"Well, one step at a time," said Cubby's mother. "Let's wait and see if you get leprosy first."
Now Miss Renshaw stepped forward, leaving the newspaper on the desk. Miss Renshaw was tall, noble, and strong. Her hair was red and springy. She was like a lion. She stood at the classroom door, waiting while the little girls found their broadbrimmed, blue-banded hats, in preparation for leaving the safety of the school grounds.
Theirs was a very small class. There were only eleven of them, like eleven sisters all the same age in a large family. Cubby, Icara, Martine, Bethany, Georgina, Cynthia, Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth, and silent Deirdre. Because it was such a very small class, they had a very small classroom, which was perched right at the top of the school. Up four flights of stairs, way up in the sky, like a colony of little birds nesting on a cliff, blown about by wind with the high, airy sounds of the city coming up the hill in the ocean breeze.
"Girls!" called out Miss Renshaw, smoothing her springy hair as they ran to tumble down the stairs, sixty-seven steps in total. "Hold hands and do not run."
Cubby grabbed Icara's hand, just as she had on the very first day she had arrived at the school, terrified and alone. Cubby preferred Icara to Martine or Georgina or Cynthia or Bethany or Deirdre or Elizabeth or Elizabeth or Elizabeth or Elizabeth, although the last Elizabeth wasn't so bad; she had a little brother who couldn't walk and had to go to a special school on a special bus and once Cubby had been to her house when her little brother was home, and they had pushed him around the garden in his wheelchair and how he had laughed as he threw back his thin neck, laughing out loud like a kookaburra.
The little girls moved in a cloud down from the classroom through the playground, to wait, as they had been taught, hand in hand at the yellow gate that led out to the big world. Miss Renshaw moved among them across the stone pathway. She wore a drooping crimson dress with a geometrical pattern of interlocking squares and triangles in green and purple. Around her neck on a string of leather swung a tear-shaped amber bead that glinted in the sunlight.
"Now, girls," said Miss Renshaw, "no screaming, squealing, or screeching. Remember, outside these walls, you are representing the school."
She turned the latch. The gate swung open with the softest creak, and out they ran, eleven schoolgirls in their round hats with their socks falling down, hand in hand, like a chain of paper dolls.
Miss Renshaw strode majestically at the rear in her droopy geometrical dress. She had no trouble keeping up with them, even though she was old. Of course, she wasn't as old as some of the teachers in their school. How frightened Cubby had been on her first day she had never seen so many old women! Their hair was white and gray or even yellow, and they smelled of ancient perfumes and powders and cigarettes. One teacher was so bent over she was like an old washerwoman from a fairy tale, her face always to the ground, scuttling off into the dim linoleum-floored hallways with books under her arm, muttering to herself. Another wore a net in her hair Cubby had never heard of such a thing and several had buns piled on top of their ancient, powerful faces, like African women in books bringing home pitchers of water from the well.
The little girls ran down the back lane behind the school, between the stinking mounds of rubbish and gurgling drains. They ran by sleepy, barefooted men and half-dressed women smoking on their doorsteps, and along the short wall outside the smudged church that lay under the shadows of the towers of flats. Their black shoes clattered one after another down the sandstone stairs, heading for the trees and bubbling water of the Ena Thompson Memorial Gardens.
Excerpted from The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky. Copyright © 2013 by Ursula Dubosarsky. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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