It was a long drive home. I fell asleep in the backseat like I always do, my head on Via’s lap like she was my pillow, a towel wrapped around the seat belt so I wouldn’t drool all over her. Via fell asleep, too, and Mom and Dad talked quietly about grown-up things I didn’t care about.
I don’t know how long I was sleeping, but when I woke up, there was a full moon outside the car window. It was a purple night, and we were driving on a highway full of cars. And then I heard Mom and Dad talking about me.
"We can’t keep protecting him,” Mom whispered to Dad, who was driving. “We can’t just pretend he’s going to wake up tomorrow and this isn’t going to be his reality, because it is, Nate, and we have to help him learn to deal with it. We can’t just keep avoiding situations that…”
“So sending him off to middle school like a lamb to the slaughter…,” Dad answered angrily, but he didn’t even finish his sentence because he saw me in the mirror looking up.
“What’s a lamb to the slaughter?” I asked sleepily.
“Go back to sleep, Auggie,” Dad said softly.
“Everyone will stare at me at school,” I said, suddenly crying.
“Honey,” Mom said. She turned around in the front seat and put her hand on my hand. “You know if you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to. But we spoke to the principal there and told him about you and he really does want to meet you.”
“What did you tell him about me?”
“How funny you are, and kind and smart. When I told him you read Dragon Rider when you were six, he was like, ‘Wow, I have to meet this kid.’”
“Did you tell him anything else?” I said.
Mom smiled at me. Her smile kind of hugged me.
“I told him about all your surgeries, and how brave you are,” she said.
“So he knows what I look like?” I asked.
“Well, we brought pictures from last summer in Montauk,” Dad said. “We showed him pictures of the whole family. And that great shot of you holding that flounder on the boat!”
“You were there, too?” I have to admit I felt a little disappointed that he was a part of this.
“We both talked to him, yes,” Dad said. “He’s a really nice man.”
“You would like him,” Mom added.
Suddenly it felt like they were on the same side.
“Wait, so when did you meet him?” I said.
“He took us on a tour of the school last year,” said Mom.
“Last year?” I said “So you’ve been thinking about this for a whole year and you didn’t tell me?”
“We didn’t know if you’d even get in, Auggie,” answered Mom. “It’s a very hard school to get into. There’s a whole admissions process. I didn’t see the point in telling you and having you get all worked up about it unnecessarily.”
“But you’re right, Auggie, we should’ve told when we found out last month that you got in,” said Dad.
“In hindsight,” sighed Mom, “yes, I guess.”
“Did that lady who came to the house that time have something to do with this?” I said. “The one that gave me that test?”
“Yes, actually,” said Mom, looking guilty. “Yes.”
“You told me it was an IQ test,” I said.
“I know, well, that was a white lie,” she answered. “It was a test you needed to take to get into the school. You did very well on it, by the way.”
“So you lied,” I said.
“A white lie, but yes. Sorry,” she said, trying to smile, but when I didn’t smile back, she turned around in her seat and faced forward.
“What’s a lamb to the slaughter?” I sad.
Mom sighed and gave Daddy a “look.”
“I shouldn’t have said that,” Dad said, looking at me in the rearview mirror. “It’s not true. Here’s the thing: Mommy and I love you so much we want to protect you in any way we can. It’s just sometimes we want to do it in different ways.”
“I don’t want to go to school,” I answered, folding my arms.
“It would be good for you, Auggie,” said Mom.
“Maybe I’ll go next year,” I answered, looking out the window.
“This year would be better, Auggie,” said Mom. “You know why? Because you’ll be going into fifth grade, and that’s the first year of middle school–for everyone. You won’t be the only new kids.”
“I’ll be the only new kid who looks like me,” I said.
“I’m not going to say it won’t be a big challenge for you, because you know better than that,” she answered. “But it’ll be good for you, Auggie. You’ll make lots of friends. And you’ll learn things you’d never learn with me.” She turned in her seat again and looked at me. “When we took the tour, you know what they had in their science lab? A baby chick that was just hatching out of its egg. It was so cute! Auggie, it actually kind of reminded me of you when you were a little baby... with those big brown eyes of yours…”
I usually love when they talk about when I was a baby. Sometimes I want to curl up into a little tiny ball and let them hug me and kiss me all over. I miss being a baby, not knowing stuff. But I wasn’t in the mood for that now.
“I don’t want to go,” I said.
“How about this? Can you at least meet Mr. Tushman before making up your mind?” Mom asked.
“Mr. Tushman?” I said.
“He’s the principal,” answered Mom.
“Mr. Tushman?” I repeated.
“I know, right?” Dad answered, smiling and looking at me in the rearview mirror. “Can you believe that name, Auggie? I mean, who on earth would ever agree to have a name like Mr. Tushman?”
I smiled even though I didn’t want to let them see me smile. Dad was the one person in the world who could make me laugh no matter how much I didn’t want to laugh. Dad always made everyone laugh.
“Auggie, you know, you should go to that school just so you can hear his name said over the loudspeaker!” Dad said excitedly. “Can you imagine how funny that would be? Hello, hello? Paging Mr. Tushman!” He was using a fake high, old-lady voice. “Hi, Mr. Tushman! I see you’re running a little behind today! Did your car get rear-ended again? What a bum rap!”
I started laughing, not even because I thought he was being that funny but because I wasn’t in the mood to stay mad anymore.
“It could be worse, though!” Dad continued in his normal voice. “Mommy and I had a professor in college called Miss Butt.”
Mom was laughing now too.
“Is that for real?” I said.
“Roberta Butt,” Mom answered, raising her hand as if to swear. “Bobbie Butt.”
“She had huge cheeks,” said Dad.
“Nate!” said Mom.
“What? She had big cheeks is all I’m saying.”
Mom laughed and shook her head at the same time.
“Hey hey, I know!” said Dad excitedly. “Let’s fix them up on a blind date! Can you imagine? Miss Butt, meet Mr. Tushman. Mr. Tushman, here’s Miss Butt. They could get married and have a bunch of little Tushies.”
“Poor Mr. Tushman,” answered Mom, shaking her head. “Auggie hasn’t even met the man yet, Nate!”
“Who’s Mr. Tushman? Via said groggily. She had just woken up.
“He’s the principal of my new school,” I answered.
PAGING MR. TUSHMAN
I would have been more nervous about meeting Mr. Tushman if I’d known I was also going to be meeting some kids from the new school. But I didn’t know, so if anything, I was kind of giggly. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the jokes Daddy had made about Mr. Tushman’s name. So when me and Mom arrived at Beecher Prep a few weeks before the start of school, and I saw Mr. Tushman standing there, waiting for us at the entrance, I started giggling right away. He didn’t look at all like what I pictured, though. I guess I thought he would have a huge butt, but he didn’t. In fact, he was a pretty normal guy. Tall and thin. Old but not really old. He seemed nice. He shook my mom’s hand first.
“Hi, Mr. Tushman. It’s so nice to see you again,” said Mom. “This is my son, August.”
Mr. Tushman looked right at me and smiled and nodded. He put his hand out for me to shake.
“Hi, August,” he said, totally normally. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Hi,” I mumbled, dropping my hand into his hand while I looked down at his feet. He was wearing red Adidas.
“So,” he said, kneeling down in front of me so I couldn’t look at his sneakers but had to look at his face, “your mom and dad have told me a lot about you.”
“Like what have they told you?” I asked.
“Honey, you have to speak up.” said Mom.
“Like what?” I asked, trying not to mumble. I admit I have a bad habit of mumbling.
“Well, that you like to read,” said Mr. Tushman, “and that you’re a great artist.” He had blue eyes with white eyelashes. “And you’re into science, right?”
“Uh-huh,” I said, nodding.
“We have a couple of great science electives at Beecher,” he said. “Maybe you’ll take one of them?”
“Uh-huh,” I said, though I had no idea what an elective was.
“So, are you ready to take a tour?”
“You mean we’re doing that now?” I said.
“Did you think we were going to the movies?” he answered, smiling as he stood up.
“You didn’t tell me we were taking a tour,” I said to Mom in my accusing voice.
“Auggie…,” she started to say.
“It’ll be fine, August,” said Mr. Tushman, holding his hand to me. “I promise.”
I think he wanted me to take his hand, but I took Mom’s instead. He smiled and started walking toward the entrance.
Mommy gave my hand a little squeeze, though I don’t know if it was an “I love you” squeeze or an “I’m sorry” squeeze. Probably a little of both.
The only school I’d ever been inside before was Via’s, when I went with Mom and Dad to watch Via sing in spring concerts and stuff like that. This school was very different. It was smaller. It smelled like a hospital.
NICE MRS. GARCIA
We followed Mr. Tushman down a few hallways. There weren’t a lot of people around. And the few people who were there didn’t seem to notice me at all, though that may have been because they didn’t see me. I sort of hid behind Mom as I walked. I know that sounds kind of babyish of me, but I wasn’t feeling very brave right then.
We ended up in a small room with the words OFFICE OF THE MIDDLE SCHOOL DIRECTOR on the door. Inside, there was a desk with a nice-seeming lady behind it.
“This is Mrs. Garcia,” said Mr. Tushman, and the lady smiled at Mom and took off her glasses and got up out of her chair.
My mother shook her hand and said: “Isabel Pullman, nice to meet you.”
“And this is August,” Mr. Tushman said. Mom kind of stepped to the side a bit, so I would move forward. Then that thing happened that I’ve seen happen a million times before. When I looked up at her, Mrs. Garcia’s eyes dropped for a second. It was so fast no one else would have noticed, since the rest of her face stayed exactly the same. She was smiling a really shiny smile.
“Such a pleasure to meet you, August,” she said, holding out her hand for me to shake.
“Hi,” I said quietly, giving her my hand, but I didn’t want to look at her face, so I kept staring at her glasses, which hung from a chain around her neck.
“Wow, what a firm grip!” said Mrs. Garcia. Her hand was really warm.
“The kid’s got a killer handshake,” Mr. Tushman agreed, and everyone laughed above my head.
“You can call me Mrs. G,” Mrs. Garcia said. I think she was talking to me, but I was looking at all the stuff on her desk now. “That’s what everyone calls me. Mrs. G, I forgot my combination. Mrs. G, I need a late pass. Mrs. G, I want to change my elective.”
“Mrs. G’s actually the one who runs the place,” said Mr. Tushman, which again made all the grown-ups laugh.
“I’m here every morning by seven-thirty,” Mrs. Garcia continued, still looking at me while I stared at her brown sandals with small purple flowers on the buckles. “So if you ever need anything, August, I’m the one to ask. And you can ask me anything.”
“Okay,” I mumbled.
“Oh, look at that cute baby,” Mom said, pointing to one of the photographs on Mrs. Garcia’s bulletin board. “Is he yours?”
“No, my goodness!” said Mrs. Garcia, smiling a big smile that was totally different from her shiny smile. “You’ve just made my day. He’s my grandson.”
“What a cutie!” said Mom, shaking her head. “How old?”
“In that picture he was five months, I think. But he’s big now. Almost eight years old!”
“Wow,” said Mom, nodding and smiling. “Well, he is absolutely beautiful.”
JACK WILL, JULIAN, AND CHARLOTTE
“Thank you!” said Mrs. Garcia, nodding like she was about to say something else about her grandson. But then all of a sudden her smile got a little smaller. “We’re all going to take very good care of August,” she said to Mom, and I saw her give Mom’s hand a little squeeze. I looked at Mom’s face, and that’s when I realized she was just as nervous as I was. I guess I liked Mrs. Garcia– when she wasn’t wearing her shiny smile.
We followed Mr. Tushman into a small room across from Mrs. Garcia’s desk. He was talking as he closed the door to his office and sat down behind his big desk, though I wasn’t really paying much attention to what he was saying. I was looking around at all the things on his desk. Cool stuff, like a globe that floated in the air and a Rubik’s-type cube made with little mirrors. I liked his office a lot. I liked that there were all these neat little drawings and paintings by students on the walls, framed like they were important.
Mom sat down in a chair in front of Mr. Tushman’s desk, and even though there was another chair right next to hers, I decided to stand beside her.
“Why do you have your own room and Mrs. G. doesn’t?” I asked.
“You mean, why do I have an office?” asked Mr. Tushman.
“You said she runs the place,” I asked.
“Oh! Well, I was kind of kidding. Mrs. G is my assistant.”
“Mr. Tushman is the director of the middle school,” Mom explained.
“Do they call you Mr. T?” I asked, which made him smile.
“Do you know who Mr T is?” he answered. “I pity the fool?” he said in a funny tough voice, like he was imitating someone.
I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Anyway, no,” said Mr. Tushman, shaking his head. “No one calls me Mr. T. Though I have a feeling I’m called a lot of other things I don’t know about. Let’s face it, a name like mine is not so easy to live with, you know what I mean?”
Here I have to admit I totally laughed, because I knew exactly what he meant.
“My mom and dad had a teacher called Miss Butt,” I said.
“Auggie!” said Mom, but Mr. Tushman laughed.
“Now, that’s bad,” said Mr. Tushman, shaking his head. “I guess I shouldn’t complain. Hey, so listen, August, here’s what I thought we would do today…”
“Is that a pumpkin?” I said, pointing to a framed painting behind Mr. Tushman’s desk.
“Auggie, sweetie, don’t interrupt,” said Mom.
“You like it?” said Mr. Tushman, turning around and looking at the painting. “I do, too. And I thought it was a pumpkin, too, until the student who gave it to me explained that it is actually not a pumpkin. It is… are you ready for this… a portrait of me! Now, August, I ask you: do I really look that much like a pumpkin?”
“No!” I answered, though I was thinking yes. Something about the way his cheeks puffed out when he smiled made him look like a jack-o’-lantern. Just as I thought that, it occurred to me how that was: cheeks, Mr. Tushman. And I started laughing a little. I shook my head and covered my mouth with my hand.
Mr. Tushman smiled like he could read my mind.
I was about to say something else, but then all of a sudden I heard other voices outside the office: kids’ voices. I’m not exaggerating when I say this, but my heart literally started beating like I’d just run the longest race in the world. The laughter I had inside just poured out of me.
The thing is, when I was little, I never minded meeting new kids because all the kids I met were really little, too. What’s cool about really little kids is that they don’t say stuff to try hurt your feelings, even though sometimes they do stuff that hurts your feelings. But they don’t actually know what they’re saying. Big kids, though: they know what they’re saying. And that is definitely not fun for me. One of the reasons I grew my hair long last year was that I like how my bangs cover my eyes: it helps me block out the things I don’t want to see.
Mrs. Garcia knocked on the door and poked her inside.
“They’re here, Mr. Tushman,” she said.
“Who’s here?” I said.
“Thanks,” said Mr. Tushman to Mrs. Garcia. “August, I thought it would be a good idea for you to meet some students who’ll be in your homeroom this year. I figure they could take you around the school a bit, show you the lay of the land, so to speak.”
“I don’t want to meet anyone,” I said to Mom.
Mr. Tushman was suddenly right in front of me, his hands on my shoulders. He leaned down and said very softly in my ear: “It’ll be okay, August. These are nice kids, I promise.”
“You’re going to be okay, Auggie.” Mom whispered with all her might.
Before she could say anything else, Mr. Tushman opened the door to his office.
“Come on in, kids,” he said, and in walked two boys and a girl. None of them looked over at me or Mom: they stood by the door looking straight at Mr. Tushman like their lives depended on it.
“Thanks so much for coming, guys–– especially since school doesn’t start until next month!” said Mr. Tushman. “Have you had a good summer?”
All of them nodded but no one said anything.
“Great, great,” said Mr. Tushman. “So, guys, I wanted you to meet August, who’s going to be a new student here this year. August, these guys have been students at Beecher Prep since kindergarten, though, of course, they were in the lower-school building, but they know all the ins and outs of the middle school program. And since you’re all in the same homeroom, I thought it would be nice if you got to know each other a little before school started. Okay? So, kids, this is August. August, this is Jack Will.”
Jack Will looked at me and put out his hand. When I shook it, he kind of half smiled and said: “Hey,” and looked down really fast.
“This is Julian,” said Mr. Tushman.
“Hey,” said Julian, and did the same exact thing as Jack Will: took my hand, forced a smile, looked down fast.
“And Charlotte,” said Mr. Tushman.
Charlotte had the blondest hair I’ve ever seen. She didn’t shake my hand but gave me a quick little wave and smiled. “Hi, August. Nice to meet you,” she said.
“Hi,” I said, looking down. She was wearing bright green Crocs.
“So,” said Mr. Tushman, putting his hands together in a kind of slow clap. “What I thought you guys could do is take August on a little tour of the school. Maybe you could start on the third floor? That’s where your homeroom class is going to be: room 301. I think. Mrs. G, is––”
“Room 301!” Mrs. Garcia called out from the other room.
“Room 301.” Mr. Tushman nodded. “And then you can show August the science labs and the computer room. Then work your way down to the library and the performance space on the second floor. Take him to the cafeteria, of course.”
“Should we take him to the music room?” asked Julian.
“Good idea, yes,” said Mr. Tushman. “August, do you play any instruments?”
“No,” I said. It wasn’t my favorite subject on account of the fact that I don’t really have ears. Well, I do, but they don’t exactly look like normal ears.
“Well, you may enjoy seeing the music room anyway,” said Mr. Tushman. “We have a nice selection of percussion instruments.”
“August, you’ve been wanting to learn to play the drums,” Mom said, trying to get me took at her. But my eyes were covered by my bangs as I stared at a piece of old gum that was stuck to the bottom of Mr. Tushman’s desk.
“Great! Okay, so why don’t you guys get going?” said Mr. Tushman. “Just be back here in..." He looked at Mom. “Half an hour, okay?”
I think Mom nodded.
“So, is that okay with you, August?” he asked me.
I didn’t answer.
“Is that okay, August?” Mom repeated. I looked at her now. I wanted her to see how mad I was at her. But then I saw her face and just nodded. She seemed more scared than I was.
The other kids had started out the door, so I followed them.
“See you soon,” said Mom, her voice sounding a little higher than normal. I didn’t answer her.