Back to School
Here are ten words I never thought I’d be saying . . .Well, okay, sure. I say these words all the time. It’s not like school and good and to are the kind of words you can avoid even if you wanted to. It’s just that I’ve never said them in this particular order. Not that I can remember, anyway. But what do you know, there they were inside my head, like a little thing you’d say just to get yourself psyched: It sure feels good to be going back to school.
Because you know what? It did. It felt really good, actually, even though school hasn’t exactly ever been the center of my happiness. Normally it’s kind of the opposite, a huge boring thing I have to put up with while I’m waiting for practice to start. Or a game, if it happens to be a game day, when the clocks go fifty times slower than they normally do and you can’t hear a word the teacher says, your head’s so on the court already. But today I was actually looking forward to it all, actually looking forward to the classes and the teachers and even those stupid crackly announcements. Because today, after five months of sheer absolute insanity, my life was finally getting back to normal.
No more football: that was one good thing. The season was over at last, so now I didn’t have to worry about everyone in the state of Wisconsin jawing about how weird it was for a girl to be playing, and then jawing about how terrible and awful and un-team-spirit-like it was for me to quit even though I wasn’t quitting, I was just saving my shoulder, which you’d think no one had ever heard of before, a player leaving because of an injury. But now hoops season was starting up, which is what I’d been saving my shoulder for, for basketball, and no one would jaw about me for even a second except to say stuff like “Nice shot” or “When’s your next game?” which is the kind of jawing I’ve been hearing forever and don’t mind at all. So that was one good thing.
Plus I was home at last. At the moment I was driving to school, duh, but officially I was at home instead of at a huge shiny hospital, trying to convince my oldest brother not to kill himself, and then once he got his spirit back trying to convince him not to kill me because he was so desperate to boss someone around. Now Mom got to be that victim, which she was actually happy about because she’s a mom, and instead I got to live in our beat-up old house, eating real home-cooked food if you call what Dad makes food, and drive our beat-up old Caravan, and that was totally A-okay with me. Even the cooking.
But most of all — and this is what I was looking forward to the very, very most — I was done with all that boyfriend crap. Finished with the 24/7 Brian Nelson cable station that had been running nonstop inside my skull since July. No more feeling like I was some fluttery girl who doesn’t have anything better to do all day long than think about her boyfriend. Because I did have better things to think about, thank you very much, because I am not the kind of girl who has boyfriends; I’m the kind who’s just friends with boys, which is totally different and which I’m actually kind of good at. I’d pulled the plug on that Brian Nelson cable station for good.
That’s why it felt so nice to be getting back to school. Because after five months I was back to being plain old background D.J. That’s how I thought about it, anyway. In photographs of course I’m always in the background — it’s a family joke that us Schwenk kids could go to school naked on picture day because we’re all so crazy tall. But I mean that I was returning to the background of life.Where no one would really notice me or talk about me or even talk to me much except to say “Nice shot,” and I could just hang out without too many worries at all.
Anyway, the words normal and background and basketball were kind of percolating through my brain — kind of the way water glugs in those big coffeepots they rev up after church, although without that coffee smell — as I drove along with Curtis. “So,” I said, feeling normal and happy enough to take a stab at a real normal conversation.
Curtis flinched, sitting there next to me. There are rabbits, wild rabbits, calmer than my little brother, the way he acts sometimes. Then he hunkered down in his seat. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
“It’s okay. I was just wondering how Sarah’s doing.”
Again: making conversation. Not even using the word girlfriend. But Curtis’s ears turned red like I’d asked him to walk through town in his underwear.
“I mean, maybe you could have her over sometime. For supper or something.”
Which made Curtis go even redder. He hunkered down further and started picking at his jeans like they were so fascinating that no one could possibly be interested in anything else. “Yeah. Maybe.” He didn’t say anything else either, for the rest of the ride. Not one word.
So much for making conversation.
I pulled up to the middle school. Curtis heaved up his backpack, heavy even for him. “See you,” he said, because Mom taught him that one little bit of manners at least.
He nodded. Then, his legs already out of the Caravan, he turned back. “So, I was wondering how Brian was. Maybe you could have him over for supper.”
My jaw dropped. Literally. I could not believe he said that. Of all the mean, thoughtless . . . And then I saw his mouth twitch and I finally got it: he was teasing me.
I lunged at him but the seat belt caught me, and then he was out of the Caravan, grinning like a maniac and hustling into the building with a crowd of kids half his size.
What a total little — I mean, here’s a kid who talks less than a rock, and it turns out the whole ride he’d been planning how to bounce back what I’d said. If it was anyone else rubbing it in about Brian, that would be one thing. But Curtis — that’s like getting mad at your dog. Although if Curtis kept pulling stunts like that, maybe I’d have to stop thinking of him as some poor little house pet and start thinking of him as a smart-mouthed kid who maybe needed a lesson on respect.
At least I was prepared for all the questions about Win. In just the few days I’d been home, wandering around town after Thanksgiving, I’d learned that pretty much every single person in Red Bend considered it their personal duty to grill me on how he was doing every single time they saw me. Once on Saturday I let on that I was getting really tired of having to repeat this conversation, and old Mrs. Ingalls looked so upset that I felt twice as bad about hurting her feelings as she probably did about Win. That’s when I learned just to say, “He’s doing okay, thanks,” and leave it at that.
That’s how it went in school, too, practically every kid asking, “How’sWin?” Or “Is he walking yet?” because everyone has this huge hang-up about walking, like it’s the most important thing you can do after you break your neck. And every time I’d answer, “He’s getting there” or “He’s working hard,” instead of saying that these daysWin was working mostly on feeding himself and that maybe in the big picture of life being able to eat without assistance is a lot more important than managing a few little steps. I sure thought it, though.
I had to check in at the main office first thing, turn in these forms showing I’d been absent twenty-seven days on purpose and not because I’m a juvenile delinquent. Mrs. Henning asked about Win of course, and was telling me that if there was anything we needed just let her know, like I would obviously think of her first, when there was this huge yell of “Geronimo!” and I had enough sense to brace my feet just as Beaner leapt up onto my back.
Beaner Halstaad is as skinny as a string bean and has more energy than a jumping bean. He’d started doing this jumpon-my-back thing during football, and I guess he hadn’t gotten tired of it yet. Right away he started pounding on my shoulders. “You’re back, dude! That’s so awesome! Check it out, Mrs. Henning. She’s back! Isn’t that awesome?”
“Hello, Beaner,” said Mrs. Henning, like his behavior was completely normal.Which for Beaner it is. “Hey, guess what?” Beaner poked me. “I told Justin Hunsberger you were going to be playing boys’ basketball!”
Even Mrs. Henning had to smile at that one.
“What’d he say?” I asked. Because of course Justin Hunsberger hates my guts like nobody’s business. And totally vice versa, too.
“Oh, man, it was awesome.” Beaner jumped down. “He was like, ‘No way, no way,’ and I was totally serious, saying all this stuff about how you’d found this loophole and really needed to grab recruiters because of missing last season and everything. And he totally bought it! You should’ve seen his face!”
Mrs. Henning went back to her desk with this smile like Kids today, and I couldn’t help laughing with Beaner.
“Maybe I should suit up for it,” I said.
“Oh, man, wouldn’t that be awesome! He’d have a total cow!”
“Tell him we’re running screens.” I cracked up at the thought of Justin’s face when he thought I’d be knocking him down on purpose.
“Oh, man . . . You gotta show up, just for today! C’mon, it would so totally rock! Hey, by the way, my folks are having this thing, you know, after the game Friday, for all the players and their parents, the guy players. You want to come?”
“All the guy players?”
“Hey, cut me some slack.” He grinned. “It’ll be cool. I gotta go.” He dashed out the door like he’d keel over dead if he slowed down for just a second. Then he dashed back in: “And check out your locker!”
“My locker?” But he was already gone.
So, seeing as it looked like I was done with Mrs. Henning and her D.J.-is-not-a-juvenile-delinquent forms, I headed that way. Which I would have done anyway, of course, only now I was worried. I mean, I hadn’t checked it in more than a month. I didn’t think I’d left any food in there, but you never know. I kept my head down on the way there, trying to duck the Win questions, though once when I looked up I did notice a locker decked out in wrapping paper and balloons like it was a giant birthday present or something, done up the way the popular girls, the cheerleaders especially, do each other’s lockers sometimes.
Then I did a double take, because it was my locker that was all done up. And people were pointing at it, grinning at each other, and a couple kids were staring at the pictures stuck all over the front, although as soon as they saw me coming the kids slunk away.
I know all about the stuff done to lockers. Just a few months ago my best friend’s locker got trashed because some kids get a kick out of picking on kids who are a little bit different. And even though part of my brain was pointing out that it wasn’t graffiti, I still panicked. Because even though the gift wrap looked nice, who knew how mean it’d actually be?
But here’s the thing: it really was gift wrap. Friendly gift wrap, not Happy Birthday or anything like that, or Welcome Baby! which Mom had to use for Christmas one year because we’d run out of Christmas wrapping paper and it was too late to buy more. And taped on top was a big sign that said WELCOME BACK! WE MISSED YOU! signed by all the girls on the basketball team.
Other things were taped up as well, like a picture of me from last year before I had to quit the team, and basketball stickers. And right in the middle — maybe that’s why those kids had been staring — was a copy of that photograph of me from People magazine where I’m dribbling in to shoot and Brian has his arm around my waist. Which hadn’t been the best way to announce to the universe that Red Bend’s girl linebacker and the quarterback of our eternal archrival were kind of involved. Just looking at it now, my ears got hot. But someone —probably Kari Jorgensen, she’s so creative — had cut Brian out of the picture so it was just me, and then over my body where Brian’s arm had been she’d made a perfect little T-shirt out of paper and colored it in with my number 12, with “Red Bend” printed on it and everything. It was nicer looking than our real uniforms.
Then that whole photo of me in my paper 12 jersey was stuck on top of another piece of paper — how long had this taken? — with just-as-nice lettering that said D.J. IS #1!!! Which when you think of it is a little dumb, because right below is me wearing #12. And D.J. IS #1!! was on the balloons too. Well. I stood there just staring, wondering how long they’d been planning this, probably coming in way early with the custodians to have it ready for me, girls like Kari who had so much important stuff to do and are pretty popular, not to mention just plain pretty. All that effort for me. No one had ever decorated a locker for me before. No one had ever singled me out like this, with pictures and balloons and announcements to the world that I’m number one.
And then who should show up but Justin Hunsberger.
“Hey,” he said.Which usually isn’t insulting, but it sounds really different coming from him.
“Hey,” I said back, just as cold. Now what was I supposed to say? Sorry I missed the rest of football season just because I had to save my shoulder and my brother? Sorry for even trying out considering how you whined about me to anyone who would listen until pretty much the day I left? No, I don’t think so. Sorry’s out.
Justin kicked at the floor. He was wearing a Red Bend Football T-shirt in case someone in the building by some freak of ignorance still didn’t know he played. “Hey,” he said again. “Your brother —”
“He’s not walking yet. But thanks for asking.” Although I sure didn’t sound thankful.
“No, that’s not . . . It’s just . . .” He looked up. “I’m praying for him, okay? I pray for him every day. He’s . . . he’s a really amazing guy.” He kicked the floor. “That’s all.”
I swallowed. “Oh.”
“Yeah. So. See you around.”
“Yeah,” I said, wishing I had some idea what in the world to say other than that I actually wouldn’t be playing boys’ basketball, which I didn’t think had quite, you know, the right tone at this particular moment. But of course I couldn’t think of a thing.
Justin nodded and headed down the hall.
Of course then I thought of something. “I’ll tell him!” I called out. But I’m not sure Justin even heard me.
I was still staring after him, wondering what the heck had just happened, when out of nowhere Beaner showed up again. This time at least he didn’t jump on me. He just put his arm around my shoulders in his buddy way.
“Pretty awesome, huh?” he asked, studying my locker.
“What? Um, yeah. It is.”
“So you coming?” He squeezed my shoulder.
“To my party.” He sighed this huge sigh. “I can’t believe you forgot already. The parental units? Post-game? You’re coming?”
“Beaner! You just asked. Give me a bit of time here.”
He looked at the ceiling and whistled to himself. “Okay . . . Was that time enough?”
Now he had me laughing. “No! This is my first day back — I’ll have a ton of homework —”
“Homework, schmomework. This is a date, girlfriend.”
“A date?” I grinned at the joke, even though he wasn’t grinning that way. “You betcha . . . Hey, my man!Wait up!” And with that he zoomed away. A date? Like—like what people in the movies do? What was he talking about?
“Hey!” Beaner shouted. Far down the hall, he was holding himself up on two guys’ shoulders. “Don’t blow me off now! This is a date, you know!” Then he shot me a pretend lay-up and disappeared into the crowd.
Everyone — everyone — in the hall heard him. Maybe everyone in the whole school. And every single one of them turned and looked straight at me.
Double quick I spun away, my face burning five kinds of fire, and made a big project of opening my locker.
Which was just wonderful considering I hadn’t been all that confident about the combination before this, and Beaner’s little announcement sure didn’t help any.
I got it open, finally. The good news is that nothing smelled. It was just snapshots of Win and Curtis and Bill, and our good dog Smut with the slimy football she carries everywhere, and books I could have used in Minneapolis, and an old Red Bend Basketball sweatshirt that wasn’t even dirty.
I should have been relieved, but I didn’t feel relief at all. Well, I was a little relieved my locker didn’t smell like a lab experiment. And it was nice to see those pictures I like so much, and my favorite sweatshirt, after six straight weeks of not seeing them once. But it wasn’t enough. Four snapshots and a sweatshirt weren’t nearly enough to balance out all this other weirdness.
By which I mean: How are you supposed to hate a guy who prays for your family? How mind-blowing, how totally mind-blowing, is that?
Not to mention the whole locker business. Don’t get me wrong: it was super nice of the team to spend all that time making my locker look like a homecoming parade. I should have been totally, 100% grateful. But now all around me I could hear kids laughing and whispering about it. About me. And now everyone would know where my locker was, and maybe even think about it —think about me — whenever they passed. Sure, I was stoked to be back for hoops season, and I know I’m a pretty big part of the team. But I’d never in a million years want anyone thinking I expected this sort of number-one treatment; that’s the last thing I wanted. I just wanted, you know, to play. The girls should have saved their wrapping paper and balloons and all their enthusiasm for someone else. Someone who didn’t want to trade it for a boring old anonymous life.
Speaking of which, it’s also pretty hard to have a boring old anonymous life when your best guy friend in school decides to announce the two of you have a date.Which I’m not even going to get started on except to say WHAT THE HECK WAS BEANER THINKING? Meaning what was he thinking to be saying that in front of two hundred kids, and what was he thinking about us even dating, whatever a date with Beaner even means?
That’s the thing.When I said that it sure felt good to be going back to school, I didn’t mean just going to school. I meant having everything go back to the way it used to be. The way it’s always been. With D.J. Schwenk in the background, just like always. In the background where I belong.
But instead, it was the exact total opposite. Instead of being a nobody, now I was front and center.
And let me tell you something. Front and center sucks.