Gabe, the Transfer Student

Gabe, the Transfer Student

by Jule Ward

Gabe clasped his hands as tightly as possibly atop the desk that was now his place in Ms. Winterbrook’s fifth-grade classroom of Angelford Elementary. He wished through sheer will power he could beam himself off his chair, up and away, and land gently onto a similar wood and metal seat several blocks away at St. Luke’s Grade School. It’s where he should have been. He stared straight ahead, blotting out the vision of the teacher, the chalkboard, the images attached to the corkboard in the front corner of the room. No classroom sounds penetrated his consciousness. Instead, he kept hearing his father saying again and again, “It’s just not possible for me to keep sending you boys to Catholic school. Without your Mom’s salary we cannot afford the tuition.”

“Gabriel.” Ms. Winterbrook’s voice cut into his thoughts. His head jerked up. She squatted beside his desk, a soft smile on her broad face. “There’s someone I want you to meet.” She stood and he followed her back to her desk where a short, dark-skinned kid with close cropped hair stood grinning up at him. “Joey, this is Gabriel Svenson. As I told you yesterday, he’s new to our school and needs a classroom ambassador.”

“Gabriel, . .”

“Gabe, uh, no one calls me Gabriel anymore.”

“Gotch ya. Gabe, this is Joey Ricci, he’s volunteered to help you learn your way around your new school. He’s been a student here since kindergarten. So, he knows the ropes. You’ll be in good hands.” She watched the boys shake hands and then patted his shoulder. “Sit down now. Let’s get this show on the road.”

As he trudged back to his seat, bitter acid forced its way up his throat. He wasn’t going to be able to fly under the radar the way he’d hoped. Before the morning was even over, he would have to face the conversation he dreaded more than burglars or ghosts. And just as he expected, moments after the recess bell shrilled, Joey appeared beside his desk. “Hey, let’s go. I can show you the best recess spots.”

Joey walked so quickly to the door, Gabe almost didn’t see which direction he went, but then he caught sight of his bright red t-shirt slipping through the playground doors. He could pretend he hadn’t seen him. He crossed to the water fountain, counting to ten as he gulped cold splashes of water.

“Hey, come on.” Joey had come back for him. As they crossed the covered tamarack toward the grassy field to the south of the school, Joey asked, “Did you just move to Portland?”

“Nope,” Gabe admitted. “I’ve lived here since I was a baby.”

“Oh, so you’re new to the neighborhood, huh?”

“Uh, well, no, we’ve always lived on Holly Street.”

“You mean just three blocks from here?” Joey was momentarily perplexed. “Oh, I get it. You went to St. Luke’s, right?”

“Uh-huh.”

Joey’s eyes got very wide and he cocked his head to one side. “Did you get tossed out?”

“No, no, nothing like that. Let’s not talk about it, okay?”

“Sure, sure, okay. Let’s see if we can get some balls through the net?”

That was close, Gabe thought as he slid back into his seat after recess, but I won’t be able, to avoid it forever.

At lunch time, he discovered, Joey took his ambassador job quite seriously. There wasn’t a lunch room at Angelford. Everyone took turns eating at long tables set up in the loud, cavernous gym. When he got to the gym doorway, Joey came up, “I hope you brought your lunch. The lunch here is for the dogs.”

“Yep, got it right here.” Grandma had packed enough food for two boys in his insulated bag with the Kansas State logo on it.

“Over here’s the best place to sit.” Joey led him to a corner table where only two kids sat, but jackets were thrown on the other seats.

“Hey, Joey,” the one with longish blonde hair greeted him. Both boys pulled their jackets off the chairs so Gabe and Joey could slide in. “Dylan, Kyle,” Joey gestured at one boy then the other, “This is Gabe. Just started here today.”

Since they were doing some serious gulping, they just nodded. Gabe opened his bag and pulled out two sandwiches, a hard-boiled egg, three oatmeal cookies, a sliced apple, and a thermos of soup. All three boys had stopped eating to stare.

“Man,” the blonde one, Dylan, said, “Your mom must be afraid you’re going to starve to death before three o’clock!”

Here it comes. “My grandma made my lunch,” Gabe said. “She used to pack lunches for my Dad and uncle when they worked construction and had really big appetites. She’s never really caught on that I don’t need this much food.”

“Cool, your grandma lives with you and all. I only get to see mine once a year for the Jewish High Holidays,” Kyle said. “But I bet if she lived with us, she’d pack an even bigger lunch than that! She really likes to cook.”

Joey drew his thick brows together. “What do you do with the food you can’t eat. Seems like an awful waste.”

“When I went to St. Luke’s, I had that worked out. There’s this homeless guy. He hangs at the bus stop by Olive and 16th. He’s always happy to see me after school.”

Joey raised his hand palm forward, “Put it there, man.” He high-fived Gabe, who felt a small bit of cheer for the first time that day.’

“Sweet.” said Dylan. “But what if your mom finds out what you’re doing? Won’t she get mad?”

Just do it, Gabe told himself. “I don’t have a mom.” He croaked.

Since Gabe had been in this painful spot more times than he wanted to count, he wasn’t surprised when the boys stopped eating to gape at him.

Joey got his voice back first. “What happened? How come you don’t have a mom?’

“She died when I was a baby.” As much as he hated it, only the straight-out truth worked. Lies didn’t. He knew because he’d tried it sometimes. He couldn’t duck the shocked looks, the pitying glances, the dragged-out silences because there was no good way to respond.

All three boys stared down at the sandwiches in front of them. They shoveled in bites without speaking. Kyle finished first, slammed the lid of his lunch box closed and slid of his chair. “See you guys at the field, okay?” he called over his shoulder as he quickly stepped toward the hall. Dylan soon followed him. “C’mon,” said Joey, “We’ve still got plenty of time to get a few innings in.”

Gabe shook his head without looking up. “Go ahead. I think I’m going to work on our social studies assignment.” Joey stood there for a full minute, but neither of them moved nor said anything. Finally, he cleared out just as Gabe hoped he would. Since he couldn’t just sit at the table alone, he cleared his lunch debris and headed toward the school’s front doors. More than anything, he wanted to keep walking. Not home. Grandma would be upset and bring him right back. And that sort of exhausted his possibilities. If he were still at St. Luke’s, he wouldn’t be going through this. He’d known the kids there longer than he could remember. It seemed they’d always known about Mom. He never had to explain it.

If he talked to Grandma, maybe she could convince Dad to let him transfer back. Reluctantly, he dragged himself back to his classroom. He finished his math, and while most of his classmates were still bent in concentration, he pushed away his worksheet. One of the Owens twins kept Ms. Winterbrook busy helping her with a problem. He let his pencil roll off the desk, shoved his feet straight out, stared out the window, and gawked at the pigeons strutting across the school yard awning. He had to make Grandma see how important it was to change Dad’s mind. What could he tell her? What could he say?

When the final bell rang Gabe pushed through the school doors and out to the sidewalk, all he could think about was how to approach his grandmother. Grandma Brenda, because she was Dad’s mom, usually sided her son on most things. But, she had not wanted Gabe and Mark to change schools. Even so, he better come up with a pretty good argument. He remembered that last spring she’d tried before to talk Dad into letting them stay at St. Luke’s. Dad had not changed his mind then. It would take something drastic to do so now.

“C’mon, brat, I’m supposed to walk you home.” His brother Mark, skinny frame leaning again the brick wall, waited for him at the school door.

“No way.” Gabe glared at his big brother. “I don’t need you to tell me where to go and how to get there.”

Mark shrugged, “Suit yourself,” and sauntered off.

Gabe hung around in front of the school until he saw Mark meet up with the kid who lived next door.  They took off down the diagonal street, Ladd Boulevard, probably going to the coffee shop for donuts. He headed south instead, the long way home so he could think. He tried to remember his dad and his grandmother as he had seen them last May.

Both had sat at the kitchen table, covered with the yellow cloth. Grandma sipped white wine. Dad was having a Coke. Gabe had hidden on the backstairs, pushed into a shadowy corner, hoping to hear Grandma talk Dad out of this crazy new idea.

She laid her hand across the checkered sleeve of his work shirt. “Bradley, there have already been so many changes in the boys’ lives, it just makes no sense to add yet another one.”

“I thought of that before I made the decision, Mom,” Dad said, “but you know Gabe never actually knew Emily and though Mark took it pretty bad when she died, he was only four. He bounced back by the time he hit kindergarten.”

“And then you moved them right out here the very next year.”

“It was a move that meant I’d be able to support my family without Emily’s salary. There was nothing left for me in Kansas. Moving back to Portland to be closer to you and Dad meant I’d have your help with the boys.  It was the right thing to do. Gabe was just a toddler.”

“But why start them in St. Luke’s only to yank them out again four years later?” Grandma’s voice was a hoarse whisper, but Gabe heard every word.

“You and Dad were involved with the church. You knew lots of folks who sent their kids to the parish school. Looking back, I guess I was tempted by the instant community, it gave us.” Dad stretched his arms against the table. His chair almost toppled over. He stood up and moved to lean on the sink, but kept staring at Grandma. Gabe could tell he wanted to just walk away, but knew better.

She looked up at him, took a sip of wine, and said softly, “And it’s been good for you.  You have all made friends there.  You’ve fit right in. Why give that up now?”

His dad’s lips tightened. “I’ve laid it all out already, but I’ll go over it one more time. After that I rest my case.”

Grandma nodded.

“I’ve done the numbers.  If the boys continue at St. Luke’s and go on to Catholic Central, I won’t be able to save enough to send them to college.”

Grandma put her hand up and interrupted. “But your father and I have said we’d help.”

Dad raise his Coke to his lips and finished in three loud gulps. “Not happening. You’re already giving us a place to live and you refuse to accept payment for taking care of the boys. I can’t accept anymore and feel like a man.”

Gabe had thought that was a weird thing to say, but couldn’t imagine who he could ask to explain it to him.

“Besides, Mom,” Dad had continued, “you’d be wasting your money.  St. Luke’s is fine, but Angelford is one of the best elementary school in Portland. The class sizes are just a little larger than at the parish school and they have far more enrichment programs.”

“But what about their religious education?” Grandma asked.

“The parish offers religious education classes for public school students every Sunday. They live with you. You’re very devoted. They have probably learned most of what they know about God from you anyway.”

“But…”

“Mom, I’ve made my mind up. Please let’s not keeping arguing.” Dad walked to the recycling bin, threw in the glass bottle, and turned to stare at Grandma.

With that, she had stared at her wine and had shrugged her shoulders. She had given Dad a wavery sort of smile, “Okay.”

Lost in his memory, Gabe realized he had walked down Division all the way to Seventh Avenue. Grandma would be wondering what happened to him. His feet felt heavy and his backpack even heavier as he reversed his steps, crossed the street and took Hazel Avenue, the diagonal street that led to home. He still didn’t have a single idea of how to convince Grandma to take up the argument again. It felt like pretty much of a lost cause.

“You’re awfully quiet this morning, Gabriel,” Grandma said as she slid perfectly scrambled eggs onto his plate the next morning. “Something bothering you?”

He crunched off a bite of her homemade wheat bread, smothered with the marionberry jam she had canned the summer before, chewed it thoroughly, and swallowed before he nodded and said, “Yeh, school.”

She smiled, but it looked a little fake to him. “Everything feels really new, right?”

He shook his head, “It’s not just new, it’s weird.” He dug into the scrambled eggs. Couldn’t let stupid Angelford spoil the best eggs west of the Mississippi.

Grandma set the frying pan back on the stove. When she sat down with him, he asked, “Do you think you could tell Dad it’s just not working out?”

She picked up her coffee mug, the big red one he had bought her at the school fair last year. “Honey, you’ve only been there a couple of days. It’s way too early to say it’s not working out.  You need to give it a chance.”

Mark looked up from the other side of the table, “Yeh, Squirt, the math program is super cool. My seventh grade’s way ahead of where we were at St. Luke’s.  St. Luke’s was for babies.”

Gabe wanted to throw his fork at his brother, but didn’t dare. “Just because you’re a math brain doesn’t mean Angelford’s a good school for me.”

“Dummy!” Mark threw at him and left the table.

“Mark!” Grandma’s voice was sharp.

“Okay, sorry. See you later, kid.”

“More eggs?” Grandma asked.

“I’m good,” he told her.

“Just like Mark, you are sure to find things you really like about your new school.  You just have to give it a chance, Gabe.” She leaned over and gave him a big squishy hug. He didn’t pull away because he knew she felt bad for him even if she couldn’t say it.

But she was wrong about there being good things about Angelford.  Everything about St. Luke’s had been way better.

For one thing, they had to go out for recess that day even though it was raining like crazy and the wind blew so hard that standing under the shelter in the middle of the school playground didn’t really keep you dry. Joey’s tight black curls were dripping water by the time they raced under the cover and milled around with hundreds of other kids, trying to keep dry.  Finally, Joey leaned in, “Let’s just go kick the soccer ball around the field. It can’t be any worse than this.”

They ran out to the corner of the field to look for the balls.  “In here,” came a voice from behind the garden shed. Creeping close to the wall of the shed, he and Joey inched around the back. Wow! There was a lean-to build back there. Inside huddled two guys from their class, Harvey Carmouche and Dylan, whose last name he couldn’t remember. He and Joey crept in. The four of them played “Truth or Dare” until they heard the bell. Sure, it was okay.

But at St. Luke’s he’d have spent such a rainy recess in the gigantic gym. It was a blast. Every time was a little different, but his favorite had been when the teachers rolled out carts from the big storage spaces under the bleachers. These carts were full of gymnastic equipment, mats shaped like oversized building blocks — wedges, cylinders, bridges, rectangles — or even a “pit” filled with foam blocks. He and his friends pretended they were circus performers, practicing rolls, handstands, bridges, cartwheels, as well as leaps and jumps. And those were just some of the great equipment stored in that gym.

Yeh, that sure beat a cramped lean-to fort.

Maybe he should tell Grandma about how wet he got at recess, how he could catch pneumonia or the flu or some other terrible disease. But by the time he slid onto a kitchen chair to enjoy an after-school snack of canned peaches and snickerdoodles, his clothes were dry, he felt fine, and he didn’t want to sound like a whining cry baby.

“Did today go better?” she asked.

“Yeh, sure.” He lied.

She cocked her head to one side and her eyes narrowed. But he dipped a cookie into peach juice and slurped it up. “Gabriel, where are your manners?” she chided.

The next morning at breakfast, Dad joined the Angelford cheering squad. “Hey, Gabe, isn’t today music class?  I bet you’re excited about that. The way you’re always listens to I-tunes and beating a rhythm on the kitchen table it should be right up your alley.  I always said it was a shame they didn’t have a music program at St. Luke’s.”

Gabe hunched over his plate of French toast. He didn’t have an answer. How could one class make up for missing a whole school. Plus, “art enrichment” as music and art classes were called at Angelford meant that the school day there was 30 minutes longer than it had been at St. Luke’s. He’d much rather just get out earlier. He gulped down the rest of his breakfast, shoved his books in his back pack and headed out the kitchen door so he could cut across the alley and get to school quicker.

“Hey, Gabe.” He was surprised to see Joey coming down the alley, tossing a baseball in the air and catching it in an oversize mitt as he trotted along.

“Joey, what you doing here?”

“It’s a shortcut from my place.  Glad I ran into you. Bunch of us are going to get in a quick game before school.  You wanna play?” Gabe nodded and they ran side-by-side the rest of the way to the school yard.

Without Joey, Gabe didn’t know how he would have made it through the next couple of months.

Music class was a bust.

Gabe just got settled in his seat after lunch when Ms. Wintergarten had called out, “Time for music!” and the other kids scrabbled from their seats to line up by the door. That looked hopeful, right? The other kids seemed excited to be going. The class was just across the hall on the floor of the school auditorium. It didn’t have seats like a real theater, but it did have a stage, hidden now behind a heavy velvet curtain. Just in front of the stage, the music teacher, a balding guy with brown puppy-dog eyes, fiddled with a large monitor. Cool. There’s going to be a video. And that part was great. While an orchestra played resounding music, gorgeous shots of the Grand Canyon swept across the screen. The angle of the camera swooped down into the canyon as the crescendo of the music rose. Gabe felt pulled right into the scene.

Once the video ended, Mr. Matthew played it back, stopping it now and then to ask how they thought the picture on the screen related to the music they had just heard. Gabe held back answering. What would the other kids say? Hands shot in the air. A dozen kids wanted to answer at once. Was he the only one too amazed to say anything? He did enjoy listening to them call out their answers. When Harley yelled, “That last part made me feel like a soaring eagle,” Gave knew just what he meant.

He hoped the teacher would play another video, but instead, Mr. Matthews instructed, “Break into your groups. Time for instrument practice.” Chaos ensued as kids ran over to the storage cabinets and pulled out tons of musical instruments. They rushed back and dragged their chairs, screeching across the polished floor to form groups of two to four kids.

Gabe felt glued to his chair, an object in the middle of a tornado. “Ah, Gabe, is it?” Mr. Matthew intervened. “Your first year here, right? So, what instrument can you play?” Telling the truth, just blurting out “none,” occurred to him for barely a second. Way too embarrassing. He lied, “Drums, I play the drums.” How hard could it be?

“Super,” Mr. Matthews responded. “We don’t have a full set, but we do have one you can use to practice. Joey, can you show Gabe where to find it?”

“C’mon, Gabe. It means you’re in the percussion family with me. Can he sit in my group, Mr. Matthews?”

“Sure thing.” The teacher’s attention drifted to another set of kids bent over guitars.

Joey led Gabe toward the far wall where Harley and a girl he hadn’t met were sitting. An xylophone sat on a low stand between them and each held two sticks. “This is Celine,” Harley said. “We’re the dynamic dueling xylophone duo.” All right Whatever.

“Gabe, got a song in mind to play?”

“Today, I’d rather just see what you guys are into, see how it works for me, okay?”

And so, he did. Not just that afternoon, but for the next three weeks. He and Joey were headed home after a month at school when Joey finally asked, “How come you never practice? You can play, can’t you?”

“Actually … no.”

“No! why’d you say you could?”

“I didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t know how to do something.”

Joey stopped, leaned against a garage door, and stared up at him. “You never learned about music before? That’s just not possible.”

“Of course, I know about music. I have a whole i-tunes list, and that song, Mr. Matthews played about the Grand Canyon – I know it because my dad plays it at home all the time. What I’m saying is I don’t play an instrument. I never had lessons. St. Luke’s didn’t have a music class. That’s all.” He moved on down the alley, kicking stones as he went. Joey followed him and for a while they tried to outdo each other.

After a few minutes, Joey mumbled, “No, music. What a bummer – school with no music.”

“That’s not exactly right,” Gabe said. “We had a choir. You know -for singing at church.”

“That’s sweet. Wish we had a choir. But it will be great to have someone who knows how to sing when we do our stuff for holiday performance. Last year we were so bad even my mom couldn’t say we sounded good.”

When they arrived at Gabe’s back gate, he put his hand on the latch and turned back, “You won’t tell anyone, right?”

“You mean that you really can’t play the drum?” No, but you should. It’s not like it’s your fault or anything.”

Gabe took a deep breath and let it out. “I’ll think about it.”

He slid his jacket off, hung it on a hook in the back hall, and headed up the backstairs.

“Hey, wait.” Grandma called from the kitchen. “Aren’t you hungry?”

His stomach was growling a little. He went into the kitchen, washed his hands at the sink and as he sat down, she slid a plate of warm oatmeal cookies in front of him. Mark had already gobbled his cookies down and headed up to his room to play computer games.

She cocked her head to the right, ““What’s that long face about?”

Gabe looked up into her warm puzzled eyes. Should he tell her?

She poured his milk into his Mickey Mouse mug and taking her mug of coffee off the counter, she slid into the chair across the table. “These cookies look so delicious I think I’ll just break down and have one myself today. Now, how about telling me what’s bugging you?”

He washed down a warm bite of cookie with a big gulp of icy milk. “Music class,” he mumbled and took another bite.

“Music? You love music. What could possibly be wrong about music class?” Her eyebrows drew together and she shook her head. Coffee spilled from her cup to the table and she absently wiped at it with a paper napkin.

He bit off more cookie and took another swallow. Grandma remained quiet and didn’t move. Then, before he could stop himself, he blurted out the whole thing to her – about the lie and the pretending and what a mess he’d made.

Grandma smiled broadly, “Ah, Gabe, the whole new school thing is such a trial for you. It’s testing all you’ve got. I think, though, that I have an answer for this problem.”

Could she be right? A little light of hope touched him somewhere deep in his belly. “What?”

“Lessons.”

“Lessons?” How could more study be an answer?

“Well, first, I have to ask, ‘Would you like to know how to play the drums?’”

Gabe pressed his elbows into the solid wood of the table and rested his chin in his hands. Did he want to play drums? “It was just what popped into my mind when the teacher asked what instrument I played.”

Grandma moved over to the coffee pot and poured herself a warm-up. “More cookies?”

He shook his head. Excitement at this new idea filled his gut.

“I think, Gabriel, that drums came to mind so easily because they were a natural for you.”

“What makes you say that?” he asked.

“You don’t remember but when you were still in pre-school, you had a tiny set of drums that you played constantly. Someone gave them to you for your second birthday and they were your top favorite toy. You banged on them so much that I had to put them away just keep from getting mad at you sometimes.”

“How come I don’t still have them?”

Grandma gave a sort of half smile and shrugged. “Sometimes little kids can be rough on their toys. You didn’t mean any harm, but one day you tried to use the drums to climb up to a higher shelf in your closet. You lost your balance and crashed into them. They were just toys and kind of splintered into pieces”.

Gabe’s head filled with the picture. He did remember. He had been so scared and hurt all over. He could see all those pieces again, scattered everywhere on his blue bedroom rug. “I cried, right?”

“Oh, you certainly did! For hours. You asked for the drums for days after that.”

“Why didn’t you get me another set?” Gabe demanded.

Grandma laughed and her shoulders shook. “So sorry, but I think I considered it a blessing in disguise. I was relieved those drums had been silenced.”

Gabe glared at her. “That was mean.”

“Oh, honey, you had plenty of toys. You forgot. But now I’m thinking it might be a good time to talk to your dad about real drums and the lessons to go with them. What do you say?”

He didn’t have to think about an answer. “I say ‘Yes!’”

“Okay, then. We’ll ask your dad about it at dinner.”

Gabe convinced himself that Dad would say ‘No.’ Drums and lessons were expensive. He almost begged Grandma not to bring it up, but she was on a roll. As soon as she placed a steaming lasagna in the middle of the table that evening, she announced, “Bradley, we need to discuss drum lessons for Gabriel.”

“Whoa,” Dad said, “Where’d that come from?”

Grandma was no snitch. “All of the other children in his class play a musical instrument. They began learning to play in kindergarten. Gabe needs to catch up with his class.”

Dad stared at Gabe, making him so nervous that he almost burned his finger as he ripped off a piece of garlic bread. “Do you want to learn to play the drums?”

“Well, yeh, I guess. It’d be pretty cool.”

“Why the drums?” Dad asked.

“Don’t know exactly. Just feels good somehow. You know, swinging my arms and making different sounds and how it all comes out in a rhythm. I want to make it be music.” Where had that come from?

He was still in his own head when Dad said, “Right on. Okay. We’ll look into it.”

“Can I have more lasagna?” Mark asked.

Grandma was beaming. “As much as you like.”

In his room that night, after his dad had said good night, Gabe sat at the edge of his bed and beat a rhythm on the footboard with the palms of his hands. When he let them, they had a memory of their own. He just let it flow and deep inside he could hear the music. He practiced a few variations and started humming along. A balloon of hot, happy air filled and lifted him into his dreams that night as he saw himself surprising his group by playing, not watching, at next week’s music class.

It couldn’t turn Angelford into St. Luke’s, but it could make it a little easier to be there. And then there was the holiday performance. He’d like that too. He’d be okay.