The metal folding chair squeaked as I crossed my feet . All the other mothers were sitting in a neat row around the back of the room, straining to hear the lisping words of a blue-eyed, toothless cherub.
"My mommy ith pretty and givth me nithe toys. I love my mommy."
The room broke out into a loud applause. The girl's blond ringlets bounced as she sashayed back to her desk. She paused to wave at her mother. The woman next to me, with a pink cashmere cardigan and tanned cheeks, wiggled her fingers and whispered to me, "That's my little girl."
I looked over at Donny. He wasn't listening to the stories. His head was resting on his hand, his curly brown hair tangled in his fingers. The other hand clutched his dingy, blue toy doggy. He was looking outside. I followed his gaze. A parade of clouds puffed along a sea of pure blue.
The teacher, Mrs. Montgomery, an old grandmotherly woman who had taught three generations of first graders, touched Donny's head as she strolled down the aisle. He lifted his head, and she smiled at him. She asked if somebody else wanted to read their story.
A boy with red hair and freckles galloped to the front and squirmed to the top of the tall stool. He blushed at everyone looking at him and covered his face with his paper. The children giggled and the mothers smiled. He peeked above the wrinkled page and disappeared again. Another ripple of giggles flittered up and down the rows.
"It's OK, Jordan. Just look at your paper and read what you wrote."
Jordan puckered his forehead and focused on the words. They spewed out, like the fizz from a shaken can of soda pop. "My-mommy-is-a-good-cook.-She-makes-hotdogs-and-cookies.-I-love-my-mommy." One of the mothers, the one with bangle bracelets and green nail polish, stood up and clapped and cheered. Jordan scurried to his desk and hid his face, while the laughter bubbled about him.
Mrs. Montgomery froze mid-step and gave the class a disappointed frown. The laughter stopped. "Is there anyone else?"
I looked at Donny. He was bent over with his thumb in his mouth and watching something on the floor. It might have been an ant or a spider or even a crack in the tile. He rocked slightly back and forth, his thin back showing in the gap between his favorite red T-shirt and his faded jeans. Sit up, Donny, pay attention, I thought. I knew Donny wouldn't sit on the stool and read a cute story, but I wished he would at least blend in with the rest of the children.
There were cupcakes with colored sprinkles and orange drinks in plastic cups. Children chased each other between the legs of mothers chattering about shrimp casseroles and swimming lessons. The walls were papered with crayon drawings of stick legged blobs and smiling suns and lollipop trees. The artists' names were scrawled in bold letters across the bottoms and up the edges. I scanned the display for Donny's. Then I saw it.
Dark black slashes zig-zagged angrily on a crumpled paper. There was no name, but I knew it was his. I quickly glanced about to see if anyone else noticed. I wanted to hide it, but didn't want to claim it. The room felt warm and stuffy. I couldn't breathe. My stomach hurt. I had to get out of there! I put Donny's coat on him and gave his tattered stuffed doggy back to him.
"Thank you for coming to our open house, Mrs. Peters. I enjoy having Donny in my class very much. He is a very sweet boy."
I thought of Mrs. Montgomery in the middle of the night. How can she say that? He doesn't care about reading or writing. Why can't he be like the other children? Why doesn't he wiggle and laugh? Why doesn't he wave at me? Why can't he write nice stories about how he loves his mommy? Hot tears dripped on my pillow.
The bedroom door squeaked. The glow from the hallway flowed across the floor. Donny's thin silhouette filled the opening, and he padded over to my side in his bare feet. His brown eyes looked even darker as he looked deep into mine. I smiled, but his face remained unresponsive. Gently quietly he laid his limp, blue doggy next to me and went back to bed.