The class was outside by the horse barn. The sun was warm and Henry smelled lots of different things, dirt, hay, old wood, Miss Lenahan’s stinkwater—That’s what Jacob called a lady’s perfume— and of course poop, which didn’t smell so bad. Henry watched Miss Lenahan stand tall, stretch her neck up, and pull her shoulders back like she always did when she began to speak inside in the classroom. She pointed and said, “These two are horses and that little ugly one with the huge ears is a donkey, or a jackass, scientifically, Equus asinus asinus. Actually, I’m not sure if they’re the same thing, donkeys and jackasses, though it doesn’t really matter.” Some of the second-graders nodded, like they agreed with Miss Lenahan that it didn’t matter. Henry and the other first-graders, who knew her better, didn’t bother.
“The bigger boys will get to ride on the horses,” Miss Lenahan said, “which should be incentive for you pipsqueaks to grow bigger next year.” With a louder voice she said, “Oh, and don’t ask me how donkeys get made, because I won’t tell you.” She laughed and looked over to the horses where Mr. Rapaport, who was big and muscly, held them by metal things stuck in their mouth. Henry knew from western movies that they were called bridles or bits or something. Miss Potter told her second-graders to line up single file and don’t push or they wouldn’t get to ride the horsies. Miss Lenahan said, “The same goes for my class, single file, no pushing or there’ll be trouble for you.”
Miss Lenahan pulled two kids out of our line and pushed them over to the second-graders’ line, because they were the tallest. Henry started to go, too, since he was the next tallest because this was his second year in first grade, because Mother wanted him there, nobody told him why. He wanted to get on one of the horses because they were prettier and the donkey jackass was watching him with a nasty look and chewing the metal thing in his mouth like a dog with a bone.
Miss Lenahan pulled Henry back into the first grade line and pushed out Zachary Lubiner and Andy Kahn. She put her hand on Henry’s head and said, “Boys who choose not to speak don’t deserve to go with the big boys. Do you know why, Henry?” He didn’t say anything. “Because not speaking is what little boys do, especially when they’re asked a question.” She tapped the top of his head with her yardstick, then she mussed his hair to make it okay, like she was just kidding.
“The cat still has Henry’s tongue, everyone,” Miss Lenahan said. “We’re all wondering when it will let go and allow him to speak like a normal person.” Henry looked at Oscar Revner who started stuttering last week. Oscar’s face was bright red and he was staring at the dirt. Henry felt bad for Oscar. Maybe he should tell Oscar just to stop trying to talk at all, which was easier. Except he’d have to talk to say that.
The other kids were looking away or at the horses, but Miss Lenahan was still staring at Henry and Miss Potter was staring at her with a sour mouth and said, “All right, let’s get going. We want everyone to get a ride, don’t we.”
“Certainly,” Miss Lenahan said. “I’ll help Mr. Rapaport get the big boys on the big horses and because Miss Potter is older, she’ll help the little ones onto the jackass.”
Miss Potter said, “Well, I never.” Henry wanted to know what she never, but she didn’t say, just stared hard at Miss Lenahan. Mr. Rapaport was wearing tight brown pants and a tight brown shirt that looked like G.I.’s wear and almost no hair around his brown army cap. He had really big arms, almost as big as Scruggs, so Henry didn’t think he needed any help from Miss Lenahan, but she went over to the horses and grabbed the reins from him. The donkey stepped sideways from everyone, so Miss Potter hurried over and grabbed its reins and dragged it back
“Mr. Rapaport will begin by helping me because I’m so old,” Miss Potter said. “And you can begin by loading up Henry, here, on this here donkey or jackass, whatever the h—, whatever it is.”
“Yes’ma’am,” Mr. Rapaport said. He didn’t seem comfortable around donkeys or horses or even the other teachers. He liked phys. ed. class when it was just him and us.
Henry felt himself flying up and setting down on the hard, slippery saddle. Mr. Rap grabbed his foot and slid it onto the top of the stirrup which hung way down below where Henry’s legs could reach.
Mr. Rap was looking straight across at him, not down. Henry couldn’t remember when a grown-up didn’t look down at him. He put his hand on the thing sticking up in front of Henry and said, “This is called the pommel. You’re supposed to grab onto it and I’ll lead you around. You can grab his mane, that long hair on his neck, but don’t grab his ears even though they look like they were made to be grabbed. You grab his ears, he’ll buck you over those treetops, which you don’t want, do you?”
Henry said, “No,” before he could stop himself from speaking.
“Good kid. You think you can stick your other foot on top of that stirrup on the other side without me having to come over and do it for you?” Henry started to, but the donkey shook its head and nodded a couple of times and honked loud and shivered. Henry felt the shiver go down the thing’s back.
Henry leaned over to put his other foot where Mr. Rap said to, but the donkey slid sideways again. Henry started to slip off. He grabbed the donkey’s mane and yanked trying to stay on. Mr. Rap grabbed Henry and tried to pull him off, but Henry couldn’t let go of the donkey’s neck hair, and it screeched and kicked its back legs and turned and knocked Mr. Rap down. Mr. Rap was on his back on the ground, still holding Henry.
Henry saw the donkey facing the other way and kicking again and Miss Lenahan getting knocked to the ground before Henry went to sleep.