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My English teacher, Mr. Davies, rubs a hand over his military buzz cut. There’s sweat beading at his hairline, and he puffs out his ruddy cheeks. He looks like a drunk porcupine.
The drunk part may be true. Even if it is before lunch on a Tuesday.
“Let’s discuss the symbolism in line 12 of the poem,” he announces, and I pick up my pen so I can copy down exactly what he says when he tells us what the gold light behind the blue curtains really means. Mr. Davies says he wants to discuss the symbolism, but that’s not true. When we have our unit test, he’ll expect us to write down what he told us in class word for word.
I blink and try to stay awake. Half the kids are messing with their phones, grinning faintly into their groins. I can sense my brain liquefying.
“Vivian, what are your thoughts?” Mr. Davies asks me. Of course.
“Well,” I say, folding in on myself and staring at the Xeroxed copy of the poem on my desk. “Uh…” My cheeks turn scarlet. Why does Mr. Davies have to call on me? Why not mess with one of the groin grinners? At least I’m pretending to pay attention.
Neither of us says anything for what feels like a third of my life span. I shift in my seat. Mr. Davies stares. I chew my bottom lip uncertainly. Mr. Davies stares. I search my brain for an answer, any answer, but with everyone’s eyes on me I can’t think straight. Finally, Mr. Davies gives up.
“Lucy?” he says, calling on the new girl, Lucy Hernandez, who’s had her hand up since he asked the question. He stares at her blankly and waits.
“Well,” Lucy starts, and you can tell she’s excited to get going, even sitting up a little straighter in her chair, “if you think about the reference the speaker makes in line 8, what I’m wondering is if the light doesn’t indicate, a, um, what would you call it … like a shift in the speaker’s understanding of…”
There’s a cough that interrupts her from the back of the room. At the tail end of the cough slip out the words, “Make me a sandwich.”
And then there’s a collection of snickers and laughs, like a smattering of applause.
I don’t have to turn around to know it’s Mitchell Wilson being an asshole, cheered on by his douche bag football friends.
Lucy takes in a sharp breath. “Wait, what did you just say?” she asks, turning in her seat, her dark eyes wide with surprise.
Mitchell just smirks at her from his desk, his blue eyes peering out from under his auburn hair. He would actually be kind of cute if he never spoke or walked around or breathed or anything.
“I said,” Mitchell begins, enjoying himself, “make … me … a … sandwich.” His fellow football-player minions laugh like it’s the freshest, most original bit of comedy ever, even though all of them have been using this line since last spring.
Lucy turns back in her seat, rolling her eyes. Little red hives are burning up her chest. “That’s not funny,” she manages softly. She slips her long black hair over her shoulders, like she’s trying to hide. Standing at the front of the room, Mr. Davies shakes his head and frowns.
“If we can’t have a reasonable discussion in this classroom, then I’m going to have to end this lesson right now,” he tells us. “I want all of you to take out your grammar textbooks and start the exercises on pages 25 and 26. They’re due tomorrow.” I swear he picks those pages blind. Who knows if we’ve even gone over the material.
As my classmates offer up a collective groan and I fish around in my backpack for my book, Lucy regains some sort of courage and pipes up. “Mr. Davies, that’s not fair. We were having a reasonable discussion. But they”—she nods her head over her shoulder, unable to look in Mitchell’s direction again—“are the ones who ruined it. I don’t understand why you’re punishing all of us.” I cringe. Lucy is new to East Rockport High. She doesn’t know what’s coming.
“Lucy, did I or did I not just announce to the class that it should begin the grammar exercises on pages 25 and 26 of the grammar textbook?” Mr. Davies spits, more enthusiastic about disciplining Lucy than he ever seemed to be about the gold light behind the blue curtains.
“Yes, but…,” Lucy begins.
“No, stop,” Mr. Davies interrupts. “Stop talking. You can add page 27 to your assignment.”
Mitchell and his friends collapse into laughter, and Lucy sits there, stunned, her eyes widening as she stares at Mr. Davies. Like no teacher has ever talked to her like that in her life.
A beat or two later Mitchell and his friends get bored and settle down and all of us are opening our textbooks, surrendering ourselves to the assignment. My head is turned toward the words subordinate clauses, but my gaze makes its way toward Lucy. I wince a little as I watch her staring at her still-closed textbook like somebody smacked her across the face with it and she’s still getting her breath back. It’s obvious she’s trying not to cry.
When the bell finally rings, I grab my stuff and head out as fast as I can. Lucy is still in her seat, her head down as she slides her stuff into her backpack.
I spot Claudia making her way down the hall toward me.
“Hey,” I say, pulling my backpack over my shoulders.
“Hey,” she answers, shooting me the same grin she’s had since we became best friends in kindergarten, bonding over our shared love of stickers and chocolate ice cream. “What’s happening?”
I sneak a look to make sure Mitchell or one of his friends isn’t near me to overhear. “We just got all this grammar homework. Mitchell was bugging that new girl, Lucy, and instead of dealing with him, Mr. Davies just assigned the entire class all these extra pages of homework.”
“Let me guess,” Claudia says as we head down the hall, “make me a sandwich?”
“Oh my God, however did you figure that one out?” I answer, my voice thick with mock surprise.
“Just a wild guess,” says Claudia with a roll of her eyes. She’s tinier than me, the top of her head only reaching my shoulder, and I have to lean in to hear her. At 5'10? and a junior in high school, I’m afraid I might still be growing, but Claudia’s been the size of a coffee-table tchotchke since the sixth grade.
“It’s such bullshit,” I mutter as we stop at my locker. “And it’s not even original humor. Make me a sandwich. I mean, dude, you could at least come up with something that hasn’t been all over the Internet since we were in middle school.”
“I know,” Claudia agrees, waiting as I find my sack lunch in the cavernous recesses of my messy locker. “But cheer up. I’m sure he’ll grow up sooner or later.”
I give Claudia a look and she smirks back. Way back when, Mitchell was just another kid in our class at East Rockport Middle and his dad was just an annoying seventh-grade Texas history teacher who liked to waste time in class by showing us infamous football injuries on YouTube, complete with bone breaking through skin. Mitchell was like a mosquito bite back then. Irritating, but easy to forget if you just ignored him.
Fast forward five years and Mr. Wilson managed to climb the Byzantine ranks of the East Rockport public school hierarchy to become principal of East Rockport High School, and Mitchell gained thirty pounds and the town discovered he could throw a perfect spiral. And now it’s totally acceptable that Mitchell Wilson and his friends interrupt girls in class to instruct them to make sandwiches.
Once we get to the cafeteria, Claudia and I navigate our way through the tables to sit with the girls we eat lunch with every day—Kaitlyn Price and Sara Gomez and Meg McCrone. Like us, they’re sweet, mostly normal girls, and we’ve known each other since forever. They’re girls who’ve never lived anywhere but East Rockport, population 6,000. Girls who try not to stand out. Girls who have secret crushes that they’ll never act on. Girls who sit quietly in class and earn decent grades and hope they won’t be called on to explain the symbolism in line 12 of a poem.
So, like, nice girls.
We sit there talking about classes and random gossip, and as I take a bite of my apple I see Lucy Hernandez at a table with a few other lone wolves who regularly join forces in an effort to appear less lonely. Her table is surrounded by the jock table and the popular table and the stoner table and every-other-variety-of-East-Rockport-kid table. Lucy’s table is the most depressing. She’s not talking to anyone, just jamming a plastic fork into some supremely sad-looking pasta dish sitting inside of a beat-up Tupperware container.
I think about going over to invite her to sit with us, but then I think about the fact that Mitchell and his dumb-ass friends are sitting smack in the center of the cafeteria, hooting it up, looking for any chance to pelt one of us with more of their lady-hating garbage. And Lucy Hernandez has to be a prime target given what just happened in class.
So I don’t invite her to sit with us.
Maybe I’m not so nice after all.
Text copyright © 2017 by Jennifer Mathieu