PLAYGROUND

Chapter 13. On the Playground

Samantha sat on the wall by the school playground steps. It was not a normal wall; it was the Punishment Wall. She watched the kids run around having fun while she was stuck there, her mouth locked shut like a jail to keep it from howling. Fifteen minutes on the Wall, for something she hadn’t started. True, she had blown up at Anahí. But that was Anahí’s fault for calling Samantha names when Samantha had tried to be helpful. It was Kathrin’s fault, too, for being jealous and taking Anahí’s side. Her teacher, Mr. Wite, was even more to blame, she thought. And behind it all was school and capitalism and the world full of meanness. Anahí had come into Mr. Wite’s 4th grade classroom about three weeks late, just when Samantha was coming out of a rocky start to her own school year. Samantha’s habit of drawing during class bothered her teacher, and by the second or third week of school he’d gotten so irritated that one day he snatched a drawing she was making right out from under her pencil and tore it up, in front of everybody. Samantha felt like he’d thrown a pitcher of ice water over her. She told her Abue about it, and the next day after school her Abue had stormed into the principal’s office to protest, making Samantha feel proud and embarrassed all at the same time. After a talk where everybody said they were sorry several times and shook hands, things had calmed down with Mr. Wite. They even began going well. Samantha only drew pictures after finishing her work or when he wasn’t looking. She did her homework most days, too, even though both she and her Abue thought homework was stupid. “You just do it, like a job,” said her Abue, and Samantha said, “Okay.” Things had improved so much that when Anahí arrived in early September fresh from El Salvador, Mr. Wite assigned Samantha to be her Language Buddy. That meant that Samantha helped her understand what was going on and find her way around the mysteries of school. “Because you are bilingual in Spanish and you’re a good reader, you’re the right person for the job,” Mr. Wite told her, his blue eyes twinkling jovially. Samantha had been proud. She made sure Anahí understood everything that happened in class. Some of the kids, even those who had been new to the country only last year, made fun of children who were just starting to speak English. Armed with her official Language Buddy title, Samantha scolded her classmates when they mocked Anahí. Anahí had been grateful. But Kathrin, Samantha’s best friend since first grade, got jealous. “I’m bilingual, too!” Kathrin had argued. Her parents were both from Mexico, she said, which made her more Latina than Samantha, whose father plus one whole set of grandparents were Anglo. Samantha had said, “He only chose me ‘cause I live closer to Anahí.” This was true (by a couple of blocks), though she rather thought Mr. Wite hadn’t known this fact when he made his choice. But it would be it easier for Kathrin to accept that the teacher’s reasons were geographical, and not because Samantha was a better reader. Kathrin had gotten used to the situation, it seemed, and the three of them had been friends, playing together at recess and chatting at lunch (except when the mean monitor made them all shut up) until around the end of October, when everything had gone downhill fast. Kathrin began making fun of Samantha, calling her ‘clown head’ because she liked to wear different sorts of things in her hair. Or ‘clown feet’ because she often wore unmatched socks. Samantha called them Sarah socks, because her Abue had a friend who had died, named Sarah, who had worn unmatched socks. To be honest, Samantha never could find mates, but she liked better to think it was in honor of a dead friend. After accepting these habits for years, Kathrin now couldn’t stop teasing Samantha about them. And she had been horrible about Samantha’s Halloween costume, which was a green-slime, bulbous-nosed monster. Monsters were supposed to be ugly, Samantha had argued, but Kathrin kept remarking how gross it was. Then Anahí began to be mean to Samantha, too. A small buzzy voice like a gnat’s at the back of Samantha’s mind said this was partly Samantha’s own fault. Anahí was learning more English and school customs, and not needing a Language Buddy so much anymore. Somehow, this made Samantha feel lost. She found herself insisting on telling Anahí what to do, even when Anahí now understood it for herself. Samantha kept on instructing her how to do the homework, what pages to read in her books, where to put her pencils. She couldn’t help it; it was like eating Organic Cheddar Bunny crackers: hard to stop, even when your tummy told you enough was enough. The latest bad thing was Anahí calling her names in Spanish. “¡Mula! ¡Puerca!” Anahí had squawked at her yesterday as they lined up to walk to the lunchroom. Even though Samantha liked mules and pigs, being called those names in that tone by Anahí was a big insult. The teacher didn’t understand the Spanish name-calling, but half her classmates did. Samantha had heard several sniggers and felt her face burn. This morning before reading groups, Samantha hadn’t done anything to Anahí, only reminded her not to forget her folder. Anahí had turned and hissed at her in a hateful voice, “Diablo!” Samantha had felt a shock in her stomach. Being called “devil” was worse than anything so far. A roar burst out of her throat as if it were someone else’s voice. She grabbed Anahí’s shirt with one hand and raised her other fist. Kathrin, who was right beside Anahí, had yelled, “Stop it, Samantha!” and pulled Anahí out of Samantha’s reach. The teacher had rushed over. From his face Samantha knew he had already decided what happened and whose fault it was. Samantha tried to tell him how tangled up things had gotten with Anahí and Kathrin, but only mumbles came out of her tight throat. And tears out of her stinging eyes. Mr. Wite said, “Since you didn’t actually hit her, thanks to Kathrin, and since this is the first time you’ve engaged in violent behavior, you’ll just get fifteen minutes on the Wall.” Samantha had felt so confused and sad and bad and mad that she stood there frozen until Suresh gave her a push to move her back to her seat. Fifteen minutes was more than half of recess. Sometimes she had to stay in from recess to finish her homework. That was a consequence. But this was a punishment: sitting still, watching the other kids playing, feeling miserable. Near the beginning of the school year, during the bad time with her teacher, Samantha had happened upon the word “wite” in the ancient unabridged dictionary which sat on the orange bookshelf under her Rainwood House kitchen chalkboard. In its tiny print the dictionary explained that “wite” meant “wise man,” “punishment,” “blame,” “safeguard,” and “go away.” Samantha’s first impulse upon reading this had been to write these definitions on a page and illustrate it, to give to Mr. Wite. But she hadn’t, not wanting him to think she was: a) wasting her time drawing instead of doing homework, b) sucking up to him, or c) making fun of him, especially if the pictures turned out funny, as hers often did. Instead, she referred to him in her mind by one or another of his definitions. “Punishment man” is what she called him right now. “Torture,” she said to herself aloud. That was another meaning of “wite.” She let out another heavy sigh. The teacher hadn’t let her bring out a book. And watching the kids play was too painful. The only solution was to distract herself. “Detective Drunella,” Samantha whispered into the air hopefully. But Drunella wasn’t there. She was shy around other kids and preferred staying home in her Rainwood House. Being invisible, nobody made her go to school. But maybe she was a little bit there, since Samantha thought she heard her say in her ear, “Just think about something interesting,” “Okay,” Samantha replied out loud, not caring who heard her; anyway, nobody did. Well, she liked measuring; maybe she could try to measure the fifteen minutes as they passed by. But time was way more invisible than Detective Drunella. And, unlike inches, which were always the same, Samantha had noticed that minutes could go by in a snap or they could drag on forever. She recalled that Steven Hawking said something about this in A Brief History of Time, which Samantha sometimes read snippets of in the bathroom (the book shared the bathroom reading basket with a jumble of old magazines—Ranger Rick, The Nation, Classic Rock, Color Lines, and with books her Abue said were good for dipping into here and there, including A People’s History of the United States, some poetry in Spanish by Mario Benedetti, and a songbook of Violeta Parra, the poet her mami Vivi was named after). Einstein was mixed up with time, too, Samantha recalled. She liked Einstein because he used to have trouble in school, and he had messy hair. Plus, he was Jewish, like Samantha’s dad. She knew Einstein had discovered something important about time, but she couldn’t remember what it was. She wondered how thoughts leaked out of her head. Or maybe they trickled down into sinkholes in her brain, which she pictured as a soft gray sponge. Maybe she could dig out the lost thoughts, like when she wiped up her colored sand and then tried to dig the grains out of the sponge holes with a pencil point. But poking into the brain with a pencil would be painful, and her mind already hurt enough. Samantha dropped her head into her hands. It was heavy as a pumpkin, and she had to put her elbows on her knees to support it. After as much time as she could stand, she let it go and made a megaphone with her hands. “Ms. Jordon! Is it time yet?” Ms. Jordon was the mean monitor, but the nice monitor was too far away, and Samantha couldn’t stand not asking even a minute longer. The stocky woman with her black hair pasted to her head looked over at Samantha and glanced down at her watch. She held up a hand with all five fingers spread out, closed them in a quick fist, and poked up two fingers. Then she turned away. Seven minutes to go! All that thinking, and she’d only used up eight minutes? Maybe it was like the Narnia or Magic Tree House books, where the children go off to other worlds or historical times and have adventures, but when they get back no time has gone by and nobody notices they’ve been gone. Nobody was noticing her, she thought grumpily, but not because she was having adventures. Suddenly, the image of Duke Cole appeared in her mind, and she felt a little blip of excitement pass through her. Having a boarding house was an adventure! Duke Cole was nice, and not even that old. Though old was good, too, as her Abue always pointed out. And he was mysterious, although a bit plump, which mysterious people usually weren’t. Nor were they usually friendly and funny like he was. But there was an enigma about him, she was sure. Maybe he had amnesia. She noticed that he’d hesitated on some of the questions her Abue had asked him, even easy ones like where he was from. Samantha frowned in thought. Maybe he was looking for his long-lost sister or father. Why he would look in Rainwood House wasn’t clear, but this was always the case at the beginning of a mystery. You only found out the reasons toward the end, and they were usually things you could never have guessed, like somebody’s husband living in a hobo camp. Imagining these possibilities was way better than thinking about the no-good situation with her friends. Maybe he was on a mysterious plant philosophy quest? Somebody wanted to steal his valuable orchid, which he carried in a special case hidden deep in his lumpy duffel bag? She frowned. Could he be a shady kind of stranger? No way! He was nice, without being suspiciously nice. He liked being silly. No shady stranger was silly, she was sure of that. Perhaps he was escaping from international pursuers. She had no idea what these were, but she knew you had to escape from them. Would they look for him at her Rainwood House? That would be almost too much of an adventure. She recalled some of her favorite American Girl History Mysteries. What if Cole was on a secret mission, like against the Nazis or on the Underground Railroad? But they didn’t have Nazis any more, nor slavery, either. Except she’d heard on the radio that they still did, but it was more hidden. Maybe he was trying to stop the KKK, like the girl in Circle of Fire who saved the Highlander Center from being bombed when Eleanor Roosevelt was going to visit it. That adventure had been exciting, though scary. The girl had used bear traps, Samantha recalled. Maybe it would be good to get some bear traps herself, just in case. But no. She shook her head at herself. Those kind of adventures happened a long time ago. Or else never, like Wizard of Oz or The Pink Motel. Which was a motel, not a boarding house. Samantha felt her thoughts muddling up again. Anahí and Kathrin streaked across the playground, laughing. Samantha watched them, pretending not to, then imagined herself drawing a picture of them, with sharp faces and sneering noses. She saw her hand writing the caption underneath. “Friends are funny,” it wrote. “And I don’t mean funny haha!” “People are strange, when you’re a stranger,” she remembered her Abue singing. But they’re also strange when you’re friends. Samantha tilted back her head to stare up at the sky. It was a flat, perfect blue like the huge egg-smooth plate she had seen at her grandfather Blake’s house in California. Some leaves swirled into view, dancing on air, which looked fun. Except dead things couldn’t have fun. She heaved a sigh so big her chest inflated like a balloon, then collapsed like a balloon losing its air. Seven minutes. It had to be less by now. What if the monitor forgot to tell her when the time was up? Or lied? Samantha didn’t like to think about it, but she had seen that grownups didn’t always tell the truth. For instance, they sometimes said they would do things, good or bad, and then they didn’t. She looked over at the playground monitor, who stood looking glum with her hands thrust in the pockets of her puffy orange jacket. The other monitor loved children, it was obvious. Kids would go to her with fights and skinned knees, or to show her how they could do the monkey bars. But this one was just there filling time. Time. Samantha looked past the monitor, across the field. There were Kathrin and Anahí again. They were doing a clapping game, but she couldn’t hear what rhyme they were saying. Kathrin didn’t even look at Samantha. Or, maybe she had snuck a glance when Samantha herself wasn’t looking. If Anahí were stuck on the wall, Samantha would go over and say something, like “Sorry you were punished even though I was mean, too.” At least, Samantha hoped she would do that. Sometimes you got pulled a certain way, whether you wanted or not. Like the time before she became Language Buddy when Anahí said “shit” instead of “shirt.” Kids had laughed at her and made that sing-song sound that slid upwards: “Awwww!” Samantha hadn’t wanted to laugh at Anahí or make that annoying sound, but she had done it anyway. Laughing together with her classmates had felt good, at least on the surface, even though an underneath part of it felt bad. But telling them not to laugh would have been as hard as telling an ocean wave to stop and go backwards. That is, until the title of Language Buddy had made her feel strong. That’s why it was so hard to let it go. “Okay, Samantha, your minutes are up!” The monitor had been paying attention after all! Like the weasel, Samantha popped up off the wall and ran towards Kathrin and Anahí. “Hey, I’m free! Yay!” “Yay!” repeated Anahí, smiling, running towards her along with the others. Samantha felt a balloon of happiness inflate in her chest. Anahí liked her again! She turned to Kathrin, who was smiling, too. Maybe they could all be friends! “Let’s play freeze tag,” Samantha shouted. “I’m It!” She ran toward Anahí and touched her. “Freeze, you’re frozen!” Anahí froze in a comic pose. Samantha remembered that it had been hard to teach her freeze tag at first. When Samantha told her “Freeze!” meant “Congélate,” Anahí had hugged herself and pretended to shiver. She didn’t know about ice and freezing since El Salvador was a warm place. They’d had to demonstrate a few times before she got it. But now she got most things. And Samantha was very glad about this, she reminded herself, as she tagged Kathrin, then the others. The hardest to catch was Kevin, who was a very fast runner. She had to back him into the corner of the fence to get him. But when she turned around, triumphant, there was Kathrin, running again, untagging Anahí, Suresh and everyone else. “Hey!” Samantha stopped, hands on hips. “I got everyone already! You, too, Kathrin.” “No, a laser ray gun unfroze me! So I can unfreeze the others.” Samantha felt a wave of anger wash over her. “That’s not fair!” “Too bad, that’s the game!” “You changed the rules!” Danila, a big girl who liked to make peace when she could, came over and said, “How about a game of kickball? There’s hardly any time left in recess. Don’t waste it arguing.” Kathrin said, “Okay!” But when Danila moved away Kathrin stuck her tongue out at Samantha. Samantha was so shocked she didn’t even think to stick hers out at Kathrin. She looked over at Anahí, who had seen the whole thing. Anahí met Samantha’s gaze, and for a moment she seemed uncertain. But then she also stuck her tongue out at Samantha. “¡Diablo!” she called out in a high, hard voice. “You live in a witch house!” Kathrin said, “You mean a haunted house.” And ran off to join Danila. Samantha stood still, feeling a lump of ice inside her that no ray gun could melt. After all her torture on the wall, Anahí had called her “devil” again, easy as pie. Then she insulted Samantha’s Rainwood House. And Kathrin, instead of telling Anahí not to hurt Samantha when she was trying to be friends again, had only corrected her English, like she was Anahí’s Language Buddy of mean words!

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