Thursday morning on my way to school, I went through list after list of words that I had memorized. That’s why I didn’t see the bully dogs as they came around the corner on Main Avenue. I heard first a low rumble; then they were so close so fast I thought the black Lab would nab me before I got to the gate. I picked up a long, thick stick, and threw it as hard and far away as I could. Wonder of wonders! All of them all chased after it and left me alone. Seething mad, I watched them and wished a car would come along and at least scare some sense into them, but not one came down the street.
That started my day, and it got worse. I almost missed the school bus that took Steve and me over to the high school where we were competing in the inner-schools spelling contest. I didn’t last the second round. I misspelled “comprehensive” with an “i” after the “h,” which I knew the minute I said it was wrong. But too late; I was out of the running. Steve stayed in and won, placing in the city finals, eligible for the regionals. He met me coming out of the auditorium on the way to the bus pick-up.
“Good going, Steve.” I left enough room on the bench if he wanted to sit down, too. “You really got some hard words. Like ‘maneuver.’ I never would have gotten that one.”
I had my hand marking my place in The Sword and the Stone, ready to resume reading if Steve didn’t feel like talking. But he did. “You got some hard ones, too, Fran. You did all right, until ‘comprehensive.’ That’s a tough one for everyone. Except me.”
“Yeah,” I agreed half-heartedly. “I hope you do as well in the regionals.” I meant that, hoping he would win, but I wished he could take a little less interest
“Oh, I will. I’ve studied pretty hard this year.” The school bus lumbered up the drive, making so much racket that talking anymore was impossible. Steve got a window seat on the right side, third aisle, and I took a window seat on the left side behind the bus driver.
At the classroom door, Mrs. Hammershaw greeted us, clapping as we walked into class. I almost felt better, until I saw Marcy glaring at me as if I had done something. What now? I thought, sitting down and pulling out my math book. I saw the notice on the board from Miss Ford that practice was canceled for tonight, but there would be a make-up on Friday night, all girls to attend. Maybe Marcy was mad about that since she either went to a movie or rented a video on Friday nights. Who knew? I wondered if Annie was going to tell me anything at recess.
I had a chance to talk with Annie in the bathroom after computer class. She spoke fast, in a raspy sort of whisper.
“Oh, Fran, I’m glad you weren’t here at lunch! Mrs. Perkins was on playground duty, and she grabbed Marcy by the arm and was shaking her and telling her she had no right to be mean to you Saturday at the volleyball game.”
I didn’t laugh, but just imagining it made me want to. “What did Marcy do all the time Mrs. Perkins had a hold of her arm?” I didn’t think Marcy would have just stood there.
“Oh, she jerked her arm back and told old Mrs. Perkins that she’d be mean and say whatever she wanted to, to anyone she wanted to! She gave it right back to the old bag!”
I didn’t ask Annie what she thought about the way Marcy had come down on me because I got the feeling she thought Marcy was pretty cool for having stood up to Mrs. Perkins. “I guess you could say Marcy knows how to defend herself against criticism.” I flipped water from my hands, spraying Annie like I always did.
“Fran, don’t do that, okay?” She scowled at me while wiping her eye carefully.
I suddenly noticed that she was wearing mascara. I opened my mouth to ask when she had started using make-up, which was against the school rules, when she patted my arm and looked at me sympathetically.
“The only thing,” she said, tugging my arm to hurry me along to class, “is that Marcy’s mad at you.”
So that was it! “Why me?” I protested, skidding us to a stop. “I didn’t ask Mrs. Perkins to defend me, did I? I wasn’t even there!”
“I know,” whispered Annie before she darted through the door, leaving me with a one-sided discussion going around and around in my head.
That might have been the end of it, but of course, it wasn’t. That night, when I was taking my bath, Mom got a telephone call from Mrs. Perkins. I think if Merlin had appeared in my life just then, I would’ve had a hard time figuring out what magical spell for him to use. Turn Mrs. Perkins into a donkey or Marcy into a toad? No, I think I would have asked him to make me disappear, for good, into another time and space, another dimension.
King Arthur I’m not, and I’m not real sure what Arthur would have done, anyway, if he’d been in my spot. What could I say to my mom that hadn’t already been said and done?
“Frances, I’d like to discuss something with you. Please wash up quickly, and after you’ve brushed and flossed your teeth, come to the dining table.”
I sometimes wonder, if the house were burning down, if my mom would insist I brush and floss my teeth before I escaped.
“Isn’t it kind of late for me to be up?” I asked as I sat down across the table from her.
“We’ll only be a minute. Well, Frances, when it rains, it pours, huh?” She rubbed the spot over the bridge of her nose, as if she could have smoothed out everything. “Before I get into what Mrs. Perkins had to say, I want to commend you, again, for doing your best in the spelling contest. I don’t think I had your poise when I was twelve, let alone the nerve to get up like that in front of all those people and rattle off those fifty-cent words. You did a good job, kiddo.”
What could she say? She’s my mother, right? A good job, but not good enough. “Yeah, I tried.”
“You gave it your best, and that’s worth more in the long run. But onto our other topic of discussion.”
She paused and sighed, I suppose, trying to put her thoughts in ‘good order’ as she always says. “Mrs. Perkins said she had a little run-in on the playground with Marcy. You know about that?” I responded with a nod. “She said she was taken by surprise at the way Marcy sassed her.
Apparently, Marcy told her mother that Mrs. Perkins hurt her when she grabbed her arm. Mrs. Perkins maintains that she didn’t grab Marcy at all.” Mom sighed and looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “I’m sure Marcy’s story is somewhat exaggerated.”
I was sure it was, too, but I was just as sure she’d tell her mother only what she wanted her to know about what had happened. I didn’t say anything, so Mom went on.
“This is a most unfortunate incident, for a couple of reasons. I agree that you shouldn’t be bullied by Marcy. I saw what happened, how she stepped in front of you, and when she missed the ball, blamed you. That is inexcusable. But,” Mom looked me right in the eye, and I felt guilty that I hadn’t done anything to defend myself, “it happened on the volleyball court.”
Significant pause, like I was supposed to know the meaning. But I didn’t raise my hand and offer any answer.
“Your coach,” my mom supplied her own answer, “has the responsibility of her players—not the parents in the bleachers, or the umpire.” She rolled the edge of the placemat while her voice got sharper. “I refuse to fight your battles on court or off, Frances. One day you might decide that you’ve had enough of Marcy pushing you around. But only you can decide for yourself when and how much you’ll take.” She was winding her lecture up, thank goodness. “I told Mrs. Perkins I appreciated her intervening on your behalf, but it is your coach’s problem, and you might want to discuss this with Miss Ford. But you might take some advice: don’t talk about this at school or at volleyball. There’s been too much made about this already. Okay?”
“Yeah,” I mumbled and took myself off to bed. Like I said, my mom sits on the sidelines and watches, not getting involved in the games.
But she had a point. Maybe Miss Ford would take care of it and I wouldn’t have to say anything, let along do anything, to draw attention to a problem I’d rather did not exist.
Which happened, in a way. Miss Ford lectured all of us on sportsmanship and team effort, not naming names. We drilled extra long on staying in our positions and using strategy for the upcoming game. One thing she warned us about that I thought we needed to hear: we couldn’t get overly confident of our abilities. We were going to be up against the best teams in the league, and just because it had seemed easy up until now, it could be lost as easily as it had been won. I knew that from the spelling contests.
Marcy and Sue acted as if I was invisible the whole time of the game and afterwards. I played hard, too hard at first, and botched every serve until I stopped caring what they thought of me. Then, backwards as it seemed, my serves and returns went fine. We won the first two games, and I think all of us felt pretty tough, like we could take on the next division if we had to.
The thing I didn’t like was that Annie was acting too much like Marcy, wiggling around and tossing her newly permed, long hair like a spastic horse. Ursala didn’t ever seem to change, win, lose, or draw. She was kind of quiet most of the time, anyway, except at the rally part of the game, and then you could hear her voice for a mile. But it was a sweet sounding voice, and she always had a nice thing to say about the other team.
On my way out to the car, I asked Annie to call me when she got home. “It’ll be later this afternoon,” she promised. “I’m going to the mall with Sue, Ursala, and Marcy right now.”
I guess you could say I was a bit surprised, but I merely shrugged and went on home. When she did call, all she talked about was the latest look in leather. Like we were going to wear leather pants and skirts. I didn’t have much to say to her, so our conversation was short.
But I got to spend the night with Pattie, and we called Carol a couple of times with new jokes we made up. Pattie was good at thinking up the storyline, and I was good at the punch line. We had Carol laughing so hard she had the hiccups. Even her eight-year-old brother she was babysitting thought our jokes were funny.
I told Pattie about some of my problems at school. “Gee,” she said as she brushed my hair into a ponytail, “I don’t know why they treat you so mean. Are you mean to them?”
“No.” I threw away my Juicy Fruit gum and folded two fresh sticks into my mouth. “That’s just the way it’s been since kindergarten.”
“Well, Fran,” Pattie had this big-sister voice that she used all the time on her younger brother and sister, “you’re pretty and smart and good in sports, too. Don’t let them make you feel you aren’t. Maybe they’re jealous of you.”
“Right, like I have something they don’t. My grandmother says I should smack Marcy right in the kisser.”
“One time ought to do it.” Pattie looked so serious I cracked up. “It’d sure shut her up.”
“I can’t hit her. I don’t want to hit anyone.” I was glad to have friends like Pattie and Carol, even if I didn’t take their advice. I’d have to be real mad to hit Marcy, and I didn’t think I could get that mad.
That’s how little I knew about myself. Monday when I discovered my lunch missing from my blue backpack, I was just mad enough to hit the person who took it. Of course, no one knew who had taken it; no one saw who returned it after lunch was over. Like no one knew who had clapped an eraser all over my chair, which I didn’t realize until I stood up and looked at my pants. I had to explain to my mom why my uniform was all messed up the first day of the week.
She shook her head. “Maybe someone accidentally took your lunch and was too embarrassed to return it. The chalk on your desk might have been someone’s idea of a joke.”
I pulled my lunch sack out of my backpack. “I don’t think it was an accident, at all. And I’m not laughing, Mom.”
She shook her head and sighed real hard. “You’re right, honey. Who do you think did it?”
Did she really have to ask? I did a fake surprise, “Oh! Maybe it was Marcy!”
“What are you going to do about it, Frances?” Leave it to my mom to get right into the icky part of the problem.
“I don’t know,” I admited after a long pause. “I guess I’ll do nothing. Ignore her.”
“May I offer a suggestion, Frances?”
Usually I didn’t take my mom’s suggestions because it meant that I’d have to do something I didn’t like. But I listened patiently. “Sure, offer me a suggestion.”
“I think we both agree that there is a problem with Marcy. Right?”
“Right.” I chewed on a pencil, waiting for the big line.
“So, tell Marcy you thought better of her, thought she was more mature. Then offer to let bygones be bygones.”
I had to laugh out loud! “Just go up to her and say, ‘You’ve been a brat, and I don’t like it! Now let’s be friends.’ Hah! It won’t work!”
But I saw Mom was convinced her view was the right one as she pressed home her point. “I think one day you two might end up being friends, especially on the sports field. You’ve got everything she’s got, if not more. Confidence, Frances, is what you don’t have. It’s the only thing you don’t have that the others do.”
All well and good for my mother to say, but little did she know. I certainly found out the next day from the others what else I didn’t have.