Finding Home

I was six, the first time I remember moving. Daddy lost his job and I wasn’t sure what that meant, only that things were different. We suddenly had lots of boxes in the house that were fun to hide in until they got so full of clothes and dishes there was no more room for me. The moving truck in our driveway was the biggest thing on wheels I’d ever seen; I could walk under it without bumping my head. Two very large men started loading our things—the living room couch, my bed, my dolls’ bunk beds, and the dining table where I sat once a year in a fancy dress eating birthday cake with my friends. I ran up and down the ramp a couple of times, until one of the men said, “Little girl, you’d better get out of my way! I don’t want to step on you!”

Before long, the house was empty, the truck was pulling out of our driveway, and my parents were telling the neighbors goodbye. I think that’s when it dawned on me that we were leaving, leaving the yard where the snow drifted so deep in winter I couldn’t see over it, where my father always carved out a frozen armchair that I sat in every day until it melted. We were leaving the big back yard where my rabbit, Cottontail, ate clover, where I pumped my swing up so high I believed I was flying, and where all the neighborhood kids gathered to play. We were leaving my next-door boyfriend, Ronnie, who shyly, at his mother’s urging, kissed me on the cheek before we drove away.


We drove for hours and hours until, finally, we stopped at Ponder’s Motor Lodge, where we were to live for several months in a small cottage. My sister and I slept on a bed that had to be folded back into a couch every morning. There was an A&P across the street that I walked to with my mom to buy groceries since Daddy drove our only car to work. It was odd to play on a swing set that wasn’t my own with a constantly changing group of other children, kids who were only there for a day or two at a time as their families traveled. I missed the familiar kids who used to share my wading pool in summer, the ones who, even though they called me “Small Fry,” never left me out when they chose teams.

School started—first grade for me—and I had to ride a bus. My sister and I were the only ones getting on in front of a motel, which made the other kids stare at us. The rides to and from school were interminably long. The best part of every day was getting off the bus and seeing my mother in the afternoons.

Several months into the school year we found a house to rent in a real neighborhood, one with lots of kids. I met Patsy, from across the street, who was just my age. She had almost-white blonde hair, making her easy to spot as she ran through the neighborhood shooting toy guns with all the boys. She was happy to finally have a girl to play with and I was happy to find someone who wanted to play with me at all. Getting to school was no longer an ordeal, now that I had a friend to sit and talk with on the bus. We walked into school together and, though we weren’t in the same class, I felt connected because I had a friend.

Before second grade, though, my dad moved us again, and I had to change schools. No more Patsy but also, no more school bus, since the new school was within walking distance. My only memory of that year is the day I asked the teacher if I could use the restroom. It was a long walk to the front of the class, where she was sitting in a circle with a reading group. I stood beside her chair, afraid to interrupt, until she finally looked at me. “May I go to the bathroom?” I asked. “No,” she said, impatiently. “You should have done that at home. Go back to your seat.” I wanted to protest, I did, but, instead, I walked slowly back to my desk and sat there, shaking my leg, trying to hold it in. Moments later, I tried just as hard to ignore the yellow puddle that was forming under my desk. The teacher discovered it when she came to see what the other kids were laughing about. I just stared at the floor while she dismissed the class early for recess. I quietly stood outside with the teacher, wet socks squishing in wet shoes, while we waited for my mother. My fervent hope was that the other children would forget what happened by the time school started the next day.

By third grade, I was almost relieved when a move required a change to yet another school. Aside from a teacher who intrigued me by her introduction to the Spanish language, I don’t remember much about la escuela. I remained there for one and a half years—until mi padre lost his job again.

This was the hardest move yet, mid-year, and to another city. Starting just after Christmas, I got to listen to my fourth-grade classmates’ reactions to their holiday gifts–loved the Barbie doll, hated the socks–and how upset they were that Christmas vacation was over. I kept my opinions to myself since no one talked to me. Being new felt lonelier than ever.

All of the other kids had been together a long time, since kindergarten. Lee was the girl with long brown hair who, oddly, always wore gloves in class. Sue was skinny like me, but so very much smarter; the teacher loved her. Ernie was quiet and shy; he blushed every time the teacher called on him. And Larry, well, he was just short.

These kids were comfortable with each other, like brothers and sisters. Each one held a unique position that everyone else expected and understood. For example, Sue spoke for the class a lot because she always knew the right answers. Larry bore the brunt of most of the jokes, but seemed to enjoy it; I think all the attention made him feel bigger than he really was. With no shared history, I didn’t yet have a role. Ernie cast an occasional shy glance in my direction, but it felt very much like a brief acknowledgment of a short-term visitor.

The first day on the playground, I was quickly chosen for a baseball team. I guess the captain hoped I would be the standout leading the team to victory. It didn’t take long for him to learn that I was not a particularly fast runner and an even worse batter. Next go-around, I was the last chosen. Out of the picture because of one bad game. The only one who acknowledged my presence was Larry, who sometimes asked if he could carry my books. I’m fairly certain, though, that he just wanted a girlfriend and most any girl would do.

I loved reading and learning, so I focused my attention on the academic side of school. One day, while writing in class, a ruler came down hard on the back of my right hand. Miss Herndon, her voice unusually loud, said, “You will NOT hold your pencil like that, young lady!” Until the ruler knocked it loose, the pencil had been firmly grasped between my index and middle fingers, rather than between my thumb and index finger. Had anyone ever taught me the proper position before? I don’t remember, though I doubt I’ll ever forget the snickers I heard as I fought back tears. After several days of corrections, Miss Herndon pulled my small desk up to the left side of her large desk at the front of the room, the blackboard only a few feet away. The other students were lined up in rows behind me; I was the only one whose desk actually touched the teacher’s. I couldn’t see the other kids without turning around, so I couldn’t see what was going on in the classroom. What are they whispering about back there? I wondered. Wham! The ruler hit my hand again. I heard a few giggles and wished with all my heart I could simply disappear.

My duel with the ruler continued for weeks until, finally, I had re-learned how to write. Miss Herndon allowed me to move my desk back with my classmates, where it was perfectly aligned in one of the long rows. I was relieved to no longer be separate from the rest of the class. Having my desk in place, however, did not make me feel a part of the class.

Two years later, I changed schools again, making the transition from elementary to junior high. I held my pencil correctly, studied hard, and continued to be the quiet one in class. In Miss Sultan’s class, where I spent half of each day studying Language Arts and History, Lee, still with her long hair and gloves, sat next to me. And she kept glancing at my legs. I was eleven years old at the start of seventh grade and my mother refused to let me shave my legs, saying I was too young. My typical attire consisted of a skirt and blouse with white ankle socks and lace-up saddle oxford shoes, plenty of bare, hairy leg showing. Lee’s legs were perfectly shaved, as were most of the other girls’ in my class. They wore nylons under their dresses, and little slip-on shoes, like what high school girls would wear. Most of those girls completely ignored me, but I had hoped it could be different with Lee since we had spent two and one-half years in class together. Couldn’t we be friends now, in this new school with all these other students we didn’t know? But she seemed to have no interest in knowing me. Maybe looking at my hairy legs confirmed her decision not to be my friend. I confess that I glanced a couple times at her hands. Her gloves were transparent, so I could see the bloody cracks in her skin and the thick lotion smeared on them. I was surprised that I had never noticed anything more than the gloves while we were in elementary school. I tried to convince myself that I wouldn’t want to be Lee’s friend because of her hands but I really just felt bad for her because of her skin condition. I was glad that Miss Herndon had not hit her hand with the ruler.

Several schools fed into our junior high, so there were lots of students new to me that year. One of those was Alta, the cutest, most outgoing person I had ever met. I vaguely knew her from the church we both attended, but being together all day at school quickly changed that. Alta was fun to be around and she seemed to want to be around me, often filling in the silence when I didn’t know what to say. She made me feel like a real person, someone with value.

When Ernie asked me to go steady with him, I realized he must have liked me from the start but was too shy to let me know. He gave me a friendship ring so special I didn’t even take it off at bedtime.

School became different for me, no longer a place to be endured or feared. As with all schools, it was a place for learning, doing math problems, memorizing dates and spelling words, and writing papers. But it now included whispering and giggling with Alta and feeling butterflies inside when Ernie walked beside me. Knowing people, and being known, made a difference. I finally felt connected, like a member of the family.

I still wasn’t anyone’s first choice for a team and my worst grades were always in Physical Education. Let’s face it…I simply was not athletic. But I could live with that. I had found a place, a home. I belonged.

And by spring of that year, my mother even let me shave my legs.


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