By Ashley Mixson*
It’s almost 2:20. My leg bounces nervously as my eyes jump between the clock and the phone. My teacher, Ms. Atkins, drones on about life science, but she senses my anticipation. She’s waiting for the phone call as well. Finally the low, monotone ring sounds in the middle of her lesson plan. “Ashley, go to the office, please.” She gives me a smile, “good luck.”
I make my way through the halls quickly, moving as fast as I can. Ms. Janet, my neighbor, is ready for me in the office. She smiles at me, but wastes no time taking me to the car.
“So, Ashley, how are you liking sixth grade,” she asks as she starts the car.
“It’s alright. I like that we get to move from class to class.” She nods her head in a agreement.
“And are you nervous about Prep? Or being on the subway alone?”
“Nah, not really. I’m just gonna see all my Prep friends again, and the subway is no big deal. I’ve ridden it tons of times,” I say.
She looks over at me as if she wants to say something, her eyebrows lifted in doubt, but she simply shrugs instead as she pulls into her driveway and stops the car. “Good luck!” she calls as I sprint up my stoop. I fumble with my book bag for a moment, trying to find my keys, but then quickly recover. There is no time to waste. I silently greet my babysitter, who is sitting with my little sisters and their speech therapist, a tan woman with bright red hair and a “New York” accent. She smiles back.
I run upstairs, switch the books in my book bag for new ones, and rush back downstairs to get the Metro-card, Long Island Rail Road pass, and cell phone from the old, hand-me-down, brown China cabinet. I mumble goodbye as I close the door behind me and head down the street. As I think about my destination, I speed up with determination and elation.
Today is the second day for the Prep for Prep school year term. Prep for Prep recruited me when I was in fifth grade, and after a round of intense testing, let me into their program that only accepts about 160 academically gifted, but economically challenged kids. The first day, last Saturday, was a success: I met up with my friends from the summer term, and with my homework done I’m ready to go back. But it’s Wednesday, and I have to go by myself since my parents are still at work.
Fifteen minutes later, I’m waiting at the LIRR station for the train to approach. Despite the forty-five minute ride to Penn Station, I remind myself that this part of the journey should be easy enough, at least until I switch to the regular subway. I read a book, take a nap, and wait until the automated voice informs us that, “The next stop is Penn Station, 34th Street.” When the train pulls in, a long line forms in front of the door. It opens and people rush out. I step carefully out of the train, watching for the infamous gap between the platform and the train, and look up. I don’t remember which way to go. People are hurrying out the doors behind me, shoving me in different directions as I stand, trying to remember.
I look to my left and see the long train stretched out on the tracks next to a seemingly endless platform. There are stairs at random intervals on the platform, with signs that announce “LIRR TRACKS 13-19” and so on, but they do nothing to help my confusion. I look to the right and see the same thing: an infinite platform and dirty steps leading upward. My throat closes up but I try to gain composure. I thought I’d know what to do, but my dad isn’t here with me this time. I’m tired, and the weight of the books in my bag tugs at my shoulders. I think about following the crowd but it’s splitting off into what seems like a hundred different directions, so I boldly swing a left and head up the nearest stairs. I’m suddenly in a big hallway. Restaurants and shops line the walls. Nothing looks familiar, so instead of even trying to look around, I flee downstairs, fighting against the current of people. When I reach the bottom I go straight across to another set of stairs. Another big hallway. This one looks somewhat familiar. I follow the crowd forward until I reach an even bigger hallway and look around. I see a huge mural of a woman in a toga on the back wall. This is supposed to be my landmark. I’m so relieved that I race forward, bumping into a squat Asian woman with a permanent looking frown. She eyes me for a second but turns away. I slow down a bit after that.
Finally I reach my destination, the number 2 train, and cram myself inside one of the cars. I look around, and start panicking again. All of the paranoid teachings that my mother imparted on me start zipping through my mind:
Don’t talk to strangers, Ashley.
If you do have to talk to them, be polite.
Avoid eye contact.
Don’t give the subway beggars any money, Ashley.
Don’t give them any food, Ashley. And make sure you don’t—
My thoughts are interrupted as a seated black man in slacks calls out, “Hey, kid.” What should I do? Ignore him? Talk to him? Oh goodness—my mother never prepared me for this.
“Y-yes…sir?” I brace myself as he stands up in front of me. He must be at least seven feet tall. He smiles.
A smile breaks out on my face as I answer, “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”