On the first day of 4th grade at Cunningham Elementary, Neuryth did exactly what she had done on the first day of 3rd grade. And the first day of 2nd grade. And probably the first day of 1st grade too. Eyes cast downward, she slumped into a seat in the back corner of the classroom and fiddled with the string hanging from her shirtsleeve. Imagine if I were invisible, she thought to herself, like that character in the book her teacher read aloud last year. If they couldn’t see her, they wouldn’t ever have to know her secret.
“Edmundo Alvarez,” Mrs. Davis, started roll at the beginning of the alphabet. “Here,” he responded promptly, sitting up straighter in his seat. Neuryth held her breath. Maybe they forgot to add her to the class list. Maybe she could just hide under her desk until the whole day was over with. No such luck.
There was no escaping it. She raised her hand halfway to claim her name and meekly whispered, “Here,” Audible maybe to the girl with the wavy ponytail who sat in front of her. Mrs. Davis winked understanding.
Later in the week, during independent reading time, her teacher approached with a gentle shoulder tap. “Neuryth,” she said in a hushed voice, “Can you step outside with me for a second to chat?” She followed Mrs. Davis out into the hallway. “Your group told me you didn’t contribute to the science project. Is that true?”
Neuryth stared down, kicking the toe of her shoe into the ground. “Yes.” She could feel the heat of the redness rising to her cheeks.
“I know you’re learning English right now,” Mrs. Davis said. “And I can only imagine that it is really hard.”
Neuryth first just nodded. Then with slow deliberation, admitted, “I was scared my group would find out if I spoke. They would think I was…dumb.”
Compassion in her eyes, Mrs. Davis locked them with Neuryth’s big dark ones. “Well, I think you’re making great progress with English. And I have some really exciting news that I’d like to share with you before anyone else in the class.”
Mrs. Davis unfolded the square of paper, she had been holding. “We’re starting a special program after school. You’ll be able to choose a job, where you can work, provide services for others and make money.”
Neuryth scanned the sheet, reading the different options for employment carefully. When she got to the cafe, she knew she had found her match. “Food is good,” she beamed confidence. “I like to cook with my mom.”
“Do you think you’d like to interview to be the manager of the café?” Mrs. Davis asked. Neuryth nodded, her mind running a million miles a minute. Did she have what it would take to not just work in but run the school’s café? What would they say when they heard her accent? What if she failed?
But maybe they would listen. And maybe they wouldn’t care about her accent. And maybe she would be really, really good at the whole managing thing.
Two months later, things weren’t going so well. Although Neuryth was doing much better participating in class, the café was losing money. She needed help – and although she was scared to ask, she gathered up her confidence and approached the venture’s facilitator, Ms. Martin.
“Can you help me?” she started? “We’re losing money, and I don’t know what to do,” she said with a disappointed look on her face. “I just don’t know if I can keep this job.”
Ms. Martin smiled. “Oh, I don’t agree with that. Lots of businesses go through hard times. Your employees are always on time. They’re happy. Your customers love the food. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
They sat down together and came up with a plan. Neuryth would reorganize the staff based on their strengths and weaknesses. The older kids would handle the money, while the younger ones would help package up the food and draw signs to lure in customers.
Neuryth worked hard on her own math skills and asked many questions about leadership and business. Ms. Martin was impressed.
With her newfound skills and confidence, Neuryth was determined to make her business succeed. She secured a new loan with the bank to get the cafe afloat again. She scheduled a meeting with the manager of the movie theater to see if they could contract for food sales during their matinees. It was a huge hit! She even conducted market research in the lunch line.
“Hi, will you please fill out this survey?” Neuryth asked a fifth grader, gingerly placing the paper atop his tray, “…so we know what to serve in the café.”
“Oh, cool,” the boy said. “I think you should serve donuts! Can you do that?”
Neuryth laughed confidently. “Maybe,” she said. “You’ll just have to stop by and see!”