Caitlin Paine always dreaded her first day at a new school. There were the big things, like meeting new friends, the new teachers, learning new hallways. And there were the small things, like getting a new locker, the smell of a new place, the sounds it made. More than anything, she dreaded the stares. She felt that everyone in a new place always stared at her. All she wanted was anonymity. But it never seemed meant to be.
Caitlin couldn’t understand why she was so conspicuous. At five foot five she wasn’t especially tall, and with her brown hair and brown eyes (and normal weight) she felt she was average. Certainly not beautiful, like some of the other girls. At 18, she was a bit older, but not enough to make her stand out.
There was something else. There was something about her that made people look twice. She knew, deep down, that she was different. But she wasn’t exactly sure how.
If there was anything worse than a first day, it was starting in mid-term, after everyone else already had time to bond. Today, this first day, in mid-March, was going to be one of the worst. She could feel it already.
In her wildest imagination, though, she never thought it would be this bad. Nothing she had ever seen—and she had seen a lot—had prepared her for this.
Caitlin stood outside her new school, a vast New York City public school, in the freezing March morning, and wondered, Why me? She was way underdressed, in just a sweater and leggings, and not even remotely prepared for the noisy chaos that greeted her. Hundreds of kids stood there, clamoring, screaming, and shoving each other. It looked like a prison yard.
It was all too loud. These kids laughed too loud, cursed too much, shoved each other too hard. She would have thought it was a massive brawl if she didn’t spot some smiles and mocking laughter. They just had too much energy, and she, exhausted, freezing, sleep-deprived, couldn’t understand where it came from. She closed her eyes and wished it would all go away.
She reached into her pockets and felt something: her ipod. Yes. She put her headphones in her ears and turned it up. She needed to drown it all out.
But nothing came. She looked down and saw the battery was dead. Perfect.
She checked her phone, hoping for some distraction, anything. No new messages.
She looked up. Looking out at the sea of new faces, she felt alone. Not because she was the only white girl—she actually preferred that. Some of her closest friends at other schools had been black, Spanish, Asian, Indian—and some of her meanest frenemies had been white. No, that wasn’t it. She felt alone because it was urban. She stood on concrete. A loud buzzer had rang to admit her into this “recreational area,” and she had had to pass through large, metal gates. Now she was boxed in—caged in by massive metal gates, topped by barbed-wire. She felt like she’d gone to prison.
Looking up at the massive school, bars and cages on all the windows, didn’t make her feel any better. She always adapted to new schools easily, large and small—but they had all been in suburbia. They had all had grass, trees, sky. Here, there was nothing but city. She felt like she couldn’t breathe. It terrified her.
Another loud buzzer sounded and she shuffled her way, with hundreds of kids, towards the entrance. She was jostled roughly by a large girl, and dropped her journal. She picked it up (messing up her hair), and then looked up to see if the girl would apologize. But she was nowhere to be seen, having already moved on in the swarm. She did hear laughter, but couldn’t tell if it was directed at her.
She clutched her journal, the one thing that grounded her. It had been with her everywhere. She kept notes and drawings in every place she went. It was a roadmap of her childhood.
She finally reached the entrance, and had to squeeze in just to walk through. It was like entering a train at rush hour. She had hoped it would be warm once she got inside, but the open doors behind her kept a stiff breeze blowing down her back, making the cold even worse.
Two large security guards stood at the entrance, flanked by two New York City policemen, in full uniform, guns conspicuously at their side.
“KEEP MOVING!” commanded one of them.
She couldn’t fathom why two armed policemen would have to guard a high school entrance. Her feeling of dread grew. It got much worse when she looked up and saw that she’d have to pass through a metal detector with airport-style security.
Four more armed policemen stood on either side of the detector, along with two more security guards.
“EMPTY YOUR POCKETS!” snapped a guard.
Caitlin noticed the other kids filling small plastic containers with items from their pockets. She quickly did the same, inserting her ipod, wallet, keys.
She shuffled through the detector, and the alarm shrieked.
“YOU!” snapped a guard. “Off to the side!”
All the kids stared as she was made to raise her arms, and the guard ran the handheld scanner up and down her body.
“Are you wearing any jewelry?”
She felt her wrists, then her neckline, and suddenly remembered. Her cross.
“Take it off,” snapped the guard.
It was the necklace her grandmother gave her before she passed, a small, silver cross, engraved with a description in Latin which she never had translated. Her grandmother told her it was passed down by her grandmother. Caitlin wasn’t religious, and didn’t really understand what it all meant, but she knew it was hundreds of years old, and it was by far the most valuable thing she owned.
Caitlin lifted it from her shirt, holding it up, but not taking it off.
“I’d rather not,” she answered.
The guard stared at her, cold as ice.
Suddenly, a commotion broke out. There was shouting as a cop grabbed a tall, thin kid and shoved him against a wall, removing a small knife from his pocket.
The guard went to assist, and Caitlin took the opportunity to slip into the crowd moving its way down the hall.
Welcome to New York public school, Caitlin thought. Great.
She was already counting the days to graduation.
The hallways were the widest she’d ever seen. She couldn’t imagine that they could ever be filled, yet somehow they were completely packed, with all the kids crammed in shoulder to shoulder. There must have been thousands of kids in these halls, the sea of faces stretching endlessly. The noise in here was even worse, bouncing off the walls, condensed. She wanted to cover her ears. But she didn’t even have elbow space to raise her arms. She felt claustrophobic.