Chapter Five – The New Girl
The Cold War was a scary time for America. The big bad Soviets were the classic villains, with their missiles aimed at the US. It got so bad that folks started building bunkers under their homes, which were strong enough to withstand the end of the world.
At times, invasion seemed imminent, and the entire United States was within range of soviet bombs. There was nowhere to hide from these monster rockets, except for one small spot in the very center of the United States. On that spot sat Middletown Middle. Scientists from all over the country, and indeed the world, had descended on the nuclear-war free zone that was the school. They converted what kids call “the tombs” into bright, state-of-the-art laboratories, and erected temporary structures for physicists, chemists, and astronomers, all while kids played in the classrooms above.
While their research was top secret, having Nobel scientists in the building had its perks. For instance, they mentored science fair participants. The winner hard-boiled an egg in the earth’s upper atmosphere. The runner-up invented bubble wrap. Many of the scientists worked as teachers in the school. Even Einstein substituted for some science classes. This is how a large part of the 1950s went down at Middletown Middle. The greatest concentration of ivy league thinkers outside New England was in this small, backward town in Kansas.
The school was a safe space for discovery, but it could not hide its racism and backward laws. When Nigerian astrophysicist Albert Oni started in the lab, he learned that while he could work at the school building, his daughter, Beatrice, could not attend the school because she was black. Kansas was not just in the center of the country; it was in the center of a major Supreme Court decision. If you haven’t talked about segregation in your class, this is an excellent time to bring it up. Segregation required students of color to attend a different school from white students.
Segregation didn’t fly for Dr. Albert; he was determined to send his daughter to Middletown Middle, which she could reach by walking. The nearest black school was half an hour away. Across the country, he had seen other black children get heckled and have food tossed in their direction by protesting adults, just for going to school. A photo of the brave girl, Ruby Bridges, hung in his daughter’s room in Philadelphia. He tells his colleagues that his daughter will walk right down the street and into Middletown on her first day, and every day, just like any other third grader. He has a plan, and with the help of his fellow big-brained buddies, they would make it happen.
When word leaks that Middletown Middle was ending segregation, things get ugly fast. Protesters show up to school board meetings, and news trucks roll into town to cover Beatrice’s first day of school. Fortunately, the younger kids at her school are mostly shielded from the racist rants.
No-one in Mrs. Vandersteem’s third-grade class knows they are getting a new student today. Minutes before the morning bell rings, the kids put their lunch boxes away and talk about their weekends. They don’t have time to notice a new desk in the class, or the locker with Beatrice’s name stenciled above it, when just after 8 a.m. on that warm, September morning, bells from all five of the town’s churches sound. Added to the ringing bells are tunes from ice-cream trucks, police cars, and the tornado sirens. The lights in the school blink on and off, and the sky grows dark.
“Is it a tornado?” a student yells.
“It’s an eclipse!” a boy in the class cries out. A tremendous boom follows the darkening sky, and the skies brighten again.
Outside, the accumulated protestors waiting for Beatrice scatter, believing they have just been attacked. The sky brightens as if someone has turned on a light switch. The townsfolk all gasp as they watch a spacecraft momentarily float high above them before flying off unevenly. Moments later, the saucer-shaped ship crashes out of sight–a plume of smoke billows above the trees.
The angry men and women, the police, and Beatrice’s supporters all forget what they are doing outside the school and leave their positions to find the UFO. They don’t notice Beatrice, the small, skinny girl in the bright red dress wearing a smile walk right past them with her father and into the school’s front door. The first thing she sees is the big sign that reads: YOU HAVE THE POWER TO CHANGE THE WORLD.
Inside the classrooms, part-time teachers abandon their students to go back to being scientists. The third-grade class watches two dozen men and women exit the school in what look like space suits and get onto a school bus. Usually, the bus has Middletown Middle printed in black letters on the side, but now it says DARN – The Discrete Alien Research Network in its place.
The bus spews diesel smoke as it rushes down the road, past the confused, hopeless protesters and the news crew whose whole mission has been sidetracked by alien visitors.
Mrs. Vandersteem’s class stands and watch out of the window in amazement. When the bus is out of sight, a substitute teacher returns the children to their seats, and that’s when they meet Beatrice. She is darker skinned than anyone in the school, with long dark hair. What many of the kids first notice are her clothes. She hadn’t got her clothes at Candles department store like everyone else.
“Are you an alien?” one girl asks.
The new girl responds with a giggle. “No. I’m Beatrice.”
“Alright, class. Welcome Beatrice,” the teacher says. “Good morning Beatrice.”
“Good morning, Beatrice.” The class repeats.
It had taken an alien invasion to distract the town, but Beatrice Oni walked right down Main Street on her first day. The new girl did not go unnoticed. The city is conflicted. Should they find out what was going on with the alien crash, or protest a young girl going to school? There are fewer protesters on day two, but they are there, along with the police, and now accompanied by sightseers looking for an encounter with extraterrestrials. It is the last group that got what they came for. Interwoven in a parade of school buses is a flatbed truck. It carries on it a massive object, round in shape but covered with a tarp.
“A UFO,” shouts a man.
“Get a camera,” yells another.
The people in the street start following the truck. The truck pulls up right in front of the school gym. The police hold back the encroaching crowd.
While all eyes are on the back of the truck, no one sees Beatrice and her father walk right past them and into the school. Dr. Oni kisses his daughter, and they go their separate ways inside. Day two is a success.
Dr. Oni figures if they can get Beatrice through one more day unnoticed, then the protesting will likely end, and he has one big trick up his sleeve. That evening, his colleagues hold a conference at the town hall to discuss the alien travelers. The room is filled shoulder to shoulder with residents. Many of the people who were also protesting the end to segregation are present. The opening statement from Albert’s astronomy partner, Harold Nemoy, creates a stir.
Good Evening and thank you for your attendance and attention to this extraordinary event. We are happy to usher in a critical moment in history. Today, we open our doors to new possibilities, with nothing to fear but hope for tomorrow. On September 12th, an alien craft crash-landed at the Harper’s farm off Old Bride Road. It’s possible that four or five lifeforms exited the crash vehicle before we arrived at the site.
There is a murmur in the crowd. Someone shouts out, “What do they look like, these aliens?”
Glad you asked, sir. We believe they can mimic other lifeforms, such as a cow or a crow, but we think they mimic humans, possibly even someone in this room.
The murmur grows loud until the crowd is nearly in a panic.
We call on your wisdom as residents to observe and report. If you see anyone who is acting irrationally irately, publicly angry, or acting in opposition to natural law, please be sure to stay as far away as possible and contact DARN.
“What does that mean?” a former protester calls out. He is a sunburned man with a toothpick dangling from his mouth.
Anyone who goes above and beyond to cause a scene, to yell at other humans in a setting like this, is likely to be an alien life form. We ask you to peacefully detain the invader.
“That’s hogwash,” the sunburned man yells out. “This is America. We’re free to yell in public.”
“That man is an alien,” Another person calls out.
The sunburned man runs out of the building, yelling, “I ain’t no alien!”
This warning stirs up the locals. With everyone becoming paranoid, they will be mistaken for an alien, people are overly kind to everyone else. The idea of throwing vegetables at a child who just wants to go school seems suddenly so foreign; they wonder if something had possessed them. The alien crash eventually moves from current news to rumors to tin-foil-hatted conspiracy theories.
Beatrice never has any issues walking to her new school, and though she has made friends with many of her classmates, she has to overcome more obstacles than anyone else; but she never loses that feeling of hope for tomorrow.