Short-listed Entry: Non-Fiction Category
By: Robin Devereaux-Nelson
It is 1977. I am eleven years old, and I’m standing in the principal’s office for the second time this week calling my mother to see if she can bring some clothes to me at school. She sounds irritated that I am calling again in the middle of her “afternoon stories”.
My face feels as if it is on fire. The bell rings signaling the end of lunch period, and kids are going by in the hall eyeballing me through the plate glass door, my shirt and slacks sopped with milk and food. Some of them point and laugh behind their hands. When Debbie and Linda go by, Linda gives me a dark look, raising her left eyebrow. It is a warning: don’t tell or you’ll be sorry. I look away. My mother’s voice continues to squawk through the receiver.
She shows up with a brown paper bag that has my least favorite outfit in it- a blue plaid cotton dress. She has picked out brown knee socks to go with it. I know there are white ones and navy ones in my sock drawer, and that they, in fact, were closer to the top of the pile than the brown ones which are an admonishment for disturbing Mother’s afternoon. So is the dress. I look in the bottom of the bag and see she forgot to bring me a dry pair of underpants as well.
I am wearing tennis shoes, which will look ridiculous with the dress and knee socks. I sigh. I’ve already been beaten up once today. It seems to me that Mother is siding with the other team, setting me up for another round of ridicule or worse on the bus ride home this afternoon by making me wear this horrible outfit. I wonder how she can be so mean, then feel immediately ashamed for thinking it. She is my mother. I am supposed to love her. I hang my head and look at the speckled pattern on the floor tiles. I want to melt down onto the floor and blend into the spots and swirls of beige and tan and white.
She grabs my arm hard and leads me out into the hall to the little girl’s bathroom, which is closest to the principal’s office. She doesn’t realize it is embarrassing for me just to be in this bathroom, which is only for the kindergartners and first graders use. Maybe she doesn’t care, or knowing Mom, it is her attempt at making a cruel point. Mom looks big in here, with the short stalls and tiny toilets. Bigger than she does at home. I don’t like it.
“Why do you keep letting them do this to you?” Is the first thing she says to me.
“I don’t let them!” I say, looking at the floor, “They do it.” I slide out of my shoes and slacks. My panties are soaked with milk and syrup from the peaches that were today’s dessert. I look down in dismay at my sopped underpants and can’t imagine going without them. My face reddens at just the thought of it. Mom doesn’t even notice they are drenched, she just peels my shirt off, wiping at my face with one of the dry sleeves. She handles the wet clothes as if they have poop and pee on them rather than milk and fruit juice, as if they disgust her. She wrinkles her pert nose.
“You don’t let them.” She scoffs. “You have to learn to stick up for yourself, Katherine. You’ll never get anywhere in life if you just let people walk all over you all the time.” She’s tapping her foot impatiently on the tile floor. The little tack-tack-tack echoes off the walls. She shoves the hateful dress over my head and makes a twirling motion with her finger for me to turn around to get zipped up.
I start to cry. “I can’t.” I say. Doesn’t she understand what they’ll do to me? Doesn’t she care?
Debbie and Linda take much pleasure in torturing me as often as they’re able. I’m not sure why, they seem to have a lot of girlfriends they could be busy with, popular girls too. Especially blonde Debbie who is petite and pretty. Linda is a big girl and has blinding red, frizzy hair. She is a bully, and has been since kindergarten. No one knows why Debbie took her under her wing this year, but they are as inseparable in sixth grade as two peas in a pod.
The latest in their torturous repertoire has been finding me at lunch, sitting on either side of me and pouring my carton of milk all over my food. Especially on the third Friday of the month when we get a coveted carton of chocolate milk. They do this slowly, while threatening what they will do to me if I tell, and describing in great detail just how they will hurt and humiliate me. Sometimes, like today, when I have the nerve to get lippy, they hit me. After they ruin my lunch, they tip the tray, spilling food and milk all over my clothes. Somehow no one else in class, nor the noon aide, Mrs. Gordon, who we all know is best friends with Debbie LaFromme’s mother, ever sees this happening.
Behind me, my mother sucks in her breath. Her hand is poised on the zipper tab at the small of my back. She pulls the dress open and turns me toward the light. “Well, that’s it.” She says, and drags me, protesting and wiggling, into the hall. My dress is undone and underpants exposed for anyone who might be lingering in the hall to see.
My face is blazing with embarrassment. She pulls me toward the principal’s office, my stocking feet allowing me no purchase on the highly waxed and buffed linoleum floor. She demands to see Mr. Kressler, holding me so hard by the arm that I will have a bruise later where her thumb sinks into my tender skin. I begin to cry harder, understanding that I am now doomed to have my school principal (spelled with a p-a-l, kids, cuz I’m your pal!) see my underpants as well.
Mom shows Mr. Kressler the bruises on my back. Three neat, round blue spots where Linda got me with her knuckles. He swears he knows nothing about the things Linda and Debbie have been doing to me, they’re such good students he says, even though I’ve told my teacher and the noon aide numerous times about the things they do to me. Even though they’ve seen my spoiled clothes and teary face, have sent me down to the office a hundred times to call my mother.
When Mom demands something be done, she and Mr. Kressler decide the best solution is to remove me from the lunch room and the radar of Debbie LaFromme and Linda Doyle. I am put on kitchen duty with Mrs. Kraus for the rest of the year. I fall in love with Mrs. Kraus who has a German accent, and is chubby and sweaty and always smiling.
I adore being in the school kitchen, with its stainless steel surfaces and vegetable smells, even though I get teased, and have to scrape the trays the other kids leave their messes on. I get to wear a white apron that Mrs. Kraus doubles up and ties tightly around my waist, and gigantic, orange rubber gloves. I don’t have to go outside for recess, and I learn how to use the big, steam-spitting commercial dishwasher.
Mrs. Kraus lets me have all the stewed spinach and red beets I want because she gets a kick out of the fact that I am one of the only kids in school who likes them. Sometimes she even gives me an extra piece of her spicy apple cake, and pats me gently on the back with her hammy, red hands.
When I grow up, I am always cooking for my family. I get a job as a sous chef in a restaurant. I am the one who gets called to make the birthday cakes, and to roast the Thanksgiving turkey, to can stewed tomatoes in shiny Mason jars. The kitchen is where I retreat when I am sad or lonely or frightened. It is where I spend most of my time. I find my comfort in food, in my soft, wide thighs and confident hands.