By Carole Besharah
“I knew who I was this morning but I've changed a few times since then.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
“And that’s how we used an empty milk carton and a Cracker Jack box to build our church.” Ches Shireman stood in front of the class grinning. He shot a glance at Ella, who blushed at her desk.
We clapped while Ches and his partner Max carried their tiny model of St-Teresa of Avila to the back of the classroom. Max tripped over a book bag, nearly dropping their project to the floor. A bunch of kids giggled, including Ella whose cheeks were now the colour of pink bubble gum.
Ches grabbed the cardboard church with both hands, lifted it over his head and yelled, “Disaster averted!” That got me giggling with the others.
“All right, everyone. Settle down,” warned Miss Laurence. She sat at her desk, scrunching up her painted-on eyebrows.
I watched the boys lay down their church in between replicas of Potter’s Tavern and the fire station. Each team had to make a different landmark that, as Miss Laurence had explained, helped make our town unique. Across the long bookshelf stretched a mishmash of small cardboard buildings that made up our miniature town of Bridgeton.
When Ella had chosen me to be her partner, I was so excited. She was the most popular girl in class. In all of Grade 7, actually. I think she only chose me because I’m a good artist. But that’s okay. Last Saturday I got to hang out at her house when we finished painting our tiny library. Well, when I finished painting it. Ella spent most of that afternoon watching me speckle brown bricks while she talked about Ches Shireman. Ches this. Ches that. Her Ches-babble had made my head spin.
Miss Laurence cleared her throat. “Well, it seems as though there is only one presenter left. Alice, please set up your model.”
We all turned to look at Alice Winters, the only student without a partner. She was the scatty, quiet kid nobody paired up with. Alice always seemed to be dreaming of a faraway place.
Pudgy Pete, who sat next to her, whispered, “Hey Alice, did you make a model of Lalaland?” I pretended not to hear and squirmed in my seat.
Ches mouthed, “Alice in Lalaland” to a couple of girls. They laughed.
Miss Laurence shot a watch-it look their way with a wrinkled brow.
Alice rose without looking up and tugged at her faded, blue t-shirt— the one with the cartoon cat she always wore. She was so tiny, she probably got it in the little kid section of the department store. She was the only girl in class who wore eyeglasses and didn’t wear a bra.
Her project was so big, it had been placed on a work table near Miss Laurence’s desk. None of us had seen her project because it was covered by a wrinkly bed sheet dotted with fluffy, white clouds. Alice walked toward her project slowly, like she didn’t want to be there. Then, she turned to face us —small and scared-looking— with her arms wrapped in front of her chest.
In a quiet voice, Alice said, “I’d like to present the Bridgeton Middle School.” Then she removed the bed sheet with a soft swish.
Most of us gasped seeing the life-like, little school. It was so beautiful. I noticed that it was painted the same shade of blue as our school. Alice had textured the walls to make them look like real stucco and used cellophane inside the window sills to make them look shiny. She had even lined the cardboard school with teeny weeny trees made of sticks and green tissue paper. Only a real artist could have pulled this off so well.
While Alice talked about the history of Bridgeton Middle School, I heard Ella and the other girls giggling. Then I noticed Ches was making a “Four Eyes” sign with upside-down hands, shaped to look like glasses against his nose. I felt a twitch in my belly. I looked away before they saw me looking.
That’s when Alice’s soft voice cracked and her eyes became teary. She bit her lip and stopped talking. She must have seen Ches or heard the giggling. Miss Laurence hadn’t noticed a thing. She was too busy scribbling away on Alice’s evaluation sheet.
“Watch out,” whispered Pete. “Alice’ll flood all of Lalaland with pools of tears.”
More giggles. My stomach tightened, like an animal balloon being twisted into a gazillion knots.
Alice swallowed back tears. She took one end of the platform and spun it around, slow and steady. Now we could all see the schoolyard that had been hidden behind the school. Little cut-outs of kids decorated the platform. I heard a couple of “wows” and “ahs.”
“In 2008,” Alice continued, “the PTA raised enough money to fix up the schoolyard. They planted maple trees and laid down synthetic grass for our new soccer field.”
Alice had placed a bunch of tiny cardboard cut-outs on the green field. They looked just like the sporty boys in our grade. She had painted them with a lot of details, from little fingers to rosy cheeks. I could make out Little Max in his striped jacket, Little Axel with his cornrows, the identical Little Castillo twins, and Little Ches. I never knew Alice was so… talented. Everyone was straining their neck to get a closer look at the delicate cut-outs. In fact, the kids sitting farther back in the classroom moved up so they could see better.
“Hey Ches, she got your hair right,” snickered Pete. It was easy to spot Little Ches, in the middle of the field, with wild, red hair.
“You’re there too, Pete. Look!” Someone pointed at Little Pudgy Pete. He sat cross-legged, wearing his favorite yellow sneakers, right on the sidelines in his usual spot.
Curious, Miss Laurence rose from behind her desk. She walked up to look over the shoulders of the kids who were crowding closer and closer around Alice.
“Over here we have the climbing gym. It’s eight feet tall. As you can see, lots of kids can climb it at once. It’s made of solid steel.”
Alice had made pretty cut-outs of the cool girls and sat them on the wire climbing gym. Sitting in a tight ring were Little Ella with wavy, blond hair, Little Jess wearing her bright red leggings, Little Chelsea covered in freckles and… Little Me. It had to be me. Alice had painted my black bob and my favorite polka-dot shirt.
“Oh! Look, there’s a little me!” Ella said, smiling. I was surprised she sounded so happy because I felt so… weird. Once in a while, I got invited to join their circle of cool. I spent those recesses feeling out of place, trying to figure out what to say so the others would like me. Seeing Little Me in that ring of cardboard girls didn’t feel right.
I looked away from the dome and noticed the lone park bench made of craft sticks in the middle of the schoolyard. There sat a lookalike of Alice in her kitty cat t-shirt. A cardboard girl reading a tiny book. Alone.
“Well, that’s the end of my presentation,” Alice said. Everyone clapped. Even Pete and Ches, who seemed almost impressed. Ella was beaming. She let out a “woo-hoo!”
“What a wonderful project, Alice,” said Miss Laurence. “I think we’ve learned to see our school in a new light. Please bring your model to the back with the others.”
“But it’s too big, I—”
“I’ll give you a hand, Alice,” I blurted out.
We walked together toward the little town of Bridgeton, while gripping both sides of the cardboard platform.
“Your school is so beautiful, Alice, it must have taken you forever to make it. You’re a real artist, Alice. A real good one, too,” I said. Her eyes brightened when she glanced up at me. After we set Alice’s project down at the end of the bookshelf, she smiled and straightened her shoulders. She seemed to grow taller, just then.
We stood together for some time without talking and studied the cardboard schoolyard. “I love your leafy trees. Maybe you can show me how to make them? I could use a couple near the steps of the library entrance.” I nodded toward my own model. “It looks so bare without trees.”
Then I grabbed Little Me sitting on top of the climbing gym. Carefully, I removed the tape sticking her to the wire dome and the ring of cardboard girls. Alice watched, curious but silent, while I sat Little Me next to Little Alice on the park bench. They looked like they were reading a story together.
“I’d like that.” Alice’s voice was as bright and cheerful as her eyes. I wasn’t sure if she was talking about us making tissue paper trees or reading a book, but either one was fine by me.
“I’d like that too,” I said, smiling. I felt a little different than I had that morning. For the first time in forever, I was excited about recess.