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A New Kid Named Elmer

IT WAS the second week of third grade, and this kid transferred into our class: Elmer.

"He looks like an Elmer," David Corey said out loud, and some of us started laughing. I noticed Elmer's face turned bright red as he shuffled to the empty desk behind me. He was a chubby sort of kid, with very short hair, which made his face look even pudgier. He usually wore a white shirt buttoned tight around his throat, and a pair of gray plaid high-water pants that kids would joke about: "Yo, Elmer, is there a flood in your neighborhood?" "Hey, Elmer, I like those plaid bermudas!"

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But mostly kids didn't talk much to Elmer. They didn't even like to sit near him.

For one thing, Elmer smelled kind of funny. I know that sounds mean, but it was true. It was like no one ever made him take a bath, or at least not very often.

Elmer wasn't what you'd call an athletic sort of kid. In fact, he was pretty clumsy. Out on the playground, when we chose sides for baseball, Elmer was usually about the last person picked.

Because he sat near me, I guess maybe I noticed him a little more than the other kids did. Sometimes he'd tap me on the shoulder and ask for help with a math problem, even though there wasn't a single person in that whole third-grade class who had more trouble with math than I did.

Once on the playground that year, David Corey got mad at Elmer and started calling him some pretty nasty names. He told everyone that Elmer had already been in the third grade last year, but that he was so stupid he had to repeat it. "Elmer couldn't count the candles on his own birthday cake," David Corey said.

"That's not true," I said, "he was in second grade last year, like all of us."

Elmer and David Corey both looked at me sort of surprised.

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I didn't really know why I had bothered to say anything. Maybe David Corey was right about Elmer repeating third grade.

After school that day, Elmer caught up with me outside.

"You walking home on the path?" he asked.

I usually did walk home on the path, but I didn't want to walk with Elmer, and I didn't want him to think we were suddenly best friends or anything.

"No," I said, "I'm going the other way. I'm going to a friend's house." It was a lie, and I walked an extra three blocks home just to avoid being with him. By the time I got home that day, I felt like someone I didn't want to know.

THAT same week my mother reminded me that my birthday was coming up, and asked me if I'd like to have a party. We sat down after dinner one night and made a list of about 10 friends I wanted to invite.

When we finished, my mother looked the list over and surprised me by asking, "What about Elmer?" She'd heard me talk about him sometimes, I guess mainly about how I wished he'd take a bath.

"What do you mean?" I said.

"Wouldn't you like to invite Elmer?" my mother asked.

"Mom," I said, "Elmer's not really one of my friends."

"I know," she said, "but I bet he'd like it if you invited him. He probably doesn't go to many birthday parties."

I wasn't wild about the idea, but my mom kept saying it would be a nice thing to do.

A few days later, after the invitations went out, I mentioned to Chris, my best friend, that Elmer would be at the party. We were out on the playground, hanging from the horizontal bars, and Chris looked at me like I'd said something in a foreign language.

"Elmer?" he said. And then, guessing that I was joking, he said, "Yeah, right."

He started laughing so hard he had to let go of the bars and dropped to the sand below.

I SUPPOSE I was hoping Elmer wouldn't come to the party, but of course he did. He was there in his tight white shirt and his funny, too-short pants, and I'd never seen him look so happy.

My father had made a pinata filled with candy that was dangling from the ceiling, and my mother controlled its movements with a long string. We all took turns wearing a blindfold and trying to smash it open with a baseball bat.

Elmer, who was always so clumsy on the baseball field, amazed us all by being the one who finally broke it open. Everybody cheered as they scrambled to pick up loose candy, and my mother gave Elmer a special prize - a balsa-wood airplane that we all looked at enviously.

Later we ate cake and ice cream, and afterwards my father turned the lights out and told some scary stories. I noticed that Elmer couldn't stop smiling, even when the stories got really creepy.

That afternoon, because it was raining, we played an indoor game of hide and seek.

I went to my favorite hiding place beneath the sofa near the front door. I'd just crawled under when the doorbell rang.

My mother answered the door, and I peeked out with one eye. Standing there in a battered gray raincoat was an older man I didn't recognize - a man much older than my own father.

"Hello," he said to my mother, "I'm Elmer's father."

My mother invited him in and called my name out several times so that I'd tell Elmer his father had arrived. I didn't want to give up my hiding place, so I stayed where I was without saying anything.

"It was so nice of your son to invite Elmer to this party," Elmer's father said. "Elmer's never been to a birthday party before. He was looking forward to this all week. In fact, I've never seen Elmer quite so excited about anything."

"Well, we certainly enjoyed having him here," my mother said. "Elmer's a very nice boy."

"Yes," Elmer's father said sadly. "Elmer's a nice boy." And then, speaking more quietly, he said, "You know, I'm actually Elmer's foster father. His real parents, well, they didn't take very good care of him." Whispering, he said, "Very bad situation. He's been shuffled around from one foster home to the next since he was about 4."

"Oh," my mother said in her worried voice, "I didn't know."

"My wife and I are the third family he's lived with this year," the man said. "We're kind of old to be starting over with a 9-year-old, but Elmer's a good boy, and I hate to think of him living with people who don't care about him."

"I'm sure Elmer's very lucky to be with you," my mother said.

Lying there under the sofa, my cheek began burning from where it rested on the carpet. I wished now that it had been my own idea to invite Elmer. Still, at least my mother had thought of it.

I CAN'T honestly say that Elmer and I ever became close friends or anything, but I started making a point of being nicer to him after that. Sometimes it was just little things, like choosing him to be on my baseball team when there were still plenty of good players left to be picked. Or walking home with him on the path.

About a year later he moved away - maybe to live with another family, I don't know. Now and then I see some kid with funny-looking clothes or a goofy expression, and I remember Elmer. And it helps to remind me. I remember then that a lot of people - even people who seem pretty normal and happy - may have lives that are kind of sad, and that the smallest, easiest things you can do sometimes help to make their lives a little bit better. `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.

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