Annie was different, not a good thing when you're five years old, it's your first day of kindergarten, and you don't know anyone.
Holt Richards escorted his daughter to her class where the teacher was waiting.
"I'm Quincey Thompson," the teacher said, extending her hand.
Holt Richards introduced himself, trying not to betray his alarm at the teacher's age. Quincey Thompson looked like a high school senior. "This is my daughter, Annie," Holt said.
"I'm happy to have you in my class, Annie," the teacher said. "You may have whichever desk you want."
Holt watched his daughter cross the room to the rows of desks.
"Will Annie need any special accommodation, Mr. Richards?" Miss Thompson asked.
"No," Holt replied. "The cane is just a propulsion device to allow her to walk at normal speed. She rarely uses it at home."
"The children usually play games at recess: jump rope, kickball, tag, things like that," the teacher continued.
"Annie knows what to expect," her father said. "She was born with a clubfoot. She's been through casts, braces, and splints. There's more that can be done to correct the problem, but nothing more will be done, thanks to my insurance company."
"I'm sorry," Miss Thompson said.
"Anyway, Annie knows she will probably be the last one picked for games on the playground, but she's perfectly capable of playing kickball or tag. She knows she's different, Miss Thompson. She just wants to be included, to be part of the class. That's going to be hard enough. It will only make things worse if you draw attention to her limitations and exclude her from certain activities."
"I'll need to check ..." the teacher began.
"That's fine," Holt replied. "I'll be happy to sign any necessary forms or waivers. I just want Annie to be treated like everyone else in the class." Holt looked across the room and smiled. Annie had found a seat and was talking excitedly with a little girl in the next row. "Time for me to go," he whispered. "It was nice meeting you."
Holt Richards walked quickly down the hall. He noticed other parents coming out of classrooms, a couple of them beginning to cry as soon as they closed the door.
By the time he reached his car, Holt had a sick feeling in his stomach, a lead weight pressing on his chest, and cotton clogging his mouth. He rubbed his eyes furiously and drove away.
The last two years had been hard. Holt mentally replayed the morning Emily had walked into the kitchen with a strange look on her face. He had tried to give her a quick kiss as he headed off to work, but she had pushed him away. "I can't do this anymore, Holt," she had said. "I didn't sign up for this. I'm sorry."
Holt had been stunned and completely baffled by his wife's statement. "What?" he had asked in a voice that was barely audible.
"Annie," Emily had replied. "Her foot, the doctors, all the surgeries."
A suitcase had magically appeared and Holt watched helplessly as his wife got in the car and left her husband and daughter behind.
I never got the chance to ask her what she was talking about, Holt mused. I never got the chance to remind her that Annie had a clubfoot, not a brain tumor, not something that's contagious or life threatening. She won't win the Olympic marathon, but she will live a full, productive life. What did you sign up for anyway, Emily?
The driver behind him laid on the horn and Holt saw that the light had turned green.
He had not heard from Emily since she left, had no idea where she might be or if she was even still alive. It no longer mattered. He and Annie had moved on with their lives. Annie had no real memory of her mother. Holt told his daughter that her mother had left them because she was not well.
"Will she come back, daddy?" Annie had asked.
"I don't know, sweetie," her father had replied.
It would have been easy to get a divorce but Holt had never gotten around to it. This way you can pretend you're still a family, Holt, his inner voice mocked. Maybe Emily is just on hiatus from her responsibilities as a wife, mother, and decent human being. Holt pushed the voice away as he drove into the employee parking lot. It was time to start the day.
The first month was horrible. Annie's classmates were endlessly fascinated with her clubfoot and teased her unmercifully. The teasing wouldn't have been so bad if it had been accompanied by even the slightest expression of interest in Annie Richards, the person. Day after day Annie waited for someone to ask her to play at recess, someone to sit beside her during free time, someone to invite her for an after-school play date or a weekend sleepover. She saw it happening all around her and it hurt to be excluded.
Holt did what he could. He talked to Miss Thompson, spent more time with Annie, took her on outings, all the while knowing there was really nothing he could do to ease his daughter's pain or help her find a friend. Holt watched helplessly as Annie's once strong resolve began to slowly wash away like a sandcastle at high tide. She quickly perfected the art of invisibility, speaking only when addressed by her teacher, volunteering nothing, expecting nothing, waiting only for the day to end.
The swings were the one thing that helped Annie get through the school day. These weren't swings for little kids like the ones at the park. The swings on the school playground were for big kids. Annie had seen fifth graders swinging on them.
Everyone loved the swings; that was the problem. Each day at recess at least half the class would race across the school yard to claim one of the swings. Annie was always the last to arrive. She would take her place at the end of the line and wait patiently for her turn. Unfortunately, her turn never came. Recess would always end before she reached the front of the line.
That all changed one day late in the school year. Annie was waiting in line for the swings when a fire truck pulled into the school parking lot. Most of her classmates stopped what they were doing and made a beeline for the truck. Annie stood in shock as the line dissolved and an empty swing appeared before her. She took a tentative step forward and was settling into the seat when a small boy came running up and shoved her out of the swing.
"It's my turn," the child hollered.
"No, it's not!" Annie screamed, pushing the boy away. The child stumbled, tripped on a loose shoestring, and fell to the ground. He immediately began to cry.
Miss Thompson came hurrying over, took one look, and immediately assigned the blame to Annie.
That evening Annie handed her father the note from Miss Thompson and told him what happened.
"Don't worry, sweetie, I'll speak to Miss Thompson," Holt said. "We'll get this straightened out."
Holt arranged a meeting with Miss Thompson and the school principal for the following morning. They met in the principal's office.
"Miss Thompson told me what happened, Mr. Richards," the principal began. "We were both surprised. Annie is always so quiet and well behaved."
Holt nodded thoughtfully. "Did you actually see what happened, Miss Thompson?" Holt asked.
"No, I was busy trying to keep some of the children away from a fire truck in the parking lot," the teacher replied.
"Our annual inspection to ensure the school is fully compliant with the fire code," the principal explained.
"So, how did you determine what happened, Miss Thompson?" Holt asked, trying to control his anger.
"Well, it was obvious," the teacher replied uneasily.
"It was obvious that a quiet, well-behaved girl with a cane and a clubfoot had instigated a fight with a boy in her class?" Holt asked.
"Well,um ..." the teacher stammered.
"Did you ask Annie what happened? Did you ask the two children who were in the swings on either side of her what happened?"
The room fell silent.
"Well, why don't we find out if Miss Thompson's very odd assumption is correct?" Holt suggested. "These are the names of the two children who saw what happened."
The children were summoned to the principal's office. Holt listened quietly as they told the principal what they had seen.
"Why didn't you tell Miss Thompson?" the principal asked.
"She didn't ask," one of the children said.
Holt could only shake his head in wonder: an inexperienced teacher who jumped to an absurd conclusion, a lazy or incompetent principal who accepted the teacher's conclusion without further inquiry, and two of Annie's classmates who didn't care enough about the injustice done to his daughter to come forward with the truth.
"I'm very sorry, Mr. Richards," the principal said, glaring at the kindergarten teacher. "This is Quincey's first year as a teacher."
Holt rose from his chair.
"The year's almost over, so Annie will finish the term. I'll make other arrangements for next year."
"We would love to have Annie return," the principal said desperately. "Is there anything we can do that will change your mind?"
"No," Holt replied. "I think you've done enough."
"Please have your parents sign your permission slip," Miss Thompson announced to the class. "You won't be allowed to go on the trip unless I receive a signed slip from your parents."
The class was buzzing with excitement. The trip to the state capitol would include a full tour, lunch, and a visit with members of the legislature. The bus would leave from the school parking lot and return around supper time.
Annie glumly accepted the slip of paper from her teacher. She tried not to think about the nightmare that awaited her: a long, noisy bus ride with no means of escape from the strangers who were her classmates, another lonely lunch in a strange place, and the irritation everyone would direct her way because she couldn't walk fast enough to keep up with the group.
The remainder of the day passed quickly as Annie pondered the problem facing her. When the final bell rang, Annie walked out of school wearing a rare smile.
The next morning Annie stood in the school parking lot with her classmates. Miss Thompson collected permission slips as the children scurried onto the bus and began arguing over seat selection.
Annie handed the teacher her permission slip.
"Your slip isn't signed, Annie," Miss Thompson said.
Annie remained silent.
"I'm sorry, you won't be able to go on the trip," the teacher continued. "You can call someone from the office to come take you home."
Annie watched the bus drive away. Nobody waved or asked why she wasn't going.
When the bus was out of sight, Annie walked across the school yard to the empty swings. There would be no waiting in line today. She would tell her father about the permission slip tonight. She had a feeling he would understand.
Annie sat in the swing, enjoying the quiet morning.
I have the whole day to myself.
A smile crossed her face as she began to swing. The smile expanded and became a grin as she pushed herself higher. She continued to push, soaring into the sky, as high as any fifth grader. She looked around at her small world filled with small people. Annie Richards turned her face to the heavens and began to laugh.