Part One: Cass
“We tend to think things are new because we just discovered them.”
― Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door
“I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night. Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
There were so many things to hate about middle school. So many reasons for an eighth grader to wish that it were possible to skip this stage of life altogether. But of course this had been unavoidable and Cass had been subjected to these terrible years. Thankfully, she was in the last of what had been three miserable years. And today like so many days before, hiding in the bathroom was the best alternative.
Sitting on the counter next to the faucets, Cass glanced at the time on her cell phone and then slid it back into her pocket. Her feet swung back and forth under the tiled sink. Although no one could hear her, she emitted an exaggerated sigh in exasperation. There was still twenty minutes of lunch remaining on this particular Wednesday.
For Cass, lunch was absolutely the worst part of the middle school schedule. She knew that most students looked forward to the time away from classes to sit and just chat with their friends. But to her, this time in the cafeteria was a horrible daily sentence to be served. It was loud and chaotic, and actually did bother some students, but rambunctious activity was actually the only part of lunch that she found appealing. The noise certainly wasn’t why she stayed as far away as possible from the basement. Instead, for her it was the daily ritual of being alone on such a public stage that made her want to avoid the setting of shame altogether.
Classes were bad, but this was worse. She could hide in the back of the aged rooms at MS _____ or at least feel like she was blending during Mr. _____’s science or Ms. ____’s English. In the classroom, she could quietly wait out the period without raising her hand and drawing unwanted attention to herself. Most importantly, she could blame her choice of seat on the teacher or a late arrival to class. But in the brightly lit cafeteria, no one could hide. Every time she slid into one of the long, grey benches at the tables, she felt like a spotlight shone on her for everyone to see. Walking among the tables in the cavernous room with no windows to the outside world, there was always a choice and your seat was a statement about who you were. Every uniformed student in all three grades could see who had no friends. And sometimes on the worst of days there, the laughter or the food thrown in her direction added insult to injury.
Her current location wasn’t ideal of course. There were wet gobs of used paper towels all over the floor, graffiti in all of the colors of the rainbows on the walls, and the terrible smell that was a mix of pee and bleach that wafted through the air. Still, this imperfect safe harbor was better to her than the alternative. The idea of eating here was not acceptable though, so she always ate her lunch quickly in the fourth floor stairwell as soon as the bell rang. After eating on the steps of the top floor in the most isolated corner of the building, she headed down the dark, dingy brown corridors to the nearby girls’ bathroom, which was usually miraculously off everyone’s radar.
She looked at her copy of To Kill A Mockingbird on the chipped counter also full of graffiti. She really didn’t feel like reading today. Twenty minutes remained before she would be forced to step out into the hallway and mix with the other students at the Advanced Preparatory Academy. Sooner than she’d like, waves of blue shirts and sweaters with khaki pants would quickly flood the corridors ending her solitary retreat.
Over the last two years, she had learned to survive in the hallways by drawing as little attention as possible to herself— especially avoiding one particularly mean group known as the Crew. As she passed through the sea of students on her way to classes, she always walked with her head down. It was better that way, to avoid eye contact. She also knew that it was important to move quickly and because of this, she had developed a brisk, unnatural gait for use only at school. It was harder to make fun of a moving target. She had learned other small tricks such as avoiding spending time at her locker where her classmates often congregated to talk about other students and arriving late to class to avoid small talk before the bell rang. Each day, she worked hard to employ all of the tools and tricks that she had accumulated in her efforts at camouflage.
As she kicked her feet, she reached into the frayed pocket of her worn, brown pants to check the time on her ancient flip phone. Eleven minutes remained. It was at that moment that a sadness that she had long been fighting began to rear its head. Looking up and turning to the side, she examined the lonely girl’s reflection in the broken mirror.
How did I become the girl hiding in the bathroom?
Her eyes began to well.
How had this become my life?
A tear slow escaped and ran down her cheek.
But this is my life— and things will not be any better in high school.
She watched several other drops run down the length of the soft, brown skin of her cheeks before she reached up to wipe them away. Her birthday this week hadn’t made things better. She was now thirteen and was still the same nerdy, friendless girl she had been when she had entered sixth grade. And tonight, like every other night, she would head home to the lonely existence at an apartment where things were no better.
She took a deep breath and used her sleeve to clear her face of any evidence. It was important to dry her eyes before entering the hallway. She hopped off the counter and packed up her the blue backpack that she had set down on a few brown paper towels. She grabbed one of the course papers from the dispenser and used it to dab at her eyes. Staring at the tall, thin girl in the mirror, she shook her head. At that moment, the last words of her mother began to play softly like music in the back of her mind. She could hear her mother’s voice telling her with such confidence, “You are so much more than you realize. You will change worlds with your wonder.” That beautiful smile and those dark eyes and her head full of beautiful locks filled Cass’s mind, “Yes indeed Cassandra, you will dare to disturb the universe.”
The image and voice faded leaving her standing alone in the bathroom staring at the cracked and scratched mirror. “I’m sorry mom,” she muttered. The bell rang and she pulled her arms through the loops in the backpack to head to class.