“‘Spain, China, South Africa, Brazil…’” McKenzie Rivers recites the instructions for Ms. Curtis’s third-grade world cultures project. “‘Select any country from the seven continents and express what you have learned. You can draw pictures, write a poem, or create a poster with interesting facts. All the projects will be on display in class. Parents are invited to attend. Help PS 56 celebrate Global Awareness Day.’” A curious McKenzie asks, “Ms. Curtis, why is Global Awareness Day so important?”
“Learning about where other people come from and respecting their differences is important. While you live in New York, your parents and grandparents may come from different parts of the United States, or maybe even from another country. Each of you may celebrate diverse traditions and beliefs, and that’s what makes you all special,” Ms. Curtis explains.
Angela Wiggins stands up and says, “My momma said to never buy a man shoes or he will walk away from you.”
“Well, Angela,” Ms. Curtis takes a deep breath and closes her lips tightly together with a slight smile. “That’s more of what they call an old wives’ tale. We can discuss that during one of our Fun Fridays.”
Lizzie Sanders, McKenzie’s best friend, immediately shoots her hand in the air and asks, “Can we wear a costume or something from that country for the project?”
“Yes, Lizzie, that’s fine,” Ms. Curtis answers. “The project can be as unique or as different as you want it to be. Global Awareness Day is a great opportunity to learn about cultures other than your own. Each grade level will be contributing something different, so you’ll get to see how hard everyone has worked to make this event possible.”
A bell cries out, to the students’ relief. Papers fly like happy birds, books slam, and excited little voices fill the air, signaling the end of the day. As McKenzie jams her books into her backpack she turns to Lizzie and says, “Text your mom and ask if you can come to my house. We can start on the project together.”
“Okay!” Lizzie agrees. As she texts her mother, someone who is small in size but can appear as big and as mean as a monster approaches Lizzie.
It’s Angela again, followed by her two friends, Lissette and Tammy. “You always have to do something different. A costume?” She huffs. “I hope it comes with a mask to cover your face and that mole on your eyebrow.” Angela laughs.
“Quit it, Angela, or I’m telling!” McKenzie jumps in front of Lizzie to protect her friend. “Don’t be jealous because you’re gonna do the same cardboard cutout project that you always do.” McKenzie locks arms with Lizzie. “Excuse us,” McKenzie says politely as they walk past Angela and her shadows. They head out of the classroom to go home.
Lizzie and McKenzie walk down the sun-drenched concrete streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York, past brownstones strong in stature and historic in nature, each with their own unique story.
“Italy, France—do you really think we need to know about those countries?” McKenzie asks.
“Well, if I become famous and travel the world, I will thank Ms. Curtis in my acceptance speech for teaching me about all these fabulous places.”
“Oh brother, for winning what?” McKenzie laughs. “My parents mentioned traveling to places like that, but we haven’t gone anywhere yet.”
“When we get old—not too old, like in our forties—we can travel to those places together,” Lizzie offers. “How about that?”
“Deal. Dibs on the window seat,” McKenzie says hurriedly. “Don’t let Angela get to you. If she keeps picking on you, tell Ms. Curtis.”
“It doesn’t bother me. I can handle her. And stop jumping in or you’ll get in trouble,” Lizzie says.
“I know, but I don’t like when things are not right,” McKenzie says.
“Oh! My mom said that I can come over, but to be careful because it’s supposed to rain.”
They arrive at McKenzie’s home and enter through the downstairs entrance, where Mrs. Rivers keeps her home office. Mrs. Rivers is a former attorney and now works as an interior designer. What was once a hobby has become a flourishing business, but Mrs. Rivers still provides legal assistance to those less fortunate.
“Hi, baby!” McKenzie’s mother greets her with a hug. “Hey there, Lizzie. How’s the future fashion queen?”
“I’m good, Mrs. Rivers. We got assigned a new class project today and we get to invite our parents.”
“Well, I can’t wait to hear more about it, and McKenzie, you know that I will be there.”
“Okay, but can you not cry this time?” McKenzie pleads.
“And why is that, young lady?”
“Because you cry at everything!”
“Well, if you must know, parents sometimes cry when they are proud of their children and see them doing well.”
“I understand. I’m sorry. You can cry.”
“Why thank you, Ms. McKenzie. I will cry even more when you start wearing more dresses.”
“I know. I know. I love that you want to be different, but you can do that in a dress as well.”
“I told her that, Mrs. Rivers.”
“Ugh, can we start on our homework now?” McKenzie pretends to look angry and storms out of the room, heading to the backyard.