“I’m going to be my mom’s teacher,” proclaimed June Kao. Then she immediately clapped her hand over her mouth. She hadn’t meant to say that aloud.
She turned her head right and left, and looked over her shoulder. Whew! The school bus was almost empty by now, and none of her schoolmates was sitting close enough to hear and laugh at her.
But the bus driver asked over her shoulder, “And what do you want to teach your momma, sweetheart?”
June felt her excitement return. “It’s only the first day of school, and I’ve already learned so much! I never knew that middle school would be so exciting!” June recalled how sad she had been to graduate from her elementary school three months before, and how intimidated she had felt all summer by the prospect of attending another school where she would encounter lots of people she didn’t know. To top it off, her mother had been upset all week.
“Yesterday my dad had to take a business trip back to Taiwan, where my family came from,” she continued explaining to the bus driver. “It made Mom both nervous and depressed – so I was kind of sad, too.
“But do you know what my new English teacher said today?” June prattled on. “She told all of us students to think about what we learned, then go home and teach it to our family members. We are students at school, but at home we can also be the teachers! Isn’t that cool?”
The bus driver chuckled. “If you say so, sweetie.”
“And after I tell her what I learned today,” June continued, “I’m going to teach my mom how to speak better English.”
The bus rolled to a stop. “Well, that’s a wonderful idea!” The bus driver gave her an encouraging smile. “Are you getting off here?” the woman asked as all of the other students left on the bus stepped out the door.
“No, I think my stop is the last one,” June replied.
The bus driver settled back into her seat. “So, your momma doesn’t speak English, huh?”
June shook her head. “She does – but her grammar is terrible, and she leaves out a lot of words when she talks, too. I… I wonder if she would like reading books, the way I do. What do you think? Do you like reading?”
“Don’t know. Never did much reading, myself.” The bus driver scratched her chin thoughtfully. “Might try it someday, if you think it’ll do me good.”
June nodded eagerly. “I can even tell you some books that I like, if you want!”
When the bus finally pulled in to June’s stop, June waved to the nice lady. “Bye! See you tomorrow!”
As the bus drove off and she started walking, she grinned up at clouds floating on the blue sky. Then she skipped her way toward home.
June turned the corner onto her block. She skidded to a sudden halt, her heart skipping a beat in alarm. Two black-and-white police cars were parked across the street from her home. Three officers walked out of the house of her family’s longtime neighbor, Mrs. Su. In all the years she’d lived in the neighborhood, this was the first time June had seen any sign of trouble. She sprinted the rest of the way home, hoping that her mom was all right.
As she burst through the front door, she heard her mom talking a mile a minute on the phone. June peeled off her tennis shoes, dropped them onto the tiled floor of the entryway, turned a sharp left, and rushed into the kitchen, where her mother was frantically pacing back and forth along a line of large windows facing the front of the house, holding the phone’s receiver against her ear. Thin blue curtains lining the windows fluttered with her every step.
June had a pretty good grasp of the Chinese language, but her mom was talking so fast that June squinted her eyes in concentration to make out what she was saying. “Oh, no! And they took all that money, too? You should’ve known that it’s not safe to keep valuables in the house!… Yes – well, what good is a security system going to do? If thieves want to get in, they’ll find a way, I tell you. Yes. Please let me know if you need anything.”
She hung up the phone, crossed the room, and wrapped her arms tightly around June. As she switched to English, her words came out disjointed bursts, her Chinese accent much heavier than usual. “Haokehpa!So scary! Mrs. Su’s home robbed last night! Bad people steal so many things! Thank god she sleeping. Or else they kill her!”
She wrung are hands over and over in distress. “This area not safe anymore! More and more strange people come here!” Narrowing her eyes in suspicion, she continued, “Like family from India that moved in down the street not long ago. I see the lady yesterday at supermarket. She wear some kind of bead on her forehead, and wrap herself in cloth so her body look like roll of orange sushi! So ugly!”
She scowled. “I think they are no good. Listen to your mama, June: be good girl. Stay away from them, okay? Be extra-careful. Don’t talk to them. And don’t let anyone know your father is not home.”
“But Mom! You don’t know that they did it. They could very well be nice people—”
Her mother cut her off. “Foolish girl! You not old enough to sense these thing. We must learn to defend self – so nothing bad will happen to us! You and me, we are two females at home with no protection. We are weak. If we do not keep up guard, we only inviting bad people to hurt us.”
Climbing up the stairs to her bedroom, June felt all of the good feelings she’d gained from her day at school evaporate. She flopped on her bed, looked up at the ceiling, and blew out a long breath.
She had been excited that morning to make a new start at school. She liked the idea of going to six classes each day, learning a different subject in each one. She heard about the unique experiences of people she’d known from her own elementary school, plus those from a few other schools in the area, as well.
Her English class had given her special joy. Her new teacher called their class a “big melting pot” – like a pot of soup that you put all sorts of ingredients into and mix together, to make it taste just right. Mrs. Hoffman viewed the differences among her students as an opportunity for them to learn from one another. She said she hoped they would all work together to make their class special.
Now that her neighbor had been robbed, June wondered whether her teacher was mistaken. How could anyone stay safe with so many strange people in the world?
June gasped as she remembered her conversation with the bus driver. Oh, God. That lady was a stranger. And now she knew that June’s dad wasn’t at home, and that her mom didn’t speak English well.
How many other people had heard June talk about her family that day? In her excitement, she had possibly revealed lots of things that others could use to hurt her.
June found herself wishing, as she had many times in the past, that she didn’t live in a neighborhood quite so far from school. It was nice and quiet, but no one else her age lived there. Her mom and dad had chosen it, she knew, because privacy was important to them. “Don’t want strange people knock on door all the time,” her mother constantly reminded her. “This is safest place in city. Here, we mind our business, and don’t worry about dangerous criminal.”
But it also meant that June didn’t have anyone close by when she needed company.
Not that it would help, June thought miserably. She rarely, if ever, needed assistance with her homework. She earned straight-As without much effort, and was one of the top students in all of her classes. But that hadn’t made her popular among her classmates. In fact, the more she pleased her teachers, the less her peers thought of her. The first year she had gone to school in the U.S., boys and girls had taunted her, making fun of her Chinese accent and the awkward ways she sometimes phrased her sentences. June had then spent many hours over the summer watching TV and practicing the American way of talking.
She improved a lot, but still made mistakes. The following year, when her teacher had the class take turns reading a story aloud, she came across the word “chaos” and accidentally pronounced it “chows”. At recess, several boys followed her around and taunted her by repeatedly chanting “chows, chows, chows!” She only escaped them by spending her recesses in the school library,where she read books about other children who couldn’t jump out and torture her.
Then it was the girls who snickered at the outfits her mom had dressed her in, which her Dad had brought from his trips back to Taiwan. They had animal characters on them, together with printed words like “Cool Pup” and “Rocky Rabbit”, which of course made her feel like a baby. But June couldn’t disappoint her dad, who, after all, went to a lot of trouble to make her happy.
As her mom constantly reminded her, June’s schoolwork was what mattered. She didn’t need to waste her time hanging around other people. It didn’t keep her from feeling lonely, though.
The trouble was, June never knew how to win an argument. She could never find the right words at the right time to say what she wanted. She got tongue-tied whenever she tried, and that only caused other people to scorn her even more – her parents and her classmates alike.
Sighing, she longed with all her heart to have some friends who really accepted her to confide in. But she couldn’t make anyone understand without revealing details about her family – something her mom constantly warned was dangerous.
The world was so scary, she thought, when you didn’t know whom to trust.
To ease her heavy heart, June turned onto her stomach and reached for the paperback novel on her pillow. She had checked it out of the library the day before. It was about a bunch of friends solving a mystery together. She had one last thought before diving into its imaginary world: ‘I wish my life were as safe and comfortable as the world within my books.’
Later that evening, June rose from the dinner table to stack her plate on top of her mom’s in the kitchen sink. Since her dad wasn’t home, the dishes were lighter than usual. June was tying on her apron when her mom walked in with a bottle of antacids in her hand. June watched her cross the room and reach for a glass.
“Are you still taking those pills, Mom?” June asked, knitting her brows together. “I thought you told me that your stomach pain had gotten better.”
Her mother made a grumbling sound in her throat. “Get better? Ha! How get better when so many thing to make me nervous? Of course, pain come back.
“Is okay. I take medicine here. Don’t worry about me. Do dishes, and then finish your homework.”
June shook her head. “But, Mom, if the pain keeps coming back, shouldn’t you see a doctor?”
“Doctor? Humph! And what will doctor do? He check me, give me expensive medicine. Then he order test that cost more money. In the end, he tell me to take same pill that I take now.” June’s mom slashed her hand through the air, the way she did whenever something annoyed her. “Only waste time and trouble. Give me even more worry.”
“But what if there’s really something wrong with your stomach? It could be dangerous to wait so long to have it looked at! I think—”
“You think what?” June’s mom cut her off impatiently. “How do you know? Do you have stomach pain before? Do you have more experience than me? You are only eleven years old!”
June winced and lowered her head. “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m just worried about you.”
Mrs. Kao sighed and put her arm around June’s shoulders. “You are good daughter,” she said. “If it make you feel better, I call Mrs. Su in the morning to ask her opinion. She know many people in neighborhood. Maybe she has idea what to do.
“I take care. You be good girl and worry about your homework.”
June still had her doubts, but she kept quiet and started on the dishes. She knew that it wasn’t her place to argue. For the second time that day, she longed for a good friend to talk to.