Our sixth-grade girls’ volleyball team had a practice match with the seventh-grade boys. I saw Dean on the sidelines, but he didn’t get to play that game. He saw me, too, and waved. I said “Hi” as I walked by him to get into my position. I stayed in the whole game and managed to score eleven points in the three sets, which I thought was pretty good.
Apparently, Marcy didn’t. She made it plain, loud and clear in front of everyone, that I wasn’t in the right place at the right time. “Hey, Fanny, why don’t you try hitting the ball over the net, not under it?” she yelled, then stomped to the server’s square. She smacked the volleyball so far out of bounds she could have scored two points if we’d been playing basketball.
But no one said anything to her, at least nothing nasty. “Good shot!” cried Sue, clapping, and everyone laughed. Except me. It seemed if Ursala, Sue, Annie, or Marcy goofed up, it was all one big joke and “too bad,” but if anyone else made a mistake, it was a crime against the team. Not only at volleyball, but in all the other sports, too.
Sometimes being around them made me so mad I wanted to explode, but tonight I felt deflated, like all the air in me had been let out at once, and I couldn’t find the energy to speak up. We played for two games out of three, and Marcy kept up a running commentary on my mistakes the whole time.
We won one, lost two to the boys. Dean got to play, and I was secretly glad that he was better than anyone would have thought. He didn’t say much to any of the guys, or to anyone for that matter, but went about his business as if he didn’t care what others were doing or thinking. He managed to get the ball over the net on his serves and when it came to him. The last game, we lost by one point. Most of the seventh-grade boys stayed long enough afterwards to tell us that we were pretty good and they hoped we would win our game against St. John’s. Marcy and Sue said they would stay after our game to watch the boys play and root for them. I wasn’t sure I could make a promise like that without checking it out with my mom first. And I’m sure that’s why the rest of the girls didn’t say anything, either, to the boys before they left.
Miss Ford said we had a good chance at winning, especially if we played as a team, not as individuals. I wished she would have looked right at Marcy when she spoke to us.
“Lots of teamwork, girls. Remember, front row helps out back, and middle moves in on the other side’s serve. You did an excellent job tonight—those boys have been together as a team since fourth grade, and you saw how it makes a difference. Teamwork!” She slapped her clipboard so loud that it startled all of us.
Then she laughed, waving us good-bye. “Good night, and see you Thursday at seven. On time!”
Seemed to me, she had meant every girl had done a good job, at least the best she could tonight.
Of course, not everyone would’ve agreed with me. Marcy, Sue, and Ursala were standing out on the sidewalk waiting for their ride. “Wouldn’t it be nice if Fran found another hobby, like basket weaving?” Marcy said as I passed by.
“Just ignore her,” Annie advised. “What does she know?”
I swallowed hard before I found my voice. “I wish she weren’t so good at sports.”
“Yeah,” Annie sympathized, “but she makes mistakes, too. We all do, Fran. And aren’t you always saying ‘it’s just a game’?”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t seem like just a game when someone’s yelling at you in front of everyone.”
“I don’t know why she thinks she can tell everyone what to do. Maybe it’s because she’s so good that Miss Ford lets her.” Annie shrugged.
Even though I felt better talking to her, I didn’t think I could explain to Annie so she’d really know how I felt. Marcy never yelled at her and made snide remarks to her as she walked by.
“See you tomorrow, Annie.”
“How’d practice go, Frances?” Mom handed me a book that had come in the mail from the library.
“Uh, great.” I snatched the book out of her hand as we pulled away from the curb. “We played the seventh-grade boys, but lost two out of three games.”
“I think it says a lot for your team that you could win one game against a stronger team. The boys start a month earlier, and haven’t they played a year longer than you girls?”
“Uh, yeah,” I answered, burying my nose between the cover of The Wind in the Willows. For at least the rest of tonight, I’d have better things to think about than volleyball.
What I like best about reading good books is getting away from “real” life. Even though whatever happens in a story couldn’t happen in my life, I know how the character feels going through the good and bad stuff. I sometimes wished I could have the opportunity to face the same challenges, and hopefully, win. And I’d like to make the good things in the stories real in my world here and let all the bad things in the world just be ideas on pages of a book. Then the heroes and heroines could take care of all the evil in the books, and we would have all the good right here in our world.
I wondered, though, was it possible to be good all the time? I’d try, but Mom would always find something wrong, at least once a day. Like that evening.
“Frances,” she’d began to scold, “please pick up your towel and hang it up. And let the water out of the tub and dry your hair.”
“At least I took out the garbage,” I muttered, doing all the tasks she’d asked me to do.
“But you forgot to put in the liner.” My mom always had to have the last remark to anything I’d say.
“But I took it out without you having to ask, didn’t I? And I hung up my clothes before you said to. And put extra paper towels under the sink and swept the porch a little.” She shook her head and was about to interrupt me so I headed her off, “I know; I said ‘a little.’”
“I was just going to say that you’re right. I’m guilty of not telling you how much I appreciate the things you do. I guess it doesn’t hurt to remind me.” Before I could say anything, she added, “Once in a while.”
I at least got to sleep with a smile, having won that round with my mom. I only wished that I had spoken up and pointed out to Marcy the good things I’d done for the team.
Or I could have so easily avoided the bully dogs on my way to school the next morning. Like torpedoes, they came at me from the bushes I hadn’t ever noticed growing in the Delong’s front yard. I made a mad dash for the short cut across the corner-store parking lot and ditched all three dogs. I heard the screech of brakes but didn’t turn around. If one of them got hit, please, I prayed, let it be the big, black Lab, although I immediately revised that prayer. I didn’t want those creatures of my nightmares to be killed, particularly chasing me, but it did occur to me there would be an element of justice in it.
All that running made me early that morning, and Annie wasn’t waiting by the doors. Marcy and Sue were there, so I stood by the railing on the top stair and took out my book to begin another chapter.
“Hello, Fran,” Ursala said to me as she passed by to join Marcy and Sue.
“Hi,” I replied but saw no reason to stop reading to chat. Besides, she probably wouldn’t have stopped to talk with me with Marcy and Sue right there to see her.
“Good luck in the spelling bee today,” Ursala said to me as we filed down the hall to the classroom.
I was too stunned to say anything but, “Thanks.” It was funny, but until then I hadn’t thought of anyone wishing for me to win. I just didn’t know if she meant it for real or if she and Marcy would get a good laugh out of it if I didn’t win.
There’s Mass before first recess, and we all have to attend. Today Father Gavin reminded us that the Apostles didn’t come by their faith easily and that we should look deep into our hearts and make a commitment to God. Sometimes just getting to school was commitment enough for me, let alone worrying about whether I had any faith or not; but other times, like today, I wondered if I had enough faith. I didn’t think I would have wanted the life of an Apostle, that’s for sure, although it would have been neat to have known Jesus Christ.
I wondered if Christ ever sweated out a spelling test when he was just a kid learning in the temple. Maybe he didn’t have to learn how to spell with twelve Apostles to write it all down for him. Maybe, instead, he had to learn how to speak in front of a crowd, which would have been a thousand times harder for me to do.
Tina and I got picked to be hall monitors for the morning. We made sure everyone who left the classroom had a pass and that there wasn’t a mess of books or papers left anywhere outside in the hall. If someone needed to go to the office or the nurse, one of us had to be an escort. I didn’t mind being a monitor because then I didn’t have to go out to recess and play in the barnyard. And sure enough, Steve got a ball kicked in his face and had a bloody nose, so I told Tina she had better walk him to the nurse’s office. I sure the heck didn’t want to be the one walking beside him with all that blood streaming from his nose and splattering his jacket. He would have found some excuse to get mad at me about it, I was sure.
Steve was still in the nurse’s office ten minutes before the spelling bee. I got a little nervous, wondering if he was going to make it back when Mrs. Hammershaw called me over to her desk.
“Fran, would you go check on Steve and ask him if he feels well enough to be in the spelling bee?” She handed me a pass, and I hurried down the hall.
Steve was sitting up on the cot, a washcloth pressed over his nose and his head thrown back, just touching the window sill.
“Mrs. Hammershaw wants to know if you’re well enough to go to the spelling bee. We have to be there in five minutes.” I watched the traffic zipping by the window above his head, trying to think of all the places the people might have been going.
Steve tossed the washcloth onto the little stainless steel table and got up. “I’m all right, now. It was just a little nosebleed.”
I pointed out the obvious to him. “That’s an awful lot of blood all over your jacket. Why don’t you take it off?”
“Why don’t you mind your own business, Franny?” But he took off the jacket as we came to the auditorium and stuffed it behind a trash can by the door.
It seemed a thousand eyes followed us as we climbed the stairs upstage. Conversations rippled through the building, and you could hear bursts of laughter and groans as the lower grades came in to be seated. The room seemed hotter than it should have been and got louder as the shuffling of feet mixed with squeaky voices and deep-throated whispers.
I saw Timothy load spit balls in his mouth and aim at Annie’s neck. Sue turned around and gave him a dirty look when one hit her on the ear. I almost cracked up when I saw Marcy’s ponytail turning white. But it was a sure thing that Timothy was going to get caught once Marcy reached back to fluff her hair.
“Gross!” she wailed, her voice lifting over all the other noise. “Gross!!” she screamed again, as the pellets rained down like huge hunks of dandruff.
No one ratted on Timothy, though. Mrs. Aster tapped the microphone until everyone quieted. Before she could say anything, a piercing wahhhaahhhhh echoed from the mike, and it took five minutes to get the cord fixed to that the awful sound stopped.
By then, we were all trying to stifle yawns and stretch without seeming to move. We all could have died of terminal boredom before anyone would have learned how to spell it.
Mrs. Aster raised her hands and asked for God’s blessing. “And children,” she began with an attempt at humor, “only angels may whisper the answers to the contestants. Let’s all be real quiet and listen, perhaps learn, too. Good luck to our two sixth graders and to all of our seventh graders. Let’s begin.”
“Fran,” Mrs. Morety’s clear voice demanded my attention, for sure, “you’ll start us off with ‘possibilities’”.
I wiped my sweaty palms down the smooth corduroy of my pants and stood up, thinking if I could only find my voice, I might yet get it right.