The summer before sixth grade my family moved. Again. This time to Hawaii.
Obviously we couldn’t take the rabbits, but that was okay since we were getting a little sick of them and the way one of them kept having babies and the other one kept eating them. The hutch where they lived looked like a major crime scene most mornings. My dad said they’d gone feral. Nobody went into the backyard anymore. They ran the place. I have a picture in my head of my sister standing up in a patch of chard, her index finger pointing straight out with a rabbit attached to it by his teeth. It seems likely that there was a lot less blood than I remember.
A neighbor we’d never met who turned out to be really nice took the cats and some chairs. I’m not sure what happened to the rabbits. There was a story my dad told us about a farm up in the hills nearby, but I don’t remember any farms there. Just hills. Something tells me that wherever they ended up, they created a terrifying microcosm that perfectly illustrated the horrors of a brutal and totalitarian regime.
For the first month we lived in the Hilton in Waikiki while the U.S. Navy found us a house on base. My dad gave me his old Canon camera with a long lens that let me take close up pictures of bugs and flowers. I learned to snorkel. We wandered around the International Marketplace and watched the candle makers peel wax into flowers. Every shop smelled like koa wood and grass skirts. I didn’t have time to think about the fierce rabbits or my cats or my old friends.
By the end of the summer we were living in a hot little house on a base about an hour’s drive from Waikiki and I was starting sixth grade at a Catholic K through 8 school. I was remembering what it was to be shy.
Everyone wore the same uniform but I was the only one with knee highs and saddle shoes. I was the only one without pierced ears. Every morning after the pledge, I was the only one who didn’t know any of the words to Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī. And I really liked the song. I really wanted to sing.
The recess skills that had won me a certain respectable standing among the fifth grade girls back at Olivewood Elementary failed me. Nobody cared if I could weave the scariest, most bloodcurdling tales for Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board. I never got the chance to demonstrate my mean foursquare serve or my speed in tag. The girls at my new school played Chinese jump rope and hopscotch during recess. Above all, they traded stickers.
The intensity of the negotiations concerning smelly stickers and puffy stickers, unicorns and hearts, and the artistic flair in which these prizes were displayed in albums, baffled me. How could I ever acquire the knowledge necessary to hold my own? And first things first, where would I find these stickers?
Lunch was torture. Every day the kids in my class would spread out on the tables so there wasn’t room for me. It gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. I thought about walking right up and squeezing in but I’d always turn away before I got too close, my heart thumping. What if they just ignored me? What if I stood there, at the head of the table and they just kept talking like they didn’t see me?
I started tossing my lunch sack in the garbage to make it look like I’d already eaten. That way nobody could feel sorry for me. Then I’d go sit on the swings because that’s something you can do on your own and still look like it’s something you’ve chosen to do. With your chin jutting forward and your shoulders pushed back, all you can see is the high blue sky.
That worked for a while. Eventually though some 3rd grade boys started throwing rocks at me. For hooligans they were pretty patient. They’d wait until I’d hit the highest point of my upward arc and launch fistfuls of asphalt shrapnel up at me. One day I tricked them. Lickety split, I jumped out of the swing, picked up a rock of my own, and nailed one of them right where his khakis creased. Then, with perfect timing, I stepped back and sat into the still swinging swing. It was a beautiful maneuver.
Wouldn’t you know it, but Sister Mary Mary Mary, the principal, who had somehow managed not to see the meteor shower these kids had been raining down on me all week, suddenly appeared out of nowhere. She yelled at me to get off the swing. The kids at the picnic tables turned to stare as she marched me to her office. It was the one room in the school that had air conditioning. The big box hummed and gave off a damp, sterile smell. She told me very sternly, “I don’t know what you did at your last school but at this school we do not throw rocks at younger children.” It was hard to talk through my gulping tears, but I managed to explain how the boys had been using me for target practice all week. Sister Mary Mary Mary just put her hands on her hips and said, “Well, you must have provoked them first.”
From then on I snuck around the back of the school to a towering monkey pod tree and ate my lunch alone, perched on a massive root, tensely keeping an eye out for the poisonous spiders and centipedes that were far less threatening than my classmates. At least their viciousness wasn’t a matter of choice.
My fear attracted attention. A boy in my class started calling me names during P.E—the kinds of words I’d only heard when my dad was driving for the first time in a new city. At first he whispered them under his breath. When he saw the teacher was as scared of him as I was, he didn’t bother whispering any more. I ignored him. It didn’t help. Nothing helped. Nobody helped. I didn’t think to ask.
Some mornings as I rode in the boat that carried me across Pearl Harbor to the bus that took me to school, I thought about the cannibal rabbits in my old backyard. I thought that school was like that, a little. Where the new ones, the weak ones, the ones who don’t know quite what’s going on, get devoured by the quick ones with sharp teeth who enjoy breaking skin and spilling blood.
One day after school I was in my room. My mom is a big one for giving kids their space. But that day she knocked on my door. She came in. She knelt on the floor by my bed and put her hands on mine.
“What can I do to help?” she asked.
I started to bawl. I was such a quiet kid. I really kept to myself. My mom’s question put words to the way I felt. She had noticed, better than I had even, how miserable I was.
I told her everything—the rocks and the boys and the monkey pod tree. I dwelled at length, between sobs, on the sticker books. I don’t think I mentioned the boy who called me the bad words. I still remember his name, first and last. But what I told her was enough, I guess.
That weekend she took me to the Ala Moana mall even though it was a long drive and she hated shopping. She bought me a ton of stickers and an album. Somehow she knew right where to find them.
On Monday I packed my sticker book. I took it out to recess with me. I found out I wasn’t the only one who was looking for someone to trade with. When the bell rang I couldn’t believe how quickly the time had gone. That same day at lunch a couple of the girls made room for me at the table.
Or maybe I just walked up close enough for once to give them a chance.
I never really got down the words to Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī, but I got good at shaping my mouth around the lovely sounds. The third grade boys kept hitting me with rocks—I mean really, what would have motivated them to stop? But my new friend Rachel was in the swing next to me so I guess simple arithmetic would ensure that about half of the rocks that had been aimed at me were aimed at her. Not exactly conquering the world but enduring it together. That’s something, right? Maybe that’s enough.
Sister Mary Mary Mary never liked me and I still kind of hate her, all these years later, for being such a cold and sexist grey blob. But my English teacher, Sister Louise, taught me to love the way the order of words in a line makes meaning, and to her I owe the many times I’ve looked away from my own classroom white board and seen, in the glint of my students’ eyes, how her love for the meaningfulness of words flows from me to them. There’s no feeling like that feeling and only a teacher can ever really know it.
The rude boy never stopped being rude. But it helped when I realized that nobody was really listening to anything that oozed from his largest facial orifice. He was in his own world, fighting his own little war, just like the rabbits in the garden. All I had to do was keep my fingers in my pockets and slide the glass door shut on him.