She was the new girl in the second-grade class. She had to leave her old school because her mother, the K-12 art teacher, was on maternity leave and her tuition would no longer be covered. The previous school was farther away, an alternative Christian school housed in a series of cheaply built concrete-and-shingle structures, heated with timber gathered by the students from the surrounding woods. Today, she sat in a public school building, her first time as a beneficiary of a government-run institution. Everything about her new school confirmed her impressions of mainstream education from television, right down to the modernity of the building materials.
The halls were linoleum, there was a wood-floored gymnasium with a real stage (a stage!) flanked on each side by a small set of stairs. A heavy velvet curtain hung down, operated by a thick braided gold cord. To the left of the stage was a cafeteria, and a trolley of molded lunch trays partitioned into little rectangular sections into which the lunch ladies doled out wax beans, Sloppy Joe fillings, and fruit medley. A small cooler offered options of tiny cartons of milk: red for whole, blue for skim, and brown for chocolate. Chocolate! Who would ever choose anything different? Lockers, those iconic backdrops of teenage dramas in the after-school specials on T.V, lined the hallways for the older students. The hallways themselves were a feat of modern construction: wide carpeted ramps that sloped between the levels of the school building. The classroom furniture was institutionalized, uniform. The loudspeaker cracked on that first morning, and the students leapt to attention to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, right hands placed on hearts, shoulders squared toward the flag that hung in the corner. She knew the words, had learned the pledge, though it wasn’t a daily practice in her previous school: “…with liberty…and justice…for all.” She started to sit, but the loudspeaker shuffled and cracked again, this time issuing the strains of band music, and all of the other second graders started to sing, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty…”. She had never heard this song before, though everyone else seemed to know it. It had a line about fathers dying that stuck in her head. Jaimie Foss turned and locked eyes with her, finishing the song through her mouth that was shaped just like the way someone who doesn’t know how to draw birds in the sky. Jaimie watched her helplessly trying to mouth along to the song she didn’t know. Her previous school curriculum had been advanced, so she was designated as “Gifted,” giving her the privilege of skipping out on Morning Work, which was just coloring, to instead take tap dancing lessons with a private instructor—a high school girl—on that magical stage in the gym. Her mother had outfitted her with a leotard and tap shoes, hand-me-downs from older cousins, which she wore to school layered with corduroy pants. But the leotard was very obviously a 1970s pattern—blue-on-blue patchwork with paisley swatches—and not the shimmery spandex material that was in fashion. She crossed her arms to minimize her outfit, but everyone saw it when she was called out of the classroom for her session. But her peers’ judgements faded as, for about half an hour, in the darkened space behind the stage, she had the undivided attention of an older girl, for perhaps the only time in her childhood. They sat cross-legged and talked about dance, about which she had no real interest but thought she could conjure it just to sustain the conversation. She had a lot to learn but she felt that she had arrived in her destined element; surely here, among the carpet and linoleum and velvet, she would finally get a real American education.