She didn’t belong there, in the small room on the third floor of the Victorian house in Denver, sitting at the too-large table, surrounded by chattering middle schoolers still trying to figure out how to get each others’ attention. They were rich and wearing summer dresses and floppy haircuts, and she was poor and pulled the sleeves of her purple winter coat down over her knuckles in a fruitless attempt to hide herself.
She smelled of body odor, which isn’t surprising given her coat, the lack of air conditioning in the top floor classroom in July, and the surprise attack of hormones on a middle schooler’s body.
The class grew louder and a few students shifted seats away from her as the smell and the heat became stronger. Her name was Marina, and everything about that room was telling her she didn’t belong.
“OI!” I shouted, banging my hand on the table. “Let’s get started.”
I opened the two tiny windows in the now-silent room to create a draft and sat down next to her. “Today we’re rewriting fairy tales. I want you to think of a fairy tale, and by changing the details, change the meaning of the story.”
We went around the room, discussing Jack and The Beanstalk, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretl, and the lessons embedded in each story. Some of the students got louder as ideas snapped into focus. Others grew quiet and fidgeted with their pens. Marina’s white Bic with blue ink was still in her left hand as her brown eyes squinted at me, thinking.
I had instantly liked her. Of the dozen or so students in the summer writing class I was teaching, Marina was the only one there on scholarship. English was her second language. Her parents never came inside to hobnob with the teachers and directors before and after class. She didn’t speak with anyone really, now that I think of it. She just opened the door with her little fingers sticking out of that coat sleeve, walked upstairs, sat down, did her work and left — every day that week.
I remembered being her age, not dressing like the other kids, eating the school-provided lunches, attacking the school day with the seriousness of a miner heading into a coal pit. I wanted to see her laugh, but I could barely get a smile out of her.
After 20 minutes had passed, the kids finished up their stories and I asked the boy to my left if he’d kick off the readings. When the stories — some funny, some gross, some unfinished, all fun to hear — had made their way around the room, it was Marina’s turn.
Her story, a reimagining of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” continues to bring a tear to my eye when I think about it a dozen years after the fact. Goldilocks was still in a place she wasn’t welcome, but her testing of the beds, the chairs and the porridge was now a wild stroke of luck for the bears — now they knew which chair was broken, which porridge was poisoned, which bed was filled with bugs. They thanked Goldilocks and wanted to be friends.
Marina would be in college now, I think. I hope she’s still writing and that’s she’s found her laugh.
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