They reached Juicea Dorville Public School – Juicy, as it was affectionately called, by those connected with it – unharmed. The yard was already full of kids. Sarah held tight to Hanna’s hand. Emily might have wanted to, but she was eight years old, and didn’t want to look like a baby. Lizzy appeared unfazed, but stuck with the other three, quietly watching the unfamiliar faces, that were watching them.
And Hanna forgot that she was 28 years old. That she wasn’t really twelve, and this wasn’t really her first time at this school. Suddenly, she was just as scared as she had been the first time she’d gone through this.
She wanted to be strong. To laugh at the things that had frightened her immature self. But they hadn’t lost their potency. And she, apparently, was no stronger than she had been. She stood there, awkwardly, not knowing what to do. Feeling curious eyes judge her every move – her very being – and find her wanting.
The bell brought back some bit of sanity.
“Sarah, Emily,” she said, trying to sound sure, “you go in that door.” She pointed to the side entrance, where most of the students were congregating. “Lizzy, you too,” she added, remembering their mistake last time.
“What about you?” Lizzy asked.
“I go in that door,” she said, indicating the smaller, back entrance. “It’s just for grades six to eight.” Lizzy was tall for her age, and, originally, had seemed to belong with the kids headed that way. But she was only in grade five.
“How do you know?” Lizzy asked, suspiciously.
Hanna fumbled. “I just – heard it, somewhere.” Lizzy still looked doubtful – mistrustful, actually, a look that had always irked Hanna, the eldest by right, but never with any of the respect, it seemed.
“I’m not going with the little kids,” said Lizzy, decidedly. “Go,” she said to Sarah and Emily, who scrambled away at her direction. Then she walked determinedly toward the back door. “Why don’t you go with them?” she shot back at Hanna.
It was a withering look. Not a teasing, or even a taunting look. It was a look that said her little sister despised her. She didn’t simply resent Hanna’s status as her elder, the way Hanna had always rationalized it – she wished Hanna weren’t her sister at all.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Lizzy had always acted this way. Their relationship had smoothed out, over time, but even as adults, Hanna had always known that on some level, Lizzy was ashamed of her.
But it did surprise her. The sharpness of it – the brutal honesty of childhood, landing mercilessly on Hanna’s adult understanding. She felt the full force of Lizzy’s contempt in a way she never had when she was young. And it hurt her much more deeply, now. Maybe she had grown more sensitive.
She stood where she was, and watched her sister walk away. Wanting to run in the opposite direction. Or to sink into the ground. No – to be gone. Really gone. To not exist, where she wasn’t wanted. How sad, how pathetic was it, to be looked down upon by a ten year old? What human being could live under that humiliation?
She considered leaving. What would happen, if she did? Was this place real? Would it cease to exist if she went off course? Would the vision end?
Would she be back in the desert?
Lizzy had a knack of making her feel worthless, but her real life – the one waiting for her as soon as this was over – had made her know it. She wasn’t going to risk returning any sooner than she had to.
So, after checking to see that Emily and Sarah seemed to be getting to the right place, she followed the crowd of older students lining up at the gym doors. Lizzy was ahead of her in line, and seemed to be doing alright. More nervous than she was trying to let on. Hanna couldn’t help noticing that – her protective instincts kicked in around her little sisters, no matter how strained the relationships were.
Around her were faces that held varying degrees of familiarity. Boys and girls in groups, talking excitedly. She picked out the ones who would be in her class. They all looked years younger than Hanna remembered, and she was afraid that at any moment one of them would call her out, ask what she was doing in this crowd of children. She tried to remember her image in the mirror, to convince herself that she looked as young as they did. She told herself that the stares and whispers aimed at her were the natural reaction to a new student. This had happened the first time. She remembered being a novelty the first day or two, being surrounded by girls at recess, until they discovered how uninteresting she was. Painfully shy, she hadn’t been able to adapt quickly enough to their way of speaking, their foreign habits. Worse, she didn’t seem to want to. The attention had quickly faded.
She focused on her hands. Small, dainty hands. Soft, young skin. Slender wrists. This was her. She would blend in.
A teacher appeared at the door, and let them in. Hanna followed the others into the gym. She must have had a better spot in line than originally, because she saw, with relief, that there was still room along the walls, where all the grade sevens and eights were standing. Only the grade sixes were congregating in the center. She still had a painful memory of following, dumbly, into the middle of the gym, and sitting in this group, only to watch with horror as, one by one, they were all called by the grade six teacher, by name, leaving her sitting there alone, until one of the other teachers suggested she join the others against the wall. It had been one of the most embarrassing moments of Hanna’s childhood.
She would have squeezed in somewhere, regardless, now that she knew what was about to happen, but she was glad she didn’t have to. She filled the closest empty space, and found herself beside Colette, a girl in her class. Not a particular friend, but not an enemy, either.
Colette looked at her seriously for a moment, then resumed her uninteresting conversation with Kristen Campbell, the star basketball player.
As the principal quieted the room, and welcomed them all back to another school year, Hanna picked out faces in the crowd. Mr. Carey, her grade seven teacher. Tami and Tiffany Baker, the identical twins who did not look alike, and who Hanna had sort of been friends with, even though they could be unbearably petty, at times. Kristen and Kaitlyn, the ‘twin towers’, with their similar heights and short hairdos. The good-looking blonde boy, whose name Hanna couldn’t remember, but who was very popular, especially with the girls. Natalie Brock, the offspring of two doctors, very smart and very polite, but irritatingly superior. Bethany Nelson, the student council president, similarly condescending. Leslie Watson, who lived on West Street in a big run-down house with five little brothers and sisters and a tired-looking mother. Mr. Lawrence, the grade eight teacher – the best teacher Hanna had ever had.
The closer she looked at people, the more she remembered, the less the wanted to be here. Too many embarrassing memories were associated with this place, and these people. Overall, Hanna’s time here had been a success, she supposed. She’d won lots of academic awards in grade eight, and stayed friends with Leslie Watson through high school. But she’d also made the unfathomable mistake of running for student council in grade eight. And other, smaller errors, packed up in memories she’d managed to repress. If she’d seen any of the faces before her on the street, as an adult, she would have turned and walked the other way, without looking back. This was not a place she’d ever wanted to revisit.
The desire to be somewhere else – anywhere else – was building in strength, until she took herself in hand. Yeah, she had a lot of embarrassing memories. But she was the only one here who remembered them. None of these people knew her yet – except for Lizzy, who was, as Hanna watched, being escorted out of the gym by the librarian. The rest of these people were meeting her for the first time. And Hanna knew enough about them, and how they expected her to behave, to get through her first day without humiliating herself too badly. She was smarter than they were. She wasn’t a scared twelve-year-old anymore. Sure, her legs felt like Jell-o, as her name was called by Mr. Carey, and she crossed the gym floor to join her classmates. But she had no real reason to be nervous. It was just the twelve-year-old in her that felt that way. The instinct to fear the new and unknown. She could rise above that.
The journey up to the third floor reinforced her physical age, however. She tripped twice on the way up the stairs. Her feet were too big, her limbs uncoordinated. She would be awkward and clumsy for at least another two years. She would have to concentrate very hard on climbing stairs, and try to keep up with everyone else, without injuring herself.
The girl behind Hanna smirked the first time she tripped, and actually giggled the second time. Yvonne. She shouldn’t care – Yvonne was not worth the effort. She was mean, without any redeeming qualities. Not someone whose opinion Hanna particularly cared about.
Her cheeks turned red, anyway.
In the classroom, Mr. Carey had them stand against a side wall, while he assigned seats alphabetically, by last name. Hanna took the desk beside Nathan Gowanloch, which was a relief. She wouldn’t be expected to talk to him as much as a girl. And Nathan was friendly. He’d teased her good-naturedly throughout grades seven and eight. On their last day of grade eight, she’d kicked his chair out from under him. He’d hit the ground pretty hard, but laughed along with everyone else, once he got over the shock. It was one of those perfect moments, a memory Hanna almost doubted sometimes. After enduring two years of teasing, without the courage to say anything about it, finally getting Nathan back had felt really, really good. Even their teacher had pretended not to notice. And it was so unlike her, reacting so swiftly. She would have trusted it more, had it ended with a catastrophic element – like Nathan’s blood gushing everywhere – or an embarrassing one, like managing to trip herself instead of her intended target. Things didn’t work out so neatly for her, generally speaking.
Nathan was curious about her now, she could tell, but she didn’t speak to him, and he didn’t say anything, either. As the rest of the class was seated, they filled their desks with supplies from their backpacks. Hanna felt the familiar thrill of arranging brand new pens and pencils, and even a new box of pencil crayons, this year, along with last year’s leftovers. Around her, students chatted while they settled themselves in, but Hanna was too focused on the strangeness of this whole experience to listen in on any conversations. When she was done, she sat quietly, while Mr. Carey handed out notebooks and textbooks. She labelled them as requested, a different colour for each subject, then examined her text books, curiously. The first chapter in math was on fractions, decimals, and percents. She couldn’t stop the small laugh that escaped.
That chuckle was apparently enough to convince her seatmate that she was approachable.
“What’s so funny?” he asked, not sarcastically, but curiously.
Hanna glanced at him, immediately smoothing her facial expression. “Um, nothing,” she said, then busied herself finding a spot for the textbook inside her desk. “I just think I learned a lot of this last year.”
Nathan grinned. “Great. We can compare our answers on assignments before we hand them in. Just to make sure we both get good marks.”
Hanna grinned. He was too cute. A tiny little brown haired boy, covered in freckles. She couldn’t help it when a little bit of the teacher in her came out. “Nice try, kid,” she said.
He just grinned wider at her, not seeming offended at being called a ‘kid’. Somehow, she had a feeling he would manage to ‘share’ answers with her, whether she agreed to it or not.
When he turned around to talk to the boys behind them, she opened her history book to the Table of Contents. Louis Riel. The Canadian Pacific Railway. Confederation. John A. MacDonald.
This was going to be easy. Not exactly riveting, but easy. Hanna had taught grade seven. So, unlike most adults, she still had the information fresh in her memory.
As it turned out, it wouldn’t really have mattered if Hanna hadn’t remembered a thing from grade seven. They spent the first two classes colouring the covers of their English portfolios. Nathan wrote ‘ENGLISH’ across his folder in big bubble letters, filled them in with camouflage greens, and spent the rest of the hour leaning back, with his chair up on two legs, as was his custom, talking to the boys behind them. Hanna decided to go all out, and immersed herself in artistic expression. No one bothered her as she sketched, and it made her happy. She was pleased with the outcome. She’d always been terrible at drawing, but she didn’t let that bother her now. She kept it simple – flowers and vines and swirly nothings, all in bright, fabulous colours, dominated by pinks and greens – and was surprised by how much she enjoyed it. School wasn’t all bad, she decided.
When the bell rang for recess, she realized she had decisions to make. How was she going to do this? Her classmates, except for Nathan, had been too intimidated to speak to her during class, but she knew that this would change when they were outside. Should she let it happen, or escape to the soccer field, despite the fact that she would be the only girl playing? Or should she try to find her sisters and make sure they were ok?
She was still undecided as they poured outside, onto the asphalt. Making decisions had never been her strong point, and she had been distracted by tripping on the way down the stairs – only narrowly escaping a fall that would have taken out at least half a dozen other students. By default, she ended up, as before, part of a circle of girls. All looking at her. Asking her questions. Expecting her to entertain them.
Most of these girls were nice, in their way. Smart, promising, some even genuinely kind. Athletes, dancers, grade A students. Future university grads. Community volunteers. Hanna didn’t like any of them.
“So, where are you from?” asked Tami Baker.
Tami was friendly in an aggressive sort of way. She didn’t smile a lot, but she was outgoing and overconfident, a tiny ball of viciousness in gym class. Hanna was always a little frightened of her.
Where was she from? She decided on minimal detail. “Southern Manitoba.” They wouldn’t have heard of her little prairie town, and they didn’t care to hear about it, either. Anything outside of Ontario was a world away, and completely irrelevant, to these people.
Tiffany, Tami’s twin, proved Hanna right. “Is that the one in the middle, or closer to B.C.?” she asked.
“It’s the first one, right beside Ontario,” said Hanna, patiently.
“Why did you move here?” asked Natalie.
Her teeth, perfectly straight in bulky braces, held a strange fascination for Hanna. She’d always wanted braces. But she did not have a ready answer to Natalie’s question. “It’s a long story,” she finally blurted out. The crowd of girls did not look satisfied. “My grandparents live here,” she added.
They were appeased. It wasn’t really an answer, but it established some connection, making her family’s travels seem less random.
“How do you like it, so far?” asked Colette.
This is where she had begun to go wrong, last time. Not hiding her utter disdain for her new home. Even seeing it with grown-up eyes, without the prejudice of homesickness, it was still far inferior to her previous location. But now, she could at least be diplomatic about it. “It’s different from what I’m used to,” she answered. “Much bigger.” They wouldn’t take that as an insult, at least.
It accomplished more than she had hoped for. It started a chorus of complaints about how small Dorville was. How boring. How far from everything. How everyone knew everyone in town.
“There are 30 000 people here,” Hanna couldn’t help correcting them. “You can’t possibly all know each other.”
There were offended looks all around at her mild, but authoritative tone.
“I don’t care how many people there are,” said Julie, tossing her chin-length blond hair behind her. “I can’t go anywhere without running into someone I know.”
There was unanimous agreement from the rest of the girls. Hanna refrained from any further comments on the subject. It was difficult, though. The desire to educate them was stronger than she’d anticipated.
“Did you have a lot of friends?” asked Colette. She was more tolerable than Hanna remembered.
“As many as I needed,” she said. “I was friends with the girls in my class.”
“Do you miss them?” asked Bethany Nelson.
Hanna thought about that. Did she? Some part of her did, she supposed. When she’d first moved, it had been awful. “It’s difficult to make new friends,” she answered. That had really been the problem, much more so than any actual affection for those she’d left behind, though she’d grown up with them since Kindergarten. She might have grown closer to a few of them, had they been allowed to go through the formative junior high years together. But in grade six, friendships were weak, transient things – formed of familiarity and convenience, easily broken by distance. She’d assumed she would make new friends in her new town. But she hadn’t realized how different the people here would be.
When pressed to explain herself further, she decided to take a risk.
Hanna was still operating under the assumption that this was a heavenly vision of some sort. But, along those same lines, maybe it was actually a test. And if that were the case, this was a prime opportunity to practice some evangelism – surrounded by a captive audience of practical heathens. Even if it didn’t make any difference, in reality, there was no doubt in her mind that God was running this show, and that he was observing her actions.
If nothing else, she could try to amuse him.
So, gathering up her courage – her hands still shook uncontrollably, even if none of this was real – she told them the truth. “My old friends were Christians,” she said.
It was an unexpected declaration. Confused looks passed between the girls in the circle. None of them knew how to answer, it seemed.
Hanna sensed their discomfort, and had pity on them. Now that she’d begun, her nerves were settling down, so she elaborated. “We all knew what we believed in,” she said. “That made it easy to understand each other.” And then, to really dig herself in – “What do you believe in?”
It was a simple, innocent question. Almost. Because Hanna already knew, of course, that these girls didn’t believe in anything. Worse than that, they didn’t even realize it. If they had ever, in their lives, questioned their place in the universe, they had forgotten it. Their heads were empty of anything significant.
Tami Baker, at least, was brave enough to answer – or to offer what she believed constituted a valid answer. “We’re Presbyterian,” she said, for her sister and herself.
“What do Presbyterians believe?” Hanna asked. She was curious – not about Presbyterian theology, necessarily, but about whether or not Tami knew any of it.
While Tami groped for an answer she didn’t have, Natalie Brock and Bethany Nelson passed a displeased expression between them. They were not happy with the turn this discussion had taken.
“I don’t think we should talk about religion in public school,” said Natalie.
Before Hanna could answer, with a comment comparing Natalie’s sentiment with the policies of communist China, the bell effectively stopped the conversation. Probably for the best, Hanna admitted to herself. To her own surprise, she may have been in danger of getting carried away.