I glanced at the clock once more. Projects were due in 5 minutes.. I again checked the screen in front of me; the scene I imagined weeks ago was now displayed.
Often when we did these projects I fantasized about the result...the model rendered in front of the class, it's colors splashing across the floor as if the fantasy scene were destined to spill into reality. As with all my creations, it was based heavily off a popular character kids thought were cool...Lomoo. I mean, who doesn't like Lomoo? He's on cereal boxes, backpacks...and a feature movie is even on the way. The 3-foot purple-skinned weirdo with springy antennas filled my 12-year-old imagination back then.
I finished the last texturing, saved the project, and sent it to the queue. Mr. Garickson was seated in his chair, looking up at the queue filling with names. My normally animated and goofy teacher seemed almost pleased as he swiveled back and forth in his chair, each students' name popped up on the master screen. I was in position 5 out of 17 students.
Leo was number 4.
I met Leo in the 3rd grade and quickly discovered he was one to avoid . He was often mean to me. In the third grade he'd stand in my way in the hallway, then move, to get more in my way, and then laugh and say, “sorry, was I in your way?” When he got bored of that he'd tell my my shirt was stupid. Then he'd tell ugly girls at school that I wanted to marry them.
And worst of all he was a better 3D modeller than I was, as evidence by this project. I burned with jealousy.
His model was 2 ninjas fighting. It was even interactive, where anyone could control one ninja by mirroring movements. He invited Mr. Garickson to try. Although Mr. Garickson was in fairly good shape for his age, his futile attempt at faux martial arts brought the class to tears.
Leo walked past me. “Better not be more of that stupid Lomoo,” he taunted under his breath. I was already feeling jealous. Now I was feeling belittled. What came up was a sickening bile of mistreatment; with no one to save me.
Mr. Garickson invited me up. I swallowed and tried to push aside the thoughts of unfairness. After all, he seemed to like my projects. Isn't that all that mattered?
I showed the model. He just hopped around an environment I made. It definitely wasn't interactive—not like Leo's project. I didn't say much. I couldn't say much. One of the girls cooed. “Ooh, he's so cute.”
I sighed, but heard a raspy, “Nobody cares!” from Leo sitting at the back of the class. At that moment I really wanted to run out of the room and cry; but I already did that last week, so they already saw me as an emotional wreck. With a trembling voice I finished up, “...and that's it.”
If Mr. Garickson saw my mask of bravado, he didn't show it. Instead he nodded. “Thank you, Tony. Next...Morgan.”
I tried not to look at Leo, but I knew he was looking at me. Any time he wanted to bother me, he'd just look directly at me, staring into my soul, willing me to cry.
And it worked. I had to turn aside. My throat tightened. The sobs were coming to the surface. But I pushed them down, so only hot tears tinted my eyes.
I had to think of something else. What did I have to look forward to? English? Yeah because of—oh, I couldn't, no—she's too...oh, the play! Yes! The play. I forced my mind to focused on the school play. When I got the major part I fell on the ground in joy. How could I, as friendless as I was, get chosen to be a part of a play?
That's it, I thought hopefully with the emotions fighting to rise to the surface, I just need to rehearse my lines in my head....'Father, wake up...your customer's here'... as I continued to rehearse my lines my throat eased, the
Plus, after this period was lunch. I had a chance to get away from Leo, to sit by myself, and read my book. Usually, I sat by myself. The table I chose typically was in a corner and not too dirty. Whenever someone sat at the table they either put their head down in their phone, ignored me, or were special ed students, seemingly unaware of anything except their caretaker helping them eat lunch.
This time, I was sitting alone, engrossed in the pages of my book, afraid to glance at my watch to discover how much time had passed. Then I was interrupted by the sound of someone laughing musically, almost like a flute.
My heart fluttered and I looked in Becky's direction.
I couldn't comprehend how she even—well, existed! The way she looked was graceful, mature, but still youthful. I couldn't help but try to understand her. I had been aware of her since probably kindergarten, but as I saw hints of a woman in her appearance I couldn't help but feel warm. Her face was dark and mysterious, almost masculine. And I was ashamed to admit it...I liked the gap between her front teeth.
I would tell my dad about her sometimes. How I felt about her. He would laugh, as if reminiscing about days gone by. “Ah, girls. I remember.” And he'd often encourage me to just tell her how I felt about her. I don't think he ever understood how nervous I felt.
What would I say to her? That I liked her? Is that what they call it? It seemed so counter to the way books describe it. I wasn't carried away in fantasy. I wasn't showing how bravado I was in order to win her affection. I just felt—stuck.
The lunch bell rang, pulling me from my thoughts. And again I played in my head what it would look like if Becky and I were friends. But then I realized friends don't hold hands like I was imagining, or kissing like I was envisioning. That's what boyfriends and girlfriends do...that's what teenagers do who ride motorbikes and get in trouble for bringing beer in the house.
The nervousness ended as soon as I continued my post-lunch classes. I couldn't wait for play rehearsal after school. I felt like I was actually contributing, giving people a reason to laugh or cry. It felt good.
Classes ended, the last bell rang, and before long I was in a rough costume. The “real costume” was still in the works, and I'd wear that later. I was facing the “house,” as Mrs. Archer called it (where the audience sat), but at this point it was empty, save for Mrs. Archer, who sat in a front-row seat, the script in front of her, meticulous and cryptic notes scrawled on a sheet of paper.
The Maker, played by Chris, hobbled about, as only a young boy playing an older man could. He was pantomiming projects, only to be interrupted by Annie—played by Brooklyn—who exclaimed “knock knock,” in lieu of the door not yet set up.
Uh oh! I had a line, but I suddenly spaced on what it was. Stupid, too, because I had rehearsed this scene, out loud and in my head, even going so far as to use a line rehearser app on my phone, as a suggestion from my dad. As the other actors glanced at me, my stomach fell and I had no choice but to call out, “Line.”
”'Could that be Annie?'” Mrs. Archer read. But between that time, Leo—standing stage right—scoffed, and whispered snidely, “Tony, it's not that hard.”
The theater was silent. I imagined myself if I was performing. Everyone would be looking at me. Now it was just the entire cast, standing under the orange lighting; and Mrs. Archer, chin resting in her fingers, a bemused smile on her face so you were never sure if she was disappointed or pleased. And then there was Leo, offstage, smug; with Parker rolling his arm in an impatient “hurry up!” motion. Fully humiliated, I swallowed, took a breath, and continued, my voice coming out in a squeak “'Could that be Annie?'”
I felt sick. Everyone now felt I was holding up the show. The remainder of the scene was only a few minutes, but felt like an eternity, especially when Mrs. Archer had us go back a few lines, or encouraged a line to be said a little louder. But all I wanted to do was escape and have a moment to myself. Finally, the scene ended and I exited stage right. But I could still feel Leo eyeing me, ready for attack. As I was about to exit backstage, Leo stepped in front of me, just like he used to do in third grade. “Sorry, am I in your way?”
“Leo, leave me alone!”
“Gotta go somewhere?”
I felt tears coming to my eyes.
Leo rolled his and stared up at the ceiling. “Oh my God, now you're crying. That's why you don't have any friends. Grow up and stop crying.”
I suppose we were being way too loud, because Mrs. Archer told the scene to pause. “Is something going on back there? Leo?”
That was my breaking point. Tears came flooding out. I started to sob. I rushed past Leo, and flung the stage door open. I just wanted so much to be alone. No, I wanted a friend. Someone by my side. But being alone, ruminating on heartless words by ruthless bullies was more palpable than being in the throes of their arrows.
Finding a quiet corner near the band room, I sat down and hugged my knees. The band was currently in band practice, and they started up again, the muted drums and horns drowning out any sound coming from the theater. When I thought about the band, I was struck again with jealousy—they were a team. No one was an oddball, singled out. They all played together, even if—by the sound of it—a few were out of tune.
A door open down the hall and Mrs. Archer walked out of the theater toward me, her lips were taught. As the door closed I noticed the scene continuing without her direction. I felt a pit in my stomach. I was singled out. Mrs. Archer stood above me, staying silent for a few moments, allowing the moment to settle. The band in the other room paused for a moment as the band director gave directions. Finally, Mrs. she spoke in a soft tone, “What happened, Tony?”
I replayed the scene in my head and suddenly felt so stupid. I wished I wasn't there to be the target of humiliation. I wished I didn't exist. Other people—other boys—weren't as much of a cry-baby as I was. The only defense I had for my outburst was, they said mean things. Other teachers said I needed to toughen up. My parents said I needed to toughen up. I knew I needed to be stronger, but I couldn't muster the courage to stand on my own.
Mrs. Archer felt the silence. Whether she was growing impatient, I didn't know. To break the silence, she said again, “Tony?”
I knew I needed to confide in someone. Might as well be Mrs. Archer, I figured. I tried to speak, but the words caught in my throat. “Leo, he—” was all I could get out before bursting into tears once again. Mrs. Archer knelt down and put a kind hand on my shoulder. “I'll talk with Leo myself, Tony. I don't know what he said, but he had no right to talk to you that way.” She paused, probably seeing if that would help. I knew it was a way grown-ups tried to help me. But, like most adults, who didn't take care of Leo's constant bullying she just tired to tell me how to think of it.
“Don't worry about forgetting that line earlier. Happens to even seasoned actors on Broadway. You did the right thing by just moving on with the scene.”
I nodded. “I just want some friends.”
She softened further, and sighed. “I know. It's tough. My sister was the same way growing up.”
“Did she find friends?”
Mrs. Archer nodded, though not emphatically like I had hoped. She even looked a little grim. “It took a while. In her youth and even as a teen she had trouble fitting in. She wasn't the most popular girl, was chubby, and had really bad acne. I had theater to keep me occupied. She could never really find her calling anywhere. But I saw her grow and mature as an adult. It took a while, but soon she found friends that cared for her. She even got married to an amazing man. Mind you, she was almost 40 by the time she got married. But now she's happy...healthy...and has a lot of friends that support her. She reminds me a lot of you.”
I looked up at Mrs. Archer. She smiled. “We're about to do one of your scenes again. Are you ready to come in?”
“I don't think I can,” I said, burying my head in my knees again.
Mrs. Archer nodded, and then dispensed the advice I've heard from every adult before her. “Don't let Leo get to you, okay? Other kids have a lot of nice things to say about you.”
I nodded, pretending to take her advice to heart. I felt I'd been enough of a nuisance to her and the rest of the cast. Mrs. Archer sighed, then stood, and returned to the auditorium. The once theatrical troupe had now gone rogue, playing tag with each other and laughing. Before the door closed, Mrs. Archer clapped twice and called out, demanding an order to the chaos
I thought about going inside, but couldn't will my body to. But I also imagined Mrs. Archer reading my lines. The other kids would wonder if I was sick, or I'd gone home. Then kids would realize that Leo got to me and I'd run out, scared and crying. I shouldn't be this sensitive! I told myself.
Resolute, I stood from my corner. I didn't feel like crying anymore. I checked the time and saw it was 6:21. We probably weren't going to do another scene with me anyway. My dad would be by to pick me up soon, so I just stood outside the school, the cool night air drying my skin, warm and damp from crying. My dad soon picked me up; I spoke little, but my dad understood why. Later I found out he got a message from Mrs. Archer, explaining my trouble fitting in in play rehearsal.
That night, after my parents put me to bed, they lay in theirs, unsure what to say. My mom, the emotionally intelligent half of my parents, knew not to bother my dad if something was on his mind. She lay in silence, debating whether to pretend she was asleep.
“Mrs. Archer called after practice,” Dad finally said.
Mom didn't say anything. She forgot her sleep performance and began playing with her nightgown.
“I'm worried about him,” Mom finally admitted.
“But he's at a pivotal age. He needs friends. Especially when he becomes a teen.”
“Is it really that important?”
“Well, yeah. Remember the Hendersons? How their son couldn't handle school and dropped out? Experts say making friends is vitally important, especially in your teens.”
Dad sighed. “We need to make our own decision, don't you think?”
Mom spoke. “You were sensitive as a kid, too, if I remember right. You had to toughen up. So did I. Kids are mean but you and I had to find friends.”
“And if we didn't—?”
“Tony needs to learn, Miles.”
“How can he learn if all the interaction he gets is from—from—Leo!” he spat in a whisper.
“What other options are there?” Mom hissed. “There's nothing we can do for him short of telling kids to be nice to him.”
Dad kept silent. In the darkness, he was probably scowling, thinking. “This has been going on a while,” he admitted.
“I'm trying to help him.”
“I realize you are, too.”
“You have something on your mind,” she suggested.
Mom scoffed. “We don't have the money for one of those.”
“We have Tony's college savings.”
“But, we—I mean—no. No!” Mom propped herself up on her elbows.
“How can he ever hope to go to college? Just think when he hits teenage years. The emotions raging. I just think—oh, God—I try not to imagine it, but could Tony get so depressed he kills himself? Then we'd have the college savings, sitting there. And we'd be blaming ourselves for not doing something.”
She let out a disbelieving laugh. “We're not getting a robot as a friend for our son.”
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