtime, it was my favorite time of day.

“If you’re happy and you know it, stomp your feet!”

Stomp, stomp!

I turned around to see how my friends were getting along. Ella, instead of stomping her feet, was hopping on one, her waist-length, jet-black hair flapping around her shoulders. Ava, the resident drama queen and aspiring secret agent, spun around and twirled, her light-brown pigtails flopping behind her. We had all pretty much forgotten what movement we were supposed to be making at this point, and we probably didn’t care.

I watched as a familiar figure with curly, dirty-blonde hair came stomping over to us. It was Chloe. She was the oldest kid in the class (she had turned six in November), as well as the first to lose a baby tooth. All of this gave Chloe status in the classroom, and she was in charge. It just seemed to make sense that way. If Chloe told us to do something or to refrain from doing something, we would do what she said; and if she made a decision for us, then we would accept it.

I didn’t particularly like Chloe. But I knew as well as anyone else that she was our leader. And the leader got to choose who got to use the heart stencil when we were in the art center. People were always scrambling over one another to get to that stencil. Nearly every time, she got to it first, but she never kept it for herself. Each time, she gave it to a different person, and if you weren’t chosen, you weren’t allowed to complain because “you get what you get and you don’t get upset,” even if you were.

“If you’re happy and you know it, and you really want to show it, if you’re happy and you know it, shout—”

I raised my hand suddenly. “Ms. Winnie?”

“Yes, Kate?” our teacher replied. She leaned down slightly in order to meet my gaze.

“I have to go to the bathroom.”

“All right,” said Ms. Winnie. She scanned the group of my still-dancing classmates shouting, “Hooray!” whenever the song told them to do so. She stood there for what seemed to me like a very long time, her gaze flicking over each of her students, considering them individually, for the sole purpose of selecting them to be my bathroom buddy.

It was one of the classroom rules that anyone who needed to use the restroom would have to cross the hall with a bathroom buddy. It would have to be another girl, of course. If not one of my two friends, then maybe one of the louder, more eccentric girls like Olivia, who was obsessed with horses, or Jeanne, who wanted to be an astronaut and was very firm in her belief that a zillion was the biggest number.

I wouldn’t really mind being with any of the girls in the class, as long as it wasn’t someone who had virtually no respect for me, someone whose name was . . .

“Chloe,” said Ms. Winnie. “Can you go to the bathroom with Kate?”

Chloe stopped dancing. “Okay,” she said, staring directly at the teacher without even stopping to glance at me. She didn’t look me in the eye as she crossed the carpet to where I was standing and slipped her hand into mine.

Ms. Winnie, seemingly glad that neither of us had expressed any open hostility, only said one more thing to us: “Go to the bathroom and come right back.”

“We will,” said Chloe, before I could respond.

As we made our way across the kindergarten classroom, I made a note of how awkward it was to hold Chloe’s hand. There was no comfort in it; she held it loosely, barely grasping my hand in hers, and walked just a tiny bit ahead of me so it felt like she was pulling me along. She didn’t look at me, and I didn’t look at her. Neither of us said a word as we opened the door and stepped out into the hallway, letting the music fade away as the door swung slowly closed, falling back into position with a click.

A few minutes later, I was washing my hands, pretending not to be listening to a conversation between two fifth-grade girls. Both seemed indescribably tall. One of them was blonde, standing with her back to the pink tiles on the wall, wedged into the corner of the bathroom. The other was shorter, with darker skin and curly hair and eyelashes. They were discussing some other girl in their class whose friendship they were deciding whether or not to prematurely end. I wondered how their teacher had ever allowed them to be bathroom buddies—they certainly weren’t coming right back.

It was all I could do not to cry.
I wanted Chloe to see that I wasn’t a baby.

I thought about the way they had looked at me as I dried my hands with a brown paper towel. It was the way I felt when older kids ignored me on the playground or when Chloe started a conversation at the snack table about how many teeth we had lost and left me out completely.

I remembered something Ava had told me when we were sitting on the swing set on a lazy Friday when neither of us felt like swinging. We were watching the fifth-graders sit outside the blue double doors. I had wondered out loud why they always sat like that, talking, and sometimes gazing at us as if from far above, but never coming down to play with us.

“My sister says that life is like a ladder,” she had told me.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“You know,” said Ava, “like a ladder. Each step is higher than the last one. The bigger you get, the higher you are, and if you’re small, then you’re still at the bottom.”

I thought about a ladder that went on forever, reaching up, up, up into the sky. It was scary to think that those fifth-graders were high up there while I was still down on the ground. I was afraid of heights; I didn’t think I would ever be able to leave the bottom step if I couldn’t make it up to the next one.

Maybe that was why Chloe didn’t look me in the eye—why she always ignored me but seemed to respect my friends, all of whom were several months older than me. Maybe that was why we let her make decisions for us, like who would get to use the heart stencil.

Maybe the ladder was why I let her reach for the classroom doorknob after we crossed the hall—why I let her be just one step ahead of me in everything. Because she was.

Chloe turned the doorknob and pushed.

Nothing happened.

She turned the knob and pulled.

Nothing happened.

“What’s going on?” I said out loud to her, though I had a creeping feeling I already knew.

She turned to look at me, meeting my gaze for the very first time since we had left the kindergarten classroom. Her eyes were clear and blue, and the look I found in them was not reassuring in the least.

“It’s locked,” she breathed.

“Let me try,” I said frantically. I grabbed the doorknob, twisted it around as far as it would go, and leaned into it with all the weight of my small body.

As expected, nothing happened.

I banged on the door. “Ms. Winnie!”

“Ms. Winnie, the door is locked!”

“It’s not working,” I said. I put my ear to the door, straining to hear the music that was still playing on the other side of it.

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!”

Clap, clap!

It was all I could do not to cry. I wanted Chloe to see that I wasn’t a baby. Still, how could she not be feeling the same way? She must be. Once again, she was avoiding my eyes.

I would give anything—I told myself—anything to be back in the classroom right now, dancing and clapping and laughing with everyone else, not alone with Chloe behind a locked door. The sound of the music, so close yet just out of our reach, made it ten times more unbearable.

What were we supposed to do in a situation like this? Tell the teacher, I immediately answered myself. But our teacher was inside the classroom, and she clearly couldn’t hear us. I didn’t know any other teachers, except for the first-grade teacher, Mrs. Holloway. She thought of us as below her, but more importantly, she thought us as below her students.

First grade was universally acknowledged to be the real first step on the ladder of life. As kindergarteners, we were separated from the rest of the school. We had separate times in the playground and in the library, and we left the school when everybody else was having lunch. No, it wasn’t until first grade that the ladder really began. Everyone knew it, and Mrs. Holloway never let us forget it. Even if we were able to get her to help us, what would Mrs. Holloway be able to do? She wouldn’t have the key to our classroom. Most likely, she would get the key from the . . .

“Principal’s office,” I said out loud.

“What?” said Chloe. She stared at me.

“The principal’s office,” I said again. “She’ll have the key to the classroom, and maybe she’ll give us candy, and then we can come back and she’ll unlock the door for us!”

The principal’s office was a place with two faces and a feeling associated with each. One of them was terror. “Go to the principal’s office” threatened the worst, that your parents were about to be informed that you had done something bad. However, the principal’s office was also a place of refuge, a place of candy. The very place we needed to get to right now.

Chloe hesitated. “What if we just wait here?”

“We could be waiting forever before anyone finds us,” I argued.

“But shouldn’t we stay where we are?”

“No one can help us if they don’t know we’re in trouble!” I could hear my voice faintly echoing in the hall.

Chloe sighed. She always sighed in such an exaggerated, superior, you-don’t-understand sort of way. I was about to press my argument further, but before I could open my mouth, Chloe said, “I can’t go there.”

“Where?” I asked. “To the principal’s office?”

“No,” she said. “Down there.” She pointed down the hall.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because.” She looked down at her pink-and-silver sneakers, once again refusing to meet my gaze. Then she said, her voice barely above a whisper, “Toby. He’s this kid,” she said. “In Lucy’s class.”

Lucy was Chloe’s little sister. “The preschool room?”

Chloe sighed again, but this time, her sigh sounded shaky and defeated. “He lives in my apartment building,” she said. “He’s terrible.” She looked up. She somehow seemed smaller, and her eyes were shadowed with fear. “He’s Lucy’s age, and we always have to play with him.” She swallowed. “His favorite game is killing bugs. He’s always stomping on ants on the sidewalk. One time he caught a spider in a jar and killed it right in front of us. It took forever. He made it that way. Lucy was screaming and Toby was laughing and . . . and I . . .” She stopped.

“What did you do?” I asked quietly.

I knew the answer just by the way she was standing there, staring at her feet: Nothing.

“The last time I went to the bathroom, he was standing in the hall. He was with his class, waiting in line for the boys’ bathroom, and he saw me. He stared at me. And then he laughed.”

We stood there together for a very long time.

Then she said, “I can’t go there.”

“Okay,” I said. “That’s okay. I can go there by myself.”

I turned around and began to leave. The hall was eerily quiet, and yet, if you listened carefully, you could make out the faint, relentless buzzing of the overhead lights. The sound rang in my ears. I walked slowly, somehow unable to move my legs any faster. My footsteps echoed as I walked. It made me more aware of my presence, my disruption of the hall’s normal stasis. With every step I took, my sneakers flashed with LED lights, sparkling very briefly off the hallway floor like an echo you couldn’t hear. It reminded me of how small I was and how alone.

I was passing by the second-grade classroom. I wondered what the second-graders were doing in there. I had heard that the students sat at desks in rows, that they never had time to play except at recess, that they spent most of the day sitting down, that everyone was expected to know how to read, to hold a pencil correctly, to color within the lines. I had heard their world was full of expectations. Mrs. Holloway was the one who saw to it that those expectations were fulfilled the year before, and the one who punished her students if those expectations were unmet, so that, by the end of the year, they were ready for second grade. They emerged from her classroom as part of things, moving up the next step on the ladder that was life.

The lights were buzzing. A muffled roar built up behind the air vents. I broke into a trot. My footsteps got louder, and I heard them echo behind me. Were they mine? Or someone else’s?

I ran faster. My sneakers were flashing. My heart was pounding. The AC was roaring, freezing me from the inside out. The cacophony rose in a deafening crescendo. It was bright noise, blinding noise, noise of every color. The hall was closing in on me.

I turned around and ran. I passed the second-grade classroom without even tossing it a glance. I didn’t stop until I was back where I had started, where Chloe was waiting for me.

“Kate?” she said quietly.

I shook my head. My heart was still pounding, thump, thump, thump. I stood there, the sounds of the hallway still ringing in my ears.

I looked up. I stared right into her eyes.

“I can’t.”

*          *          *

We were waiting outside the girls’ bathroom, our backs against the cool pink tiles, waiting for someone to save us. I felt like a coward. How hard was it to go down a hallway? How was it possible that I hadn’t even been able to make it past the fourth-grade classroom, let alone the principal’s office?

I glanced at Chloe sitting next to me. Toby did sound terrible. I tried to imagine what it would be like to see him all the time, to watch him destroy things, traumatizing my little sister. But Chloe hadn’t done anything. She hadn’t protected her sister from Toby. She had just stood there.

Chloe had been scared to go down the hall just like I had been. I had never thought of her as anything like me. I had thought she was above me. Why was that? Now that I had been stuck with her for this long, that seemed ridiculous. Everyone was afraid sometimes, even if they were older or more experienced. And anyway, the age difference between me and Chloe was just a few months. She wasn’t above me on the ladder of life. She wasn’t on the ladder at all. Neither was I, because there was no ladder. Life didn’t work like that.

“Chloe?” I said, getting to my feet. Chloe looked up. I reached out my hand, and, after a moment, she took hold of it.

“We can do it,” I said. “We can go to the principal’s office and fix this for ourselves. We don’t have to wait for anyone else. I know you’re scared,” I told her. “But we don’t have to be scared because we can protect each other. We can do this.”

We stood there for a moment, holding hands. I tried to tell her, through a smile, that she could trust me.

“Okay,” she said, smiling back. “Let’s do it.”

I opened my mouth to say something else, but before either of us could say a word, we saw a shadow above us.

Standing over us was a grown-up with silver-streaked hair that looked like starlight and silver-and-black glasses to match. She was wearing a blue skirt and a businesslike black coat, and in her hand she held a silver keychain weighed down with the key to every door, every classroom, and every keyhole in the school. Including ours.

We both started talking at once. I told her about how the door had locked behind us. I told her about how we had tried to go get her, and that we had just been about to go try again. I told her that I had been scared, but I wasn’t anymore, and I wondered to myself if she had ever been scared like that, and if she had ever been able to fix it, because, even though she was the principal, she was still a person, and she must have feelings, just like anybody else. At the same time, Chloe told her about Toby and about the hall and about how brave I had been to go alone. It was strange to hear her say that about me—but not necessarily in a bad way.

We told Ms. Sylvie everything, and when we were done, she said one thing: “Would you like me to let you back in?”

“Yes,” we said. “Yes, please.”

Ms. Sylvie stuck her key into the lock and, as if waking up from a long nap, the door creaked open.

Dancing time was over, and it was playtime. It was like someone had dropped a stone into a pond when we entered the classroom—the gasps and exclamations rippled over me and Chloe like one gigantic wave as we made our way across the classroom over to Ms. Winnie, who was in the middle of making it clear to Max that hands were not for hitting, even if it was just a game.

Ms. Winnie and the principal stood there talking for a long time, and eventually they digressed from the subject of Chloe and me and moved on to the very important teacher business that Ms. Sylvie had originally been coming to deliver. Aware that we were no longer necessary, Chloe made a beeline for the art center, while I headed straight for the house center where my friends were playing. Ava and Ella were pretending to be a family of spies.

“What took you so long?” Ella wanted to know.

“Why’d you come in with the principal?” asked Ava. “Are you in trouble?”

After I finished explaining, Ella asked if I wanted to play.

I was about to say yes and ask whether I could be the other spy daughter when I glanced over at the art center. There, Chloe was sitting in a little plastic chair, at one of the many tables, all alone.

“Maybe in a little bit,” I said. “Can I be the twin sister?”

“You bet,” said Ava.

“See you later,” said Ella.

I made my way to the art center, where I pulled up a chair next to Chloe.

“Hey,” I said awkwardly. She didn’t say anything. She continued to stare at her piece of pink construction paper, filling in one of the zig-zags on the stripe stencil. Next to her, lying unused on the table, was the heart stencil.

When she didn’t say anything, I was about to leave, but then she spoke. “You can use the stencil,” she told me. “I don’t want it.”

“Which stencil?” I asked.

“That one.” She pointed. “The heart stencil.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of this. I thought about how, not so many minutes ago, we had been lost together. I remembered what she had told Ms. Sylvie, about how I was brave. I was still dwelling on this when she finally looked up. “What are you waiting for?” she demanded. “I said you could use it.”

“I’m not here for the heart stencil,” I said. “I’m here because I felt sorry for you.”

“What?” said Chloe. She seemed genuinely surprised. “Why would you feel sorry for me?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But if I wanted the stencil, I’d just take it for myself. I don’t need you to let me.”

“I was trying to be nice,” she said, looking injured.

Should I take the stencil or refuse it? Neither option seemed right to me. Was there a better way?

“Why don’t we share it?” I blurted.

Chloe blinked. “What?”

“The stencil,” I said. “We can use it at the same time.”

There was a moment of silence. After some hesitation, she said, “Sure.” Then she added, “Good idea.”

I smiled. Then I grabbed a piece of purple construction paper from the shelf behind me, placed it on the table, and sat down in the little plastic chair next to Chloe.

And, together, we shared the heart stencil.

Kateri Escober Doran
Kateri Escober Doran, 12
Cambridge, MA

Alyssa Wu
Alyssa Wu, 12
Pleasanton, CA