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.
I closed my writing journal, placing it on the table in front of me. I cautiously avoided making eye contact with my classmates. At least I was the last person sharing our entries this week. Maybe everyone else was daydreaming and not really paying attention to what I was saying.
A lot of my classmates had written some pretty creative short stories. My reflections always seemed to center around how inadequate I felt around them. Voicing those fears aloud made me feel entirely too vulnerable.
At least it didn’t sound like it had been written by a kindergartener. Last night, Walter had read through it, suggesting places to incorporate this week’s vocabulary words. But, reading it aloud just now still felt awkward. As if I were pretending to be smarter than I actually was.
With a sigh, I opened my journal, scribbling that last thought at the bottom of the page. My classmates were already leaving. I placed my book on the stack and followed them out of the room. I was the last to leave, nearly bumping into the person standing just outside the door.
I recognized him. He usually sat several seats away from me. He looked like he was waiting for someone. Probably Mr. Johnson. I quickly stepped around him and headed into the stairwell.
He followed me. “I feel that way, too.”
I looked around. Was he talking to me? And where was Sarah? He kept talking as we made our way to the ground floor.
“Thanks for writing that. I like knowing I’m not the only one who feels like they don’t belong.”
Was he complementing me or criticizing me? I wasn’t quite sure.
“I mean, well, I don’t really know how to say what I mean. Which is what you were trying to say, right?”
We had made our way outside the building. As we headed toward the dorms, I tried to get a better look at him. Although we were in class together, I had never really looked at him before. He was a little stocky, his sandy brown hair spiked with highlighted tips. He smelled faintly of a cologne named Surfer Dude that I had walked past in the mall this summer.
I had absolutely no idea what his name was. I was pretty sure it began with an L. Louis? Lex? I figured that was probably the most important question I could ask if I was going to continue this conversation.
“Okay. I know this is probably incredibly rude, seeing as how we’ve been in class together for like, two weeks now, but I’m horrible with names and drawing a complete blank, even though Mr. Johnson said it half an hour ago.”
He laughed. “Mike.” He held out his hand. “Mike Carson.”
“Melinda Luzzelli.” I shook his hand, giggling at his formality. “It’s not exactly that I don’t know how to say what I mean. It’s more like, when I write it down, it sounds like I’m in the third grade, not the third form.”
We had passed his dorm. As we approached the front steps of mine, he checked his phone. “I’ve got a few minutes before I need to get to football. What about you? What sport do you do?”
“Dance. Tap and Ballet.”
“Excellent. Excellent. So, maybe we can get together before dinner?”
I had no idea what I was supposed to say. “Um, sure?”
“Excellent. Excellent. Would you like to, I don’t know, grab something at the MAC? Maybe have a picnic on the football field?”
I took a deep breath before responding. “Um, sure.”
“Excellent. Excellent. I’ll meet you there at 5:30? On the front stairs.” I shrugged, then nodded. He smiled at me. “Excellent. Excellent. I’ll see you then.”
Mike raised his hand in a small wave. I watched him head back to his dormitory before running up to my room.
Sarah was obviously waiting for me. “So?”
I dropped my bag on the bed while I searched for my dance clothes. I knew exactly what Sarah was asking me. But, she had ditched me. The least I could do was feign ignorance.
“What did Mike want? He was like, the first one out of the room. He had to be waiting for you. So, what did he want?”
I shrugged. “He liked what I read today.”
“Well, it was pretty good. Was that all he had to say? Good job on your journal? You were awfully slow coming back to the room.”
I could feel my cheeks growing warm. “Well, we talked for a minute or two, then he asked me to have a picnic tonight.”
“And? We’re gonna grab food at the MAC.”
“And what about Walter?”
“What about Walter?” I waited, but Sarah didn’t respond. When she raised her eyebrows at me, I gave an exasperated sigh. “I already told you. I don’t think of Walter like that.”
She shrugged. “So, you don’t mind if I tell him where you are? Who you’re with?”
I frowned. “I do mind. But, not because I like him or anything. It’s just not his business. It’s not anyone’s business. If anyone asks, just tell them I decided to have dinner at the MAC. They don’t need to know who with.”
I grabbed my dance bag, leaving the room in a huff. Sarah called to me as I hurried down the stairs.
“Melinda, wait!” Her tone no longer contained its earlier joviality. She touched my arm lightly as she caught up to me at the bottom of the stairs. “Hey. I was just teasing you. I’m happy for you. I won’t tell anyone. Do you still plan to study with Walter tonight? If he asks.”
“Okay. Well, make sure you leave as soon as study hours are over because I want to hear everything.”
I was very jittery sitting on the MAC steps, waiting for Mike to arrive. Maybe he wouldn’t show up. Had I misunderstood him? Maybe he didn’t want to have dinner with me? Maybe he had asked me out as a joke and was watching me, laughing as I sat alone on the steps.
Of course, maybe I hadn’t misunderstood. Maybe he was going to show up. If he did, I had no idea what I was supposed to do or say. Eating at the snack bar was different from the dining hall. We would have to pay for our food. Were we each paying for our own meals? Since he had asked me out, was he intending to pay for me? He wasn’t expecting me to pay for him, was he?
Mike’s voice brought me back to the moment. Glancing up, I immediately felt overdressed. A lot of students liked to change into jeans after classes, especially when they weren’t eating in the dining hall. Mike was no exception. I had opted for a pretty purple blouse that matched the purple flowers in my long, dark skirt.
I got to my feet, smoothing my skirt as I smiled at him. “Oh, hi.”
Mike’s voice was full of energy. “Hungry?”
Not really. The butterflies in my stomach were masking any signs of hunger. But, he didn’t need to know that. “Um, sure.”
“Excellent. Excellent. C’mon.”
He casually took my hand, leading me up the steps into the building. We made our way to the second story, weaving through the people making their way outside or to play video games on the main level.
This was the first time I had been to the MAC Attack while it was open. I was surprised by the number of people that were there. Mike never let go of my hand as we studied the menu in silence. Eventually, he turned to me.
“So, have you eaten here yet?”
“Well, I recommend the burgers. They’re much better than the ones they had at lunch yesterday. And, the milkshakes are pretty good, too.”
I was going to order a grilled cheese, but a burger didn’t sound so bad. When we reached the front of the line, Mike went to the register first. He ordered a bacon cheeseburger basket, which came with fries, and a strawberry milkshake. Then, he handed the cashier his student ID. With a sigh of relief, I watched him walk to the opposite end to pump ketchup into tiny containers.
I ordered a cheeseburger basket and chocolate milkshake. When I joined Mike, he handed me two small containers of ketchup.
“I heard you order fries, so I got you some ketchup.”
“Thanks.” I grabbed a straw and some napkins while I waited for my basket. It turned out to be a flimsy paper box about the size of a small shoebox.
Mike and my orders were called together. After we grabbed the boxes, I followed Mike out of the building, all the way to the bleachers near the fifty-yard line. We sat in silence a few minutes, straddling the seats with our food between us. I had no idea what to say.
Eventually, the silence became too uncomfortable, so I asked the first question that came to my mind. “So, how’ve your classes been so far?”
“Not bad. Not bad. Harder than I thought they would be. But, not too bad. English is probably the hardest for me.”
“Me, too! I just don’t get how we’re supposed to make all these connections.”
“Exactly! It’s too . . . I don’t know the word. It’s not cut and dry. Abstract? Is that the right word?”
I shrugged. “Sounds right.”
Mike continued without acknowledging me. “That’s why I like Spanish. There are rules. You learn them and you pass the test.”
I remembered my Latin test the other day and grimaced. “I’m still struggling to learn all the rules for Latin. But, I get what you’re saying. I feel that way about math.”
Mike groaned. “I have the worst math teacher. I don’t understand anything he does on the board. I have to do the homework a day early so I can understand the class. If I don’t do well on his test, I think I might bring it up with the dean.”
I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to respond to that. Our conversation died as we ate our food. Eventually, the silence again grew awkward and I asked the first question I could think of.
“So, um, what other classes are you taking?”
“English, Spanish, math, physics, and acting.”
“That sounds interesting. You like acting?”
“Well, I thought it would be easy, since I used to act in commercials when I was younger. But, we’re doing Shakespeare, which is stage acting and completely different.”
I still had no idea what to say. Thankfully, Mike broke the silence this time.
“What about you. What classes are you taking?”
“Oh, well. I have, um, English, math, Latin, physics, and drawing. Oh, and orchestra.”
“Orchestra sounds cool. I don’t play any instruments. What do you play?”
“Excellent, Excellent. That doesn’t meet during the day, does it?”
I shook my head as I slurped the dredges of my milkshake. “Nah. It meets during study hours.”
“Are you any good?”
I shrugged. “I sit at the end of the second row, which is probably the worst chair, but I don’t mind. I play to have fun, not to be the best. Besides, my friend Caroline sits in front of me. Which, is actually a very good seat, even if it’s not first chair.”
“What kind of music do you play?”
“Well, Mr. Williams said we would be playing marches this season, but last night we just focused on learning the school song for tomorrow’s meeting.”
“Ugh. That song is so dated. Remember at orientation, how someone asked to rewrite it? I can’t remember who that was, but I hope he does it.”
“That might be cool, I guess. I kinda liked when the whole school sang it for convocation. And at the all-school meeting. It gave the room a kind of energy.”
I wasn’t explaining it right. I could tell Mike couldn’t understand the feeling I was talking about, so I quickly changed the subject. “So, do you have any hobbies?”
Mike beamed. “Well, there’s football, of course. I’ve been playing forever, but I don’t think the coach was even watching me during try-outs because I should have made varsity. I think they automatically put all the third-formers on the JV team.”
I thought it best not to mention my friend was on varsity. Besides, he was talking so animatedly, I wasn’t sure he would even hear me.
“I also like to ski, but there’s no team here. That’s a bummer, but maybe I’ll just go up to the mountains every weekend once it starts getting cold. I suppose if I get really bored, I could just call my agent and do some more commercials.”
“What commercials were you in?”
“Oh, lots. I was in a series of soup commercials. ’That was yummy! Can I have some more?’ That was me.”
“Oh, I remember those! That’s so cool that that was you!”
“I also did some commercials for baby soap. ’Ow! Mommy! That hurt my eyes.’ And ’See, Mommy? It doesn’t hurt my eyes anymore!’ That was when I was a lot smaller, though.”
“I don’t remember that one.”
“Yeah, I’m not surprised. It was one of my first and not one of my best.”
Again, I had no clue what to say. I wanted to check my phone so I could make up an excuse to leave. Or text Sarah for advice. I wracked my brain. What hadn’t I asked him yet?
“So, where are you from?”
This time, I did check the time. I still had nearly an hour before I needed to get to the library. We were both done eating. We obviously didn’t have enough in common to have a dialogue that lasted more than a few exchanges. Although I didn’t really want to lie to Mike, I tried to think of a good excuse to leave.
Mike glanced at his phone. “Hey! You wanna go for a walk? We can take the long way back to the dorms.”
“Um, sure?” Maybe we would pass something interesting enough to spark a conversation.
We gathered our trash, depositing it in one of the waste receptacles on the edge of the field as we headed away from the MAC. Mike hand again found mine as we crossed the street. On our way to the pond, he turned to me.
“So, there’s a shuttle to the movies Sunday. Would you like to go with me? There’s a new Kara McGregor movie playing.”
I had been planning on using Sunday to catch up on my schoolwork. Maybe if I broke my no homework on Saturday rule, I would be able to spare a couple of hours for the movies without falling too far behind.
“Um, sure. That sounds great. What time’s the shuttle?”
“Excellent. Excellent. I was thinking the 11:30 one. Maybe grab a bite to eat before the show.”
“Excellent. Excellent. I’ll meet you where we met today? At 11:20?”
I was still smiling when I bounced into the library at the beginning of study hours that night. Walter was already there. He greeted me absently as I quickly unpacked my books.
“Hey. Where’s Bella?”
Walter didn’t look up from whatever he was writing. “She had a Pep Squad meeting. How was your dinner?”
Was it me, or was there a note of bitterness in Walter’s voice. I decided to ignore it. “Fine, I guess. How’d your physics test go?”
“I don’t like him.”
“Mr. Peters? Isn’t he also your house advisor? Why don’t you like him?”
“What? No. I don’t like Mike.” Walter finally looked across the table at Melinda.
“What are you talking about? What did Sarah say?”
“Sarah didn’t say anything.” Frustration and bitterness were dripping through his words. “Mike was bragging about it on the field this afternoon. He didn’t say your name, but he was talking about his big date with—” Walter quickly bowed his head, writing furiously as he turned the color of a tomato.
“What? What did he say?”
“I don’t really remember.” Walter wouldn’t meet my eyes. I had a feeling he was lying to me. I let him continue. “But, I saw you sitting on the MAC steps, and I saw him take your hand, so I assumed you had dinner with him.”
“Okay. So, what do you have against him?”
Walter snarled. “He’s arrogant. Conceited. Pompous.”
“He’s . . . huh?” Those words sounded vaguely familiar, but I had no idea what Walter was trying to tell me.
“No. I am not your dictionary!” Walter grabbed my assignment pad and scribbled the words on the bottom of the page. “Not this time.” He practically threw the notebook at me before plopping into one of the wingback chairs with his programming textbook.
I didn’t want to waste time looking up the vocabulary words, but I was confused by Walter’s behavior. Maybe if I started reading aloud, Walter would join me. Since I didn’t want to start something without him, I decided to review the problems in my physics workbook.
Either Walter didn’t hear my quiet voice, or he was ignoring me. Either way, he stayed in his chair for a full half hour before returning to the table. By then, I had finished the workbook and moved on to the actual assignment.
He still didn’t talk to me. It took a long time to do the work on my own. When I finished, I closed the book with an exasperated sigh. Walter let out his own sigh of frustration and pulled my notebook to him. He wordlessly made some pencil marks on page before returning it and opening his math book.
I looked at what he had circled. I had mostly made careless computational errors. I made the changes then swapped notebooks. Walter moved his book to the center of the table with another sigh.
“Look, I’m sorry. Mike rubbed me the wrong way. I’m just trying to look out for you.”
I wasn’t really sure if I was ready to forgive his outburst. I certainly didn’t want to start another one. I spoke in a guarded tone. “I appreciate your concern.”
Walter’s response was equally cautious. “So? Are you gonna see him again?”
“Well, yeah. Monday. In English class.”
He smiled. “Ha, ha. You know that’s not what I meant.”
“I know. I just wanted to make you laugh. We’re going to the mall Sunday to see the new Kara McGregor movie. Maybe you and Bella can come with us.”
Walter’s smile quickly turned into a sulk. “Not going to happen.”
“Why not? I thought you wanted her to be your girlfriend.”
“It’s not that. It’s a long story, but . . . just, do me a favor. Never mention that movie again, okay?”
I was confused, but I wanted keep the peace with Walter. I just nodded, mumbling an okay as I turned my notebook for him to check his answers. Smiling, he compared the two pages silently, making a few marks before returning the notebook and fixing his mistakes.
Sarah was sitting at her desk writing feverishly in her German workbook when I returned to our room. “Ooh! Yay! You’re back!” She quickly glanced at the clock before throwing her pen on her notebook with a flourish and hopping onto her bed. “Tell me everything!”
I sat on my own bed, back against the wall. It took most of the break to tell Sarah about the night, from Mike’s initial hi on the MAC steps to my own final goodnight on the Woodward steps. I shared every awkward silence and all the instances of hand-holding. I noted the way Mike kept saying excellent, excellent and lamented about how I lamely continued to respond to his questions with um, sure. I explained that I thought the night was going poorly and was trying to think of an excuse to leave, but he must have thought it was going well, since he ended up asking me out for Sunday.
When I finished giving Sarah all the details of my night with Mike, I then went on to explain the incident with Walter in the library. The only thing I didn’t share was Walter’s reaction to the movie. Something in my gut suggested that should be kept confidential.
Sarah rolled her eyes when I was done. “Well, of course Walter was upset. He’s jealous. But, he’s had two weeks to ask you out. It’s his own fault, really.”
“He’s not jealous. He likes Bella.”
“No. Bella likes him.”
“He asked her to study with us.”
“Maybe he was trying to make you jealous.”
“But, we’re not like that.”
“Yeah, but does he know that?”
I wasn’t sure of the answer.
Saturday, September 23
I had a dream I was sitting on the beach with my friends when my parents arrived. They were harbingers, but their message was so labyrinthine that their warning remained an enigma I could not understand.
Unfortunately, while I was anticipating plaudits, I instead received a harangue about my reprehensible test grades. They were waving my report card back and forth, asking whether this document was credible and true, and whether they should speak with the dean to abrogate my admission to Hartfield.
The report card was replaced by a suitcase, and as I pleaded my case, trying to convince my parents I could work harder to improve my grades, I awoke, nuzzling, my pillow, weeping.
It was this moment that I realized I truly want to stay at Hartfield and I want to try to do better. So, I am going to try harder. I will contact my teachers for extra help when I don’t understand something. I will study diligently, even if it means sacrificing time with my friends. I am not ready to become a complete hermit, but I will make a resolution not to play with my friends until my work is completed.
I am determined to do whatever it takes to not fail out of this school.
Pat’s story will begin in March
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Stay tuned. Episode 15 will be released on Tuesday, February 23.