“Children? How can we trust children with this mission? They are so unreliable.”
The Keeper of the Earth stood in front of the arched window at one end of the Council Room, considering this sudden twist of events. He stood as if on watch, a stance he had held for all time. His face, chiseled like granite, held unyielding stony grey eyes. White hair fell down his back like snow covering the Himalayas. His cape was iridescent, shimmering with mineral flecks of gold, copper and zinc.
“I know it is hard to believe, but they are the only ones who can do it,” the Keeper of the Water soothed.
Her flowing appearance was a stark contrast to his fixed demeanor. As she moved, her aquamarine cape rippled around her like ocean waves. The fringe was as white and fluffy as sea foam and floated across the surface of the floor as she walked to the window to stand beside her old friend.
"Because humans are destroying it, they must be the ones to restore it,” the Keeper of the Air offered breezily. The room freshened; her ethereal presence was felt more than seen.
“But why children?” blazed the Keeper of the Fire. “Surely there are more qualified candidates among the human race.”
Mother Nature could not hold on much longer. The destruction of the mountains for minerals, the forests for wood and the soil for agribusiness had weakened the Earth. The extraction of oil from beneath its crust had left the Earth pockmarked and depleted. Trillions of tons of human waste and radioactive material thrown into the once sparkling ocean had poisoned Water. Earthquakes were common as Fire’s magma shifted tectonic plates.
The planet’s protective ozone layer had been so weakened that the fire of the sun scorched the land. Air was contaminated with cancer causing toxins, and carbon dioxide emissions were making the air unbreathable in many parts of the world. Plant and animal species were becoming extinct. Life on the planet was perilously out of balance. Human beings fought greedily for shrinking resources and struggled to survive. Having lost the truth of their natural state they no longer lived in harmony with nature, themselves or each other.
The Divine Power, the Overseer of all things physical and metaphysical, had explained. “Mother Nature has called you together to prepare for the regeneration process.” His presence was invisible and his voice was a whisper, but it filled the room with power.
“Although you know the planet will never be destroyed,” he continued, “the time of harmonious living has ended. The footprints of billions have worn Nature to her lowest state.”
The Keepers had watched over the years as successive attempts to regenerate the world had failed. Humans lost energy or became disheartened and frustrated with each other. The result was war. Eventually people gave up. Lulled into a state of coping, they accepted this degraded state as normal.
Anxious as the Keepers were to restore balance, they were told they must await the results of a mission that would determine the fate of the human race.
“Some humans sense the need for change, but they do not understand that the planet requires regeneration on an unprecedented scale,” said the Keeper of the Earth. “How can children possibly comprehend what is required?”
“The children still believe in a better world.” The Keeper of the Air’s lilting voice was like a breeze as it wafted through the room. “Their faith in the future is the last remaining trace of humanity’s original pure nature. Their optimism will motivate them and protect them and give them the power they need to keep going when they are challenged.”
“Excellent. I’m ready now,” flamed the Keeper of the Fire. He savoured the thought of hot lava renewing the soil.
The Keeper of the Water hesitated, knowing she would have to cover the earth to cleanse it. “I will be ready when it’s time,” she said quietly.
“Fine,” conceded the Keeper of the Earth finally. “How will we know which children to choose? There are so many of them.”
“I have been looking.” The voice of the Divine Power was quiet and final. “I have found them.”
2. The Chosen
The butler quietly entered Raj’s bedroom through the mahogany doors, pushing a tea cart, intent to ease the young man into his busy day of travel. Raj slipped out of the cool silk sheets and shuffled into the ensuite bathroom where a hot bath had been drawn and awaited his arrival. The butler returned with freshly pressed clothes precisely as Raj stepped from the tub ready to get dressed, the timing of this carefully choreographed daily ritual perfected over the years.
Typically only a special festival would have the power to pull Raj from his bed at this early hour, but today was special for another reason. After waiting for over a year, today he would finally be flying to China. Every male member of his family had been educated abroad, and for Raj this voyage represented his first steps into adulthood. In Beijing he would attend a prestigious international school where he hoped to expand his geographic, cultural and social horizons. His intention was to become an international businessman like his father. China was to be his global training ground.
Leaving India was a blessing. It had held him smotheringly close, locked in family duty and demands. His sister Ramita, recently married, had left the family home in a flurry of dowry items to live with her in-laws on the outskirts of Delhi. As children Raj and Ramita had stayed up late into the night under a blanket canopy of their own making, talking for hours. Raj let out a sigh, thinking of how their relationship had changed over the years as her interest in men and marriage had taken her deep into a realm of her own and away from any meaningful connection with him.
Ramita’s absence left Raj alone with his parents. Until his sister had a baby, he would be the singular focus of his parents’ attention, in particular his mother’s. How he wished his sister would get pregnant soon. A new grandchild would take the pressure off him. In the meantime, this year in China would give him a break.
He checked his hair in the mirror and with an authoritative swipe of his wet palm, flattened the small unruly fringe over his ears. The pink collared shirt he had chosen for the journey was clean and crisp. He tucked it into his blue pressed pants and tightened his belt, feeling the cold marble floor beneath his feet as he reached for his socks. He had recently packed away his slippers along with his five pairs of shoes, each reassuringly black or brown in patent leather or suede.
He stared at the floor for a moment, wondering what his new home would be like and whether it would be as comfortable as this house. He shook his head at the silly thought. Of course it would be as comfortable, if not more so: he was going to live with Auntie and Uncle, the Indian ambassador to China.
Raj descended the marble stairway and walked to the dining room where he sat between his parents at the breakfast table. As he unfolded his napkin the maid brought him his usual light breakfast, a plate of toast and jam with mango and pineapple slices. She poured him a cup of chai and smiled at him dutifully, clearly not expecting a response. As usual, he fulfilled her expectations by not acknowledging her presence.
“Raj, I beg you, please take care of yourself,” his mother said. He looked up and saw that her forehead was puckered with worry, as it often was when she spoke to him these days. He was her baby, and the thought of him going so far away left her flustered and anxious.
“Do whatever Auntie and Uncle ask of you,” she continued. “You are to treat them as parents. You know I will speak with them often, so please mind them well.” He watched the red dot on her forehead dance as her expression changed from worry to love and back again. The gold bangles on her delicate wrists clanked together like spare change as she waved her hands. Wrapped in an orange sari shimmering with silver threads, she was a constantly moving display of colour and sound.
“Yes, Mummy,” he replied respectfully but without looking up from his plate. His father sat silently at the other end of the table, reading the day’s newspaper. Raj preferred his father’s quiet, noninvolved presence to his mother’s constant deluge of care and concern. His father ran a successful export business that sold religious relics to Western countries. He monitored the business pages closely.
When it was time to leave for the airport Raj leaned close to kiss his mother on the cheek. She pressed her hand into his and spoke with urgency. “It would be better not to mention your father’s company by name when you are there, Raj. We don’t want another incident.” He pushed her hand away. She stepped gracefully backwards to make room for his father. Father and son shook hands firmly, making eye contact only briefly. Raj understood that men of power, like his father, did not bother with unnecessary displays of emotion.
Raj nodded a polite farewell then entered the limousine and left without looking back.
When he entered Beijing’s clean, modern airport, Raj saw his name written on a cardboard sign held above the mass of people milling around the arrivals area. He focused on the sign as though it was a lighthouse, helping him navigate his way around silverhaired Chinese grandmothers with bodies permanently bent, eager children peering through the crowd and young women awaiting their husbands. There were many young and middleaged men dressed in similar outfits of dark pressed trousers and light shirts talking anxiously on their cell phones. The crowd, although large, was quieter and more orderly than the one he had just left behind in Delhi.
The chauffeur took his luggage cart and pushed it briskly through the terminal out to the waiting limousine. Raj sat tall in the back seat, enjoying his first moments of freedom and absorbing the reality of a new life.
The limo transported Raj through a collage of red temples, open meat markets, street merchants, bicycles and exotic smells. When he arrived at his uncle’s downtown suite, he was greeted at the door by two people he recognized but did not know. The physical similarity between his uncle and his father was striking.
His uncle greeted him with a warm handshake and stepped close enough to whisper in Raj’s ear. “News of the scandal in your father’s company has not spread this far. No one in Beijing will hold you accountable, Raj.”
“They shouldn’t have held me accountable there either,” Raj muttered under his breath. He remembered the painful sting of Amar’s fist as it split his lip, while the other boys crowded around, held him down and jeered at him, calling him the son of a “dirty” businessman. He wouldn’t easily forget the look on his mother’s face when he arrived home from school that day, his face bloody and his uniform covered in dirt.
People are jealous of success, Raj thought. Men of power like my father will always be criticized and even attacked. He gave his uncle a small smile. Unlike his father, Raj’s uncle had decided to follow the footsteps of Raj’s grandfather into humanitarian work. What does he know about the challenges of the business world? Raj thought.
Auntie offered to show Raj to his room. He sat on the bed and caught his breath, relieved to be alone. He watched as the housekeeper unpacked his clothing and each familiar cardigan, shirt and undergarment made its way, neatly folded, into the dark, antique, wooden Chinese wardrobe. The bed was piled high with exquisite red and gold silk cushions and the floor was decorated with an ornamental Chinese carpet that stretched to each corner of the room. He nodded, pleased with the grandeur and royalty of his new home, then changed his clothes and joined his aunt and uncle for tea.
“Hey, Em, time to get up,” yelled Tess as she bounced on the mound of comforter somewhere between head and body. Emily’s little sister was already dressed and ready. “Wake up, sleepy head!” she sang. “Time to get ready to go.”
Emily sat bolt upright and looked at her clock. 5:30. Woah! I better get moving, she thought as she tried to disentangle her body from the blankets.
“Get off, get off!” Emily said, excitement shooting through her long limbs. Tess tumbled onto the floor in a noisy heap, her red hair tussled and her pink sweater bunched at the neck, making her look like a fluffy stuffed animal.
Today was the day of their big move to China. Only a few weeks ago, Emily’s father had announced news of a job offer he couldn’t refuse. He would be managing a massive damn project in the western region near Tibet. When he had asked the girls to come Emily knew instantly that she would accompany him, but Tess had lingered over the decision, unsure if she wanted to leave their mom and all her friends.
The many conversations leading up to their departure had been coloured by Tess’s vision of Imperial China, filled with details from children’s stories she had read with their mom. Emily half hoped they would find themselves in a world of silk gowns, red lanterns and dragons, in spite of what she knew of modern China.
Whatever it was like, she knew it would be a huge contrast to the comfortable little Canadian seaport city of Halifax where she had lived the fifteen years of her life. She was eager for a change and was especially looking forward to the international school she and Tess would be attending in Beijing.
She quickly brushed her hair and teeth. Then, as she pulled on her black yoga pants and a favourite blue sweater, she took a final mental snapshot of her room. She would remember the lilac walls, the tubular bed, the ornaments on her bookshelf and the butterfly kite hanging from the ceiling. She looked through the window and past the broad leaves of the maple tree onto their little backyard. She could see a sliver of the ocean in the distance. She would miss the smell of sea air.
But she knew her childhood room would await her return at Christmas. Until then, her mom would be alone in the empty house, a keeper of the past, like mothers everywhere.
The banister offered a swift ride to the front hallway. Emily dismounted quickly in case her mother noticed and walked nonchalantly into the kitchen just as her mom entered from the other side.
“Good morning, sweetheart.” She pulled Emily into a big hug.
“Hey, Mom.” Emily allowed herself to be squished in her mother’s embrace. She loved her mother’s smell, a mixture of spring and soap.
“You’re going to have a fantastic year,” said Mom as she poured a cup of coffee. “Give my regards to the Great Wall.”
Tess bounced into the kitchen. “You’ll come and visit, won’t you, Mom?”
“We’ll talk on Skype as often as you want, okay?” Mom caught Tess as she leapt into her arms and gave her a long hug. Tess pulled away and dragged her bag to the front door, which opened to reveal her father.
“Hey, girls!” he called brightly. “Are you ready?”
Tess jumped into her father’s outstretched arms, squealing. Emily followed closely and stood on tiptoes to hug her dad. A light rain had sprinkled the collar of his shirt and her cheeks were moist when she pulled away.
The girls’ parents exchanged a momentary glance, acknowledging the significance of the moment. Before the divorce they had travelled the world together as a couple and later as a family. After the divorce Mom decided to make a home base for the girls and dedicate herself to the nursing profession. That was when their dad started travelling on his own and finding work in other countries.
Emily turned to hug her mom goodbye. Thankfully it was only a few months ‘til Christmas. Tess held onto her mother until the last minute, when Dad yelled for her to hurry up. They got in the taxi and slowly drove away from their snug little house. Emily waved goodbye to the only life she had ever known.
Emily swung her feet to the floor beside her bed, only to discover them dangling in midair. It was then that she remembered she was sleeping on the top bunk of the bed she now shared with Tess in their new apartment in Beijing. So much for space and privacy, she thought. She dropped to the floor and pulled a fresh T-shirt over her groggy head.
While Emily patted her hair flat with both hands, Tess bounced on the lower bunk and shouted, “Hurry, Em, hurry.”
Tess had seen the shimmering backs of goldfish in the courtyard pond when they arrived and she was determined to visit them. Emily dragged her feet as she followed her sister out of their bedroom into the open, marble floored space that was their new living room. Massive jade plants lined the room, standing like sentries in ornate red and gold lacquered pots. The windows revealed a dizzying height and an indistinguishable view of the cityscape.
Emily was glad to see Tess’s enthusiasm but her internal clock was stuck twelve hours behind, telling her that it was time to sleep. “Give me a minute, Tess,” she said. Pushing past her fatigue, she followed Tess to the elevator, down thirty-three floors, through the lobby, past the uniformed doorman and out into the hot dry air of Beijing.
Her senses were assaulted by the dust and the unfamiliar smells and clamorous sounds of the city, none of which she had noticed through her jet lag the night before. Twenty-four hours of continuous white noise in airplanes and airports had numbed her senses. The taxi ride from the airport to the apartment had been a potpourri of blurry images mixed with diesel fumes until the moment when her head hit the pillow and she fell into a heavy sleep.
As she stood beside the kidney-shaped pool and watched the goldfish swim in circles under floating lotus leaves, her pores opened, drinking in the atmosphere and the potential of a new life.
Solomon stood in the kitchen with his mother. She was arranging coffee cups on the special tray used only for the traditional coffee ceremony. Solomon’s younger brother ran into the room.
“Mom, Mom! There’s a letter for Solomon!” Ben yelled with excitement. He was out of breath, having run from the post office.
“What could it be?” she asked, smiling.
When she saw the Chinese characters in the corner of the envelope she knew immediately that it was the confirmation letter they had been waiting for. It was the last step in their preparations for the big move to China. Ben’s letter had arrived earlier in the week and now, with Solomon’s letter, everything was in place for them to leave Addis Ababa and begin their new life.
Solomon’s dream was to become a teacher like his father. His dad had created and served as the director of an international school in Addis until he had been asked to work with the American embassy. He had spent the last years of his life developing scholarship funds for Ethiopian kids to go to international schools around the world.
Solomon was bright and had received one of the scholarships. After his father’s death, the embassy had offered his mom a staff position in their embassy in Beijing.
Solomon lifted Ben up so he could reach the cupboard and get the breakfast plates. Their young cousin, Fantu, entered the room. “Auntie, the coffee is ready for you to pour.”
Solomon helped Ben carry the tray of porridge and injera, the round thin bread made from teff flour, out to the back of the house where the powerful aroma of incense and coffee greeted them. Fantu had spent most of the past hour preparing coffee. First she had spread fresh grass on the concrete floor then made a charcoal fire and placed a small roasting oven on it filled with fresh coffee beans. Bits of broken incense sent up little clouds of smoke as they sizzled in the fire. Finally she neatly placed the crushed, roasted beans in the coffee pot.
Solomon’s mom came from the coffee growing region in southwestern Ethiopia. She loved the ritual of coffee making and Solomon watched as she took the pot from Fantu and began to pour the coffee. She is like a queen holding court, he thought, as they settled in to discuss their upcoming journey. The faint breeze from the highlands moved the air.
His mother looked at him intently. Her eyes sparkled when she looked at Solomon, her eldest son, the man of the house. “Will you be all right, leaving your friends behind?” She continued before Solomon could answer. “You know this is a good work opportunity for me, and the scholarship will provide a good education for you, just like your father would have wanted.”
“I’ll be okay, Mom. Don’t worry.” Life had been so much easier when his dad was alive. His mom worked so hard now, yet her salary barely covered their basic costs of living. Life was not easy for a single mother in Ethiopia. Although he wanted to help, no one wanted to hire a fifteen-year-old boy part time when so many young men needed jobs.
“You wear your name well, Solomon,” his mother said. “You have always been a king in my eyes. Your father would be very proud of you.”
Solomon had quickly filled the role his reliable father had once played, helping around the house and taking care of Ben. His father’s death had been sudden, following a short and painful bout with cancer. The family had little time to mourn as they pulled together, bound by the extra effort required to keep the small household going. The move to China represented a new start, a new life, and would put some distance between them and the combined burden of economic hardship and painful memories.
“I’ll finish packing,” Solomon said as he finished his coffee. He slipped into the back room of their small row house and wondered what this new chapter of his life would hold.
The doorman took their suitcases from the taxi and placed them on the luggage trolley. The hotel was a new building, flat and wide like an industrial warehouse but with a bright red facade and an entranceway framed with two white marble columns.
The lobby screamed with bright lights and Solomon rubbed his jetlagged eyes. Red leather couches were clustered in sitting areas surrounded by bamboo plants and small fountains. The background music sounded universally familiar, like the music in the airport and in the department stores in Addis.
This hotel would be home for the first couple of weeks until Solomon’s mother found them a suitable place to live. The embassy would help them find a good apartment with the inevitable ayi as they would need someone to cook, clean and shop at the market for them.
“Hey, Solomon, let’s eat!”
Ben pointed to a sign indicating the breakfast buffet and pulled Solomon to follow him, leaving their mother to check in. Ben’s eyes widened when he saw the sea of fresh fruits, pastries, custards and cakes.
“We can’t now, Ben. We have to wait for Mom and get our luggage up to the room. Besides, how can you be hungry after sitting so long and all that food we had on the plane?” He thought of the pastry that had bent in his mouth like cardboard.
“Do you think it will be here tomorrow too?” asked Ben, his face falling at the thought of leaving so much food uneaten.
“I think it’s here every day, Ben. I think we’ll get to know this buffet really well. How ‘bout tomorrow I challenge you to see who can find the sweetest bun on the pastry tray? And then we can try a different one every day until we know which one is really the best of them all. Are you up for it?”
Ben looked up at his big brother with a mixture of glee and adoration.
“Yes, Solomon,” he said earnestly. “We’ll try each pastry until we know which one is the best.”
The brothers quickly walked through the lobby to join their mother at the elevator that would take them home.
Mei Ling stood on the small balcony of her family’s apartment and looked out at the Beijing skyline. It stretched like a blurry line across the horizon, punctuated here and there by tall apartment buildings and construction cranes. She was silent, quite separate from the noise and confusion below.
Mei Ling was born in Vietnam. Her family had moved to Beijing when she was four years old. They lived near the old city, the hutongs, and watched daily as the old buildings were torn down to create space for the luxury apartments of the newly wealthy middle class.
As an only child, Mei Ling lived a carefully structured life, planned by her parents whose priority in life was to see their daughter succeed in a region where competition was fierce. Like many Asian students, Mei Ling’s evenings and weekends were devoted to tutoring.
Her parents hoped that her math and science marks would one day be high enough to guarantee her a position in a foreign university. Or allow her to compete for a good position in a multinational software company like the one where they both worked. Mei Ling carried the weight of her parents’ hopes on her shoulders, and she worked hard to fulfill their expectations.
She sat on one of the two white plastic chairs that shared the tiny balcony with a laundry rack, air conditioning unit and a storage closet. Her parents worked late most nights and she had decided to take a short break from practicing her violin. The air conditioner whirred next to her, purring like an overgrown kitten while tiny streams of water dripped along the side, forming a small pool at her feet.
Mei Ling would be entering grade ten this year at the international school she had attended all her life. Familiar with its rhythms and culture, she knew all the teachers and students, having observed them carefully over the years. Although her shyness and tight tutoring schedule limited her social life, the return to school each year brought the excitement of potential new friends. She smiled quietly to herself in eager anticipation of this year’s batch of new students.
Daring to take a deeper breath than was healthy in the polluted city air, she wiped a thin film of sweat from her forehead. As she reached to slide open the patio door she saw the reflection of her flat Asian face and bowl cut hair. She whispered aloud her mother’s often repeated pronouncement, Mei Ling, beauty is finite, while knowledge is infinite. Then she went inside to finish her practice time.
During the week before school Mei Ling lost herself in organizing her school supplies, sitting in her room labelling each binder, folder and notebook with her name, her grade and a small drawing to indicate its intended use. Arrayed on the floor around her were notebooks for science, math, English, history, Mandarin and biology, each placed next to its respective binder. She hadn’t chosen physics this year, much to her father’s dismay, but she had pleased him by choosing advanced math and biology instead.
This total focus on school was a way of life for Mei Ling; it was only in meeting non-Asian students at school that she realized this was not how everyone lived. Many of the other students enjoyed free evenings to socialize, hang out at the mall or spend time online. Mei Ling, on the other hand, had extra math tutoring on Monday and Friday nights, violin lessons on Tuesday and Wednesday and English tutoring on Thursday. The weekend was dedicated to spending time with her parents and more tutoring.
She wondered what her classmates did when they went to the mall after school, but she knew her parents would never allow her the freedom to find out. Her sudden longing for social connections was beginning to cause tension in their relationship. Her request for permission to go to the mall one day after school at the end of the last term was greeted with a resounding no. This simple act of seeking greater independence had intensified her parents’ apprehension about her future and their constant vigilance of her time.
She arranged her Little Kitty pens and erasers in their matching pencil case and attached a small plastic kitten ornament to the zipper handle. With a smile of satisfaction she placed everything in an orderly pile on her desk in anxious anticipation of the first day of school and the possibility of a new life filled with friends.
As Mei Ling prepared her school supplies, Raj toured the city in the back of his uncle’s limousine, Solomon helped his family settle into their temporary home and Emily investigated the streets around her apartment complex with Tess. Each of them was filled with hopes for the future.
On the first day of school Emily stood in front of the mirror, wearing a dark green polo shirt with black pants, her new school uniform. She was trying to fix her hair in a way that would soften the hard outlines of the uniform.
Emily noticed Tess in the mirror, standing behind her. “I hate this uniform. We both look exactly the same.”
“I think that’s the point, Em,” said Tess, ever wise, as ten-yearold girls can be. “It’s supposed to take away class differences and make us all look the same.” Tess smiled, happy to look like her big sister.
As she boarded the bus—one of a fleet of sixty minivans sent out by the school to retrieve students from around the city—Emily was uncomfortably aware of the boxy green shirt hanging over her waistband and wondered how it could look so much better on the other girls she saw on the bus. She studied them carefully, noticing that one girl had twisted the bottom of the shirt to make it hang on a diagonal, and another had tucked it in and made it billow above the waistband of her pants. These were fashion modifications foreign to Emily, whose wardrobe had relied heavily on sculpted T-shirts and jeans. Defeated, Emily settled into the box she was wearing
The international school was situated in the countryside several kilometres outside the city. After the hour-long ride, Emily was happy to stretch her stiff legs.
Solomon noticed that he and Ben were the only ones entering the school with the brown skin of Ethiopia. He looked everywhere, his radar attempting to detect other similar faces, but they were mostly white and Asian. Instinctively he put a protective arm around Ben’s shoulder, letting it fall when his little brother ran ahead with the new friend he had met on the bus. Solomon walked slowly toward the school and wished, not for the first time, that he was as carefree as his brother. As he entered the school he caught a quick glimpse of another dark face emerging from a limousine.
Raj watched the buses arrive from the back seat of Uncle’s limo. As the students disembarked he could see by the variety of skin and hair colours that they were from many different countries. Although he had attended a prestigious private school in Delhi, this was the first time he would attend school with people from different cultures.
Mei Ling arrived alone; her father left her at the front door where he would return to pick her up after school. Their schedules were coordinated like a finely oiled machine. Although she lived as far from the school as many of the other students and was entitled to ride in one of the minivans, her mother insisted she drive to school with her father. For her parents this daily ritual enshrined the importance of her education. For Mei Ling it was just another lost opportunity to make friends.
The first day of school followed the predictable pattern. Homeroom assignments were announced, punctuated by shrieks of joy from friends who discovered a shared homeroom and moans of misery from those torn apart. This was followed by the semester’s rotation of classes, then locker assignments and a quick tour of the building. Finally the morning ended with a school assembly.
The hallways teemed with nervous energy as students filed into the auditorium. Their restless eyes flitted from face to face, searching for friends, new and old.
Raj sauntered to the auditorium. A natural order had quickly established itself around him, and he was followed by a handful of boys who had been drawn immediately to his authoritative presence.
Emily was amazed by the number of different languages she heard spoken that morning. She waited in line next to the other new girl in her class and they laughed quietly together. Her name was Laura and she had just arrived from Denmark for her first year in an international school. Laura was as lost as Emily when they met in homeroom and a natural affinity had led them into easy conversation.
Solomon stood out in line, taller than all his classmates except for one, a boy with a surfer tan and sun bleached hair. When he noticed Solomon staring at him he loped across the stream of students to say hello, a warm smile on his face.
Mei Ling waited in line next to Chen, another Vietnamese girl in her class. They had been assigned the same homeroom several times over the years and had formed a quiet solidarity, one that required no effort to maintain. With the same all-consuming focus on academic achievement they hadn’t spent much time together over the years, even though school cliques were usually formed around language of comfort.
The second day of school was the first day of classes. Raj was particularly curious about math class, his favourite subject. But as he entered the classroom he cringed with disgust at the walls lined with hockey sticks. Clearly Mr. Brown was a fan.
The teacher gesticulated with enthusiasm as he explained his new methods for teaching math. Raj rolled his eyes when Mr. Brown asked them to display their calculations on the whiteboard desktops. Why can’t we use the old method and work in private? wondered Raj. He recognized a kindred spirit when the Chinese girl sitting directly across from him rolled her eyes as well. She quickly lowered her head when he looked at her.
At the start of second period, Raj was worried that he would encounter another “new age” teacher like Mr. Brown. He was relieved when he met his biology teacher. A short, round, elderly Indian gentleman with big dark-rimmed glasses, Mr. Mathews started the class by saying, “Now, my dear friends” and continued in a fatherly manner to describe his more traditional methods for teaching biology. Ahhh, thought Raj, now that’s more like it.
After years at the school, Mei Ling knew all the teachers. So when she entered Mr. Wilson’s history class for second period, her trepidation was well-founded. Mr. Wilson’s reputation preceded him, and she was nervous to be sitting directly in front of him.
Mr. Wilson was the grade ten history teacher. He was a renaissance man, a jazz musician at night and a font of knowledge about obscure historical facts during the day. He often burst unexpectedly into song as a way to make a point or would ask students to do something equally intimidating, like stand in front of the class and reveal everything about last night’s homework assignment.
During the first class he informed them, “Attendance will count for thirty per cent of your grade, and the rest will be based equally on class participation and your final assignment.”
He paused for effect. “Of course, the majority of your mark for participation will be earned in October when the entire grade ten population will spend the day walking the perimeter of the school property to re-enact Mao’s eight–thousand-mile Long March.”
Mr. Wilson’s eyes sparkled with enthusiasm, but the day-long learning journey didn’t sound like much fun to Mei Ling.
By lunch Solomon was exhausted, although happy with his teachers and classes. In particular he was looking forward to the Long March. What a great way to learn something that would have been pretty boring otherwise, he thought as he entered the cafeteria.
When he saw Ben bounding toward him he pulled a small stash of money from his pocket. His mom had given him enough to buy lunch for both of them, a temporary measure until they had an apartment and could make lunch at home. He gave some money to Ben so he could buy his own lunch and sit with his new friends.
Solomon looked around the cafeteria, aware that this was one of those make or break moments, where the choice of where to sit could be a curse or a blessing for the rest of the school year.
“Hey, Solomon! Come on over.” He turned to see Shane, the tall, blond-haired guy he had met outside the auditorium. He was sitting at a table filled with what was evidently the school’s basketball team.
Emily bumped into a tall black student as she entered the cafeteria in search of a place to sit.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, fumbling to put change in his pockets. She smiled at him, taking in his height and soft nervous smile; it was she who should have apologized.
“No problem.” She stepped out of his way, adjusted her bag over her shoulder and looked around the cafeteria anxiously.
She noticed that some of the girls were fidgeting with their cell phones in the food line, pretending they knew the routine, not wanting to appear nervous, uncertain where to sit. She felt equally self-conscious. But she refused to let it show as she glanced around the room, considering whom to sit with. After several seconds she recognized some people from her homeroom and walked over to join them. She smiled when one of the boys welcomed her by sliding along the bench to make room for her to sit.
After lunch, Emily set off in search of her math room. As she rounded the corner outside the classroom she bumped into an Indian guy who was talking on his cellphone, waving his hands as he spoke. She couldn’t help but notice his large silver ring.
“Watch where you’re going,” he growled at her.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, caught off guard.
Rather than returning a smile or a friendly gesture to let her off the hook, he just stared at her, his sneer erasing his good looks. She stared back for a moment, caught in the intensity of his smouldering, dark eyes.
“Sorry,” she said again and slipped into Ms. Dodd’s math class a couple minutes late.
Once Emily had taken her seat, Ms. Dodds started the class with something she called a “mad minute.” The students were given sixty math questions to answer in one minute. Emily successfully completed only two of the sixty questions and wondered what her good math grades in Canada were worth here. She hid her results and felt even worse when she saw that most of the students had completed at least fifteen questions.
Emily forced a smile. She noticed the tall guy she had bumped into at lunch sitting across the room; he had the same discouraged look on his face.
At the end of the day the school lobby looked like an airport departure lounge as students sat in small groups surrounded by their schoolbags, waiting for the minivans to depart. When the bell rang signalling departure time, they shot out the door.
Exhausted, Emily trailed behind them to the bus, searching the crowd for Tess’s distinctive red curls. There was the tall guy again, with his arm around a boy who had to be his brother.
Mei Ling held her books close to her chest as she navigated through the throng of students to find her dad’s car in front of the school. She noticed a limousine parked next to him and wondered who would be coming to school in such style.