Julian hunched over his desk, shielding his notebook with his arm. He hoped it looked like he was taking notes as Ms. Hollin introduced the next book the class would be reading. But there were no words on his notebook page, just sketches of trees and lakes and old roads. Julian was trying to recreate one of his favorite maps from memory—an old county map drawn by people who had come to Michigan a hundred years ago searching for Great Lakes treasure.
Julian concentrated on getting the lines just right. He imagined treasure hunters and pirates tromping through town in search of gold. He didn’t bother paying attention to the title of the book that everyone in class would be reading over the next month. Everyone except him.
Ms. Hollin called Isabelle and Hunter up to her desk to help pass out the books. The battered paperbacks had probably been read by hundreds of other students. Maybe Julian would get a copy with missing pages, and then he couldn’t be blamed for not doing the reading.
He knew he should try to keep up with the assignments, but what was the point? He’d spent his whole life trying to keep up, only to keep falling further and further behind. It wasn’t fair. Reading was so easy for other kids, but to him, every page looked like a puzzle with pieces missing. Or worse—like someone had taken five different puzzles and jumbled all the pieces together into one big pile.
Hunter slapped a book on top of Julian’s notebook and shot him a smirk before moving on to the next desk. As soon as Hunter wasn’t looking, Julian picked up the book to make sure it hadn’t smeared his hand-drawn map. That’s when he heard Isabelle whisper, “This is almost twice as long as the last book. There’s no way Julian can read it.”
“Maybe his mom will read it to him,” Hunter whispered back.
“Don’t be mean,” Isabelle said. But it sounded like she was trying not to laugh.
Julian shoved the book into his backpack without looking at it. He was so tired of the looks and whispers. He was tired of kids like Hunter treating him like he was stupid. He was especially tired of feeling like no matter what he did, reading never seemed to get any easier. He only felt dumber each year.
At least Julian had a name for it now: dyslexia. Over the summer, his parents had taken him to a doctor, who told them that Julian struggled to read because his brain was different from other kids’ brains—and that it wasn’t his fault.
Not that Hunter cared about any of that.
After the diagnosis, Julian had spent a few days at reading camp—or “stupid kids’ camp,” as he thought of it—but it all went by so fast that it didn’t really help him. Meanwhile all his classmates were outside at soccer camp or going fishing and canoeing in Michigan’s clear, cool lakes.
Now that he was back in school, Julian’s teachers were giving him more time to do his work, but he still couldn’t get the assignments done. And his parents were supposed to take him to see a specialist who could help him, but they’d already spent a ton of money on the camp, and Julian knew the appointment would be expensive too. He was dreading the visits anyway. He pictured himself sitting on a hard-backed chair in a dusty office, staring at the pages of a book while a mean old lady leaned over him and shook her head at his stupidity.
But would an expert even help? Could anyone? Part of him wished his mom would> read the book with him—or, even better, for him.
At least English was Julian’s last class of the day. He had to survive only ten more minutes; then he could forget about books and get back to his maps.
“For tonight, class—” Ms. Hollin called out above the rustling of notebooks and backpacks and zippers, “just read the first two chapters.” She started straightening the stack of papers on her desk and cleared her throat.
Julian felt her eyes on him.
He sank lower in his chair. He knew what was coming.
“Julian, please see me after the bell,” Ms. Hollin said, tapping the stack of papers. Julian had a sinking feeling that there was supposed to be one with his name on it in the pile.
A few kids snickered. There were more whispers from the back of the classroom, where Hunter sat with his friends. They loved it when Julian got in trouble for not doing his homework, or for not wanting to read out loud in class—which was all the time.
He kept his eyes on the floor, imagining it curving into a slide that would carry him away from school and out to Silver Lake, where he could swim in the cool water and search for bullfrogs in the marshy grasses along the shore. He pictured himself scooping up a fat bullfrog, only to reveal a gold coin from a lost treasure in the mud beneath it.
But the floor stayed flat and boring, except for a small beetle crawling under the desk in front of him. Julian watched the beetle. He knew he should’ve done the homework. But it felt endless and dumb, like digging a hole in the rain. Eventually, it was easier to just give up and set down the shovel.
The bell rang, and the beetle barely escaped being squished by the stampede of kids leaving the classroom. The bug scurried toward the wall, where it slipped into a crack in the corner and disappeared. Julian wished he could shrink down and follow it.
He looked up. The classroom was empty, and Ms. Hollin had that expression his parents sometimes got, like couldn’t he just try a little harder?> Like it was somehow harder on them than it was on him. It was usually followed by a sigh of disappointment that his dyslexia hadn’t magically disappeared.
Julian pulled himself out of his seat, slung his backpack over his shoulder, and went to the front of the room.
“Do you have your signed reading log?” his teacher asked.
Julian’s heart dropped. Every week he was supposed to track how much time he spent reading at home and have it signed by his parents so he could turn it in for credit. He pictured the school library book sitting on his bedroom floor, a rumpled T-shirt thrown over it so he didn’t have to keep looking at the cover. He’d started reading it. But even after a whole summer at reading camp, it took him forever to get through the first page.
His parents tried to help him after dinner every night, but by then they were both exhausted from long days at work and distracted by everything they needed to do the next day. Every night, as they yawned their way through the lesson with...