Life hasn't been perfect for Sam in middle school. Teachers were shocked when they first saw him. When he walked down the halls early on, he knew that a lot of kids and teachers assumed he was a special education student. In time, though, everyone in the school has come to see him as just Sam. They don't care about the disfiguring mass, or at least they don't show it if they do. But high school and beyond, he knows, will be different. No matter what people tell him, Sam recognizes that he is moving into a larger world of judgmental teenagers. And he carries with him a terrible handicap, a face that scares others.
He checks the clock, and sees that it's almost time to go. He takes a deep breath. He hopes he's picked the right clothes. He runs his left hand through his brown hair. He must imagine what he looks like. There's no mirror to examine his face. In this boy's room, there's never been a mirror.
Sam makes his way down the stairs. He's wheezing, breathless, by the time he gets to the bottom. In the kitchen, his father, David, a weathered jewelry designer who saves money by riding a motorcycle to work, is waiting.
"Ready for this, Sam?" David asks.
Sam nods and replies with a garbled sound.
"Okay," his father says. "Then let's go."
Sam and his parents get into a Honda Accord with 140,000 hard miles on the odometer. A few blocks from home, while the car is stopped at a light, Sam senses someone looking at him--he's used to this. A woman walking a dog has caught sight of Sam. She makes no pretense of being polite, doesn't avert her eyes. Even when the light changes, and the car moves, the woman keeps staring, turning her head as if watching a train leave a station.
Grant High's open house attracts more than 1,500 students and parents from throughout the city. Even though they've come early, the Lightners can't find a parking place at the school. David circles the streets until he finds one, several blocks away. Sam and his parents step out of the car and walk through the dark neighborhood.
Debbie asks her son how he's doing. He doesn't answer, doesn't know the real answer. It's too complicated, too hard to explain; he just wants to get in the school. As he passes near a streetlight, a dark green Range Rover with five or six teenage boys turns onto the street. One of the boys points at him. The car slows. The windows fill with staring faces and pointing fingers. Sam has run into kids like these before: they think they're so much better than everyone else. The boys in the car laugh at something one of them has said, and then, when they're done teasing Sam, the car moves on. Sam knows his father was about to say something to the kids; he also figures he'll run into the same boys at Grant.
As they near the school, more and more teenagers are in the streets, gathering in packs, chattering nervously. Sam recognizes a girl who goes to his school. He has a secret crush on her. She has brown wavy hair, and a smile that makes his hands sweat and his heart race whenever he sees her. She's alone, and he hurries to catch up with her.
"Hi, Sam," she says.
He nods. "Hi."
His parents lag behind, allowing him some privacy. The girl does most of the talking. Sam's happy just to be next to her, to have a friend to walk into Grant with. Two blocks from the school, Sam notices that the girl discreetly falls behind him.
He slows to match her step. She hurries ahead. She's embarrassed, he realizes, to be seen with him, as if being with him will somehow rub off on her, damage her reputation. He slows again, lets her go and walks on alone.
Tonight there are no shadows for Sam to hide in. Every light is on at the high school. He arrives at the north entrance and stands on the steps, looking in through the windows. Girls cluster and laugh together. Boys huddle under a sign announcing a basketball game. This is no middle school.
From Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask by Tom Hallman, Copyright © October 2002, Putnam Pub Group, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
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