Unfocused

It was late in the afternoon and the sun felt warm on Christine's shoulders. She sat in the back of the class, close to the window. Math was the last class of the day. She glanced at the clock and sighed. Twenty minutes were left. Twenty minutes of eternity.

She could barely hear Mr. Maisel's voice droning on about fractions and decimals. She glanced at the board, watching the numbers sprouting and multiplying beneath his rapid hand but they didn't make sense. Nor did she care.

Instead of taking notes as she knew she should, she turned her head toward the window. Cars were already lining up along the street, parents waiting to pick their kids up from school. At least I live close enough where I can walk home, Christine thought, her gaze alighting on the waxing moon that resembled a chalk smudge against the early autumn sky.

What if the moon was inhabited and no one knew it? Her mind began to tingle with ideas.

Suddenly excited, she flipped to a blank page in her notebook and began scribbling to keep up with her racing thoughts. "These people live in deep caverns beneath the moon's surface that contain exotic subterranean lands filled with unusual trees, oceans of stirring rainbow mist, and animals that resemble dandelion puffballs. The people themselves are tiny and as delicate as birds. They glow like moonlight and their bodies change shape with the moon's phases. The main character of this story will want to travel to the 'Great Blue Planet' (Earth) but is warned against it since it is populated by 'violent giants' (us). That—"

"Christine Cordova!" Mr. Maisel's voice shattered her concentration. She jumped in her seat. "Good. I finally have your attention." The other kids giggled. "Come up to the board and show us how to turn a fraction into a decimal."

Her face grew so hot that she could practically feel her skin peeling away. This is a nightmare, she thought, as she started toward the front of the class on feet that were weighted lead. I'll awaken any minute now . . . any minute.

She took the chalk from Mr. Maisel's hand and stared at the problem.

"Change 2 ¾ into a decimal."

She froze. Was this what Mr. Maisel had been talking about just now? Where was I? Christine's thoughts churned, trying to dredge up any memory of what they had just been taught. She couldn't do anything, didn't know what to do. Instead, she remained standing there, just staring, hoping that an earthquake would hit and they would all have to scurry under their desks or that she'd awaken. Whichever came first.

Still, if she could tune out Mr. Maisel's lecture so easily, then why was she distinctly aware of the laughter rippling throughout the classroom?

"Okay, Christine. You can go back to your desk. But I'd like to see you after class."

Christine slumped back to her seat without looking at anyone and struggled to hold back the tears that burned her eyes.

That desire to dissolve into the floor increased as Mr. Maisel passed back the math quizzes that they had taken the other day. He slipped hers face down onto her desk and gave her a look that said, "This is also why I need to talk to you."

Her stomach twisted as she turned the test over. A large D- was written in bright red ink across the top of the page.

Anger and disappointment filled her. I studied. Dad even helped me. I should have just spent the evening watching TV instead of wasting my time studying, if that's all the good it's done. And if anyone should be able to help me, it's my dad. He's an engineer, after all.

A sickening feeling crept through Christine as she glanced at the other kids' tests, mostly A's and B's and the occasional C. Her best friend Meg had received a B+ but that was expected since she was a usually a solid B student. Why am I the only one who seems to be struggling? Am I that stupid?

The other fifth graders dispersed when the bell rang. Christine glanced toward the door. Would Mr. Maisel notice if I ran for it? Would he—

"Christine." She turned. Mr. Maisel captured her with his dark-eyed stare. He beckoned her over to his desk.

She breathed deeply, hoping that would settle her twittering stomach.

"I know school just started a couple of weeks ago and I'm a new teacher here, but I notice you seem to be having a lot a difficulty is this class. I don't to pry but are you having any problems at home?"

Christine shook her head. Her parents argued on occasion but certainly no more than other peoples' parents did. She was an only child but she had plenty of friends and Meg was a frequent guest. Not that she required constant attention since her drawings and stories often filled up her spare time and even distracted her from her schoolwork, ideas popping in at inappropriate times, just like today. And then there was her dog Rusty—

Rusty! Oh, no. I promised my parents I'd lay out his food and water this morning to prove I had a sense of responsibility and I completely forgot. I—

"You seem to be an intelligent girl, Christine." Mr. Maisel's strong voice drew her back to the problem at hand. "And that is why I can't understand why you are having so much trouble." He handed her a slim white envelope. "I'm recommending that you see the school psychologist. Give this note to your parents."

Christine blinked hard to push back the tears as she stepped into the busy hallway. Maybe I'm just stupid, she thought, shoving Mr. Maisel's note into the pocket of her jeans. None of the other kids seem to have such problems with their schoolwork. And, in spite of having an engineer for a father, math had always been my worse subject. But I'm not exactly a whiz at the others either, getting mostly C's and an occasional B . . .when I'm lucky.

"Chris!" Meg waved and raced toward her, her pale blonde ponytail bobbing. She and Meg always walked home together. "What did Mr. Maisel want?"

Christine's cheeks burned. She glanced around to be sure no one else was listening. "He thinks I should see the school shrink."

"Why?" Meg's blue eyes widened. "You're not crazy. Well, not usually."

Christine smiled, feeling her mood lift slightly. "It's not that. He thinks . . . I don't know, he thinks it might help me with my math somehow."

"Well, you are pretty hopeless at that, I must admit. I've helped you, so has my older brother and even your dad but still—"

"I know!" Christine snapped, suddenly angry. "I'm not good at anything else either. My parents are already going to kill me. I wish you and everyone else would just get off my case." Her withheld tears suddenly released themselves; she caught the faint taste of liquid salt on her tongue.

"I'm sorry." Meg's voice was soft, whispery and Christine instantly regretted her outburst.

Christine rubbed at her face with the sleeve of her sweater. She was grateful that they were far enough away from the school and walking through the residential area. She glanced over at Meg, who was walking with her head down, her cheeks burning an almost sunburn red against her fair skin.

Christine touched Meg's shoulder. "No. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped like that. It's just I wish I was good at stuff like you and the rest of the class."

"What are you talking about? You're good at plenty of stuff. I love your drawings and the stories you write and I wish I could shoot as many hoops in basketball as you do."

A rare flicker of pride flushed through Christine but it was quickly doused. "No. I mean academic things, like math and being able to diagram sentences in English and concentrate when I'm supposed to. Things like that."

Meg shrugged. "I guess we're all weak at something."

They walked in silence until they reached the corner where they went their separate ways. "Think of some ideas for Mrs. Clanton's history project on the African slave trade," Meg said. "We'll talk about these when we meet with Greg and Kim in the library on Saturday afternoon. We have to decide how we want to present the project."

"Okay. See you tomorrow."

"See you."

Christine's heart was pounding a steady drumbeat in her ears as she approached her house. It stood at the end of a cul-de-sac, its bright blue shade separating it from the other houses of soft grays, golds, and beiges as if it were a beacon. They had lived here for ten years, since Christine was a baby, and each year her dad had promised to repaint but never seemed to get around to it.

As she approached the door, she could hear piano music. She breathed a little easier. Her mother taught voice and piano out of the house and was currently with a student. And her father wouldn't be home from work for a couple of hours. That meant she wouldn't have to show them Mr. Maisel's note or explain about her bad math grade.

Rusty barked and raced to the door wagging his tail as she entered. He'd already forgiven her for forgetting to feed him that morning but she doubted her parents would let her off so easily.

"How's my good boy?" she said, bending down to pet his woolly hide. His rust-colored fur had faded since the years when they first brought him home, when a young Christine had named him, with only his silky ears still retaining that rich shade. It was getting close to grooming time: he looked more like a woolly teddy bear than a poodle and held a distinct dog smell. Christine's mom already had the groom date marked for early next week on the calendar.

The music stopped.

"Christine, can I see you for a moment?" Her mom stood before her, hands on her slender hips. She was a pretty woman with skin nearly as creamy as Meg's and light brown hair.

The only thing I really inherited from her was her blue-green eyes, Christine thought, as she followed her into the kitchen. Other than that, I look like a female version of Dad with my thick black hair and olive complexion.

"I know. I forgot to feed Rusty this morning like I promised. I'm really sorry."

"It's a good thing I was here to feed him but what will happen when you get older and Dad and I are out of town? You need to learn some responsibility."

Christine fiddled with the note in her pocket. Not now, not now . . .

"I wouldn't be so upset if this was the first time that this has happened. Dad and I ask you to do something or you offer and promise as you did with Rusty and you forget. Don't you ever listen?"

"I-I'm sorry," Christine said again. She could hear the kid in the other room awkwardly plunking at the keys and Rusty lapping at his bowl of water. "I'll do better next time."

"Let's hope so. I'll hold you to it. You can make up for your carelessness by taking Rusty for his walk," at the sound of that last word, Rusty began to dance around gleefully and headed for the leash closet, "while I get back to my student. Then you can help me with dinner and do your homework."

"I think I got off easily," Christine whispered to Rusty as she clipped his leash to his collar. Although he was a small dog, he practically dragged Christine through the door.

She decided not to share Mr. Maisel's note with her parents. She figured that it would only upset them and, besides, Mr. Maisel didn't sound like it was mandatory.

After dinner she and her father spent two grueling hours going over homework. Every night was always the same. He would pace and run his fingers through his wavy but thinning hair, mumbling in Spanish, saying if she would just concentrate then maybe she would get it. He'd point to the detailed doodles of fairies, unicorns, and dragons in the margins of her math book that she often sketched during class.

"You're smart," he would say. "You're just lazy. And you don't listen. That's your problem." He would ruffle her hair and she'd laugh.

Once her homework was finished, she gratefully put it away, took a hot shower, and crawled into bed to work on that story about the moon people she had been daydreaming about during Mr. Maisel's lecture. She now had a main character in mind, a moon girl named Keera who longed to travel to Earth. Christine drew sketches of her in her journal, a beautiful humanoid girl with enormous exotic eyes and white hair as soft as chick down. Christine drew her in the various phases her body would take as it mirrored the moons' shape: a slender crescent, half visible, as round as an apple, and invisible. She sketched these well into the night, taking breaks to add notes to the story, before she grew too sleepy to keep her eyes open.


"Did you give your parents the note?" Mr. Maisel asked the following day, just after class.

Christine's already knotted stomach tensed. She had been thinking about this all day, wondering just what she should tell him.

"You should have just given the note to your parents," Meg had said that morning as they walked to school. "What harm would it have done? If anything, they might have had more sympathy."

"Yes, I did," Christine answered Mr. Maisel, looking down to avoid his deep stare. "But they decided it is best that I don't."

"I got a call from your math teacher," Christine's mom said when she arrived home. Her father was standing beside her. Had he gotten off work early?

An icy tingle spilled through Christine, numbing her hands and feet. "He said he gave you a note. Where is it?"

"In my jeans," Christine said weakly. "The ones I wore yesterday. They're in the laundry."

"Go get it." Her mother's tone was cold.

Christine's mind was a blur as she dug through her musty hamper and found the note. She had meant to throw it away but had forgotten. Forgotten something again. This was getting tiring.

Her dad grabbed the crumpled note from her hand and tore open the envelope. Both he and her mother bent over the printed letter.

"His suggestion seems reasonable," Dad said when they had finished. "Why did you want to keep this from us?"

Christine shifted from one foot to the other. "I don't know. I just thought it would make things worse. I'm already having enough trouble in school and now he suggests that I see a shrink."

"Honey, he is doing you a favor," said Mom, stroking Christine's hair. "He's doing all of us a favor if we can find out what the problem is and can fix it."

"Then you're not mad?"

"We're angry that you lied to Mr. Maisel and us," said Dad. "Yes. We are upset about that and you're grounded for a week. No going anywhere with your friends after school or on the weekend unless it's school related." Christine nodded. She did have that history project with Meg and the rest of the group. "But we are actually relieved to see that your problems might be related to a learning disability and not—"

"That I'm stupid." Hot tears touched Christine's eyes. She fought them back.

"We never thought that, dear," said Mom. "We've always known you are very bright which makes it even more frustrating since you should have been getting good grades all along. We're going to sign this note."


Christine met with the psychologist after school. "I want to hear all about it," Meg had told her that morning during their walk to school.

She was so nervous the entire day that her ability to concentrate was even more fragmented.

Dr. Banning, the school psychologist, was a petite dark-skinned woman with multiple obsidian braids framing her round face.

"So, you are Christine," she said, smiling up at her and shaking her hand. Christine felt instantly relaxed. The woman's voice was rich and tinted with a faint southern accent. "You can call me Alicia. Come on in. We'll see what the problem is."

She settled into a large, cushioned rocking chair a few feet from her desk and motioned for Christine to take the couch.

She doesn't expect me to lie down on it, like shrinks always have their patients do in the movies, does she? Christine wondered, awkwardly perching on the edge. Alicia slid a pair of reading glasses onto her face and picked up a pen and notebook.

"How do you like school?"

"It's good, for the most part. Well, I have a lot of friends, especially Meg."

"And what about your classes?"

"They're okay. I'm passing everything except math."

"Just passing?" she scribbled something in her notebook.

Christine tensed. "Is that bad?"

Alicia laughed, a lilting sound. "Don't look so worried, Christine. This isn't a test. There are no right or wrong answers. I just want to find out a little more about you."

Christine didn't realize she had been holding her breath until she exhaled.

"What about outside of school? Do you have any hobbies?"

"Well, yes." She wasn't sure where this was taking her. "I like to swim and play basketball. I'm pretty good at those. I tried ballet for a while but I hated it. It's more fun to watch than do. My mom teaches singing and piano but I wasn't very good at those either so I gave them up. But what I really like to do is make up stories. I write them down in my journal and then draw pictures of all the main characters." Christine could feel her voice rise in volume, her cheeks flush. "My latest story is about people who live on the moon, beneath the surface. They use the craters as windows so that they can see Earth and their bodies change shapes with the moon's phases. The main character—"

She stopped when she noticed that Alicia was feverishly writing. "Have I said too much?"

"No. This is all necessary information." Alicia pushed her glasses up on her nose and fixed her gaze back on Christine. "I'm going to ask you a series of questions, mostly yes or no answers, as truthfully as you can. Are you ready?"

Christine nodded.

"Do you often tune out in the middle of conversations?"

"Yes."

"Do you get distracted easily?"

"That's pretty much why I'm here." They both laughed.

"I think I know the answer to this next question: 'Are you creative and imaginative?' I already ascertained that by what you've just told me. So yes." Christine smiled. Why did she ever want to hide that note?

"Do you have difficulty getting organized?"

"All the time."

"Are you often restless?"

"Internally I suppose. I'm not constantly running around but I do like sports and I always have to be doing something, even if it's working on a story or reading. I hate waiting in line."

Alicia nodded and jotted that down.

"Well, I believe I've determined your problem," said Alicia, removing her glasses. It's a learning problem called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. It looks like you have the inattentive type."

Christine let her breath out through her teeth, slowly. "Is it bad?"

Alicia laughed. "No. In fact some of the most brilliant people in the world may have had this condition: Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, maybe even Mozart."

"Wow." Her tension was turning into excitement, tingling through her arms and legs, making her want to run around the room. "I guess I'm in pretty good company."

"Yes. It seems that you are that occasional student that every teacher dreads getting: a brilliant mind that's wired wrong. You are highly intelligent but you have difficulty concentrating. You should be grateful to Mr. Maisel for catching this, especially since you have the non-hyperactive ADHD that often gets overlooked."

"Non-hyperactive?"

"You don't run around bouncing off walls. Instead you tend to tune out and often slip into daydreams."

Embarrassing hot tears blurred her eyes. I really have a condition and it has a name! She blinked hard.

"Now that doesn't mean you can shirk your responsibilities. I'm going to let your teachers know and they can help you to become more organized, break down your homework assignments into smaller increments so you don't become overwhelmed and allow you longer time on tests." Relief and joy washed through Christine with such force that she had to struggle to keep from dancing around the room. "If you still continue to have trouble, there are medications you can take but, in order to do that, I would have to refer you to a psychiatrist."

"Medications? You mean like Ritalin? There was a boy in my class who's been on that since second grade but he was always acting out in class."

"That's because he had the hyperactive ADHD that is usually found in boys and caught early on. Whatever medications you'd receive would be tailored to your individual needs. But that would only be used as a last resort if you and your parents approve. But I don't think that medication is necessarily always the answer. With your teachers and parents knowing and streamlining their lesson plans to suit your needs, you should be fine."

She wrote Christine a note to give to her parents.

They took her out to dinner that evening to celebrate. "I knew there was a reason for your school trouble," said her dad, taking a large bite of pizza. "Now you won't have an excuse not to get good grades."

A brief tension tightened Christine's stomach. At least her condition had a name and maybe Mr. Maisel won't assign her so much homework at a time and break it down into smaller portions. But would she now be singled out?

"I have something called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder," she told Meg over the phone after they returned home.

"I've heard of that. Didn't Ted have that? Remember, he was always running around the room during reading hour, distracting everyone? He'd gotten better since he's been on Ritalin. But you act nothing like him."

"I know. I have the non-hyperactive kind. Dr. Banning said that a lot of really smart people such as Einstein have it."

"Well then you better start acting like it. I gotta go. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Okay, bye."

Tomorrow? Christine wondered as she hung up. There was something about tomorrow. What was it? Tomorrow was Saturday. Something tickled her mind but then receded.

Rusty was whining and pacing to the leash closet, hinting that he wanted to take a walk.

It was a crisp night and the air smelled of fireplaces and the blending fragrances of different cooking meals. Rusty stopped at every tree to sniff and pee. Christine continued to smile to herself and glance up at nearly full moon hovering low in the dark blue sky. I have a name for my condition. I'm brilliant and highly creative. Alicia practically told me that herself.

Christine studied the moon and thought about her story. It's Friday night and I have all weekend to work on my story. Meg hinted she wanted to do something but I'm grounded. I guess we'll have to wait till next week to go out.

A brief thought that there was something that she needed to do teased her brain and then vanished. This had been the perfect day, finally naming her condition, dinner with her parents, and a weekend of writing ahead.

The next day Christine spent hours working on her moon people story. She was just completing the last sketches for the cover when the doorbell rang.

"Christine, it's Meg," her mother called.

Christine looked at her clock. It was after four. Almost dinnertime. Maybe in all the excitement my parents forgot they grounded me, she thought. I won't remind them. Maybe Dad can take us to the movies tonight. I could use a break.

"Where were you?" Meg blurted, her face flushed a furious red.

"I've been here. Why?"

Meg breathed deeply. "Look, I know you have ADHD and all but I didn't think I'd have to remind you about the project."

"The project?" Nausea crept into Christine's stomach. Project, project . . . Oh no! "Mrs. Clanton's American History one?"

"Yes! You were supposed to be at the library at two and you didn't show. We had to go over our ideas without you."

"You did?" Christine's voice sounded tiny in her ears. "Why didn't you call me?"

"I'd thought about it but we got busy. Besides, I was certain you'd show. I'd told you about it more than once."

"I'm sorry. I—"

"You weren't working on something here, were you? Something relating to the project?"

Christine looked down to avoid Meg's burning gaze. "No. I—"

"I know. You forgot. Only now you have a name for it. I just hope you don't start using that as an excuse." Meg turned to leave.

"I'm sorry. I really am. Look, I'll meet with you tomorrow. We can—"

"Why should we? I showed up today and did my part. Besides, I have plans with my family." She walked away.

Christine dashed to her room, not even wanting to look at her parents who were watching TV in the living room. She threw herself onto the bed and clutched a pillow.

I now have a name for my condition but that still doesn't excuse me. Alicia had even said that. I messed up badly. I let down my best friend and the rest of our group.

Christine couldn't sleep that night. Perhaps it's not too late to do my part in the group, is it? She rolled out of bed, turned on the light and stumbled to the pile of books that lay abandoned on her desk. She opened her history notebook and breathed with relief: the group assignment was due at the end of the week. There was still time.

She opened her history book to the chapter on the slave trade. Feelings of horror and anger wormed through her as she read. What would it be like to be torn from your family and sold to strangers by your own people? Taken overseas to a strange land in chains, crammed in the musty belly of a ship with hundreds of others, with barely even room to move? And this lasted six months or more.

Christine could almost feel herself there, cramped, afraid and starving as others around her became sick and some died.

She grabbed her journal and began writing, from the point of view of a girl her age who was taken from her family and sold. She described the rickety ship, the cramped feel of chained bodies all around her, the seemingly endless journey to that strange land, and the fear of standing on the slave block.

It was well after two in the morning before sleepiness finally overtook Christine.

She worked on her story throughout Sunday and printed it out. When she was finished with that, she drew detailed models of the slave ship.

Christine was up early on Monday since she wanted to dash over to Meg's house. Usually they met at their usual corner but she doubted that her friend was going to wait since she was more than likely still angry over Christine's carelessness.

Dad had already left for work and Mom was putting on Rusty's leash. "It's grooming day for you. We can barely even see your eyes."

Christine bent down and gave Rusty a kiss on the nose. "It looks like you and I are both getting a fresh start today."

It was an overcast morning and the cool air held a damp scent. Christine clutched the drawings to her chest as she started up the walkway to Meg's house. Her stomach felt as if it was wired with extra nerves.

Meg's father waved at Christine as he started toward his pickup. "Hi Christine. Don't you two usually meet on the corner of King Street?"

"I need to see her sooner. Is she ready?"

"She should be. She was just finishing breakfast."

"What are you doing here?" Meg glared at Christine through the screen door with icy eyes.

"Look, I'm really sorry about the other day but—"

"You already told me that."

"Let me in. I have to show you something. I did some work on the project." She held up the drawings.

Meg pulled open the door. Christine stepped into the welcoming warmth of Meg's small, cluttered house. A cat dozed on a quilt-covered sofa and the place smelled of bacon and pancakes.

"These are pretty good," Meg said, looking the pictures over. "Still—"

"I also did this." Her heart was beating as she reached into a folder and pulled out the story entitled "The Crossing." She held her breath as Meg scanned the pages and almost wanted to laugh with giddiness when the girl's eyes grew misty.

"That's really good," she said, handing it back to Christine. "That, combined with the ideas we came up with . . . well, we should get an A on this project."

Christine could feel her own eyes growing hot. "Maybe we can all get together at lunch today and discuss them."

"You realize that you're not entirely off the hook yet," said Meg as they started down the walkway. "ADHD or not, if you screw up again, I'm really going to let you have it."

"Agreed. I'll still need someone to keep me in line."

"Then sign me up for the job."

"You're hired." They shook hands and laughed as they continued toward school.

The End