illustration of a boy in a backpack looking up at a school
Marcos Calo

Back to Normal?

Elijah knows he should be excited to finally be back at school. But why does everything feel so strange?

By Lauren Tarshis
From the September 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will identify the main character’s feelings in a story about returning to school after the pandemic and after a best friend has moved away. 

Lexile: 600L-700L
Guided Reading Level: S
DRA Level: 40
Other Key Skills: inference, setting, connection, plot, author’s craft, mood
Topic: SEL,
UP CLOSE: Character

As you read, think about how Elijah, the main character, feels about returning to his old school, and why.

It’s the first day of fifth grade, and I’m walking to school. The sidewalk is jam-packed. Cars honk, buses zoom, bikes zip by. I pass my favorite doughnut shop—still closed. Across the street is the taco place where we had my ninth-birthday dinner. It’s closed too.

But today, I barely hear the city noises. I don’t stare at the empty stores and used-to-be-restaurants. I’m thinking about my best friend, Devon.

What an annoying kid!

Like the way he eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He stuffs it into his mouth, gets globs of peanut butter stuck in his braces . . . trust me, it’s a disaster.

And he’s always losing stuff—his soccer jersey, his bus pass, his earbuds. Good thing Devon’s head is screwed onto his neck. Otherwise he’d be running around shouting at me, “Elijah! Have you seen my head?”

I hear something, and I realize the noise is coming from my own mouth. I’m laughing about Devon. Out loud! What’s wrong with me? I whip my head around to see if anyone is staring. But of course they’re not. I keep forgetting I’m here, back home in my honking, beeping, zooming neighborhood. It’s way too noisy for anyone to hear a kid laughing on the sidewalk.

Not like in Grandpa’s quiet little town in Wisconsin, where Mom and I spent the last 16 months. We moved there in May of 2020, after Covid hit here. Hit hard.

School went all remote. Mom did her bank job from our kitchen table. I was afraid to step outside, like the air was filled with invisible monsters. Finally Grandpa came, drove 15 hours from Wisconsin to come get us. Mom and I figured we’d stay with Grandpa for a month or two, just until things here got back to normal. Six months went by. A year.

We finally came home last week, in time for me to start fifth grade in person.

But are things really normal here?

I peer behind me, half-believing that Devon is with me, that he just stopped to tie his sneaker.

But no. Devon’s not there. He moved to Texas. Like my favorite doughnut shop and the taco place—and so much else that Covid took away—my best friend Devon is gone.

I’ve barely managed to swallow the lump in my throat when a voice calls out.


It takes me a minute to realize that the girl standing next to me is Gia Malone.

My stomach twists, and I hear Devon’s voice in my mind.

Gia Malone is talking to you!

Quiet, I almost say.

If there were a king or queen of our grade, Gia would be wearing the crown. Her dad used to play professional baseball. But that’s not why everyone wants to be Gia’s friend. It’s just . . . she’s always smiling.

 “I hear you’ve got Mr. Temple too,” Gia says with that big grin. “He’s the best. Room 24, right?”

I nod, wondering how she heard I had Mr. Temple. I haven’t talked to anyone since I’ve been back.

“Where’s your twin?” she asks, looking around.

She means Devon. Not that Devon and I look anything alike. He’s tall, I’m short. My pale skin has freckles; his skin is smooth and brown. I’m a quiet, in-the-background type. Devon’s a nonstop talker.

If he were here, he’d be asking you about your summer, or if you know his favorite song. Never heard it? Don’t worry. Devon would sing it for you. Da-da-da, da, da, DA, until you said, “Oh yeah!”

Devon and I are so different. But that never mattered. We met during Pee Wee basketball in kindergarten and became instant best friends. Kids called us the twins because we were always together.

Until Covid.

“Devon’s still in Texas,” I tell Gia.

Devon’s dad was a chef at a fancy restaurant—which shut down. So the family went back to Texas, where his parents grew up.

“When’s he coming back?” Gia asks, her smile drooping a little.

He was supposed to be back by now. He said he would be every time we talked or FaceTimed. Which was about 10 times a day.

Finally, last week, Mom heard the truth from Devon’s mom.

“They’re staying in Texas,” I say. “They like being so close to family. Devon’s dad is opening a new restaurant.”

I make my voice steady and bright, like it’s fine with me that my best friend is thousands of miles away. I don’t tell Gia I’m not talking to Devon anymore, that I’ve ignored his millions of texts and calls and DMs.

Why didn’t Devon tell me he wasn’t coming back?

Gia eyes me. She looks so different—that’s why I didn’t recognize her at first. She’s taller, and her hair’s longer and curlier. All last year I saw her on Zoom. But seeing someone in a little box on the screen is different from seeing them right in front of you.

I bet I look different too.

More and more kids are rushing along the sidewalk, heading toward the school. Someone calls Gia’s name.

“See you, Elijah!” Gia says as she turns and hurries away.

She wants to be friends, Devon’s voice whispers in my mind.

What does it matter to you? I whisper back to invisible Devon. You’re gone.

Didn’t I tell you how annoying Devon is? I’m better off without him, right?

I need to stop thinking about him too.

I hang back on the sidewalk until most of the kids have gone inside the school. Then I put on my mask and head up the steep stone stairs, staring up at the WELCOME BACK banner.

I push through the heavy door and it hits me—that smell of school. That mysterious mix of floor cleaner and sweaty kids, Sharpies and French toast sticks, teachers’ coffee and bananas in lunch boxes. It’s not bad. It’s just like nothing else in the world.

And something happens to me when I breathe it in. My head fills up with swirling memories—Devon and me racing around the playground, shooting hoops, sitting on the floor in the library listening to Mrs. Lincoln reading Harry Potter. Doing our secret handshake on the blacktop—thumbs hooked, hands clasped, high fives up to the sky.

How can I start school without Devon?

I feel dizzy. Oh no. What if I puke?

I stagger through the hallway and pull open the first door I find.

Quickly, I enter a small, dark room. I shut the door hard and stand there in the pitch dark, my eyes squeezed shut. Minutes tick by. The bell rings. The hall outside is quiet.

Finally, I’m not dizzy. I open my eyes.

Where am I?

I fumble around the wall and flick the light switch.

I look around . . .

Oh no. No, no, no.

I’d rather be in a haunted dungeon than be here . . . in the teachers’ bathroom!

I turn the knob and pull the door. It won’t budge. I yank harder. Nothing.

It’s the first day of fifth grade. I’m stuck in the teachers’ bathroom.

This is definitely not normal.

The morning announcements come and go. I imagine Mr. Temple taking attendance, calling my name.

Elijah Philips? Where is he?

My heart starts to pound. What will happen to me in here? I could starve. They’ll find my skeleton. What a way to go, locked in the teachers’ bathroom!

I hear a sound somewhere close—laughing. But it’s not coming from my mouth. It’s in my head.

It’s Devon’s laugh. Did I tell you how annoying his laugh is? The kid sounds like a sick donkey.

Shhhh, I whisper—out loud.

But this is funny.

No, it’s not.

Yep, it is.

He laughs harder. I picture him doubled over, tears pouring from his laughing face.

I hear another noise.

I’m laughing too. The sound fills the teachers’ bathroom.

Try the door again, Devon says. Push, genius.

I turn the knob. I push. The door opens.

Did I tell you that Devon is really smart?

I step out and almost smash into someone. A tall lady in a flowered dress.

It’s Mrs. Lincoln, our librarian.

“Elijah!” she says, way too loud. Not mad loud. Happy loud. “You’re home!”

She puts her hand on my shoulder. Somehow, I see her huge smile behind her mask.

“Get to class,” she says. “I’m sure everyone’s waiting. And you’d better come see me! I want to hear all about Wisconsin. Wait until you see all the new books I have for you!”

We fist-bump and I head down the hall, walking faster and faster.

I run up the flight of stairs and spot room 24. The door is open. I see Gia and other kids. Smiling eyes. Waves.

I hear Devon in my mind again as I step into the room.

Say hi to everyone, Devon says.

I will.

Promise to call me later.

All right.

I miss you.

This story was originally published in the September 2021 issue.

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Activities (9)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (2)
Answer Key (2)
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Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (2)
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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Table of Contents

1. Preparing to Read

2. Reading and Discussing

 SEL Focus, Close Reading, Critical Thinking

3. Skill Building and Writing

4. Digital Spotlight

5. Differentiate and Customize

Struggling Readers, Advanced Readers, Multilingual Learners

6. Can’t-Miss Teaching Extras

1. Preparing to Read

Engage Students, Preview Text Features, and Set a Purpose for Reading

  • Have students work in small groups to compare and contrast this year’s back-to-school time with last year’s. Ask them to list what is the same and what is different. Group members can then discuss how they feel about this year’s differences. Next, tell students they are going to read a story about a boy returning to his school after being away during the pandemic.

  • Look at the story as a class. Point out the questions in the margins and the arrows that connect them to lines in bold in the story. Preview the questions together.

  • Distribute or assign our Vocabulary Skill Builder to preview five words or expressions. Students will also be able to add other unfamiliar words from the story. Vocabulary terms include peer, lump in my throat, stagger, dungeon, and doubled over. 

  • Prompt students to read the Up Close box on page 10 to set a purpose for reading.

2. Reading and Discussing

First Read: Get to Know the Text (20 minutes)

  • Have students read or listen to the audio of the story independently. 

Second Read: Unpack the Text (30 minutes)

  • Put students in small groups in your classroom. Ask them to discuss the close-reading questions in the margins. Circulate among the groups to listen to discussions. This can be a good way to informally assess where students are at the beginning of this year. Answers follow. (In some cases, you’ll need to refer to the story to see the context of the question.)

  • Discuss the critical-thinking questions as a class.

  • Discuss the SEL focus either before or after the critical-thinking questions.

SEL Focus


Guide students to think about what Elijah realizes at the end of the story: that Devon can still be his friend even though he has moved away. Still, Elijah will probably want to cultivate some new friendships at his school. Ask students: Have you ever wanted to make a new friend? How did you go about it?  What advice would you give Elijah on dealing with Devon’s moving away? To add to the discussion, have students read the infographic on page 32, “How to Make a New Friend.”

Close-Reading Questions

  • Why do you think these businesses have closed? (inference, p. 11) Businesses have closed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Like many stores and restaurants that shut down, they probably didn’t have enough customers to stay open, or perhaps they will reopen at a later date.
  • What have you learned about the setting (the place and time) of the story so far? (setting, p. 11) The story takes place in a big city. There is a lot of noise, coming from cars, buses, and other vehicles, and Elijah passes businesses on his way to school. It is set in the present, as students are returning to school. 
  • How does Elijah’s experience compare with your experience during the pandemic? (connection, p. 11) Answers will vary.
  • What is Elijah’s main problem in the story? (plot, p. 12) His main problem is that his best friend, Devon, has moved to Texas. You can tell that Elijah misses Devon and is feeling alone.
  • Why do you think Elijah hears Devon’s voice? What does this tell you about their friendship? (character, p. 12) Elijah and Devon must have a very close friendship. Elijah can hear Devon’s voice because he knows Devon so well that he can predict what he would say in each situation he finds himself in.
  • What does Elijah’s description tell you about Devon? (character, p. 12) Elijah describes Devon as a very friendly and outgoing boy. He’s a “nonstop talker,” and he’s interested in finding out about other people; for example, Elijah says Devon would ask you about your summer or sing you his favorite song.
  • How is Elijah feeling right now? (character, p. 13) Elijah seems to feel hurt that Devon didn’t tell him that he wasn’t coming back from Texas. Elijah is also upset about this news and missing his best friend.
  • Why do you think Elijah describes his best friend as “annoying”? (inference, p. 13) Elijah is probably trying to cover up his true feelings of missing Devon by looking at the small, annoying things Devon does. He is trying to convince himself that he’s fine without Devon. He is also mad at Devon for not revealing that he was staying in Texas, so Elijah likely is looking for ways to criticize Devon.
  • Notice how the author uses details that help you imagine Elijah’s surroundings. How does the school smell affect Elijah? (author’s craft, p. 13) The smell of school brings back all of Elijah’s memories of going to school before the pandemic, when Devon was still there. Elijah feels overwhelmed by his memories. Bonus: How would YOU describe the smell of school? Answers will vary.
  • How do you know Elijah’s feelings toward Devon are starting to change? (inference, p. 14) Until this point, Elijah has focused on Devon’s “annoying” characteristics, like the way he eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and how he laughs. Once he gets out of the teachers’ bathroom, Elijah feels calmer and realizes that he can get by without Devon physically next to him; Devon is still with him in his memories.
  • What does this ending show about how Elijah’s feelings have changed from the beginning of the story? (character, p. 14) At the beginning of the story, Elijah feels angry and hurt by Devon’s not returning to his school and also his not telling Elijah the truth. He is refusing to talk to Devon or respond to any of his messages. By the end, he promises himself to call Devon. This shows that he has forgiven Devon and still wants to be friends, even from a distance.

Critical-Thinking Question

  • Do you think Elijah is being fair to Devon by not returning his calls and texts? What would you do in Elijah’s place? What do you think would work out best for both boys? (character) Answers will vary. Students might say that Elijah isn’t being fair and that it wasn’t Devon’s decision to move away. Devon might be calling to explain why he didn’t tell Elijah sooner. Others might say Elijah’s hurt feelings are understandable, but it would be better to talk them out with Devon than to ignore him, which won’t solve any problems. 

  • How does the mood, or feeling, of the story change when Elijah discovers he is in the teachers’ bathroom? (mood) The mood changes from intense, with Elijah feeling overwhelmed by feelings, to funny, because he’s stuck in the last place he would want to be—but from the reader’s point of view, it’s funny that he’s trapped in the teachers’ bathroom.

3. Skill Building and Writing

Featured Skill: Character
  • Distribute or digitally assign the Character Skill Builder to help students identify Elijah’s feelings and how he changes through the story. Available on two levels!

  • Ask students to respond to the writing prompt at the end of the story. Encourage them to submit their responses to our writing contest!

4. Digital Spotlight

Immersive Read-Aloud

  • Our new, extra-special read-aloud experience features author Lauren Tarshis reading her story, along with music and sound effects that help students feel as if they were right there at school with Elijah! You can use it for extra engagement during independent or small-group reading, or as a whole-class read-aloud. 

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Students might be confused when they first see the blue text in the story. Make sure they know it signals Elijah imagining what Devon would say to him. To reinforce this idea, work with students in pairs and have them practice reading aloud the exchanges between Elijah and the imaginary Devon.

For Advanced Readers

Invite students to write a story from Devon’s perspective. How does he feel about moving to Texas? About leaving Elijah? How does he react when Elijah stops returning his messages? What about when Elijah finally calls him again?

For Multilingual Learners

To help students understand one of the important ideas of the story, read together the paragraph that starts “And something happens to me when I breathe it in.” Ask students what they think it means to have your “head [fill] up with swirling memories.” Then ask them to share a time when their heads have filled up “with swirling memories.” How did this make them feel? How does it make Elijah feel?

Can't-Miss Teaching Extras
Explore the Storyworks Archive

Have students compare this story with another realistic fiction story about a kid during the pandemic, the September 2020 story “Missing.” Ask students to look for details in each story that show how things have changed over the past year.

Lead a Mindfulness Exercise

As students return to classrooms this fall, they may feel anxious and overwhelmed like Elijah. This video from Edutopia provides students and teachers with a simple mindfulness exercise to restore calm in the classroom.

Shed Some Stress

The beginning of a new school year can be a stressful adjustment. This article from KidsHealth breaks down what stress is and offers tips to help your students manage it.