Want to keep reading?

You've reached the end of your complimentary access. Subscribe for as little as $4/month.

Aready a Subscriber ? Sign In

Climbing Bark

After moving back to New York from Chile, where she spoke Spanish in school, the narrator struggles to adjust

I started to pant as if I had run a mile, but I had only walked into a classroom. My breath came in quick, short gasps, and my mind was in a panicked rage, trying to grasp how I would survive this. Finally, Ms. Satenhart, my reading tutor, sat me down at a desk, and I watched in horror as she pulled out the thing that was bound to doom me from the start: a book.

*          *          *

When I was four years old, I moved to Chile and then moved back to NYC at six. I remember that tight feeling in my chest, excitement and anxiousness all swirling inside of me. But that feeling hadn’t lasted long, for once school began, my hopes went from a soaring bird to a plunging fish, never meeting the bottom. In Chile, we had spoken Spanish, so on my first day, I couldn’t even read a math problem. My cheeks were flushed red and my heart was squeezed tight in a bundle of shame as I mispronounced “thirty” for the fifth time.

Later in the year, my teacher had an announcement to make: “There will be reading tests in one week. Read, read, read!” Her perfect, dirty-blonde hair and wide smile could make even the most stubborn birds sing. My mouth had fallen open as if to protest. But nothing came out, and my eyes had become glassy.

Over time I had come to admire my teacher, Ms. Wodlworth, and I hated to let her down with my failure. The first test came anyway, and only moving up one reading level had made my mouth feel dry, my nose runny, and my ears red. I’m never going to make it.

A month later, while sitting at my desk, I thought the torture had ended, those horrid pages hidden away, concealed forever. But I was wrong; they came back for me.

“It’s okay for those of you who aren’t happy with your reading progress so far,” Ms. Wodlworth announced. My ears pricked up and my comfortable, plaid uniform didn’t feel so comfy anymore. I felt itchy, how I always got before bad news.

“There will be reading tests in one month, so remember: read, read, read! Please go back to your books now. And remember your homework packet includes two weeks* of

homework for the long weekend of Thanksgiving.”

My eyes had started to sting, but I knew what to expect. Deep down inside, though, I felt a part of me that was getting tired of failing, tired of being pulled back, just like waves withdrawing empty-handed from the sand. It was a new feeling: determination.

*          *          *

“Time for bed. Go brush your teeth,” my dad called.

“But Elias and I need something before we sleep,” I complained.

My parents sighed in unison, “Water? A cookie? Just hurry. Then, in the morning, you complain about being tired.”

“One story? Please?” My brother and I flashed our big puppy eyes.

“That’s just another excuse not to sleep. You have school tomorrow,” they reasoned.

“But I’m bored, and I can’t fall asleep if I’m bored,” I groaned.

“Good night,” they called, and I fell back onto my bed. I blew my hair out of my face. Then, a brilliant idea struck me.

“No! Mom! Dad! Wouldn’t it help me if you read me a story and helped me understand pro- pronunciation?” I said, practically begging.

“Do you really need help?” they asked.


Soon we were on the couch, my mom clutching a book in her hand called The Lonely Little Monster. In the story, the monster was scary, so other kids wouldn’t play with him. But soon he tried his luck at friendship with a little girl. She realized he was nice, and the monster wasn’t lonely anymore. After this struggle he had faced, he had finally succeeded.

“The end!”

As I dragged myself to my room, without any more excuses for not going to bed, I had started thinking. What if the little monster was just like me? What if I—

“Good night!”

“Don’t go!” I jumped out of bed. Life in New York City had not been welcoming so far, and I clung onto any excuse to stay with the people who comforted me the most.

“What? Norah, you need to go to bed.”

“But I can’t sleep.”

“Sleep is important. You don’t grow if you don’t sleep.”

My brother claimed, “If I don’t grow, it means I’ll never grow old! I could be immortal! So I shouldn’t sleep.”

My parents laughed and said, “Love you.”

“Ok. Good night,” I sighed in defeat.

Once the lights shut off, it was just me and the sounds of New York. The sirens wailing with flashing blue and red lights, people honking, caught up in the web of traffic. I could even hear the faint tapping of high heels on the steel-hard concrete of the sidewalk.

I imagined the Little Monster, his green, shaggy fur framing his big, glossy brown eyes. A frown so small you would mistake it for an ant on his face. My thoughts resurfaced all at once, and I started to wonder, Could I go through struggles just like this monster? Could I find the one light to help me through this struggle? My ideas were muffled by my efforts to try to stifle a yawn. My weary eyes dragged down, yearning to sleep and find a quiet place. Slowly, my thoughts left the sound-filled streets to a place deep inside my head.

*          *          *

The next day at school, we were asked to do something that was almost impossible for me.

“Has everyone gotten an index card?” Ms. Wodlworth asked. We waited in silence until she decided to move on. “You will each get six minutes to write numbers one to 100 on the front side of the index card. Everyone ready?” She set the timer. “Go!”

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven . . . I repeated in my head.

Two minutes later, my hand felt like it was burning off and I tried to push back the aching pain. Finally, I raised my head, my face beaming. I was done. I watched with eyes swimming in pride as the timer went down—three . . . two . . . one . . .

BEEP BEEP BEEP! The teacher paused the alarm and said, smiling, “Some of you are doing better than before! I want you to flip to the back of your index card and write the numbers again, but there is a challenge! You will have to write the numbers down from 100 backward. Ready, set, go!”

Oh no, I can’t do it. I scribbled down all the numbers that came to my head, and I was down to the last ten numbers when I heard that same fateful noise that had condemned all of my other peers last time and was now condemning me. The sharp, monotonous BEEP! bounced off the walls, and I cringed as my teacher said, “Pass your index cards to the center!”

“Don’t go!” I jumped out of bed. Life in New York City had not been welcoming so far, and I clung onto any excuse to stay with the people who comforted me the most.

I slowly passed mine to the center, but despite the disappointment from the second round, I congratulated myself. Last week I hadn’t known my numbers up to 50! Suddenly, a thought flashed into my head: I really am like the little monster! I learned how to count! I looked around, and all my classmates at a level K in reading didn’t scare me anymore. I stood up, my head held high, and walked down the hall. If I can succeed in math, I can succeed in reading. Excitement was bubbling inside of me, and I felt I was about to burst when we finally got outside for recess. It was a gray and cloudy day, but the beams shining off my face were all I needed.

*          *          *

A month later, I was sitting quietly in class when Ms. Satenhart strutted into the room. Her words came out in slow motion: “N-o-o-o-r-r-r-r-a-a-a-h?”

“Yes?” I hesitated. Should I ask to go to the bathroom? Maybe I could avoid whatever mess she is calling me in for?

“You’ll need to come with me.” She said this in a cheerful way as she stuck out her hand, motioning for

me to take it. Once I had taken it, I felt the cool metal of the many rings on her hand. She had a small nose ring that shone against her pale face. Her dark eyes didn’t match her bleached, whitish-yellow hair. As we walked out of the hallway, I noticed she had a habit of pulling on her red, woolen sweater. She looked down at her clipboard and then smiled up at me.

“Level B, huh? Are you ready to get better?” I wished that cheerful edge on her voice would disappear and get to the point. But I hadn’t understood what she meant by “get better.” At what? She had led me into a room, and I sat at one of the many empty desks dotting the dark-blue rug.

Finally, she reached down into a brown leather bag that seemed to have just been laying there and pulled out—as my heart dropped—a book. It was a slender, small testing book that, for the average person, would take three minutes to read. For me, it might take twenty.

“Am I supposed to read that?” I peered at the cover as she slid it toward me and took a seat across from me. The cover had a boy dressed in a blue baseball uniform, holding a bat in his hand, waiting for a baseball to strike at any time. The title was simple: Bill’s Magic Bat! But I still wasn’t ready. Is this really what I practiced for? I looked at Ms. Satenhart, but she motioned toward the book. I tried to grab it, but my hands were drenched in sweat, and the book kept slipping out of reach. Ms. Satenhart got impatient, took the book off the table, and gently placed it into my arms. My knees started to shake, and I pinched myself to steady them. I pulled the book open and emitted a huge gasp. So many words!

My knees started to shake, and I pinched myself to steady them. I pulled the book open and emitted a huge gasp. So many words!

“Can you read for me now?” smiled Ms. Satenhart.

“Okay.” I flipped to the first page and slowly read, “Bill loved b-baseball?”

I looked up at Ms. Satenhart, but she only told me, “I don’t know. You read it to me. Remember, you got this!” I looked back down and gulped.

I steadied myself and read in a faint whisper, “Bill loved baseball. But he had one secret to his success, his special baseball bat . . .”

Once I had finished the book, I looked up.

She scribbled down a few last notes, looked up, smiled, and said, “You pass! Let’s go on to a level C book.”

When I left the room, I was a level G. She told me she would test me again in two days because she was surprised with my progress. Maybe the little monster was right after all.

*          *          *

A month later, all eyes were on me as I strutted down the hall. The pink paper crown that rested on my head read, “I’m a level Q!” This time I was top of my class.

Later, I was sitting in class when the teacher called me up and placed a shining medal around my neck. That, though, wasn’t the award I’d been waiting for. As soon as it was time to go to the classroom library, I looked up at the teacher. I used to spend my time getting books from a kindergarten library, and the shame of it had borne down on me. I would hear snickers come from my class as I headed to the kindergarten classroom. Even worse, though, I heard the kindergarteners giggle. But now I was officially able to get books from my own first-grade class.

The teacher waved me on to the bins, and I felt my fingers tingle as I slid them across the rows of books. Finally, chapter books. Real first-grade books. I shifted over to a bin containing the biggest books. “Bin Level: Q.” I looked around to see everyone else book-shopping on the lower levels.

A smile dominated my face as I chose my next book. I can’t believe it. I was so scared of . . . this? I pulled out a book called Dragon Boy. In the end it had all been so easy. Was this where practice could get me? I dismissed my thoughts as I put Dragon Boy back and my eyes landed on a book nestled in the back of the bin. I grasped it with an eager hand and pulled out the dusty book, its cover only a glimpse of what awaited me inside on the pages. I blew on the cover, like they did in movies, and watched a billion dust particles fly off. The title read, The Wolf Wilder. I stared at the cover and, not even bothering to go to my desk, cracked the book open to the wonders inside.

Norah Grigoresco
Norah Grigoresco, 10
New York, NY

Jeremy Nohrnberg
Jeremy Nohrnberg, 10
Cambridge, MA