“Her screams seemed muted as they sometimes do in movies. I couldn’t make out her words because she was so distraught. Tears ran down her cheeks, and her face was red and hot. As I inched towards her to help her calm down, she swatted my hand away like a bug, a nothing to her.”
Her screams seemed muted as they sometimes do in movies. I couldn’t make out her words because she was so distraught. Tears ran down her cheeks, and her face was red and hot. As I inched towards her to help her calm down, she swatted my hand away like a bug, a nothing to her. And in that moment, I saw words that would stick with me for as long as I lived, sketched into my brain forever, always there to remind me of the pain of losing a friend.
“I hate you.”
When I was growing up, I lived in a small town in Alabama. And, as you sometimes hear about towns in the south, there were racists. Sexists. Homophobes. You name it. We had all the hate in our little town. It seemed as though there were only three people in the town with some sense about right and wrong: Sally Anne Thompson, James Parker and me, Jessica Smith.
I met Sally Anne and James on the first day of freshman year. See, it being a small town and all and them having lived in the same town, I should have met them in elementary. But my parents, being the close-minded people they were, pulled me out of school in the second grade when I corrected my pa from saying “Indian” to “Native American.” They gave the excuse, for pulling me out, that the school system was trying to “change” the good ol’ southern ways, and they didn’t want me submitting to that disgrace of America. But by high school, they figured they had brainwashed me enough that no matter what school said or did, I wouldn’t believe. The ironic thing was that school wasn’t progressive at all; it was just better than they were.
My dad “prepared” me for the first day. He told me that I might get a bit of a hard time because I was home-schooled, but they knew I could do it.
My mom told me explicitly that, “Whatever happens to you doesn’t matter. Those poor children have been poisoned with the words of their teachers telling them that everyone is equal. We raised you right, so you know that this is not true, right, sweetie?”
“Yes, Ma,” I had whispered.
These words hurt me to say. Such simple words. Words you could say to having to do the dishes, “Yes, Ma” or words you say to finishing your homework, “Yes, Ma” or even words to not hit your brother, “Yes, Ma.” But it was these simple words that time and time again reestablished my agreement to injustice, to inequality, to hate. Just a simple “Yes, Ma” always sufficed.
I remember the night before the first day of school. I felt like a balloon filled not with air, but anxiety. I questioned if anyone would like me, if anyone would make an effort to be my friend. I was the home-schooled girl, and everyone knew the rumors about me: that I was full of myself and didn’t want to be around other kids so I convinced my parents to pull me out; that I was unaware of “normal” things to do and say because I had never really associated with other kids. And the worst part was, I was afraid that the latter was true. I mainly talked to my parents who seemed to live in the Stone Age because of how unaware they were of the happenings in the world. I didn’t really know anyone my age, so I didn’t know the trends. I was afraid that I would be shunned for my beliefs on equality. I let fear drive me that night. I cried myself to sleep.
I remember standing outside the steps of the big brick building, as hundreds of kids swarmed around me, trying to catch up to their friends. I remember feeling the smooth, metal railing next to the stairs as I took slow steps up to the next chapter in my life. I remember being pushed to the ground by a kid in a football varsity jacket and not even turning around to apologize. Then, I remember the first words spoken to me on this uncharted territory.
“I said get up.”
“Well, I’m trying to. Wanna give me a hand?”
“No. Thank you, though.”
“Yeah, no problem,” I responded, sarcasm dripped in my voice.
I pushed myself to my knees and stared right in the face of the head cheerleader. Well, it seemed as if it couldn’t get more stereotypical than this.
She seemed as if she was about to say something, so I wanted to beat her to it. I didn’t want to let her get the joy of making any more fun of me.
“Can you move, please?” I said, imitating her face pleasantness. “I need to get up. Isn’t that what you told me?”
She moved to the side resentfully, her hands on her hips with flushed red cheeks against her pale white skin.
I walked confidently up the rest of the steps, but as soon as I entered the building, where I was sure she couldn’t see me, I ran to the bathroom and used some tissues to wash off the streams of tears unintentionally flowing down my face. Tears like these reminded me of the day that I had discovered the shocking truths that people believed about me.
It was a Sunday in the middle of June. Church had just ended, and I was going to the grocery store to pick up some vegetables for dinner. I was walking down the aisle, headed towards the broccoli, when I noticed two girls staring at me and whispering to each other. I turned back around towards my destination but I could feel their glare on my back. I knew that they also went to church that morning, just like nearly everyone in this town, and I knew they were around my age. I still remembered everyone in my class, so I figured that they must have been a year younger than me, entering eighth grade in the fall. I grabbed my broccoli, well aware that they were still watching me, pretending to shop for carrots. As I walked back up the aisle, they stopped me.
“Is there something I can help you with?” I asked politely.
“Yes, hi, I’m Susan, and this is my sister, Lila.”
I stared at them, quizzically, wondering if that should mean anything. Susan was wearing a red blouse and a short, white skirt. Her blue eyes popped out against her pale skin. She wore high heels that didn’t seem very manageable in a supermarket. She had long, golden hair, the last feature she needed to enter a beauty contest. Her sister was quite the opposite. She wore brand-new sneakers and skinny jeans. Her shirt was black. She also had blonde hair but had dyed streaks of it blue, just like the color of her eyes. She slouched a little, but Susan held herself up straight as she spoke to me.
“You know, Susan and Lila Peterson? I was in your grade before you left.”
Oh, I guess I didn’t remember everyone. But, sometimes it’s better to pretend that you do.
“Yes, right! My apologies, of course I remember you.” I lied. A white lie though.
“Yeah, and it’s Jessica. Jessica Smith, right?”
“Yep. That’s me.” I smiled, happy that people still remembered me although slightly confused why they were talking to me.
“Right, and you’re coming back to school this fall?” Susan asked.
It didn’t seem as though Lila talked much.
“So, we just wanted to say hi.”
“Oh.” I was pleasantly surprised. “Well, that’s very nice of you.”
“Well, I am part of the welcoming committee.”
“Although you guys don’t actually do much,” Lila said.
What a “nice” thing of her to say, even though she was right.
“True, but we’ll take whatever chances we’ve got.” Susan smiled happily, trying to cover up her sister’s abrupt honesty. “So, we were wondering, do you have any time to talk, just for five minutes?”
I checked my watch. I had to be home in a half hour, but if we shopped and talked, well, it might just work out.
“Sure, just walk with me, okay? I have to be home soon.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Susan and Lila look at each other as if they were in question of why I needed to be home so early. That should have been my first sign that everything was about to go wrong.
“So, why are you coming back to school now?” Lila asked, like the snotty, little brat she was.
“Ummm. Well…” I didn’t really know how to answer without throwing my parents under the bus. So another white lie. “My mom wants to get back to working so she does something more productive.”
“But, doesn’t she teach you?” Susan inquired.
This was not how I planned our conversation going.
“Yeah, but when I’m working independently or something, she has nothing to do because it doesn’t take very long to grade two students’ work.”
“Who’s the other student?”
“Right… Is he coming back to school now too?”
“Yeah, in the sixth grade.”
“So right in time for you to start high school and him middle school.”
“Yep, that’s how my parents planned it.”
Then everything took a turn for the worse.
“So why did you leave school in the first place?”
Again, I didn’t want to say the real reason, because my parents were more racist than anyone in the town, and I also didn’t want to insult where the sisters had been educated all their lives. So I was kind of stuck.
“We heard it was because you didn’t like public school, but your parents couldn’t afford private school,” Lila said, like reciting from memory.
“That’s not very nice, Lila,” Susan scolded although she seemed very interested to know if it was true.
“Umm, no. That’s not true. That’s absurd in fact. I barely knew what the difference between private and public school was when I was in second grade.”
But Susan wasn’t done yet. It seemed as though my lie had paid off and, for the moment, I was safe.
“How many kids your age have you talked to?”
I remember thinking to myself that her question was such an odd thing to ask and wondered if it really mattered. To her, it did, but I could care less.
“A couple,” I said dismissively.
I checked my watch and pretended that it was urgent that I leave right then.
“Oh, well, sorry. I have to go but I’ll see you around.”
I went home right after that and cried. I didn’t know why but it seemed as if school was not going to be what I imagined. After that, I noticed every eye that followed me around town, every word that was spoken about me. It seemed as though Susan and Lila spread the rumors around some more telling people that I was “as socially unaware as a seven year old” and that “I wasn’t prepared to transition into high school.” I tried to ignore it as much as I could, but I was immediately reminded of them as I was pushed onto the stairs.
A jolt of reality struck me as a hand was placed on my shoulder. I turned around to see the guidance counselor, whom I met over the summer.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” I responded.
I also didn’t want to be known as the girl who ran to the teacher before class started. The tattletale.
“Just a little something in my eye.”
By that time, I had wiped most of my tears away, and it wasn’t unbelievable that maybe a little dust or sand got in my eye.
“Okay, then.” She walked away before remembering to give me a little, “Good luck!”
“Thanks!” I called back, secretly wishing that I wouldn’t need it.