Author’s note: This is the second chapter of my 2013 National Novel Writing Month novel, The Toast. For the first chapter, please read When Kate Met Sarah.
I remember being very excited to start school. My brother had been going to school for a couple of years by now, and I was always so jealous that he got to go somewhere every day and see people who weren’t family. I jumped at the chance to go with Mom to pick him up, and I was ecstatic to know I would soon be picked up from school, just like Nate was. The day before the first day of school, Sarah and I spent the afternoon playing with the Barbie dolls she’d just gotten for her birthday. I mentioned something about going to school and how great it would be. Sarah just shrank back.
“I’m scared,” she whimpered. “I don’t want to go.”
I still have that image of her in my head: cowering, trembling, and already missing her mother.
“Why would you be scared?”
“My sisters said the other kids will tease me and call me names. They might even beat me up.”
I didn’t know what outrage was when I was five years old, but that’s what I felt. “That’s not gonna happen. “
Sarah looked at me for reassurance.
“If anyone even looks like they’re gonna beat you up, I’ll beat them up first.”
She laughed, but still looked skeptical.
“I’m serious.” I jumped up from my spot on the floor, and stood in a wide stance, my hands in fists on my hips, a gesture of my newfound bravado. “If anyone tries to hit you, I’ll do this.” I went into a mock rage, my legs and arms a flurry of swift punches and ninja kicks. Sarah thought this was utterly hysterical, so when she shrieked with laughter, I punched harder, kicked higher, and grunted as loudly as I could with each one. I had never seen Sarah laugh like this, and I’m not sure I’ve seen her laugh like this since. After a few minutes of this, her mother came upstairs to find out what was going on. After this and the incident on the first day of school, it was a while before I was invited back over to Sarah’s house.
The first day of school was not as easy as either of us hoped it would be. Sarah and I got into the same class, and when I heard this, I thought things had worked out well. I’d felt fiercely protective of her since she expressed her fears of school, and I was glad I could be there for her if she felt lonely or missed her mother or if someone picked on her. Unfortunately, I didn’t know we were going to be seated by in alphabetical order by last name. Sarah and I were soon separated. I was seated at a round blue table on one side of the room, and she was assigned to a yellow triangular table on the other side. She looked at me from the other side of the room; it felt like we were a world apart. I could see the pain in her face, the tears that had yet to fall. I started to go to her, but Mrs. Austin, our teacher, made me sit down. When Sarah finally started to cry, it broke my heart. Mrs. Austin tried to calm her down, but Sarah was inconsolable. After begging Mrs. Austin to let her sit by me, she gave in, and I took a seat at the triangle table next to Sarah. Not a peep was heard from Sarah after that.
This display of behavior, as well as the frilly blue frock Sarah’s mother dressed her in, Sarah was an easy target for bullies. While we were at recess, Sarah and I played differently. The other children in our class played on the jungle gym or swings, but Sarah and I walked laps around the small kindergarten playground, talking to ourselves and enjoying the outdoors. Sarah bent down to pick a stray yellow flower growing in the field. She smiled and admired it. Seeing her smile made me smile.
“You know that’s a weed.”
The voice came from behind us. We both turned around to see a willowy blond boy. His shaggy hair clumped in tufts around his temples. He was taller than us; long arms crossed over his chest, long legs sprouted from dirty socks and sneakers. His scowl intimidated us. I couldn’t see Sarah, but I knew she was probably scared.
“I don’t care,” Sarah said. The flower quivered in her little hand. “It’s pretty.”
“Weeds aren’t pretty,” replied the boy. “They’re weeds.”
“I don’t care.” Sarah’s timid defiance impressed me. “I like it anyway.”
Her defiance must have surprised the boy as well. His sneer intensified. “Go ahead then, crybaby.”
Whoa, crybaby? I was happy to let Sarah fight her own battle over the flower, but now that he was insulting Sarah, as her sworn protector, I had to get involved. “Who are you calling a crybaby?”
“This crybaby right here.” He poked Sarah hard in the chest. “Everybody saw her this morning. Just like this!” He started to imitate her then, but not accurately; Sarah’s sobs had been quiet but distressing, and this bully was loud and theatrical and I wasn’t going to stand for it. While he was giving this performance, I set my jaw and, without warning, kicked him as hard as I could in the shin. His fake whining turned into real whining. He fell to the ground, looking up at me. He towered over me before, but now I was taller, bigger, superior.
“You’re mean!” he shrieked. “I’m going to tell Mrs. Austin!”
“You were mean first!” I shouted back. “You big dumb boy!”
That did it. “I’m a girl!” he cried. He ran toward where our teacher was sitting on the very edge of the playground.
Sarah looked at me, and hid behind me a little. I watched as the boy/girl pointed us out to Mrs. Austin, gestured toward his/her leg, then back at us. I was scared, but I stood my ground. Mrs. Austin cupped her hands around her mouth and called out to us. I told Sarah not to worry, and we walked together to our teacher.
All three of us were made to sit out for the rest of recess. I felt bad that I was in trouble, but mostly I felt bad for Sarah. She cried the whole time we were being punished, which led me to believe she’d never been in trouble before. She’d gotten in trouble for the first time, and it was because of me, because I was doing what I thought was right. After recess, the three of us were taken aside and asked to explain the situation. Nicky, who turned out to be a girl after all, left out the part where she bullied Sarah and only explained the part where I kicked her. Sarah just cried. I didn’t deny kicking Nicky, but I explained that I had a good reason for doing it. Apparently, according to kindergarten teachers, there’s never a good reason to kick someone in the shin. Parents were called, apologies were made, and punishments were doled out. Sarah was let go when I explained she wasn’t involved in the fight, but she was still really upset. Nicky and I lost recess privileges for the rest of the week.
When I got home, my mother asked me if I felt bad about what I did. I said no, because I did it to protect Sarah. I explained that I felt bad about losing my recess privileges, but I did the right thing.
“Katie, you can’t just take matters into your own hands and kick people.”
“I thought he – I mean she – I thought she was going to hurt Sarah.”
“Tell your teacher next time, all right? That’s who should handle things like this.”
“What about Sarah?”
“You can’t fight Sarah’s battles for her. I know you and she are close, but she has to learn how to take care of herself.”
I nodded, and I was left in my room alone that night. I was in trouble, so there was no TV, no toys, nothing but homework until I went to bed.