All That is Gold Does Not Glitter

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The Boys Are Back in Town

The following three days, there is no practice. It’s the holiday weekend, and Coach was nice enough to give us one last free weekend before the season kicks in full-gear. School starts the day after Labor Day, too. That means three days to prepare myself for everything I’m about to endure.

I wake up Tuesday morning, nauseas. Whether it’s jitters from my first day of senior year, or my first practice as an official team member, or my usual dread of school, I’m unsure.

I pour myself a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and down in it minutes. I brush my teeth and tame my long, tangled mane of brown hair. It’s naturally kinky/wavy and thick, so it does whatever it wants. I toss it all over to one side of my head. It’s not worth fighting with.

I pull on a pair of black jeans, a gray hooded sweatshirt, and a blue denim jacket. All are a bit too big for my body, but again, that’s all the men’s section at Goodwill had. As long as I look tall and bulky, I’m fine.

I debate between wearing Converse or combat boots. Will I need to run for my life today, or kick some ass?

Last year, I would’ve said Converse. They were my go-to shoe; I wore them literally every day. But this year? I’m done running.

I strap on my combat boots. Hell, yeah.

A horn beeps outside. I throw on my backpack, clomp down the wooden stairs and meet Calvin, who is sitting in his truck in my driveway. I open the passenger door and climb aboard.

“Thanks again,” I mutter as I click my seatbelt on.

“No problem,” he says, looking behind us. He backs down the driveway and pulls onto the street.

I used to take the bus to school. But then The Incident happened last year, and I was getting harassed by the boys, and the bus was prime hunting ground. Half-way through the year Cal got his license, and he offered to drive me. It’s really out of his way, and I don’t always have the funds to float him for gas, but he never complains.

He has no idea how much it means to me.

“Last first day of school,” he breathes. “You ready?”

“So ready,” I laugh. “Thank God, it’s gonna be over.” I’d have dropped out last year if it weren’t for him. He’s the reason I made it to today.

He reaches over and clicks on the stereo. The opening shreds of a song blast through the speakers.

“Dude! Turn that down!” I laugh.

“No way! We need to get pumped up. This is our day. Our year. We’re gonna take the school by storm.” He’s grinning ear to ear. I roll my eyes. As soon as the lyrics start, he sings along:

“Guess who just got back today

Them wild-eyed boys that had been away

Haven’t changed that much to say

But man, I still think them cats are crazy!” His facial expressions are so exaggerated, I crack up.

“‘The Boys are Back in Town’? Really?” I tease. He looks at me impishly and just keeps singing.

“They were askin’ if you were around

How you was, where you could be found

Told ‘em you were livin’ downtown

Drivin’ all the old men crazy!”

“Ew!” I laugh. “There are no men I drive crazy, I can assure you.”

“C’mon, sing it with me - The boys are back in town, the boys are back in town!”

"The boys are back in town, the boys are back in town!" I join in. I hit the drum beats on the dash board. At a red light, he plays air guitar, his fingers dancing up and down imaginary frets. We alternate lyrics.

"The boys are back in town!" I sing.

"The boys are back in town!" he repeats.

He rolls the windows down, cranks the volume all the way up, and pulls into the school parking lot. We head-bang and play imaginary instruments while everyone around us glowers. But who cares, right? In our world, he and I are the king and queen. All the rest are just jesters and peasants. They’d kill to be us for a day.

When the song ends, Cal and I head inside.

“What locker do you have?” I ask.

He pulls a folded piece of paper from his jeans pocket. He flicks it open and glances down.

“134,” he replies. “You?”

I don’t have to look at mine. Typically after one look, I have something memorized.

“156,” I recite. “First class?”

“AP Gov.”

I nod. Figures.

“English,” I say. “With Ms. Barnes.”

“Nice.” He stops. “Well, this is mine.” We’ve arrived at his locker. My heart sinks. It’s just me from here on out.

“Okay. I’ll see you at A Lunch?”

“Uh...yeah. Save me a seat, if you get there first.”

“Will do.” I stick out my fist. He balls his hand and stacks it on top of mine, then moves it under my fist and hits up on my hand. He moves it back up to level with my fist, and we knuckle-bump. Lastly, he puts his hands up, and I point my finger at him like a gun and pretend to shoot. “I’m out. Catch you later,” I smile. I start walking away.

“Go forth and kick ass,” he grins.

“Always,” I reply.

After a quick stop at my locker, I head to Ms. Barnes’ room. I walk in, half expecting who I see. I quickly survey the room. Justin, Melissa, Kelsey, and a couple of popular guys - The Crew - are all seated at a clump of desks in the back corner. I mean, I’m not surprised. Our school is so small, there’s only about eighty kids in my grade. And if you’re not one of the mega-geniuses taking all advanced classes (read: Calvin), you’re stuck in the basic level class with the usual miscreants.

I pick an empty seat on the opposite side of the room from The Crew. I sling my backpack onto the back of my chair and slump down in my seat. Maybe they haven’t noticed me. Oh, wait.

“Hey, Kansas!” Justin calls. I glance over out of habit. He’s waving at me and flashes that arrogant grin.

“Blow yourself,” I retort, turning away. I refuse to look at them. I just look straight ahead, lean my head on my hand and prop my arm on my desk.

“Funny, I thought that was your job,” Andrew, one of the popular boys, snickers.

“Please, she’s a desperate slut. She’ll do anything for attention,” Melissa chimes in. Haha how funny, coming from you.

Just then, Ms. Barnes bursts into the room, a satchel hanging from her shoulder and a travel mug in her hand.

“Good morning, class!” she trills. She is tall and rail-thin, with translucent skin and light blonde hair pulled into a French twist. She wears glasses, a pencil skirt, and blouse. She is still young enough to be considered pretty by the male students. It pisses girls like Mel and Kel off; they know Ms. Barnes is their boyfriends’ wet dream. “Those of you who had me last year, good to see you again. I hope you all had a great summer.” While she speaks, she drops her messenger bag into her rolling chair and rapidly plucks things from it, arranges them on her desk. Then she pads to the blackboard. “Pull out your notebooks, please, and a writing utensil,” she instructs with her back turned to us. She picks up a piece of chalk, and we watch it scrape across the board. Dust falls from it as she writes today’s date, plus a question: What’s in a name?

She smacks her hands together to get the dust off, then turns around to address us.

“If you were in my class last year, you’ll know I always start my lessons off with a journal prompt. Every morning, I’ll put a question up on the board, and I’d like you to write a one-paragraph response in your notebook. At the end of the week I’ll collect your journals and read your entries just to ensure that you did them. It’s credit/no credit, an easy five points per week.” She takes a sip of her coffee. We all stare blankly back. “To quote Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ Would any of you like to tell me what you think that means?” She looks intently at us, her eyes roving from The Crew to the Rastafarians to the Goths, past the desperate male virgin dying to get laid and the repressed formerly homeschooled grandma girl. No one is taking the bait. Great. Now she’ll be forced to call on someone. She picks the angsty man-hater.

“Jennifer, what do you think it means?” Ms. Barnes asks the girl sitting in front of me.

“Quite honestly, I don’t wish to answer. Why every teacher insists on referencing only dead white men is, quite honestly, offensive. It perpetuates the rule of the patriarchy. Next time, pick Maya Angelou or Sylvia Plath. Then you can ask me for my opinion,” she snarks. Ms. Barnes looks taken aback.

“Thank you, Jennifer. I’ll keep that in mind.” She smiles tightly. “Anyone else? Okay. Well this morning I’d like you to reflect on what your name means. It could be your first name, your family name, a nickname. You could write about its literal definition, or why your family or friends chose it. I’ll give you the next ten minutes to think about it and write it down.”

I stare at my open notebook page. I could write some made-up bullshit about how I was named for Michael Stephanie, which of course was the running joke my whole life. Every new school I attended, kids would be like, “Sing ‘Thriller’! Do the Moon-Walk!” I hated that.

I could tell the real story behind my name. But that would take too long, and I don’t need to relive my old stupid idealism.

Or...

I take up pen and begin to scribble. My writing is chickenscratch. Nine times out of ten, people can’t tell what I’m writing. I’m safe.

They call me Kansas because I’m flat, I write. But I’m not really flat. That’s the thing. They’ve all been told I stuff my bra and that I’m some big fake. They believe it because a boy told them that. Not just any boy. But a popular boy. I guess he did it because I wouldn’t let him have me. It must have hurt his ego pretty bad. Because the day after I rejected him, the whole school thought I was a bra stuffer. And that’s how they came up with the nickname Kansas for me. Because my chest is supposedly as flat as the Great Plains.

Ten minutes is up, and I’ve got my paragraph. It’s kinda freeing, but petrifying at the same time.

Ms. Barnes passes out a stack of novels down each row of desks. Jennifer hands back the reduced stack to me. I take a copy and pass it back. The Sun Also Rises. Ernest Hemingway. Uh-oh. Jenny’s not gonna like that.

“For the next few weeks,” Ms. Barnes speaks up, “we’ll be reading The Sun Also Rises in class. Now, it’s important that we first understand the context in which it was written. The author, Ernest Hemingway, was a veteran of the First World War. He moved to Paris in the 1920s and joined a group of expatriates...”

The lesson ticks on, until the 45-minute class is finally over. We spend two-thirds of it trying to shut up the chit-chatters so Ms. Barnes can actually teach. We manage to touch on the Lost Generation just before the bell rings.

“No homework,” Ms. Barnes concludes. Everybody is already diving to get out of the classroom. “See you tomorrow.”

Amid all the chaos and confusion of students stampeding to the door, I miss something vital: Justin has moved to a seat near the door, next to the aisle I’m walking down. He sticks a leg out, and I go down. I throw my hands out to catch myself. It’s embarrassing more than it is painful. Justin and his pals burst into laughter. The gross tile I land on, coated in dust and muddy shoe prints, comes into focus. It looks up at me, urging me to stand up and fight. I took it all last year. I’m done taking it. This is a new year. They don’t own me.

I push myself up. I stand to my full height of 5-8, broaden my shoulders and puff up my chest. I turn to face them. They’re crowded around me, still in hysterics. Do I fight ’em? Do I lose my cool and beat the snot out of Justin?

No. That would just confirm in their eyes that I’m unstable. I stare them down, my face impassive, until their laughter dies.

I look Justin straight in those gorgeous blue eyes, set my jaw, and utter, “I’ll see you at practice.” Then I turn on my heel and walk away, feeling the chains starting to loosen. I may not be completely free from them, but it’s a start.

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