Today, I’m finally going to talk about something that happened to me (as opposed to describing events that took place in my general vicinity). As far as Spanish class goes, this story is actually kind of commonplace. To be expected. About average.
And it cements every tiny, fragile piece of resolve I have.
Up until now, I haven’t said much (anything) about Spanish. This is because I hate it. Not the language, just the class. I hate it so much that in the course of my 10th grade journal-keeping, I mostly pretend that it doesn’t exist.
There are several reasons for this. Mainly, it is both agonizing and deeply boring. For one thing, I am surrounded by half the basketball team and most of the wrestling team And for another, Pierre.
Perhaps you will remember Pierre from that time he licked my face. This is certainly what I remember him from. The interesting thing is that despite the gross, wet indignity of having his tongue touch my cheek, I do not actually dislike him.
Even though he can be a total jerk, I still see his antics as a game, and this gives our interactions a strangely competitive quality. His job is to crack my veneer. Mine is to not respond. When he crouches next to my desk and starts panting in my face or rifling through my homework, I stare back at him blandly. When he makes fun of my shoes and asks me if I had Wonder Bread and margarine for lunch, I tell him no. I tell him I only eat my Wonder Bread with Karo syrup. I do it with a straight face, even though I have never eaten Karo syrup in my life and the one time my health-conscious hippie mother bought white bread, it was for a papier mache recipe.
Socially speaking, I have very few natural talents.* But I’ve got one or two, and my best trick is recognizing where someone rests on the power continuum. Pierre is somewhere near the bottom—wherever it is that class clowns generally fall—and it seems probable that he wouldn’t constantly act like such an ass if Pharaoh and Trout and the other sports-boys ever congratulated him for anything else. I may be relatively new to the social dynamics of teenage boys, but I know pack animals when I see them. Pierre is loud, unpredictable, and disruptive, but he is not an apex predator. And until the day he breaks character, I am secure in the idea that I know exactly what I’m dealing with.
The other player in this weird little non-drama is Valentine. She’s taller than me, with long blond hair and pale sled-dog eyes. She wears heavy black eyeliner and boys’ jeans. She’s sexy, but not particularly feminine. She’s scary in a thrilling, austere way. And by scary, I mean that I kind of want to be her.
We had another sub in Spanish. I think our teacher is having a nervous breakdown because she’s never, ever here. Ostensibly, we watched Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, but really, everyone just passed notes and whispered. Pharaoh and Trout flicked paper footballs at each other, but since I sit between them, they mostly hit me. I drew a rocky coastline and waited for the bell. I put five lighthouses, so no ships would crash.
Pierre grabbed my desk and started to pull it towards the back of the room with me in it.
“Hey,” I said. “Hey, stop, what are you doing?”
“Making a white trash club,” he said.
He dropped the front of my desk and pushed it so my back was against the wall.
“Who’s in the club?” I said.
“Right now, it’s just you and me, but I’m recruiting. Hang on.”
[At this point, he decides that Valentine would make a good addition and starts for her desk]
Valentine is pretty in a hard, confrontational way (blue eyes, sharp teeth). A low-pitched voice, black eyeliner—a cool/serious smile. Sometimes she looks tired, and sometimes she looks overwhelmed. Mostly though, she looks made out of titanium.
“@#$% you,” she said when he got close, holding up her hand. She was smiling, but it was a bad kind of smile, the kind that sets things on fire. “Yeah, you want to stop right there,” she said, still smiling.
Her hair is straight and cornsilk-blond. In the light from the TV, it looked blue-gray, wavering like the sea.
Pierre shrugged. He came back and flopped into his seat. “It’s a two-person club,” he said.
“Doesn’t really matter though. I mean, it’s kind of a shitty club to be in.”
We sat side by side, looking at everyone from behind. Sometimes, especially when he’s quiet, I really don’t mind him.
Pharaoh flicked his paper football way off-course and hit Valentine in chest.
“A little help,” he said, reaching out.
Valentine smiled and tore the football into little tiny pieces. If I had done that, Pharaoh and the other boys would make me miserable for a year. He didn’t even say anything to her.
Sometimes I watch Valentine during class. I wish for her hands, her stare like concertina wire. My eyes aren’t blue, though. And even if they were, they wouldn’t be that hard translucent color. I’d still just be myself, but with blue eyes.
The White Trash club didn’t shame me. (It seems important to say this.) It didn’t hurt my feelings or break my heart, and maybe that’s because Pierre had put himself right there in the corner with me. Or maybe just because I’d been poor my whole life and it was a condition that didn’t really seem worth remarking on. I’d grown up rural and half-wild. In cut-off jeans and canvas sneakers. In a trailer. In Arkansas. These were just some things about me, and that was not the same as being everything I was.
Next to me, Pierre was humming along with the television. He started to sing under his breath, then broke into the chorus, bellowing it out to the whole room, more or less on-key.
“That’s it,” the sub told him. “You can zip it and put your desk back where it belongs, or, if you can’t contain yourself, you can go to the office.”
Pierre grabbed the front of his desk and dragged it back to his row, making race car noises and muttering ostentatiously.
I stayed where I was, against the wall where he had put me. My white trash club of one. The boys from the basketball team were laughing, shoving each other surreptitiously and glancing back over their shoulders, but Pierre didn’t look at me. He sat perfectly still, staring at the TV. I was thinking about his expression. When he abandoned Valentine and sat down next to me, the look on his face had been utterly unfamiliar—not playful or challenging, but something apologetic and almost kind. It occurred to me, and for the first time, that maybe he’d been trying to save me.
Now, the whole incident seems bizarre and touching and a little bit funny. But at the time, the realization that I might be pitiable was mortifying. It made my face go hot and my arms prickle.
I sat in the corner, drawing spirals and watching the light on Valentine’s hair. I was thinking that there wasn’t much point in cultivating my detachment if people were still just going to look at me and see someone timid and tiny and crushable. There was no prize for being indifferent. I wanted to be substantial. I wanted to be fierce. I wanted to be Valentine.
But mostly, I didn’t want anyone to look at me and think I needed saving.
*Unless you count the ability to stonewall like nobody’s business.
So many gems. What a great piece of writing.
Thanks, Andrew! It turns out I’ve always had a secret soft spot for creative nonfiction, even before I knew it was a thing.
Really enjoyed this. Love the beautiful details.
Ironically, I am the worst in-person storyteller EVER. I am a professional at skipping the middle and leaving out everything remotely relevant!
YES! That is all.
I, for one, am a huge proponent of stories :D
This = wow!
you like it=♥!
I was cruising through lj and you made me stop. Wonderful.
Best kind of compliment! (Glad you liked it :)
God, this is incredible. You are such a keen observer of both yourself and others.
Sadly, it took another year before my anthropological interest in my classmates morphed into any kind of functional social life whatsoever ;)
I’ve said it before—I’m sure I’ll say it again—you think I’m weird now, but nothing compares to me at 16. Also, I was disturbingly proud.
I have to point out how COOL it is that you take the time to respond to every comment!
Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. (I’m much better at conversations than lectures, and I really love hearing about other people’s experiences.) The high school posts are my favorite because out of the blue, sometimes people will share the best stories!
Wow, I really enjoyed this story. I can relate to it because I had Spanish class surrounded by a bunch of jocks. They were also a year younger than me so it was extra awkward. But I aced spanish so it turned out okay.
Younger and older both seem to make it so much more awkward and I don’t know why that should be! A year is not that big a difference, but when you turn that year into a grade level, it seems like a decade . . .
I’m half-way through The Replacement, which came in the post today, and I’m loving it so much I had to come online and find out about you. This post really struck me! You’re wonderful!
Thanks for stopping by—I’m glad you liked the post because the high-school-themed ones are definitely my favorite to write and they also tend to spark the best comment discussions!
Just seeing this
I just read this (kind of late), I love your writing about high school. You have a very vivid memory. Look forward to new book this fall!
Re: Just seeing this
Thanks, Josie! (I think it helped a lot that I was basically compulsive about writing everything down—I was so, so worried I’d forget something important.)
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