When I was seven years old, my family moved from Alaska to Texas. I started the third grade a little younger than the other kids. A new school. A new town. My classmates had all been friends for years by then, having come up through all the previous years together. I remember several times crying on my mother's shoulder because I hadn't yet made friends; it would take me awhile to do so.
Our house had some history. My father had lived there as a child. He still knew many of the neighbors on our street. He'd had a wonderful time growing up there, had graduated high school there. Scattered all over town were his own former classmates, most of them now parents of kids my age.
Back in Alaska, I had friends. Andrew, who lived down the street; Shane, whose parents must have been rich, I thought, judging by how many elaborate toys he had (such as this absolutely enormous G.I. Joe aircraft carrier, or a half dozen giant Star Wars playsets, like this Ewok village); Rachel, whose family liked to travel; Sylvia, who convinced me that the buckled asphalt on our street was the first sign of a volcano pushing up from below.
But in Texas, it took time. And in the interim, I started to learn how to be alone. In our front yard was a magnolia tree. There were knobs on the trunk where branches had long ago been sawn off; if a seven-year-old boy used those protrusions as handholds, I discovered, he could shimmy up to the lowest branches of the tree, then pull himself up into the thick of the leaves. With a book tucked into my jeans, I'd climb as high as I dared, then wedge myself into place, open my book, and enjoy being alone with a good story. I don't remember how many books I read cover-to-cover up there, but it must have been quite a few. I never fell out of the tree, never broke a bone in the name of extreme reading.
Eventually, of course, I made friends. While riding my bike down our street, I spotted a neighbor kid and his sister on their own bikes, pedaling furiously through a ditch so they could pop wheelies or get a little air on the other side. Wyatt became my first friend, and his acceptance of me made it easier for the other kids at school to warm up to me.
Before long, Wyatt and I were climbing that magnolia together. We discovered we could access the roof of the house from the tree's branches. Now and then, we'd hide behind the faux-brick chimney with a paper bag of sweet gum balls, and fire those prickly projectiles at our sisters. On days when Wyatt wasn't available, however, I'd still carry a paperback to the top of the tree, fit my skinny butt between some tight branches, and read, read, read.
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