I have always loved to write. As a child, I always seemed to use my computer time typing up stories, each one growing longer and more elaborate than the next.
By the time I was 13, I’d written five actual books. I still have copies of each one. My fifth was a novel called It All Started With Five Horses, which I finished when I was 12. It’s a story about five horses that escape a cruel master and find a wild horse herd, the leader of which is searching for his long-lost daughter. The recurring theme of the book is never giving up. The main character, after all, is a paint mare named Faith.
On my 13th birthday, my mom and then-stepdad presented to me three large boxes, all wrapped together as one. When I unwrapped the paper and opened the box on top, I discovered a hundred paperback copies of my book.
And eleven years ago today, our local newspaper released an article about my book and me. In honor of its anniversary, I wanted to take the time to tell the story of my book’s creation.
It All Started With Five Horses will forever have a special place in my heart. Not necessarily because it was my first one to be printed, not even necessarily because of the story itself, but because of the circumstances I was in when I was writing it.
To give some necessary backstory to this post, when I was 12, my family and I moved from Cave Creek, Arizona (where I’d lived most of my life up until then) to Discovery Bay, California. After a year, we moved an hour away to Danville, and just under a year after that we moved a short drive away to San Ramon. Then, a few months before I turned 15, we moved to Bradenton, Florida, which began the absolute worst part of my life.
Someday I will have the courage to revisit those years. They are still surprisingly painful to think about. And nevertheless, those stories are for other times.
Within those three years or so, however, there were gems: Wonderful experiences lived, amazing friends found, and many a battle overcame. The story behind my book It All Started With Five Horses is one of those gems that I will always treasure.
My then-stepdad, my mom, my baby sister who entered our lives halfway through our time there, my little brother and I lived in Discovery Bay, California for a year, from February 2004 to February 2005. In our home, we referred to it as Disgusting Bay.
To us, it was truly an awful town. We were fortunate enough to live in a gated community in a nice area, we would venture outside of it to Byron which contained rundown buildings, graffiti, gross homes with, well, interesting people living in them, and lots of vast cropland. Each day always seemed to bring an ugly gray sky.
And my new school that I joined more than halfway through the year was absolutely horrible.
In Arizona, many of the elementary schools are K-6th grade. In California, they only run through 5th grade. Because we moved hallway through my year in 6th grade, in February 2004, I became a middle schooler literally over the weekend.
On that cold day in February 2004, I walked into that middle school knowing no one. I was a foot taller than everyone in my classes, including the boys, skinny and scrawny as a beanpole, wearing my tomboy elementary school clothes and topped off with thick glasses, acne, bushy eyebrows, and my adult teeth still struggling to grow in (to this day I still have too-small incisors).
For the pretty middle school girls, products of their environments with their cute clothes, makeup, perfect hair, and high interest in boys, I was a walking target.
Many faces, names, and details have been lost to me over the years. For the sake of telling this story, they’re not important. All that needs to be explained is that the majority of those girls in that school were clever and sought not to necessarily make fun of me right from the start, but to befriend me first as to make the bullying – when it eventually came – much more painful and bewildering.
I truly believe that some of those girls had good intentions. They seemed nice enough. I’m sure they caved into peer pressure along the way, as is so easy to do in middle school. They wanted to give me a chance, give me a place at their lunch tables, and please their teachers who asked them nicely to show the new girl around.
But most of the girls didn’t. And the meanest of them – a tight-knit group of five girls – somehow became my closest friends.
For several weeks we hung out at school and at each other’s houses. They met my mom and adored her. The six of us swapped stories and secrets and exchanged numbers and went to birthday and slumber parties together as a big group. Even though I missed my friends in Arizona, I was happy. I had middle school friends, and the one with whom I seemed especially close was the group’s leader. I won’t repeat her name here but I’ll never forget it as long as I live. I’ll call her Regina, after Regina George from Mean Girls.
Then one night at a sleepover party in April (I think), somehow everything changed. Four of the five girls (one pretended to sleep so she wouldn’t have to participate) spent the entire night twisting my words, screaming and shouting at me, and accusing me of things I’d never did or said. My confusion only mounted throughout the night as I tried to defend myself, tried to figure out what I’d done or why they were so angry. Regina fueled everything, cutting across my stutters of apology and explanation with harsh accusations. Her sheep friends followed suit for hours.
Finally at 2am I called my mom and begged her to rescue me. Turns out – with her instinct – she’d been up and waiting for that phone call. She came and got me without question. I cried in her arms the rest of the night.
The next Monday, Regina and her friends spread rumors about me throughout the entire school. They were popular, so their words were final. And when everyone ran out of rumors, the bullying started.
I can’t even remember a lot of what was all said and done. Stupid middle school things. “I heard Alexis called so-and-so a fruitcake.” [The go-to insult in that school was ‘fruitcake’ for some reason.] “The ugly new girl said the dumbest thing in class today.” “Should someone get her a jacket? The weather has to be colder up there where she is.”
I’d hear the comments in the hallways, at my locker, in class behind the teachers’ backs, and – eventually – to my face. Sometimes it was just one girl – usually someone close to Regina or Regina herself – coming up to me for a showdown. Other times one of the older 7th or 8th grade girls sitting with a large group of people would call out to me and sweetly ask me to join them. Good old public humiliation was guaranteed if I got one of those calls. It usually resulted in me either running to the bathroom to cry, gulping back tears as I rushed to my next class, or trying to find a spot to eat my lunch on campus where no one could find me.
What hurt the most was that I’d been friends with Regina’s group – and on relatively good terms with the rest of my classmates – for some time. And because I’d been friends with them, each of them knew that it was my dearest ambition to become an author. I’d told them about my story that I was writing. It was about horses, I’d told them excitedly. It’s really long now. Maybe someday I can mail it to New York and get it published.
To give you, reader, some understanding, in that school, among the crowd of girls I had fallen into, it was almost a requirement for the girls to want to be models or actresses or something equally glamorous and flashy. For me to want to be an author was unheard of, at least to that group of girls. And once they’d turned on me, that become one other thing for them to laugh about, Regina in particular.
Oh, the comments that came. “It’s a good thing she wants to be an author, because she’s too ugly to be a model.” “Of course she wants to write, she’s nerdy enough for it!” “Like she’ll get published. Yeah right!”
Honestly, the exact words that were said over and over have left me. But I know what each of those girls in that middle school meant to do. My mom would explain it to me every morning in the car on the way to school. “Those girls,” she would say, “don’t have any kindness to give away. They feel badly about themselves. And they make fun of you and pick on you because you let them take away your power.”
I tried to figure out what she meant when she told me to not let them take away my power. Every time I saw Regina, my stomach turned over and all my happiness left my body. For weeks – months – that was something I couldn’t control.
Lest you all think Poor Alexis! it has to be mentioned that I had one friend through all of this who was oblivious to the rumors and bullying and a bit of a bullied outcast herself: Alysha. She and I are friends to this day. Towards the end of the year, we began a tentative friendship that blossomed during that summer of 2004. Alysha, if you’re reading this, you cannot possibly know what your friendship meant to me during that time.
That summer saved me. I didn’t have to go to school where I was bullied. Alysha and I hung out all the time. That summer, my sister Riley was born. We traveled to Arizona for the birth (insurance issues) and I got to see my dad, my older two siblings, and my friends. And sometime towards the beginning of that summer, I finished my book, It All Started With Five Horses.
I nearly gave up on it. During the school year, after my homework was done for the day and I’d sit down at the computer, it was too painful to open. Sometimes when I looked at it I would remember all the nasty bullying that day and want to delete it all.
Somehow, I kept writing.
I think a combination of things kept me going: My friends and family in Arizona, my new friend Alysha… even the characters in my story were encouraging to me, especially the main character Faith. When I was writing, I could escape. I could be as strong and as fearless as my characters, who didn’t get tongue-tied when trying to confront their bullies.
But I truly think my mom was the one who inspired me to keep writing. Every day she had words for advice for me. Every day she lifted me up after each of those girls had ripped me apart and torn me down. Without her I would have never finished my book. On the day I finished the book entirely, she asked me to email her the final copy so she could read it. I did so happily.
I thought all she would ever do was read it.
When school started up again towards the end of August, I wasn’t as much of a target. I was still there for the bullying, but the girls – wise old 7th graders now, with fresh 6th graders to play with – mostly looked elsewhere for entertainment. I settled into a routine, found some new friends with Alysha, and the terrified fist that would grasp my stomach whenever I’d see Regina or any of her group started to lessen day by day.
I turned 13 at the end of September. And on my birthday, a Friday, I came home from school to find a huge box wrapped up in front of the fireplace. And there in those boxes were 100 copies of my book. I cried when I saw them. Not only was it my dream brought to life, it seemed to be a validation of everything I’d gone through over the past months. Somehow, my struggle to keep on writing had all been worth it.
The following Monday, I brought one of the copies of my book to school with me. The first class of the day was homeroom, and as it happened, Regina sat right next to me.
We sat at a table, so across from us were two guys who fell into the popular crowd, thus Regina was close with them. As we all sat at our table waiting for the bell to ring to begin the day, the three of them sat chatting, or rather Regina sat complaining about something or other while the two guys playfully poked fun at her.
I was so oblivious to them. I was oblivious to everything. I was staring at my book on my desk. I kept flipping through the pages then closing them to see my name on the cover. I loved the picture my mom had chosen for the cover, of the five horse silhouettes at sunset. I loved that my book looked like a real book. At that moment, I loved everything.
“…because life is complete shit.” Regina’s words cut through my daydreaming.
Without thinking, I interjected quietly and happily. “Life is perfect.”
All three of my peers looked at me like I’d just grown another head. “Why?” spat Regina. “What makes you say something like that?”
“This,” I said sweetly, and I pushed my book towards her.
The two guys looked at the book and started chortling. Regina herself snorted as she grabbed it and pulled it across the table so she could see. “Wow….oh-KAY,” she said, faking a sarcastic, awe-struck expression as she looked at it. “A book. What’s so great about that?”
I smiled, a true, honest-to-God happy smile. I don’t think I’d smiled in her presence since before that night she and her friends ganged up on me. Out of habit, nervous butterflies still danced inside me, but I remember realizing in that moment that it was all over. “Regina,” I said quietly. “Look at the author.”
It’s been eleven years and I can still remember the look of horrified astonishment on her face.
One of the two guys at our table grabbed the book and looked at it. “You wrote this?” he yelled, loud enough for half the class to hear. He and our other classmate started exclaiming. They pulled my teacher over to our table and thrust it in her hands.
My teacher stared at my book for a solid minute, during which the bell rang and everyone settled down in their seats. After everyone started to looked questioningly at her to see why she wasn’t speaking yet, my teacher looked down at me and said in wonder, “Alexis. Explain this to me.”
I did. All my classmates – several of whom had spent the months before bullying me to tears – listened with rapt attention. Meanwhile, Regina sat in stony, angry silence. After I’d finished saying that the books were a present for my birthday after I’d worked on writing the book for nine months, my teacher opened it and said, “May I read some of this aloud to the class?”
Stunned, I squeaked out a happy, “Sure!” She read not a paragraph, but the first few pages. Everyone listened in silence. I couldn’t look at anyone. I looked down at my desk, hot all over, too happy to say a word.
The rest of the day, there were new rumors floating around the school. And at lunchtime, two of Regina’s group came up to me, Alysha, and a few other girls I had surrounded myself with since the beginning of the school year.
I don’t remember the entire conversation, but I do remember the beginning and the end of it. The two girls demanded to see my book. I gave it to them. As they looked at the cover, the rest of Regina’s group – along with every other girl in our grade who had told me I was stupid for wanting to be an author months before – looked over at them, waiting for a sign of confirmation.
“So,” one of the girls finally told me after giving me my book back, “why aren’t you sitting with us?”
It took all my courage to answer them. Swallowing with nerves, I told them, “Because we’re not friends anymore.”
The girls put on their best hurt expressions. “That’s a really rude thing to say,” one of them told me. “I thought we were friends.”
We hadn’t been for some time, but that wasn’t the point. They’d seen my name on the cover of my book. They needed to come at me with something.
“Well, we’re not,” I said, or something similar, and I stood up. I had always towered over all of Regina’s group and that time I was glad I did. I looked at them, waiting for some comeback. When none came, I turned to my new friends and said, “Come on, you guys.”
And my new friends followed me from the table so we could all eat lunch somewhere else.
The two members of Regina’s little gang went back to their table to the rest of the popular girls. When I looked over my shoulder briefly as we all walked away, I saw them all chatting viciously.
For the first time since I came to that middle school, not only was what everyone said behind my back the truth, it was something of which I was immensely, unspeakably proud.
And from that day on until the day in February 2005 when my family and I moved away from Discovery Bay and I started yet another new school, not one of those girls ever bullied me again.
“It All Started” with talent and generosity, by Juli Mijares, published in the Discovery Bay Press on November 19, 2004
Some kids have had their picture in the paper, others have had an essay or even a story printed. But one local girl has had a book printed and is selling copies to raise funds for an international charitable organization.
Alexis Roeckner, 13, has written “It all Started with Five Horses,” a 279-page novel for ages 10 to 15. The story revolves around five horses that are inspired by a falcon to escape a cruel master and meet up with a herd of wild horses searching for the dominant stallion’s daughter.
But the falcon is not all he appears to be. His cruelty to one of the main characters, Faith, causes arguments to escalate among members of the herd. Questions arise such as can they find the stallion’s daughter? Will Faith be able to prove the falcon doesn’t have the herd’s best interests in mind? There are many adventures for the horses and a plot twist at the end.
One of Alexis’ former teachers had been encouraging her parents to get Alexis published. “She said she’s never seen a writer like Alexis,” the writer’s mother Lisa Schelthoff recalled.
The book is the fifth the seventh grader has written, but the first to be published. [AUTHOR NOTE: The book was printed but never published.] It took her nine months to write. Her mom and stepdad, Steve, had 100 copies printed up by Iconix.biz and presented them to Alexis for her birthday in September.
Three boxes were wrapped, containing the books. Alexis said she started crying in disbelief when she saw them for the first time.
“Hang on a second, is that mine?” Alexis said when she opened her present. “It was a dream come true.”
So far, Alexis has sold about 50 of her books. A donation of $5 or more is requested to purchase a paperback signed by the young author.
Teacher Laurel Sarmento found the book to be a good read.
“It is very impressive,” she said via email. “Wow, what a kid!”
Fifty percent of the proceeds are donated to Heifer International, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to ending world hunger and saving the earth.
By providing trees, livestock, training and other resources, Heifer International has helped millions of families in more than 125 countries around the world lift themselves out of poverty and into self-reliance since 1944.
Her family’s motto is “You make a living from what you get, you make a life from what you give.”
The organization was chosen because of its mission and that the people who are helped are given the opportunity to help themselves.
“What a small thing we could do, to make such a big difference,” Lisa said. “It is important to give back and make the world a better place.”
The other half will be used to help Alexis publish her next book, “The Neighborhood Pack,” a story about a pack of dogs that must save a small town in Minnesota from a pack of wolves, while trying to learn to cooperate with each other.
This aspiring author has been writing since she was five years old and says she loves to write. She likes that “anything can happen in a book. It’s all imagination.” Her inspiration is J.K. Rowling, author of the popular Harry Potter series. Alexis is also grateful to her family and friends for their support and encouragement.
“I wouldn’t be the author I am without them,” she said.
To learn more about or purchase a copy of Alexis’ book, call 516-3525 and leave a message. For more information about Heifer International, log on to www.heifer.org