On the other side of the lobby door, ninety-six sidewalk lines away, is the first day of fifth grade. I stare through the glass, tugging at my backpack straps although they are fine. I know I am stalling. As soon as I open the door, the outside will rush into my ears: taxi horns, loud radios, barking dogs. I hold onto the quiet for as long as I can.

“Do you want us to walk with you?” Dad asks right as Mom says, “Ready, Amelia?”

I shake my head. I savor one more moment of quiet—only to be interrupted by the elevator dinging. Deb brushes by us.

“See you there!” she says as she pushes open the lobby door. Warm air and city commotion burst into our apartment building. I cover my ears and count the ways I am different this year:

1.I am ten now and can walk to school by myself.

2.Mom and Dad gave me a new CharlieCard and permission to ride the T alone to the Boston Public Library.

3.My noise-canceling headphones are not on my head.

Once the door closes, I lower my hands. Outside, I see Deb catch up to Jax, who lives across the street. They head off together, without me. I tell myself that’s fine. I am only a neighborhood pal to Jax and, ever since third grade, backup friend to Deb-minus-Kiki.

I take a step toward the door and hesitate. I feel light-headed, missing the weight of my headphones. Only my hair covers my ears.

Mom hugs me good-bye. “Fifth grade will be great.”

Dad touches my arm. “One more thing,” he says and hands me a box.

“What’s this?” Mom asks, as surprised as I am.

I open it. Inside are purple earmuffs, with a white curve like a hairband. I slip them on. The muffs—soft and furry—cover my ears completely. I love them instantly. Earmuffs are like having permission to place your hands over your ears all the time.

I hug Dad hard. He laughs.

Mom’s smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Where did you get those?” she asks Dad.

“Target,” he says.

I think she is really asking why but I don’t care. Now I am ready. I open the lobby door and walk by myself to school. Every few feet, I can’t help touching the fluff over my ears. How wonderfully soft! My steps grow bold. I’m sure everyone is admiring my beautiful, regular-looking earmuffs.

At the end of the first block, the traffic light turns green and all the cars accelerate at once. I jump—it’s louder than I expect. I walk eight more sidewalk lines, noticing city sounds more than before: the beeping of a backing-up truck, the one-sided cellphone conversations, the rattling tires over potholes. The volume I hear is about five bars out of ten. Noise-canceling headphones are more like one bar. Earmuffs are better than nothing though. Under my earmuffs, at least, everything is muffled, every sound is bearable. Almost.


Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster. To learn more about Jennifer and her work, go here.