Dijonay sat in the back of the classroom. It wasn’t where she wanted to sit, even though she had picked out the desk herself at the beginning of the year. Each student had done so, and aside from a few trouble makers, everyone remained where they were as the months went by. Dijonay couldn’t remember what it was like to sit somewhere else, because even before this year had started, she always ended up in the same spot. It didn’t matter how the seats were arranged, she would sit in the back row, two seats from the left, squeezed somewhere between Lisa and Monique, behind Natasha and Susan, surrounded by the only voices that comforted her.
“Our country is made up of fifty states,” the teacher droned on. She had been speaking for a while, and Dijonay would not have picked up on these particular words had it not been for the student who muttered obviously just loud enough for the surrounding kids to hear. “But ours is not the only one that is divided up this way. Can anyone name another country that consists of many states?”
Dijonay knew the answer to this one. Or, rather, she thought she did. She hadn’t read it in any book, nor had she picked it up in class. Unfortunately, she couldn’t tell anyone how she came across this information. Put more accurately, she wouldn’t.
You see, Dijonay’s mom had gotten into another argument over the phone the night before. Initially, she suspected it was with that man who told Mom what to do at work, or the phone bill, or the people who occasionally turned the lights off – but the fifth grader realized this wasn’t the case when tears made their way into the back of her mother’s throat, eventually breaking through to the corners of her eyes.
This could mean only one person was on the other side of that phone call. Dijonay didn’t want to scurry through the kitchen in order to get to her bedroom, where she could safely hide herself behind the protection of aging fabric and a few stuffed dolls. That would draw Mom’s attention, which would cause her to abruptly hang up the phone and wipe away the tears that, for some reason, Dijonay suspected were good for her. Instead, the single child sat alone in the living room and tried to aim her ears at the words ever so softly emanating from the television. She dared not turn it up for the same reason she wouldn’t enter the kitchen, but the strained listening took enough effort to draw her away from Mom’s words entirely.
It was the news, as it always was this time of day. Mom liked to keep up with things. She wasn’t nosy, like the neighbors. That was different. That was gossip. No, Mom liked news. She was weird like that, and in a way, Dijonay was weird like her. She didn’t understand the meanings of half the words she heard, but when the disembodied voice mentioned that a state in India had recently split into two, those words were fascinating. Dijonay didn’t think that was a thing states could do. There had always been fifty states in America, even though there were two Carolinas, two Dakotas, and a Virginia just west of the other. She wanted to ask her Mom about this, because the single parent just loved to talk about this stuff with her daughter. Where they lived, there wasn’t really anyone else who would listen. But by the time the phone call ended, all Dijonay wanted to do was go to bed, and after dinner, that’s what she did.
Yet here, now, Dijonay had a chance to ask the question she didn’t at home. But when the teacher asked again, Dijonay didn’t raise her hand. Beside her, Monique had rolled her eyes at someone, or something, and Lisa seemed to be the only one who knew. Susan and Natasha demanded to know, and while Dijonay was frustrated by their distractions, she gave into them, just as she always did. She found them comforting.
Eventually, Dijonay would laugh, and she would hear the teacher again belt out those three syllables, those that formed her name, and though it would cut out her giggling, it wouldn’t stop her friends’. She stewed for a bit, but like always, she eventually moved on, never fully allowing herself to grow bitter. It wasn’t their faults that her laugh was louder, even if they were always the reason it happened in class.
“So yes, China is divided into many provinces,” the teacher went on. “And even though far more people live there than here, our countries are nearly the same size.”
Too bad the people aren’t the same size, someone muttered too quietly for Mrs. Roberts to pick up, just as they had before. They only wanted to speak loud enough for John, the South Korean kid two seats over, to hear. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t Chinese, or that he had grown up in the same city they had, never once having been anywhere near the country his parents immigrated from.
Dijonay liked John. It was nothing serious, for the two had basically never talked, even if she did find him somewhat cute. His hair was dark like hers, the thick strands on her arms, and that similarity spawned some sort of affinity. She was subconscious, and his arms, though making her no less boyish, at least made her less of an anomaly. This was the one part of her appearance that separated her from her friends, and the thought of being alone frightened her beyond words. She had seen what it did to Mom.
Still, whenever one of the girls would ask Dijonay why she liked John, the answer was always baseball. He looked cool in his uniform, and she liked the way he could hit the ball. No one was to know about her fascination with his arm hair. Even she would forget within a few years, as life would take them to different schools.
“China isn’t the only other country that’s divided into states,” Mrs. Roberts said. She looked around the room, providing ample notice that another question was on its way. “Who else can name another?”
Dijonay thought back to the night before. But that wasn’t all. For whatever reason, she thought back to all the times before this one that she knew the answer but didn’t, wouldn’t, raise her hand. There was a reason for this. It wasn’t because she was too afraid, despite the butterflies in her stomach, or too timid, even though she was. No, there was another reason.
“I knew it,” Natasha whispered after reading a note from Monique. “No one else gets you to do that thing you do with your eyes.”
“Todd isn’t the only one,” Susan joined.
Jared. Todd and he were two knuckleheads that lived off attention and always knew where to find it. Most kids were genuinely annoyed by them, but when Monique rolled her eyes, she was trying to hide the smile that people would notice otherwise. She liked them both, just as she did her brothers, despite their being equally bothersome.
By the time Dijonay tuned back in, Mrs. Roberts was talking about Brazil.
Her friends only ever raised their hands to go to the bathroom. Dijonay was no different. She had to do what they did if she didn’t want to be ostracized. She’d seen the way classmates reacted to kids who were quirky. She’d seen the way people responded to her mom. She couldn’t bear the thought of being treated that way herself.
So when Dijonay received a note filled with gossip from Lisa, she lifted up her pencil and managed to find enough space on the page to add just a bit more. By the time she handed the paper back, Mrs. Roberts was talking about Canada, pointing out that while it was the largest country in the Western Hemisphere, it consisted of just ten provinces and, if you want to count them, three territories. Nevertheless, it was still a good answer.
But Dijonay’s was better. She could feel it burning deep in her gut, tucked just above that craving for the lunch bell to ring. She couldn’t wait for lunch, even if she was too embarrassed to rush to the cafeteria as quickly as she would like. Her friends never seemed to be as hungry as she was.
They didn’t seem to hunger for anything. They had interests, sure, but those mostly centered around looking older than their age, knowing what music was catchy, and wearing clothes that would draw the attention, whether it be the soon-to-be lustful eyes of guys or the ever-so-judgmental glare of other girls. Natasha and Monique couldn’t care less about reading, even the books they were assigned. Lisa and Susan were bored to tears whenever anyone brought up the news or, don’t be silly, dared to ponder why these things were going on.
There sat a girl tucked between them that hungered for all of these things. Deep inside, she was starving. She craved answers, for nothing else could satiate her questions. She desperately wanted a good book, because nothing else produced answers quite so well. She thirsted for news, because even though most stories were more than she understood, nothing made her feel better than hearing just how the mailbox down the road got that dent in it or finding out why the traffic lights near her home were strapped to cables, not poles. She didn’t realize it, but without this nourishment, she was slowly dying.
Then, just as the teacher was about to turn around, Dijonay raised her hand.
“The Starving Child” by Bertel King, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.