Beginning of 1st grade
“Paige! Have you finished your breakfast? It’s time to go!”
The six-year-old slapped a tiny hand over her mouth to stifle the giggle. Her mom had given the warning call four times already, but with no response. Paige McCullers was hiding in the coat closet by the front door just waiting to burst out and give Liz a good scare. With her lucky green backpack on and slip-on Vans snug on her feet, she was technically ready way before her mom was.
Her ear pressed against the closet door, she waited with bated breath as she heard the click of heels grow closer. Finally, the sound stopped… right outside the closet. She couldn’t contain her laughter anymore and threw open the door. Unfortunately, Liz was in the line of fire and stumbled ungainly to the other side of the hall, nearly falling to the ground. “Paige McCullers! What in the world did you do that for? I could have twisted my ankle! I know you’re excited for school, but you really must calm down. I’ve been calling you for the past fifteen minutes. Have you been hiding there all that time?”
Paige had been doubled over in fits of laughter, but snapped to attention at Liz’s tone. Uh-oh. However, she wasn’t given a chance to explain herself before she was hurried out the door and into the car. Humph, and she’d had a good reason too!
Safely secured in her car seat with her feet dangling several inches from the car floor, she prattled on about how excited she was to start first grade. That was her devious plan: distract Liz with constant questions so the little closet door incident would be forgotten. “Mommy, who will be my first friend? Is it gonna be a girl or a boy? Is my teacher nice? How many kids are gonna be there? Do we get play time? Do I have to listen all the time? What’s for lunch?”
Just as predicted, Liz spent the car ride struggling to answer the many questions, despite many being near impossible. Nothing could bring Paige’s enthusiasm down, nothing! Playing with her stuffed penguin Pumbaa (the store didn’t have a warthog when she was in her Lion King phase, which she was still in), she wriggled in her seat, unable to sit still. She’d always been active since the day she was born. When she learned to walk, there was no stopping her from parading around the house, determined to leave her crawling days behind – even if it resulted in a faint scar by her right eyebrow.
Unbeknownst to her, her parents frequently used certain words when talking about her. Liz described her daughter to friends as “bubbly” and “lively,” even though she despised using the former. It was the word that just popped to her mind when she thought of Paige. Nick bragged to his business friends about how “determined” and “clever” his daughter was.
“Mommy, I want a puppy for my birthday,” she interrupted the sudden quiet. She’d been on this kick to get a pet for the past nine months – ever since her dad’s business partner, John, brought his Golden Retriever over during a visit.
“Paige, we can’t get a dog right n-”
“That’s what you always say!” She crossed her arms and knitted her eyebrows together – the epitome of an angry child on the verge of a tantrum.
“Because it’s true. Daddy’s in the office for most of the day, and I’m only a little less busy at the Rosewood Police Department. The dog would be home all day by itself. It’s a big responsibility.”
Crossing her arms, Paige didn’t give up, a determined glint in her brown eyes. “I’m reponsablity!”
She scowled fiercely as Liz failed to stile her laugh. Before she could press more, the car stopped and they were at school. All thoughts of a puppy vanished from the girl’s mind as she looked out the window and saw the building of Rosewood Elementary.
Being the only public school in the district, it was appropriately sized and able to hold the expected seventy-five students ranging from first to fifth grade. Rosewood itself was a small town where most everyone knew each other. It was no surprise that the class enrollment depicted such; there were generally fifteen students per class.
Since it was the first day, the first graders started an hour later at 9AM. Therefore, the grounds were empty, save for the fourteen other first graders and their families. Paige had her car seat unbuckled and Pumbaa packed when the back door opened. Expertly hopping down, she skipped towards the school leaving Liz to lock up the car. Together though, they crossed the threshold and into the place that would be Paige’s life for the next several years. They followed the signs to the first grade classroom while Paige chattered some more. “I’m so excited to make friends, play, learn to read and write, and uh, other stuff!”
“Oh, what about the past year your dad and I have spent teaching you to read and write?” Liz grumbled playfully. But it was lost on her daughter as she was caught up looking around the halls.
As they came up on the room, they passed a family standing together across the hall. Paige stared curiously at the little girl crying. The woman was crouched down giving her daughter a hug while the father stood with a gentle hand on the girl’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay, Em. The day will fly by and we’ll be back to pick you up before you know it! We both love you so much and know that you’ll make a friend today.” The mother had a kind voice, Paige thought absently.
She lost sight of them as she entered the classroom, eyes wide and taking in everything. Colors bombarded her. The room was spacious, with sections invisibly divided. There were a few clusters of desks, each with a nametag sticker. Every girl’s desk had a Disney princess laminated on – Belle, Cinderella, Ariel; the classics. Every boy’s desk had a car from the movie Cars – Lightning McQueen, Mater, Doc. Towards the back of the room by the windows sat several animal-print beanbags with a bookshelf already stocked. By the door, double-stacked open cubbies lined the wall. All in all, the classroom was very well organized. In a few days’ time however, it probably wouldn’t be so.
There were several children already settled in by the beanbags, playing together with their toys they brought from home. A couple sat at the desks, heads buried in their arms. Paige could tell by their shaking shoulders that they were crying, which reminded her of the little girl outside.
Busy looking around, Paige was startled when a plump, smiling woman blocked everything else – she was standing way, way too close for a stranger. “Hello! You must be Paige, and Mrs. McCullers. I’m Mrs. Cress. I’m very excited to meet you both!” She pointed out the various areas in the room and ushered them both to the cubbies, talking more to Liz than the actual student. No matter, because Paige dumped her backpack in her designated cubby, her name stickered on in black, block letters. That done, she rushed off to join the other kids playing with their toys, Pumbaa in her grasp.
“Hi! I’m Paige.” She caught a couple kids off guard with her sudden arrival, but she was soon let in to play on the floor.
Some mumbled their names, but one blond girl spoke clearly from her place on the zebra beanbag. “My name’s Alison, with one L.”
Paige grinned up at her, a brief and strange image flashing in her mind where Alison was a Queen seated on her throne and Paige was the Jester, there to provide entertainment. “Nice to meet ya! Have you got any toys?”
Alison scrunched her nose, “No way! I like playing dress-up, but I couldn’t bring all my clothes here. So, I’ll just watch you all play… Is that a penguin?”
Paige’s smile grew wider, encouraged that she was making a new friend and said girl would like the flightless birds as much as she did. Lifting the stuffed animal up, she said, “Yup! This is Pumbaa.”
“That’s a stupid name… Isn’t Pumbaa the name of the fat pig from Lion King?”
That wiped the smile right off the brunette’s face. Eyebrows furrowed, she struggled to come back with a witty comment, but failed. Someone else did it for her, though. And it wasn’t exactly witty, but more supportive.
“Pumbaa’s a warthog, and he’s my favorite. And so are penguins.”
Both Alison and Paige shifted their gaze to the newcomer. Paige recognized her as the girl crying out in the hall. Traces of tears were still there, but only because she knew. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Alison stare the new girl down, sizing her up. She knew, because she was doing it too. Who was this girl who had been crying minutes ago, but was now standing up for her?
“I’m Emily,” New Girl added, answering both girls’ silent question.
Emily was insanely tan and skinny with long, dark brown hair flowing past her shoulders. She had an awesome smile, Paige noted, that was directed at her. Wearing a navy blue dress with white sandals to match, her outfit made Paige feel very underdressed in her capris shorts and blouse with sneakers. It was Emily’s eyes that held Paige’s attention the longest. They were brown – almost like her own – and in the right light, had a reddish tint to them. Their color aside, they were so expressive. Paige just wanted to sit there and look at those eyes for the rest of the day.
Except Alison wasn’t about to let that happen. “I’m Alison with one L, and this is-”
“I’m Paige,” she finally found her words, casting a wary glance at the blond. “I’m so happy you like Pumbaa and penguins! Do you want to play with him when we have play time?”
Suddenly shy, Emily mumbled an affirmative and moved to join Paige on the floor. Before she could though, someone was calling her. “Em, honey. We’re leaving! We’ll pick you up in a few hours.” It was her mom. Emily glanced at Paige before biting her lip and waving to her parents. She had forgotten about them, distracted by the girl with a penguin named Pumbaa.
Almost immediately after, Liz called from the door also. “Paige, I’m heading to work. Samara will pick you up and take you home, okay?”
Paige nodded, blowing a kiss cheekily. She was disappointed her parents couldn’t pick her up, but they were very busy and Samara was a fun babysitter.
Mrs. Cress stood in front of the whiteboard and called all the students to their desks. Paige was pleased to find Princess Belle on her desk, as well as Emily in her desk cluster; she had Princess Ariel. The day passed quickly, filled with general start-of-school things, passing out school materials, and learning the basic schedule.
When at last Mrs. Cress announced it was time for play time, or “recess” as she called it, Paige couldn’t be happier. Five hours of nearly non-stop boring, non-learning school stuff was grating on her attention span. She’d already been “Shhh’d” by the teacher once for whispering to Emily during a supposed teaching period. All the first graders bolted out of their seats and crowded by the door until they reluctantly formed a single-file line in alphabetical order. Paige was stuck between a boy and a girl – Collin and Sarah. She kept stepping on the back of Collin’s sneakers.
Finally, they were outside on the playground! There were monkey bars, slides, swings, and other playground things. Eyes wide, she dashed off with Collin to play tag, desperately needing to burn off the energy that had been building inside. After several rounds of successfully not being “it,” she left to cool down.
That’s when she remembered: Emily! Unfortunately, she hadn’t been able to bring Pumbaa out with her. Scanning the area, she spotted the tan girl sitting on the swings alone, feet unable to touch the ground. Sneaking behind her, Paige put her hands on Emily’s lower back and pushed. It was lucky Emily had been holding onto the chains, otherwise she’d have fallen face down into the mulchy ground. Instead, she let out a startled gasp as her swing began moving, albeit gently.
Giggling, Paige moved to the side, watching the girl’s face grow from cautious to a genuine smile. “Okay, now move your legs so you can keep moving!”
It turned out Emily needed a lesson on how to properly swing, which required her to push Paige who moved her little legs the way her daddy taught her. “When you’re going forward, put your legs like this.” She straightened her legs. “And when you’re doing back, tuck them in! Do that, and you’ll swing forever!”
They took turns swinging and pushing each other until it was time to return. Before joining the others, Paige grabbed Emily’s wrist and pulled her into an unexpected hug. “That was really fun. I have a swing at my home. You could come swing on it with me!” She moved to the doors, tugging Emily along and not giving her a chance to reply either.
When Samara picked Paige up from school, she sought Emily out and pressed a piece of paper into her hand.
When Emily got home from school that day, she opened her fist and smoothed out the crumpled paper. There were eight words written in a crooked line, accompanied by a shakily drawn heart. It took her a minute to decipher it, and even then, needed her mom’s help. Paige McCullers and Pumbaa yur nu frends forevr. The Y’s were backwards and the R’s looked more like V’s, but Pam Fields came to the rescue.
When Liz and Nick McCullers came home that evening, Paige announced over dinner, “I’ve made a new friend. Her name is Emily and she likes penguins and Pumbaa the warthog.” She smiled broadly and proceeded to eat her peas.
When Paige fell asleep that night, she still had that smile on her face and thought, Emily.