Don't Bring Me Down
The minute I walk into school Monday morning, I can feel it: the change. This is what I wanted all along.
And now, I finally have it.
All eyes are on me, per usual, but this time they’re filled with something else - wonder?Admiration? Respect? Awe? Not sure. But it’s something good. I’ll take as much of it as I can get.
I paid special attention to my look today. Full makeup. Cut-off shorts with black tights underneath. Combat boots. A t-shirt that says “Save Ferris” that I found at Goodwill. Jean jacket. Sunglasses. Looking fly, if I do say so myself.
Watch out, Truman high. Here comes Stevie Rogers.
Calvin and I walk down the bright hallway lined with lockers, passing the very people who cheered for me at Friday night’s game. I envision us walking in slow-motion, a fan dramatically blowing our hair behind us, montage music blasting. We are stars today. Royalty. High school doesn’t get much better than this.
As we pass, people hold out fists for me to bump and call, “Hey! Slammin’ game on Friday!“, “Sup, Stephanie! Snaps for Friday’s win,” and “Girl, you was dope on that field!”
I bump fists with total strangers, beaming and repeating “Thanks, man.”
Cal grabs stuff from his locker, I grab stuff from mine, and he walks me to English. I slide into class feeling like the dankest O.G. in town. I’m feeling so good and so bold, I claim a seat next to The Crew. I mean, they are my teammates, after all.
“Hey, homies,” I say, dropping my backpack and kicking my feet up.
The boys looks at me like they don’t know what to think. But they don’t say anything. So that’s good.
Melissa has moved her desk so it’s touching Justin’s, and she’s sharing his chair with him, leaning her head in the crook of his neck. I stifle a smirk. She has no clue he’s cheating on her with a guy. Hahaha.
She tosses her springy auburn hair over her shoulder and glares at me. She sniffs. As if her petty girlisms are supposed to bother me.
“You must really think you’re the shit now,” she snarls. I just smile back - a wide, toothy grin.
Ms. Barnes enters the classroom in a flurry. She drops her satchel onto her chair, throws down a stack of loose papers, sets down her coffee mug, and starts writing on the board.
“Did you guys catch the Browns game last night?” I say, trying to get The Crew to talk to me. It’s a 50/50 shot that they’ll just stare at me and not say a word.
Finally, Jamal nods.
“Yeah,” he says. “That was a brutal fourth quarter...”
Now Justin jumps in. Wooooow.
“But they played tight D the first half,” Justin adds. Melissa shoots daggers at him. “Their offense just wasn’t delivering.”
I smile. They’re talking to me civilly. Pinch me; I’m dreaming.
“Okay, class!” Ms. Barnes trills. “Your journal prompt is on the board! You have ten minutes - Go!”
I pull out my notebook and a pen. The prompt reads, “Who is your favorite poet/What is your favorite poem? Why?”
I chew on the pen cap.
I know exactly how to answer this: Maya Angelou.
Back in the spring, when I felt alone, I found myself wandering to the public library after school. It was the one place I knew I would never see anyone from school, so it felt safe. I would hide there for hours and get lost among the stacks. I spent so much time there that the librarian, Mrs. Watkings, an adorable little old lady, learned my name and recommended books to me. I never told her any specifics, but I did tell her that I didn’t like school because the kids were mean. She always seemed to know what book to lend me. “Like medicine for the soul,” she’d say. “All the answers are in this building. You just have to find the right book.”
She introduced me to Maya Angelou’s poetry and memoirs. I fell in love with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I memorized a bunch of her poems - I honestly memorize everything without really trying - and I’d have to say my favorite is either “Caged Bird” or “Still I Rise”.
I scribble this all down in my journal, along with a few lines from “Still I Rise”:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
I write it all - the poem, the library, Maya Angelou, and how she gets me. Then time is up, and Ms. Barnes is calling on people to share. Jennifer is the first to volunteer.
“If I had to choose a favorite,” she reads, “I’d choose Adrienne Rich. A radical feminist, a gifted poet, and a lesbian, her work has had a major impact not only on my life but - ”
“Anyone else?” Ms. Barnes cuts her off.
Blaze (formerly Jacob) raises his hand.
“I found a poet on an Internet forum,” he pipes up, timid as a mouse. “They really speak to my soul. They write about how they don’t know what they are - they don’t know if they’re a boy or a girl or even a human at all. And they have this dark cloud that never seems to go away, pushing down on them, suffocating them. And they struggle with cutting and eating too much and then puking it up, and they’re struggling to find the will to live - ”
“Does anyone have anything else they’d like to share?” Ms. Barnes interrupts, sounding truly disturbed. You’d think she would’ve learned by now not to ask us to participate. “Stephanie, how about you? Read us what you wrote.” She smiles encouragingly.
I look down at the poem and my reflection on Maya Angelou.
I can’t let them hear this part of me! I’ll sound weak or like a basketcase. Especially not now that I’m finally sitting with The Crew. Quick! Think, Stevie, think!
Everyone is looking at me, waiting to see what I’ll do next.
“Well...” I say slowly, drawing out the word so I can think. “Personally I’m enamored by the genius of The Sugarhill Gang. Their verse is second to none in depth and device...” Everyone is looking at me in complete confusion. I clear my throat. “Consider these striking lyrics: I said, a hip. Hop. Hippie to the hippie. The hip, hip a hop, and you don’t stop - Someone give me a beat,” I say, my voice bouncing with rhythm.
One of the guys in The Crew - Andersen - cups a hand over his mouth and begins beatboxing.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about,” I grin. I jump in on his beat. ”Bubba to the bang bang boogie, boobie to the boogie/To the rhythm of the boogie the beat.
Now, what you hear is not a test I’m rappin’ to the beat
And me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet
See, I am Wonder Mike, and I’d like to say hello
To the black, to the white, the red and the brown
The purple and yellow, but first, I gotta - ”
My body is bobbing to the rhythm. People have started clapping to the beat.
“That’s enough,” Ms. Barnes says shakily, but the class is too far gone. Overcome with boldness, I jump out of my chair and climb up on my desk, rapping and letting the beat move my body.
"Bang bang, the boogie to the boogie
Say up jump the boogie to the bang bang boogie
Let’s rock, you don’t stop
Rock the rhythm that’ll make your body rock
Well so far you’ve heard my voice but I brought two friends along
And the next on the mic is my man Hank
C’mon, Hank, sing that song, check it out.
Y’all got it - come on, join me! Ready here we go -
I said a hip hop
The hippie to the hippie
The hip hip a hop, and you don’t stop, a rock it
To the bang bang boogie, say up jump the boogie
To the rhythm of the boogie, the beat
A skiddleebebop, we rock, scooby doo
And guess what, America, we love you!”
By this time, most of the kids are rapping with me. Ms. Barnes, whose face turned red and looked overcome with grief, silently left the room. The inmates have taken over the asylum. We got people banging the beat on their desks, clapping, snapping, grooving and shaking. I keep rapping.
"Have you ever went over a friends house to eat
And the food just ain’t no good?
I mean the macaroni’s soggy, the peas are mushed
And the chicken tastes like wood
So you try to play it off like you think you can
By saying that you’re full
And then your friend says, “mama, he’s just being polite
He ain’t finished, uh-uh, that’s bull!”
So your heart starts pumpin’ and you think of a lie
And you say that you already ate
And your friend says “man, there’s plenty of food”
So you pile some more on your plate
While the stinky food’s steamin’, your mind starts to dreamin’
Of the moment that it’s time to leave
And then you look at your plate and your chicken’s slowly rottin’
Into something that looks like cheese
Oh so you say “that’s it, I gotta leave this place
I don’t care what these people think
I’m just sittin’ here makin’ myself nauseous
With this ugly food that stinks”
So you bust out the door while it’s still closed
Still sick from the food you ate
And then you run to the store for quick relief
From a bottle of Kaopectate
And then you call your friend two weeks later
To see how he has been
And he says, “I understand about the food
Baby Bubba, but we’re still friends”
With a hip hop the hippie to the hippie
The hip hip a hop, a you don’t stop the rockin’
To the bang bang boogie
Say up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie the beat!”
I look out across the classroom from my lofty position. A sea of laughter, smiles, head-bobbing, and shoulder-shaking greets me. Everyone’s gotten on board with something I started. I’ve single-handedly captured the attention of the whole room. My voice alone dominates. It’s a powerful feeling. An...addictive feeling. I never want to go back to the way things were before.
When I finish, the room erupts in applause and cheers. Everyone is laughing and grinning. I did that. I made them happy.
I bow, extend an arm to the left, extend an arm to the right, and blow kisses, hamming it up. “Thank you, thank you,” I laugh, donning a nasally, snobbish accent. I get down off the desk, and when I turn around, there is tweed-suited Vice-Principal Pinkney - arms akimbo, one foot tapping, brows so furrowed that they practically cover his glasses. Ms. Barnes is a ways behind him, clutching her hand to her forehead.
“My office. Now,” he growls. Although my facial muscles are still smiling, my stomach drops. The high is over. Here comes the crash.
He points his finger to the door, and I march. I’m a criminal on the way to execution. I had a good run. It was fun while it lasted.
I keep my head high as I trudge out of the room, down the hall, and to the office. He walks behind me, and when I sneak a look back, he snaps, “Eyes forward.”
We get to the office, and the secretaries say hello to me. Last year, I became well acquainted with them. When the harassment became too much, I’d fake sick and get sent to the office. The secretaries - Ms. Wardon and Mrs. Frund - would give me candy and pass on wisdom “from one woman to another”, usually about jackass men and how to deal with them. They became my friends, in a way.
I wave to them and smile. Vice-Principal Pinkney opens his wooden office door with his name emblazoned on it and ushers me inside. I take my place in a chair that I’m pretty sure had its legs sawed off to be significantly lower than the desk behind which Pinkney sits. In reality he’s shorter than me, but in this chair I am a munchkin.
He settles into a luscious-looking chair, folds his hands on his desk, and peers down at me from over his glasses. He clears his throat - and hacks up a lung in the process. It’s startling.
“Do you know why I brought you here?” he asks at last, regaining control of his diaphragm.
I stare at him blankly.
“Um...because I was standing on a desk, rapping?”
“No. Well - yes. But no. You disrupted the class, is what I am getting at. Ms. Barnes came in here, crying, because things were so out-of-control. You failed to listen to her instructions to stop, and for that, I must issue a punishment. Three lunch detentions, and you’re suspended from one game.”
My mouth has unconsciously fallen agape. I don’t know what to do or say. I’m just stunned.
“You can’t do that,” I say. “You can’t suspend me from the game. I signed the code of conduct - I know I can only be suspended for bad grades, drugs, or alcohol usage.”
“Wrong,” he says, pointing a finger at me. “Those will get you kicked off the team, not suspended from a game. A single-game suspension is standard for behavioral infractions.”
It’s unraveling. I’m losing control again, getting forced into uncomfortable positions and backed into corners.
“Vice-Principal Pinkney, please, don’t suspend me from the game. I will do anything - literally anything. If you want me to - I don’t know, lick all the chalk boards clean, I will. If you want me to - scrape gum off the bottom of every desk in this building, I will. Just don’t take football away from me. Please. Please, Vice-Principal Pinkney.”
I can’t think of anything else to say that would change his mind. I just look at him helplessly, my expression pleading for mercy.
He squints an eye at me, studying. Then he says, “I saw your big debut Friday night. I know you think you’re hot stuff now. A dose of humility could do you some good.” He gets up, lumbers over to a closet, opens the door, and pulls out what looks like a broomstick with a tennis ball attached to one end. He extends it to me. I take it.
“You’ll be scrubbing every scuff mark off of all the tile flooring in the whole building. It should take you the rest of the day. Make sure you get every last one - I will inspect - or you will get a single-game suspension. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yessir,” I say. A smile breaks across my face. I’ve never been so happy to be punished in all my life. Mostly because it’s this particular punishment, and not the one I’d feared. “Thank you, sir!”
He shakes his head.
“Oh, don’t thank me yet. Give it a few hours and you’ll see what I mean. I write all your teachers that you’ll be absent from class today on the basis of punishment. You’ll still have to make up all the work you missed, though.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Good,” he says, his mouth forming a thin smile. “Now, get out of my sight. I don’t want to see you until the job is done.”
He opens the door for me, and I exit the office, tennis ball-stick in hand. I spend the rest of the day hunched over, arms throbbing, scrubbing at the scuff marks on the hallway, gym, auditorium, and cafeteria floors. But it’s not all bad: It’s the perfect opportunity to sing and dance to my heart’s content. While everyone else is in class, I dance up and down the hallways, using the stick as a prop or a microphone stand. I get to test out my pipes in the glorious acoustics of the auditorium. And no one is around to judge me.
But after this morning, I don’t think they would, even if they did catch me. I’m somewhere in the twilight zone between social acceptance and popularity now. And that is a fine place to be.