I kept to myself in high school. While others jumped into the social pool with little abandon, I preferred hanging out with the outliers. The bullies knew better than to screw with me, the popular crowd found me too plain, and manners banned me from the bad-ass clan, so I skirted the fridge. As a locker shortage threw me together with a tall, lanky girl who’d later turn out to be my best friend, I was stratified and loving it. I spent lunch in the art room tuning out the world with my Walkman, side-stepping the cacophony of teen existence.
I had Earth Science first period, the only class with my best friend, J, and the two of us coasted in the door on time one morning, immediately noticing that the desks were pushed together in pods of four; topped with metal racks, one-time use foil pans full of water and matches. Science experiment day, in a time when students were allowed to create steam using organic things like an open flame.
J and I were assigned to different tables, one of J’s friends—we’ll call her T—stationed with the group in the middle. T was the center cog of the popular crowd, stylishly dressed with immaculate hair. Being that we were less than five years out of the 80’s, Big Bang represented more than a science theory. A well-constructed, highly hairsprayed satellite dish on T’s forehead, the trend baffled me. Did girls need to receive signals from alien planets through their hair?
|The owner of these bangs has chosen to remain anonymous.|
Anyway, we all settled down to our project, the instructions being that one person carefully light a match and heat the pan of water. Yeah. I don’t need a marching band to show you where this is headed…
The middle table’s elected match lighter, T, struck her splinter of wood against the small matchbox, singing “Happy Birthday” aloud as she moved the tiny flame towards the candle underneath the water pan. To this day I can’t recall if it really was her birthday or not, but I do remember looking up to catch the action-packed slow-mo with vivid clarity. The uneven flame on the matchstick surged, sparking as the light hit a thicker patch of muted red phosphorus. And then, I sat staring in terror as the speck of glowing ember jumped to an individual strand of T’s hair, working its way north in a blink.
Given my reserved nature, J was quick to notice when I scrambled to disentangle my body from my wrap-around desk, yelling, “Oh-SH*T!” as I flat-out ran over to the chalk board. (Yes, in the days before dry erase.) Just as I’d forcefully shoved a poor, unsuspecting student out of my way, I heard T begin to scream, the sound garbled with a strange sloshing. Grabbing my target—two chalk board erasers—I wheeled around, hauling ass the opposite direction.
The blur that followed had a soundtrack I’ll never forget. Panicked screaming coupled with the scrape of chair legs on linoleum—T trying to get out of her desk while flailing. Then bam-bam-BAM-bam-BAM followed by a crick-SPLASH!
In the thirty seconds that elapsed, heavy breathing hung in the air along with loud whimpering and muttered curses. Our homeroom teacher hovered over us, ready to have half the school’s administration teleport to our classroom, stat.
The erasers hit the floor with a dull thud as I put my hands up like an apprehended felon. Cold air hitting my skin, I then noticed that my shirt stuck to me like a second skin, trickles of water making rivulets down my calves and pooling in my socks. Gaping in shock, I threw a glance over to J standing next to me, sharing my did-that-really-just-happen? expression; a bent-up, empty metal pan dangling from her hand. T looked up at us equally horrorstruck, her once fancy hair-do a flattened mass of rectangular, white stamps of chalky powder, sticking up in jutting, angular lines. She patted her head with shaking hands as if she expected nothing to be there anymore.
“Is it out?” she croaked.
“It’s out,” I assured, evaluating it as she leaned forward to give me a better look. “It’s OUT—are you okay?”
“OH my GAWD!” someone bellowed from the scamper of surrounding voices, a protective crowd gathering around T, insulating her where the teacher had to command everyone to sit back down.
Five minutes later, I held the golden ticket of all hall passes in my hand as I squish-squish-squished it down to the gym. J stayed quiet until halfway through the trek, wincing with every step of my water-logged Chuck Taylors. The scene replayed silently as we walked: Both of us seeing T’s hair catch fire, me running for the erasers, J grabbing the closest pan of water. The cheap tin torquing in the middle as J tried to lob it at T, the water tsunaming me in the solar plexus instead.
|I miss those shoes... (Image Source)|
The squishing echoed through the desolate halls: a form of rhythmic humiliation.
“I’m sorry—I wasn’t aiming for you,” J kept repeating.
“I know,” I reaffirmed. “This is ‘in awe’ quiet, not ‘pissed at you’ quiet. Although, it’s probably better that you didn’t douse T.” The mental image of one of the totem pole, teenage higher-ups sitting there soaked like a drowned rat brought out both a smile and another wince.
Reaching the gym, I flashed my pass to the guards and bee-lined it to my locker. While a blue cotton tee and shorts with the phrase “Property of ERHS” plastered across them wasn’t the ideal fashion choice, it was infinitely better than sopping through the rest of the day. The only problem was that my underwear had also been affected by the deluge, giving me a far too real empathy for kids who wore diapers.
J frowned when I emerged from the bathroom looking like a public school convict.
“Shelley, you have a pass to go home.” The reproving look of Dude, get your priorities straight, registered; I just didn’t want to miss third period, my literature dork nature winning out over all my frivolous teen urges.
“We’re analyzing Shakespeare’s Queen Mab speech in English.”
J narrowed her eyes in disbelief.
“I’d be home. All I’m saying.” She punctuated her opinion with a locker slam and lock-up.
The bell rang as we hit the stairs, the halls filling with bodies and backpacks, an ever-moving current of activity. I’d prepared myself for the side-long glances, not liking the attention. Before information went ‘round the world in thirty texts, it took a good three hours before the grapevine circulated the story, and facts were guaranteed to get warped in transmission. I’d have to survive the social reproach until lunch; by then it would be public knowledge why I assaulted a popular with chalkboard erasers.
J and I parted ways at the split to second period, my gym-uniform chic standing out instantly as I fish-stepped over to west wing. Walking along, I noticed that the looks started to change, becoming softer. More “Hey, that’s the girl,” versus “Whoa, this isn’t gym” expressions. One guy even patted my arm in passing, saying, “Way to go, eraser girl.”
By the end of the day, everyone knew. And T sent out a pop-posse to hunt me down before school let out so she could hug—well, linebacker tackle me. I patted her back as she squeezed me tight, murmuring things under her breath like, “I imagined myself bald!”
J and I walked home that afternoon, feeling as if that through a strange kink in time we’d somehow shifted position in the social food chain. Swinging the plastic bag of my lumped-up clothes, I walked into the house, my mom in the kitchen preparing dinner.
“Hey, how was your day?” she called out.
With a lop-sided grin, I replied. “Good. Is the dryer open?”