The Girl Who Stared Back At Me

I glowered at the girl staring back at me through the glass. She wore leggings, even though they made her uncomfortable, as they were often scratchy. Her short shoulder length hair was down, even though she would much rather have had it pulled back in a ponytail. She wore boots, even though they would hurt. I despised this girl. Yet every day I went to school and posed as her anyway. One hundred and eighty days of hiding behind a mask -  a facade, trying to conceal from everyone, including myself, how I really felt. I knew how this worked. One leak of my emotions, and someone would exploit me for it. I had lived it

This girl continued off to school in her uncomfortable leggings, her short, blonde hair  falling into her her eyes, obstructing her view unnecessarily, and sweaty, clingy boots. Other children, strangers, also piled into the building. They all seemed to know each other. I was the odd one here. I needed some time to observe. I had studied how to get along with others.

Number 1: How to get along with anyone. Be like them. Some famous psychologist once said when meeting patients, to make a good impression, he would copy their mannerisms. It was a very effective method. Humanity as a whole is very narcissistic.

Number 2: When you’re being carefully watched by an audience, you have seven seconds to grab their attention, and ten minutes to keep it. After 10, you will begin to lose their focus, and thus the seven second mark repeats. If you bring up something interesting then, they’ll give you their attention for another ten minutes, and so on.

I'm sure nobody would like to hear Miss Wendy Ives’ long, winded psychology lesson. I’ll just shut up and tell you my story now.

So I walked over with the most confident gait I could manage, pulling my shoulders back, my palms up, and slapping on a fake smile I would really rather not have been giving, and went up to a girl huddled in a group with a bunch of other kids.

I felt her glaring at me. “Hi, I'm Wendy,” I squeezed out. Every atom in my body wanted to run. My heart was screaming at my brain ‘Abort mission! Abort!’

But I stayed. And her judgemental gaze didn’t let up. “Hello?” she said. It sounded like more of a question to me. The boy who was previously talking to her was also watching me carefully. Everyone in the group was staring at my irritating leggings, my short hair I would much rather have up, and boots I would be struggling to make it through the day with - it all felt so awkward to me. I could tell they were deciding what to do with me, whether I was worth their time. The mask was even more uncomfortable, sitting atop my face, digging into the back of my head, telling me what to do and say. At least, what the popular thing to do would be. I wanted to take it off. I wanted to leave. But I knew I couldn’t do that. So I stayed.

“Do you know where room J132 is?” That stupid, senseless smile I had plastered on my face was still there. I hated myself for it. “I think it’s seventh grade science? It's my first period class…”

A small smile appeared on the girl’s face, followed by a mocking laugh. “You have Mrs. Reynolds first period?” She smirked. I shifted my weight nervously. “I hope you live to to see second period. You said your name was Wendy, right?” I nodded meekly. “I'm Samantha. You can call me Sam,”

A shrill ring interrupted our conversation.

“First bell.” She looked up, and started to walk off in the opposite direction, her herd of other populars following her. “And Wendy!” she glanced back at me with her fake smile. “Maybe if you survive first period, you can hang out with Aaron and me after school!” She pivoted her head back around and sauntered off with the rest of her clique.

“To the right, first door.” I muttered.  Above the entranceway sat an old, faded strip spelling out “MRS. REYNOLD’S SCIENCE 7TH in Parisian, decorative letters. It didn’t seem that bad….

I pushed my weight against the door. These were much heavier than the ones at my old school. These were solid wood, lined with stainless steel. Like a prison…. Perhaps a colorful prison, though….  I stepped into the classroom. The shelves were filled with DNA models, beakers, graduated cylinders, educational posters, and other teaching supplies.

The petite, older woman behind the desk sported what looked like Ben Franklin’s glasses, a floral dress, and a Erlenmeyer flask shaped mug, filled almost to the brim with black coffee, with steam pouring off it.

She walked over to me. Everyone else was already seated. I could see the boy Sam called Aaron peering up at me from behind his crossed arms. I didn't even see him walking into the classroom.

Mrs. Reynolds stood next to me and told everyone to say hello. In addition to giving me a half-hearted, monotone greeting, they also gave me the same cold stare I felt earlier, the one Sam had watched me with.

Judging.

Mrs. Reynolds then directed me to sit down. The class continued. Once in a while, someone would glance over at me, but only for a second.

I liked Mrs. Reynolds. I didn't see the monstrous woman  Sam had described. Mrs. Reynolds asked a question I knew the answer to, but should’ve been way above the 7th grade curriculum. Why was she asking us this?

“I'm not expecting anyone to know the answer to this, but I need to know how much you know to know what you need to learn,” she clarified. “Who first synthesised polonium, discovered radium, and conducted experiments with uranium?”

I looked around the room. Everyone shared the same confused look. I reluctantly convinced myself that I would share the answer…. I raised my hand. Mrs. Reynolds looked at me and nodded, surprised.

“Marie Curie.” I stated. She looked shocked that I knew that easy trivia question. Anyone who knew anything about science would’ve gotten that one.  

“Correct!” She seemed elated. “Do you know what two items in her study were most contaminated by radioactivity?”

Trying to test how much I knew, I guess. Easy-peasy. “The back of her chair and doorknob,” I rattled off.

“Excellent!” She beamed. Everyone else in the room just looked more confused. Understandable. They weren’t expected to know this for years. “Anyway, we should get back to class.” She looked back and smiled, then turned back around. The rest of the class went very quickly. I knew every answer but decided I didn’t want to show off.

Walking home, the fur lining of my boots I never should’ve worn were now clinging to my ankles. The only company I had was a boy who said his name was Shane. I think he was in my science class. He seemed far more interesting than the other kids I had met earlier today. He showed an interest in science, like me. If you’re friends with him, they'll treat you like you did last year. Like nobody. My brain told me, but my heart screamed in disagreement. What a shame….

Sam and Aaron were already waiting for me at the park. “I heard you really sucked up to Mrs. Reynolds today,” Sam called to me. I walked over.

“Yeah, maybe a little…” I looked down at my feet. My dumb boots were still on. “I just guessed on that one.”

“Now you see how boring she is.” Aaron rolled his eyes. “Forty-five minutes never went so slowly.”

“She’s so mean when you don't do your work.” Sam complained.

My hair fell in my eyes again. Maybe if you actually tried in class, she would like you more… I felt uncomfortable and I didn't say anything.  I left, my opinion unasserted and unknown.

When I went in to school the next day, I felt great. Energized, ready to tackle the day, my head was clear. It was a beautiful morning.

Like the calm before the storm.

As I went to first period class, something felt off. The strip above the door was no longer there. Strange. When I entered the classroom, Mrs. Reynolds wasn't there. Probably just getting coffee, like most teachers do.

But she never came in.

Instead, a young man in his early thirties walked in. “Good morning class.” He smiled. “I'm Mr. Kate. I’ll be taking over for Mrs. Reynolds for the rest of the year.

Whispers spread throughout the room. Most of them seemed joyful. They were glad she was leaving. I laid my head down on my desk. I felt sick. The teacher I had only known for a day, the only teacher I had felt comfortable with, was gone. And I would never see her again.

“I'm so glad she left.” I overheard Sam and Aaron talking at lunch. “Thank God. I hated that witch.”

“Oh, Wendy!” Sam finally noticed my presence, and smiled that fake smile. “Finally, you’re here! Wanna hang out again after school?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I can,” I smiled, and walked away. Instead, I went over to Shane, who was eating his peanut butter sandwich in solitude. I sat down next to him. “Those kids over here can be pretty mean.” I grinned at him.

He looked up from his sandwich and smiled. “I would say that's a case of the social anthropological principle of outgroup homogeneity bias if I’ve ever seen one.”

 

I could feel Sam and Aaron staring at me. I laughed. I was right. He was a great person to have a conversation with. And a better friend than Sam and Aaron would ever be. I didn't care if last year happened again. I was happy this time. And I decided that was all that mattered.

Ella Bianco is in 7th grade and likes to paint, draw, and study psychology and physics. She also runs track and XC and lives with her parents, little sister, and dog in Haddon Heights, NJ. She has run into more things and injured herself more times than she can count on both hands.