The housekeeper is ironing and I am lying on the floor beside her, trying to secretly look up her dress. I can't see anything but her slip. It is white, a skinny line of lace trim on the bottom, which I already knew because it was hanging out when she first got here, snowing down south. I had a thought to tell her, in a nice way. But what would be the point, it's only us two here and I'm not offended.
I used to think you had to be rich to have a housekeeper, but it's not true. Sometimes you are rich, but sometimes you only have a need and that is when you get messy housekeepers like this one. Not that I don't like her. Ginger is her name, like the dancer, and her hair is blond like that dancer, too. She wears socks that fall down into the backs of her loafers--thin, white, wrong ones, though she is done with school so it isn't so important. I found out at my new high school, where I am a freshman, about wrong socks and I had to quit wearing them. Of course that is only the tip of the iceberg.
Ginger takes the bus here. She carries a bag made out of rough striped material with wooden handles, and in the bag are slippers and her lunch and a paperback book with a curled-up cover which she reads every day at noontime. Once she gave me the candy bar from her lunch. Oh no, I said but she said, Oh sure, go ahead, I don't need it. It was the Hershey's with almonds kind. Usually she has Heath, so I think it was a case of this was a substitute candy bar anyway, so I did take it. I ate it that night while I read in bed with my knees up. This is how my mother did it, only she also ate fruit. I don't like fruit unless it is hot and in a pie. I suppose that is un-American and another thing wrong with me, which it seems is all that is happening now is I am finding out everything wrong with me. This place and I do not get along.
Ginger shifts a little on her feet, and the slip moves and now I can see her underpants. They are only white. I get up and go into my room and close the door quietly so as not to hurt her feelings. I mean that she can't come in, but it's not anything against her.
I take out the letter from my drawer. It still smells of lilacs. She'd drawn a circle on the envelope, saying, "Sniff here!" but I didn't have to smell that place, the whole letter smelled.
I have been so unbelievably busy and that's why it has taken so long to write to you. I like your letters. They're funny.
The family that moved into your house is useless. There are only little kids and the parents are all the time asking me to baby-sit, which I do NOT have time for. As if I wanted to even if I did have time. I believe I am done with baby-sitting. Even though last time at McLaughlin's you would not believe what I found, I looked in their dresser drawer and found a box of rubbers!!!! You remember when Marybeth told us she had seen a weenie because when her parents weren't home that time Jerry Southerland had come out of her bathroom with it hanging out (DON'T let ANYONE see this letter!!!!!!!) and it was all red at the tip like a dog's? Well, I saw that box of rubbers and I was thinking how it would look on the red and you can imagine how I wanted to puke.
But anyway. I am class president this year and there are so many serious responsibilities. I just found out last week, we had elections. I thought I would win, but I didn't know. We are going to have lots of dances. First the Snow Ball. So I am busy. I have already given two speeches in front of the whole class and you know you have to practice a LOT for that kind of thing because you are setting the whole tone.
I am right now pulling out an eyelash to send to you because I miss you, too. Keep writing to me and also you can send poetry, but maybe not so many at a time. Have you found a boyfriend yet? I think your life could be much better with one of those. That is something every woman needs full time.
Well, my mother is calling me to set the table. Like I could care. See you soon. Well, not see you!!!! But, you know what I mean.
I look at the clock on my desk. Seven after three. Nothing to do. Saturday afternoon, the hours stretching out like railroad tracks across the desert. I am tired of reading. It is dangerous to take a walk, since my enemies live across the street and they are all the time watching for me. I wish I could take a nap, like a baby. I lie down, close my eyes.
I'm not tired.
I turn on my side, put my thumb in my mouth. It feels like it's forty times the size it really is. It used to feel so comfortable, like there was a satiny pocket in my mouth for it to slide into. I take my thumb out, wipe it on my shirt, turn onto my back and stare at the whorls on my ceiling. Here is my white sky. It will become my next poem, which I will call "The Absence of Blue." White Sky
, I think. And then I think nothing.
The beginning is always so hard. Any beginning is always so hard.
I hear a knock at my door, then Ginger's voice saying, "Katie? I have some blouses here for you."
I sit up, straighten the spread beside me. Well, good. A visitor. And when my father comes home, we're going to McDonald's, he already said. I line my feet up beside each other, push my hair neater under my headband. "Come in," I say, in a high and cultured voice like I am rich and living in England in my own walk-up apartment. I will think of something to ask Ginger so that her answer will be long and interesting.
She comes in, hangs my blouses up. I can see the outline of her bra through the back of her blouse. She is a grown-up woman. "Ginger," I say. "Can I ask you something?"
She turns around. "You just did."
"Right," I say, smiling, and then, "I mean, something else. A personal thing."
Her face changes, and in it I see a little fear. Like maybe she thinks since I'm the daughter I could fire her. I want to say, "Did you ever have any trouble in school with kids being kind of mean to you? If so, what did you do about it?" Like an essay question. But when I start to ask, all that comes out is, "Did you like high school?"
She sits down beside me, lightly touches my hair. "Oh, honey," she says, a faraway look in her eyes like the girls in the romance comic books, "I loved school. These are the best years of your life."
"Oh," I say. "Uh-huh." I hope not, I'm thinking. I sure hope not.
"Is that what you wanted to ask?"
"Yes," I say. Never mind.
"Well," she says, "that's not so personal."
"I was thinking I'd make some peanut-butter cookies," she says, slow and careful. I nod. It seems to me that we always have our antennae out, no matter what we say; that we can pick up on a person's hurt in our hearts even if it never makes it to our brains. And people like Ginger have the manners to do something about it. I will get to mash every raw cookie with the fork to make the crisscross pattern. You feel a little talented when you see the cookies come out of the oven. Ginger lets me do all the good parts, every time. Pretty soon, I could love her.
Here is my life, five days a week. First off, English. Mrs. Brady. She is actually my favorite, so I wish I didn't have her first, I wish she would be saved to make up for the rest of the day. But she is first. She has a beehive hairdo, and when she stands by the window, you can see through it. It sort of looks like brown cotton candy. Once I saw a hairpin coming out a little and that is what reminded me that her hair isn't always like that. She has black cat-eye glasses, and she always wears this outfit: a pleated skirt, a blouse with usually a round collar, a cardigan sweater, brown shoes with heels so little you don't know they're heels until she turns around to write on the blackboard. Her handwriting is so clear and beautiful. I can't believe a person does it. Even on the board, every letter so perfect, every line so straight. She was born to be a teacher, you can tell by everything she does, including walking across the room talking to us but also deep in thought. She is serious about her s
ubject and she says things that are heartfelt and she doesn't care who makes fun of her in the halls afterward. Especially poetry. When she reads from the skinny books she brings in, she'll speak so hard from her feelings that her voice gets deeper. And when she's done, she'll press the open book into herself, just under her bosom. The pages must get warm from her body heat. Sometimes I think of her and her husband sitting at their kitchen table eating dinner, their napkins exact squares on their laps, talking in prayer voices about John Keats. About the tragedy of how he died, looking out the window in a foreign place, thinking, oh jeez, it didn't get to happen. Maybe they eat by candlelight while the hi-fi plays piano music--it wouldn't surprise me at all. It would be so cute, how the light of the flames would flicker in their eyeglasses when they were being so serious.
Mrs. Brady calls on me when no one else gets it, even if my hand is not up. This is how I know that in a way I am her pet. I think in a tidy corner of her brain she keeps the thought, Well, I can always count on Katie. And she is right. There is nothing in English so far that I don't like, even the sonnets that I have never heard of anyone else liking except English teachers. I excel in English, I always have. Not the grammar part, but getting what the author means. Interpretation, they call it. I think it's why I got to skip grade four.
After English comes the opposite: Math. Harry Hadd is the teacher, if you can imagine such a name. He wears a wrinkly white shirt and no tie and some pants that look like one little breeze through the window and they'll fall down. His shoes are black high-top sneakers, except for a day when the principal came to watch the class. Then he wore brown tie shoes all shined up fake. He keeps his sleeves rolled up and it is a mystery to him why every kid in class does not understand everything in the book from day one. He says things like that all the time, "day one." He calls us by our last names, too, "Miss Woodward," "Mr. Evans." This makes us all feel worse. They have tracks here in this school, and I believe I am in the dumbest class for math. It's supposed to be a big secret, but give me a break. Everybody knows. In English I'm in with the smart kids. They mostly have all their classes together. I only do well in English. In other subjects I am normal except in math where I am dismal. In those
achievement tests you have to take, my line for math goes so far down, way below the red line they draw in that says you should at least be here. I just don't get math. Even if I go for extra help, one on one, I don't get it. I went for a lot of extra help in another school, where I had a teacher who was so nice, Mr. Dieter. He was a real ugly man married to such a pretty woman, which always made me in a good mood. He would explain and explain and explain and it was like my brain was closed for business. Finally, I would just feel so sorry for him I would say, Oh! I get it! but I never did. And he would hand me back my D- test with a small red note, "Katie--what happened? See me."
Third period, gym. If I were to make up a torture for someone, it would be you have to have gym right in the middle of your day. Your body is not in the mood for gym in the middle of the day. You have done some work to try to look all right for the day, you have slept on rollers and stood in front of your mirror for a long while that morning and all that, and then splat, gym. You have to run around and get messed up and then you have to take a shower and even if you cheat and just stand in front of it with your towel on, your underwear hidden beneath, the steam still gets you. And changing in front of everyone. And smelling that rubbery smell mixed with BO. Plus the teacher, as usual, is a mean woman. Every gym teacher I've every had has been mean, like she has a problem she is going to punish all of us for out on the courts. This gym teacher is named Miss Sweet. That would be what they call irony, I'll tell you that. Even though she is called Miss Sweat behind her back. She has little lips, which
you think the body forgot to send the bloodline to; they are pale and straight. She wears gym shorts and a sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up and severe socks and sneakers. They're the same gym shorts we wear, but on her they look different. She has a whistle around her neck, and her hair is pulled back into a ponytail although it's not long enough for one. It's like she's so strict even her hair cannot be loose. She carries around a clipboard to write mean things down about you, and once when I failed to clear the bar for the high jump, she hit me on the butt with it. It was because in her opinion I should have been able to do it. I tried again, failed again, but she didn't hit me again because I wasn't worth it. If I ever get to be God, I'm calling all the gym teachers in the world into one room to say this: All right, knock it off!! And then I'm going to make them all change into pink formals with pink satin heels. If I were to draw on a paper what gym does for me, I would make one dot. And
then I would erase it. But I have to do it, every day, in the middle of the day, right before lunch.
Which is another thing.
It is hard enough to do lunch when you know a place. But when you are new, you have never seen anything so big as the lunchroom. There are secret maps, and you'd better not mess up. Which I did, of course. The first day, I sat at the popular table. As if I should know. First one perfect girl sat down, then another. They were making big eyes at one another, rattling their bracelets around, but nobody said anything. They just sat around me like white surrounding black until I got it. I said, "Excuse me," and moved, and they all laughed together. It was kind of a pretty sound.
I sit mostly by myself, or by someone miscellaneous. I don't talk. At first I tried, but nothing good ever came of it. I would see the person I'd talked to in the hall the next day and say hi and they would look at me like, What?
So I just eat and that is the one good thing about this school, they have very good food. On Sloppy Joe day, I go back for seconds. I get them, too. The cafeteria ladies like me. They see what goes on. Kids think they stand back there with their big metal spoons and big aprons and just think, Oh I see the corn has gone down, I guess I'll go on back and get some more. But when you look up you see that of course all the faces are different. And they are interested in you and friendly and a lot of them really care that you eat well. And they feel happy when you like things. They don't usually give seconds, especially not to the boys, who are not sincere when they ask, who just want to use seconds for food fights. But they will give more to me. This is how far
things have gone down, that my only friends in school are the cafeteria ladies. And not even really. They take breaks together, they sit at a table in the corner with some coffee and a little of this and a little of that, things we had for lunch. If I went up and sat with them, they would like it either. I think in about a few months I will be sitting with someone real. It's hard to tell. I have never had such a hard time getting my place in a school. You wish you could bring a book of directions to yourself that everyone would read. But no. You just have to wait until the time that a crack comes.
After lunch is history. This man who teaches it, Mr. Spurlock, is insane. Here is his idea of how to teach: Copy notes that you have written in your bent-up spiral notebook onto the blackboard. Tell the class to shut up about two hundred times. Write small and creepy so nobody can read it. Then tell your class to copy the notes from the board into their notebooks. While they do, sit at your desk and read the newspaper and pick at your side teeth with your little finger. Just before the bell rings, say, "Any questions?" I swear this is exactly true. Not one kid likes him. Plus his shoes are about five hundred years old. If he were mental, which his shoes look like, you would feel sorry for him. But he is not mental. He is just the worst teacher of all time in the history of the whole universe. Probably he is a made-up thing from a science experiment to find out: How much can kids take?
Next, French, and the teacher is so beautiful she could be Miss America. She wears French things like a scarf around her neck. She wears short-sleeved sweaters and long tight skirts and nice leather shoes that tie. She smells like good perfume. But her problem is that she never speaks English to us and sometimes we just need to know something. It is only beginning French. So what I want to know is where does she get off from the first day rattling on in French, French, French? One day I tried to complain. After class. I said, "Miss Worthington, I don't think you should talk only in French." And she said, "Ah, ah, ah! En français!!
" You feel wound-up frustrated in there. But here is the most surprising thing: I am learning French. Last Saturday, when the mailman came, I said, "Voici le facteur!
" My father asked me What did I say and I said That was French for Here's the mailman, and he said Is that right? So at home I am glad I have her. But in class it is a tor
ture. Sometimes in class I see that my heel is jiggling bad.
Last in the day is home ec. Here is where they teach you how to make food you never want to eat and how to make clothes you never want to wear. Our menu for Fall Festival will be pork-sausage casserole. It has sweet potatoes and apples in it. The teacher's name is Miss Woods and every time I see her I think about a woman who got colored wrong in the coloring book. She has really red hair, from a box, anyone can see. She wears way too much blusher and blue eye shadow. My best friend Cherylanne lives in Texas, where I just moved from last summer, and she knows everything about makeup. But I know she would throw up her hands in despair if she was told to fix this woman. Miss Woods talks in a high, excited voice and she hardly ever shuts up. I guess one good thing I could say about her is she is always in a good mood. We're going to make aprons next week out of dishcloths.
And that's school, except for the bus ride and homeroom. Homeroom is where they vote for people to be things and where the crabby teacher takes attendance. Every day, she looks like she has just been in a fight. And we are supposed to go to her with problems. She is our advisor. Here is her advice: Don't bug me. And the bus ride? Imagine you are alone on a bumpy vehicle that smells like baloney and takes ten hours to go one block. That is it.
Excerpted from Joy School by Elizabeth Berg. . Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.