The inaugural Anderson Park Short Story Contest, a competition for middle school students, asked students to write stories that incorporated the park in some way. The winning stories — by Maxwell Kumahor (“Stand Up”) of Buzz Aldrin Middle School; Juniper Shelley (“Walking”) of Glenfield Middle School; and Madeleine Young (“What Happens After Dark: The Monsters of Anderson Park”) of Glenfield — were judged by local authors Judy Newman, president of Scholastic Book Clubs; Sharon Dennis Wyeth; and Nancy Star, and their authors received $75. Suki Grabcheski of Glenfield was given the Olmsted Oak Award for the creative way she integrated Anderson Park into her story.
Reading the stories aloud at Watchung Booksellers on May 5 were Ann Anderson Evans and Charles Loflin. Evans, who organized this contest, is a trustee of Friends of Anderson Park and a descendant of Charles W. and Annie Anderson, who donated the land for the Olmsted-designed park. There were about two dozen entries from all Montclair middle schools, reflecting a wide range of styles.
Maxwell Kumahor’s entry, “Stand Up,” is the first winner to be published by Montclair Local. Other winning entries will be published in subsequent issues.
My feet pound out a drum beat on the cement. Booming like thunder, against the silent backdrop of the alley. I hear my pursuers’ taunts. Loud and sharp, like a drill sergeant’s whistle. I run faster. Just a few more blocks, I tell myself. Just a few more blocks until I’m safe, at least for now. My heart beats like a locomotive, fast and rhythmic. Boom-Boom. Boom-Boom.
I turn the final corner and at last, I see it. My glimmering lighthouse. My safe haven amidst the unforgiving sea. My house. My home. I am suspended in a state of bliss. In the midst of my elation, I make a mistake. I look back. The sight of Stuart and Kevin gaining on me shocks me out of my reverie. I only feel one emotion. Fear. I can feel it, coursing through my veins. My science teacher told me that humans are warm blooded. In this moment, my blood is icy. I run as fast as I can. Faster than I can.
I hear their breath. Strong and steady. Mine is labored and forced. I’m not going to make it, I think. I look around at the houses. Colors. Green. White. Blue. I realize how mismatched they are. That’s really something. I’m thinking about matching colors at a time like this? I should have gone through Anderson Park. Something about that place calms me. Maybe it’s the knowledge that many people have walked the paths before me. I take the steps three at a time. I try the door. Locked. I run around the wraparound porch to the backdoor. I try the knob. It opens. I race inside and lock the door. I breathe a sigh of relief. My fear dies down. I’m warm-blooded again. You’re okay, Kofi, I tell myself.
I walk into the bathroom. My curly, black hair glistens with sweat. I look as if someone dropped some stars on my head. There is a layer of sweat, clinging to my dark brown skin, and my clothes are soaked through. My shoes are streaked with mud, and my pants have items of questionable origin on them.
I inspect my stomach. I have what my parents call “baby fat.” Why I still have it at 13, the world may never know. My arms are skinny, with little muscle, so it would be unfortunate if Stuart and Kevin were to catch me. I should probably take a martial arts class. Maybe Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I’ve gotten pretty fast, considering all of the running I’ve had to do from Stu and Kev, as they like to be called. I really need to lose this “baby fat” though. Seriously, I’m 13. I’m the oldest baby I know. With my self assessment complete, I shower, change, and leave the bathroom.
I walk to my room. On my bed, there is a small package, I pick it up. It is from my dad, Kwasi Agbenyefia. Inside is a book: “Bullies: How To Stop Them.” My dad knows me too well. He has always been able to guess what I needed, even from far away. Ever since my dad left, he’s always made sure to keep in touch. I guess he figured out what was going on. I realize that since Stu and Kev started bullying me, I’ve been less open when I text or call my dad. I open the book, and settle down to read.
I finish the book. I feel like someone gave me a shield of knowledge in one hand, and put a sword of wisdom in the other. I am inspired. I realize that I’m smiling, really smiling, for the first time in weeks. I lie on my bed, basking in the glow of my newfound knowledge. I fall asleep, armed with my sword and shield.
At dinner, I am energetic. My mom raises her eyebrows when I sit down with a smile, but says nothing. “How was school?” she asks. “Same as always,” I reply. She looks at me strangely. She knows something’s up. It’s as if she can read my face like a book. Maybe she can. Moms have their ways of knowing things.
She gives me another look, and then continues. “Well, my day was interesting. Someone at the office tried to give me his work to do, but it didn’t turn out the way he expected. He was not going to put one over Morowa Afutor.” My mom’s name, Morowa, means queen in Ewe, a Ghanaian language. She works for a marketing company. Her company is like a tugboat, steering a larger ship on the right path. I nod my head and smile. No one can ever put one over my mom.
I am walking to school. I am calm. I am ready. I walk through Anderson Park. I feel the wind, as it whistles through the grass. As I walk down the paths, the trees wave, as if beckoning me. Leaves are strewn across the path, but it seems as if they were placed there meticulously, each leaf carefully selected to go in each spot. I arrive at school.
The school is like a palace, rising up out of the sea. Students bustle about, like fish swimming around, seemingly aimlessly. I look for one person in particular. I see her. Sheryl. The only person in this school who notices me. Other than Stu and Kev, of course. But Sheryl is the nicest person in school.
I see Stu and Kev. They are making a beeline towards me. Instinct takes over, and I do what I do best. I disappear. I weave through people, like a trained pilot executing perfect aerial maneuvers. Stu and Kev are standing where I was moments ago, looking around in bewilderment. I smile. I walk inside the school. I go to my locker, drop off some stuff, and go to my homeroom.
In homeroom, I am quiet. I only speak when the teacher calls my name for attendance. I remember the book. My sword and shield flicker back to life. Fueled by my renewed confidence, I walk over to Sheryl’s desk. “Hi,” I say shyly. She looks at me, as if trying to figure something out. I start to think that this isn’t such a good idea.
To my surprise, she smiles. “Oh, you’re the smart kid!” she says, eyes lighting up with recognition. I look away, still shy. “Um, thanks,” I say. “But I prefer the term hard-working.”
She smiles. “I like that,” she says. I smile back. “What’s your name?” she says.
“Kofi,” I reply. “It’s Ghanaian.”
“Cool!” she says.
“You’re Sheryl, right?” I ask, even though I know her name.
“Yes,” she says.
The teacher calls for our attention. “Catch you later?” Sheryl asks me.
“Oh, um sure,” I respond, trying to sound nonchalant. I fail. She smiles. I walk to my desk in a daze. She talked to me! I think. Me, of all people! I grin. Things are looking up for Kofi Agbenyefia.
The rest of the school day passes quickly. That is, until the end of the day. As I walk out of the school, Sheryl catches up to me. “Hi,” I say.
She smiles. “Hi,” she replies.
My heart flutters. I see Stu and Kev. If I could go pale, I probably would. They are grinning. I remember the book. My sword and shield are quivering. I relax my posture, trying to look like I am in control of the situation.
“What are you doing hanging out with him?” Stu asks Sheryl.
“Who are you to tell me who I can and can’t hang out with?” she replies. I wish I had that confidence.
I step forward. “Let me tell you something,” I say. I surprise myself with how confident I sound. “Every day, you chase me home, keep me in a constant state of fear, so much so, that I am afraid to even make friends. You push me around, and you act as if you rule the world. It needs to stop.
“I will not tolerate you disrespecting me. I am Kofi Agbenyefia, I am Ewe, and I will not be bullied by you. I will not live my life in fear because of you, and I will not be punished for what I like to do.” Stuart and Kevin are shocked.
They walk away dejectedly. “We’re sorry,” they mumble. My sword and shield are blazing.
Sheryl looks at me with awe. “Wow,” she says. “I’ve never seen anyone stand up to Stuart and Kevin like that.”
“Thanks,” I say. I am beaming from ear to ear.
“Do you want to hang out sometime?” she asks.
I’m stunned. “Sure,” I say. As I walk home, I smile. I am proud of myself. I stood up for myself, and I’m going on a date. Seventh grade will be a year to remember.