Who I Am, Who I Will Be
I never wanted Neoschool to open for real. It was fun to read about, when it was all a dream; but there’s so much of a difference between watching the people in a storybook walk through the front doors and stepping up to them yourself, seeing them loom up above you as if they’re going to swallow you whole and never let you find your way out again. I know not all of the other kids felt this way, and the parents were really happy to find a way to make their kids smarter without waiting at an out-of-stock bookstore for a long time; but they were them, and I was me. Being Lexi the blue Acara was a job I had to do all by myself, and I didn’t want to have to do it in there.
Mama said I had to go to school so I could get an education, so I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up. She said I should choose a dream for the future, and learn how to do things so I could make it come true. But I don’t know what to dream for the future. I like being Lexi the kid, at least when I’m not in Neoschool, but I don’t think you’re allowed to be a kid when you grow up. So now I have to study for no reason at all, and I have to do it in this giant place that’s going to eat me alive.
The other kids didn’t seem to notice me much as I stepped through the doors; they were all focused on a couple of other kids who were confident enough to draw people’s attention. I didn’t really want to be noticed anyway; I wanted to find my class and see what this huge, noisy place was going to be like.
There is at least one good thing about it, though; my friend Sani is going to be here. She’s a red Uni, but she’s as proud and confident as if she were painted and friendly as if everybody else was, too. That’s her motto for life, she once said, although she said it in a different way. I’m way too nervous to remember exactly how.
We met each other in the hall on our way to math class. Basic Mathematics sounded, well... pretty basic, so I wasn’t too scared about messing it up. Sani, of course, already had a bunch of friends with her by the time she saw me, but she didn’t hesitate to call me over the moment she noticed me. I was really grateful for that, and I hurried over quickly, trying to focus on her between shy glances at the bunch of other kids who’d been chatting with her. “Hi, Sani,” I greeted her meekly, and she beamed at me as if she was really happy to see me. I’d been expecting that, though; Sani always seemed happy to see people.
“Hi, Lexi,” she called back. “Are you in this class, too?” I nodded, and she grinned even wider, making her perfect white teeth shine. “That’s awesome! I’ll have a chance to introduce you to some of my other friends- I’m sure you’ll get along great. Arin here,” she added with a toss of her head, “is studying to be an architect, so he needs to have his math down pat. He’s brilliant with division but bad with multiplication, so you two should be able to help each other out.”
I ventured a shy smile toward the green Gelert, and he grinned sheepishly back. I was amazed yet again by the way Sani could just blurt out somebody’s weakness, but show off their strength in the same sentence and find a way to fix it, all without making them feel bad. I’m good at multiplication because my mama gave me a lot of help with that to get me ready, but I always tripped over division. Still, even though Sani was trying to put us together and we needed each other's help, the thought of approaching Arin alone after class made me kind of nervous. I don’t usually go up to people I don’t know without Sani there to help me out.
Sani’s friends were already filing into the classroom, and Arin broke off the awkward stare and went to join them. Sani lingered outside for a moment, and I stayed because she did; I didn’t want to go into the crowded room alone. After the last of her other friends had gone in, she turned toward me with a knowing smile. “You’ll get along great,” she promised me again, and I bit my lip.
“You say that because getting along great is really easy for you.”
She blinked once, as if she hadn’t realized that I had a problem with that- which is weird, because Sani understands me better than just about anybody else. But then that look of smiling knowledge came back, and she told me, “Lexi, it can be really easy for you, too. We’re not that different.”
“But we are,” I protested. “Everybody gets along with you because everybody thinks you’re great. But I...” I trailed off, which gave Sani an opportunity to cut in before I could keep talking.
“Lexi,” she said, “don’t you remember what I told you my motto is?”
I frowned; I’d just been thinking about that, and I still couldn’t remember. “I’ve been trying to,” I confessed, “but I can’t.”
“Then I’ll tell you again. There are two things you have to keep in mind if you want to make friends: one is that you’re great, and the other is that everybody else is, too. That way you aren’t scared of other people, and they aren’t scared of you. Now, let’s get to class before we end up starting the day by getting into trouble.”
The thought of being late for my very first class fired me into the room like a pea from a shooter, and I made my way to the nearest pair of empty seats as quickly as I could so that I could take refuge in an inconspicuous sitting position as soon as possible. Sani, knowing that I’d sat beside an unoccupied chair for a reason, settled down beside me and was rewarded with a grateful smile. Across the room, I noticed Arin staring fixedly at the teacher’s desk, and I followed his stare to see Dr. Ballard enter and sit down. He began to talk to us about what math was and why it was important, but that was hard to follow because it wasn’t important to me, and I still didn’t see how it could help me find out who I was going to be when I grew up. I kind of envied Arin; he already knew what he was going to be.
I was kind of glad when Arin approached me after the bell rang; it was a whole lot easier that way. But I was kind of happy with myself, too, because I’d honestly been planning on going up to him and not chickening out. He asked me about the ways I remembered our multiplication tables, and then taught me some shortcuts for division. I was glad that Sani had put us together, because I knew it would make the next math lesson easier for both of us, but I still wasn’t any closer to seeing the point in all this.
The next class was a little bit harder; Mrs. Owen’s sharp voice made me kind of nervous, and off to the side I noticed Seia biting her lip as the teacher listed off the things we had to learn. Seia and I aren’t really close, but I know her well enough to know that she’s shyer than I am, and is bad at remembering things. She knew that, too, and it was making her goldenrod-yellow tail curl tightly over her feet.
“Nouns, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs and pronouns,” the red Pteri recited, her chalk clacking against the blackboard, “are the building blocks of a good vocabulary. Today, we are going to learn what each of them is, and begin to learn how to put them together.”
I honestly didn’t know what it mattered whether a word was called a noun, an adverb, or a pumpkin pie; we already knew the words themselves, and since when did people stand around asking whether a word was an adjective or a preposition? Still, I was supposed to be learning something here, so I fell back on an old habit of collecting the first letters of the list of things to learn and putting them together. Noun, adjective, preposition, conjunction, adverb, pronoun. N-A-P-C-A-P. Napcap. I could remember that.
Glancing over at Seia, I decided that maybe she could remember that, too. Remembering what kinds of words we were learning wouldn’t help the Kacheek to know what words to match with those kinds, but that could be built on later. The whole thing was pointless for me, but I knew it was important to her that she did well, so I might as well at least do something to make sitting here worthwhile.
Mrs. Owen got mad at me when she saw me whispering to Seia; but she calmed down when she found out I was helping Seia remember things. I was relieved to find out that we were going to be studying in groups anyway, which meant I didn’t have to worry about getting caught passing notes to my friend whenever we hit a tricky subject.
I should have saved all my worry for Physical Education. It was the last class of the day, and the only one I really had trouble with. Miss Stryke was kind of nice, but really enthusiastic and sometimes she forgot that Acaras have really short, stubby little legs. It’s hard to run with those, because I have to take twice as many steps to go the same distance, and my thick fur means I get hot and tired really fast. Sani joked that I might have to shave myself bald.
I really hope I don’t end up having to do that. I don’t want to keep coming back to Neoschool for myself, because I still haven’t figured out what it is I’m studying for; but Seia still needs me in Grammar and Language, and Arin didn’t seem completely comfortable with his multiplication tables, which is weird, because who can be good at division and still trip over something that’s so much easier? And Sani trusted me with a couple of her other friends, because Rai the Cloud Lupe has a hard time using a paint brush with his big, heavy paws, and Rekki the green Ixi dropped a potion and had it blow up in his face. I don’t understand why any owner or parent would sign a kid up for something that needs good hands when they don’t have any. Or why my mama would sign me up to study for my dream when I don’t have one.
But they’re here and I’m here, and if I’m going to keep helping them in class, I really don’t want to do it bald.
One thing I did learn in this class is that I’m never going to be an athlete. My lungs, legs and heart are all telling me so, and I believe them. Whatever I do, it’s going to be brain work and not body work, although the trouble with that is, brain work usually takes years of learning before you can even start. And I only have so many more years left for being Lexi the kid before I turn into Lexi the adult, and I don’t want to spend them getting ready for being grown up.
A sharp stab of pain went shooting through my foot, bringing both my thoughts and my body to a halt as I tripped over a rock and went skidding over the ground, coming to rest on the grass at the edge of the track. Whimpering, I bent forward to cradle my toes, wishing for the billionth, gazillionth time that day that my legs weren’t so darned short. All the other kids had simply stepped over the rock, and since it being there hadn’t counted for them it shouldn’t have counted for me either. But rocks don’t listen to logic very well, and toes really listen to rocks.
Seia was the first person to get turned around, because she’d been running at the rear of the pack along with me and had been as near to having to stop as I’d been. I think she was glad of a reason to rest, but her face mostly showed concern over the red mark that the rock had left on my foot. Sani didn’t stop, but snapped her wings and swooped into the air, lifting up above the other kids’ heads in response to the startled yelp I had let out as I fell. Turning in midair, she glided over to me and immediately bent down to look closely at my foot, her blue eyes narrowing slightly in a frown and then relaxing after a moment.
“It’s OK, Lexi,” she reassured me. “Just a scrape and a bit of a bruise- it isn’t broken. You might want to go to the nurse’s office, though, and get it cleaned and bandaged.”
“That’s right,” Miss Stryke agreed as she joined the little huddle that the halted kids were forming around me. “We don’t want that getting infected, and taking care of your body comes before learning new moves. But that only goes for people who aren’t fit to run,” she added with her usual brisk, stern hyperness, then pointed to the track. “Sani, take Lexi to the nurse. The rest of you, back to the track- you’ve still got two laps to go.”
The other kids groaned about this, and I couldn’t help but feel a little bit happy that I’d gotten myself hurt. At least I got some time alone with Sani instead of gasping along in a mixed mob of friends and strangers, choking on their dust.
Sani’s bigger than I am, but she still isn’t big enough to fly with me on her back, so we had to walk to the nurse’s office. She was really nice about it, though, because she let me ride on her back as she walked, just in case I’d sprained my ankle and needed to keep my weight off it. Sani’s always taking care of me, and I never seem to thank her enough.
“I’d wanted to thank you,” Sani suddenly said, cutting into my thoughts, “for taking care of my friends today.”
“What?” The word just kind of burst out of my mouth, like a way to stall for time before giving my real answer. “I didn’t really do anything- I mean, nothing like this,” I corrected myself, gesturing toward Sani before remembering that she wasn’t facing toward her back. “All I did was talk to them, and show them a few things.”
Sani shrugged, as if the situation was purely a matter of how you saw it. “Well,” she answered, “all I can say is that Rai drew a fairly good picture during recess today, and Rekki has been practicing the hoof technique that you taught him. I’d known I could count on a person with half-paws-half-hands to figure out a way that works for everyone,” she added with a backward wink. “You’re good at things like that.”
I couldn’t help but smile wryly. “That seems to be the only thing I’m good at,” I commented, hearing a hint of bitterness crawl into my voice. “I mean, I can do the stuff in the classes, but it doesn’t really feel like I’m doing anything. More like it’s all just a warmup for nothing.”
Sani frowned, keeping her head turned partly toward me to make talking easier. “So you didn’t really find anything you liked?”
I shook my head. “No... nothing I could use to make a future me.”
“Hmm.” Sani always makes that noise when she’s thinking real hard, and as she kept on walking she turned her face away from me so that she could do her thinking undistracted. Moments began to go by, and I started getting worried; if Sani couldn’t fix a problem, didn’t that mean it couldn’t be fixed at all?
If Sani can’t fix this, I wondered, then what am I going to do? Just pick the best option out of ones I don’t really like, and try to make myself become a that-subject-ist-or-ician-thing? I don’t want to do that. I envy people like Arin... sort of... but they seem to be spending all their lives getting ready for a dream that they’re going to have in the future. So is everything before that just a blank space we all use to get ready for our real lives? And what if those real lives never become real? I’m scared to bet my now life on my then life. In fact... A frown spread across my face as I completed the thought, and at the same time, Sani turned her face toward me again.
“If you haven’t come up with anything by the time school’s out today,” she offered, “maybe we could stop by my house and make a list of things you think you might like being.”
Maybe, if I hadn’t done anything, Sani would have gone on. And she might have given me an option that would have turned my life into something totally different- or maybe we would have simply wasted an afternoon. But I’ll never know, because she didn’t get to go on. She stopped, because I was shaking my head. “Sani,” I said slowly, “I don’t think I’m going to get a dream for the future.”
My friend frowned, worry wrinkling up her forehead. “Lexi,” she said, her voice tight with dismay, “you aren’t giving up, are you?”
I shook my head again, and this time I smiled. “No. I’m just changing course. I don’t want a dream for the future, because I don’t want a dream that puts my whole life way out of reach, sometime years from now. I want a dream that starts today, so I can start my real life right this minute and not have any wasted space between me and then.”
Sani just stared at me for a moment, then offered me a slow, uncertain smile. “That’s great, Lexi,” she said hesitantly, “but what kind of dream do you know of that’s like that?”
I shrugged, the pain in my foot almost totally forgotten. “I haven’t completely figured that out yet. But I do know that my friends know what they want, so maybe I’ll start with helping them get there. That can be the first part of my dream. And I can add other things later on, when I find out what they are. And that way, my dream can start out small and keep on getting bigger with me, instead of starting out too big for me to get a hold on.”
Sani’s grin grew wider, no longer nervous and forced. “That’s a good plan,” she agreed. “Maybe I’ll try it, although I still want to be a racer when I grow up. But there are plenty of other things to go for while I’m working toward that.”
I nodded, my enthusiasm for my new idea growing. “A racer sounds like a good thing to be,” I acknowledged, “although I think it’s better for an Uni than an Acara. But if you need help with anything, just tell me.”
Sani’s smile was now as wide as her face could make it, and her eyes sparkled like water under the sky. “Thanks, Lexi. And in return, I think I can help you figure something out.”
I cocked my head. I’d thought I had things pretty well figured out by now, so I was curious to see what Sani had come up with. “What’s that?”
“It seems to me that your perfect dream for the future is something you already are... had you ever considered a career as a teacher?”
I stared at her for moment. Then I burst out laughing, not because it was funny, but because it was perfect. “Yeah,” I said, “I think I can see myself doing that when I grow up.” And I could start out doing it right now.
Arin could be an architect someday. Rai could be a famous artist, and Rekki could become world renowned for his potions. When they grew up, that is. For now, they were still trying to become the people they wanted to be, warming up for their real-dream lives that would only begin on the day they reached their goals, years and years down the road.
As for me, I was Lexi the kid, and I was already everything I really wanted to be.