The big bus bumped along the tree-lined country road as it headed for the
city. Inside, excited voices heralded the first day of school with laughter
and shouts of greetings for each new passenger.
Tony and Tie Li stood at the intersection of their driveway and the road
that skirted their farm. They could hear the bus coming. For Tony, waiting
here for his daily ride was something he’d done for four years. But for Tie
Li, this first day of school in a new and strange land was an adventure
she’d never experienced.
“They will laugh at me,” she worried, watching the approaching bus grow
bigger. “I don’t want to go.”
Tony looked down at his little sister and felt that same tug on his heart
that he’d felt months ago at the airport. He knew what it was like to be the
new kid in school. He didn’t know how Tie Li’s classmates would accept this
small frail creature with the dark hair and eyes.
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” he reassured her, trying to hide his own
uncertainty. “You’ve got me to look after you, don’t you?”
“Yes, Tony,” Tie Li said, shifting her lunch box from one hand to the
other. “You take care of me good.”
“See?” Tony smiled into her upturned face. “Just stick with me and you’ll
Tony liked being big brother to Tie Li. He’d already taught her about farm
life–how to milk a cow, how to scatter food for the chickens to eat. He’d
even let her type her name on his computer. Now he knew he’d really have to
be a big brother to Tie Li. They would be leaving the security of the farm
for the real world of thoughtless people and unkind acts. Tony squared his
shoulders and tried to stand a little taller. He’d take care of her. He
The bus stopped in a cloud of dust. Tony waited as Tie Li climbed the steps
into the noisy, vibrating vehicle, then he followed close behind. As they
turned to face the long aisle running between the rows of seats, all talking
and laughing came to an abrupt halt. An uneasy silence settled over the
“Find your seats, young people,” the bus driver called over his shoulder.
“We haven’t got all day.”
Tony guided Tie Li along the rows of staring eyes and open mouths to an
empty seat near the back. With a grind and a lurch, the bus continued its
journey along the road, leading away from the farm, away from home, away
from the safe and secure surroundings of the big yellow house.
The school grounds were a swarm of activity as children buzzed about,
greeting old friends and making new ones. Tie Li looked up at the cold stone
face of the building as it sternly watched her approach. The sights and
sounds confused her, frightened her. She reached out to grasp Tony’s hand,
but he wasn’t there. She whirled around, searching the throng of faces, but
no face looked familiar.
“Tony!” The word stuck in her throat. “Tony!” She pressed against the fear
that weighed on her tiny shoulders. Tony!” the name carried across the
school grounds, only to be lost in the wall of sound surrounding her. Her
lunch box dropped from her hands and clattered on the sidewalk, its contents
spilling out and immediately falling victim to a hundred running feet.
“Tie Li, I’m coming, I’m coming!” Tony’s voice sounded far away. “Tie Li,
don’t be frightened, I’m coming.” She wildly searched the crowd, looking for
the face that would rescue her from the panic that forced all the air from
her lungs. Suddenly he was there, trying to rescue the trampled contents of
her lunch from the sidewalk. She felt weak, dizzy. The world swam in circles
around her as she tried to balance on legs gone numb.
“You better sit down, Tie Li.” Tony led her to a bench resting in the shade
of the school building. “I’m sorry I left you. I left my lunch on the bus
and went back to get it. I’m sorry, Tie Li. Can you forgive me, please?”
Tie Li could hold back no longer. Tears flowed from her dark eyes and ran
unrestrained down her cheeks. “Oh, Tony,” she sobbed, “I want to go home.
Take Tie Li home.”
Tony sat down and put his arm around her narrow shoulders. “Tie Li,” he
said, wiping tears from her face with his hand, “you must be brave. I know
it’s frightening to go to a strange, new school for the first time. As a
matter of fact, if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll let you in on a
Tie Li brushed hair from her eyes and turned to face her brother. “I
“The first time I came to this school four years ago, I cried too.”
Tie Li stared at Tony. “It’s true,” he said, lowering his voice even more.
“I sat right here on this very same bench and cried my eyes out.”
A smile played at the corners of the little girl’s mouth. “Tony cried?”
“Like a big baby.”
Tie Li watched the last line of children enter the school building. Without
a word she took her lunch box from Tony’s lap and began to walk toward the
front door. Reaching the steps, she called back toward the bench, “Come on,
Tony. Time for big baby to go to school!”
Tony sprang off the bench. “You promised!” he said, racing to catch the
squealing, running form of his sister. Together they flew up the steps and
entered the school, their laughter blending with the sounds of the other
The day dragged by for Tie Li. After taking several tests and talking with
one teacher and then another, she began to think that she didn’t know
anything. The government school where she began her education after the war
moved south of her village had had only one teacher for more than 100
It was decided that for now Tie Li would be placed in the second grade.
After her English improved, she would be placed in the third grade with
others in her age group.
“I wish I smart like you,” she said to Tony while the two of them sat
munching lunch in the shade of the large oak that grew beside the
playground. “Then I don’t need school.”
“Everyone needs to go to school,” he told her, unwrapping a peanut butter
sandwich and examining its contents. “That’s how you get to be smart.”
“This school make you smart?”
“This, and all the books I read.”
“My first brother was . . .” Tie Li paused as long-ago memories shifted
uneasily in her mind. In silence she stared at her half-eaten apple.
Tony took a long drink from his milk carton and wiped his mouth with his
sleeve. He placed the empty container in his sack and leaned back against
the cool, hard tree trunk. “I’m glad I’m your new brother, Tie Li. I really
Tie Li drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You a good brother, Tony.
I very lucky.”
“Now isn’t this sweet?” The voice belonged to a large, red-faced boy. “Mr.
Genius and his slant-eyed sister sharing lunch together. What a pretty
picture you make!”
Tony jumped to his feet and whirled to face the speaker. “Simon Gorby, I
don’t remember asking you to stop by and spoil our lunch with your ugly
“Well, well, aren’t we touchy today?” Simon circled around Tony and stood
leering down at Tie Li. “So this is Kung Fu, the new second grader.²
“Her name is Tie Li, and I’m warning you.” Tony moved between his sister
and the bully. “You just leave her alone.”
“Oh, I’m scared.” Simon backed away in mock fear. “What are you going to
do, think me to death?”
“I could do that in my sleep.” Tony held his ground. “You just leave my
By now a small crowd of children had gathered to watch. Tony and Simon
stood glaring at each other while Tie Li rose to her feet. Walking past
Tony, she stopped in front of the bully. “Here,” she said, sifting through
her lunch box. “You want apple? You look hungry.”
Simon took the apple from Tie Li and let it drop to the ground. With a
crunch, he brought his foot down hard and reduced the fruit to mush.
Tie Li looked down at the squashed apple, then at the bully. “That OK,” she
said, turning to leave. “It had big fat worm in it anyway.”
“Why, you–” Simon lunged at the girl, but Tony was faster. They collided in
midair. Before the bully could pick himself up, Tony and Tie Li were racing
for the school building.
“Do you know what you just did?” Tony called breathlessly to his sister.
“Yes. I gave a worm a worm.”
Tony began to laugh. “Tie Li,” he said, looking back toward the playground.
“You haven’t heard the last from Simon Gorby. You know that, don’t you?”
“No problem,” she said calmly as they climbed the stairs and entered the
building. “I got lots of apples. Maybe Tie Li not so dumb after all.”
Tony stopped and watched his little sister continue down the hallway toward
her classroom. He thought of the large covered form resting in the corner of
his workshop. “I’ll have an apple for you, too, Tie Li.” He glanced out the
doorway toward the crowd of children circling the fallen bully. “I hope you
won’t find any worms in it. Oh, I hope there will be no worms.”