And so that's where we were. We were poor. We felt as if we were the only poor kids in a school full of farmer's kids. Not small farmers, either. The people who owned most of the hog farms in eastern North Carolina. People who raised chickens for Purdue. Tobacco farmers who hired the immigrant migrant workers who were just starting to recognize that North Carolina was a good a place as any to follow the plantings and harvests.
I, as usual, did not fit in. I thought it would be okay at first, but I heard the tittering of the girls, already with the high bangs and make-up and the perfectly hairless legs that I'd never even hope to accomplish, and my ears burned. My jeans were dark blue, not acid-washed. They had a bunny embroidered on the back pocket, with a little cotton-ball-like tail sticking off. I loved the jeans. I loved that they had a bunny on them. But they were childish, and these kids I was with? They shopped at Express and the Limited and Benetton. They did not wear jeans from Sears with a bunny on the back pocket.
Even the boys, with their brightly colored polo shirts (Ralph Lauren, of course) and their perfectly pleated khakis didn't accept me, even though most of my friends previous to that year had been boys, or a mixture of boys and girls. I tried, though. The first week, we had recess in the parking lot and kicked a can around as if it were a soccer ball. I fell and ripped my jeans and skinned my knee. I remembered the cost of the jeans, and that these were my favorites, with the bunny on the pocket, and I fought back the tears I knew would mark me as a target, as they had all through elementary school.
"At least she won't be able to wear those stupid jeans anymore," Amanda said. Heather and Kimberly and Donna and Mary Louise giggled, and the boys wandered off to torment a possum who had been trapped in a trash can.
By eighth grade, my plans to run away, or die, or just give up had been solidified. I got into a fistfight with Jason, a pudgy boy who was almost as much of an outcast as me. The girls on my basketball team hid my clothes and made fun of my offbrand perfume and clothes. I trusted no one. I made up stories about my life, and hid as much as I could. My first crush, a shy, bookish girl with long black hair whose father had died in a car crash, had graduated the year before, and I was heartbroken, though I'd barely had the courage to ever speak to her. She had loved my grandmother. She was the daughter of my teacher. I dreamed of going to live with her in her house.
But eighth grade was the year that Stacy came to Harrells. She was the daughter of an evangelical preacher, the sort who believed in snake handling and speaking in tongues. She was a year ahead of me, and she'd gotten kicked out of the public school for reasons I never knew. I was in awe. She was as much an outcast as me, with her unstylish hair, her lack of make-up and her utter distaste for all the pressures of fitting in. She did not give a fuck. She and Michelle, also a year ahead of me, a girl with a slight learning disability who also never fit in, became an instant pack. Stacy and I made plans to run away. Michelle agreed with whatever we wanted to do. Stacy was a Bad Seed, a Bad Influence, but she didn't stab me in the back. She treated me like an actual human being, and for that, I'd give her anything I had.
Every Wednesday, we had chapel in lieu of Bible class. Sometimes we'd have a visiting preachers. Sometimes a student from the upper grades would give a talk about his or her conversion. Sometimes the Harrells Girls Ensemble would sing. Always, I would sit with Stacy and Michelle, though this was nominally against the rules - classes were supposed to sit together, and we'd scribble notes to one another or make fun of the clump of snot hanging from the nose of yet another red-faced preacher warning us of the dangers of sin, and the coming Rapture.
It was because of Stacy that I went from being largely ignored by the teachers and administrators to being seen as a possible Bad Kid. The new headmistress – headmasters/mistresses didn't last long, not since Mr. Newkirk, the founder of the school, had died – hadn't known Grandmama. If she had, she, like most of the other teachers, would have cut me the slack that I'd become used to. Instead, she saw me hanging out with this girl with her poor-kid clothes and her home-cut hair and the don't-fuck-with-me attitude, and she saw a target.
I knew I was a target. I had adopted the don't-fuck-with-me attitude, too, and I didn't hesitate to snap back at classmates and teachers alike. When I was 13, my father slapped me across the face while we were eating dinner, for being a smart-mouth little bitch. Mama was at work, unable to protect me. Her punishment when I talked back to her was for me to read the Bible, to copy out the verses on respecting ones parents and other authority figures. I held my cheek, stunned, my eyes dry and my hate solidifying in my chest. My brother began to cry, and I got up from the table as my father screamed at me to finish what was on my plate. I ignored him and went to my room, where I knew that I was not safe, not ever, not while Mama was at work.
So that Wednesday, when Miss Barnam called me to her office after chapel, I was surprised, but not frightened. She, with her perfect strawberry blonde hair and her freckles and her upturned nose – the cheerleader who had graduated from a Bible college with barely more knowledge than she went in with – did not scare me.
"We're calling your mother," she told me grimly, and I noticed how her strawberry blonde hair that looked so straight and perfect from a distance frizzed at the edges.
"She's at work," I said. "Can't you just send a note home?" I knew I could forge my father's signature. This could all be kept just between the two of us, and I could go on flying under the radar of my parents, my teachers, and all the kids at school.
"I don't care if she's at work. She can talk on the phone there."
"I don't even know what you're calling about," I whined, in the way that only a 13-year-old can manage.
"You embarrassed the entire school in chapel today," she said. Her body tensed as she leaned toward me over the old scarred desk. "You spent the entire hour while Dr. Jacobs was talking whispering to your friends. You aren't even supposed to be sitting with them. They aren't in your class."
"I did not! I paid attention to everything he said. And anyway. Mr. Canady said he didn't care where I sat."
"I watched you. Don't you lie to me. You're just making it worse for yourself. Mr. Canady knows the rules as well as I do, and if I have to call him down here, you will not like the outcome." She picked up the phone and dialed the number for the textile factory where both my parents wworked. Daddy was home, presumably sleeping before his shift of getting dinner ready for his kids and going to work for the midnight to eight am shift in the dye room. I squirmed with discomfort. This woman was interrupting Mama at work. We were never supposed to do that. I wondered if she'd get her pay docked, and what that would mean. I wondered what other trouble I'd be in when I got home. I wondered how quickly I could get my stuff together so I could get the hell out of this place, this horrible life.
And I knew that the woman with her cold, green eyes, sitting across from me would not care one bit.
Mama asked to speak to me after hearing Miss Barnam's side of the story. I told her that I had been paying attention. "He read Psalm 23, and he talked about how God is with us when bad stuff happens." I knew the preacher had been lying. He had to have been. God had never walked beside me. Either he was lying, or I was just not worth God's attention. Maybe I wasn't good enough for God, either. Maybe if I tried harder to have faith, maybe if I was more respectful. But no. God had not protected me. I just had to protect myself. Run away. Escape. Something.
I glared at the headmistress, who, for once, could not interrupt or fail to listen.
After the phone call and the doling out of my punishment – a paper I'd have to write about what I'd supposedly missed in chapel (Oh please don't throw me in that briar patch!) – she sent me back to class.
The students whispered and grinned. I kept my head down, and went back to work. Dreaming of escape.
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