My name is Reese, and I am eight and a half. Right now I'm in the third grade, but in two months I'll be in 4th. Every morning Mom reminds me and my older sister, Cassie, who's in 5th grade, to come straight home right after school and wait for her call. She works across town at a senior retirement home, so she is usually not here when we get back from school. But always, at 3:45 on the dot, she calls to make sure that we got here safely. She worries about us because some of the people at our apartment complex are in gangs and they sometimes argue, fight, and shoot guns. Mom says that it seems like the police are here every other day.
Just yesterday the man at the apartment across from us was
handcuffed and taken away by two police officers. My friend and classmate, Mason, who lives downstairs from me in 5C, said that this was not his first time. Mom says that the landlord needs to evict, or get rid of, those kinds of people. She also says that he needs to fix up a lot of things at this place too. I think he could start by putting a fresh coat of paint on the building. To look at it now almost makes me dizzy because it is a mixture of its normal faded green and the fresh streaks of green that the man from the city uses each time he comes out to paint over the graffiti.
I dream of one day having a house that my mom and sister and I can all live in. I want one just like the gray house on the corner. A nice lady named Ms. Pratt lives there alone. She came down from Oakland three years ago to take care of her father. After he died, she inherited, or was left the house from her dad. She's a cashier at the market on the corner of Twelfth Street. On most days I try to stop in on my way home from school because she always has an open bag of candy behind the register that she hands out to the kids who come by.
Mr. Pratt was known for having the best yard on the block. His lawn was always green and freshly cut, and the purple and yellow flowers that lined his fence and circled the trees always sweetened the air on a breezy day. Ms. Pratt still keeps the yard looking that way, and when her little dog, Sammy, is outside running along the perimeter of the yard, he completes the picture of what I think a home should look like. But it just always seemed to me that this house was placed in the wrong neighborhood. It's almost as if it was here to show everyone what a home is supposed to look like. It is so different from the place where I live. Here the lawn is mostly dirt with patches of hard, yellow straw masquerading as grass. To make matters even worse, the long row of other apartments in the area all look identical to mine.
I can remember one afternoon when I got sick at school and had to be taken home by Ms. Rodriguez, the health aide. I started feeling even sicker as we left the parking lot, and she began driving down the street. In fact, I wanted to crawl under the seat and not come out. The drive seemed to take forever because she intentionally crept down the street at a snail's pace to give me enough time to point out where I lived before she passed it.
As I sat there wiping my forehead, I recognized that the slight fever that caused me to be brought home had nothing to do with the beads of sweat that now drenched my face. They had more to do with the words that were about to fly out of my mouth.
"Stop here! I live right here," I said. "The house where you see the little black dog running around."
As soon as these words shot out of my mouth, a huge voice inside of me started screaming, "WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?" As I got out of the car and closed the door, Ms. Rodriguez yelled through the window to remind me to give my mom the note that explained why I was sent home today.
"Oh, okay. Bye," I stuttered nervously. I then opened the front yard gate and stepped inside. Because Sammy and I are frequent playmates, he wagged his tail and jumped playfully up and down on my legs. I couldn't have asked for a better performance from him, and if I had it, I would have given him ten doggie treats.
"Boy, he sure is happy to see you home early today," remarked Ms. Rodriquez before giving me a wave and driving off. I turned and forced an uncomfortable grin.
Even though she had started down the street, I continued rubbing Sammy's head as if I was really into our play, but in reality, I was looking back from the corner of my eye to see if she had reached the end of the street. After she had, I stepped back out the yard, eased the gate closed and ran all the way home. As I made my way through the courtyard, some of the high school kids who get out of school earlier than I do seemed to have recognized my deception because they alerted me that my mother had gotten home an hour ago. She is usually never home by this time, but then I remembered that she was called in early this morning, so that meant that she would get off sooner. When I reached our place, I paused at the bottom of the stairwell for several minutes before climbing the stairs and entering the apartment.
I hoped that Mom, who always knew when something wasn't quite right with me, wouldn't be able to sense the lie that I had just told. The smell of my favorite meal, spaghetti, and meatballs, with garlic bread, met me as I entered the door. And to make my guilt even worse, mom's varnish rag, which was once one of my holey t-shirts, laid brown and greasy on the table that she had just finished polishing. Even though my mom had just spent eight hours on her feet, she was at the apartment cleaning and getting things ready for when Cassie and I returned from school.
Hearing the front door close, she hurried from Cassie's room, hauling the vacuum behind her.
"What are you doing here so early," she asked, her warm smile now becoming one of concern. After I told her and gave her the note, she sat me down, took my temperature, and ordered me to take off my shoes and put my feet up. She always knows how to make everything better.
A few weeks later, when I was walking home from school after basketball practice, I felt a car slow down alongside me just as I was about to turn into my apartment complex. IT WAS MRS. JOHNSON, MY TEACHER!
"Hey, Reese," she called out. "Before I passed you, I thought that I would stop and remind you about the project that's due tomorrow."
"Oh, oh, yeah… Mrs. Johnson," I stuttered, as every part of my body began to freeze. "In fact, I'm going there now to get Mason," I said, pointing to the apartment complex that I was about to go home to. "He's going to come over to my house so that we can work on it together." I just live down there in the gray house on the corner."
"Well, okay… I'll see you tomorrow," she mumbled with a somewhat puzzled look on her face.
The next day all of the kids had their projects as they filed into the classroom chattier than usual. The assignment was to create a replica, or copy, of a natural disaster. There were volcanoes, six tornadoes, four hurricanes, and maybe because we live in California, a lot of earthquake projects. Mrs. Johnson went around looking at them and asking questions before the start of the presentations.
When I got up to sharpen my pencil, I could hear her ask Mason about how things went with ours yesterday.
"It was fun," he told her. "We started off building it in my apartment and then brought it up to Reese's apartment to paint and add the collapsed buildings and people. He just lives upstairs, so it was easy to move it."
At that moment I could feel Mrs. Johnson's eyes meet mine. Her head was slightly tilted and both eyebrows were raised. I knew that look. It meant that we would need to talk.
The class presentations went well. It took us from the beginning of class until first recess to get done. As we were lining up to head out for morning recess, that's when it happened. Mrs. Johnson told everyone to walk out quietly and to remember to go to the restroom and get water. She then said, "Reese, can I talk to you for a moment?" Before going out, several kids made a point to stop and give me that look of "Oooh, you're in trouble!"
Mrs. Johnson told me to have a seat and she got right to the point.
"Reese, the other day, why did you lie to me about where you lived?"
"I know that I shouldn't have," I began, as I looked to the floor for what next to say. "I'm just real … ashamed about how that place looks."
"THERE," a voice deep inside me bellowed. "You finally said it out loud."
"See, I already knew where you live," revealed Mrs. Johnson. "I gave Cassie a ride home last week when she was leaving softball practice the same time that I was leaving school. Remember, I know her because I had her for 3rd grade before you."
Then Mrs. Johnson shocked me by sharing that she was once ashamed of the weathered trailer that she grew up in. She added that she went to great lengths to keep anyone who didn't already know where she lived from finding out.
While attending middle school she and her friends would meet up every morning and walk to school together. She always made sure that she was the first one to arrive at their meeting spot so that her friends would never see which direction she was coming from and question where she lived. And this was no easy feat because she had to wake up at 5:00 every morning to pull it off. And her excuse for why they could never come over was that her dad worked nights and slept during the day, so the house needed to be quiet.
"I also dreamed of having a so-called "real house," she said, "but my parents could never save up enough money to buy one even though they worked on their jobs for many years. Thankfully, before I got too old, I realized that the place that they created for us was a "home." So, Reese, I just wanted to share this with you because I want you to appreciate all that you have."
Mrs. Johnson also added that many of the most successful people in the world have come from humble beginnings like ours.
Although I still felt that the gray house on the corner was the best-looking house in the neighborhood, I learned that to call a place home doesn't mean that it must be a real one. It is just the name that we give to the place where we find love and happiness. In that case, I came to see that I always lived in a "home." A real nice one too.