Phyllis Reynolds Naylor has written more than 135 books, including the Newbery Award–winning Shiloh and the Alice series. She lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland. To hear from Phyllis and find out more about Alice, visit AliceMcKinley.com.
It was impossible to start school without remembering him.
Some kids, of course, had been on vacation when it happened and hadn’t seen the news in the paper. Some hadn’t even known Mark Stedmeister.
But we’d known him. We’d laughed with him, danced with him, argued with him, swum with him, and then . . . said our good-byes to him when he was buried.
There was the usual safety assembly the first day of school. But the principal opened it with announcements of the two deaths over the summer: a girl who drowned at a family picnic, and Mark, killed in a traffic accident. Mr. Beck asked for two minutes of silence to remember them, and then a guy from band played “Amazing Grace” on the trumpet.
Gwen and Pam and Liz and I held hands during the playing, marveling that we had any tears left after the last awful weeks and the day Liz had phoned me, crying, “He was just sitting there, Alice! He wasn’t doing anything! And a truck ran into him from behind.”
It helps to have friends. When you can spread the sadness around, there’s a little less, somehow, for each person to bear. As we left the auditorium later, teachers handed out plastic bracelets we could wear for the day—blue for Mark, yellow for the freshman who had drowned—and as we went from class to class, we’d look for the blue bracelets and lock eyes for a moment.
“So how did it go today?” Sylvia asked when she got home that afternoon. And without waiting for an answer, she gave me a long hug.
“Different,” I said, when we disentangled. “It will always seem different without Mark around.”
“I know,” she said. “But life does have a way of filling that empty space, whether you want it to or not.”
She was right about that. Lester’s twenty-fifth birthday, for one. I’d bought him a tie from the Melody Inn. The pattern was little brown figures against a bright yellow background, and if you studied them closely, you saw they were tiny eighth notes forming a grid. I could tell by Lester’s expression that he liked it.
“Good choice, Al!” he said, obviously surprised at my excellent taste. “So how’s it going? First day of your last year of high school, huh?”
“No, Les, you’re supposed to say, ‘This is the first day of the rest of your life,’” I told him.
“Oh. Well then, this is the first minute of the first hour of the first day of the rest of your life. Even more exciting.”
We did the usual birthday thing: Lester’s favorite meal—steak and potatoes—the cake, the candles, the ice cream. After Dad asked him how his master’s thesis was coming and they had a long discussion, Les asked if I had any ideas for feature articles I’d be doing for The Edge.
“Maybe ‘The Secret Lives of Brothers’?” I suggested.
“Boring. Eat, sleep, study. Definitely boring,” he said.
From her end of the table, Sylvia paused a moment as she gathered up the dessert plates. “Weren’t you working on a special tribute to Mark?” she asked. Now that I was features editor of our school paper, everyone had suggestions.
“I am, but it just hasn’t jelled yet,” I said. “I want it to be special. Right now I’ve got other stuff to do, and I haven’t even started my college applications.”
“First priority,” Dad said.
“Yeah, right,” I told him. “Do you realize that every teacher seems to think his subject comes first? It’s the truth! ‘Could anything be more important than learning to express yourselves?’ our English teacher says. ‘Hold in those stomach muscles, girls,’ says the gym teacher. ‘If you take only one thing with you when you leave high school, it’s the importance of posture.’ And Miss Ames says she doesn’t care what else is on our plate, the articles for The Edge positively have to be in on time. Yada yada yada.”
“Wait till college, kiddo. Wait till grad school,” said Lester.
“I don’t want to hear it!” I wailed. “Each day I think, ‘If I can just make it through this one . . .’ Whoever said you could slide through your senior year was insane.”
Lester looked at Sylvia. “Aren’t you glad you’re not teaching high school?” he asked. “All this moaning and groaning?”
Sylvia laughed. “Give the girl a break, Les. Feature articles are the most interesting part of a newspaper. She’s got a big job this year.”
“Hmmm,” said Lester. “Maybe she should do an article on brothers. ‘My Bro, the Stud.’ ‘Life with a Philosophy Major: The Secret Genius of Les McKinley.’”
“You wish,” I said.
In addition to thinking about articles for The Edge and all my other assignments, I was thinking about Patrick. About the phone conversation we’d had the night before. Patrick’s at the University of Chicago now, and with both of us still raw after Mark’s funeral, we’ve been checking in with each other more often. He wants to know how I’m doing, how our friends are handling things, and I ask how he’s coping, away from everyone back home.
“Mostly by keeping busy,” Patrick had said. “And thinking about you.”
“I miss you, Patrick,” I’d told him.
“I miss you. Lots,” he’d answered. “But remember, this is your senior year. Don’t give up anything just because I’m not there.”
“What does that mean?” I’d asked.
I’d known what he was saying, though. We’d had that conversation before. Going out with other people, he meant, and I knew he was right—Patrick is so reasonable, so practical, so . . . Patrick. I didn’t want him to be lonely either. But I didn’t feel very reasonable inside, and it was hard imagining Patrick with someone else.
“We both know how we feel about each other,” he’d said.
Did we? I don’t think either of us had said the words I love you. We’d never said we were
dating exclusively. With nearly seven hundred miles between us now, some choices, we knew, had already been made. What we did know was that we were special to each other.
I thought of my visit to his campus over the summer. I thought of the bench by Botany Pond. Patrick’s kisses, his arms, his hands. . . . It was hard imagining myself with someone else too, but—as he’d said—it was my senior year.
“I know,” I’d told him, and we’d said our long good nights.
In my group of best girlfriends—Pamela, Liz, and Gwen—I was the closest to having a steady boyfriend. Dark-haired Liz had been going out with Keeno a lot, but nothing definite. Gwen was seeing a guy we’d met over the summer when we’d volunteered for a week at a soup kitchen, and Pamela wasn’t going out with anyone at present. “Breathing fresh air” was the way she put it.
There was a lot to think about. With our parents worrying over banks and mortgages and retirement funds, college seemed like a bigger hurdle than it had before. And some colleges were more concerned with grades than with SAT scores, so seniors couldn’t just slide through their last year, especially the first semester.
“Where are you going to apply?” I asked Liz. “Gwen’s already made up her mind. She’s going to sail right through the University of Maryland and enter their medical school. I think it’s some sort of scholarship worked out with the National Institutes of Health.”
“She should get a scholarship—all these summers she’s been interning at the NIH,” said Liz. “I don’t know—I think I want a really small liberal arts college, like Bennington up in Vermont.”
We were sitting around Elizabeth’s porch watching her little brother blow soap bubbles at us. Nathan was perched on the railing, giggling each time we reached out to grab one.
“Sure you want a small college?” asked Pamela, absently examining her toes, feet propped on the wicker coffee table. Her nails were perfectly trimmed, polished in shell white. “It sounds nice and cozy, but everyone knows your business, and you’ve got all these little cliques to deal with.”
“Where are you going to apply?” Liz asked her.
“It’s gotta be New York, that much I know. One of their theater arts schools, maybe. Some-body told me about City College, and someone else recommended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I doubt I could get into Cornell, but they’ve got a good drama department. Where are you going to apply, Alice?”
I shrugged. “Mrs. Bailey recommends Maryland because they’ve got a good graduate program in counseling, and that’s where she got her degree.
But a couple of guys from church really like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. . . .”
“That’s a good school,” said Liz.
“. . . And I’ve heard good things about William and Mary.”
“Virginia?” asked Liz.
“Yes. Williamsburg. I was thinking I could visit both on the same trip.”
“You could always go to Bennington with me,” said Liz.
“Clear up in Vermont? Where it really snows?”
“It’s not Colorado.”
Just then a soap bubble came drifting past my face, and I snapped at it like a dog. Nathan screeched with laughter.
What I didn’t tell my friends was that lately I’d been getting a sort of panicky, homesick, lonely feeling whenever I thought about leaving for college—coming “home” at night to a dorm room. To a roommate I may not even like. A roommate the complete opposite of me, perhaps. I don’t know when I first started feeling this way—Mark’s funeral? Dad’s worries about investments and the store? But at college there would be no stepmom to talk with across the table, no Dad to give me a bear hug, no brother to stop by with an account of his latest adventure.
It was crazy! Hadn’t I always looked forward to being on my own? Didn’t I want that no-curfew life? I’d been away before—the school trip to New York, for example. I’d been a counselor at summer camp. And yet . . . All my friends had been there, and my friends were like family. At college I’d be with strangers. I’d be a stranger to them. And no matter how I tried to reason myself out of it, the homesickness was there in my chest, and it thumped painfully whenever college came to mind, which was often. I didn’t want to chicken out and choose Bennington just to be with Liz or Maryland just to room with Gwen. Still . . .
Nathan tumbled off the railing at that point and skinned his knee. The soap solution spilled all over the porch, he was howling, and we got up to help. That put an end to the conversation for the time being, and time was what I needed to work things through.
The school newspaper, though, kept me busy. Our staff had to stay on top of everything. We were the first to know how we’d be celebrating Spirit Week, because we had to publish it. We had to know when dances would be held, when games were scheduled, which faculty member had retired and which teachers were new. We were supposed to announce new clubs, student trips, projects, protests. . . . We were the school’s barometer, and in our staff meetings we tried to get a sense of things before they happened.
We were also trying something different this semester. Because of our newspaper’s growing reputation and the number of students who’d signed up to work on The Edge, we’d been given a larger room on the main floor, instead of the small one we’d been using for years. Here we had two long tables for layout instead of one. Four computers instead of two. And on the suggestion of Phil Adler—our news editor/editor in chief—we were going to try publishing an eight-page newspaper every week instead of a sixteen-page biweekly edition.
We wanted to be even more timely. And because the printer’s schedule sometimes held up our paper for a day, we were going to aim for Thursday publication. Then, if there was a snafu, students would still get their copies by Friday and know what was going on over the weekend.
“I’ve got reservations about this, but it’s worth a try,” Miss Ames, our faculty sponsor, told us. “I know you’ve doubled your number of reporters, and you’ve got an A team and a B team so that not everyone works on each issue. But you four editors are going to have to work every week. That means most Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays after school. Can you can swing it?”
We said we could. Phil and I and Tim Moss, the new sports editor (and Pamela’s old boyfriend), and Sam Mayer, the photography editor (and one of my old boyfriends), all wagged our woolly heads and said, yes, of course, no problem, we’re on it. All completely insane, of course.
It will keep me from thinking so much about missing Patrick, I thought. But each day that passed brought me that much closer to D-day—decision time—and what I was going to do about college.
It was through The Edge that I found out about Student Jury. Modeled after some counties where student juries meet in city hall, ours would be a lot simpler, according to Mr. Beck. He decided that if more decisions and penalties were handed down by students themselves—overseen, of course, by a faculty member—maybe Mr. Gephardt, our vice principal, could have more time for his other responsibilities, and maybe the offenders would feel that the penalties were more fair. Students guilty of some minor infraction would be referred to the jury and would be sentenced by their peers.
The Edge agreed to run a front-page story on it, and I found out that I’d been recommended by the faculty to serve on the jury.
“No way!” I told Gwen. I had assignments to do. Articles to write. If anyone should serve on it, she should.
“So what have you got so far on your résumé?” was her answer.
“For what? College?”
“Well, not the Marines!” We were undressing for gym, and she pulled a pair of wrinkled gym shorts over her cotton underwear. “Extracurricular stuff, school activities, community service. You’ve got features editor of the paper, Drama Club, the Gay/Straight Alliance, some volunteer hours, camp counselor . . . What else?”
“I need more?”
“It can’t hurt. You’ve got heavy competition.” Gwen slid a gray T-shirt down over her brown arms and dropped her shoes in the locker. “Student Jury—dealing with kids with problems—might look pretty impressive, especially if you’re going into counseling.”
I gave a small whimper. “I told you the paper’s coming out weekly, didn’t I? I’m still working for Dad on Saturdays. I’ve got—”
“And William and Mary is going to care?”
Gwen’s impossibly practical. “You and Patrick would make a good couple,” I told her.
“Yeah, but I’ve got Austin,” she said, and gave me a smug smile.
Later I whimpered some more to Liz and Pamela, but they were on Gwen’s side.
“I’ve heard you need to put anything you can think of on your résumé,” said Pamela. “I’m so glad you guys talked me into trying out for Guys and Dolls last spring. If I was sure I could get a part in the next production, I’d even jump the gun and include that.”
They won. I told Mr. Gephardt I’d serve on Student Jury for at least one semester.
“Glad to have you on board,” he said, as though we were sailing out to sea.
Maybe, like Patrick, I was trying to “stay busy” too. Maybe it made a good defense against going out with other guys. But I did keep busy, and whenever I felt my mind drifting to Mark, out of sadness, or to Patrick, out of longing, or to college, out of panic, I wondered if I could somehow use my own musings as a springboard for a feature article: “When Life Dumps a Load,” “Long Distance Dating: Does It Work?” “Facing College: The Panic and the Pleasure”—something like that.
Amy Sheldon had been transferred from special ed in our sophomore year and had struggled to go mainstream ever since. I’m not sure what grade she was in. I think she was repeating her junior year.
It’s hard to describe Amy, because we’ve never quite decided what’s different about her. She walks with a slight tilt forward and is undersized for her age. Her facial features are non-symmetrical, but it’s mostly her directness that stands out—a childlike stare when she talks with you about the first thing on her mind . . . and the way she speaks in non sequiturs, as though she’s never really a part of the conversation, and I suppose in some ways she never is. Somehow she has always managed to attach herself to me, and there have been times when I felt as though I had a puppy following along at my heels.
The same day I said yes to Student Jury, Amy caught up with me after school. I had taken a couple of things from my locker, ready to go to the newsroom, when Amy appeared at my elbow.
“I’ve got to wait till Mom comes for me at four because she had a dentist appointment and then I’m getting a new bra,” she said.
“Hey! Big time!” I said. “What color are you going to get?”
She smiled in anticipation. “I wanted red or black, but Mom said ‘I don’t think so.’ She said I could have white or blue or pink.”
“Well, those are pretty too,” I told her. I realized I’d closed my locker without taking out my jacket and opened it again.
“I went from a thirty-two A to a thirty-two B, and a year ago I didn’t wear any bra at all. I hate panty hose. Do you ever wear panty hose?”
“Not if I can help it,” I said.
“I wouldn’t want to wear a rubber bath mat around me,” Amy said.
I blinked. “What?”
“Grandma Roth—she’s my mother’s mother—used to wear a Playtex girdle when she was my age. She said it was like wrapping a rubber bath mat around her. She even had to wear it when it was hot. I hate summer, do you? Am I asking too many questions?”
I tried to dismiss her comment with a quick smile but saw how eagerly she waited for an answer. “Well, sometimes you do ask a lot.”
“My dad says if you don’t ask questions, how do you learn anything? You know why I like to ask questions?”
“Um . . . why?” It seemed she was going to follow me all the way down the hall.
“Because people talk to me then. Most of the time, anyway. Most people don’t come up to me and start a conversation, so I have to start one, and Dad says the best way to start a conversation is to ask a question. And you know what?”
If I felt lonely just thinking about college, I imagined how it must feel to be Amy, to be lonely most of the time. “What?” I asked, slowing a little to give her my full concentration.
“If somebody just answers and walks away, or doesn’t answer at all, you know what I say? ‘Have a nice day!’”
I could barely look at her. “That’s the perfect response, Amy,” I said. “You just keep asking all the questions you want.”
I was deep in thought, my eyes on the window, as Phil went over our next issue. We could give free copies to all the stores surrounding the school, he said, just to be part of the community and maybe help persuade them to buy ads; the art department had suggested we use sketches occasionally, drawn by our art students, to illustrate some of our articles; and we still needed one more roving reporter in order to have an equal number for each class. A few reporters from last year had graduated, and some had dropped out for another activity.
I suddenly came to life. “I’d like to suggest Amy Sheldon,” I said, and the sound of it surprised even me.
There was total silence, except for one girl’s shocked “Amy?” Then, embarrassed, she said, “Are you sure she can handle it?”
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “But I’d like to give her a try. She’s good at asking questions.”
There was a low murmur of laughter. “Boy, is she! Remember when she went around asking other girls if they’d started their periods?” someone said.
“Now, there’s a good opener,” said Tim. More laughter.
“Everybody likes to be asked questions about themselves, and if she bombs, we don’t have to print it.”
Silence. Then Phil said, “Can you offer her a temporary assignment—so she won’t get her hopes up?”
“Sure, I could do that.” I waited. The lack of enthusiasm was overwhelming.
I watched Phil. I’d met him last year when I joined the Gay/Straight Alliance in support of my friends Lori and Leslie. He’d been a tall, ganglyroving reporter before, but now that we were seniors, he was head honcho and looked the part. It was weird, in a way, that all the people who had run the paper before us were in college, and now we were the ones making the decisions.
“Okay,” Phil said at last. “We’ll give it a try. But have a practice session with her first, huh?”
“Of course,” I said, and realized I’d added still one more thing to my to-do list.
“In the same spirit,” Miss Ames said, “I’d like to suggest an article now and then by Daniel Bul Dau.” When a lot of us looked blank, she added, “He’s here from Sudan—you may have seen him around school. He’s eighteen, and his family is being sponsored by a local charity. I think he could write some short pieces—or longer ones, if he likes—on how he’s adapting to American life, his take on American culture, what you have to overcome in being a refugee . . . whatever he wants to write about. He’s quite fluent in English.”
We were all okay with that. More than okay.
“Feature article, right?” Phil said, looking at me, meaning this was my contact to make.
“Give me his name and homeroom, and I’ll take care of it,” I offered, and wondered if there would be any time left in my schedule for sleep.
Daniel Bul Dau had skin as dark as a chestnut, wide-spaced eyes that were full of either wonder or amusement or both, and a tall, slim build with unusually long legs. On Tuesday he smiled all the while I was talking with him about the news-paper and the article we wanted him to write.
“What am I to say?” he asked.
“Anything you want. I think kids would be especially interested in what you like about the United States and what you don’t. Your experiences, frustrations. Tell us about life in Sudan and what you miss. Whatever you’d like us to know. I’ll give you my cell phone number if you have any questions.”
“I will write it for you,” he said, and his wide smile never changed.
Gwen and Pam and Liz and I were talking about teachers over lunch. Specifically male teachers. Who was hot, who was not, who was married, who was not. We were trying to figure out Dennis Granger, who was subbing for an English teacher on maternity leave.
“Married,” Pamela guessed. “I wouldn’t say he’s hot, but he’s sort of handsome.”
“Not as good-looking as Stedman in physics,” said Gwen.
“I caught him looking at my breasts last week,” said Liz.
“Kincaid looks at butts,” said Pamela.
“Kincaid? He’s as nearsighted as a person can be!” I said.
“That’s why he has to really study you from every angle,” said Pamela just as Dennis Granger approached our table and looked at us quizzically as we tried to hide our smiles. I think he deduced we were talking about guys and jokingly ambled around our table as though trying to eavesdrop on the conversation. He leaned way over us, pretending to mooch a chip or a pickle from somebody’s tray, his arm sliding across one of our shoulders. We broke into laughter the moment he was gone.
“The best teacher I ever had was Mr. Everett in eighth grade,” Liz said when we recovered. “I wish there were more like him.”
Pamela gave her a look. “Yeah, you were in love with him, remember?”
“Crushing, maybe,” said Liz.
“One of the best teachers I ever had was Sylvia,” I told them.
“And then your dad goes and marries her,” said Liz.
“Well, she couldn’t be my teacher forever. I liked Mr. Everett, too. But I totally loved Mrs. Plotkin. Remember sixth grade? I was so awful to her at first and did everything I could to be expelled from her class. She just really cared about her students.”
“That’s why I want to be a teacher,” said Liz.
“You’ll make a great one,” I told her.
“And you’ll make a great counselor,” said Liz.
Pamela rolled her eyes. “While you two are saving the world, I’ll be working for a top ad agency in New York, and you can come up on weekends.”
“With or without boyfriends?” asked Liz.
“Depends on the boyfriends,” said Pamela.
“I thought you were going to a theater arts school,” said Gwen.
Pamela gave an anguished sigh. “I just don’t know what to do. I used to think I’d like fashion designing, but I’ve pretty much given that up. So it’s between theater and advertising. I’m thinking maybe I’ll try a theater arts school for a year to see if they think I have talent. If I don’t measure up, I’ll leave and go for a business degree somewhere. Of course, then I’d be a year behind everyone else.”
“Pamela, in college that doesn’t matter,” said Gwen. “Go for it.”
Liz looked wistfully around the group. “You’ll be off doing medical research, of course,” she said to Gwen. “Remember how we used to think we’d all go to the same college, sleep in the same dorm, get married the same summer, maybe? Help raise each other’s kids?”
“I’m not having kids,” said Pamela.
Gwen chuckled. “Hold that thought,” she said. “We’ll check in with each other five years from now and see what’s happening.”