I sat in my imaginary sandbox underneath the twin orange slides on the school playground. Last Saturday was my first time seeing Harry Potter, and I was trying to recreate the scene where Harry writes himself a happy birthday message in the dust. I watched as the other first graders laughed their way through a seventh game of hopscotch. I spent every recess in my imaginary sandbox counting everyone else’s hopscotch rounds. My friends Rose and Leyna sat inside the grey, donut-shaped wall that surrounded the playground. Bored of watching other people enjoy themselves, I decided to go talk to them. But as I got closer, I noticed that they had a book in their hands.
“What are you doing?” I pointed to the book.
Leyna glowered at me and hid the book from me. “None of your business. Only Rose and I can read this book.”
I crossed my arms and snapped, “Who made you the ultimate ruler of books?”
“It’s not like we don’t want you to see it,” Rose said. “But, you don’t even know how to read, so you can’t see it.” Rose shared a look with Leyna and they both giggled.
“I can read!” I stomped my foot, and they both started laughing.
“Then prove it,” Leyna handed me the book.
I looked at the first page of the book, but all of the letters jumped around the page and rearranged themselves until they no longer looked like individual letters, but rather a jumbled blob of my fears.
“L-L-I-O,” I stuttered, hot tears falling down my cheeks while Rose and Leyna cackled like a pair of drunken hyenas.
“I can’t believe you don’t know how to read?” Leyna asked, not even attempting to control her own laughter.
“S-s-stop it,” I stammered.
“Look, she doesn’t know how to talk either,” Rose howled.
“You’re stupid,” Leyna said.
I turned to walk away, but Rose said, “Luna, come back. We were only joking. You’re my bestest friend.”
How innocent her face looked when she said it, her big doe eyes staring at me, a sweet smile plastered onto her face. Part of me wanted to stop Leyna from stealing my “friend,” but before I could respond, the two of them laughed again. I used all of the strength in my legs to run away from them as fast as I could. I swung open the bathroom door, ran into a bathroom stall, and stayed there until recess was over.
That day I told myself that a kingdom of ladybugs inside my body had frozen my throat, and that’s why no words would come out when I tried to read. I wish I still believed that. From what I remember, Rose and I were close in first grade. What confused me was that Rose was always nice to me–except when Leyna was around. When she stared at me with her big, brown eyes that day, I figured she was about to stand up for me. I secretly hoped that she would push Leyna into the road and let her get run over by a massive truck.
Almost a year later, I sat in Mrs. Sontag’s second-grade classroom during the first week of school.
“Luna, can you read the next paragraph?” Mrs. Sontag asked. The whole class swiveled around to face me; they were a sea of small, voracious creatures, eager to hear the rest of the story.
“Why would you ask her? She can’t even read!” my classmate Bryce said. Oh, Bryce. Little did he know that reading had suddenly “clicked” with me during the summer. Thanks to this new development, and with the help of my mom, I was now quite precocious for my age.
“Give her a chance,” Mrs. Sontag said. She smiled at me.
I imagined the ladybugs trying to freeze my throat, but this time I wouldn’t let them stop me. I opened my mouth, and the words spilled out of me like the pounding waves of the ocean. The whole class looked at me, stunned. I was so caught up in the action of the story that I didn’t realize I had read two pages when all Mrs. Sontag had asked for was a paragraph.
What brought me back to reality was Mrs. Sontag’s soothing voice. “Sweetie, why don’t we give someone else a turn?”
I looked up from the book and saw the other kids whispering to each other. There is no way to describe the overwhelming joy that surged through me in that moment. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was an intelligent and important person. The wonderful world of books was finally accessible to me, not just to kids like Rose and Leyna. I soon became the most avid reader in the class, and at sixteen, I now read at the level of a college graduate. If only Leyna could see me now. After first grade, Leyna moved to Germany and could no longer torture me. Rose and her family took a one-year trip to France, and she came back a different person. She apologized for being mean and became a true friend. Maybe she learned how it felt to struggle to be good at something, being surrounded by people who spoke French so much better than she did.
But I’ve never forgotten how I struggled to read that year and what that taught me.
Sometimes, even now, when I’m standing in front of the class, all eyes upon me as I’m about to read something I wrote myself, I feel that kingdom of ladybugs threatening to seize my throat again. But I swallow hard, remember what it felt like to read that day in Mrs. Sontag’s class, to know I had joined that secret club of imaginary worlds and boundless journeys–and my voice comes.
Luna is a high school sophomore in Southern California. She has also been published in Literally Stories. Luna has been writing since she was nine and she hula hoops to relieve stress.