I looked around the church hall while I waited for my class to begin. My eyes landed on a familiar face across the room. Baffled, I went to sit beside him.
“What on Earth are you doing here?”
Eliot’s face turned bright red. “Oh. Hey. I thought I saw you sitting over there.”
I was full of questions. They spilled out before I could stop them. “How are you? What are you doing in Oakville? Did I see you in the pizza place last week?”
He shrugged and I watched a short debate in his facial expressions before he finally answered me. “Yeah. That was me. I thought I saw you. I wanted to say hi, but you were with a bunch of people and my uncle was waiting for me in the car.”
“I tried to text you. To ask if I had just seen you.”
“Yeah. I don’t have my phone anymore. Your friends probably already told you what happened, right?”
How would Sarah and Walter know about Eliot? It took me a minute to realize he meant my friends at home. I shook my head. “Um, no. Not really. I think they tried to tell me something, but it made absolutely no sense. Honestly, I haven’t talked to them much since I moved here. It’s been so busy.”
“Oh.” Eliot sounded slightly disappointed. For the first time, I wondered if maybe he didn’t want to tell me the story. “Well, when we started high school, everyone sort of changed. Nick and Greg started hanging out with some older guys. One of them was like, really into gaming, just like Greg, and the two of them started designing their own game. Then, they decided it would be better to play it for real. And, they needed more bodies. Somehow, they got me involved.”
Eliot sounded bitter and angry, but I said nothing. He didn’t seem to be waiting for a response. “I can’t go into details. I’ve been told not to. But, the short version is that some of us were arrested. My dad’s a lawyer, and I told him everything. And, he believes me that I was basically an innocent bystander. I’m not going to trial like some of the other guys.”
I was in shock. The Eliot I remembered wouldn’t do anything illegal. Had he really changed that much in such a short amount of time?
Eliot continued his story. “Because we were arrested on school property, we were all suspended until the legal stuff was done. My parents were furious and thought I would be better off far away from home. So, they arranged for me to come stay with my aunt and uncle. They took away my phone. My aunt monitors my computer usage. She literally sits next to me and watches what I’m doing. I’m only allowed to call my parents and I have to use the house phone. Until last week, my aunt wouldn’t even let me dial the number myself.”
He sent me an expectant look. What was I supposed to say? That didn’t sound anything like something he would do? His parents and aunt were being unfair?
I shook my head. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say. How’ve things been living with your aunt and uncle?”
Eliot shrugged. “It was a little rough at first, but mostly because I was so angry. But, I think I’ve started adjusting. I’m allowed to join some after school clubs, but I haven’t found any. Just band, and that’s actually a before-school club. I thought about joining . . .”
When it was obvious Eliot wasn’t going to continue the thought, I couldn’t help but smile. “What? What club could be that bad? Lemme see. I don’t see you doing chorus. Or drama. I could see you doing like, some sort of book club.”
Eliot smiled for the first time since I had sat down. “I forgot who I was talking to. The geek who went off to the smarty-pants boarding school.”
I gave him a playful punch on the shoulder. It seemed he was finally starting to relax.
“I was thinking of joining the math team.”
“I think that’s a great idea! Just, watch out for the real math nerds. They may not think you’re cool enough to join them.”
Eliot shrugged. “So, how’s Hartfield been?”
I sighed. “It’s a LOT of work. But, it’s also kinda fun. My roommate and I get along great and I’ve made some new friends.”
Before Eliot could respond, the woman with the clipboard called the room to attention. “Okay, everyone. We’re going to get started.”
After opening the meeting with a prayer, the woman began calling names, sorting us into the four classrooms around the hall. I was a little surprised when Eliot and I were sent to different rooms. Throughout middle school, we were always in the same classes.
I followed several other students into a windowless room. The only furniture were the two folding tables pushed together in a square with three chairs on each side. There was no clock on any of the four walls, only homemade posters containing slogans such as I am a Child of God and Jesus Loves Me.
A youngish man entered the room, closing the door behind him. He wore blue jeans and a light blue polo shirt, his brown hair in a crew cut. I instantly regretted selecting a seat near the door when he sat on the same side of the table as me. Thankfully, he had the courtesy to leave a space between us. His voice was mild as he greeted us.
“Good afternoon. My name is Deacon Bob and I will be your teacher for the first half of this year. After Christmas, I will switch with Deacon John so we may both have a chance to get to know all of you. Why don’t we go around the table and introduce ourselves. Tell me your names and why you’re here today.”
To my horror, Deacon Bob pointed to me. I had been hoping that he would decide to go in the opposite direction so I could be last.
My response was so quiet, I could hardly hear myself. “Um . . . My name . . . is Melinda. And, why . . . why I’m here?” I shrugged. If I couldn’t be honest in church, where else could I be? “My mom wants me to get confirmed so I’m here. I guess I can like, figure out later whether or not to receive Confirmation.”
“That’s an excellent answer and an excellent attitude.” Glancing around the room, I could see that I wasn’t the only one surprised by Deacon Bob’s response. “One of the reasons our program is so long is so that students truly understand the Sacrament of Confirmation and can make an informed decision, instead of being forced into it by their parents. It is my hope that over the next thirty months, you will all choose to receive the Holy Spirit, but you must realize that this decision is ultimately your choice and yours alone.”
I considered what he had just said as the rest of the class introduced themselves, most admitting they didn’t actually want to be there and were pleasing a parent, grandparent, or in one case, a friend. I had no idea what I would decide three years from now, but for the moment, I was determined to give this class as much attention as any of my other classes, even if it meant breaking my no homework on Saturday rule.
I was surprised when Deacon Bob dismissed the class. The ninety minutes had flown by. We all emerged from the four classrooms, converging in the main hall. Now that the classes had concluded, the clipboard lady seemed to be in slightly brighter spirits as she spoke over the din.
“For those of you who are new, we usually start and end our sessions here in the hall. Your parents are required to check in when they pick you up in order to receive more information about this week’s session, including what you need to complete for next week. When your parents arrive, have them come see me. If your parents are waiting in the car, please text them that they must come into the hall.”
I watched a hoard of people approaching the lady. They were all pointing furiously towards the parking lot. I sympathized with them, but I had a bigger problem. My parents lived two hours away. How were they supposed to come pick me up every week?
I spotted Eliot across the hall, speaking with a stern-looking woman. He kept looking in my direction. A few minutes later, he started walking towards me, the woman watching his back like a hawk.
He sent me a nervous smile. “Hey. I was thinking. My aunt and uncle are slowly starting to let me out of the house a little more. I was thinking maybe you and I can get together one day after school. Like, maybe at the coffee shop or something.”
I smiled. “I’d like that.”
“Great. What’s your number?”
I rattled it off as he scribbled it onto one of the handouts we had received in class. As he put the pen back into his pocket, he pointed over his shoulder with a smile.
“Thanks. I, uh, better get going. I’ll talk to you soon.”
I watched him leave before turning my attention back to the lady with the clipboard. There were only a few people speaking with her now. I took a deep breath and joined them. She sounded bored, speaking monotonously as she repeated the same question to each person.
“Is your parent here?”
Everyone had an excuse why their parent couldn’t come inside. Eventually, she turned to me.
“Is your parent here?”
I shook my head. “Um, no. I live at Hartfield. I walked here, and I’m not sure there’s anyone I know who could even give me a ride right now.”
The woman smiled for the first time that afternoon. “You must be Melinda.” I just nodded. “You will need to check in with me before you leave, but you don’t need to wait for a parent. I will be emailing your mother weekly with your assignments. If you find someone at the school to serve as your mentor, I would be able to copy that person on the email.”
I quickly headed towards the exit. As I made my way back to campus, I thought about that important piece of my homework. How was I ever going to find a mentor at school?
As I stepped onto campus, my mind wandered towards dinner. Should I go straight to the dining hall or should I grab my books from my dorm first? Other than Saturday nights, I couldn’t remember a single dinner where I didn’t have a full backpack. I made the quick detour to my dorm.
When I arrived at the dinner table, I was surprised to see so many of my friends missing. I glanced at the six people who were left. “Where is everyone?”
Walter shrugged. “Leif and Andy haven’t gotten back from their games yet. Everyone else is at the MAC.”
When I finished my pasta, I decided I really wanted to try the apple crisp I had seen in the dessert case. While I was in the servery, I refilled my glass of water. By the time I returned to my table, most of my friends had disappeared. Walter was staring at his empty plate while Sarah was talking to Larry.
“I wanted to write about it for my English journal, but I have no idea what he was talking about.”
I sent her a curious look. “What who was talking about?”
Larry used his fork to point in the direction of the chapel. “That guy at Reflections this morning.”
I vividly remembered the meeting we had attended between fourth and fifth period. “Yeah, I had no clue what he was saying, either.”
We all looked at Walter. He was lost in his own world, eating a plain apple as dessert after two helpings of spaghetti with meatballs and multiple glasses of milk. As was his habit, he didn’t bother to swallow before speaking.
Larry pointed at him. “You know everything. Tell us what Reflections Guy said.”
“I have no idea. I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Why not?” Sarah’s tone implied she knew where Walter’s mind had been.
I was surprised to see Walter turn the color of a tomato, but he didn’t say anything. I looked quickly between him and Sarah. She was smirking. He looked like he would rather be anywhere than sitting with us at that moment.
Larry turned to his girlfriend, nodding his head towards the exit. “Wanna go for a quick walk before study hours?”
She smiled. “Sounds good to me. See you two later.”
I watched them leave before turning to Walter. He was returning to his normal color, but he didn’t look ready to talk. I finished my pie in silence. As I took my last bite, I saw him glance at his phone.
“It’s a little early. You want to head upstairs anyway?”
I shrugged. “Might as well.” We cleared our tables in silence. Something was obviously on Walter’s mind. How could I get him to open up to me?
I waited until we were out of the dining hall before trying. “So have you written any journal reflections for Friday?”
“Not really. You?”
“A couple. Mr. Johnson wants me to use more adjectives and try to write two pages, but I can’t seem to do either.”
“I can help with that. In return, maybe you can read the three entries I suppose I’ll be writing tonight and you can help me decide which one to type out for Friday.”
It sounded like a fair exchange. It certainly wouldn’t hurt. I smiled at him, keeping my tone jovial. “I have to think about it. After today’s Reflections, I’m not sure I should be reading your journal.”
He chased me all the way up the stairs into our regular study room. But, he didn’t seem mad at me. We unpacked our books in silence before sitting across from each other. He opened the math book with a shrug.
“I have no idea what Sarah thinks I was daydreaming about, but I spent Reflections thinking about whether to ask Bella to study with me while you have orchestra tomorrow.”
“And, she was at my game today. So, I asked her. And she said yes.”
I couldn’t help it. I squealed. “Oh, yay!”
Walter raised his eyebrows. “So, how was your Confirmation class today?”
And there went my excitement. I groaned.
“No, it wasn’t bad. It’s just, more work.” I pointed towards my assignment pad. “We have to read an entire chapter of the workbook they gave us and email our teacher the answers to the questions at the end. Oh, and then we need to go to church every Sunday. And find a mentor who will make sure we do both of those things.”
“Well, that last one’s easy.” When he glanced up, he must have seen my puzzled look. “Duh! I’ll be your mentor. I already make sure you do your homework.”
I raised my eyebrows. He shook his head. “I mean, we’re study buddies. We hold each other accountable for our assignments. I would like to be your mentor.”
“And how are you gonna make me go to church?”
“I don’t know. I could probably threaten to call your mother if you skip church. Or, I could just go with you.”
I smirked. “Well, you don’t have my mother’s phone number, but I suppose you can be my mentor anyway.”
While we worked on our math homework, I summarized my religion class for Walter. He spent the rest of the night telling me about his football game and his conversation with Bella.
Friday, September 22
In the past few weeks, Hartfield has become more of a home to me than the place where I spent the first thirteen years of my life living with my parents and brother. However, I have spent half of my time here befuddled by the expectations and conversations around me. Much of my day, I am wondering whether I actually belong. I keep waiting to be summoned to the dean’s office. Sally will politely explain that they misread my application. They confused me with someone much smarter and they meant to accept that girl, not me.
School was never too difficult for me in the past and I would usually finish my homework on the bus. Now, it takes me hours, sometimes even days, to complete all my work, and most of the time it feels inadequate. Before, when it was my turn to share with the class, I would feel as confident as a flag billowing in the wind. Now, I try not to be noticed because my confidence factor is a negative digit.
Before, I would receive perfect scores on every spelling test and I always understood what my teachers were saying. Since starting Hartfield, I have been inundated with new vocabulary words. Sometimes, I feel such abasement, certain I am the only one who doesn’t understand what is going on. I find myself cowering in my seat, hoping the teacher does not call on me, because I am so lost. Many times, even though I know the teacher is discussing math or physics, it feels as if I am the victim of a harangue, attacking me for my ignorance.
English class has become one of my hardest classes, since the teacher is not the only one using words I do not understand. As I listen to my peers discuss the myths we have been reading, I realize they are able to make connections I am unable to fathom, using a vocabulary that is essentially a foreign language to me.
This past week, I have been trying to enhance my writing, attempting to improve it by using more vocabulary words. However, although this entry is now replete with new words, I still feel inadequate. All I have done is created a journal entry that is maladroit and does not really read very well. How am I supposed to use these new words in my everyday speech if I need to continually look up their definitions?
So, I continue to cower, hoping that my ineptitude remains unnoticed and that I never receive that summons.
Pat’s story will begin in March
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Stay tuned. Episode 14 will be released on Friday, February 19.