Rachel and the Kindergarten Buddy
by Jule Ward
Third grade was going to be awesome. Rachel just knew it. First of all, her classroom would be on the second floor of Angelford Elementary. No more downstairs with the babies. Even better than that, she would be a Kindergarten buddy.
In kindergarten, she had had a buddy, a third- grader named Naomi. She loved Naomi, who read stories with her, walked her to the school bus, and taught her to play hopscotch. It had been really hard to say good-bye to her buddy at the end of kindergarten. When she saw Naomi on the playground the first day of first grade, Naomi had run right over and given Rachel a big hug. “Have a wonderful year,” she said. “Your teacher is the best.” After that, whenever they saw each other, her old buddy always said “Hi.” But last year Naomi graduated from elementary.
Rachel missed her, but getting a little buddy of her own would help. She hoped for a little buddy who would love reading and dogs. Best of all, they could curl up in a quiet place in the library where Rachel would weave stories for her about a little girl who could talk to animals. Mesmerized (Rachel loved that word), the little girl would gaze in admiration at Rachel.
On Monday of the second week of school when Rachel slipped into her seat, she immediately saw, “BUDDY DAY,” written on the blackboard. Wow, it was here. This was so cool. She could hardly sit still.
Miss Winterbrook clapped her slender hands at the dot of nine o’clock and the whole class settled down, a routine they had practiced the whole first week. “Great job, I’m really proud of you,” their teacher said in her gentle, soft voice.
“Today you take on an important responsibility, -being kindergarten buddies. It won’t always be easy, but I know you can do it.”
“Mrs. Lacey, the kindergarten teacher, and I feel we have chosen the best matches possible. We hope it will be a very good year for you and your little buddy. Let’s go down to meet them, shall we?”
There was a general rush to the door as kids jostled for their place in line.
“Children, children,” Miss Winterbrook intervened, “this is no way to begin. Let’s all take our seats again.”
Most of the kids looked down at their shuffling feet as the whole class filed back to their desks. Rachel felt really bad to have disappointed Miss Winterbrook that way. It’s just that she had been so excited, the way you are when you’re waiting for your birthday party to start.
Miss Winterbrook looked quietly and intently around the room. “Let’s try this again. And remember, you are role models for those younger than yourselves.”
This time each student stood and remained beside their desk. One by one, row by row, they walked slowly and silently out of the classroom. As Rachel’s row made their way, she realized we knew how to do this all along. That’s why the teacher was so disappointed. I’m going to try much harder to remember the rules I know from now on.
Miss Winterbrook reminded them to be quiet as they made their way down the big wide steps to the first floor because other classes were in session and shouldn’t be disturbed. It was eerie to be the only kids in the hall. Their footsteps echoed even though they tried very hard to keep them still. They saw other students through the windows of their classroom doors, but couldn’t hear them. It was like watching them on TV, like they weren’t really there.
The quiet disappeared the minute they walked into the Kindergarten. This room was not like any of the other classrooms. It was almost as big as the gym. In fact, at one end there was a small indoor playground. Rachel’s attention was drawn immediately to the group of children sitting in a big circle on a shaggy red rug in the middle of the room. They were playing duck, duck, goose and laughing loudly as they raced away from one another.
When the third graders arrived, their teacher asked them to sit quietly because they were about to meet some very important people. Pride filled Rachel’s chest like a balloon. She studied the group of children. Which one would be her buddy?
Mrs. Lacey was very tall with brown hair pulled back in a mass of waves that tumbled down her shoulders. Her blue eyes were huge and sparkly. Rachel had heard that expression before, but she had never before seen someone’s eyes sparkle quite that way. Mrs. Lacey looked like a really fun teacher. She smiled a big toothy grin and said, “Let the games begin.”
She asked her class to widen their circle by moving back and stretching their arms out to each other so that just their fingertips could touch and then put their hands in their laps. “Now we have created a welcoming space for our third-grade buddies,” she announced.
She picked up a list of names from her desk which was pushed back into the far corner of the room and began to read. “Rebecca Birch.” Becky, one of the quietest girls in the third grade raised her hand and stared at Mrs. Lacey with wide dark eyes. Rachel could tell Becky was scared, but didn’t know why. Being a big buddy to a kindergartener was going to be easy. After all they were the big kids.
“Welcome, Rebecca,” Mrs. Lacey smiled.
“Becky,” Becky whispered, biting at her lower lip.
“Okay, then, Becky. That will make it much easier for your little buddy. Leah Anderson, can you raise your hand, please?”
A chubby girl with short red curls that covered her head like a halo jumped up. “That’s me,” she shouted. Becky looked a little startled. “Leah,” Mrs. Lacey said, “Please, sit down. There’s that’s just right. Now, Becky can you raise your hand?” Becky did as she was told. “Now, see, Leah. Can you do what Becky has done?” The red curls bobbed and the little girl’s hand shot up. “Just right. Thank you, Leah. Becky, you can take a seat beside Leah, please.” By now Becky was smiling. Mrs. Lacey was a good role model for Becky. Rachel thought. I hope I’m next. I hope I get someone better behaved than Leah.
As Becky sat down, Mrs. Lacey read, “Joseph Ricci.”
But the teacher matched three more pairs before she called, “Rachel Springer.” When Rachel raised her hand, Mrs. Lacey said, “Sally Benson,.” As Rachel scanned the circle, a girl, who looked too tiny to be in kindergarten, raised her hand. A frown creased her little elfin face and she stared at Rachel with narrowed green eyes. Rachel’s stomach twisted as though she were going to be sick. How could this girl be her buddy? She stood fixed in place, staring at Sally.
She felt Miss Winterbrook’s hand on her shoulder. “Go and sit with Sally now, Rachel. We need to finish matching the buddies.”
Rachel had heard of dragging your heels. Now she knew just what it meant because she could feel the backs of her feet dig into the carpet as though stuck in mud as she slowly moved toward the frowning Sally. She fixed a smile on her own face, but she guessed it probably didn’t actually look friendly.
“Hi,” she said when she sat beside Sally. “I’m Rachel. I’m going to be your third-grade buddy this year.”
“I know that, silly,” replied Sally.
Rachel stared straight ahead watching her classmates chatting happily with their buddies. She couldn’t think of anything to say back to Sally.
When all the kindergarteners had been matched with their buddies, the teachers sat across from each other in the circle. “Now, we’re going to play some games” said Mrs. Lacey. “that will help us learn each other’s names.”
In the first game everyone stood in a circle. Mrs. Lacey threw a beanbag to Miss Winterbrook and asked her, “What is your middle name?”
“Emma,” answered Rachel’s teacher. Throwing the beanbag back to the kindergarten teacher, she asked, “Do you have a brother?” The game moved quickly from there. Rachel caught the beanbag when Mrs. Lacey threw it to her, asking, “Do you have a pet?”
“Yes, a dog named Daisy,” she responded and threw it to Joey’s buddy whose name she couldn’t remember, so she asked “What’s your name?” During the whole game Sally ignored Rachel and that was fine with her.
When the game ended Mrs. Lacey announced. “Find a place at the tables.” She gave each student took a sheet of paper divided in four sections in which she told them to draw their favorite toy, food, person and animal. For the next several minutes, the room filled with the quiet buzz of pencil, crayon and eraser. Rachel quickly drew Daisy, her mom, pizza and her scooter. While she was still coloring them, she snuck a look at Sally’s paper.
All the drawings were stick figures, drawn all in black. Her favorite toy was a checker board. Her favorite food was dry cereal. Her favorite person looked like a grown-up man, probably her dad. And her favorite animal was a rat. A rat! Whose favorite animal was a rat? This girl was downright creepy! Maybe Rachel should ask for another buddy
By the time they finished, the younger children were looking sleepy. Mrs. Lacey thanked the third-graders for coming and reminded them to return at three o’clock to walk their buddies to the bus.
Her heart was a heavy lump inside her when just before the dismissal bell, Rachel joined her classmates to march downstairs. It was raining, but not too hard. Still, she’d rather run for the bus than plod alongside a sullen kindergartener. When they got to the kindergarten, she couldn’t find Sally. The other children were lined up and eagerly waiting for their new friends, but Sally wasn’t in the line and didn’t seem to be anywhere in the classroom. Rachel saw Mrs. Lacey helping little Josh with the zipper on his rain jacket and went over to her. “I can’t find Sally.” she said.
“Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to tell you this morning. Sally doesn’t take the school bus. Her father picks her up a little before dismissal everyday.” Mrs. Lacey didn’t explain why Sally left school early. It was probably some grown-up secret that kids shouldn’t know about. Anyway, Rachel didn’t really care. She wasn’t exactly unhappy that she wouldn’t have to escort the mulish Sally to the bus everyday. But it was a buddy duty. She hated that everyone else in the third grade was showing how responsible they could be, walking across the school yard, holding the hand of a younger kid, checking to see which bus they should board, and making sure they were aboard before they got on their own bus or walked home. Instead, she had the weirdest kindergarten buddy of all times. She could feel the tears start behind her eyes and bit down hard on her tongue to stop them. No way a big girl like her was going to be seen crying at school.
She walked away from the school yard down Hazel Street two blocks to Laurel and turned left. At the end of that block, she arrived home. Her house was called a bungalow although she didn’t know where that name came from. It had dark blue shingles painted with white trim. There was a wide front porch from one side to the other and lots of comfortable wicker chairs with bright red and blue striped cushion to sit on. The house faced the south and was sunny most of the day, but now the sun had moved to the west and only part of the porch was in the sun. Rachel went to that corner of the porch and tossed her book bag on the ground. She curled up at the end of the big wicker couch and stared out at the big blue and purple hydrangea bush that hid the street from the house. This had been an awful day and it didn’t seem like there was any chance that tomorrow was going to be any better. Everyday of the third grade was going to be ruined by Sally “stick in the mud” Benson. Could she ask for a new buddy? She wondered. But all the kids were already matched up. No one else in her class was going to give up their buddy to take on Sally. No she was the one who would be stuck with her all year. There was no way out.
She heard the creak of the front screen door. Her mother peered around the edge. Her mom had straight blonde hair, just like Rachel, but she didn’t have bangs. Instead, she pulled her hair back into a high pony tail that swept the edge of her neck. Her eyebrows were pulled together concern. “Rachel, what are you doing out here? I was getting worried about you?” The sympathy in her mother’s voice was all it took. Rachel burst into tears and with that Mom stepped quickly across the porch and gathered her into her arms. It felt so good, but even Mom couldn’t fix this.
“Tell me what’s wrong,” her mother said when her sobs finally slowed down.
“We got our kindergarten buddies today and mine is just horrible,” she gulped. She thought her mom might say that no little five-year old could be that awful, but she didn’t.
“Can you tell me about her? It is a girl, isn’t it?” Mom whispered.
“Yes, and she’s just awful. She ugly and mean and doesn’t want to be my buddy. I’m not going to have any fun with her. And I have to be her buddy for the whole year.”
“Rachel, I know you are feeling bad, but I still have to remind you that we don’t use words like ‘ugly’ when we are talking about people. Name calling is never been acceptable in our family, and I can’t let it start now. No matter how bad you feel.”
Even Mom was against her! That was so unfair.
“I’m on your side whatever you think” Mom said gently.
And it wasn’t fair that moms could tell what you were thinking. She could never tell what her mom was thinking. Sometimes she could figure out what dad was thinking from the expressions on his face – but never Mom. “If you are on my side, why are you scolding me?”
“Because I want us to find a good solution to your problem and good solutions never start with thinking someone is a bad person. No one is all bad. There must be something good about Sally, something you could like. Maybe being her buddy won’t be as fun as you hoped, but it could still be a good experience. Being a buddy to a younger student is about learning to grow up. One thing I can tell you about being a grownup is you learn that even the people you love the most can annoy you sometimes, and some of the people you can’t stand do things you admire.”
Rachel was horrified. Mothers were supposed to love their children more than anything. There couldn’t be anything about her that her mother didn’t like. Or could there? She wasn’t very good about keeping her room neat. Her mother said that made extra work for her. “By the time I pick up all the dolls, stuffed animals, clothes, Lego blocks and miniature horses scattered across your rug, Mom complained, “I’ve run out of time to vacuum it.” Maybe there were things her mother didn’t like about her. Did that mean she didn’t love Rachel?
“Are there times you don’t love me, Mom?”
“Never, my darling girl, I love you forever and always. Sometimes you do things that upset me, but they can’t make me stop loving you.” Her mother wrapped her arm around Rachel’s shoulder and squeezed gently and bent to kiss her forehead.
“That’s very different, though, from the problem you’re trying to solve. Sally isn’t someone you love. Truth is you’ll probably never love her, but you could learn to like her a little, enough to be a good big buddy to her.”
Rachel didn’t answer. How could you like someone who didn’t even want to be liked?
Her mother sat back. “What if I talk to Mrs. Lacy? She might be able to tell me what Sally likes, how she spends her time, what she’s good at.”
That would be totally awful. “No, Mom, no, you can’t tell the teachers that I don’t like my buddy. They would be really mad at me.”
“I’m pretty sure the teachers think really carefully about matching buddies. There’s probably a good reason they assigned you to Sally. It sounds to me like she doesn’t make friends easily. Why do you suppose they’d pick a girl like that to be your buddy?”
“It doesn’t make sense to me. I’m someone who makes friends easily.”
“Exactly so,” Mom smiled. “Think how hard it would be very someone as shy as Becky or as quiet as Fiona to make friends with Sally.”
“You saying I got stuck with Sally because I’m friendly. That doesn’t seem fair.”
“Probably not, but you’re old enough to know getting things fair is much more complicated than just dividing a piece of cake in two even pieces. You know you’ve already shown your teachers you can do things that are too hard for other kids.”
Rachel bit her lip. What was Mom talking about? “When?”