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My English teacher, Mr. Davies, rubs a hand over his military buzz cut. There's sweat beading at his hairline, and he puffs out his ruddy cheeks. He looks like a drunk porcupine.
The drunk part may be true. Even if it is before lunch on a Tuesday.
"Let's discuss the symbolism in line 12 of the poem," he announces, and I pick up my pen so I can copy down exactly what he says when he tells us what the gold light behind the blue curtains really means. Mr. Davies says he wants to discuss the symbolism, but that's not true. When we have our unit test, he'll expect us to write down what he told us in class word for word.
I blink and try to stay awake. Half the kids are messing with their phones, grinning faintly into their groins. I can sense my brain liquefying.
"Vivian, what are your thoughts?" Mr. Davies asks me. Of course.
"Well," I say, folding in on myself and staring at the Xeroxed copy of the poem on my desk. "Uh ..." My cheeks turn scarlet. Why does Mr. Davies have to call on me? Why not mess with one of the groin grinners? At least I'm pretending to pay attention.
Neither of us says anything for what feels like a third of my life span. I shift in my seat. Mr. Davies stares. I chew my bottom lip uncertainly. Mr. Davies stares. I search my brain for an answer, any answer, but with everyone's eyes on me I can't think straight. Finally, Mr. Davies gives up.
"Lucy?" he says, calling on the new girl, Lucy Hernandez, who's had her hand up since he asked the question. He stares at her blankly and waits.
"Well," Lucy starts, and you can tell she's excited to get going, even sitting up a little straighter in her chair, "if you think about the reference the speaker makes in line 8, what I'm wondering is if the light doesn't indicate, a, um, what would you call it ... like a shift in the speaker's understanding of ..."
There's a cough that interrupts her from the back of the room. At the tail end of the cough slip out the words, "Make me a sandwich."
And then there's a collection of snickers and laughs, like a smattering of applause.
I don't have to turn around to know it's Mitchell Wilson being an asshole, cheered on by his douche bag football friends.
Lucy takes in a sharp breath. "Wait, what did you just say?" she asks, turning in her seat, her dark eyes wide with surprise.
Mitchell just smirks at her from his desk, his blue eyes peering out from under his auburn hair. He would actually be kind of cute if he never spoke or walked around or breathed or anything.
"I said," Mitchell begins, enjoying himself, "make ... me ... a ... sandwich." His fellow football-player minions laugh like it's the freshest, most original bit of comedy ever, even though all of them have been using this line since last spring.
Lucy turns back in her seat, rolling her eyes. Little red hives are burning up her chest. "That's not funny," she manages softly. She slips her long black hair over her shoulders, like she's trying to hide. Standing at the front of the room, Mr. Davies shakes his head and frowns.
"If we can't have a reasonable discussion in this classroom, then I'm going to have to end this lesson right now," he tells us. "I want all of you to take out your grammar textbooks and start the exercises on pages 25 and 26. They're due tomorrow." I swear he picks those pages blind. Who knows if we've even gone over the material.
As my classmates offer up a collective groan and I fish around in my backpack for my book, Lucy regains some sort of courage and pipes up. "Mr. Davies, that's not fair. We were having a reasonable discussion. But they"— she nods her head over her shoulder, unable to look in Mitchell's direction again — "are the ones who ruined it. I don't understand why you're punishing all of us." I cringe. Lucy is new to East Rockport High. She doesn't know what's coming.
"Lucy, did I or did I not just announce to the class that it should begin the grammar exercises on pages 25 and 26 of the grammar textbook?" Mr. Davies spits, more enthusiastic about disciplining Lucy than he ever seemed to be about the gold light behind the blue curtains.
"Yes, but ...," Lucy begins.
"No, stop," Mr. Davies interrupts. "Stop talking. You can add page 27 to your assignment."
Mitchell and his friends collapse into laughter, and Lucy sits there, stunned, her eyes widening as she stares at Mr. Davies. Like no teacher has ever talked to her like that in her life.
A beat or two later Mitchell and his friends get bored and settle down and all of us are opening our textbooks, surrendering ourselves to the assignment. My head is turned toward the words subordinate clauses, but my gaze makes its way toward Lucy. I wince a little as I watch her staring at her still-closed textbook like somebody smacked her across the face with it and she's still getting her breath back. It's obvious she's trying not to cry.
When the bell finally rings, I grab my stuff and head out as fast as I can. Lucy is still in her seat, her head down as she slides her stuff into her backpack.
I spot Claudia making her way down the hall toward me.
"Hey," I say, pulling my backpack over my shoulders.
"Hey," she answers, shooting me the same grin she's had since we became best friends in kindergarten, bonding over our shared love of stickers and chocolate ice cream. "What's happening?"
I sneak a look to make sure Mitchell or one of his friends isn't near me to overhear. "We just got all this grammar homework. Mitchell was bugging that new girl, Lucy, and instead of dealing with him, Mr. Davies just assigned the entire class all these extra pages of homework."
"Let me guess," Claudia says as we head down the hall, "make me a sandwich?"
"Oh my God, however did you figure that one out?" I answer, my voice thick with mock surprise.
"Just a wild guess," says Claudia with a roll of her eyes. She's tinier than me, the top of her head only reaching my shoulder, and I have to lean in to hear her. At 5'10? and a junior in high school, I'm afraid I might still be growing, but Claudia's been the size of a coffee-table tchotchke since the sixth grade.
"It's such bullshit," I mutter as we stop at my locker. "And it's not even original humor. Make me a sandwich. I mean, dude, you could at least come up with something that hasn't been all over the Internet since we were in middle school."
"I know," Claudia agrees, waiting as I find my sack lunch in the cavernous recesses of my messy locker. "But cheer up. I'm sure he'll grow up sooner or later."
I give Claudia a look and she smirks back. Way back when, Mitchell was just another kid in our class at East Rockport Middle and his dad was just an annoying seventh-grade Texas history teacher who liked to waste time in class by showing us infamous football injuries on YouTube, complete with bone breaking through skin. Mitchell was like a mosquito bite back then. Irritating, but easy to forget if you just ignored him.
Fast forward five years and Mr. Wilson managed to climb the Byzantine ranks of the East Rockport public school hierarchy to become principal of East Rockport High School, and Mitchell gained thirty pounds and the town discovered he could throw a perfect spiral. And now it's totally acceptable that Mitchell Wilson and his friends interrupt girls in class to instruct them to make sandwiches.
Once we get to the cafeteria, Claudia and I navigate our way through the tables to sit with the girls we eat lunch with every day — Kaitlyn Price and Sara Gomez and Meg McCrone. Like us, they're sweet, mostly normal girls, and we've known each other since forever. They're girls who've never lived anywhere but East Rockport, population 6,000. Girls who try not to stand out. Girls who have secret crushes that they'll never act on. Girls who sit quietly in class and earn decent grades and hope they won't be called on to explain the symbolism in line 12 of a poem.
So, like, nice girls.
We sit there talking about classes and random gossip, and as I take a bite of my apple I see Lucy Hernandez at a table with a few other lone wolves who regularly join forces in an effort to appear less lonely. Her table is surrounded by the jock table and the popular table and the stoner table and every-other-variety-of-East-Rockport-kid table. Lucy's table is the most depressing. She's not talking to anyone, just jamming a plastic fork into some supremely sad-looking pasta dish sitting inside of a beat-up Tupperware container.
I think about going over to invite her to sit with us, but then I think about the fact that Mitchell and his dumb-ass friends are sitting smack in the center of the cafeteria, hooting it up, looking for any chance to pelt one of us with more of their lady-hating garbage. And Lucy Hernandez has to be a prime target given what just happened in class.
So I don't invite her to sit with us.
Maybe I'm not so nice after all.
Our ancient tabby cat, Joan Jett, is waiting for me when I open the front door after school. Joan Jett loves to greet us when we come home — she's more dog than cat that way — and she lives to meow and howl and get your attention, which my mother says makes her a good match for her namesake, the human Joan Jett, this woman who was part of an all-girl band in the 1970s called The Runaways before she started her own group. When Claudia and I were younger, we used to make videos of Joan Jett the cat dancing to songs of Joan Jett the singer.
I give Joan Jett a quick pet and then find a note on the counter from my mother. She could just text me, but she likes what she calls "the tangible quality of paper."
Working late tonight. Meemaw and Grandpa said come over fordinner if you want. Pls fold laundry on my bed and put away. Love you. Xoxoxo Mom
I'm old enough now to stay by myself if my mom has a late shift at the urgent care center where she works as a nurse, but when I was little and she had weird hours, Meemaw would pick me up from school, and I'd go to her house and eat a Stouffer's frozen dinner with her and Grandpa, and then we'd all try to guess the answers on Wheel of Fortune before they'd tuck me into bed in the room that had been my mother's when she was young. Meemaw had redecorated it by then in soft pinks and greens, not a trace of my mom's old punk rock posters and stickers left, but I used to peek out the window of my mom's old room and imagine her being young, being wild, being set on leaving East Rockport one day and never coming back. Even though she only managed half the plan, my mother's youth still fascinates me.
Back in those days I'd drift off and, depending on how tired my mother was when she got home, I'd either wake up to my grandpa watching the Today show, or I'd be shaken awake in the middle of the night to make the ten-second walk back to our house, clutching my mom's hand, catching a whiff of the minty, antiseptic smell that always follows her home from work. Nowadays I only head over to my grandparents' house for dinner even though they still try to get me to spend the night like the old days.
My phone buzzes. Meemaw.
"Hey, sweetie, I'm heating up chicken enchiladas," she tells me. "Want to come over?" Meemaw and Grandpa eat breakfast at 5, lunch at 11, and dinner at 4:45. I used to think it was because they're old, but my mom says that's how they've been all their lives and that when she moved out at eighteen she felt like a rebel for eating after dark.
"Okay," I tell her, "but I have to fold the laundry first."
"Well, come on over when you're done," she says.
I grab a piece of cheese from the fridge for a snack and answer a few texts from Claudia about how irritating her little brother is before I figure I should get the laundry over with. Joan Jett scampers off after me, wailing away as I head to the back bedroom where I find a mountain of laundry in the middle of my mother's unmade bed. I start folding pastel-colored underpants into nice, neat squares and hanging damp bras up to dry in the bathroom. It's strictly lady laundry. My dad passed away when I was just a baby after he crashed his motorcycle while driving the streets of Portland, Oregon — which was where he and my mom and I used to live. His name was Sam, and I know it's kind of strange to say about my dad even if I can't remember him, but from pictures I know he was kind of a total babe, with dirty-blond hair and green eyes and just the right amount of muscles to be attractive but not so many as to be creepy and gross.
My mom still misses him, and one night about a year or so ago when she'd had too much wine, she'd told me it was weird that she kept getting older but Sam would always be the same age. That's how she referred to him, too. Sam. Not "your dad" but Sam, which is really who he was to her more than anything, I guess. Her Sam. Then she went to her room, and I could hear her crying herself to sleep, which is not my no-nonsense mom's usual approach. Sometimes I feel guilty that I don't miss him, but I can't pull up even the tiniest sense memory. I was only eight months old when he died, and after it happened Mom and me moved back to East Rockport so my grandparents could help take care of me while my mom went back to school and finished her nursing degree. And now, sixteen years later, we're still here.
I'm hanging up some of my mom's simple sundresses when my eye catches on a fat, beat-up shoe box she keeps on her closet's top shelf. In black Sharpie it's labeled MY MISSPENT YOUTH. I slide the final dress into place, tease the shoe box out of its resting spot, and take it to my bedroom. I've looked in this box before. Back when Claudia and I went through our Joan Jett dancing cat video phase, I used to love to take down this box and study the contents, but I haven't pawed through it in years.
Now I open it up and carefully spill the cassette tapes and old photographs and neon-colored leaflets and dozens of little photocopied booklets with titles like Girl Germs and Jigsaw and Gunk out onto my bed. I pick up a Polaroid of my mom where it looks like she was just a few years older than I am now, maybe nineteen or twenty. In the photograph, she has a platinum-blond streak in her long dark hair, and she's wearing a tattered green baby doll dress and combat boots. She's sticking her tongue out at the camera, and her arms are around the neck of another girl who has dark eyes and a piercing through her eyebrow. In black marker written down one of my mom's arms are the words RIOTS NOT DIETS.
My mom doesn't talk too much about her younger years before she met my dad in Portland, but when she does, she always grins a little with pride, maybe remembering how she graduated from high school and drove an ancient Toyota she'd bought with her own money to Washington State just because that's where her favorite bands lived and played. Bands with names like Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17. Bands made up almost entirely of girls who played punk rock and talked about equal rights and made little newsletters they referred to as zines.
They called themselves Riot Grrrls.
My mother was wild back then. Wild like with half her head shaved and black Doc Martens and purple lipstick the color of a serious bruise. Even though my mom is pretty relaxed compared to a lot of moms — like she's always been up front with me about sex stuff and she doesn't mind if I swear in front of her once in a while — it's still hard to reconcile the girl in the Polaroid with the mom I know now. The mom in butterfly-covered, lavender nursing scrubs who sits down at the kitchen table once a month to balance her checkbook.
I shift positions to get more comfortable on my bed and stare at a page in one of the Riot Grrrl zines. It has a cutout of a vintage cartoon Wonder Woman with her hands on her hips, looking fierce. The girl who made the zine drew words coming out of Wonder Woman's mouth, warning men not to mess with her when she's walking down the street unless they want a smack to the face. I grin at the image. As I flip through the pages, I find myself wishing that Wonder Woman went to East Rockport High and that she was in all of the classes I have with Mitchell Wilson. When Joan Jett meows for her dinner, I have to force myself to pack the box up and tuck it back into my mom's closet. I can't explain why, exactly, but something about what's inside the box makes me feel better. Understood somehow. Which is weird because Riot Grrrl was a million years ago, and none of those girls know me. But I can't help but wish I knew them.
Excerpted from "Moxie"
Copyright © 2017 Jennifer Mathieu.
Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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