Beth Ain grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she and her best friend were free to finger-paint in the basement, and make plays, and get in and out of fights and hysterical fits of laughter, all to the soundtrack of Free to Be . . . You and Me. She is glad to have friends and family who encouraged her to be creative with her memories. She is the author of several books for children, including the Starring Jules series. She lives in Port Washington, New York, with her husband and two children. Visit her online at bethain.com.
While I am busy
swimming in pools and lakes,
roasting marshmallows on a stick,
singing camp songs with camp friends,
scratching the itchy bite in the middle of my back--
caterpillars are busy too.
Busy eating their way out of their cocoons
and into something else.
when I cartwheel
down the backyard hill,
when I ride my bike
down into the cul-de-sac,
skidding to a screech when the mail truck rolls up with those cards.
Room assignments, like anyone cares which room they happen to be in with that old,
yelling teacher and that brand-new class of kids with only one person I used to like
for five minutes
Lilly, with two l’s
where there should be only one.
Used to like
until I had a playdate with her, and she cried the whole time and told me her toys
belonged to a superhero princess from Mars,
that she was just watching the stuff for a while,
TAKING VERY SPECIAL CARE of it,
that was why she could not share it with me.
It was a good one. Lilly with two l’s was clever
there were other friends to make
and not make
that year we moved here,
all those years ago.
But last week, when the mail truck rolled up
as I rolled
that’s right about when the cocoon burst.
Right about when that VERY HUNGRY caterpillar became one VERY ANGRY butterfly or
else one million butterflies.
Making me--on that last night before fourth grade--
into a night owl,
something moms say when they talk about us to their friends.
Something they say that isn’t exactly the way it is.
I am a night butterfly.
Flitting around in my bed,
in my head,
all the way until 7:25 in the morning,
when the alarm clock, whose name is Mitchell
and who isn’t really an alarm clock
but who is a giant dog of the Saint Bernard variety,
licks my face.
Messy hair, rolled around and around in due to certain BUTTERFLY PROBLEMS,
and a tank top.
Summer doesn’t end when school starts.
Doesn’t end with the reading of that
room assignment card.
Something they don’t teach you at school.
You learn it on your own when it is too hot
to pretend to be nice to Lilly with two l’s.
Too hot to build a building out of marshmallows and very thin pretzel sticks,
and without talking.
An activity Mom will think
sounds like loads of fun when I see her later
and when she forces me to tell her
one interesting thing about my day that does not have
to do with being hot.
The good news is the old, yelling teacher is Mrs. Soto and she doesn’t yell,
even when I laugh during the silent building of the marshmallow buildings.
Nothing else interesting after that,
except for a girl named Quinn Mitchell
who stayed quiet during the marshmallow exercise and who helped our table build a very tall,
leaning tower without my help since
I was disqualified
and she never said anything except at the end when we/they won, when she said
no thanks to motormouth.
But she said it through a smile and also she fluttered her eyelids,
like a butterfly,
and we all laughed because it wasn’t mean,
it was funny.
And the only thing I could say back was
my dog’s name is Mitchell.
My middle finger. Yes, that one.
The finger that used to be guarded and important ever since I learned it could curse
Ever since someone else’s cursed me.
It is on fire.
Smashed between my table and Jackson’s chair,
which was flung out on purpose,
the way boys do things on purpose
without even knowing that they are doing them
I pull it quickly to my mouth--the cursed finger.
Kiss it? Lick it? Bite it off? What would be a good idea?
I look into the 4 sets of 2 eyes
of the FOUR ANNOYING BOYS who are staring,
waiting for me to cry
like a girl.
I bite my lip.
That’s 8 eyes, I think.
One math fact memorized.
If it all had to do with the staring eyes of boys
who want you to fail, math would be easier
I think this too while not crying,
while not kicking the chair back into his table,
not kicking him back into his table.
Bravery, James would call it later,
under his teenager breath.
The breath that I notice so much because it is so loud--
sighing, annoyed breath.
Well, anyway, that is James’s under-the-breath answer when I say um a lot as I tell him
and Dad the story of my bruised finger and its Popsicle-stick splint.
It is our night with Dad.
Our night at Dad’s weird apartment,
which he hasn’t decorated except for a framed
Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour poster on the wall
and a big stack of medical journals
on a glass coffee table
with sharp edges
that matches his own sharp edges
but nothing else.
What do you call that? I ask when I tell them how I held in my tears with all my might.
The same kind of thing that always happens on my night with you, my dad answers,
his voice edgy like the coffee table.
Dinner with a side of drama, he says.
Half smiling, half something else.
Fractions, also easier with people.
Proof of your giftedness at acting, my mom will say tomorrow, hugging me tight when I tell her about it.
The nurse gave me ice and a splint and said it was okay to cry in her office.
Instead of crying I said when will it feel better?
Will heal one million times faster if you smile, she said.
I’m not good at math, I said.
They heard us laughing all the way in the front office.
I usually do not like the movies they show us
during indoor recess because they are
babyish or else they are about ogres
and I hate the whole idea of ogres.
I get why they made a movie about him, but I always wish they would just let us color or something at indoor recess.
Let us be.
But this was something today.
This Free to Be . . . You and Me video.
It was something different from the start, and not just because there was singing and
music, which I love, but--and this is IMPORTANT--
because it was funny.
Two babies are talking in a nursery and they don’t know if they are boys or girls because
they are both bald.
And then there are so many other funny things,
funny characters, funny songs.
Don’t dress your cat in an apron, someone says later, because it just doesn’t make any sense
to wear things that don’t make any sense
for who you are.
That was the point, I think.
And then another, called “Helping,”
which isn’t actually about helping at all
and which made us all laugh.
Even the boys.
And then I got the idea that this whole thing is about LIFE LESSONS,
something Mom says in a big TV news voice she saves only for when she’s talking to me about something
and she thinks important things are funny, apparently,
or that they should be funny,
which is funny.
But she’s right.
I absolutely always remember the things
that made me laugh.
Like the idea that “Parents Are People,”
something they say in one of the songs,
or that women can do anything men can do.
Funny that anyone ever thought any different, I mean.
We’re going to put it on--the whole fourth grade--
in a concert,
and all I want is to sing a solo.
I want to sing “When We Grow Up” because I think it is meant to be sung
I hope no one else in the whole fourth grade can sing,
then maybe I’ll have a chance.
I hope Quinn Mitchell isn’t as good at singing as she is at building things out of food.
And I hope they make a boy sing
“It’s All Right to Cry.”
Because that would make me laugh.
And then I would remember it forever.
That LIFE LESSON.
You don’t do a play in third grade or fifth grade at Salem Ridge Elementary.
Only in fourth.
And fourth grade, as far as I can see,
is when you--ahem--I will be the most nervous I will ever be.
Not third or fifth.
Because I was younger in third.
Will be older in fifth.
In middle school I will like boys,
I am told
by my grandmother,
who thinks I like boys now,
the way I go on and on
about these FOUR ANNOYING BOYS in my class,
who make me want to scream, even though they can be funny when they make farting noises
or flip their eyelids inside out.
But it is hate, not like.
I only like James, my big brother.
Quinn would like an older brother but she has an older sister, who talks on her phone all day and night and slams her door a lot.
I have to walk you to drama, James mutters at me after school.
I have to be a good actress so I can get a good part in the fourth-grade play.
Okay, I say, and I go on and on about trying to be serious enough to get the part of Baby Girl in Free to Be . . . You and Me.
Well, you’re serious, he says, which makes me want only to be silly.
I cross my eyes at him.
He says why can’t you hear a pterodactyl go to the bathroom?
Why? I say.
Because the P is silent. The pee, get it?
That’s not a very serious-acting kind of joke, I say.
Free to Be . . . You and Me is not a play for serious actors, he says.
Tell that to Marlo Thomas, I say. Marlo Thomas--according to my music teacher,
who is new and just married and wonderful
and who used to be Miss Hall for the first six weeks of school and is now Mrs. Johnson.
And Mr. Johnson, her new and young and just-married husband, is the orchestra conductor--
Well, according to Mrs. Johnson, Marlo Thomas is the writer, the creator,
of Free to Be . . . You and Me.
I know James does not know who Marlo Thomas is, because my brother is not the type of person to know something like this.
He knows rock bands and sports teams and--
She’s the sick-kids lady, he says. Has a famous hospital for sick kids.
No way, I say.
Truth, he says. Ask Mom.
After drama with Elana, who teaches me to sing and to act, because they are intertwined, she says,
I call my mom at work and ask her about
Marlo Thomas’s hospital.
St. Jude’s, she says. That kid and his memory, she also says.
She had thought James would be president one day with that memory,
When I hang up, James has gone to his room and I know that means I can’t tell him he was right.
Can’t watch him stick out his pierced tongue at me and wonder how much it hurt and what made him do it and what it tastes like with ice cream on it, or spaghetti, and does the spaghetti get tangled up.
Can’t duck when he throws a pillow at me to
make me stop asking
SO MANY QUESTIONS!
I may not remember everything the way James does,
but I bet I will always remember
what James’s pierced tongue looks like.
For the rest of my life.
Maybe James can still be president.
Maybe lots of people will vote for him
because they have been hoping
all this time someone would come along
with something as interesting
as James’s tongue.
English Language Arts
Some things in Free to Be . . . You and Me make me think that the writers are trying to tell us something--
is what I would say if I were writing an essay about Free to Be . . . You and Me
on a test, which I would not be
because that would be too interesting.
this is a SUMMARY--
a new kid moves in and he’s worried about making friends and all that but then he meets his neighbor, who is a girl, and she says she has no friends either and neither does this other kid she plays with. Well, since we all have no friends, the new kid says, and we all like to play together, maybe we ought to start a club.
That’s funny, right?
I mean, they all say they have no friends but they have each other.
That is an INFERENCE--
an inference gets extra points on a test.
Well, last year there was no Quinn.
She was in the fourth class,
and I didn’t know anyone in the fourth class.
There used to be three classes until there were so many kids,
too many kids for three teachers to handle.
So they made a fourth one, and somehow all the kids I never knew anyway ended up in the fourth class.
This year I am in the fourth class, and Fiona and Sara--
the best friends I made in kindergarten, after the playdate with superhero-princess
Lilly with two l’s--
are in a class together.
They only play together now,
Only take dance together and play soccer together.
Soccer was always their thing
and not mine.
All those girls high-fiving and running so fast
in a group.
I never knew what to do or where to go
and I’m not good at losing.
Dance was my thing for five minutes
before singing became the only thing.
That’s it, THE END for everything else.
Now Fiona and Sara are in Friendship Club together, and not a made-up friendship club,
a real one,
run by the school!
They get to skip recess once a week and do something together.
It’s like Girl Scouts, my mom said
when we got the letter.
Only I didn’t know we ever got the letter.
She decided for me.
I doubt it’s for you, she said later,
after I’d found out about it.
After it was too late.
I believe most things she says but
maybe not this one thing.
Everyone wants to be in a friendship club.
And I love Girl Scout cookies.
Frozen Thin Mint cookies.
I watch Fiona and Sara leave lunch a few minutes early
for Friendship Club.
And I make a CONNECTION to
Free to Be . . . You and Me,
something else you get extra points for on a test.
Didn’t you get invited to join, Izzy? Sara asks me
on her way out.
I shrug because my real answer is too complicated
and because she looks so happy to be going,
whether I have been invited