Five-year old Ben Lambert was in love, and it made his stomach hurt. The peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich he’d had for lunch was now a gummy knot tangled up with loopy butterflies when he looked at her. Why did grownups want to be in love? It just made you want to throw up.
Still, his hand shot up when his teacher asked the class to name the letter she had written on the blackboard. It was the second day of kindergarten, and he wanted Mrs. Peele to like him and know that he could already read a bunch of words. Some of them even had five or six letters.
Next to his mommy, Mrs. Peele was the prettiest lady he’d ever seen. The shiny black hair that draped past her shoulders reminded him of a black bird’s wing when the sun hit it. Her brown eyes were so dark they were almost black, and they crinkled at the corners like she had a happy secret to tell you. She looked like Pocahontas, which was one of his favorite movies. Her words floated out in a singsong way that made him feel friendly.
Mrs. Peele pointed at him and said, “Yes, Ben. Can you name this letter?”
Ben’s mouth went dry as nineteen heads turned to stare at him. The butterflies turned into somersaulting pterodactyls. The rustling of papers, tapping of pencils, whispers, and random squeaks of rubber-soled shoes on the linoleum floor that was the official music of Room 18 stopped as if someone flipped a switch. The complete silence pressed on him. The tops of Ben’s ears grew hot, and his tongue felt furry and too big for his mouth. Why did he raise his hand? Love or not. Dummy. He just hoped the P.B. & J stayed down.
He peeled his tongue off the roof of his mouth, but his words dribbled out in dots and dashes.
“I . . .i . . . it’s the l-l-let . . . ter B,” he stuttered.
Kids laughed and hooted, and Ben clutched his brand new Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown crayon in his hand so hard it snapped. Heat fizzed up the back of his neck and prickled his scalp like ants let loose in his amber-colored hair. He scooted down in his blue chair, trying to disappear behind Jennifer What’s Her Name and her fountain of a ponytail topped with a giant, lop-sided purple bow.
“All right, class. Let’s not laugh when someone is answering a question. That’s not nice. Sometimes, we get tongue-tied. You were right, the letter is B. Good job. Thank you for raising your hand like I asked and volunteering an answer,” Mrs. Peele said. She gave him a smile that made the pterodactyls disappear.
Ben bent down and pretended to look for something in his pencil box on the little wire shelf underneath his chair so no one could see the tears that burned his green eyes. Sometimes his words didn’t come out right. There was even a real word for it. Tongue-tied. That was just what it felt like. Someone had lassoed his big, fat, furry tongue. He didn’t always stutter and mess up his words, but when it happened, others always made fun of him. Mommy said when he was nervous, his brain worked faster than his mouth, and he would grow out of it.
Jennifer What’s Her Name turned to look at him as he sat back up. He swallowed and gave her a half-smile. Mommy always said to smile when you didn’t know what else to do. Jennifer stuck her slimy tongue out at him and whipped her mean red ponytail at him as she turned back around with a snap. Girls.
Ben sighed and picked up the pieces of his Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown crayon and stuffed them in the front pocket of his tan cargo shorts. He hadn’t even gotten to use it yet. You couldn’t color trees or a good dog without it. The best color in the box. Well, next to Atomic Tangerine. At least he still had that one. Ben crammed the crinkled tail of his Batman t-shirt back into the waistband of his shorts where it had wiggled out and sat back down. He sure hoped the day got better.
He wasn’t so sure about this school thing. It was more fun at the beach looking for sea glass with Mommy or in her art studio while she gave lessons. He was always good and quiet and got to watch the people learning how to paint. It was hard work being five. It was a good thing he would be six in nine more days. Every morning, Mommy crossed out each used up day on their Adorable Kittens calendar with a red Magic Marker for the countdown to the big day. Six had to be better than five. Maybe his tongue would work better then.
Ben looked around the classroom with its red door, pale yellow walls, and colorful posters with dancing numbers and letters with happy faces and giant feet on them. It wasn’t too bad. They even had a class turtle named Shelly in an aquarium in the Quiet Time corner by the bathroom. Ben liked turtles. Turtles didn’t care if your words got jumbled up. He couldn’t wait for his turn to get to feed her. Then he sneaked a look at his new classmates. There were more girls than boys. Just his luck. His brows furrowed as he had a rotten thought. What if none of them wanted to come to his birthday party? What if he sat there with his Batman cake with the multi-colored sprinkles and the mint chocolate chip ice cream, waiting? Then he waited and waited some more until the ice cream started to melt, and no one showed up? The pterodactyls were back. Was it time to go home yet?
The tree didn’t look that high. It was a Madrone tree, like the ones sprinkled through the forest behind his house that his daddy had taught him about. It was Ben’s favorite kind of tree. Its cinnamon-colored bark could be peeled off in sheets like a fancy scroll of paper, and it had glossy green leaves. Sometimes, they had red berries on them. He bet he could climb this one, no problem. It was recess, and he wasn’t going to waste it waiting for someone to talk to him. This tree would be perfect to sit in and see all over the playground. He could be a pirate in the crow’s nest looking for enemy ships to plunder. With a bubble of excitement, he grabbed onto the smooth lower branch and planted his sneakered foot into the fork of the trunk and worked his way up the tree.
“Hey, how did you get up so high?” a voice called out.
Ben looked down to see two boys, their hands tented over their eyes as they looked up at him. Both of them were in his class, but he couldn’t remember their names. One had black hair, and one had hair almost the same color as Ben’s.
“Well, my d-d-daddy says that I’m p-part monkey, so maybe that’s it,” Ben teased.
Both boys laughed. The black haired one said, “You’re pretty good at it. Are you scared?”
“Nah. I’m too busy being a pirate looking for ships to attack.”
“I want to play,” said the amber-haired boy, “but I don’t want to climb up there. Will you come down, and we can play pirate on the monkey bars?”
“Sure. I’m c-c-coming down. Wait for me.”
“O.K., we’ll stay here until you get down.”
Excited to play with them, Ben scrambled down the nearest branch. He was half-way there when he heard the sharp crack. The branch gave way and fell from underneath his foot, shifting his weight. The smooth bark slipped through his sweaty fingers. The air rushed out of his lungs as he bounced off the next branch and felt himself hurtling toward the ground. Headfirst.