The New Girl

She moved here in fourth grade, and she was always alone. I never saw one person stick by her the whole first three months she was in school. Mrs. Hardy introduced her as Eleanor Jenkins, who just moved here from Florida. Eleanor smiled and nodded and said to call her Ellie, but everyone just sort of muttered “hi” and went back to doing math. Mrs. Hardy told us to make Ellie feel welcome.

We tried to let her join us. Mike Warkowski picked her to play on his kickball team with us during recess, but she couldn’t kick more than a few inches, and she ran so slowly she was always the first one out. Some of the boys got mad at her for being out so many times. She just walked off to the big tree on the other side of the playground and read a book.

Maria Fernandez and Carole Shelton asked her to sit with us. I kind of liked talking about some of the dolls she used to like, and hearing her describe the CD that came with them, but Maria and Carole said she was babyish and weird. She was really into science fiction movies, the kind with sword fighting and princes and robots and stuff. That was all she’d talk about. She liked musicals that only grown-ups are supposed to like. When Maria and Carole looked like they weren’t listening anymore, she moved to the other side of the table.

She talked to herself all the time. I heard her doing it in the schoolyard one day. She was talking about some boy or the other while she passed by me and a couple of other girls, but she was alone. The kids all think she’s crazy. Alonzo Martinez saw her kick the side of the school one day. She was really mad, crying like a little kid. Kevin O’Malley called her “fatty” and said she was really dumb because she cried all the time and had to do the division problem on the board that morning four times before she got it right.

Ellie was in the best reading group in our class, and she always had the story done before the rest of us. She never once got less than a 98 on an English or reading test. She liked to read the parts of the stories that we had finished out loud, and she was always fun, acting out the various parts so well, it was almost like a movie. No one asked her to participate in the little play version of “Stone Soup” our class did, though. She had her hand up, but none of the kids called on her for any parts or to help make props.

About three months after Ellie’s arrival, I was on the swings with Maria, Carole, and Kathy Henderson. We were talking about the upcoming school talent show. The winner would receive a ten dollar gift certificate to Figaro’s Pizza, a few blocks from the school next to the Anderson Grocery Store. Kathy was the best dancer in the school and already had a number planned, and Maria and Carole were going to play a duet on their flutes, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to do a singing number or maybe play the piano, but they both seemed so…ordinary. Anyway, I didn’t want to sing alone, and I wasn’t THAT good at the piano.

Our talk changed to this morning’s assignment. We had to write our own ending to a story we were reading in class, about a group of kids who turn a dump in the city into a park. As usual, Ellie was the only person who got a 100. Mrs. Hardy even posted her story on the bulletin board and wrote “Nice work, Ellie!” in big red letters on the top of her papers. All Ellie did was turn red and mutter that it wasn’t her best work.

“What’s wrong with her?” Maria asked as she slowed down, dragging her feet on the muddy ground under the swing set. “Why does she act so weird all the time? She almost never talks to anyone.”

“I heard she had to run to the nurse three times because she was bleeding,” Kathy sniffed. “She must have something wrong with her.”

I looked at Ellie, who was reading under the tree again. She was just sitting there, minding her own business. Kevin, Mike, and Alonzo went up to her, snickering.

“Hi, Fatty,” Alonzo snorted.

Ellie did not look up from her book.

“Hey, fat girl, why don’t you come play tag with us?” Mike sneered. “Oh yeah, I forgot, you can’t run to save your life! You run so slow, a turtle in the zoo could pass you twice before you’d even catch up with us!”

Ellie still didn’t look up from her book, but even I could see the tears in her eyes. The boys laughed harder.

“Look at the crybaby!” Kevin giggled. “All she ever does is cry! I heard she has to go to Mrs. Diego in Remedial Math because she doesn’t know what two into four is!”

“That’s not true,” Ellie said softly, still not looking up at them.

“You’re so dumb,” Mike growled. “You’re dumb, and you’re ugly. No one wants to do anything with you, ‘cause you’re so dumb. You can’t kick a ball. You can’t play the piano. What CAN you do? You can’t do anything! You can’t do nothing!”

Ellie put her face in her hands. “Go away!” she sobbed. “Just leave me alone!”

I couldn’t stand it anymore. Ellie may have been weird, but she didn’t deserve this. I got off the swing and ran over to the tree. “Hey, guys, why don’t you go pick on someone else? She didn’t do anything to you!”

Ellie just got up and ran away. “Now see what you did?” I groaned. “You scared her off! Why do you say those things about her, anyway? What do you know about HER?”

The boys started at each other, then at the ground. “Well,” Mike started, “we know she’s weird. She doesn’t walk like us or talk like us. She talks to herself.”

“Maybe she talks to herself because she’s the only one she CAN talk to without being called names.”

“But she’s FAT,” Alonzo whined. “She’s fat, and she’s slow, and she‘s always in the nurse‘s office.”

“And I’m so thin, I have to wear little girl’s clothes. Alonzo, you’re so skinny, you can’t pull yourself up to do chin-ups. Kevin, you have the reddest hair of anyone on the planet. Didn’t people call you ‘Carrot Top’ for a while? Mike, haven’t you been called things because you’re Jewish?”

The boys said nothing. They just sort of stared at each other, then at the grass or the playground, anywhere but at ME. “I’m going to find Ellie. At least she’ll know that SOMEONE around here is thinking about her.” I left them gaping at me like a school of fish and ran across the yard, calling for Ellie and asking if anyone saw her. Sally finally said she’d seen Ellie run around the side of the school, near our classroom. We weren’t supposed to go there! Ellie could get into trouble.

I found her leaning against the school, crying and screaming and pounding the side of the building. She was so upset, she didn’t see me when I put my hand on her shoulder.

“Hi, Ellie,” I said. “Are you ok?”

She finally looked up, sniffling and gulping. “Aren’t you going to make fun of me, too?”

I shook my head. “No, and it wasn’t nice of the boys to say those things. What do boys know, anyway? They’re the people who think burping and farting contests are fun.”

I picked up Ellie’s book as she wiped her tears with the side of her hand. “The Pigman. Wow, this is for the older kids. You’re reading this?”

“I READ it. This is my third time. I love this book. I know how those kids feel. I’m not a teenager yet, but I don’t feel like I belong anywhere.”

“That’s not true!”

“Yes it is!” She turned to me, the tears welling again. “They made so much fun of me in Florida, I had to leave and come live with my dad. I couldn’t go to school there anymore, because the kids hated me so much. The used to glue my seat to the chair and hide my books, and one of the boys once threw my bike lock in the lake. They HATED me! Everyone HATES me!”

“Ellie, stop. You’re really smart. I like listening to you during Reading. You always make the stories so much fun. When you read ‘The Little Mermaid,’ I felt like I was in the ocean, too. You’re the best writer in the class. You always get the highest marks in English.”

“But I’m getting some of the lowest marks in class on Math. I just don’t understand Long Division. It’s so complicated. It just goes on forever, and I never get the columns right.”

I grinned. “I can help you! I’m getting good grades in math, and I’m really good at long division.”

Ellie looked at me strange. “You’d want to help me? Why?”

“You seem really nice. Why don’t you ever talk to anyone?”

Ellie kicked the side of the building again. “I’ve tried talking to the other kids, but they don’t want to listen. They don’t like the same things I do. I want to talk about my favorite science fiction movies and my doll collection, and they want to talk about boys and clothes.”

“I don’t see what’s so weird about that. They’re just afraid to try something new.” I put out my hand. “You know, we never really introduced ourselves when you first arrived. I’m Susie.”

She gingerly took my hand. “I’m Ellie.”

That was when I got a great idea. “Have you ever thought of reading your own stories to other people?”

Ellie turned red again. “Oh, no, no way! They’d make fun of me!”

“I don’t think they would. You’re a good writer, Ellie. I only got a 65 on that assignment Mrs. Hardy gave us last night.” Now I was the one turning red. “My spelling isn’t very good, and she said I didn’t describe the park or the kids well.”

“I can help you with spelling,” Ellie told me. “I got five gold stars in a row for spelling in my old school.”

There was one more thing I was wondering about. “Um, Ellie,” I stammered, “are you...sick? You had to go to the nurse’s office three times last week. And you, well, you’re not really fat, you’re just bigger than us.”

“I’m not sick,” Ellie said flatly. “I got my period.”

I frowned. “My big sister told me about that, but she got it when she was fourteen!”

“I don’t know why I got it now, but I did. The psychologist Dad took me to in the city said it probably had to do with stress, ‘cause I’m not like everyone else, and my folks don’t live together.”

“Mine don’t, either,” I said softly. “I live with my mom, my sister, and Mom’s boyfriend.” I looked at her. “Ellie, would you like to enter the school talent contest with me?”

“But I can’t play any instruments, and I’m not a good singer or dancer.”

“You’re a good reader. We could read a story or a poem you wrote. That would be something different. We wouldn’t need to set anything fancy up, either. We’d just need nice clothes, a story on paper, and a microphone.”

Ellie smiled. “Why don’t we write the story together? I’ll help you with your spelling if you help me with my math.”

I grinned. “It’s a deal.”

We spent a month writing the story together. I showed Ellie how to do long division, and she helped me spell longer words I had trouble with. I always let her play on my team in gym and at recess, and we’d sit together under the tree and talk when we didn’t feel like playing. We’d ride bikes to Figaro’s Pizza together. I got to meet her dad, and she got to meet my mom and my sister. We got Mrs. Muth to stop making her sit out of swimming when she had her period, and I’d wait for her when she was late getting dressed.

We read our story together at the talent show. Ellie wore her pink and green striped dress with the long, swirling skirt, and I wore my blue skirt and best blouse. We read the short story we wrote together, about a girl knight who helps a sad princess get a bunch of monsters out of her kingdom. Kathy danced. Maria and Carole played their flute and clarinet. Kevin, Mike, and Alonzo did a cool singing number together.

We invited them all for lunch at Figaro’s Pizza with our two ten-dollar gift certificates that weekend. After all, everyone deserves a good slice of pizza. Even weird people.

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