A Lion in Winter
It was a cold December 1st morning. Every building, street and automobile was blanketed by a blinding sheet of thick snow. Most of the birds had already flown south for the winter. Those left behind had to bear the harsh brunt of Old Man Winter's fury.
Every kid in town was waiting anxiously in front of the TV hoping to hear the news - school was closed for the day. No such thing ever occurred however as the city was able to successfully clear the snow from the main streets. That meant Thomas the aardvark, Manny the zebra, Jules the rhino, Benjamin the husky, and all the other kids in their homes frowned upon coming to the realization that school would still be held.
Jaime, a lion from Mexico, was one of the students who slept in hoping school was cancelled. Caught up in a dream, he twisted gently in bed as he drifted further and further away in a tropical island. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door causing him to stir. After a second knock, his mother, Maria, poked her head in.
"Time to get up, Jaime," she half sang.
"It's freezing out!" he moaned.
"You'd better hurry or you'll miss the bus," she warned him.
"I don't want to go to school today."
"Oh, yes, you will," she retorted, putting his light on. It glowed softly, emitting enough light in which to see but not bright enough to aggravate Jaime.
"Okay," he gave in finally. "I'm getting up. You're the boss."
"Do you need help?" his mother asked.
Jaime felt his diapers. They were wet.
"Yes," he admitted. "Sorry."
His mother walked over to him and stroked his shoulder.
"Don't be sorry, Jaime," she whispered. "You can't help it."
After cleaning him up, they went to the dining room. His father, Pepe, was already sitting at the table eating his cereal and reading the newspaper.
"Hi, pop," Jaime greeted him.
"Hi, Jaime," his father returned. "Ready for school?"
Both Jaime and his mother sat at the table and poured themselves some cereal from a box.
"I'm never ever ready for school," the young lion admitted.
He took a spoonful of cereal.
"Isn't school easier in Mexico?" he asked.
His father put his newspaper down.
"If you'd like to try Juarez or Guadalajara, be my guest," Pepe warned, "and if you make it out alive, maybe you'd learn something and teach it to the world."
"What would I learn?" the boy asked.
"The fine points of being a gangster," Pepe answered.
"Pepe!" Maria scolded him. "Don't say that."
"Sorry, dear," Pepe cooed. "Just trying to show Jaime how lucky he is to be here."
"Here," Jaime said, "as a freak."
"You're not a freak!" his mother berated him.
"Well," he corrected himself, "I'm still different than all the other animals."
"Nobody's perfect, Jaime," his father alleged. "That's what makes the world an interesting and sometimes surprising place. Just look at all the color and diversity around you, otherwise life wouldn't be an adventure to explore, it'd be a burden to wade through every day."
"I guess you're right, pop," he agreed.
"Look at the time!" Maria exclaimed, staring at the clock on the wall.
Jaime quickly picked up the whole bowl of cereal and downed its contents in one gulp.
"Jaime!" His mother scolded him.
He smiled at her, his teeth as white as the snow outside.
She handed him his backpack.
"Hurry up," she warned him. "The bus is almost here."
Getting up, he quickly kissed his parents, grabbed his jacket and backpack, and darted out the front door.
As he was waiting for the bus, Penny the hyena came walking over. She was wearing a wooly parka jacket with her backpack slung over her back. Penny was an anthro; that is, she walked upright whereas Jaime didn't.
"Hi, Penny," he greeted her.
"Hi, Jaime," she greeted back. "Did you ever see so much snow? Isn't it great?"
"Ah," he grumbled. "I hate it."
"Are you kidding?" she smiled before suddenly lying down in the snow to make an angel.
"This is great!" she shouted.
"I can't do that," he informed her. "My shape won't allow it."
"Oh, yeah," she said, getting up and brushing the snow off her. "I forgot."
Just then, the bus came up the street. Mr. McKinley, a grizzly bear with a kind smile, opened the door to let his two passengers on.
"Morning, Mr. McKinley," they greeted him.
"Hello, Penny and Jaime," he replied. Then, closing the door, he took off.
Standing at his open locker before first class, Jaime was going through some papers looking for his homework. Manny, Jules and Benjamin came up the hall. Jaime saw them out of the corner of his eye and groaned because he knew what kind of troublemakers they were.
"Hey, Jaime," Manny said. "Your mama still changing your diapers?"
"Leave me alone!" he roared. "I never make fun of you guys!"
"Maybe you should have a personal nurse," Jules added. "I heard you can get 'em for free."
"Oh, no," Benjamin corrected his friend. "They're not free. I heard they work quid pro quo."
"What is that?" Jules wondered.
"It means if you change their diapers for a quid," Benjamin asserted, "they'll change yours like a pro!"
The three friends laughed loudly. Jaime gnashed his teeth, slammed his locker shut, and walked away from them.
"Fools!" he murmured under his breath.
Jaime sat quietly in his first class, mathematics, in the back. It was his favorite place because he stood less of a chance of the teacher calling him up to the board or anyone picking on him where he couldn't see them. Of course, the back was usually where all the troublemakers sat, but since there weren't any in his math class, it was okay.
A few minutes into the class, the light reflecting off the snow outside started to make Jaime's eyes water. He tried arranging his seat so the light wouldn't bother him, but his attempt was in vain. He raised his paw.
"Yes, Jaime?" his teacher, an ostrich named Miss Wordsworth, asked.
"Can you do something about the blinds?" he requested. "I can't see."
"We've already accommodated you by using softer lights in here," she explained. "How are the others supposed to see their books?"
"I'm sorry, Miss Wordsworth," he apologized. "It's just for today because of the snow."
"You had the principal change our old math room to this one," she groaned, "because the old one was too close to the kitchen and all those smells disturbed you."
Jaime simply nodded, too embarrassed to look forward anymore.
"Then you made them delay putting up the new school shed just outside the window," she continued, "because the construction was too loud."
"But I can't help it!" he cried. "It bothers me!"
"Tell me, Jaime," she pondered, "where should our classes be? In a cemetery?"
The students laughed. Jaime sulked and sank deeper in his seat.
"I don't mean to pick on you, Jaime," Miss Wordsworth apologized, walking over to the window blinds. "It's just that you must realize you're not the only student here. I hope you understand that."
"I do," he said meekly as she closed the blinds.
And so it went through the next few classes. There was always something minor that caused him grief such as dirt on the floor or the piercing sound of chalk scraping a blackboard.
In the social studies class, he had to switch seats because the odor coming off Winston the musk ox was stifling. In his American history class, Thomas the aardvark and Hector, a long-haired Arabian baboon, were passing notes to each other and whispering. This bothered Jaime to the point where he complained to the teacher about it. Thomas and Hector were given a scolding by the teacher, Mr. Lissom, a meerkat with a long neck and an intense gaze. The two boys secretly made fists at Jaime, swearing they would get him back someday.
Lunch period was what Jaime despised the most. That's when the animals were free to act like…animals. The howler monkeys, gibbons and tufted capuchins swung off the posts and lights, making noises and carrying on while the zebra monitors tried to get them to stop.
A few of the rough-scaled sand boas and other small snakes, like the coral, would scare other students by sneaking into their lunch boxes and jumping out just as the boxes were opened.
It also didn't help matters that the janitor, a Siberian husky named Mr. Okefenokee (his father was from Florida), kept barking and yelling at the students who threw paper or smashed packets of ketchup beneath their feet.
Jaime kept his distance from the zoo by eating his lunch in a quiet area out near the bleachers. No one disturbed him there. It may have been cold out, but he preferred it to being annoyed by those inside the cafeteria.
When he was alone, he liked to comfort himself by shaking his legs continuously. He called it stimming. Some of the other students laughed at him about it and though it was funny or weird. At first he didn't care, but after a while it really got on his nerves to the point where, when he did it, he made sure no one was around.
After lunch, it was time for gym glass, the dreaded gym class. He'd complained to his parents that he didn't need gym because he took long walks in his neighborhood. They explained that since it was mandated by the school board, he didn't have a choice.
After dressing into gym clothes in the boys' locker room, Jaime went out onto the basketball court. Several students were already lined up waiting to be picked for a dodge ball team. He stood silently as Mr. Harris, an Ecuadorean Capuchin monkey with a white face and black body and legs, walked past the students. As he pointed to them using one or two fingers, they'd run out to the court and take their positions in either team one or team two. The last student he came to was Jaime. Jaime didn't look him in the face as he usually had a hard time doing that.
"Are you playing today?" Mr. Harris asked him.
"I really don't want to," he admitted. The Capuchin sighed.
"Since its mandatory, you don't have a choice. You go to team two."
"Send him to team one!" someone from team two shouted.
"We don't want him, either!" a voice from team one cried out. "Send him to team three!"
As the students laughed, Jaime became crest fallen. Suddenly, he ran out into the middle of the court.
"Who wants to fight me right now?!" he roared. "I'll take anyone of you!"
He made a fist and assumed a boxing stance. Just then, he realized he'd soiled his diapers. The students who noticed it started laughing and pointing their fingers at him. Eventually, most of the students also started laughing at him. Embarrassed and angry, he stormed out of the court.
After changing his diaper in the boy's locker room, he went outside and sat in the bleachers to sulk by himself.
"I hate school!" he cried to himself. "I'm never going back!"
Minutes later, one of the guidance counselors, Mrs. Krum, a golden haired fennec fox, approached him.
"Why are you out here by yourself, Jaime?" she asked. "It's cold."
"I'm never going in there!" he exclaimed. "They all hate me." He started crying.
"I'll speak to the students one by one," she reassured him. "I know you have this problem which they just don't understand."
"Mrs. Krum," he looked at her, tears flooding his eyes, "it's not fair! Why did I have to be born autistic? Why me?"
"It could've been me, too," she insisted. "It could have been any of us. It's not an easy thing to bear."
"It's a curse!"
"Right. You're mature enough to see that; they just need to see how much it affects you and try to learn and grow from it, that's all."
"I wish I wasn't born," he uttered solemnly.
Mrs. Krum walked over to him pushed him lightly with her nose. He returned the favor by pushing her with his nose. And so it went, pushing each other stronger and harder by turns with their noses till they started laughing. Eventually, they fell over in the snow.
A minute later, they got to their feet.
"Feeling any better?" she asked him.
"Yeah," he answered, catching his breath.
"Try to be strong, Jaime," she advised him. "School is just temporary. It's your life that's more important."
"Okay," he whispered, wiping away a tear.
So the young lion, bristling with new confidence after his encounter with Mrs. Krum, sat near the front of his last class for the day, earth science. It was being taught by Mr. Horn, a mastiff. Earth science wasn't his favorite class, but he liked Mr. Horn because he wasn't as serious as the other teachers and actually made jokes now and then.
As class went on, Mr. Horn would make some notes on the blackboard and ask students general questions. He particularly liked to ask the students in the back to answer questions because he felt that, since it was the last period, they'd either be goofing off or texting their friends.
"Jules!" he shouted to the rhino that was busy texting in the back of the class.
"Huh?" Jules jumped up, startled like a thief caught red handed.
"What's brown, yellow and grey and forms a huge circle with icy particles?"
"Um," he thought, "the rings of Saturn?"
"Very good, Jules," Mr. Horn applauded. "I didn't think you were paying attention."
Proud of himself, Jules bowed slightly and sat down.
"Jaime," Mr. Horn continued, "can you answer me this: what is black and white and grey and red all over?"
"Ah, uh..." Jaime stumbled to find the words. "A nun being eaten by a zombie baby?"
The students broke out laughing as did Mr. Horn.
Jaime sat down, too. He also thought his answer was funny. He wasn't expecting such a reaction, though.
"That's a good one," Benjamin the husky remarked. "I've got to remember that."
"Pretty hilarious!" Manny the zebra agreed.
Jaime's ride home after school was a joyous one. The students from his class had obviously repeated the joke to other students because he heard it being told by other kids on the bus. At that moment, he felt vindicated. Maybe, he thought, the other kids weren't so bad after all. Maybe they'd try their best to understand him and forgive his quirks and unusual habits. He knew it'd be days or weeks before they forgot the gym class incident, but for just that moment after school, he felt like life seemed like it was worth it after all.