How Does the Heart Function? by Paula Kupchak Hall

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two rows of folding metal chairs and desks with poster presentations (like a science fair) with red carpet between

The gymnasium buzzes.

The room is filled with rows of tables, each with a brightly decorated cardboard trifold backdrop on top. Some tables hold posters, maps and charts. Others have paper mâché masterpieces, like volcanos or planets. I like the hum of chatter, laughter, the clanging of chairs and shuffling of papers. Butterflies tickle my stomach.

I turn right down row three and skip toward our display table. My partner is showing a lady a page from our report. I pick up speed. I don’t want to be away from our table too long, but I really had to pee. I went really fast, so I didn’t miss him.

I check the gym clock.


I’m almost at our table when the lady walks away. My partner is smiling. We are proud of our project. Our backdrop has red letters that spell ‘How Does the Heart Function?’ and a big drawing of the heart. We coloured it in blue and red pencil crayons to show which way the blood flows. On the edge of the backdrop is the shiny orange ribbon that the Principal stapled on this afternoon.

Science Fair 1984
Grade Four
First Place

Mom took my older sisters home an hour ago. One has homework and one has a headache. She said if he doesn’t come, my partner’s mom and dad will drop me off at home.

The kid at the table beside us is starting to take down his display. His parents are helping. His dad gives him a hug. That boy’s project didn’t win. His father asks if he wants to go to Dairy Queen to celebrate. My stomach hurts while I watch them.


My partner’s parents say they are ready to go home. Time to put their baby to bed. She’s getting cranky. They ask me if I want a ride. No thank you, I tell them. I will bring the display home when he comes to get me. He will come, not to worry. He must be stuck at work. He has an important job. He said he couldn’t take us last weekend because he was in New York on company business. Mom said he was probably just wining and dining his new girlfriend.

I watch them leave out the side door that opens into the parking lot.

I stand alone at our table, watching the movement around me as the buzz starts to fade. My chest is thudding loudly. I think about the tricuspid valve and the aorta. I like how those words sound.


The Principal stops by with a large smile, her hands tucked behind her back. She asks if she can help me take down my display. I tell her I can’t yet. He is coming to see it, then he will help me. She tells me the doors will lock at 7:30, and I’ll have to take it down then.


Most of the tables are bare. Parent helpers are stacking up the chairs and loading them onto the sliding cupboards under the stage. The caretaker is rolling out flatbeds to load the tables on. I wonder if he gets paid extra for staying late. Everyone works quickly. The tables are all put away until only mine is left. The caretaker locks the gym door.

I sit down on my chair and hope no one notices me. I’m feeling shaky anyway.


The parent helpers have left. Some teachers are talking in whispered voices and keep looking over at me. My teacher is there, too. I refuse to look back. I pick up my report and flip through the pages. The words are blurry. I blink a few times but it doesn’t help.

Just a few more minutes. He will knock on the door.


My teacher is walking toward me, her skirt swishing with every step. She pats my head. Her smile is warm and kind, but it makes me feel worse and I want her to stop. I look away. My stomach hurts again. My lip won’t stop quivering.

She says the Principal is phoning my mom to come get me. It’s time to pack up. She folds our backdrop.


The pain in my stomach moved up to my chest. It’s hard to breathe.

I follow the teacher into the empty parking lot with my display. She tells me that it doesn’t matter who showed up tonight, that she was proud of me every day. I let her pull me into a hug. Her hair smells like Revlon Flex. I bury my head in her shoulder and hope I don’t get her dress wet.

Mom’s car is pulling into the parking lot.

He is not coming.

Meet the Contributor

paula hallBy the age of two, Paula Kupchak Hall could be found at the neighbour’s kitchen table with a glass of milk and a cookie, telling tales, some tall, some true. As a communications and public engagement Practitioner, Paula believes that storytelling is the thread that connects us all. Nowadays, she can often be found telling stories at her own kitchen table, coffee in hand. Paula has written several nonfiction essays and is working on her debut novel, The Sunshine Diet. She lives in Calgary, Canada, with her husband and four children, Russell the parti-schnauzer, and a gecko named Gary.

Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Rich Bowen

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