In Assembly last year we learned about Rosa Parks, who was the black woman who sparked the Civil Rights Movement in America because she refused to move to the back of a bus. I think it's great that black people are equal now and we don't have racism anymore, but I honestly don't get why she was complaining in the first place. On our bus, sitting at the back is a privilege that is afforded to only the most senior pupils. It has taken me nearly four years to earn this position (during which time I have matured from the bright- eyed nine- year- old who arrived at Grove End with a song in his heart and raisins in his lunchbox to the worldly and cynical almost-thirteenyear-old I am today). Middle school was meant to be only a stopgap. The bus thing is pretty much the only advantage of still being here after all this time. So when I see a Year 5 stumbling hesitantly down the aisle toward me, I know exactly what's going on. A mix of Fear and Excitement struggles to articulate itself on his face. He chews the inside of a cheek with a set of primary teeth and looks up at me, his eyes round with hope. (He knows who I am, but I don't know who he is.
That's the way it works. School years are Semi-Permeable Membranes. (Moreover, everyone at school knows who I am.)) I decide to help him along.
He rehearses one last time in his head and then asks what he's meant to ask. "How are your mum's piano lessons going?" For a second I feel sorry for him. He's so small. (It's hard to believe I was once that young, even if it was three whole years ago.) He has no idea that he's about to learn a lesson he'll never forget, a lesson that will strip him of a faith in humanity he's so far never had to question. However, it's a lesson we've all learned in our time. I know my lines. I tear up a little, which I can do on demand. "My mum hasn't got any arms."
A breath dies in his throat. It's my second cue.
"Why would you ask me something like that?"
Now his face has no trouble with ambiguity. Terror sweeps across it, freezing his features in place and pricking his tear ducts. At the front of the bus, David Driscoll pops up like a Whac-A-Mole and blasts him with a "Waaaaah!" I knew he'd have had something to do with this.
Your Mum's Piano Lessons is a simple game that requires three players, Older Boy 1 (the instigator), Older Boy 2 (the accomplice), and New Boy (the mark). It works like this. Older Boy 1 sidles up to New Boy on a bus trip or on the playground and asks him if he wants to be part of a really brilliant joke. New Boy, eager to please and slightly star-struck by Older Boy 1, who he instantly recognizes and reveres on account of his seniority, discerning a valuable opportunity to associate with a social superior (and perhaps recalling from a nature documentary he's seen the levels of protection afforded to those tiny birds that clean crocodiles' teeth), gratefully accepts. Older Boy 1 then points out Older Boy 2 (who may or may not have been previously briefed, depending on his familiarity with the game) and tells New Boy that if he goes over and asks him how his mum's piano lessons are going, Older Boy 2 will break into hysterical laughter and everyone will live happily ever after. Then what just happened happens (the crocodile snaps his jaws) and New Boy scurries back to his seat or his corner of the playground, and when anyone asks why he's crying blubbers something about the high pollen count. Except this one doesn't. He couldn't move if he tried. He's staring at my head, transfixed.
"What happened to your hair?"
I'm the only one in school who's allowed to wear nonreligious headgear (there are four turbans in our year, and Simon Nagel wears a skullcap in the colors of Watford Football Club) because some of the younger kids don't understand why I'm bald and sometimes it's easier to hide things than explain them. I get a lot of looks, but it's okay. Once in Year 6 I forgot to wear my own clothes on Own Clothes Day and for the whole day I was the only kid at school in uniform, so I already know what it's like to feel ostrichized, which is a better word for excluded (because ostriches can't fly, so they often feel left out). I took my sweater off and undid my top button, but that still didn't stop people from staring at me. It's weird how you can wake up one day exactly the same person as you were the day before except the world has changed around you and now you're the odd one out.
Excerpted from Ostrich by Matt Greene. Copyright © 2013 by Matt Greene. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. 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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