The Letter That Starts It All
Dear Parent or Guardian,
I am pleased to announce that Fisher Middle School has received a generous grant to fund a climate science pilot program this year. The class will explore how and why climate change is happening and how we can use community-based projects to take action.
Out of over a hundred application essays students submitted in March, the following rising eighth graders have been selected to participate:
Mary Kate Murphy
Warning! This class will be a lot of work. Please talk to your child and make sure they’re ready to commit. We will still cover standard eighth-grade science concepts, but this class is not going to be “traditional.” If you and your child are on board, please sign and return the attached form. Congratulations to all the students!
I can’t wait to get started.
The Fairy-House Village
My climate-class acceptance letter is stuck to the refrigerator door with an E magnet, next to a picture of my new baby niece, Penelope, and a Post-it reminding Dad to buy more back-pain cream.
All the inspirational E magnet words aren’t working for me right now, because I’m not eager or enthusiastic or excited about school starting tomorrow. My best friend, Lucy, has been sick the whole summer, and nobody knows what’s wrong with her. I would have been eager, enthusiastic, and excited to be in the climate class with Lucy. Instead, I’m going to be sitting with a group of kids I barely know.
I text Lucy: Fairy village? But she doesn’t text back, which means she’s sleeping, having a really sick day, or mad at me for even asking.
I'm almost thirteen years old, and I'm going to build a fairy house by myself. But Lucy and I promised each other we would do it every year the day before school starts, for good luck, and we really need the good luck right now. So I put on my shoes, call my dogs, Murphy and Claudia, to come with me, grab my backpack, and walk out the back door.
My backyard and Lucy’s backyard are separated by a huge nature preserve, which was donated to our town by a family who must have had a crystal ball and seen that if you don’t specifically say This piece of land can never be used for anything but enjoying nature, it will eventually turn into a Dunkin’ Donuts, a car dealership, or a nail salon.
Not many people visit the preserve, probably because there aren’t really trails. It’s one huge chunk of beautiful land, with a sledding hill, and a meadow, and a pond, and a vernal pool in spring, and crumbling old stone walls, and woods surrounding it all.
I walk around our barn, which is now a big garage with an upstairs room, follow the path through the woods to the top of the sledding hill, and cut through the sunflowers at the edge of the meadow.
Most people wouldn’t notice the fairy village if they made their way into the woods. It looks like some creature randomly dropped piles of bark and twigs. But we know. Lucy and I and the fairies have a lot of secrets hidden here.
When we were younger, we spent entire days collecting pine cones, and lost feathers, and interesting stones, and acorns, and fallen flower petals. We built fancy fairy houses and did all kinds of fairy-summoning rituals I can't remember anymore. But I don't feel like doing any of that. Right now, I want to build a house, get the good luck, and go home.
I pick up a few sturdy sticks and lean them against a fallen trunk that’s covered in moss. I leave a space for the fairies to come and go, and cover the little lean-to with soft pine needles. I drop stones around the house and scatter handfuls of leaves on the roof.
It’s not our best house, but it’s good enough.
Sleep well, fairies, I wish. And please bring us luck.
On the Bus
My neighbor Molly and I have been sitting together on the bus since I was in kindergarten and she was in first grade. We used to get harassed by Molly’s older brother, Danny, who calls us Frog and Toad for some reason, but Danny is living with his grandma in New York, so Frog and Toad have a break this year.
“Do you like my tank top?” I ask, sliding into the seat across from my other neighbor Will.
“I love your tank top,” Molly says. “It really emphasizes those shoulders.”
“Thank you, my queen,” I say, because I’m very grateful that Molly and her friends started a protest against our school’s dress code this past June, which ended with the school district letting us wear pretty much whatever we want.
“Remember how scared you were when school started last year?” Molly says, eating a granola bar. “I thought you were going to throw up.”
“I wasn’t looking forward to seventh grade.”
What Molly doesn’t know is that I wasn’t scared. I was annoyed. I didn’t know how I was going to go from an entire summer of frogging and tree climbing to being pushed down a crowded hallway eight times a day.
“I’m going to miss seeing you,” Molly says. “Now I’m the one about to throw up. The high school has way too many people I don’t know. Say something to distract me.”
“I don’t know. Tell me about the podcast. Are you still going to do it?”
“I doubt it.”
“Why not? It was really good.”
I don’t feel like talking about Bearsville with Molly. It’s embarrassing.
Will shoves his phone in our faces to show us his summer-camp girlfriend, and Molly spends the rest of the bus ride asking him questions he doesn't know the answers to.
“Do you think you’ll see her before next summer?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is she going to camp next summer?”
“I don’t know.”
The bus stops in front of the high school, and Molly makes an ughhh sound.
“You’ve got this, Molls,” I say. “You’re a queen, remember?”
Will and Molly jump off the bus, and Molly runs over to her friends Navya and Bea. I watch them go into the high school as the bus rolls out of the circle toward Fisher Middle School.
Failure to Launch
I tried to start a podcast this summer. It was called All’s Well in Bearville, but I changed it to All’s Well in Bearsville after the first episode, because there’s a lot more than one bear in this town. It was supposed to be about why bear hunting in our state is inhumane, and how to deal with climate change, and interesting nature stories.
The Bearsville idea came from Molly, who used a podcast to start the dress-code protest, and then Dress Coded: A Podcast ended up inspiring people all over the country to fight their school dress codes.
Bearsville, on the other hand, never really went anywhere.
Maybe it was because the state had already passed a law banning bear hunting, or because the people I interviewed used a lot of science words. My cousin in Florida said the interview with the professor about climate change and frogs was “kind of boring.” My other cousin said the questions I asked the tree expert were “too smart.” Molly said, “It’s really well done, Mary Kate, but people have a lot going on in the summer.”
One of my mom’s regular customers at the bookstore looked at the Bearsville flyer on the bulletin board and said, “I’m more of a book person than a podcast person.”
The only people who actually listened to all three episodes were my ninety-one-year-old grandmother and her roommate, Linda, in Florida, and Lucy, who gave me a lot of content ideas.
Then Lucy got sick, I got distracted, and it was easy to let go of something that had only three listeners. It might have been different if I could have actually interviewed the bears, the frogs, and the trees.
Lucy texts right as the bus is turning down the long Fisher Middle School driveway: On the way to another ’ologist. Come over after school. Good luck.
Lucy and the ’Ologists
Lucy started acting strange at the end of school last year.
At first, I thought she was mad at me. Every time I asked her to meet at the pond, she said she didn’t feel good and needed to take a nap. Then I was afraid she was getting sick of me, or that she maybe wanted to go hang out with her basketball friends. But then I heard my mom on the phone with her mom.
“Have you tested her for anemia?”
“What about blood sugar issues?”
“I mean, narcolepsy, but the symptoms don’t add up.”
“Why would she think her food was contaminated? That’s so odd. You’re right. It does sound like anxiety.”
It got worse. Every time I went to her house, all she wanted to do was sleep. Then she felt better for a while, at least good enough to go down to the pond one afternoon and wait for the bats to come out. Lucy is obsessed with bats. But even then, her legs hurt, and she had shooting pains in random places and squishy sounds in her ears and blurry vision and a burning tongue. And she was constantly worried about bugs getting in her mouth, so she didn’t want to talk.
“I’m going home to sleep a little,” she said. “I’ll be back for the bats.”
She was never back for the bats.
Lucy went to a psychiatrist (a mental health doctor), because she doesn’t want to do anything or talk to anyone, and she’s not herself at all. They gave her anxiety medicine that hasn’t helped.
She went to a neurologist (a brain doctor), because she’s forgetting words and now she has a thing where she jerks her arms and blinks her eyes over and over again.
Then a gastroenterologist (a stomach doctor), because onions and milk and a lot of other foods make her nauseated.
And a rheumatologist (a joint doctor), because her whole body hurts.
Nobody knows what’s wrong with Lucy.
Today she’s going to a urologist. She doesn’t know that I know, but I overheard my mom talking to her mom again. It’s scary and embarrassing, and I’ll never tell anyone, but Lucy has been wetting the bed.
Before the last ’ologist appointment, Lucy said, “No matter what, Mare, I’m going to school. I’m not making you walk into that place alone.”
That was a week ago. “No matter what” has come and gone.
“That place” is Fisher Middle School, which seems smaller today, for some reason.
The bus stops in front of the school, and I catch up with Talia, who is sitting a couple rows in front of me, before getting off. Then we follow everyone to the Kindness Garden, where Fisher students drop rocks with inspiring words painted on them before they start seventh grade. My word was so boring, I don’t even remember it.
The new superintendent, Dr. Eastman, bursts out of the office wearing a black jumpsuit and yellow high heels and carrying a Let’s Make Magic This Year sign. She has strong witch vibes, and I like it.
She introduces our new principal, Ms. Singh, who has smiled more in the past three minutes than our old principal did in a year.
“Dr. Eastman seems so nice,” Talia says. “I like her Southern accent.”
Talia was part of the dress-code protest last year, which a lot of people think was the thing that drove out the old principal and his sidekick, a woman we called Fingertip. I’m pretty sure they’re right.
“And this, friends, is Mr. Joe, our new dean of students,” the superintendent says, putting her hand on Mr. Joe’s shoulder. “Is somebody giving you a hard time? Are you having a tough interpersonal issue? If so, go to Joe.”
I give Talia a good-luck hug, find my locker, then walk to gym, where we introduce ourselves and say one thing we did over the summer: “I’m Mary Kate Murphy, and I visited my sister, Sarah, in Boston and met my new baby niece, Penelope.” In math, we throw a ball of yarn around the class and have to say a fun fact about ourselves when we catch it. Wow. Now I know Ben Lettle’s favorite color is brown.
I’m on my way to English when I run into big block letters that say Congratulations to Our Climate Class for These Winning Essays. Somebody thought it would be a good idea to hang our climate-class application essays on a bulletin board. Now the whole school can read about my weirdness whenever they walk by.
Climate Class Application Essay
Mary Kate Murphy
We always hear about climate change and polar bears, and that’s very upsetting and devastating, because polar bears are starving to death and turning to cannibalism. But I want to talk about the bears that live in my backyard.
Most people don’t realize how many bears live in the middle of Connecticut. Our town has more bears than nearly any other town. I observe them all the time, especially a few different families that have been coming around for a while.
When I was little, the bears would always feed in this area of the Honey Hill Preserve that had a lot of wild blackberry bushes. I’m only twelve, but just in my lifetime I’ve seen the bushes ripening earlier and earlier with fewer and fewer berries. The bears have to look for other sources of food, and that means they are going to garbage cans and ending up on Facebook posts with people complaining about how annoying the bears are, which makes people want to start shooting them.
If you do an online search of nearly any plant or animal on Earth and then “climate change impact,” you’ll see ways entire ecosystems are being disrupted by climate change. But I don’t need to look it up because I see it with my own eyes with blackberries, bears, salamanders and frogs, plants, and bees and butterflies. I’m not exaggerating. It’s all changing every year.
If you accept me into the climate class, I would like to learn more about the changes I’m seeing in my backyard, and how to stop them before all the creatures I actually care about are gone, because I consider these creatures my friends.
Copyright © 2022 by Carrie Firestone. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.