Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
On the other side of the lobby door, ninety- six sidewalk lines away, is the first day of fifth grade. I stare through the glass, tugging at my backpack straps, although they are fine. I know I am stalling. As soon as I open the door, the outside will rush into my ears: taxi horns, loud radios, barking dogs. I hold on to the quiet for as long as I can.
“Do you want us to walk with you?” Dad asks, right as Mom says, “Ready, Amelia?”
I shake my head. I savor one more moment of quiet—only to be interrupted by the elevator dinging. Deb brushes by us.
“See you there!” she says as she pushes open the lobby door. Warm air and city commotion burst into our apartment building. I cover my ears and count the ways I am different this year:
- I am ten now and can walk to school by myself.
- Mom and Dad gave me a new CharlieCard and permission to ride the T alone to the Boston Public Library.
- My noise-canceling headphones are not on my head.
Once the door closes, I lower my hands. Outside, I see Deb catch up to Jax, who lives across the street. They head off together, without me. I tell myself that’s fine. I am only a neighborhood pal to Jax and, ever since third grade, backup friend to Deb-minus-Kiki.
I take a step toward the door, and then hesitate. I feel light-headed, missing the weight of my headphones. Only my hair covers my ears.
Mom hugs me good-bye. “Fifth grade will be great.”
Dad touches my arm. “One more thing,” he says, and hands me a box.
“What’s this?” Mom asks, as surprised as I am.
I open it. Inside are purple earmuffs with a white band. I slip them on. The muffs—soft and furry—cover my ears completely. I love them instantly. Earmuffs are like having permission to place your hands over your ears all the time.
I hug Dad hard. He laughs.
Mom’s smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Where did you get those?” she asks Dad.
“Target,” he says.
I think she is really asking why
, but I don’t care. Now I am ready. I open the lobby door and walk by myself to school. Every few feet, I can’t help touching the fluff over my ears. How wonderfully soft! My steps grow bold. I’m sure everyone is admiring my beautiful, regular-looking earmuffs.
At the end of the first block, the traffic light turns green and all the cars accelerate at once. I jump—it’s louder than I expect. I walk eight more sidewalk lines, noticing city sounds more than before: the beeping of a backing-up truck, the one-sided cell phone conversations, the rattling of tires over potholes. The volume I hear is about five bars out of ten. Noise-canceling headphones are more like one bar. Earmuffs are better than nothing, though. Under my earmuffs, at least, everything is muffled, every sound is bearable. Almost.
I stand in the doorway of room twelve. Mr. Fabian has gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, and he is in the front of the room checking off names. Jax spins a pencil in the air. Deb-and-Kiki talk loudly, in side-by-side desks. Madge stretches her long legs beyond her chair. Soon Noah, José, Emma, Lina—everyone—will fill the classroom with too many sounds. Three rows with seven desks each is twenty-one.
No one else looks changed. I am the one who is different, now that my headphones are gone and I’m wearing beautiful earmuffs. I take a deep breath, adjust the band, and step into the classroom.
Instead of ignoring me like usual, they stare at my head.
“New earmuffs?” Deb asks.
“Your head is smaller now!” Noah says.
“Yeah, you no longer look like you work at an airport!” Kiki says, which launches a laughter wave.
My face turns as hot as my ears under my muffs. I keep my eyes down until I find my name on a desk next to Madge. My earmuffs are beautiful
, I remind myself as I sit, letting the soft fluff brush my shoulder.
The bell rings, and I jump, unprepared. I press hard on my muffed ears, eyes shut, as everyone drops backpacks, scrambles to desks, scrapes chair legs across the floor. Mr. Fabian claps twice and snaps three times and claps again. Everyone’s hands make noise except mine. I am as stiff as a new book. Earmuffs do not cancel noise. Not even close.
“Welcome to fifth grade!” Mr. Fabian says, and announces that we’ll do ten minutes of silent reading every day, starting now.
Ten minutes is not very long, but I’m happy for the promise of quiet. I choose a book off the shelf about a raccoon named Bingo. I turn to the first page and stare at the words, but I can’t focus.
All around me are little pestering sounds. Jax curls the pages of his book, over and over like an itch. Cassie snorts and giggles as she reads, and even though Noah is three rows back and my earmuffs are on, I hear him popping gum. Madge says she doesn’t have a book, and Mr. Fabian sends her to the bookcase. Her shoelace charms clink-clank-plink
with every step. She knocks books around on the shelf, picking one up, dropping it, flipping through another. Each noise bounces around the walls of my head like a rubber ball.
Mr. Fabian keeps saying “Shh” over and over.
I close my eyes, place my hands over the muffs again, and fly in my mind to the Boston Public Library, where librarians catalog all sounds. Inside voices, outside voices
, they say. It’s where I can wrap myself in books like a blanket—
I feel a tap on my shoulder and open my eyes. Mr. Fabian is standing right next to me. “Amelia, how can you read with your eyes closed?”
Everyone turns to stare at me. I mumble, “How can I read with so much noise?”
Mr. Fabian pauses and bends down to speak so only I can hear. “I understand you’re trying something new this year.” He points to my earmuffs. “Are these part of the plan? Maybe you should take them off.”
I shake my head. “I like my new earmuffs.” Even with them, I feel as exposed as a bird on a wire.
I turn back to the page and pretend to read, hoping he will go away. Please don’t make everyone look at me again
. I’m relieved when Jax asks him a question.
Things are no better when it’s time for my favorite subject. Mr. Fabian hands out fifth-grade math workbooks, but everyone asks him so many questions, he can’t get started talking about geometry and twelve-digit place values and long division.
I write my name inside the cover, concentrating on each stroke of each letter to block out Noah’s yawn, Lina’s complaints, and Madge’s groans. I flip through the clean pages, greeting the numbers like old friends.
At lunchtime, I clutch my brown bag, waiting near the door until the first rush of cafeteria noise dims: banging trays, ripping plastic, overtalking at too-crowded tables.
Shoulders tight, I take note of who sits where. Like last year, Deb is sitting with Kiki, Lina, and Emma. I see only their backs; everyone is clustered around Kiki. Her voice is sharp like a crow’s. In fourth grade, I tried to follow Deb into that circle, but it didn’t widen to include me.
Jax sits with Noah and Madge. Madge talks with an open mouth, and I see her chewed-up sandwich. She laughs hard when Noah burps after he guzzles chocolate milk. Some spills onto his shirt.
Nothing has changed. Except me. I touch my earmuffs again, so light on my head.
I walk the cafeteria perimeter to my table from last year, in the corner near the trash and recycling bins. I open my lunch bag and my copy of Alanna,
even though I’ve read it five times. This way, no one will talk to me, and I can eat fast.
When it’s recess, I head to my place on the playground: inside the tube tunnel, my burrow. I curl up against the curve, back on hard plastic, knees near my eyes. Through the earmuffs I can still hear Kiki’s exaggerated screams, the creak of the swings, and Madge’s shouts of “You missed me.… No, not me! You’re it!” in a game of tag. But at least purple fluff cushions the noise.
I hear footsteps climbing up into the tube. Jax appears, but he stops when he sees me like a clog in a pipe. We stare at each other for a moment before he backs down the ladder, leaving me alone, like last year. It’s like my earmuffs are stop signs. Which is fine, I tell myself. Now I don’t have to share my tunnel.
Mr. Fabian asks everyone to make fall leaves for the bulletin board and to write our names on them. We will post our creations by our leaves all year. On each desk are scissors and orange, yellow, red paper. “Quiet conversation is okay during art,” he says. No
, I think, but it’s too late. Talk surges around me like someone turned on twenty-one radios inside my head. I hear Cassie’s voice overlapping with Tyler’s on top of Ryan’s. I press my muffs firmly on my ears.
Kiki taps me on the shoulder. I cautiously lower my hands, wondering why she’s talking to me.
“Is it snowing?” Kiki asks. Deb dramatically arches her neck to peer over Kiki’s shoulder.
I turn toward the windows. Outside, the street trees are starting to turn orange-yellow, matching our bright artwork.
“It’s fall,” I say to Deb-and-Kiki.
Kiki points at my head. “Then why are you wearing earmuffs inside?”
“I can wear whatever I want,” I say, but no one pays attention.
By the time the last bell rings, I make up my mind. I will wear my earmuffs at lunch, at recess, at the library, when I take math tests. I will say, The headband holds my hair back
, and I will wear them every day until no one notices them anymore.
Fifth grade will be the year of earmuffs.