Buenos Aires, Argentina
They are at recess and Salomé's little brother, who is in kindergarten, climbs over the fence that separates the kindergarten from the school to wave to his sister. Pedro, the bully from the first grade, trips him with his foot. He falls down and begins to cry, more because of the surprise than from something hurting. Salomé embraces him to calm him down.
“Is he your brother,” Pedro asks Salomé.
“Yes,” says Salomé, who is taller than Pedro and isn't afraid of him, “so don't pick on him anymore or I'll pick on you double.”
“Well, I didn't know he's your brother,” Pedro answered. “Anyway, he shouldn't be here.”
“Be quiet, bully!” Salomé says, while she takes her brother back to the kindergarten. He has stopped crying and sticks his tongue out at Pedro, who is furious, but doesn't know what to do. The other children see it and laugh at him.
Nicolás had been observing the scene with attention. All his classmates have at least one brother or sister. He is the only one who has neither. The other kids play with their brothers and sisters and defend them, or are defended by them, which is what just happened with Salomé and her little brother.
One spring day, when the vine that covers the building has begun to turn green, the teacher surprises them: “I want to introduce a new pupil,” she says.
All the children had arrived on time that morning, except Guillermo, who almost always arrives late because it is hard for him to get up in the morning. Nicolás whose desk is in the last row next to the window, looks up and sees a little girl standing alongside the teacher. Señorita Constanza smiles, but the little girl is serious and looks down at the floor. She is pretty and dark-skinned with short curly hair.
“Malena has just come from Brazil,” the teacher continues. “So she doesn't speak Spanish very well yet, but she will learn very, very quickly. I want all of you to help her.”
She takes the little girl's hand and leads her to the back of the room, near Nicolás.
“You will sit here,” she says to Malena, “between Nicolás and Carolina.”
The girl sits at the desk to the right of Nicolás, which is the only one unoccupied. She puts her hands in her lap and continues looking at the desk, while the other children stare at her. The teacher returns to the front and says:
“Alright, children, take out your notebooks and open them to the lesson we started yesterday.”
Nicolás looks at the page of his notebook in which he had drawn the numbers one through ten in color. But from the corner of his eye he also watches his new neighbor, whose notebook is blank.
“Nicolás,” says the teacher, “show your notebook to Malena, please, so she can see what we're doing.”
Nicolás lifts up his notebook and shows it to her from his desk. She reaches out and takes the notebook without looking at Nicolás. She looks at the page for several minutes, nods affirmatively and passes the notebook back to Nicolás.
“Now then,” says the teacher, “we shall now see how to write the number twelve.”
At that moment Guillermo enters yawning, and goes to his desk. Señorita Constanza doesn't see him because she is drawing a beautiful “12” on the blackboard with green and yellow chalk. She always tells a story about each number and the children are curious to hear the story about twelve.
“Good morning, Guillermo,” the teacher says when she turns back to the children.
“Good morning,” Guillermo mumbles.
“I want to talk to you during recess,” Señorita Constanza adds, and everyone knows that Guillermo will have no recess because he arrived late again.
When the bell rings they all run out to the playground, except Malena, who remains seated, and Guillermo, who has to stay in with the teacher. Nicolás hears the teacher say:
“Go out to the playground for recess now, Malena.”
Outside the kids are playing and running and climbing up the slide and screaming and laughing. Malena stands at the door watching, not saying anything, still looking very serious.
Pedro approaches her and says, “Hey, kid, can you say anything in Spanish or do you only speak Chinese?”
Some of the other boys come and cry, “The china-girl speaks Chinese, the china-girl speaks Chinese,” as they dance around her.
Nicolás doesn't stop to think about what he is going to do, he just does it. Despite being afraid of Pedro, he pushes him aside and takes Malena's hand as though she were his sister.
“Come with me,” he says. “I'll show you what to play with here in the playground during recess.”
“What, you're gonna play with the girls? ha, ha,” Pedro laughs.
“Shut up, you bully, stop picking on her or I'll pick on you double,” Nicolás answers in a firm voice.
Nicolás brings Malena to the other side of the playground and shows her all the games. They climb up the slide and slide down together. Soon two girls approach Malena and asked her how it was in Brazil and other things. It's a little hard to understand her, because she still speaks more Portuguese than Spanish. But no one laughs at her anymore. When the girls begin to play with Malena, Nicolás goes back to his friends, because he doesn't want to be seen playing with girls.
When recess ends and before returning to the classroom, Malena approaches Nicolás and says, “Obrigada”. Nicolás had never heard the word before, but knows it must mean gracias.
Just as the teacher said, Malena learns Spanish quickly. One day she passes a note to Nicolás inviting him to her house. She has a large house with a swimming pool and her parents are very kind to him. Her mother knows about what happened the first day of school and she thanks Nicolás for having defended her daughter. Nicolás has a hard time understanding her because she hasn't learned Spanish as quickly as Malena.
“Don't you have any sisters or brothers?” Malena asks him.
“No,” Nicolás says. “I'm an only child.”
"Well then, I will be your sister. May I?" Malena says, and smiles.
“Yes, if you want to,” Nicolás answers, blushing.
Malena's father heard them. He speaks Spanish quite well, although with a Brazilian accent. “Do you know what, children?”
Both look at him, Malena with her large black eyes, Nicolás with his green ones, not so large, but always alert.
“It's sometimes better to have selected siblings than natural ones.”
The children smile shyly. They feel glad and agree with Malena's father, but don't know what to say.
Malena breaks the ice, in her way: “Last one in the water is a dog's tail,” she yells and runs like lightning to the pool.
" No fair!" Nicolás yells, jumping into the water after her.
Since that day Nicolás no longer feels lonely because he has a selected sister to play with – and defend if necessary. Malena is also happy, not only to have a chosen brother, but also to be able to help him with homework. Because since learning Spanish well, she has become an outstanding pupil, better even than Nicolás.