59: Finding a Friend

59: Finding a Friend

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

Finding a Friend

Recognize others, be recognized, help others, be helped;
such is a family relationship.

~Hawaiian proverb

My stepdad, Ted, and I were at the back of the school bus. Ted was instructing me on the finer points of constructing a waterproof viewfinder for a fieldtrip to Hanuama Bay. Ted was the only man on the bus other than the bus driver. He had been living in Hawaii six years before he met my mom and they fell in love. When she came to Louisiana to collect my sister and me from our biological father’s home and move us to Oahu, we wondered what this “new dad” and new life would be like.

I had many friends in Baton Rouge, but second grade in Hawaii was the year I became a loner. The only white girl in class, with white-blond hair and buckteeth — I was an easy target. Classmates called me “Haole” and “stupid round eye.” Having Ted with me instead of my mom wouldn’t make school easier. Ted was a bartender, so while Mom worked days, he would be my representative parent for school functions and his presence would be another source of teasing tomorrow.

I tried to ignore this and focus on instructions. Ted cut the top and bottom off the can; he had thick plastic he’d measured, and duct tape. This was part of the assignment: construct a viewfinder to identify the fish we’d see at the bay. The other kids had supplies in nice paper bags with handles — tube foil, precut cardboard, and Saran Wrap. No one but me had a used coffee can.

That morning everyone had a picnic breakfast together at school before we left. The mothers sat together in clumps, but my Ted laid out a tatami mat and sat with me. He talked about all the cool things we’d see at Hanauma Bay because he’d snorkeled there many times. As he talked, I shoveled eggs into my mouth.

“What’s really neat,” he said, “is that the fish come right up to you — they’re not afraid. Once, I saw a Honu — a sea turtle!”

He didn’t look anything like the other mothers. They wore bright-colored muumuus and had tiny, hard-bottomed slippers on their feet. Ted was in shorts and an Aloha shirt.

“Maybe,” he continued, “you and a couple of your friends could work together and identify all the fish faster.” He smiled then, his blue eyes sparkling.

The first thing I remember about meeting Ted was this smile and those sparkling blue eyes. My sister and I ran off the plane, not even knowing who we were looking for, and Ted was there in his flip-flops and Aloha shirt. He picked up my sister with one arm and me with the other, leaned his head between our bodies to kiss my mother, and then we walked out of the airport into Hawaii. I smelled plumeria flowers and the Pacific Ocean. It was easy for me to fall in love with my stepdad, just as Mom had done. He spent a lot of time with me that summer, having committed himself to teaching me two very important things: how to surf and how to speak pidgin.

After school started, the lessons were relegated to weekends. When my sister and I got home, Ted had already gone to work. Now, two months into school, I still hadn’t made any friends, despite my five months of learning pidgin to prove I was Kama’aina — local.

As the bus pulled into a row of parking spots at Hanauma Bay, I held the coffee can with both hands. Ted measured plastic against the jagged bottom of the can and I secured it with duct tape. We all exited the bus and trudged down the hill with our flippers, towels, and mats.

My teacher, Mrs. Takabayashi, passed out laminated papers with pictures of sea animals. We were given grease pens and instructed to wade into the water and identify fish. As the mothers settled themselves on the sand, Ted removed his shirt and flip-flops.

“Well,” he said, “which of your friends do you want to work with?” Other kids had partnered up and were walking into the bay with their viewfinders held on top of the water.

“I can do it by myself,” I said.

The sun shone just above the top of Ted’s head. “It’ll be more fun with your friends, don’t you think?” I had to squint as I looked up at him. “Kiddo,” he continued, “don’t you have any friends?”

I looked at the sand and felt hot, fat tears fall. Ted crouched in front of me.

“No one likes me,” I whispered. “Everyone calls me a round-eye.”

Ted put his hand on my shoulder. “Well listen,” he said, “they just don’t know you yet. Come on — we’ll do it together.”

He stood and took my hand and we waded into the bay. Ted handed me the coffee can and I held it on the top of the water. The glare of the sun went away as Ted moved to block the light. Through the sealed, plastic bottom I saw a row of lime-green sea urchins against orange coral, and also saw blue fish, spotted starfish, and pink anemone. We checked five off the chart right away.

I looked up at the other kids. Many were exiting the surf and running to their mothers, their cardboard viewfinders soggy, limp, and unusable. I looked back down through my coffee can and saw the black spindles of a sea urchin. I saw green sea cucumbers too.

“Ted,” I said, “look at that!”

He reached his hand into the ocean and picked up the sea cucumber, careful to keep it underwater. I put my hand down and he helped me softly poke it until it spit sand. He put it down then gave me a starfish. When I held it, it sucked itself onto my palm.

“Cool. Right, kiddo?”

A girl named Lani was watching us, and came over when my Ted lifted a sea urchin above the surface of the water.

“Wow,” she said. “That’s cool!” She patted me on the back. “Your dad is so cool!”

Other kids came over too, and soon Ted and I had a circle around us, all of us marking fish off our sheets, and kids taking turns looking through my viewfinder.

Later that afternoon we sat on the beach and unpacked our bag lunches. Lani sat next to me and we giggled and laughed the whole afternoon and the whole bus ride home. I had a new friend.

The weekend after the field trip, Ted and I walked to the beach for another surfing lesson.

“So,” he said, “how was the rest of your school week?” He was laying out our mats and anchoring the corners into sand. I was holding my board.

I thought about my friend Lani, and my new friend Laura. “Dad,” I said, “it was the best week of school I ever had.”

“That’s great, kiddo,” he said. And then we walked to the ocean and we both dove in.

~Kirsten Ogden

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