Tulie, Brenda and Freddie arrived at the school bus stop on the corner of their street at exactly the same time, 7:45 a.m.
“Where's Winsome?” Tulie asked. “I told her to be here at 7:45 sharp. I told her the bus is sometimes early the first day of school. I told her that if she misses the bus, she can walk, but it takes almost a half hour and she doesn't know the way. And I hope she remembers to bring an umbrella like I did because it looks like it might rain.”
“Oh, Tulie, she'll be fine. She's not a first grader you know,” Brenda said.
“Maybe she doesn't need so much help, Tulie,” cautioned Freddie.
“Yes, some people like to do things their own way,” added Brenda.
“Don't be silly. Why wouldn't Winsome want my help and advice? Look how I help you two all the time.”
Brenda and Freddie looked as if they wanted to laugh, but they managed not to.
The morning of the first day of school still felt like it was summer but all the kids couldn't wait to wear their new back-to-school outfits. Brenda wore new jeans, a red sweater and a brand new pair of Sketchers. Freddie's plaid shirt was huge and hung down to his knees. His mom always thought he'd grow into his clothes, but he never seemed to. Tulie liked her new brown corduroy skirt but was kind of sorry she had to wear it with one of her old tops. Mom said that as soon as Wal-Mart put the fall stuff on sale that she'd get Tulie some more clothes with her employee discount.
As soon as she saw Winsome rushing down the sidewalk towards them, Tulie knew nobody was going to notice her old top or her new corduroy skirt. She thought Winsome's outfit might have been okay for the first day of school in California, or maybe even China, but not Ohio. She wore an embroidered Mexican blouse over blue jeans trimmed with lots of glitter, rainbow striped socks and pink satin ballerina slippers. Her long hair was held back by a band with a little pink teddy bear on it. And instead of a backpack like everybody had, Winsome carried a big carpet bag that looked like the one Gran kept her knitting in. What would the kids think?
“Like, hi, everybody!” Winsome greeted them with a big smile.
Brenda and Freddie said hi but Tulie had much more to say.
“Now, Winsome, when the bus comes, it will be number seventy-two. Don't forget that number because you'll need to find the bus in the parking lot after school. And when we get on, there will be lots of empty seats because we're at the start of the run, but don't sit just anywhere. The bad kids sit in the back, the troublemakers. Freddie likes the very front seat because he gets carsick and so Brenda and I always sit in the second seat together, right behind him. But today I've told Brenda to sit with him. You and I will sit in the second seat together.”
Just then bus number seventy-two arrived and they got on. Winsome did as she was told. Sitting in the second seat with Tulie, she was told a lot more, all the way to school.
“When we get to school, I'll show you where the bulletin board is by the principal's office. That's where we find out our classroom number and locker number. And then I'll show you where the classroom is and help you find your locker. I hope we're in the same classroom, but if we're not, I'll save you a seat in the lunchroom. Freddie and I have a special table and Brenda sits with us even though she could sit at the cheerleader's table, of course, if she wanted to, but she doesn't want to. Then, after lunch, I'll take you around to meet Mrs. Mosher, the librarian, she's really nice. And at the end of the day, don't worry about your seat on the bus ride back home because I'll be sure to rush out fast and save us our seat.”
Winsome just listened and nodded and nodded some more. Freddie and Brenda turned in around in their seats and listened to Tulie, too. She saw Freddie roll his eyes and Brenda stifle a little giggle and wondered what was so funny. But she was too busy instructing Winsome to ask them.
* * *
The first day of school in the fall was always exciting, but this year it was more than that. Tulie was so nervous there was a knot in her stomach. If only she'd told Winsome what to wear. If a kid got off to a bad start at school, there was no way to fix it. Not ever. And it looked bad for her new friend. From the minute they got on the school bus that morning everybody had stared at Winsome Lee. Even though Tulie was talking non-stop, she could hear them whispering. Poor Winsome. How would she ever survive without Tulie?
Then, when they walked through the doors of James Thurber Middle School, everybody stopped talking. Nobody even whispered. If Gran had been there she would have said you could hear a pin drop. No wonder. Tulip O'Brien and Winsome Lee walked down the crowded hallway together, Freddie and Brenda walked extra slowly, getting farther and father behind them and Tulie knew why. The kids, strangely silent, just stared and moved aside, clearing a path that closed up behind them as they went along.
At the end of hall stood Katherine Bannister watching them. As usual, she looked perfect. Her blonde hair fell in smooth soft waves to her shoulders. A pale green cashmere sweater perfectly matched her eyes. Katherine's blue jeans were so stylishly worn-out that Tulie knew they had to be brand new and expensive. Shoes and backpack had a label that Tulie guessed was important, but she'd never heard of Prada. You would think that Katherine's clothes would come from Bannister's Department Store, but they didn't. Her mother always took Katherine to Chicago shopping and Katherine made sure everybody knew that.
With one hand on her hip, Katherine slowly looked Winsome up and down, down and up, then up and down again. Tulie swallowed hard as she watched Katherine study Winsome's odd outfit. Katherine looked at the Mexican blouse. She saw the glittery blue jeans. She looked down at the rainbow socks and the ballerina slippers. She looked up at the pink teddy bear on Winsome's headband. She looked surprised at the carpetbag. Winsome just stood there while the kids gathered around in a circle. Tulie tried to imagine herself invisible but for once her imagination failed her.
The bell rang. Still nobody moved. Suddenly Katherine smiled, all dimples, and said just one word, “Cool!” Everybody came to life and ran for their classrooms.
* * *
Freddie and Brenda were both in the same class as Tulie this year but Winsome was in Miss Lockwood's class. That meant that Tulie spent the whole morning worrying. Winsome must be feeling so out of it, a stranger in a room with strange kids that she didn't know.
At noon Tulie, Brenda and Freddie went to the lunchroom together. There were twelve tables in the room and eight plastic chairs around each table. It was the noisiest room in school, except the gym during a pep rally. Tulie didn't have to wait in line because she had her lunch in her backpack. Gran packed it every morning. Mom said the school cafeteria food wasn't healthy, but Tulie knew the kids all thought she couldn't afford to buy her lunch. Maybe they were right. She went straight to the corner table and waited for her friends to join her. It was their usual table, the only one that was totally empty. Some kids called it “The Cootie Table” but the three friends didn't' care because it meant they could always find seats together. Brenda bought a slice of pizza and fries and Freddie's mom, who was a cook at school, made sure he had a double-size helping of macaroni and cheese.
“Wanna trade?” Freddie asked Tulie as he was sitting down.
“Nope, I've got my favorite sandwich, peanut butter and marshmallow fluff on raisin bread with the crusts cut off.”
“How about you, Brenda? Wanna trade?”
“No way, Freddie. What's the matter, don't you like macaroni and cheese?”
“Oh sure, but my mom always brings home the leftovers and I know we'll be having macaroni and cheese for supper tonight. I already know that tomorrow's lunch is going to be creamed chicken and guess what I'll be having for supper tomorrow night.”
“Creamed chicken,” Brenda said, but Tulie wasn't really listening. She had other things on her mind.
“I'm worried that Winsome doesn't know where the cafeteria is,” she said as she munched on a carrot stick.
“I'm sure she can find it without your help, Tulie, “Brenda said as she doused her fries with plenty of ketchup.
“Oh, I don't think she needs anybody's help,” interrupted Freddie, nodding towards the end of the lunch line.
There, lunch trays in their hands, smiling and chatting together, stood Winsome and Katherine Bannister. Winsome saw the three friends across the room and started to wave, but Katherine caught the new girl's hand and shook her head. She pointed to the table in the center of the lunchroom where Billy Chapman, the captain of the basketball team always sat. Katherine's girlfriends who also lived up on the hill were already at the table.
As Winsome walked to the center table with Katherine, the three friends looked at each other.
“Well, I guess that's the last we'll see of Winsome Lee,” said Freddie.
“Poor Winsome!” exclaimed Tulie.
“What do you mean?” Brenda asked.
“Having to sit at that table with all those boring kids. All they ever talk about is what they bought at the mall last week or where they're going on vacation or who's the cutest boy on some dumb TV show. Winsome would much rather talk to us,” Tulie said emphatically.
“Then why didn't she come over and sit with us?” Freddie asked. “She saw us, plain as day.”
“Maybe she just wants to meet some of the other kids,” Brenda said.
“Of course, she doesn't! Didn't you see? That pushy Katherine
Bannister practically dragged her over to their table. Bossing Winsome around
like she doesn't have a mind of her own and can't make her own decisions. She
didn't have a chance,” said Tulie, getting angry now and rising from her chair.
“I'm going right over there and rescue her. It's a free country and she should be able to sit wherever she wants!”
Brenda grabbed Tulie's arm. “Why don't you just let Winsome decide where she wants to sit? You don't own her.”
Tulie shook off Brenda's grasp.
“Oh, let her learn the hard way,” Freddie interjected, his mouth so full of macaroni and cheese that Tulie almost couldn't understand him. If Freddie and Brenda weren't willing to help Winsome get away from Katherine's clutches, Tulie would just have to do it herself.
The chatter of the six kids at the center table stopped as Tulie approached. Six faces turned towards her. Billy Chapman frowned. Katherine Bannister looked irritated. Winsome smiled warmly.
“Hi, Tulie,” she said.
“I've come to save you, Winsome!” Tulie said.
“Save me?” Winsome asked. “Save me from what?”
“Oh, save me , Supergirl Tulip, save me! ” Billy Chapman squealed in a high voice like a cartoon talking. Everybody giggled.
Tulie resisted the urge to follow Gran's advice that honesty is the best policy. She wanted to say, “I want to save you from being bored to death!” But she didn't. Instead, she just said, “You don't have to sit here with these kids. You can come over and sit with me and Brenda and Freddie. We were saving a seat for you.”
“It looks like you were saving five seats for her,” said Billy and all the kids except Winsome roared with laughter.
“There are like, two empty seats at this table, why don't you come sit with us?” Winsome suggested.
“Can't you count, Winsome? There are two chairs but there are three of us,” Tulie snapped.
Winsome looked hurt, but shrugged. “Okay then. It's cool. I'll see you after school.”
Tulie turned sharply on her heels and walked back to the corner table, holding her head high and pretending she didn't hear all the kids in the lunchroom whispering and giggling. Her courage defeated her about halfway across the lunchroom and she walked faster and faster until she was almost running. She wished redheads didn't blush so much. Sometimes having the fiery spirit that goes with having red hair got Tulie into situations she regretted. She knew this was one of them.
“Oh, Tulie! I warned you,” said Brenda as Tulie sat down and pretended that her sandwich was the most interesting thing in the world. She wasn't going to cry. She wasn't.
“Told ya,” was all that Freddie said.
The peanut butter seemed to stick in Tulie's throat and she drank half her juicebox before she could swallow easily and force a smile. “Look, if Winsome Lee would rather hang out with boring Katherine Bannister and her stuck-up rich friends than sit with the three most fabulous kids in Garfield, then let her,” said Tulie, not too convincingly.
“Yeah. All they ever care about is showing off and wasting every Saturday at the mall and going to stupid basketball games,” Freddie said.
“Those kids aren't so bad. They're just not like us, that's all,” said Brenda.
“No, they're rich and they live up on the hill,” Tulie said.
“Well, they can't help that, can they?” Brenda asked.
“I can't even imagine being like those kids,” Tulie decreed.
“And everybody knows you've got the best imagination in town,” nodded Brenda.
“Éin all of Ohio, probably,” added Freddie.
Tulie just kept eating her sandwich.