Rosemary Enrico sat on her daughter’s bed, massaging her neck and shoulders. Balls of crumpled paper remained on Dawn’s desk. So did a broken pencil. A large black backpack stuffed with books and workbooks rose from the floor at the foot of the bed. Tonight, yet again, homework had crowded out a bedtime bath. Despite Rosemary’s efforts, the muscles across Dawn’s back held their tension.
“What’s wrong, honey?”
Still prone, her face hidden by her pillow, Dawn said, “I wish I could crawl back into your belly and be born smart.”
“You already are smart!”
“No, Mom.” Dawn rolled over. “I’m not.”
“What about the word problems I just read to you? Right away, you knew whether to add, subtract, multiply, or divide. That’s proof you’re smart.”
“The other kids can read word problems—by themselves—and I can’t.” Dawn turned onto her side, pulled the blankets over her head, and adjusted them, leaving only her nose visible.
When Dawn’s breathing deepened, Rosemary eased off the bed and tiptoed out of the room. On her way down the hall, she peeked into the room her sons shared. Sammy slept on his back. His dark hair, still damp from the shower, curled across his forehead. Kindergarten exhausted him. On the other side of the room, the neat side, Kurt sat at his desk reading science fiction stories intended for high school students—not children just beginning fifth grade.
“Kurt,” Rosemary whispered.
He looked up from his book.
“I’m going to wait for Dad out in front. Please come for me if Dawn starts crying.”
Closing the front door, Rosemary sat down on the stoop. The concrete had already lost its September’s warmth. She went back in for a sweater and the baby blanket stashed in the front closet for nights like this. Spreading the blanket across the stoop, Rosemary sat down. Gusts off Lake Michigan ripped leaves, some red, some yellow, and many more still green, from the nearby maples and dropped them onto the lawns below.
Neighbors, who came home before dinner, had parked with their wheels turned toward the curb along the northern side of the hill where it plunged toward the web of railroad tracks hidden by the surrounding prairie. The railroad property and the small factories linked by the tracks to the mainline on the west encircled Cottage Grove, separating and insulating it from the city of Chicago.
“A great night for sitting outside,” Frank joined Rosemary on the stoop. “I stayed late to fix that leaky faucet in the greenhouse. As I was about to leave, the phone rang. A new customer gave me a huge order for a December wedding—the centerpieces, bridal bouquet, corsages for the mothers and bridesmaids, and boutonnières for the fathers and groomsmen.”
Rosemary nodded. “Before she fell asleep, Dawn said she wants to crawl back into my womb and be born smart.”
Frank wrapped his arm around Rosemary. “And you said she’s already smart.”
“Of course, I did! The problem is that she doesn’t feel smart.”
“Try not to worry, Rosie.”
“Frank, do you remember what Dawn’s teacher said last spring?”
“That she bet by the time school started this fall Dawn would be reading everything in sight. Okay, honey, so it didn’t happen over the summer, but it will. She’ll read when she’s ready. It’s only September. Give her time to get used to being back in school.” Frank removed his shoes and socks. “Winter’s coming. We might as well enjoy being barefoot while we can.”
“Come on, Frank. Stick to the subject.”
“Worrying about Dawn won’t do her any good.”
“Waiting for her to be ready isn’t doing her any good either. Think about it. If she were three and not walking, we’d be going from doctor to doctor to find out why. She’s in third grade and not reading. Waiting and waiting is criminal, like child abuse.”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit extreme?” Frank stood up. “Can’t you accept that she’s a slow bloomer?”
“If she was a happy slow bloomer, sure, but she’s not. She doesn’t walk around the house singing anymore.”
“But Rosie, if you send her for testing, she’ll think she’s different from the other kids.”
“Believe me, she knows she’s different.”
“You’ve got to reassure her. Last Sunday, when she was fretting, I told her how tomato plants of different varieties bear fruit at different rates.”
“How comforting is that?”
“Let me finish. She asked what I’d do if I had two tomato plants—one without any blossoms and the other with four little green tomatoes. I said that the little late blooming plant might very well turn out to have the biggest, best-tasting tomatoes.”
“If that happened in our garden, or in your greenhouse, I doubt if you’d sit back and wait. I bet you’d give the plant more of something—sun or water or fertilizer. Be honest. Wouldn’t you do something to help it along?”
He looked sheepish. “I probably would.”
“We’ve got to get her tested. It’s the only way to find out what’s wrong.”
“Don’t say ‘wrong.’ Think how she’d feel if she heard you.”
“Maybe she’d feel relieved.”
“The way you worry over her saps her confidence.”
“That’s not fair, Frank. I didn’t worry until she started having problems.”
Miss Smelnich dictated the words like an auctioneer, super-fast, one after the next. There was no time to check the alphabet cards tacked above the chalkboard, but that didn’t worry Dawn. Mr. Vandermolen never made a fuss about which way the letters faced. He circled the letters that turned out to be backwards and gave Dawn the papers to correct for homework.
William’s pencil skritched across the paper as if he was writing extra loud on purpose so Miss Smelnich would know how fast he was. After each word, he put his pencil back in its place with a smug click. The click came before Dawn managed more than a letter or two. The substitute sneezed, three big ones in a row. William leaned way across the aisle, staring at Dawn’s paper.
“Cut it out,” Dawn hissed.
“Now, now, children.” The substitute swooped down on Dawn. “What is the matter?”
“William’s bothering me.”
The substitute’s eyebrows squeezed together, forming folds like the living room drapes.
“He looked at my paper.”
“William Marshall, I am shocked.” The substitute put her hands on her hips. “Your mother would not be pleased to hear that you’ve been accused of cheating.”
“My mother would not be pleased to hear that you’ve insulted me. Compare our papers. Mine is one hundred percent correct. Every single word on Dawn’s paper is misspelled.”
“Every word, William?” Dawn shook her head. “Maybe you need a trip to the eye doctor.”
Pasty-pale William looked down his nose at Dawn. She squinched her eyes shut for a moment and imagined William noseless, like a broken Greek statue she saw once in a movie.
The substitute picked up both papers. With a smile and a nod, she put William’s paper back on his desk. For the longest time, she stood staring at Dawn’s paper, tapping the metal ring at the top of her pencil against her two front teeth.
“See me at recess time, dear,” she told Dawn. Nothing bad happened during recess. The substitute told Dawn to copy each word three times. Neatly. If Mr. Vandermolen had been there, he would have insisted that Dawn try to read each word. That would have taken so long she’d have been stuck copying the whole list over for homework. The substitute took out a thick book and read. Dawn copied until her hand cramped, shook it to get rid of the pain, and managed to finish just as the kids poured back into the room. The rest of the day, Miss Smelnich called on William and the other smart kids for all the answers.