I sat at my desk in Miss Austin’s class, engrossed in yet another book. We’d just been assigned Where the Red Fern Grows yesterday, and I was already halfway through it. I forced myself to detach from the fictional world and looked up toward the door, waiting for Mom to show up. She was late. I glanced around the classroom and the anxiety I always carried with me whispered loudly in my ear.
Where are the other parents? There are no other adults here, Justin. Are you the only kid who invited his mommy to school?
As I tried to process this, Mom walked in. Finally. Twenty sets of twelve-year-old eyes followed her as she waved at me and came over to hover beside my desk.
She scanned the room. “Am I the only parent here?”
I nodded, my cheeks turning red. Miss Austin came over and shook Mom’s hand. I wanted to ask her where the other parents were, but the prepubescent social phobias that ruled over me kept the question buried in my throat.
The words wouldn’t come out, but I knew something was seriously wrong. Last week Miss Austin had said there was going to be some assembly today, and that we could invite our parents if we wanted. I was lost in another book when she said this, but I know that’s what I heard. Wasn’t it? Mom keeps saying she’s “losing her baby,” so I’d decided to throw her a bone and invite her. There’d be other parents there, so it wouldn’t be too embarrassing.
“Okay, everyone,” Miss Austin said. “I think we’re ready. Let’s head toward the gym.”
We walked into the hall where other classrooms were now congregating as well. Everyone was talking and laughing, excited for any reason to be out of class, except for me. I looked up and down the hall. There were no fathers, no mothers, anywhere. I was the only boy who had brought his mommy. She stood beside me, oddly quiet. She had to be confused, too.
As we turned the corner, Mr. Woods, the gym teacher, stood in the middle of the hall, his hands on his hips, a human stop sign. We came to a halt. He spotted Mom, furrowed his brow, then turned back to the students.
“All right,” he said. “All the boys, line up on the wall to the left here. Girls, line up on the right.”
We did as we were told and for a moment I thought Mom might join the girls, but she stayed with me.
“What kind of assembly is this again?” she asked.
I shrugged. “I dunno.” I didn’t remember Miss Austin saying anything else about it.
Ahead of me, one of my classmates gazed up. “Are you Justin’s mom?”
Mom smiled. “I am. How are you?”
He didn’t respond to her. Instead he asked me, “Dude, did you invite your mom?”
Before I could say anything, he turned to someone else and began a different conversation. We shuffled forward and I twisted uncomfortably as I felt the sweat under my armpits.
When we got to the gym entrance, Miss Austin directed the girls into the auditorium across the hall. I tried to peek in, in search of a clue that would explain why they were separating us, but I couldn’t make out anything.
“Come on, boys… and mom,” said Mr. Woods, ushering us into the gym.
It looked different from how it did during gym class. There were now several rows of metal folding chairs lined up in front of a TV propped up on a cart. What the heck was going on? Mom hesitated. I think she knew something.
Mr. Woods had us all sit down and then the confident, intimidating gym teacher I’d known all year turned as shy and awkward as me. His eyes darted to the floor and he cleared his throat.
“Oh—okay, boys, settle down. So, so we have a video for you to watch today. When, um, when we finish, we’ll go over it and any, uh, any questions you may have.”
His hand shook as he hit play on the remote. The blank TV screen popped to life and on it appeared an Asian man in a long white coat like a doctor might wear. Beside him were some anatomy charts. The boys all started to laugh at a certain one. I didn’t.
“Oh no,” Mom sighed. She hung her head and covered her eyes.
The doctor on the screen started talking and in a few seconds it became very clear that he was talking about it. It, that strange phenomenon I’d heard other kids discussing on the playground more and more this year. It, that had made it so that the boys and girls didn’t really play much together anymore.
“Do you want me to leave?” she whispered in my ear.
I shook my head violently. “No, please,” I whispered back. “Everyone will see us.”
But it was too late. A few boys were already pointing at me, snickering to their friends. I sunk down in my chair in horror. No one was going to tease me for being a weird loner anymore. This trumped everything. Forever.
Mom slid down in her seat and gave me a sympathetic grin. “So you’ll be known as the kid who took his mom to sex ed class. So what? That’s not a big deal. I bet no one even mentions it.” She couldn’t help herself. She laughed, a little too loudly, and Mr. Wood raised his eyebrows at her in a pleading manner.
I was freaking out. I was going to get so much crap for this. But Mom finding the humor in the moment broke something loose inside me, and I snorted. I laughed so hard tears streamed down my red face and I didn’t care who saw me.
Shawn Van Horn is from Ohio. He has had short stories and poems published in Our Time is Now, Wilmington Blues, Fourth & Sycamore, The Oddville Press, and Adelaide.