Once upon a wintertime many years ago in Spinesville, when my dearest skeleton friend Ned Theodore Ed was just a young set of bones in fifth grade, Spinesville Elementary School had just returned from Thanksgiving break. All the kids in N.T.’s class were pretty bummed to go back to school, except N.T. had spent the entire Thanksgiving break reading in his room, and so he was very excited to be back at school so he could talk about his book with his favorite teacher, Ms. DeMarcio. I know this is kind of too sad to get into during the first paragraph of the story, but N.T.’s foster family never tried to love N.T. and so while they were off visiting the grandparents and eating Thanksgiving turkey, N.T. was instructed to stay home and not get into any trouble. They even hired a babysitter to watch football on the TV in the living room and make sure N.T. didn’t sneak out or set the house on fire. (They had very little faith in N.T.)
N.T. thought his foster family was kind of silly because they ordered him to do exactly what he wanted: stay home and read. No problem, Dad! N.T. got so much reading done during Thanksgiving break that he finished three books and started writing his own story about the characters in the last book. So, N.T. was really quite content to go back to school. The only problem was, N.T. didn’t have Reading and Writing until after recess, and so he would have to wait all morning before he could see Ms. DeMarcio!
And it was a long morning indeed. In home room, the announcements lasted forever– canned food drives, more rules about changing their boots so they wouldn’t track snow through the school, reminders about important December dates, and then an overly detailed description about what was for lunch– it was microwaved sausage pizza and a container of frozen fruit! How did they manage to turn it into a five-star menu description? Second period was Math, and N.T. firmly believed it was cruel and unusual torture to combine numbers with morning grogginess. Third period was science, and Ms. Curie-Lovelace handed out a brand new project for the students to begin researching. But fourth period was Music, which was somehow the worst of N.T.’s classes that day…
Mr. Flat and his giant brown mustache stood before his music class and said, “All right students, I know most of you are underwhelmed to be back at school after the short break, but I have an exciting announcement!”
In his short educational career, N.T. had learned a couple things about “exciting announcements” and the first was that they were bad news. “Exciting announcements” were rarely exciting for anyone other than the person announcing them, and even more often it wasn’t even exciting for them! N.T. began to think that teachers had forgot the true definition of “exciting.” Usually “exciting” announcements meant the teacher felt bad for putting it on the students and tried to make them feel better by calling it “exciting.”
“It’s time to start practicing for the annual Spinesville Elementary winter concert!” Mr. Flat exclaimed.
N.T.’s heart sunk. Every year, the elementary school put on a winter concert for the community. Spinesville was a small town near the mountains, and the schools didn’t have a lot of funding because the community refused to spend more money on it, but yet all the parents demanded a lot from Spinesville Elementary teachers, including a holiday production. The winter concert was always right before winter break, and it was tradition that all the little kids played instruments and the fifth graders sang. Last year, N.T. had gotten sick and missed the concert, but this year, he felt anxious about it.
The reason N.T. felt anxious is that he doesn’t speak. Well, it’s not so much that he doesn’t speak, but he can’t speak. Our little bony friend doesn’t have any vocal chords in his skeleton, so he communicates by writing things down. So, if you’re picking up what I’m putting down, that also means N.T. can’t sing, and well, he was the only kid in his class who couldn’t at all.
Mr. Flat–which isn’t a joke, his name was really Mr. Flat–began explaining the winter concert to all the chattering fifth graders, but N.T. zoned out. How was N.T. going to be in the winter concert if he couldn’t sing? How was he supposed to stand up on stage with all those other kids when he was the only skeleton among them? He would stick out like a sore thumb because he was different. Then, everyone in the audience would be able to pick him out, and they would laugh because everyone knew he couldn’t sing, that there was no point to him being there! If anything, he would only ruin the pictures of everyone else’s kids.
N.T. began to dread all this as the kids sitting around him wriggled in excitement and whispered to their friends. “Yes! I love singing Christmas songs!” one girl cried out. Mr. Flat began passing out sheet music with all the Christmas carols on them, pausing when he got to N.T.
“Here, Ned,” Mr. Flat said awkwardly, his mustache twitching. He handed N.T. the packet, then moved on to the next row. N.T. absentmindedly flipped through the pages, the notes dancing on the lines as if to mock him. The rest of the kids started humming and singing to themselves as soon as they got their packets, everyone going to a different song. It took a while for Mr. Flat to get everyone to settle down from the musical excitement.
N.T. dragged himself to his next class, and by the time recess came around, he was in no better spirits. He had gotten into the habit of visiting Ms. DeMarcio in her classroom during recess, and so today he did the same.
Ms. DeMarcio was that really ancient English teacher who was so old that all her students thought she created English and that’s why she knew so much about it. She was so old that she had chains on her glasses, so she wouldn’t lose them, and so old that she had white hair, from thinking so much. She was short and a little robust, and usually wore long skirts that only showed her feet. In reality, Ms. DeMarcio was only sixty-five, but all her students thought she was two-hundred-and-five, because, well, they were kids.
“N.T.! Welcome back! Have a seat and tell me about your break!” Ms. DeMarcio greeted when he showed up in her classroom doorway. She was at her desk grading papers and looked up at him from above the glasses perched on her nose, giving a great smile. N.T. had taken a particular liking to Ms. DeMarcio from the first day of school, and part of that was because she treated N.T. with just as much–if not more–respect as she did the other kids. Even though she was a teacher, N.T. viewed her as a great friend and mentor.
He walked across the front of the classroom and took a seat at the desk in the first row, right across from Ms. DeMarcio’s desk. This is where he normally sat when he visited her during recess. Usually they would talk a little and N.T. would read while she worked on grading papers. N.T. was convinced Ms. DeMarcio was so behind on grading papers that she was still working on papers students had turned in five years ago.
N.T. spent a couple minutes settling into the desk and writing a few sentences about his break. But he was still kind of in a funk from Music class, so he didn’t write nearly as much as he had planned to. He had wanted to tell Ms. DeMarcio about the books he’d read, and the story he had started writing, but now he didn’t feel like it, so all he wrote was a few short lines. He handed her the piece of paper and she read it quickly.
“Is everything okay?” Ms. DeMarcio asked, setting down her pen and looking closely at N.T. “You’re not acting like yourself. You seem… defeated. If you could sigh, I would imagine you sighing right now,” Ms. DeMarcio chuckled softly at the hardships of youth. One of the admirable qualities of Ms. DeMarcio is that she was so old that she really didn’t care about the same things that troubled other people, so she was able to laugh about a lot of things that only she understood.
N.T. nodded, because he didn’t want to tell her what was bothering him. Besides, he didn’t know how to explain what he was worried about because his fear made him feel a lot of complicated things. Also, he began thinking, “I wish I could sing.”
“Please know that I am here to listen, if you decide to tell me,” Ms. DeMarcio said, smiling warmly. N.T. felt a little better for a moment, but by the time he was walking home from school that day, he was in a wicked glum. The birds were twittering in the sunny, snowy afternoon, Christmas music was playing from the cars that drove by, and his classmates sung among themselves as they passed him, and all N.T. could do was listen longingly.
“I wish I could sing,” he cried inside. “It sounds so beautiful! What would it feel like to produce such beautiful sound? If I could sing, people would love me and admire me, instead of ignore me, or push me to the side.” He fantasized about the incredible songs he would sing, bringing the town to tears with his majestic voice. “What would my voice even sound like?” he wondered.
The next day in Music class, Mr. Flat and his mustache were assigning parts for the winter concert. The class gathered on stage, and Mr. Flat was organizing them in groups.
“Altos over here!” he ordered, and some of the boys wandered over to that section of the stage. “Falsettos!” he shouted. N.T. stood off to the side, by himself, totally disconnected from his surroundings. After everyone had a group and N.T. was still by himself, Mr. Flat began giving the groups instructions.
“Mr. Flat! But what about Ned?” a girl asked, raising her hand and pointing to N.T. “What do you want him to do?”
Mr. Flat turned around to look at N.T., almost looking surprised to see him still there. “Uhh…” he said. “Maybe… Ned can… Well, we’ll find something for him.” As if that were enough explanation, Mr. Flat turned back around and continued coaching the singers.
N.T. stood motionless for a second, then pulled out his book and sat down in the shadows of the curtains off-stage, spending the rest of the class pretending to read, but really listening to the singing students and wishing he had been given a voice.
Ms. DeMarcio couldn’t get N.T. to tell her anything during recess. For the rest of the week, he was acting so sad in his mannerisms that even some of the other students started noticing, which says a lot, because most of the time they ignored him.
“Why are you sad, Bones?” one boy asked during a group activity during Science. N.T. only shook his head, telling himself, “If I had a voice, I could just tell him out loud what was wrong, instead of having to write it down.” Even Ms. DeMarcio couldn’t get anything from N.T. He stopped writing as much, resenting the fact that he had to rely on paper and pencil to talk to people instead of just being able to verbalize it.
The next week, Mr. Flat thought he had come up with something brilliant. “N.T.! You could be our curtain guy!” he exclaimed. They were rehearsing on stage again, and he showed N.T. quickly how to pull the rope so that the curtains would open and close. But when little N.T. tried it, he didn’t have enough weight or strength to actually pull it, and so he just dangled from the rope, legs swinging.
“We’ll, uh, find you something else,” he said quietly, biting his lip.
“Why don’t you have N.T. play an instrument instead?” a voice asked, and N.T. realized it was the same girl as before.
Mr. Flat frowned, putting his hands on his hips. “Emily, this is none of your business,” Mr. Flat said, turning to her and the other students.
“Yeah, N.T. could play the xylophone with all the second graders,” a boy chuckled.
“Quiet!” Mr. Flat shouted. “We’re going to find N.T. something, maybe… more off-stage. He’ll be a behind-the-scenes kind of help.”
Mr. Flat looked back at N.T., but he had disappeared–he had run off to the bathroom because he couldn’t stand being a burden to their beautiful concert anymore. Clearly Mr. Flat didn’t want N.T. anywhere near their production, and so he spent the rest of Music in the bathroom, feeling so heart-broken that he wished he could cry.
That day during recess, Ms. DeMarcio told N.T. to pull up a chair and sit next to her at her desk.
“N.T., I’m really, really worried about you,” she said, looking at N.T. with big, caring eyes. She took off her glasses and continued. “You’re not acting like yourself. What is troubling your precious mind?”
N.T. wanted to keep everything bottled inside him and only let it out once he magically transformed into a beautiful singer like in the movies, but he was so torn up about it he had to get it off his mind.
I WISH I HAD A VOICE! He wrote, shaking his head in dismay. I WISH I COULD SING, I WISH I COULD BE IN THE WINTER CONCERT. When Ms. DeMarcio asked what this was all about, he explained to her about Mr. Flat and the winter concert and how he hated himself for being different from the other kids.
Ms. DeMarcio was quiet for a moment. She was always quiet before she said something important. N.T. waited, wondering if she would know how he could get a voice. Maybe in all her years she had met a witch along the way who could enchant N.T. and grant his wish.
But instead she looked kind of sad, and then kind of amused, and then serious. Finally, she told N.T., “I have been teaching for a very long time. I’ve met a lot of kids, and I’ve dealt with many of their problems, and you’ll be shocked to know that you’re not much different from all the other kids. Do you know how many times a child has said to me, ‘I wish I was taller,’ or ‘I wish I was stronger’ or ‘I wish I was different than how I am’?”
N.T. looked at her intently, listening carefully.
“You have the same batch of emotions as everyone else. Everyone has their own unique soul, but we all have the same emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, jealousy, love. If you talked to your classmate with the best voice, I bet they would tell you they wish they could write as well as you do.”
N.T. shrugged. Knowing everyone else had problems didn’t help him have a voice.
“Maybe you can shrug off the fact that you write well, but that’s because you’re good at it. You can take it for granted. The same way another kid might shrug if you told him he should be happy that he can sing well even if he wishes he could write.”
If N.T. had eyeballs, he probably would have rolled them.
“Listen, I’m telling you that you’re not that different from other kids. Which is important, because you do have a voice. Your voice is however you share your thoughts and feelings with the world. Your voice could be painting, writing, singing, playing an instrument, or even dancing! Does that make sense? Even if you don’t have a ‘voice,’ you still have a voice. And N.T., your voice is really important because you have really special ideas. Your imagination is incredible, and your heart is big.”
Ms. DeMarcio put a hand on N.T.’s bony shoulder and smiled.
“Remember how I said everyone has the same batch of emotions? Everyone experiences these feelings in different ways, and we all learn how to deal with them in our own way. And part of the reason why your voice–not your vocal voice, but your artistic voice–is able to matter is because it taps into that batch of emotions. When you do a dance that expresses your sadness, others will watch you and they will feel similar emotions. Or maybe they won’t, and that’s because everyone feels emotions different. But there will always be at least one person who watches you do your sad dance, and will say, ‘Wow, I felt the sadness of your dance in my heart and I understand your sadness.’ And feeling understood is one of the most magical human interactions there is.”
Ms. DeMarcio took her hand back and tilted her head at N.T.
“N.T., I’m telling you that you could write stories about your feelings. People will read your stories and connect with them because they’ll think, ‘Wow! I feel this way too!’ You can say really important things in your stories because you do have a voice, and maybe nobody’s listening now, but they will. Even if only one person reads them and feels something, that matters, too. You should love your voice, because the only way it will grow is if you love it and nurture it, instead of focusing all your energy on something you don’t have.”
N.T. nodded solemnly, giving her words careful attention.
“And N.T., do you really even want to sing? Did you even want a ‘voice’ until you noticed that everyone else was singing? Sometimes we think we want something because everyone else makes it seem important, but when you sit down at the end of the day, we realize we were actually perfectly happy the way we were. Because this is the only way you were meant to be. That’s why it feels right until someone else makes you feel bad about it.”
Ms. DeMarcio asked N.T. if she could give him a hug, and he said it was okay. She wrapped her arms around his little self and he sunk into her, letting go of all his feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy and replacing them with the kind words of Ms. DeMarcio and the passion he had for writing and drawing.
Suddenly the bell rung, indicating recess was over, and Ms. DeMarcio let go of N.T. “Also, I’m going to have a talk with Mr. Flat,” she added sternly, and N.T. got up and started gathering his things. Quickly, he scribbled a note and handed it to Ms. DeMarcio. THANK YOU SO MUCH, it read. I FEEL BETTER ALREADY. AND I HAVE LOTS OF BOOKS TO TALK ABOUT, TOO! I’LL WRITE ABOUT THEM.
Ms. DeMarcio chuckled, setting down the paper. “I’m glad you seem to be feeling like yourself again, already. Never lose yourself for the sake of others.”
He smiled to himself and shuffled away, feeling like a totally new skeleton after Ms. DeMarcio’s awesome lecture.
The audience sat in a noisy silence–pamphlets rustling, whispers chattering, feet shuffling, mouths chewing. The auditorium was dimmed and almost every chair was occupied.
“And now I present to you, the Spinesville winter concert’s grand finale, the fifth graders!”
Mr. Flat, who was wearing a black suit, quickly ran off stage as the spotlight faded, and the curtains pulled back to reveal the students all positioned on stage. The fifth graders were on stands, all dressed up in their holiday best, little girls in red velvet dresses, boys in khakis and itching at their miniature ties. Before them all, front and center on the stage, stood N.T., in a top hat and Santa’s jacket, holding the conductor’s wand. He turned to the audience and gave a wave, and then turned back to his classmates. With a sweep of his arm, they started singing! The harmony began, and he flicked and guided the conductor’s wand, feeling the moment and the adrenaline.
N.T. led his classmates in their Christmas carols, and they performed beautifully. He swayed with the music as he conducted, enjoying the happiness music gave him and the joy of being involved in the winter concert.
At the end, the audience gave a roaring round of applause for their children, and while N.T.’s foster family had shown up to support their other children, Ms. DeMarcio’s cheers were heard loudest and proudest of all, which was impressive to N.T., because she was so old.
If you would like to read about N.T. Ed in his adult endeavors, you can check them out here on Slanted Spines!
- Read N.T.’s first tale, N.T. Ed’s Pines.
- Read his second tale, N.T. Ed, the Diplomat of Flowers.
- Read his third tale, N.T. Ed and the Jack of Tricks!