The whole crazy thing started with Ms. Callaway. If you want to blame someone, blame her. I didn’t go into her office looking for some radical plan to get me into Stanford. I just wanted to get through our annual stilted discussion on just what, exactly, I planned to do with my life without 1) dying of utter boredom, and 2) saying something embarrassingly stupid. Maybe get a nice pat on the back. That’s what had happened the last two years. I didn’t expect her to spring something different on me.
“Becky?” Ms. Callaway said.
I blinked up at her, seeing my own frizzy silhouette in her tinted glasses. When kids at school said Ms. Callaway saw the world through rose-colored glasses, it was in her case both literally and figuratively true.
Her glasses had a reddish brown tint, which, with her short auburn hair, pasty complexion, and cotton-ball cheeks, made her look a little like Elton John. She also had the annoying tendency to use expressions like “there’s nothing you can’t accomplish if you try hard enough” and “winners never quit, and quitters never win” which was just the sort of thing you’d expect someone who looked at the world through rose-colored glasses to say.
“Huh?” I said.
She tapped the tip of her pen on the yellow legal pad. “Did you hear what I said?”
Rain streaked the window behind her. The sky had roughly the same look as the cafeteria’s bi-weekly attempt at biscuits and gravy. The poster of Einstein, the one of him sticking out his tongue, covered one wall in the cramped office; overflowing bookshelves covered the other.
The truth was, I’d checked out of the conversation sometime between when she asked me what my goals were and when I saw the WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX brochure on the corner of her desk. It was a reoccurring problem. My brain had decided sometime during Christmas break that it wasn’t going to be tethered down anymore. Mom said I was acting like I’d developed a sudden onset of Aspergers, but I couldn’t dig up anything with Google that made me think it was possible. Of course, I did discover that I was the right age to start showing the signs of schizophrenia.
“Um, sorry,” I said. “I was thinking.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” I shrugged. We could talk SAT scores and college application fees all she wanted, but I wasn’t about to talk sex with Ms. Callaway. “Just, you know. Stuff.”
“Ah, stuff,” she said, nodding. “The most popular word among teenagers. Well then, let me repeat. You said your goal is to get into Stanford.”
“That’s right.” I nodded vigorously, hoping that would win me back a few points. Nodding people were generally perceived as people who were paying attention.
“Well, I think you need an application that’s more . . . well-rounded.”
I thought of telling her that if anyone at Rexton High was well-rounded, then it would be me. I had plenty of round. I wasn’t fat, not exactly, but I was a long ways away from those tan, glistening bodies on the covers of all those magazines. I was about as far away from them as Dora the Explorer was from Jennifer Lopez. In fact, if I shined Dora’s blocky shadow on some butcher paper, I’m pretty sure it would match up with mine — from the neck down, at least. I did have hair like an electrified porcupine. I had that on Dora.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Are my grades not good enough? I know I got that B plus on the American History midterm—”
“It’s not your grades.”
She opened the thick manila folder on her desk, the one with the label which read: Grover, Rebecca Francis. It undoubtedly contained the previous two-and-half years of my high school academic achievement. Seeing my full name always gave me a bit of a jolt. No one but my grandmother from Arkansas ever calls me Rebecca, and she only does it because she says it’s a good Baptist name and I should be proud of it. But it’s not that I’m ashamed of it. I actually prefer Rebecca. I’ve just always been called Becky, and it’s hard to get people to call you Rebecca when they’re all used to calling you Becky. One of my rules is not to swim upstream if I can help it. Overall, I’m pretty much a swim downstream sort of person.
Really, it’s my last name that’s annoying. Grover. What could have been worse? I guess I could have been Becky Big Bird or Becky Bert, if we’re going to have last names from Sesame Street. And unlike first names, which you can at least change to some kind of nickname, you can’t really change last names. Not when you’re a Junior in high school anyway. And don’t even get me started on Francis.
“You’re pretty much on track to be Valedictorian if you keep this up the next year and a half,” Ms. Callaway said.
“If Desmond Kretter doesn’t get it.” He was my nemesis, the only one so far in my class who still had a 4.0 GPA. You wouldn’t think a greasy-haired, pimply-faced goth boy who never said a word unless forced could keep up the good grades, but it was like he had an iPad for a brain, linked constantly to Wikipedia.
“Okay, sure,” Ms. Callaway said. “Between you and Desmond, then. But I don’t think Desmond could get into Stanford either.”
“Why?” I said. “I mean, putting aside that he looks like he sleeps at the Goodwill.”
She made a tsk-tsk sound. “You really should be nice to him, dear. Even if you don’t like him much, haven’t you seen the way he looks at you?”
“You mean the way he stares without blinking? I thought he stared at everybody that way.”
“No, I think it’s just you.”
The implication of what she was saying finally hit me. I heard a song in my head: Becky and Desmond, sitting in a tree . . .
“Ew . . .” I said, shuddering.
“Just be nice to him,” she said. “He’s a good kid, smart, just like you. Anyway, it’s not about the grades. Do you know what the odds are of getting into an Ivy League school?”
“About one in eight hundred.”
“Hmm. I should have figured you’d know. But hasn’t it occurred to you that a good percentage of those applicants will have perfect GPAs just like you?”
“Well, I . . .” I began, and then I realized it hadn’t occurred to me. Of course, now that I thought about it, it was pretty obvious. It also didn’t seem relevant. “I’m not sure I get your point.”
“My point is, even Valedictorians don’t get into Stanford.”
Now that was new to me. I’d always assumed that Valedictorians pretty much had an automatic acceptance when it came to Ivy League schools. “They don’t?”
“No. In fact, we had a girl three or four years ago who was Valedictorian and she applied to both Harvard and Stanford. She didn’t get into either one. She had perfect SAT scores too.”
“Oh. She didn’t have a criminal record, did she?”
Ms. Callaway chuckled. “Oh, no. Very nice girl. She did have a little in common with you, though, which is why I bring this up. She was a little . . . introverted.”
She cringed a little, as if she hated to break it to me, but it wasn’t like it was exactly news. You could have put a potted plant in my place in all my classes and I don’t think anybody would have noticed unless the plant smelled bad. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to speak. Witty things popped into my head all the time, usually in that snarky, tongue-in-cheek way that would leave people totally in awe of my vast intelligence while also making them smile and wish they’d thought of it first. The problem was actually speaking them.
Whenever I opened my mouth in front of crowds — a crowd being defined as any number of people greater than one — the words that came out weren’t the words I had planned to say. Which was why, as a general rule, I didn’t speak to groups if I could help it.
I also didn’t speak much to anyone if I could help it. Made it simpler that way.
Ms. Callaway must have seen something on my face that worried her, because she said, “Now, dear, I don’t want you to think I’m picking on you. You’re a very sweet, talented girl, and the sky is limit for you. You can really can accomplish anything you set your mind to. And of course, I hope you do apply to Stanford. I just want you to have the best shot of getting in. That’s why I’m telling you this. There’s still time to round out your application a little.”
There was that word again. Round. I wondered if Ms. Callaway was going to tell me that I needed to lose weight after all. She certainly wouldn’t have been the first person to say it. She could have gotten in line right behind Mom.
There was a dark feeling settling over me. Getting into Stanford was number one on my list of goals for life. In fact, it was really number two and three, because those goals were both dependent on getting into Stanford — getting into the prestigious Gamma Phi Beta sorority at Stanford, and graduating with a 4.0 and top honors in English Literature at Stanford. I’d been wanting to get into Stanford ever since I visited with Dad on my first two-week mandatory summer visitation with him, back when I was only in fourth grade. That was back when I still hated him with a passion for leaving Mom. Now I hated him for lots of reasons.
If I didn’t get into Stanford, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Maybe I’d end up a guidance counselor like Ms. Callaway. She went to Oregon State — the diploma was right there on her crowded bookshelf. There was nothing wrong with Oregon State, per se, it was where Mom went, but nobody would ever mistake it for Stanford. I mean, it had the word “State” right in its name.
“So, um, what can I do?” I asked.
Ms. Callaway smiled kindly, then opened a drawer on her desk. “I’m glad you asked,” she said.
She pulled out a yellow flier and handed it to me. It was a half sheet of paper, a form, with the header “Nomination to Run for Student Government” at the top. At our school, you had to get a teacher’s recommendation to run for student government. Ms. Callaway had already filled it out and signed it, putting my name in the box for STUDENT CLASS PRESIDENT.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.
“Not hardly. I think you’d have a good chance.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. The idea was so absurd I couldn’t do anything else. But Ms. Callaway’s expression didn’t change — she went on smiling, eyes glimmering. I felt a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“No way,” I said,
“Because it’s crazy!”
“Why is it so crazy?”
“Because—because—” I stuttered, struggling not because I couldn’t think of any reasons, but because there were so many of them. Fear of public speaking. Fear of public ridicule. Fear of the public. Fear. “Because I’m just not that kind off girl, that’s why.”
“I’m not asking you to join a harem, dear. Just to put yourself out there a little. I think you’ll win, but even if you don’t, it’ll be good for you.”
“Good for me!” I exclaimed. “I—I’d rather be put in front of a firing squad.”
Ms. Callaway sighed, leaning back in her chair and folding her hands in her lap. “I really think you should think about this.”
“Um, okay . . . There. I thought about it.”
“Do you want to get into Stanford or not?”
She had me there. There was a lump the size of a golf ball in my throat. I was imagining stepping up to the podium at the school assembly when all the candidates gave their two-minute speeches. I swallowed. “Well, yeah, but there’s got to be something else—”
“Sure there is,” she said. “Lots of things. I’m just giving you a suggestion, that’s all.”
“Maybe—maybe I could volunteer at the Humane Society. I could walk the dogs. That’s something I could do. I did it once a couple years ago.” Truth be told, it was something I’d thought about doing again from time to time — about the same way I thought about going to the gym.
She nodded. “Things like that would help a little.”
“Well, it’s odds we’re talking about here, dear. That’s all. If you want to give yourself the best shot, you need to think big. I know how badly you want to go to Stanford.” She drummed her fingers on the desk; she was wearing bright red nail polish. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I do have another appointment. Come back and see me if you want some suggestions.”
I nodded glumly, and headed towards the door. I was feeling a little dazed. In the span of fifteen minutes, Ms. Callaway had turned my world upside down.
“Oh, Becky?” she said.
I looked at her. She was putting my file folder in a drawer and pulling out another.
“Yes?” I said.
“If you do decide to run, make sure you choose a good running mate.”
“Right. Here at Rexton High, the Student President and Vice President run together as a ticket.”
I glanced at the paper. I hadn’t noticed it before, but there was another line for Vice President. For some reason, the idea of trying to convince someone to be my running mate made me feel even worse than imagining standing up in front of the whole school. It wasn’t like I had any real friends — not my own age, anyway. Maybe I could ask Desmond Kretter. We could double down on geekyness. Heck, with him on the ticket, I might even come across as Catherine Zeta Jones.
There was always hoping.
The first time I met Becky, she punched me in the crotch.
She didn’t mean to do it. At least, I don’t think she meant to do it. I’d never had a girl punch me in the crotch before so I couldn’t say for sure. I was running late. My hair was still dripping wet. I didn’t remember my appointment with Ms. Callaway until I was in the shower in the boy’s locker room after practice, feeling the hot water on my sore neck, and I happened to look at the clock. Four o’clock. What was going on at four o’clock? Something.
Then it hit me — Ms. Callaway had sent a note to me in math class saying she wanted to see me. Said I needed to come at four today and it was urgent. She’d underlined the word urgent a couple times like I was too dumb to know what the word urgent meant. I may be dumb, but I’m notthat dumb.
So I was running and my shoes were squeaking and my t-shirt stuck to my wet back. Not many kids were in the hall at that time, almost two hours after last bell, but some of them stared. I skidded to a stop in front of the frosted glass door to the school office, and I’m thinking damn, damn, damn, I’m so late.
Then, when I threw open the door, this girl came flying out at me.
Literally — she just flew right out, stumbling and falling forward right into me, her hand still on the door knob.
I caught a brief glimpse of pale freckled cheeks and frizzy brown hair before her head plowed into my gut. That wouldn’t have been so bad — it kind of knocked the wind out of me, and I made a hummmph noise — but right after that first blow, her free hand landed a punch in my crotch.
You wouldn’t think a little thing like her could hit me that hard, but it felt like I’d been hit by a baseball bat down there. I doubled over, gasping, clutching at myself. I’d been kneed in the groin a few times by other basketball players, but this was a lot worse. I didn’t just see stars. I didn’t see anything all for a moment — just a lot of white nothing.
“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” she said. “I’m so sorry!”
“S’okay,” I moaned.
“Do you want—I don’t know—get you something—ice—”
“No. I’m—I’m fine.”
She started to reach towards my crotch, and I saw her hand floating at the edge of my vision, but she must have realized what she was doing because she yanked her hand back as if she’d just stuck it in the fire. She went on saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” and I really just wanted her to shut up already, because she was just drawing more attention to the whole thing. Some kids were gawking at us. Then I heard Ms. Callaway.
“What’s going on here?” She was a blurry shape standing in front of me.
“I—um—well,” the girl sputtered, “it was an accident.”
“What was an accident?”
“Josh Morgan took it in the groin!” a guy shouted. It was one of the football guys — Dirk. I hated that guy. His big thing was breaking pencils with one hand.
“Maybe he needs a doctor,” the girl said.
“I’m okay,” I said. Finally, I was starting to see straight. The first thing I saw, still doubled over, was this yellow piece of paper on the floor. I saw the words “Nomination to Run for Student Government” at the top in big letters. I picked it up, and saw that there was a name written next to the box for class president. REBECCA GROVER.
I looked at her. She was short even for a girl, barely coming up to the middle of my chest. Her face was hidden behind a cloud of curly brown hair. I could barely see her face, there was so much hair, just a bit of pale freckled cheeks and big brown eyes — made bigger by her enormous glasses. The way she looked out from all that hair made me think of a shut-in peering out through a gap in the curtains. She wore a baggy purple sweater. It was so baggy it could have acted as a parachute if she jumped out of an airplane. Not that she would be jumping out of any airplanes. She didn’t seem the type.
I didn’t recognize her at first, but then I remembered. Health class. She was the mousy girl who sat in the back. The teacher called her Becky, and usually the only time she called her anything at all was when she said something like, “Once again, Becky gets the high score.” I figured she was in all the smart classes, which was why we never saw each other.
“Here you go, Becky,” I said, handing it to her.
She looked at the paper as if not quite sure what to do, then snatched it away.
“I’m running for office,” she blurted.
There was a small crowd around us now and everybody laughed. Becky’s face reddened, and she looked down at her shoes. I felt bad for her, everybody laughing. Kids could be such jerks. People could be jerks too, of course, but it always seemed to hurt more when the jerkiness was coming from kids your own age.