“Words I Don’t Have” By Ilona Agur

Written by plumtree

Topics: Uncategorized

“Akari!” My mom’s voice rings through the dull, crumbling walls of the basement. “Here is your lunch sack. Blend in, try hard, whatever you do, do not tell anyone about us. If they find out we snuck into America, we’ll be evicted and arrested for illegally immigrating–”

My mom kept on ranting in Japanese about the dangers of illegally immigrating. Not that I was listening. I was busy straightening my shaggy, second hand rag of a shirt, trying to make it look as cool as possible. My straight black hair felt shriveled and oily like seaweed. But whatever I did, I still looked like a shriveling clump of poverty.

Next thing I knew, my mom was shoving me towards the back door. She was rapid-fire warning me about all the dangers of middle school, don’t get pregnant, don’t take drugs. She was getting off topic, but that was all out of concern for my well being. Don’t get me wrong, she’s great, but not very helpful right now. 

              The breezy, morning air struck my face, sharp as icicles. I looked to my left, picturing the path that my mom had drilled into me. Left, take the right, walk for fifteen minutes, left again, face the huge monster building of Pyle Middle school.

I wobbled on the cement path, trying to keep my meager breakfast of cabbage soup down. It all went too quickly; before I knew it, I was standing in the middle of a stampede of American kids, speaking in an alien language unintelligible because of the speed in which kids spoke. Everyone knew where they were going, what they would do. I was lost, in more ways than one.

              Keep that to yourself, I thought. Make it through the day. You’re twelve, you’re strong, nothing can stop you, you hear? 

              Taking a deep breath, I pulled myself together and headed into school.

              Immediately, one thing stood out: the sheer amount of chaos. Down the hallway, I could see girls screaming over some picture on their phone, boys shoving each other, teachers directing students.

              Teachers. My savior. I walked down the hallway and made a beeline for the first teacher I saw. M-r-o-c-z-k-a, the name tag read. 

              “Ello,” One of the only words I knew. I shrugged my shoulders in a lost fashion. I wanted to tell him “Oh my god this is the worst day of my life where do I go what do I do help me!” But I only said, “Where?”

              Despite my inability to communicate, Mroczka seemed to understand. He took the sheet of paper I held, my schedule, and gestured towards the classroom. “Well, your first period is with me. Come on in. I’m Mr. Mroczka, nice to meet you. And you are?”

              Judging by his tone of voice, he didn’t suspect my parents’ fake names and profiles that they signed me up with. At least my schedule was normal. I let out my breath and, taking his gesture in a sign of where I should go, walked into the classroom without another embarrassing comment. Mr. Mroczka seemed confused, but got over it. He led me to my desk, then walked up to the front of the room. 

              “Get out your chromebooks, everyone. We’ll be starting our EWP planners.”

               A wave of words slapped me in the face. Whaaaaaaat? I recognized the word “chromebooks,” for one thing. I had one, since my mom picked it up for free. But for all I knew, he might have said, “smash your chromebook into a million pieces, everyone.”

              Looking around me, I saw everyone taking out their chromebooks, flipping up the lid, and typing on the keyboard. I did the same. Once I’d signed in, which I learned how to do from my mom, I looked over my shoulder to see my classmate opening some dotted red circle thing called “Canvas.” I looked at my screen. Where?

              I tapped the shoulder of the girl sitting next to me. She turned, dark brown curls flying around her, her gray eyes staring curiously into mine. “Hiya, you new?”

              Ummm…what now? “Where?” I pointed at my screen and then to Canvas on her screen.

              “Oh, Canvas? That’s here,” Her fingers flashed across the keyboard. I couldn’t follow her actions, but she got me to Canvas anyway. “I’m Vanessa, by the way. This is Ella,” She gestured over her shoulder to the three blond girls sitting behind her, “Grace, and Madison.”

              “Ello,” I waved. They didn’t seem to notice. “Thank.”

              “Sure thing,” She said, looking back at her screen. “Mr. Mroczka is great, by the way. We have him every day, since it’s our first period.”

              “Yes,” I said, not sure what I was agreeing to. Before I could say anything else, though, Mr. Mroczka started speaking. “So, in your organizer, you will have to include the exposition, rising action…”

              He kept on talking. I didn’t even try to understand, my word bank being: Hello, yes, no, where, and thank. Unfortunately, Mroczka didn’t say any of those. 

              The screen changed, showing a mountain-like drawing. I drifted off, thinking of that drawing. Maybe that was my life. Starting off in a straight line, rising and rising till I don’t know where I am. From here, it will always keep rising.

              “…I will sort you into groups for peer editing.” Mr. Mroczka said. A few groans rose in protest from the students. “Only five minutes. I’ll play some chill music. Alright, so…Vanessa, Ella, and–” He walked over to my desk, looked at my schedule, and declared, “Akari. Vanessa, Ella and Akari will work in a group. Then…” I tuned out the rest. My head slowly turned towards Vanessa. She gave me a fist with a thumb up, and smiled. Was that a universal gesture for violence, or friendship? I had no idea, but I smiled back.

              We took our chromebooks and sat down on the carpet. “Ok, so, my story is about a girl who loves reading. She gets stuck in a book…and then I don’t know. I’ll figure something out.”

              I was about to say my signature, “What?” but was interrupted by Ella. “Ooh, nice, nice. I’m thinking something dystopian, mystery, maybe horror? Not sure, sounds cool though.”

              It was as if I wasn’t there. Vanessa and Ella launched into some debate, completely forgetting me. I felt like I was watching a ping-pong game, my head swinging from side to side, trying to keep track but not knowing a word.

              Five minutes flew by with no meaning. Vanessa talking, Ella talking, me silent. Mr. Mroczka called us back to our seats, told us our homework which I scribbled down on that fancy notebook, and shuffled us out the door. “Period 2, Period 2.” He said to the class. I went up to him again, saying, “Where?” He then pointed to a meaningless clump of words typed onto the page, gave me directions (I think) that I couldn’t understand, and gestured me out the door.

              I felt like a ghost. Shoved around the school, dragged on by an unknown force. Vanessa didn’t know me, Ella didn’t see me, Mr. Mroczka was the only comfort in this school. But, from here, it could only be falling action, right? Like the diagram on Mr. Mroczka’s screen? 

              I pushed my way through the storm of kids. At the end of the hallway, I looked back. That same thought that penetrated my brain all day long came in there again: Where? Where!

              Slowly, through the blurs of students, I turned around. Only one way to find out. I climbed the stairs. 

              It felt like a nightmare. 204…205…almost there…wait, what? 230? Ugh!

              Finally, after another agonizing 26 minutes wandering hallways, I found room 210. Math class. 

              Through classes, invisible, leave class, lost. My only friends were my teachers, who at least acknowledged my existence. And a handful of students, who smiled and waved. But other than that, these American students saw me as a statue.

              The bell rang through my Period 4 classroom. Feeling like a leaf in a windstorm, I was blown into the cafeteria following the flow of students. Picturing a lovely feast waiting before me in the lunchroom, I stepped in the kitchen with high hopes. 

              The lady standing before me handed me a cardboard tray with a greasy burger and a bag of carrots.

              I stood there, staring down at the slop that was supposed to fuel me through the whole day. Somehow, kids shoved me out of the cafeteria into the front of the school. I stood there, unsure of myself, trying to figure out where I was. 

              That’s when I saw them. Vanessa, Ella, Grace, and Madison–the closest thing to my friends.

              I walked over to them, putting on my best smile, “Ello.”

              None of them noticed me. I assumed that they heard me but were too busy talking. 

              Sitting down, I bit into the sluggy burger, regretting doing so. The salt on the cheese and the burnt meat sloshed in my mouth. I wanted to spit it out, spit everything out, but I knew the impression that would make on Vanessa. I swallowed that bite, keeping it down. I think back to the sticky rice, sushi, noodles of Japan…I’m spoiled. Honestly, I’d better start getting used to this American food. At least I had it, whereas at home, I may not.

              Vanessa and Ella were sucked into some debate, again. I felt the same as I had all day: ignored, unseen, unexisting.

              But now, that would change. 

              Once Ella and Vanessa had finally agreed on some decision, they were quiet. This was my chance. To prove that, no matter where I was, and what language I spoke, I would alway be seen, respected, included. I would always be the friendly, possibly popular, me.

              I took a deep breath. “Ello, Van-e-za.” It came out all wrong, but I pushed on. Pointing at her sweater, I said. “That yes.” I didn’t actually like her sweater, but I didn’t know what else to say.

              She didn’t even look up, her eyes trained on her homemade sandwich. I knew she heard me; all of them must have. What was going on?

              Smile still half on my face, I repeated myself. “That y–”

              “Hey, Van,” Grace interrupted. “Awesome sweater, btw.”

              “Thanks! I thought no one noticed,” Vanessa replied. Before I could speak up again, the conversation moved forward.

              “So,” Madison started, “I heard about this new trend on TickTock. It’s so chic, check it out…”

              I froze, my finger hovering in the air. I didn’t understand. They didn’t understand. I was here, I spoke, I pointed. I practically shouted my presence to the whole school, and they were dead quiet. Vanessa, who was so nice, so inclusive, had ignored me. 

              Their conversation went by in a blur. Slowly, my arm had begun to fall, dragging my heart and all my hopes with it.

              With every word, with every comment on some picture on the internet, my anger rose higher and higher. Deep, building anger boiling inside my chest, threatening to burst. Those fast words, those fast english words, were all that separated me from the group. But that was all that it took, wasn’t it? Shame, shame on them. Shame on all of this country, every teacher and student that has ignored my existence. 

              I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. The words became faster and faster in my mind, carrying more meaning than just their definitions. Words were key. Words that I didn’t have.

              In a flash of something–anger, mixed with all the negative emotions I possessed–I threw down the remainder of the greasy hamburger and stormed out of the area. Not that anyone would notice, or even care to. I didn’t exist.

              Past rows and rows of American students, I pushed my way through the cafeteria, finding myself in a stall in the girls bathroom.

              I fell into a crumple of despair, not knowing who I was. Letting go all of a sudden, my heart burst into shatters as my eyes began raining water into the toilet.  I couldn’t help but cry; I would never survive living in America like this.

              No, Mr. Mroczka, your diagram wasn’t right–it would never fall, never resolve into some happily ever after. For you, yes, but there are people out there, unseen by you, who never fall. They rise, and rise, every step to the tip of their lives, till lost in the clouds. The peak of the mountain diagram: death. Gone from misery. That was the way it was.

              But you don’t have to make it that way, some snippet of optimism penetrates my brain. Let it deescalate, fall–make it if you have to. Vanessa can’t ignore you forever.

              A time passed where all I did was cry. But that was behind me now. Tomorrow, I would face Vanessa, force her to see me. 

              It was my last class of the day: Period 6. My schedule read, T-h-e-a-t-r-e. Room 130, right across from Mr. Mroczka’s room.

              I entered the classroom, confident to prove myself, when I found the last person I needed sitting beside the only remaining chair: Vanessa. I had to face her now.

              I let out the breath I was holding, stared her in the eye, and headed towards the seat. I never took my eyes off her. Standing right in front of her, I spoke as loud as I could, “Ello, Van-e-za.” I was sure the whole class could hear me.

              “Hey, Akari. How’s it going?” It was as if nothing had happened. She acknowledged me–more than that, she knew me–and acted like we were best friends. I couldn’t find words to express myself, since I didn’t know any. How could I tell her I was angry? Disappointed? Was I supposed to forgive her or was she supposed to forgive me?

              Before I could say anything back, Vanessa began speaking rapid-fire. “Listen, I’m sorry about what happened at lunch, okay? I heard you. And the fact that I ignored and excluded you, pretending you weren’t there, was wrong. I don’t know why I did it, but I won’t do it again. I’m sorry.”

              I didn’t understand a word she said. But she couldn’t have spoken so much and sounded so apologetic for any other reason than the lunch incident. So she apologized.

              My heart swelled with pride, taking in everything that had happened. I stood up, I was seen. Vanessa, Ella, Grace, and Madison all knew me. I wasn’t invisible after all.

              “Yes. Thank,” I told her, smiling inwardly. America wasn’t so bad after all.

              “And, one more thing,” she said, taking my chromebook and smiling. “Since you clearly don’t know much English, this might help.” Her fingers flew across the keyboard, spelling: google translate. She turned the screen towards me, entered Konichiwa,which immediately came out as “Hello.” 

              My computer could speak for me! This was the one thing that would make me be heard, teach me all I needed to know for this new life of mine.

              Theatre swam by in a blur of happiness. I loved this class, the way people would work with me and help me with my English. One kid, Kai, even taught me a few words.

              I walked home with a skip in my step, the prospect of my English EWP assignment before me. My hands floated over my chromebook keyboard, thinking back to all that happened, the plot diagram of my life, I began, using google translate as my aid:

“Akari!” My mom’s voice rings through the dull, crumbling walls of the basement…


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