It was the 100th day of the school year. The brisk February air hung thick outside the fogged windows of my first-period geometry class. I sat in my assigned seat, the very back row, second to the right, far away from those crystallizing panes. Every other seat but one was filled. 23 awkward, sleepy-eyed old children trying to cope with the harsh mathematical realities that awaited them on that frigid Monday morning.
Our teacher, Ms. Fontana, sat with an impatient grimace on her face as the tinny din of the morning’s announcements squelched from the speaker above the door. The monotone murmurs of the bored student reading the announcements fell on my ears like some painful lullaby. My heavy eyelids tried to drown out the noise by shutting off my brain’s access to light. It didn’t work. Sleep felt like a guillotine, a quiet peace after a moment of unimaginable horror. But the moment was dragging on, an eternal Catherine wheel on my eardrums.
Once a suspicious silence filled the room, Ms. Fontana backed her chair out from her desk and rose, both her and the chair making squeaks and creaks that were indistinguishable from each other. This new pitch roused me from my tortured trance, my eyelids opened wide, lashed to my eyebrows.
“Good morning, class,” Ms. Fontana said, disturbing the few stragglers still caught in daydream. “Before we begin, I have a little announcement.”
There was a knock on the classroom door.
“Ah, perfect timing,” Ms. Fontana turned and shuffled to the door, a satisfied grin stretching over her thin face. She always loved it when her meticulous agenda kept to her schedule.
The door opened to what I first thought was no one. I didn’t see anyone enter at first. After a moment he waddled into my view.
A fuzzy gray varmint with pointy ears, a ringed, bushy tail, and a frightened face with big dark circles around sleepy eyes. He was no more than two feet tall, and he slowly stepped towards the room’s center stage on his hind legs.
“Everyone, this is Rocky.” Ms. Fontana motioned her hand downwards in the animal’s general direction. Rocky the raccoon. Sounds familiar. Many of us in the way back stood or craned our necks to see his pointed snout and pliable paws, which gave a timid wave to the class.
“Hi, everybody,” Rocky said with an adolescent squeak.
“Do take a seat, Rocky.” The teacher pointed to the lone empty seat in the room, the very back corner right next to me.
The raccoon got on all fours and scurried his way to the seat in a flash, obviously wanting out of the spotlight. Some kids in the class murmured and quietly jeered. I even heard the word “weird” several times in just those few seconds.
He climbed into the chair and pulled out his math book and a notebook, both of which were quite cumbersome for his tiny form. Even his pencil looked gargantuan in his paws. The standard no. 2 was so long for him he came close to poking himself in the eye on multiple occasions before he started to tilt the top of his pencil in the other direction, away from his face. This made the pencil topple out of his clutch and clatter onto the desk. After several attempts, he was able to hold the pencil in the middle and at an acute angle to the desk. This did a number on his penmanship, which being a raccoon was already pretty sloppy. Nonetheless, he spent the whole class diligent as possible, scribbling down notes and shapes and equations. He never raised his hand, or rather paw, but he never stopped paying attention, either.
The next period was history and there he was again, sitting behind me in the very back row, pouring through the textbook, his mind devouring 400 years of America. I heard him sniffing at the pages with great interest along with a constant rustle of turning pages. He must like history, I thought.
In gym class, I saw him emerge from the locker room comically dressed in an orange gym shirt that was a little too big for him. We all had to wear orange for gym class so in a way he fit in, but it was weird to see a raccoon in an oversized shirt and such bright colors. Rocky innocently wandered over to a random circle of students, which just happened to be the popular clique of that period. He didn’t even get a chance to say anything before the cruel kids started shunning him away, pointing in my direction and saying he should go be with the rest of the weird kids.
I didn’t know what they meant by that. I was sitting on the gym floor with my back to the folded-up bleachers, my eyelids playing a slow-motion game of yo-yo. To me, it seemed like I was by myself, but I was in the vicinity of the foreign exchange student, the asthmatics, and that one quiet girl who spent most of her time in the library. And me, some kid who just always looked tired.
At lunch, I found him sitting all by himself at one end of a bench, nibbling at a sandwich clutched in his claws. Anyone sitting nearby seemed to be making a sort of repellent bubble around him, keeping him at an unspoken, quarantined distance.
He didn’t really seem to notice or care, but it was still a sad sight. I felt bad for him, and it’s not like I had any offers to sit anywhere, so I walked up with my lunch tray and sat down across from him.
“Mind if I join you?”
He looked up at me between sandwich bites and gave a shy smile. I thought I saw relief in his eyes.
“Please. I’m Rocky.”
“Nice to meet you, Rocky. I’m Eddie.” I sat down and stuck out my hand with the sudden urge to shake his paw. He was still holding his sandwich, so he turned, and a tiny furry elbow met my palm.
“Very nice to meet you. You’re the first person to say hi to me all day.”
“Really? I’m sorry” I didn’t know what to say to that. “It’s hard being the new kid. A lot of people are talking about you, though.”
“Good things, I hope.” His jet-black nose twitched a bit at the thought.
“Uh, well…” I shouldn’t have said that. “Not really. Everyone says you’re…weird.”
His snout crinkled a bit and his whole face took a bewildered turn. “That’s not that bad. I wonder how they know about it, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“That I’m an insomniac. I’m up all night and then I can’t fall asleep when the morning comes. My parents thought if I went to public school for a while it would help me get some sleep.”
I must have looked dumbfounded, and I guess my jaw dropped at some point because Rocky reached out across the table pushed my chin up, shutting my ajar mouth.
“Are you okay?” he asked, concerned.
“Oh, yeah—it’s just—wow, that is weird.”
“Yeah,” he uttered as he popped the last bit of sandwich into his mouth. “So, what makes you weird?”
“What?” What a weird question, I thought.
“I told you what makes me weird, now you gotta tell me what makes you weird.”
“But—I’m not weird.”
“Oh, come on,” his face twisted into what I guess is the raccoon version of real talk. “We all have something about us that makes us weird. And you if don’t have anything weird about you, well then that would be pretty weird, wouldn’t it?”
“Hmm, I never thought of it that way.”
“I’m sure if you think about it, you’ll find something about you that someone else finds a bit weird.”
“I guess.” I supposed he was right. But I had no idea what was weird about me. To me, I felt pretty normal. A little sleepy, maybe. And I did have few friends, which is kind of weird. Plus, I was having a very public conversation with a raccoon over sandwiches and fruit juice.
We spent the rest of lunch talking about our classes. We had most of them together. He told me about how he really liked history and how little he really knew about it, and I started noticing the weird looks passersby started given us, especially when we would laugh or get real intense talking about something.
The bell rang and the teenage stampede to the next class began. Rocky jumped off the bench onto the floor and got tangled up in the blurry parade of sneakers and legs. He shrieked and scurried under the lunch table.
I bent down and poked my head under the table. “Want a ride?”
He nodded, and I reached in and picked him up. He crawled up around to my back and latched onto my backpack. Then he gave me two taps on the shoulder to signal he was ready to roll. I joined the throng of students and steered our way to chemistry class, all the while thinking if there’s nothing else weird about me, I can at least say my best friend is a raccoon.