The Zero

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.

18 thoughts on “The Zero

  1. I just found out about a month ago that my sister is deathly afraid of heights. We were with my mom at the San Diego Zoo, going up in the Sky Buckets (that’s not what they call them, but it’s what they are) and she casually said, “You know I don’t like heights” when I started talking about how little held us up.
    My mom and I were like O_O. Neither of us had known this. I knew that my mom HATES heights, and dislikes flying for this reason, whereas I LOVE LOVE LOVE being high up, flying, climbing, etc etc.
    It was a very interesting time. I sometimes think of my sister and I more as twins, (such as referring to something we did “when we were eight” when it actually happened when I was eight and she was five or six,)so it’s extremely odd when I find out something like this.
    As for group work: If I can pick my group, I am TOTALLY fine. If it’s assigned, it’s MISERABLE. I used to be okay with it, back in elementary and middle school when I was friends with nearly everyone, but this one time we had a group assignment in ninth grade, and the groups were assigned randomly, by counting off.
    There were four of us in my group, and the other girl and I knew what was going to happen when we got the two stupid jerkface boys in the class. So the project ended up being kind of a disaster. Except not spectacularly, because I refused to have anything to do with it outside of class, as did the other girl, so one of the guys stepped up and made the PowerPoint.
    Oh, and this year in English (why is it usually in English?) we got to pick groups, but my best-friend-at-school and I got stuck with our sorta-friend for it, and we didn’t have enough time to plan, and then in the process, a picture of Chillingworth on Google gave my computer a virus… yeah, THAT was a SPECTACULAR disaster.
    Group work may SOUND like a good idea, but generally, I like it SO MUCH BETTER when the teacher tells us we can discuss ideas with other people, but we had to make the project on our own. I don’t need/want help doing it, I just need/want someone to bounce ideas off of in the beginning stages.
    Also, in your high school journal, did you give everyone codenames, or are you just doing that now to protect people’s identities? Either way, how did you come up with the names? (You don’t have to share if you don’t feel like it, I was just curious.)

    • I sometimes think of my sister and I more as twins, (such as referring to something we did “when we were eight” when it actually happened when I was eight and she was five or six
      I STILL do the exact same thing. My sister is a year and a half younger, and for most of my life, I’ve been guilty of thinking we are the same person, even though we are so demonstrably NOT.
      I think I was 18 or 19 when I finally realized that I had to stop being so awful and irritable with her when she didn’t do things the same way I’d do them, because she was just being herself. (And by “do things the same way I’d do them,” I really mean “pay attention and be on time.”)
      Even though I’ve always liked groups when we would get to pick our own, I’m still not great with the actual working-together part. I”m so much better at going off somewhere, doing my work, and then bringing it back to the group.
      when the teacher tells us we can discuss ideas with other people, but we had to make the project on our own
      This, this is the perfect way to work, I think.
      in your high school journal, did you give everyone codenames, or are you just doing that now to protect people’s identities? Either way, how did you come up with the names?
      In my actual journals, I used real names (and often, way too much identifying information), so now I make up aliases. The way I pick the names is all over the place. Some—like Pony and Dill—are actual nicknames that those people occasionally went by. #4 is because there were four boys with the same name in our English class and our teacher referred to them by number. Others, like Valentine or Gatsby, are just total free association.
      So, the answer to your question is really: I don’t have a method for naming—it’s pretty much chaos in here :D

      • I had to stop being so awful and irritable with her when she didn’t do things the same way I’d do them, because she was just being herself.
        *blinks* I think you just identified why I fight so much with my sister. *writes down* I’m going to remember that in the future. I think part of the issue is that we’re exactly the same height (much to my horror) and we look very much alike, so strangers often do mistake us for twins, and I kind of get into that mindset.
        I’m still not great with the actual working-together part.
        Eh, me either. It only works with my best-friend-at-school because we kind of act like we share a brain. Like in English, I’ll not be able to coherently voice my thought, so it comes out a jumbled mess, but she’ll “translate” to the teacher for me. :D It’s why we’re able to proofread each others’ essays so well.
        As to the names: that’s really interesting. I asked because when I was younger (and I was PARANOID about people reading what I wrote) I always tried to cleverly rename people so whoever tried to read my journal would be confused. Well, it worked. I could never figure out who I was talking about. :D

        • While I don’t actually look a thing like my sister (I’ll try to find some comparison-pictures for the next post), we have a lot of the same mannerisms and would always finish each other’s sentences, so people have always assumed that we’re much more alike than we are. Despite being incredibly different in almost every way, we’ve always presented a united front, if that makes sense?
          I think it just never occurred to me that anyone would read what I’d written. I always assumed that no one wanted to read more than they had to (even though I, personally, am obsessed with other people’s journals). Also, I was protected by my handwriting, which is appalling. While I never have a problem figuring out who I was talking about, sometimes I can’t quite tell what I was saying about them :)

          • (This is addressed to Meggie and Brenna.)
            Huh. It’s the same for my sister and me. We say that we’re kinda like twins because we’re the same height and almost the same weight, although she’s stronger than me, despite being 3 years younger. And we have so many inside jokes that sometimes all it takes is a look and the other one of us will go “I know, I know, you don’t even have to say it.”
            And I get irritated with her when she doesn’t react the way I do. She sulks whereas I get over things very fast, which drives me INSANE, and am physically incapable of sulking. Seriously. I just can’t. Another thing that bugs me is that she doesn’t love reading like I do. She does read, but only certain books…

            • My sister and I are pretty amazingly different in all respects, even though we have a lot of the same behaviors.
              When it comes to personalities, my sister is not a sulker, but she can be incredibly stubborn and inflexible, which is something I really don’t have in me. My bad qualities are all much flightier, like an inability to finish things, and and tendency to get impatient and irritable about things.
              I’m really lucky, in that my sister loves to read and will always read my manuscripts if I need her to, and she is not afraid to tell me when she doesn’t like something.

    • Ambivalent as I am, I’ve never stopped seesawing back and forth on whether I did a good thing or a bad thing :D
      The only thing I know for sure is, if he hadn’t told me that story—if I had, in fact, done the whole thing myself—my hand would have been in the air SO FAST.

  2. “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 feel like I’m constantly having this revelation about people. I don’t really have anything else to add, other than that your writing is, as always, so compelling. I am probably going to start keeping a journal because of your posts.

    • I love that revelation so much. I think it’s a huge part of what makes me want to write in the first place—people are just interesting!
      I’m highly biased (obvs.), but I absolutely think that you should keep a journal. Even if the things you write down never see the light of day (and trust me, most of my entries won’t), it’s such good practice for playing around with words, and just for noticing things.
      Unrelated: I really wish that lj didn’t screen your comments when you post anonymously, but the spam onslaught has been incredible lately. I always worry that people will think their comment didn’t go through, when really, it’s just waiting for me to approve it.

  3. I wish these posts came with more photos! :-)
    Most of my surprising times are my fault, really– I assume someone is nerdy or awkward or something and it turns out they’re really cool people. I really don’t know why I do it, since I myself look nerdy and awkward but actually am secretly awesome and super interesting…;-)
    Group work (3+ people), for me, is vaguely awkward at best and infuriating at worst. It always feels like you’re either doing too much or too little work. I can do it, but generally the relationship– however genial and equal– ends with the end of the project. I don’t know if that’s just me, though. I’m a friendly, but not especially open person.
    I HAVE heard many stories of friends who decided to work together on a project, and they all ended with one friend doing no work and getting the same grade as the friend who worked hard.

    • I wish these posts came with more photos!
      Me too :D I looked and looked, but I couldn’t find anything really pertinent! So for the purpose of this post, you have to imagine I’m wearing the outfit from the picture of me with my dad. Because I’m pretty sure that’s what I was wearing. Mostly because it is at least an approximation of what I wore almost every day. (except when I would wear this really terrible purple tartan skirt, but let’s not talk about that . . .)
      I assume someone is nerdy or awkward or something and it turns out they’re really cool people
      I think my biggest snap-judgment is assuming that because someone seems a certain way, they don’t have a sense of humor. I’ll be honest, if you’ve got a sense of humor, that’s it for me—chances are, I already love you. But over the course of my life, I’ve had enough experiences with easily-shocked people to make me, shall we say . . . cautious? However, the good thing about my shameless stereotyping is that I am quite often pleasantly surprised.
      Also, this is precisely why I find group work problematic to this day. I want everything to be irreproachably fair, and it really never is, and the more people you add, the worse it gets.

  4. Like you, I also hate group work. I’ve always viewed it as something utterly torturous in school. That’s in part because I prefer doing the work by myself, but also because, if we were allowed to choose our own partners, I’d flounder since no one liked me, or even knew I existed. There’d be that whole embarrassing teacher-tries-to-put-me-in-a-group thing afterwards, since I’d always be left standing alone. So mortifying. I’m probably the only person who prefers assigned partners as a result, since one way or another, it’s going to be assigned on my end, anyway. At least when they’re assigned from the getgo, it won’t be embarrassing for me.

    • There’d be that whole embarrassing teacher-tries-to-put-me-in-a-group thing afterwards, since I’d always be left standing alone.
      I’ll readily admit, I’ve had way more than my fair share of this. So much in fact, that the real reason I was annoyed at being assigned random partners in this story was my previous sense of elation that I was finally (finally!) in a class with people I knew and who would actually want to work with me. I wanted to flaunt it, damn it!
      A big part of it, though, is that I really just am *better* at doing the work myself. Which I suppose is the point of group work in the first place—forcing you to do try new methods, expand your comfort zone, etc.
      Or, maybe they just want to do something to fill up the time.

  5. I don’t really like group work. When it’s just one other person, I always get put with someone who’s either pretty quiet that I don’t really know or someone who’s friends with everyone (except not quite with me) and talks to them through the whole thing and is easily distracted. When it’s a group of three or four a lot of the time I seem to get stuck with people who automatically volunteer to outline stuff in marker and color, which means that I get to do the rest while they talk (and then the teacher comes around to check whether everyone’s helping or not and they quickly pretend to be discussing the project and writing something down). I have to say that group projects aren’t all bad. In fact, I did meet my best friend in fifth grade when we read Bridge to Terabithia and then had to build bridges out of toothpicks and a bucket load of glue. That was probably the only good group project thus far in my school career though.
    As for the other question….hmm. I can’t think of any of my experiences with that. Hmm…except maybe that. Well, I have a lot of online friends who I’ve met through writerly stuff (namely, Jackson Pearce’s weekly liveshows) and well, getting to know them has been very strange. The thing with chatting online is that you only see a part of a person. Maybe sometimes you’ll webcam or voice chat, but it’s still not the same thing as talking in person. Especially with normal chat though, because all you see is their words. You get no inflection, you don’t know where they would put the stress in their words or their inflection or hand gestures or facial expressions or anything, and you have to build your impression of this person with how you interpret all of these things, and to me that seems so terribly dangerous, because what do you do if you get it wrong?
    I think that the weirdest thing though was when I met one of my online friends in person (unfortunately, it’s a four hour drive to where he lives, otherwise we would visit more often), because he was still the same person.

    • Yeah, I recognize all those different group scenarios from personal experience. Well, except for the bridge assignment, which sounds excellent!
      I’ve watched a lot of the livestream interaction on Jackson’s chat shows (I totally, unashamedly lurk. Not just at the live shows, but at . . . life.). I’m just really impressed at what a dedicated community it’s turned out to be. I love that you guys have a real rapport with each other.
      I know exactly what you mean about trying to get a sense of people online. Before Tess and Maggie, I really hadn’t had a lot of online interaction with anyone—I mean, I wasn’t even a dependable blogger, and the only people I’d ever chatted with were friends I saw almost every day. And then suddenly, we had this real, consistent, almost-daily friendship that was completely foreign.
      I was surprised at how, the first time I met Tess, it was really easy. I mean, we shared a hotel room for two nights after knowing each other online for maybe four months. It could have been a disaster and it just wasn’t.
      The first time I saw Maggie was more than a year and a half after we met online. I saw her on an airplane and knew her right away—*right* away, with no doubt in my mind, no question. I think that, more than anything, was all it took to reassure me that I actually did know her.

  6. Group work was invented for pain. I can’t say I particularly mind or dread it, but I simply can’t see any other rationale behind its creation.
    I’m blanking on specific examples, but I love finding out random details about people, though, the kind that make you look twice at them like you just unlocked the secret key to what kind of things happen inside their head. (Most of my high school experience had this occur through either gossip, stumbling across a person’s angst-filled Tumblr, or discovering a random normal-appearing person has incredibly geeky interests, which was always my favorite and revised my opinion of them far more favorable)

  7. I was that crazy kid handing out flyers about Louis XVII
    ♥! I’m such a fan of context and speculating on the lives of historical figures (as well as ordinary people, naturally).
    I did enjoy the social aspect, though.
    I’ve been thinking about this, and I have to admit, I really do like . . . what would you call it? Academic socializing? Even now, I still prefer o do the actual work on my own, but I really like having the chance to talk about ideas (mostly because I am all about ideas, damn it!). There’s just something so satisfying about breaking open a really good concept with like-minded people.

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