I consider my junior year to be an opportunity for change. It’s a fresh start. A chance to actually be authentic or real, or possibly even enjoy myself.
I don’t realize exactly how much I’m changing though, until I’m forced into an uncomfortable situation, and once there, I make the kind of decision that Sophomore Brenna would just never make.
It’s the last period of the day. I’m in history class, and Mr. Tully is assigning us random partners because even though he is, in many ways, a fundamentally decent man, he still believes in torturing us with strangers.
I’m hoping I’ll get Pony, or else Dill, but in a cruel stroke of luck, they’re assigned to work together. When Mr. Tully finally calls my name, it’s to pair me with #4.
“Wait, who do you have?” Dill asks.
I tell him.
“Ooh—that sucks,” he says. “Welcome to doing the whole thing yourself.”
And I don’t say anything, because Dill may or may not be right, but that’s completely immaterial. I don’t have the slightest problem doing the whole thing myself. I love doing things myself. What I hate, as in hate with a fiery toxic HATE, is group-work.
Our assignment is to draw a picture of a colonist and make up a story about them—a biography explaining why they left England for America.
We’ve been in school for about a week at this point, and I’ve spent that week feeling pretty good about things. Like I finally know what I’m doing and have even achieved some new kind of mastery. I have leveled up.
Then, I glance at #4, who is sitting back by the supply cupboards—waiting for me, but not really looking like he’s waiting for anything—and all that goes straight out the window.
I meander across to him, clutching crayons and butcher paper. I stand over him, trying to act like everything is normal and okay, like I’m cool, or at least acceptable. The kind of girl he wouldn’t mind spending the next twenty minutes with. He doesn’t say anything.
Brenna: Hi, I’m Brenna.
#4: I know.
Brenna: . . . Okay.
Sometimes moments are excruciating because someone is being purposefully awful or doing something cruel to you, and sometimes they’re excruciating because they just are. This is the second kind.
I take a breath and compose myself, accepting that the next half-hour is not going to be easy. In fact, it’s going to be miserable.
This realization isn’t as daunting you might think. I play an endurance sport. I have run many, many miles. Oh, well, I think, and settle in for it to be miserable.
I’ll admit it—I’m still a little bit in awe of #4, because of the T-shirt incident. And because he was brave enough or indifferent enough to just cut off all his hair, and because his cheekbones are practically architectural and I never noticed how pretty his face was until that day he came to class with a nasty scrape down his cheek, and once, he stared down at his desk and read Poe perfectly and said gal-i-ant like it was the punchline to a joke.
I sit on the floor with my butcher paper and my handful of crayons. I ask his opinion because even though I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have one, I’m still going through the motions. Because it’s the polite thing to do. I don’t hold my breath over what he has to say. I do not expect him to contribute. Let’s be very clear—I am quite amenable to doing this whole thing myself.
Then . . . he leans forward. He clasps his hands between his knees and clears his throat, and he begins to tell me this story—in fragments, but strange and compelling—about a girl named Ann, raised Puritan in a corrupt Protestant society, watching her father be lynched in the town square, getting married at sixteen, swept off to the New World by her husband to raise children and live in bleak religious freedom.
I draw a generic woman in a pilgrim’s dress, severe hair and a pleasant face. I give her an apron and he keeps talking, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his mouth very close to my ear.
When I write about it later, I capture the general idea. And miss all the subtleties. As a good little journalist, I manage a decent (if heavily-abridged) account of what he says, but I’m completely incapable of explaining how I feel, kneeling there with the crayon in my hand and his breath against my cheek.
We had to invent a colonist, draw a picture, write a biography, and make up a reason the colonist came to America. We got butcher paper and crayons and sat down in the corner.
“You should draw,” he said. “I draw like shit.”
I sighed, tried not to seem uneasy. “What should this person be? An explorer? A Catholic? A Separatist?”
“A Puritan,” he said. “She’s a Puritan.”
[ . . .]
“So, what should she be like?”
“Well,” he said, with his head bent. “Kind of serious. Religious. She came over ‘cause she was persecuted in England. When she was 6, her dad got hanged in their town, in front of her, for being Puritan. She’s got a husband named Jonathan, who she married when she was 16. She’s like 27 now. They’ve got 5 kids and will have another soon.” He glanced at me, then down again. “They go to church a lot.”
I wanted to write these things down just the way he had said them, in fragments, in a soft voice, his own grammar intact. Instead, I translated it into book-report language, trying to keep my hand-writing neat.
The actual biography doesn’t interest to me. He rattles it off so easily that I just kind of assume it’s a holdover from some World Cultures project last year, some book he had to read in Western Civ or something. But the way he says it is absolutely sincere, like it matters to him, and that is intriguing.
He’s leaning too close, watching as I copy down the story, turning his fragments into complete sentences. The shallow sound of his breathing makes me nervous and I’m clutching my pencil like a weapon, trying to fake like I have better handwriting than I do, trying to mimic that round, Palmer-method way that other girls write. I have no idea why I am trying to impress him with my penmanship.
“You wrote and twice,” he says.
“Shit,” I whisper and scrub it out with my eraser, obliterating my wildly unsuccessful attempt at Palmer-method.
“It’s okay,” he says. And he smiles. “I do that too sometimes.”
I nod, keeping my head down, trying not to think about the fact that he has this whole actual life in which he thinks or daydreams or exists or writes and twice. I love and hate the way he smells, which is like clean laundry and long, gray days, but mostly like pot. I want to sit here forever, and I also can’t wait to get away from him.
The second half of the assignment is to hang up the drawings and then go back to our desks and take turns standing at the front of the room and talking about our colonists.
Around us, people are volunteering to present, going up in pairs. Across from me, 4# is hunched over like he’s trying to get smaller. He keeps looking at me, and away again, like Morse code, only I can’t really decipher the message. But I kind of can. At least, enough to keep me from putting my hand up.
Tully is walking up and down the center aisle. He stops in front of me. He says, “Does anyone still need to go? I just have this feeling . . .”
#4 is holding onto the corners of his desk. His mouth is open, just a little—not like he’s about to say something, but the way people look when something terrible is about to happen and they’re powerless to stop it.
Suddenly, I understand the value of participation points.
It’s like the solution to a math problem, or the first time I really understood money. Ten points is not a lot. It’s almost nothing. And not just because I can still get an A without them. It doesn’t matter because I’m sixteen and in three years, no one will even care if I got an A in History, and it doesn’t matter because I’m sitting across from a boy who ditched English for a whole week when M was making us read The Merchant of Venice aloud.
“Anyone else?” Tully says. “Going once, going twice?” He glances down at me and his expression is (heartbreakingly) expectant.
I try to tell him I’m sorry using just my eyes, but I don’t think he gets it.
#4 is still watching tensely, waiting for me to raise my hand and when I don’t, he smiles and it’s the sorriest, most complicated expression I’ve ever seen. He mouths something, and I have no idea what he’s saying.*
“Well,” says Tully, giving me one last baffled look. “Moving on then.”
Dill raises his eyebrows in a way that I immediately interpret as I-told-you-so, even though it might not be.
The weight of what I’ve done is just starting to hit me. It feels surprisingly bad. I’ll be honest—I’ve always had a tendency to be pretty cavalier about homework. If I can do it on the bus, I will. If I can do it in the hall before class, I will. If I can get away without doing it at all, I will. But I’ve never blown off an actual classroom assignment. This is the first zero I’ve gotten in my life.
But that’s not why I feel like I’ve just done something inexcusable. I gave up a project, but so what? #4 is the one who takes the hit. He’s the one people look at and think welcome to doing the whole thing yourself. From the outside, he’s a predictably terrible student and has just delivered more of the same. I’m maybe the only person in the room who knows that whatever his deal is, it does not involve an inability to do the work.
And now, your assignment: I want to hear about a time you learned something surprising about another person. It can be anything, but I particularly love seeing people revealed in positive and startling ways!
Also, how do you feel about group-work? Uncommonly painful, or an excellent way to get to know your fellow scholars?
*Okay, I am not a lip-reader, but I sort of do have an idea. It looks a whole, whole lot like he might be saying thank you.