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Joe Weisberg author of 10th Grade (an Entertainment Weekly Top Ten Book) Sarah Grace McCandless is a flat-out fantastic writer. Among her many gifts is an ability to combine laugh-out-loud humor with an unaffected, devastating sadness. The result is absolute magic — the strange, beautiful truth about childhood revealed.
I am drafted, deployed to Brownell Middle School, and wounded within three days. The hit comes just after the last bell rings at three-fifteen P.M. I am walking down the stairway that curves around to the main lobby. My face is buried in a note Katrina passed to me before I walked into science, with Mr. Mariaki (who made it clear in no uncertain terms that he'd read any intercepted note out loud).
"Emma, you are SO lucky that you don't have Miss Cabott for English. She is SO boring. I can barely keep my eyes open. Zzzzzz. I can't believe I have nine more months of this. How will I survive?"
While I concentrate on my first official note from my new best friend, I'm oblivious to the approach of a brigade of sixth-grade boys led by Brian Van Eden. I've been at Brownell less than a week but Katrina has already tipped me off to his rank and file: you cannot get any higher. At first, I don't even realize he's talking to me. He never has before. But when I don't respond, he blocks my path, demanding my attention, his brown eyes two smug soldiers that never seem to flinch.
"Will you go with me?" he asks again.
But what I hear is "Will you go with me?," as if nobody else will help him on his mysterious journey. And before I can think about it any further, I answer what I think is a geography question.
It's just one word.
The boys pause for a second. Nobody rejects an offer like that from Brian Van Eden. When they realize that I didn't say no, that I just simply don't know what the hell they're talking about, that I am, oh God, uncool, the laughter is sharp and long as they scatter down the hallway to get as far from me as possible.
I'm still standing in the same spot when Katrina finds me five minutes later, the school now completely empty except for the janitor with his cleaning cart, sprinkling powdered soap on the linoleum floor.
"Where have you been?" she asks, chewing on a piece of red licorice. "We were supposed to meet by the bike racks." She's not mad, she's just stating the facts. "You want one?" she says, offering me the open pack. I never refuse candy unless it has coconut in it.
She lowers her voice immediately. "What happened?"
"It's bad," I manage, the first words out of my mouth since my fatal Where?
"How bad?" Katrina says.
I shake my head.
She changes her line of questioning. "Okay. Who?"
"Brian Van Eden?" she says in a high-pitched whisper, like how my aunt Carol talked about "the cancer" before Grandpa died.
It's like I have "the cancer."
It's like I'm dead.
"You said, 'Where?'"
Brian Van Eden's best friend, Tim Osborne, is in four of my six classes. The day after the incident, he begins with me during the homeroom announcements. In fifth-period math, he's still pursuing the issue while Mr. Houston scribbles formulas on the blackboard, his back turned to the class, chalk dust gathering on the edge of his hand.
"I said, 'What?,'" I tell him. It's the lie Katrina came up with.
We copy down the lesson on the board so we don't get caught talking.
15 - x = 5. What is x?
"No, you said, 'Where?' I was there. I heard you." He laughs.
y + 11= 13. What is y?
"No, I didn't. I said 'What?' I didn't hear what Brian asked."
x -y = Where.
x + y= What.
The solution to this problem will remain unsolved for the next three years.
I should have known better. After all, I'd had almost three weeks of training.
Katrina and I had spent the last days of summer riding our bikes around town, from the moment we were released from our morning chores until we could see the fireflies. I quickly learned the lay of the land. Jacobson's department store was in the Village but the Over the Rainbow ice-cream shop was in the Hill. Schettler's drugstore was the easiest for stealing lipstick but Perry's had a better selection. Some days, we'd ride to the city pool and from our towels she'd point out, like numbers on a watch, other operatives.
"Three o'clock. Stephanie DeMarco. Total bitch. Dad owns the DeMarco Italian Restaurant chain. Personally, I think that's the only reason anyone is nice to her.
"Seven o'clock. Steve Moran. Leader of the nerds. See how pale his skin is? He's probably been inside for most of the summer, working on some science project. I think his dad is a big-time engineer for Ford. They live on Lakeshore," Katrina reports. It's the richest street in town. "Don't be fooled by the address. He's poison.
"Ten o'clock. Brian Van Eden. Don't turn your head until I tell you...hold on...okay, now," Katrina orders. There's a boy preparing to launch himself off the diving board. His body is a stretched piece of caramel, hair bleached out from the sun, stiff as straw from too much chlorine. Behind him, his cluster of male followers stand in breathless formation until their captain takes flight.
"He's it," Katrina whispers. "He's untouchable."
In my three weeks of Brownell boot-camp training, I've lost five pounds just from our daily bike rides. For the first time ever, I was actually excited about back-to-school shopping and Mom even said I could bring Katrina along. The Saturday of Labor Day weekend, we headed out at eight-thirty A.M. to Eastland Mall, full from our pre-shopping breakfast of crumble-top apple muffins and orange juice without pulp.
Katrina came into the dressing room with me but I made Mom stand outside and wait. We'd make our initial assessment, then Katrina would talk up the favored items, trying to convince my mother that she was actually getting better deals and more bang for her buck.
"If you get the purple sweater, you can wear it with the Guess? jeans AND the black corduroy skirt."
"I saw that same jacket in Seventeen but it was fifty dollars more! What a deal!"
"Don't forget, you have to wear your tennis shoes in gym class three times a week, so you don't want them to wear out. These K-Swiss lasted me the entire year in fifth grade."
I walked out with new clothes enough for seven outfits, twelve counting pieces incorporated from Katrina's closet.
Even in full-dress uniform, there wasn't much I could do about my face. Katrina didn't have the same problem. She ate mostly healthy food and drank at least eight glasses of water a day, often munching on an apple or a plum, the purple-red juice staining her fingertips. Her skin glowed, but my forehead and chin sprouted a crop of blackheads on a regular basis, as if I had poured fertilizer on my face to help them grow. Sometimes my mother would suggest a warm washcloth or that I hover over a pot of hot water with a towel covering my head to trap the steam and open my pores. Usually this conversation ended with me locked in the bathroom crying while my mother stood outside explaining that she was only trying to help.
The night before the first day of school, I lined up all my weapons: gold hoop earrings, Love's Baby Soft perfume, Passion Pink polish.
My backpack said "Le Sportsac" like it was supposed to.
I carried a Trapper Keeper.
I was prepared.
I should have known better. But I had forgotten the most important rule of engagement: it's not what you say, but what you don't.
Word spreads fast of my defeat at the hands of Brian Van Eden. Even though no one buys it, I stick with my story.
"I said 'What?,' not 'Where.'"
I repeat this statement whenever the incident comes up, like I'm one of those carnival machines.
"I said 'What?,' not 'Where.'"
Fortunes Told, 25 cents, spitting out the same forecast every time.
"I said 'What?,' not 'Where.'"
I soon realize that I need to focus on not just what comes out of my mouth, but what I put into it. My body serves as a constant reminder. Its shape and form is clearly female, a prime target for the ammunition fired from the boys on a daily basis. Every morning after my shower I wrap myself in a terry-cloth towel and undergo sixteen or seventeen minutes of self-evaluation. The mirror reveals how the width of my legs and arms compare with the narrowness of my waist or the fullness of my breasts. I hold them in my hands and try to push them back into my chest. Mom's been sneaking glances at me lately too so I think she knows. Anytime I catch her, I try to hunch over a little bit or blouse my shirt out, but I can feel her eyes on me whenever I practice my piano lessons or push the grocery cart at Kroger's.
Every morning ends the same. By the time my mother yells upstairs that my eggs are getting cold, my eyes are squinting to make everything smaller, my brow wrinkled in disgust. I hide my development with my father's sweatshirts. Lucky for me, the style this year is loose and baggy, and I might be able to do what seems most important: blend in with everyone else.
"Emma!" Mom yells for the third time from the bottom of the stairs. "Your eggs!"
Eggs. Jesus. Stop feeding me, I think.
If I can't control what she gives me at home, I'll control what I take in at school. The ritual for lunch is established quickly. First, before entering the cafeteria, dump anything provided by my mother into the trash can in the girls' bathroom. I offer a silent apology to God because I know about the children starving in Africa...but nobody brown bags it -- except for the math dorks.
Second, Katrina and I pool our allowances to buy a lemon-lime soda from the tabletop refrigerator with a glass door. Then we ask the lunch lady for one order of French fries, the small size, and place both items on our brown plastic tray.
The ultimate rule: if any boy comes into sight or -- God forbid -- sits down at our table while we are picking out greasy, salted fries one by one from the white paper bag, one of us immediately gets up and dumps the tray in the trash.
Boys or no boys, we do not finish the entire bag of fries. Ever.
The surprise attack comes after our dinner of baked chicken, corn on the cob, and white sticky rice. It's my turn to help Mom clear the plates. We are alone in the kitchen, the dish towel perched on her right shoulder as the disposal gargles our leftovers.
"I was thinking," Mom begins. "I was thinking, Emma, next week when your father goes to the Chicago auto show, we could go shopping."
"Again?" I ask. "But I just bought all my school clothes a few months ago. Is it for Christmas? Like an early present?" I hand her the salad bowl to dry.
"Mm, sort of. I was thinking it might be fun for us to go to the Jacobson's intimate apparel department. You know, just to see. It seems like you might be...ready...for that."
The first shot is fired across my bow. I mean chest.
The Battle of Emma's Hills has begun.
The journey into enemy territory, "intimate apparel," second floor, is nothing like my last shopping trip. I have no weapons, no sisters in arms, just a general marching me to my fate. Mom approaches the salesclerk, a stout elderly woman with hair held in tight silver curls close to her head and coral lipstick bleeding and feathering at the corners of her mouth. She smells like rosewater. She smells like church. Her name badge reads "Mabel."
"Can I help you?" she asks, a tape measure around her neck like a stethoscope.
"Yes. We're looking for a bra for my daughter," Mom says. I keep surveillance in case anyone from school shows up.
"First time?" Mabel asks, giving us a nod as though our parakeet just died. "Come with me. Let's get you measured first."
I want to evaporate.
Mabel leads me to a dressing room in the back, the fluorescent lights overhead taunting me with their buzz. Mom tries to follow us into the dressing room but luckily there's no way the three of us can fit in there, so it's just me and Mabel. "You're going to have to take your shirt off for me to get a proper measurement." I hesitate. "Oh, don't worry, honey. I do this every day. There's no need to be shy."
"Emma, would you please cooperate?" Mom yells over the door. I'll do anything if she'll just shut up, so I pull my St. Paul's gray hooded sweatshirt over my head in one fast motion.
Mabel reaches around my rib cage with the tape, humming something that sounds like a show tune, turning me gently this way and that, lifting my arms into a defense stance. Then she makes little clucking sounds with her tongue and says, "Okeydokey! Be right back," slipping out the door.
I try to make out what Mabel is saying to my mother but it's just a series of shuffles and murmurs. I stand alone in the dressing room, my arms over my chest, waiting. My skin looks almost green under this light. My hair is messy from removing my shirt so quickly. My bangs need to be cut. I wonder if I should get a perm like Stephanie DeMarco.
"Try these!" I hear Mabel say from the other side of the door as her hand, holding a series of hangers, comes over the top. The bras flutter above me, peaches and nudes, lace and bows, eye hooks and straps.
I grab the little nooses and surrender.
My last defense is to try to avoid revealing too much. Gym class proves to be the greatest challenge. Brownell has one large gym that can be broken down into two smaller ones with a partition that folds like an accordion into the wall. The sixth-grade classes are held in the gym area farthest from the girls' locker room. We have exactly nine minutes to change from our clothes into our uniforms of reversible shirts -- navy on one side, white on the other -- and matching blue shorts that hit midthigh. Our locker room is a battleground where strategy and timing play a crucial role, and revealing the wrong information could mean severe penalties. For example, wearing a bra in sixth grade is a secret I keep by learning to put on my gym shirt without ever taking off my regular shirt first. It's a complicated procedure that involves putting my gym shirt on over my regular shirt and then slipping the regular shirt off underneath the protective shield.
I've got it down to fourteen seconds from start to finish.
By eighth grade, it's not only acceptable but also mandatory to parade around in your bra, waiting until the last possible minute to cover up to make sure everyone can see what you've got. I know this because there's an eighth-grade class that changes at the same time we do, and I try to scout their movements without being detected. I am counting down the days until I am free to expose what my mother finally made me get, what's really underneath this shirt, the stretch of flesh-colored fabric strangling me.
"Fool," it says to me. "Sooner or later, they're all going to know."
Six hundred and seventy-four more days to go.
The eighth-grade teacher is a woman with spiky black hair like the bottom of golf shoes. She always seems to be posing with some healthy food item, like she thinks she's in a sports ad -- a granola bar, a carton of lemon yogurt, a banana. The sixth- and seventh-graders are assigned to a gruff beast we secretly call Sarge. His uniform never varies. He wears a tight, white, short-sleeved polo shirt with the collar open, exposing a broad chest of old, tanned, taut skin carpeted with curly, silvering hair. If we're lucky, his legs are covered with long, gray cotton pants. If we're not, he's wearing the shorts with an elastic band. His eyes leer behind oversize gold-rimmed, amber-tinted glasses. Salt-and-pepper hair and a matching mustache complete the look. And he is never without the silver whistle, freshly polished and dangling from a blue cord knotted at the back of his neck.
Sarge operates from the gym area near the boys' locker room, which is also right by his office. We've all heard the rumors about how he keeps his blinds open when the boys change after class, but these statements have never been verified. Every teacher at Brownell takes their turn and, right now, lucky for Sarge, people are more interested in the stories of the Spanish teacher changing her clothes three times a day in the broom closet of her classroom.
In Sarge's side of the gym is the stage used for school assemblies, where we chant in unison "Just Say NO!" to please the drug counselor who does not realize his fly is open. Sarge uses the stage as a place to exile the sit-outs. Sarge is a war veteran, Korean, I think, which to most of us seems like a far-off and distant battle. Casts on our arms or legs are a far cry from the actual war wounds he and his platoon endured, and our suffering fails to elicit a shred of his compassion.
The swimming unit proves to be an entirely new challenge. Swimming. Bathing suits. My shirt-switch routine won't work, and I realize I'll have to come up with a different strategy. The unit always hits in the first few weeks of spring. It is early enough so our bodies are still winter white. There are exceptions: the kids who are whisked away to their parents' time shares on Siesta Key over the holidays or the ones who are allowed to maintain their tans at the local salon on Mack Avenue, children who are barely twelve years old. Katrina and I spread urban legends about the girl whose insides got fried after four visits.
We are pasty and bitter.
I execute my plan carefully, making sure my cramps begin the Friday before swim week. It gives credibility to the timing when I turn in the forged note from my mother on Monday morning. For swim week, we're allowed a few extra minutes to change into the school-issued suits. We can wear our own underneath if we want, but of course none of the girls will risk the extra padding. The male suits are embarrassing -- racing style, in blue or black -- but the boys make a joke of it, led by Brian Van Eden of course, who makes beat-box noises while strutting around the pool deck like John Travolta.
The suits we girls are forced to wear are one piece, the bottoms cut low on our hips, the necklines high and respectable. The fashion is dated but bearable. It is the sizing that haunts us, the suits color coded and labeled on the outside for all to see. This is another reason I fake a week-long period. By sixth grade, I no longer fit into the cool size, black. I've become a blue.
A big, fat blue.
Copyright © 2004 by Sarah Grace McCandless
Posted July 24, 2004
Posted August 13, 2004
as someone who grew up in grosse pointe, attended Brownell middle school and south high,this book was a trip down memory lane. my daughter read it too, even though she couldn't relate to the physical location, the emotions of a young girl rang true.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 20, 2004
Posted November 27, 2010
No text was provided for this review.