Not Wasted on the Young, After All

After receiving multiple requests for a copy of the Scholastic Gold Key award-winning story by blooming young author Phoebe C., I have decided to post it here. I have made a poor showing on my blog lately so someone has to write something.

Young short story writer and unnamed fan

Just a word: I like to refer to myself as Mother of the Poet, or Mother of the Writer, as the occasion (and they are coming thick and fast) requires. Surely this beats being Mother of the Bride? No ugly dress! No questionable groom! No bill! It’s grand, I tell you.

I sound like I am bragging, but I do so love being the mother of a creative person and I want to promote her. I even cheered her on when she started making cupcakes, got better at it than me, and carved out my potential market share in Olympia. I am hoping that as her intellectual and creative powers increase, mine will not continue to dwindle, but we’ll see. Over and above accomplishments, it’s her kindness and glowing optimism I want to cherish and celebrate. May she ever remain so touchingly uncynical.

I am sorry to say her short story is not about food, however, I have something to say on the matter. The reception for the recipients of the scholastic awards was held sans snacks. Yes Eaters, you gasp, but there’s more. It took place from 5 to 7 in the evening when we are all at our most frightfully peckish. Do you find this as odd as I do? Even cruel? Before being let into the gallery to view the arts and letters, someone in charge of this foodless debacle said that everyone should get ready for “a spread.” She spoke these words. Was she teasing? When you hear “spread” don’t you see an enormous spread of…well, spreads, for one thing, and implements with which to spread them, and crispy crackers and crunchy, brilliantly-hued vegetables to spread them on. Ah well, some people can live on art, I guess. She also said, “Think of this as an enormous cocktail party.” Huh. Without cocktails or nibbles? No one has that good of an imagination, especially the weary, wine-deprived parent of a young writer.

At the very least they should have handed out a voucher for the Whole Foods across the street, where my husband and daughter ended up enjoying some scrumptious, overpriced pizza and salad. And who was at the next table? Two Pulitzer prize winners and a national book award finalist wolfing down quinoa pilaf! Apparently, they had the same caterers at their soiree. And now, the story:

by Phoebe C.

My daddy and I went to the doctor’s office today. I hate it there- it smells like antibacterial soap ‘n sickness, an’ the chairs look comfortable but actually scratch you n’ make you squirm. Just like everything else, they try to lure you in with fake smiles and good looks, but end up bein’ backstabbers. Truly- the chair had a stick poking out of the cushion.

We went into da room that looks like it was just sterilized within an inch o’ its life. Doctor sits us down, asks me and Daddy some questions about me an’ my habits, and then he asks me would I please wait outside while he chatted with my father for a moment. Typical grownup- thinkin’ I won’t know ‘zacktly what he’s talkin’ about to my dad.

When I go back into the room, he tells me that I got a condition called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. Thanks, Doc. I knew that already- I’ve read some books. He says it like it’s a good thing- guess what? It isn’t.

When Daddy and I get home, I curl up next ta him on the couch and think. Lotta kids in my school have OCD- Jimmy, now he’s much worsan me. He washes his hands ’bout every twenty minutes or so. Good thing we have a sink in our classroom, else he’d miss most of the day ’cause of bein’ in the restroom. Marta’s got somethin’, too. Sometimes I come back to da classroom cause I forget my lunch or my books, and she’s still there, checkin’ the windows, two, three, four times to make sure they’re locked up good and tight.

Me? I’m not a handwasher. I’m not a wacko whose always checkin’ their doors or windows nor nothin’ like that. Nah- I’m a sweeper.

My time at school isn’t so good. I don’t got a lotta friends, just the class guinea pigs, Fluffy and Raisin. I don’t get much good grades, either. I know lots about the world, though. I may not talk good, but I read lotsa books and I notice people and what they do when I go out. That man, walkin’ down the sidewalk just now? He was smilin’ at his little daughters next to him, but his fist was clenched at his side- he’s in pain.

I hate seein’ people feelin’ bad or sad or scared, but the thin’ is, those people exist, and they pass us by every damn day. That’s why I sweep.

Each day, after school, I book it on home. When I git there, breathless from running, I fling my books and lunch to the side, and grab my broom. I stand in the same spot, a special place by the fireplace an’ squishy armchair, and sweep. Twen’y minutes, thirty, minutes- one time I swept fur a whole hour.

Thin’ is, when I sweep, I feel better. Sweepin’ the floor feels ta me like sweepin’ away all my bad an’ sad thoughts. Like there’s a li’l shag carpet in my brain, and I can sweep my thoughts up under it. My daddy gits it- he was lots like me when he was my age, he says. He was a nervous li’l thing. Always makin’ sure all his brothers n’ sisters washed their hands good ‘fore every meal. Ma, though, she wasn’t that type. But that’s my ma, all around perfect. Always givin’ me extra hugs, an’ lettin’ me pick a cookie at the store. She mayn’t know what my mind is like, but she’s OK with my sweepin’, she says, so long as I don’t feel its hurtin’ me.

The day after goin’ to the doctor’s with Daddy, I git to school and there’s a girl I never seen before, standin’ at the front with the teacher, Ms. Calvin. I find myself studyin’ her a bit; I never seen anyone quite like her.

She’s smilin’ brightly, as though she’d just ‘membered somethin’ funny. Her hair is a brownish blond color, and it waves to the middle o’ her back. Her shirt is brown, an’ it has a sunflower on it. Her eyes are the color o’ the ocean. Her flip-flops got sand on them- I bet she lives on da beach.

Ms. Calvin clears her throat, tells us that this is Summer Journey, and that she just transferred to our school, and we all should be d’lighted to have her, an’ so on. After dat, I sorter zone out a bit, lookin’ out da’ window at the sunny skies, when Ms. Calvin says, “And Summer will need a welcome buddy. Let’s see…who hasn’t been one this year…” She checks her list. “Ah, Aspen! How about you?”

I freeze. I can’t be nobody’s welcome buddy. I barely ‘member how to find da restrooms in this place.

Ms. Calvin guides Summer to da empty desk next to mine. She says, “Aspen, at lunch, why don’t you show Summer where to go, where the bathrooms are, the gym, et cetera!” She says dis like it’s a huge treat- well, it ain’t.

First lesson o’ da day is Math. I hunch over ma notebook and worksheet as Calvin starts droning ’bout Order o’ Operations. I doodle in da margins, and den sneak a glance up at Summer. She be staring dreamily out da window, looking at the school garden. I scowl, an’ try ta start workin’ on ma math.

Da rest o’ da mornin’ goes on like dis, as we plow through English an’ History an’ a hundred other subjects dat I’m not too swell at. I frequently peek at Summer, and by lunch I am shocked- she had never stopped smilin’. Even while she was workin’ or raisin’ her hand or talkin’, the grin never left her face. I rarely smile – only when I’m with da hamsters or Ma or Daddy or doin’ art. She smiles all the time.

When da rest of da class gets in line fer lunch, Ms. Calvin calls to me, “Oh, Aspen! Don’t forget to show Summer the Art Room- I know you like it in there!”

I feel ma cheeks go red- I don’t like people talkin’ ’bout me or what I like ta do. But Summer smiles even brighter, which I didn’t think was possible, an’ sez, “You like art? Me too! Can we go there first?”

I mumble dat is fine by me, and off we go, Summer still smilin’. As we walk, she says, “So your name’s Aspen? That’s a beautiful name!”

I sorta blush an’ look at ma shoes. I don’t receive lotsa compliments from kids.

“Thanks,” I sez.

“So, what else do you like to do? Besides art, I mean,” Summer sez. I like the way she talks- like she’s about ta start laughin’.

“Um…I dunno,” I reply uneasily. “Whatta you like ta do?”

“I like lots of things!” By dis time we is in the Art Room, an’ Summer is lookin’ around at all the paintings an’ crafts an’ stuff. “I really like animals, and the beach, and other things outside.”

I smile, shyly. “Me, too. I can show you da cafeteria now, if ya want.”

Summer nods happily, an’ den, to my complete shock, grabs ma hand and starts skippin’ out o’ da classroom! I don’t know what ta do. No one has never held ma hand before, ‘cept for Ma or Daddy. I sorter run beside her, an’ she laughs.

“Come on! Skip with me!” She says this so happily, and she looks so care-free and like, well, summery, that all da amazement an’ shock an’ everythin’ I’ve been feelin’ builds up inside o’ me, and it comes spillin’ out in laughter. Suddenly, I’m laughin’ so hard dat ma stomach hurts and den Summer starts laughin’, too, and I can tell that she’s da kinda person who laughs every day, and I can imagine if a janitor or somethin’ walked around da corner just now, he’d see two girls in the middle of da hallway, laughin’ their heads off with nothin’ interesting happenin’ nor no funny pictures on da wall. He’d just think that these girls are crazy, and he’d go ’bout his business as doe nothin’ had happened.

But something has happened.

I love this girl. I love this girl who looks like the summer skies.

When I get home that day, I reach for the broom like I always do, and then change my mind-

I don’t need to sweep today.





4 thoughts on “Not Wasted on the Young, After All

  1. Well, that made me cry. Such a lovely, touching story, Phoebe. Thanks for sharing, Mary Kate. You sure do have an amazing kiddo.

  2. Just like stories about food; stories about human compassion are wonderful to read. I am relieved to know that a middle schoolers truly understand what it is to be human and how a simple act of being cheerful and friendly can have a large impact on a fellow human being. Mental illness needs more champions. Keep writing Phoebe!

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