The Kid Across the Hall
The Fight for Opportunity in Our Schools
Reid Saaris



When she first graced the doorstep of our house in the woods, six-year-old Erin Marie was joining her tenth family. I was a lonely only child, nine years old, who’d never had to move, and I loved my new sister.

We ran child-wide smiles and imagination all over our garden, which overflowed with plants native to Washington State, like story-tall rhododendrons of a dozen colors beneath hundred-foot-tall firs.

I showed her the treehouse and the sandbox, all the best places to play. I showed her the bunk beds, Big Bear, and my carpeted loft with a window that looked down onto a streetlamp by a cluster of vine- and flower-covered mailboxes.

From my Auntie Suzy, I had my most prized possession: an old coin dispenser used by train conductors. You’d put the pennies, dimes, nickels, and quarters in the top, and press a little lever below to release them one at a time. Once I’d shown Erin how it worked, I extended it to her with both hands to say, Here—this is ours now. It’s all ours.

With a steady diet, her own room, good sleep, and a regular schedule, Erin rebounded from malnutrition, growing several inches in her first months with us. She was in the spring of her life.

We took a trip to play in the tulip fields. We went to the rocky ocean beaches and I showed her how to find the best little crabs, to hold them on her palms and feel the tickle of their soft scuttle. How to keep her hands over water in case they fell. And how to clean off with kelp gel.

Her energy and her curiosity were enchanting. She wanted me to read her every book, show her every game. We traced all the known paths in the woods behind the house and made new ones, restrung an old swing between two giant evergreens with two long ropes and one thick plank to connect them. Then I sat on the plank and she sat on my lap and we pumped our legs way up into the budding maple leaves in front of us, and back over the huckleberries, Oregon grapes, and stands of sword ferns.

Finally—after so many years living next to an empty bedroom while my parents had looked far and wide to find my sister—things were as they should be. We seemed to have all we needed: family, food, and the space to grow, love, and learn.

*   *   *

I wish I would have always followed my instinctual love for Erin, as I did in those early days as her brother, when it seemed that, together, we could make the world wonderful for the both of us.

“How were your days, you two?” my mom, a school counselor, asked us over dinner at a round teak table, which seemed to grow out of our moss-green carpet, next to our forest-filled windows.

“We went over to Ardmore and played on the slides and stuff.”

“How was it, Erin?”

“Fun,” she said, smiling back politely.

“What was your favorite part?”

“Playing with my brother.” She looked over at me, and then when I looked back with a smile, she looked down and scooped up a bite of microwaved scrambled eggs.

“What’d you learn?” my dad, an engineer, asked us, wiping his beard with a paper napkin.

“That I like playing with my sister,” I said. “When’re we gonna do the adoption, anyways?”

My parents looked at each other while Erin and I studied them.

“Well, like we said,” my mom responded, “we need to think about that and figure out what’s best, Reid.”

“What do you mean, ‘what’s best’? Is there something better than this?”

“. . .”

“Well, aren’t we ready?” I pushed.

“I can talk with you more about it later, Reid,” she said softly. “How was your day, Gary?”

He told us about a wind tunnel and some of his friends’ latest ideas about how to give tons of metal enough lift to fly, while Erin and I ate our peas, carrots, and corn—just warm enough to melt the pat of butter we’d each been given as a topper.

*   *   *

When I talked later with my mom, she said that we’d be doing foster care for a while with Erin, and then hopefully adoption. But I didn’t understand it. They’d searched the world for years to find a daughter to adopt—Romania, Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, Texas—and finally found Erin right here. So what’s the problem?

She said some things about professional case workers and recommendations and the idea that what was best would be to try things out and build from there. When I told her it didn’t make sense, she said there were things about Erin’s history that were, “well . . . complicated and potentially challenging. And it’s important to be thoughtful. We’ll see how things go, sweetie, and hopefully it’ll all work out.”

Since I had no idea what the complicated things might be, or how such things worked, I shrugged OK.

*   *   *

I gave Erin my first bicycle, which had rainbows painted on it. My parents upgraded me to a black mountain bike with more gears and thicker treads to ride the jumps.

My best friend, Jamie, became her friend. We all rode bikes together by the school one day, Erin following us off-road, even though her bike wasn’t made for it. When she fell off and crumpled up, crying in the dirt next to the dry grass, I raced back to get my parents while Jamie waited with her.

Feeling guilty that my little sister’d had the wind knocked out of her, I nearly knocked myself out crushing the pedals homeward and swerving up into our driveway to find help as quickly as I could. So stupid of me.

I leaped off, slamming my new bike down on the pavement. “Mom, Dad, come quick and get Erin.” After telling them, “She fell,” I started heaving out tears. As my mom put a hand on my face to comfort me, I pulled away and said, “No! We have to get Erin!”

Not knowing how hard it would get, I felt that being a good big brother meant I should try my best to take care of my little sister.

*   *   *

Physically, Erin was fine. Though I was unusually tall, that first year she grew more quickly than I did. And because now we both had a 6′2″ mom and a 6′5″ dad, I figured we’d both get to be tall. But my parents told me that even with her growth spurt, Erin couldn’t get there. Her biological parents were short, and she’d lost important growing time in the first six years. The doctors forecast that I would always be in the ninety-ninth percentile, and that Erin would never be close to tall enough to get into the Tip Toppers Tall Club, where my parents had first met.

I had just qualified for a program for “gifted and talented” students, which my mom got me into by having me retested after I hadn’t qualified the first time. Meanwhile, I heard that the testers had concluded that Erin was “mentally retarded.”

So they wanted to pull us both out of “regular” classes and put us in “special” classes. My type of special was talked about as being full of high capabilities and endless possibility, while hers was discussed in terms of disability (which sounded like the opposite of ability).

I didn’t see Erin and her classmates when I was at school. They had separate classrooms, and I’m not sure how much her teachers even took them to recess. I don’t remember seeing them out there.

I went to recess with the “regular” kids, but as soon as the bell rang, my group got to enter the first classrooms on the leading edge of the school, with the most external walls and tall windows. My teacher seemed to have the most training and experience, and took us on the most incredible trips (like to Washington, DC, Monticello, and her very own log cabin). And while she talked a lot about social justice, she never mentioned how it was determined who got to be in what were considered to be the good-special classes with us. So the fact that kids who looked and dressed like me were the ones categorized as “talented” seemed at the time as natural as the leaves outside our tall windows being green.