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A few feet from the school entrance, Laura heard the squeals of children playing. She squeezed her mother’s hand, dug her heels in to the ground and started to cry. She already missed her friends from America. She wanted to go back to her old kindergarten. Since arriving in Japan two weeks earlier, her mother had told her every day that she was going to start school soon. Each morning, they walked together past her new kindergarten so she could watch the children play and get excited about going there. But those walks only made her feel worse. In America, her schoolyard was an open, grassy area with small hills to climb. There was a bike track for riding her tricycle. And best of all, the kindergarten had a jungle gym with bridges and towers and tubes. It was the best place to play hide and seek with her friends. But the Japanese schoolyard looked like a giant sandbox. No grass! No jungle gym! And worst of all, the kids spoke Japanese! Laura didn’t know any Japanese. Today, she felt worse than ever on her walk. She wouldn’t be going past the school; she would be going in! “Mom...” Laura tried to keep the tears inside, but they fell like the time she cut her knee on the street. “I don’t want to go! I don’t want to go!” “Oh, sweetheart. I know you’re scared.” Laura’s mother walked her to a bench under a tree. She wiped away Laura’s tears and gave her a drink from the thermos she was carrying for school. “You’re scared, mom?” “Of course I am, honey. This is new for me, too. I can’t talk to your teacher. I have no friends. But I’m excited, too. We’re going to learn a new language, and you’re going to learn so much faster than me. Imagine! Soon, you’ll know a lot more than your mom!” Laura smiled. She thought of her friend Maria from Mexico. When Maria first came to kindergarten, she and her mother only spoke Spanish. Her mom still had trouble speaking to the teacher, but Maria spoke just like all of Laura's friends. If Maria could do it… Thinking of Maria felt good and Laura calmed down. She watched the kids running on the barren playground for a few minutes. They wore colored hats and looked like M&Ms tossed onto a dirty plate, but they seemed to be having fun without grass or a jungle gym. “Come on, Laura, let’s go together and see what it’s like in the school,” Mom said. When Laura stepped through the school gates, a swarm of Japanese children ran up to her and screamed "harro, harro!" (hello). They surrounded her as if she were a movie star and grabbed at her clothes. A few even patted her blonde, curly hair. Tears welled up in Laura's eyes again, but the kids were smiling, laughing and wouldn't stop waving at her. She smiled back through her tears, but squeezed her mom's hand a little tighter. Her mom squeezed back and they followed a teacher through the crowd of kids and into the school. While her mother met with the principal and an interpreter, Laura watched through a door window at the children playing outside. Suddenly, a little Japanese head popped up at the window. Laura jumped back and giggled. Another head, another giggle. Soon, she was playing peek-a-boo through the glass with more kids than she could count. They waved for her to come outside. Laura’s smile disappeared. She chewed on her thumbnail. She didn’t want to go outside. It was ok to play with them through the glass in the door, but... Then, Laura saw an area of the playground she hadn’t noticed before. A few kids were jumping from a hill and, at another area, a teacher was playing jump rope with some girls. Laura was good at jump rope. And she didn't have to be in a big group. Maybe, and it was only a maybe, this playground would be fun, too. She smiled at the heads that kept jumping into view through the window. “Mom. I’m going to try Japanese jump rope, ok?” Laura opened the door a crack. “Hello,” she said.
Linda Gould is the Managing Editor of White Enso and an on again, off again writer. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers and online. She is the host of Japanese Ghost Stories on FaceBook and the author of The Diamond Tree, a dual-language book in English and Japanese.