Herbert very nearly jumped out of bed the next morning. He quickly pulled on his new grey corduroy pants, his new forest green t-shirt, and his new orange jacket, which he loved. Herbert raced downstairs to the kitchen where he found his mother dropping handfuls of fresh raspberries into a steaming pot of oatmeal.
“Where’s your brother?” she asked.
Herbert took a bowl from the cabinet and shrugged his shoulders. “Probably still sleeping,” said Herbert as his mother plopped a heaping scoop of oatmeal in his bowl. Mother went to go check on Matthew. Herbert sat down at the table and tried as hard as he could to sit still, but he was too excited! He was certain that he would make wonderful friends and learn wonderful things in school. Yet, he was also very nervous. What if he didn’t make friends? What if he couldn’t understand the things that his teacher put in front of him? What if everybody else already knew how to do arithmetic and he was the only one who couldn’t? All at once, Herbert slumped in his chair, no longer wanting to go to school. He clutched at his stomach, which, he was certain, was now grumbling in pain. He put his hand on his head and checked for a fever, which he was certain he had. He blinked his eyes rapidly, because he was certain he was losing his sight. No, no, Herbert reasoned. He was clearly much too ill to go to school. He told his mother this when she returned to the table with a still groggy Matthew.
But Mother shook her head. “Nonsense,” she said. “You’re probably just nervous.”
“But Mother!” Herbert insisted. “I’m burning up with fever, my stomach is doing flip-flops, and I’m losing sight out of this eye!” he pointed to his left eye.
Mother sighed, but pressed her hand to his forehead to check for fever. “Cool as a cucumber,” she said. She covered Herbert’s left eye gently with one hand and with the other held up three fingers. “How many fingers am I holding up?” she asked.
Herbert counted. “One, two, three,” he answered.
“Would you like some maple sugar on your oatmeal?” she asked, and Herbert nodded enthusiastically. “I think you’re well enough for school.” Herbert gave Mother a sheepish grin as she poured some maple sugar on his oatmeal.
“I, on the other hand, am truly not well enough to go to school,” said Matthew.
“Oh?” asked Mother. “What do you have, dear?”
“Don’t-want-to-go-to-school-itis,” Matthew responded matter-of-factly.
Mother put her paw to her heart and let out a small, playful gasp. “I’ve heard of this disease,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s taken even the strongest mice down.” Waving her paws in the air she cried, “Why? Why? Why my son?”
Matthew giggled. “Is there a cure?”
She walked behind Matthew and rested her paws on his small shoulders. “Yes, there is,” she said dramatically. “But, oh, dear, it pains me to say it.”
“What’s the cure, Mother?” asked Herbert enthusiastically.
“I’ll say it, but you mustn’t be too shocked, for the cure is sometimes thought of to be even worse than don’t-want-to-go-to-school-itis itself.”
“What is it?” Herbert and Matthew asked.
“Housework!” shrieked Mother, fanning herself rapidly.
“Housework? Gross!” said Matthew, sticking out his tongue. “I’ll take school any day.”
“I thought you would,” said Mother, resuming her normal routine. She looked at a small clock by the stove. “Matty, Herby, you two need to get a little wiggle in your step.” Both boys shook their bottoms on their chairs. “A couple of wise guys, I have,” Mother smiled.
Herbert and Matthew finished up their oatmeal and went to the bathroom to brush their teeth then to their rooms to get their school bags. When they returned, they found Mother waiting for them at the door, wearing a light pink cloak and carrying two large baskets. “Let’s go!” she said, and followed her sons out the door.
Herbert, who had only been outside once before, was still absolutely astounded by everything around him. They passed green plants, red plants, orange plants, and pink plants. Everything sounded and smelled new, and Herbert was glad he had decided he wasn’t sick after all.
“Who are all those mice?” Herbert asked, tugging on Mother’s cloak.
“I would guess they’re headed to the same place you are.”
Herbert’s eyes grew wide. “You think they’ll all be in my class?”
Mother laughed. “I suspect some of them will be in class with you, others with Matty, and some in grades higher than you both.”
Herbert wondered in astonishment at the sheer number of mice. He had never dreamed there were so many just like him, all white, and so many that looked a little different. “Mother?” he asked, again tugging on her cloak. “Why are those mice grey?” he pointed to a family just a little bit ahead of them.
Mother gently grabbed his pointed finger. “You know it’s not nice to point,” she reminded him. Herbert did, she had told him several times when Auntie Mia had come over.
“But why are they grey?” he asked.
“Because that is how they were born,” she said. “But they’re just like you and me and Matty.”
Herbert scrunched his nose in confusion. “No, they’re not.”
“You go on ahead,” she told Matthew, who had spotted Dillon and was pointing furiously at his new backpack. Mother knelt next to Herbert. “They may not look like us on the outside, but that’s not important. What’s important is what’s in here,” she lay a finger on Herbert’s head, “and in here,” she lay a finger on Herbert’s heart.
“Do you think maybe they like to draw like Matthew?” asked Herbert.
“Maybe,” said Mother. “Or maybe they like to read, like you. Maybe, just maybe they even like peanut butter pie.”
“Anybody who likes peanut butter pie can be my friend!” said Herbert. He took Mother’s hand and they kept walking. As they approached the school – several stories carved into large, sturdy oak tree – Herbert noticed that there weren’t just white and grey mice, there were also black and brown ones, and Herbert was determined to find all of the mice who liked peanut butter pie and invite them over for some one day.
Before they had quite reached the door, Mother gave Herbert’s hand a tight squeeze. “Here we are,” she said.
“You can’t come in?” he asked, feeling his heart sink a little.
Mother shook her head. “School is your place.” She, too, had a little sinking feeling in her heart. “Besides,” she said, “we’ll see each other at dinner.” Herbert thought about how long away dinner was from now and he felt suddenly overwhelmed. He wrapped his arms around his mother’s waist and clung to her. She soothed his head, his white, wispy hair sticking straight up. She picked him up and kissed him on his cheek. “I think,” she said, “that you ought to go inside and find some people who like reading and peanut butter pie.” Herbert looked at her warily. “And,” she continued, “I think that you should do one thing today that you’ve never done before and show it to me when I get home.”
At this, Herbert smiled. He wasn’t sure what he would do because he’d never done it before, but he was certain that he would come home and show his Mother and she would be happy. “Okay,” he agreed.
Mother put him down. “Remember, Auntie Mia is picking you and Matty up from school today.” Herbert nodded. Mother hugged him once more. “Have a good day, Herby.”
Herbert held back a sniffle. “Okay,” he said again. Reluctantly, he walked towards school, Mother watching until he got safe inside.
Once inside, Herbert realized that he didn’t have time to be sad. There was so much to do! The school year began with an assembly for everyone in the school. Herbert thought there must be a million mice in the assembly hall. He tried to find Matthew, but couldn’t spot him, so Herbert sat down by himself, a little bit scared.
Just a few seconds had passed before a small brown and white mouse wearing a purple dress with flowers, who looked just as scared as Herbert felt, stood beside him. “Is that seat taken?” she asked quietly. Herbert shook his head, and the brown and white mouse sat down. “I’m Lily,” she said. “It’s my first day.”
“It’s my first day, too!” Herbert nearly shouted with excitement.
“What’s your name?” Lily asked.
Herbert blushed. “I’m Herbert.”
They sat in silence for a couple of seconds. “What did your mom pack you for lunch?” Lily asked Herbert.
Herbert pulled out his lunch pail. “A tomato, some carrots, bread and butter,” Herbert next found something that delighted him greatly. “And a slice of leftover peanut butter pie!”
“Peanut butter pie!” Lily exclaimed jealously. “Peanut butter pie is my favorite!” And that is when Herbert knew that he and Lily would be very good friends.
At the assembly, all the students learned the names of their teachers and which classrooms they were to be in. The principal, a very skinny grey mouse called Mrs. Appleby, excused the first grade students first. They lined up at the door and their teacher led them to the classroom.
The first grade teacher turned out to be a wonderful man. He was jolly and round brown mouse with thick bottle-top glasses and thick black whiskers. He instructed all the students to sit in a circle on the rug. Herbert took a spot next to Lily. “Good morning, first grade,” said the teacher, whose name Herbert had forgot. “Are you all ready for a very fun year?” All around him, his classmates were nodding enthusiastically. “Good!” The teacher’s belly jiggled when he laughed. “What do you say we go around and learn something about everybody in here? What do you think are good things to know about someone?”
A very petite grey mouse, whose name, Herbert later found out, was Amelia, raised her paw. “If we have any brothers or sisters?”
“Very good idea,” the teacher wrote her suggestion on a large board he held. “What else?”
Lily popped her paw in the air. “What we like to do?”
The teacher nodded. “Yes, that is a very good thing to know about someone. One more.”
Herbert knew what he wanted to discover about his classmates. He wanted to know if anyone besides Lily and him liked peanut butter pie. He raised his paw. “If we like peanut butter pie,” he said.
His teacher smiled. “How about favorite food?” he suggested. Herbert nodded in agreement. “For the record, I like peanut butter pie.” Herbert and Lily smiled wide. “Alright, class. One at a time, we’ll take turns standing up, saying our names, and answering the three questions. I’ll demonstrate.” He stood up. “My name is Mr. Honeywise. I have a younger sister and an older brother. I like to read books about history, bake cookies with my two nephews, go for walks on sunny days, and play chess. My favorite food – besides peanut butter pie, of course –” he said, winking at Herbert, “is strawberries.” He sat down. “Who would like to go next?”
A boy wearing a bright blue shirt raised his hand. Mr. Honeywise nodded at him. “My name is Wenchell and I have a twin brother.” He pointed to his left. Sure enough, the mouse that sat next to Wenchell looked exactly like him, except he was wearing a yellow shirt. They had the same white paws and the same black spots on their noses. He paused. “What’s the next question?”
“What do you like to do, Wenchell?” asked Mr. Honeywise.
“Oh, right. I like to play any game with my brother, but I especially like Candy Land. And my favorite food is cucumbers with vinegar.”
Herbert wrinkled his nose. While he liked the watery crunch of cucumbers, he didn’t like vinegar very well.
Four more students went – Aiden, Wenchell’s twin brother, Hannah, Larry, and Rory – before Herbert raised his paw. He stood up timidly. “Hello,” he said. “My name is Herbert.”
“Herbert,” said Mr. Honeywise smiling. “You’re going to have to speak up, otherwise we won’t get a chance to learn all sorts of wonderful things about you.”
Herbert cleared his throat and tried again. “Hello, my name is Herbert. I have one older brother, Matthew. I like to go to the clover patch with him and watch the clouds. I also like to read with my mother. My favorite food is peanut butter pie.”
Lily went next. “My name is Lily,” she appeared to have gained a lot of confidence since the assembly, because her voice was loud and clear, and she was standing up very straight. “I am an only child. My grandmother lives in our house with me and my mom, though, because my father died a long time ago in the war.” At this, Herbert’s ears perked up. He was itching to tell someone his deepest secret, and he knew that Lily would understand. Lily continued, “She’s teaching me how to knit, which I like, but I also like to go berry picking. My favorite food is…” she scratched her chin. “It’s a tie between peanut butter pie, like Herbert, and blueberries.”
“Blueberries are a favorite of mine, too, Lily,” Mr. Honeywise agreed. “Next?”
The next mouse started sharing, but Herbert wasn’t listening. He had to talk to Lily. He poked her arm.
“What?” she whispered.
He motioned her closer and whispered in her ear, “I don’t have a father either.”
Eight more mice shared, and then Mr. Honeywise divided them up into three groups of four and one group of three. “These will be your tablemates,” Mr. Honeywise announced. Herbert was excited to see that Lily was in his group. “I will have name stickers for your desks tomorrow. Each group please find your table.” Herbert and Lily scrambled for group two’s table, laughing. They were joined by two other mice, Ron and Emma.
“Your first work of first grade is to draw a self-portrait. Does anybody know what a self-portrait is?” The class shook their heads. “A self-portrait is a drawing of yourself.”
“Why would we want to draw ourselves?” asked Yoav, a black mouse with very big eyes.
Mr. Honeywise smiled. “So everybody knows us! I’m going to put all of your drawings with your names on them on the board outside of our classroom. The second, third, fourth, and fifth grade are doing this as well. We want to know who is in our community.”
Mr. Honeywise pulled some colored pencils from a shelf and brought them to the tables. “For future reference, class, any art supplies you need are over here.”
Herbert set to work drawing himself, which he discovered was harder than it sounded and certainly harder than Matthew made it look. He tried very hard to get the shape of his face right, but it always came out a little too round or a little too thin. Once he had finally gotten the shape right, he realized that he didn’t know how to color his white fur on the white piece of paper. He decided to leave it blank. Once in a while he glanced over at Lily’s.
Lily’s drawing was big and erratic. She had given herself a very, very long, pointy nose, long whiskers, big round ears, and big, thick eyelashes. Her drawing made Herbert laugh.
“That’s not really what you look like,” Herbert told her.
Lily took Herbert’s drawing and examined it. It was rather small, in her opinion, and very simple, not much detail. “This isn’t really what you look like, either,” she retorted.
“Oh, no?” Herbert challenged.
“Hold on,” said Lily. Using a black colored pencil she drew five wisps of hair sticking straight up on the top of Herbert’s head. “There,” she said. “Better.”
That day, Herbert did a lot of new things. He played hopscotch at snack time, sang a new song during music, learned to spell a new word – doubtful – during spelling, learned about rhyming words and sang the alphabet song during language arts, and started learning how to count by fives in math, which Herbert thought was very convenient, even though he didn’t know many numbers yet past thirty. By the end of the day Herbert felt very tired but very accomplished at all he had done that day.
He walked with Lily outside. “What happened to your father?” she asked him.
Just then, Herbert spotted Matthew standing by a portly mouse with a wide-brimmed bright red hat and large, clanking jewels. “I can’t stay and talk,” he apologized. “I have to go with my Auntie Mia now.”
“Your Auntie Mia?” Lily asked, confused, worry showing on her face. “What happened to your mother?”
Herbert laughed. “Nothing, she’s running some errands.”
Instantly, Lily looked relieved. “I am very glad to hear that,” she said. “Is that your Auntie Mia?” Lily asked, examining the eccentric mouse.
Herbert made a face. “Yes.”
“Well,” said Lily, “my mommy always says you can’t judge a book by its cover. So I guess you can’t judge a mouse by her hat either.”
Herbert laughed. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Lily smiled, “Tomorrow.” She waved goodbye as Herbert joined Matthew and Auntie Mia and the trio began the walk home.