The Strange/Scary/Stupid Day

It had been raining all week, which was weird. It hardly rained at all that year, and never in winter.

When Gatsby came into history, his shirt was wet, and there was mud on his shoes and in his hair. He looked strange, and smaller than usual—pale except for a little scrape, raw and bright on the point of his chin. He was dragging his backpack by the strap, letting it hang down so that it bumped along the floor as he walked. When he dropped into his seat, it looked awkward.

“Sorry, Mister T. Unavoidable.” Which is what he always said when he was late, but his voice cracked a little. He kept opening his mouth like he wanted to say something else, but couldn’t make the sound come out.

When he saw me watching him, he stared back and raised his eyebrows. But when he saw that Valentine was watching too, he ducked his head, fumbling one-handed with his backpack. He looked sick, but sicker than normal.

Valentine leaned across the aisle. “What’s wrong—something’s wrong. What’s wrong with your arm?”

“Nothing.” When he took out a pen, he was shaking.

After roll, Tully told us to work on our final projects while he ran down to the library. He told us to behave ourselves, but not as though he expected that we wouldn’t.

After he was gone, Valentine turned to face Gatsby. “Something’s wrong.”

Gatsby looked away and said very carefully, “I kind of hurt my shoulder.”

Valentine was out of her desk now, standing over him, hands on her hips. “I want to see.”

He shook his head.

“God damn it, Gatsby. Let me see it.”

She grabbed him by the collar and yanked hard, and he shut his eyes, biting off a short, harsh cry.

She looked down inside the gaping neck of his shirt, then let him go, backing away stiffly, her arms at her sides, her voice high and quick and breathless.

Ohmygod.” She said it in a rush, like it was all one word. “Jesus.”

He didn’t say anything, just nodded. He looked very tired.

“So, who did that? Who did that?”

He reached out with his right hand, his good hand. “V, I—”

She twisted away, skipping back. “Got in a fight. You got in a fight, Gatsby. What—was it over some petty drug bullshit? Did Shark-Boy tell you to ‘stand and recognize,’ some shit like that? You better $%&@ ing recognize this, Gatsby. You are on probation. You are not supposed to fight anymore.”

He opened his mouth. Closed it again.

“Take off your shirt,” she said, looking terrifying.

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The Conversation

For the first semester of junior year, US History kind of dominates my journal-keeping.

This is mostly because it’s the one class where something at least semi-interesting happens almost every day, and also, I can scribble manically in my binder for the whole period and never get in trouble, since it looks like I’m just taking really good notes.

Obligingly, Mr. Tully has aced his audition for the role of Brenna’s Favorite Teacher. This has a lot to do with the fact that he’s one of the first ones I’ve ever had who actually likes his job. But also, he’s just pretty cool. He loves history, he loves teaching, and against all reasonable expectations, he really loves his students—yes, even the ones whose grades are below the Purple Failing Line. (Especially the kids below the purple line.)

He’s also the first teacher I’ve ever had who doesn’t seem particularly interested in me. At this point, I’m kind of used to being an impressive student, but Mr. Tully is barely even aware that I exist. At first, I think it must be because everyone else is really loud and I’m really quiet, but after a month or so, I begin to understand that’s not the reason. The truth is, the whole class is such a mess that it would be ridiculous to expect him to have time for the six people who are actually doing okay.

Anyway, it can’t be an issue of being quiet, because #4 is way quieter than I am and Mr. Tully totally loves him, although #4 would probably not see it that way.

In history, we never have written quizzes. Instead, Tully calls people’s names from a list, which he maintains is randomly-generated. I don’t actually believe this. Over the course of the semester, I will be called on exactly twice. Two times. Two.

If #4 only gets called on three days in a row, he’s having a pretty good week.

Almost every afternoon, Tully stands at the front of the room, waiting, while #4 looks down at his desk, going a bright, violent red.

“I don’t know,” he says, low and apologetic.

And Tully nods, looking sad-but-resigned. It’s a look he saves just for #4. Other people get a reproachful smile, an admonition to do better next time. When Mr. Tully looks at #4, it’s weary and imploring. He never bothers to hide his disappointment.

The way the game is played, if someone doesn’t know the answer, other people can raise their hands and take the points. I know the answers, but I don’t raise my hand.

I did once. #4 was staring down at his desk like always—flaming red and tragically mute. I put my hand up, and the look he gave me was so uncomprehending, so betrayed that I felt guilty. I answered the question, told myself I was just taking back my zero from the colonist assignment. Then felt worse.

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The Bad Class

Last week, we kind-of/sort-of touched on the defining problem of my junior year, but in case it wasn’t clear, I’ll just come right out and say it. Public school has not only made me unshakably sure that I’m a Very Good Girl (a paragon of virtue, even), but also that goodness is quantifiable.

I have some theories as to how this happened.

Sad fact: most of my goodness is strictly relative at this point. Simply put, a large chunk of it comes from spending every afternoon in US History, surrounded by people who are much, much worse than me. And they are worse. The truth is, even though I picked the class—walked right up to the office lady and asked to stay—I don’t really belong there.

“Tully’s 4th hour?” I heard Oswald say to Thompson last week, because they couldn’t see me sitting there beside the potted plant, waiting for the guidance counselor. “I wouldn’t teach that crowd for anything. Honestly, look at the attendance sheet. I think they must’ve just Xeroxed the probation roster from [nearby boys’ detention center]!”

And in a way, that might not be unfair. I know that a lot of the kids, especially the boys, have been in trouble, and some have even been in corrections before.

Our class has more D’s and F’s than all the other History sections combined, Tully says, looking sad. He takes his purple marker and draws a line on the rank sheet. Above the purple failing line are my student number and five others. Everyone else is underneath.

The way Oswald talks about Tully’s class is snide and kind of vicious, which doesn’t really surprise me because it’s Oswald. He’s not a nice guy.

Later in the year, this will be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt when my regular counselor goes on vacation. Everyone will be assigned temporary guidance, and I’ll luck into Oswald and then watch in horror as he throws out my proposed schedule and presents me with an academic monstrosity of his own design.* It will include Business Administration and Interior Decorating, because, he says, that way I’ll have something to fall back on if college doesn’t work out. If our school still offered shorthand, I’m sure he would have signed me up for that too.

He won’t take into account my GPA or my test scores, or ask about my extracurriculars. In fact, he won’t even look at my transcript. All those things that defined me so clearly at the beginning of the year—grades and sports and irreproachable deportment? None of them will matter. He’ll study me blandly, and I will be reduced to nothing but torn jeans and battered green shoes. Of no consequence. Hopeless.

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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.

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The Brand-New Girl

If Sophomore year was the year of Learn by Watching, then Junior year is the year of Boys. And I mean that in a whole spectrum of ways. It is the year of noticing boys, and of studying them and admiring them and being noticed and of having friends who are boys.

This boy-onslaught is made possible, in part, because the girl I just spent a whole year being seems to have vanished over the summer.

The easiest thing would be to say that in the last three months, I’ve completely transformed. But that’s not really true. Instead, it’s more like I’ve reverted. I’ve simply gone back to being the at-home girl—the one who makes physics jokes and likes Warren Zevon and glitter lipgloss and sewing beads and sequins on her shoes.

Already, I’ve become less pokerfaced and more Mona-Lisa-ish, and I’m actually kind of looking forward to going back to school and trying again. Like Beckett says, fail again, fail better.

I’m particularly excited because Little Sister Yovanoff is starting tenth grade, which means that I finally have daily access to a girl who understands me. We ride the bus together. We are locker partners. We are on the same soccer team. We share shoes and clothes and ice cream cones and coffee and look absolutely nothing alike, which means that I can basically be best friends with my little sister and there are no social consequences.

shoes and stars

On the first day, I am wearing leaf-green Chuck Taylors with gold foil stars sewn all over them and jeans paired with an old-fashioned thrift-store blouse. I’ve cut the sleeves off, tailored the bodice. The blouse has tiny fake-pearl buttons and a high lace collar and a crumbling cluster of dried rosebuds safety-pinned to the shoulder. It makes me look vaguely Victorian and also strangely frail.

Little Sister Yovanoff is similarly bedecked, resplendent in ragged cut-offs and tiny plastic barrettes. With her burgundy velvet blazer and her purple hair, she looks bold and statuesque. She looks much sturdier than I do.

Me and Dad

I spent an unreasonable amount of time trying to find pictures of our outfits, but sadly, it seems the best I can do is the close-up of my shoes (yes, those are soccer socks I’m wearing. What? I had a lot of them), and a shot of my second-favorite outfit from that era—also quite lacy. You’ll notice that my dad has the decency to ignore the state of my jeans. Which are actually his jeans. My dad is nice.

School is anticlimactic. I go to my classes, introduce Little Sister Yovanoff to Catherine and Elizabeth, use up my shiny new free hour by driving around with one of my sophomore-PE friends.

Things do not get interesting until US History, which is the last class of the day. I show up after the warning bell, only to find the room half-empty. Honestly, this should already tell me pretty much all I need to know, but because there’s some stuff I still haven’t figured out yet, it doesn’t.

Ponyboy is there, so I take the seat next to her and congratulate myself on having a class where I already know someone. We play Outsiders for a little, which mostly just means her asking me how prison was and me asking her if she had a good time at reform school.

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