The wooden floor of the gym was cool to the touch, even through the thicker fabric of her new green Dittos. She loved the way they made her feel with their swinging bell bottoms and tightly fitted cut. She felt shapely or, at least, like a girl for once. I mean, Chrissy in Three’s Company had these pants after all. Really.
The door to the playground was open and she could hear the sounds of screaming kids like cheap, high pitched sirens echoing off the walls as the other students were let out for recess. She thought about going outside but the thought was fleeting. In here their yelling was muffled, she was alone, and she had something tangible to occupy her hands and her mind. Outside, with the rest of them, she was another sixth grader, another introvert trying to not get noticed and yet feeling dejected if she was left alone. While here at this latest school she had managed to find some measure of popularity amongst the articulate and trendy girls that resided in the Oakland hills above the campus, she understood that she was still not really one of them, never would be. They knew how to write their letters in big curlicues and always used hearts or stars to accent the “I”s. They had sleepover parties at nice houses with lots of food and color t.v.s. They had more than one outfit that could be considered an ensemble and had actually been bought new, not at the Goodwill on San Pablo Avenue. But they had welcomed her in, made her one of their group. That was a first for her, like being dropped smack in the middle of a Brady Bunch episode, and was due mostly to her abilities being respected and encouraged by the teacher.
The teacher was wonderful and treated all of her charges with the respect most of the adults in their lives gave only to other adults. The girl would have stepped in front of a bullet for her and, in a sense, she did, agreeing to read all of the letters that the class had written to the country’s new President, Jimmy Carter from Georgia. The teacher had asked her because of her Southern accent, probably in a lame attempt to get her out of her shell. Being shy, it was the last thing she had wanted to do, but she owed the teacher- for her help in getting into a group of friends, for introducing the girl to the story of the Phoenix’s rebirth of which she read countless variations aloud to her pupils and for allowing, no encouraging, the girl to lead the student design team on the new murals that would go up on the gym walls.
That was where the girl sat now, listening to the wild sounds of recess and catching glimpses of quick and barely recognizable shapes running past the door in the glare of sunshine off the hardtop outside. The paint brush sat dormant in her hand as she let the sounds and coolness relax her. She felt safe in here, alone.
A door opened behind her, one of those creaking, heavy gym doors that move too slowly and always need WD40. She heard footsteps behind her and turned.
“Are you ___?”a younger child’s voice whispered loudly. He must have been a fourth grader or something like that.
“Well, I just thought you should know… Umm, Dondi has your diary and is reading it out loud to the school… in the yard, ” he said, pointing toward the open door.
The world went white, panic seemed to stop time but she held it. In a voice calmer than any she had ever heard herself use, she replied, “Oh? Well, thanks for letting me know.”
The boy looked at her, waiting for something more, the tension of possibly witnessing some dramatic event visible in his face. “Aren’t you going to DO anything?” he asked. He looked almost crushed when she shook her head and said nothing.
She turned and put the brush back to the wood, easing the browns, reds and hot oranges until a portion of scorched and crackled earth emerged beneath her fingers. A picture of the aftermath of some volcanic eruption in some far away paradise rendered enormous to show the glorious power of Earth to the students of Chabot school during assemblies. The idea of some visiting student teacher, filled with enthusiasm and still naive enough to believe that he would change the world through simply presenting it to students on the dark gym’s wall. The heavy metal of the doors gave a clang, thud as the younger boy headed back out the way he had come.
As the sound had died away, she continued painting and let the glaring white light behind her eyes dissipate, clearing slowly away like fog until she could see the faint shape of the reality of her situation. The teacher had been absent that day, replaced by another of the school districts meaningless, untrained substitutes sent to babysit the class. She realized she had left her backpack in class, which would have been fine any other day, but obviously the sub hadn’t been paying attention and her desk mate had taken the opportunity to go through her things. When she had been placed her there, she hadn’t had the courage to tell the teacher that sitting her next to Dondi wasn’t going to make him either smarter or more motivated. Bringing something like that up would have made her feel so callous. But from the moment they sat next to one another, he had hated her, taunting and picking on her whenever the teacher’s back was turned. It didn’t seem to matter how much patience or kindness she showed him. Who knows? Perhaps that had even worsened the situation. And now he had gone and stolen her private thoughts.
She put the brush in the water and walked to the open door. Sure enough, there, by the jungle gym, a crowd had gathered, like pre-schoolers at story time, in a huge semi circle as Dondi read. She shivered and felt a little ill and listened. He wasn’t reading her words. He was reading small bits and adding in his own juicier details, twisting her deepest thoughts and most mundane days into Enquirer styled hack pieces. She heard his voice, laughing between words, “Wait! Wait! Dayum! OK So ‘I love Edith’ Holy fuck, she’s a lesbo! So it ain’t just her mom. She is too. And you been letting her go to your sleepovers…” At the loud wave of laughter, she turned. There was nothing to do. How do you fight lies and half truths? How do you tell them that he left out how she was your best friend and how he left out the sentence before that that proclaimed your undying love for Enrique, the quiet kid who smiled but never spoke? There was no out to the childish humiliation that seemed to ooze through her veins and made her want to vomit. To run out there amidst them all and confront him, was to give them a more dramatic show. It would be what Dondi expected and would do nothing but achieve exactly the result he had hoped for- a spectacle. She went back into the shadows of the gym and carefully put away the paints.
The bell rang and she went back to class.
Who was she? She needed to remember. Herself. The white light of her earlier panic seemed to be hovering like dense, freezing fog nearby. She felt all eyes on her and yet no one seemed to be able to turn their faces in her direction as she entered the class. A human being. People moved out of her way as she walked up to face Dondi, her hand outstretched.
“May I have my diary please?” It came out from that same place as the calm in the gym; deep, strong, quiet, her eyes looking so clearly into his that he didn’t bother to either laugh or say a word. Her shaking was all on the inside. He handed her the book. It was only when she broke her gaze and turned that he sneered in her direction, “Lesbo.”
She waited to be last out of the room, pretending to be attending to something important in her red book bag. She felt a little ridiculous shuffling through her backpack for so long but it took a good five minutes for all of her classmates to gather their things and head for the sidewalk. It would have been more embarrassing to have to meet any of her friends’ eyes. She was hoping they all would have headed home. That she wouldn’t have to deal with the repercussions until Monday when maybe, God willing, it would all have blown over, be forgotten. But as she rounded the corner onto the sidewalk that led past the high schoolyard fence, she saw that some kids were waiting, so many, lining the sides of the walkway as though her march toward the bus stop were a much anticipated parade’s route.
A girl named Michelle stepped forward before she reached the throng and quickly stammered, “Uhh, I forgot to tell you. I cancelled the sleepover on Saturday. You understand, right? So don’t show up, ok? Sorry….” Her voice trailed off and other voices took over in the blur of prepubescent glee at having a new scapegoat. She didn’t hear it. The taunts had become white noise.
Again… To be continued…