After recess, the rest of the morning was as easy as the first two classes. Almost annoyingly so. Hanna considered filling her essay on “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” with spelling and grammatical errors, but couldn’t make herself do it. Instead, she turned the traditional theme into an exposition on the rationale behind summer vacations, laid out the reasoning behind her opinion that they should be lengthened, and added an argument for shortened school days, just for good measure. Partly, because she couldn’t remember much about what she’d done during the summer, sixteen years ago. But mostly because it was fun.
By lunch time, she was feeling pretty good about herself.
In grade seven, those who didn’t walk home for lunch were trusted to supervise themselves. As it turned out, only three others stayed, besides Hanna, and they were all boys. She didn’t remember this. She did remember that in grade eight, she and Leslie Watson had been the only girls who ate at school. Leslie was in the grade six/seven split this year, though.
It was an unexpected reprieve. The boys grouped together to eat, and Hanna got to relax. She took out her lunch bag, and grabbed a book from the shelf at the front of the room, filled with class sets of novels. There wasn’t a great selection, but she couldn’t just sit and eat, without something to do.
She opened her lunch, curiously. One peanut butter and jam sandwich. An apple juice. A banana. And a Vaschon Jos Louis pastry.
Hanna had a choice to make. She knew the road that those Jos Louis led down. It was not one she wanted to take. But another part of her said that one Jos Louis did not create an eating disorder – that was the part of her that liked whipped cream filling and milk chocolate coating.
Again, she considered that this might be some elaborate test. So, glancing suspiciously above her, as if looking for a hidden security camera recording her actions, she put the Jos Louis back in the bag. The sandwich and fruit would have to fill her up.
With the pastry out of sight, it was easier to think rationally. To consider what the long-term consequences of this experience might be. A little spark of hope lit up in her. What if – what if it lasted? What if she really could change the course of her life? It was a thought. Here she was, healthy as a newborn colt. If this weren’t just a short-term vision, and she stopped eating junk food, now, she would never have to try to lose weight, because she’d never have any extra in the first place. She would never produce those fat cells that just sucked up every unnecessary calorie she ate, ruining a week’s worth of dieting in one meal. She wouldn’t need to starve herself, or hate herself, or hide. She could just be.
The thought arrested her. The pilfered novel lay, untouched, on her desk. She inspected her sandwich with greater scrutiny. To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t much better than the rejected dessert. Even the peanut butter was full of sugar, never mind the strawberry jam. And the white bread was likely to give her both diabetes and colon cancer.
Tomorrow – if there was a tomorrow – she would ask her mom to give her a bottle of water instead of juice. And convince her to buy whole wheat bread. Better yet, she could make it herself.
She was starting to see possibilities, here. Things she’d never dreamed were possible, not for years and years. She could be a different person.
Unless – unless she couldn’t. Maybe failure was programmed into her. Maybe she would spiral downwards even faster than she had before, now that she’d already developed bad habits. Her body might be young and fresh, but her mind obviously wasn’t. It remembered everything. It was already formed.
Hanna put the sandwich down. Regarded it with hostility, and suspicion. But no, she reasoned, she had to eat. Starving herself would only result in bingeing, which would start a vicious cycle she would never be able to break. She picked the sandwich back up.
The boys were starting to look at her. She stared back with her most disapproving teacher glare. They quickly went back to their food, startled. Then, she deliberately picked up her book, turned to the first page, and began eating her sandwich. Slowly, absent-mindedly, as though she were totally engrossed in the story. She kept her expression calm and distant. She did not want to invite familiarity. She was too busy, considering her future, to invest the brainpower that would be necessary to engage in another conversation.
She chewed the sandwich, ate the banana, and drained the juice box. She cleared off her desk, threw the garbage in the garbage can, and continued to read until the bell rang for recess. Then she put the book back on the shelf, and headed outside.
She found a place at the edge of the playground, by a fence under some trees. She sat on the hard-packed earth. There was a little grass here. Her old school ground had been covered in a thick blanket of grass. Of course, it had fewer students, and was five or ten times the size. Few areas were trampled enough to kill the grass. And after it rained, they would have ‘sidewalk recess’ to protect it. Things were not taken care of the same way here. They didn’t change their shoes when they went inside. They didn’t have to sign out basketballs and soccer balls.
These were some of the things that had made Hanna despise her new school, her new province. Small things, but important to her, because these differences reinforced her initial impressions of the people here: lazy, ungrateful, and thoughtless. She didn’t hate them, so much as despise them. She didn’t understand why they were allowed to live this way. Such people should have been taken in hand, taught how to do things correctly – and if that didn’t work, forced into compliance.
Now, she knew what she was experiencing was culture shock. She was, in essence, a culturist, something almost everyone in polite society would rank right up there with racists. She believed her culture was superior to others, when in fact, all cultures were of equal value. There was nothing intrinsically right about switching to indoor shoes when entering a school, just as there was nothing intrinsically wrong with trampling wet grass into a muddy pulp.
Her 28 year old mind knew this. But it didn’t buy it, any more than her 12 year old self had, or did now. These people were stupid. Their grass was dead, and their floors were dirty, and it was their own fault.
The playground began to fill up, as students returned from home. Some of them looked at Hanna strangely, as she sat there. But she did not have any more energy to try and make friends, so she stayed. She put her hands behind her head and lay down, ankles crossed, and stared up at the branches that hung over the fence. The leaves were still very green. She closed her eyes and waited for the bell to ring, praying that she would be left alone until then.
She had not changed much in 16 years. She knew that she didn’t fit in very well with people, and she didn’t want to. There was only one person at this school – besides her family – that she cared a fig about. Whose opinion she cared about. But he wasn’t outside for this recess.
Mr. Lawrence. Her favourite teacher of all time. He had taught her in grade eight, and thought she was a mathematical genius. She had worked harder for Mr. Lawrence than she’d ever worked in school before, partly because she wanted to live up to his expectations, and partly because she wanted to beat them.
It had been an exhilarating year. She hadn’t been like her private school students, who would argue with her over their marks. The number itself had never mattered to her – it was her teacher’s opinion she cared about. She had only ever challenged him once.
He had circled the word aforesaid in one of her English assignments. And when she’d walked up to his desk and asserted – tremblingly – that there was, in fact, such a word, he’d grinned.
She remembered it like it was yesterday. “I’m acquainted with aforementioned,” he’d said, “but not aforesaid.”
Hanna had been sure that she’d read it in a book, so he’d obliged her, and looked it up in the class dictionary. When it wasn’t there, she’d deflated. But Mr. Lawrence didn’t give up so easily. He’d brought her down to the basement library, and they’d looked for it in the giant dictionary down there – and found it. She’d been infinitely relieved. She couldn’t think of anything worse than being thought wrong by Mr. Lawrence – she’d had no doubt that she was right, but had less confidence in the school dictionaries – after insisting on her correctness.
She wished she had woken up in grade eight. She had never cared much for her grade seven teacher. Mr. Carey didn’t teach enough, and assigned too much homework. She’d spent so much time on it that her mother had confronted him about it during parent-teacher interviews. And her mother never questioned their teachers’ authority.
The bell rang. Hanna was one of the last in line. Mr. Carey appeared to usher them in, and as Hanna filed through the door, she glanced at Mr. Lawrence, who was there for his grade eights. He was speaking to the principal, a woman whose name Hanna couldn’t remember; but their eyes met for a brief moment, almost as if Hanna’s gaze had drawn his, and she saw a flash of something there – recognition, or at least curiosity. She looked away quickly, trying to blend in with the grade sevens, suddenly worried about drawing attention to herself. She concentrated on her feet, willing herself not to trip. These kids climbed the stairs far too quickly; her uncoordinated limbs couldn’t keep up, and this time she didn’t try to force them. There was a large gap between Hanna and the person in front of her by the time she reached the third story. But at least she hadn’t tripped.
After lunch, they moved on to Math. She finished the assignment in a few minutes, and began skimming her Geography text book to pass the time. Mr. Carey came toward her suspiciously, so she re-opened her math notebook to show him that her work was complete. Instead of looking pleased, he seemed disappointed that she had not needed the allotted amount of time.
Well. She wasn’t going to take that. If she was still here tomorrow, they’d see how much longer she stuck around in his classroom.
The last class of the day was Gym. Hanna knew, without looking, what she’d packed: a t-shirt, and long, black leggings – spandex, they had called them in her old school. Back there, all the girls wore them for Gym. Here, they wore shorts, a fact that had humiliated Hanna horribly when she’d first arrived.
Now, she pulled her spandex on in the girls’ change room, without a hint of embarrassment. Or, if there was any, she fought hard against it. So what if she was different? She kept her head high as she changed her shirt and tied her gym shoes, though everyone was watching her. They thought she was weird; well, she didn’t care. They were in grade seven. They had no idea how the world worked, and she was not going to join their ranks, like some stupid follower. She might not even ask her mom to buy her a pair of gym shorts, as she had last time. She considered just keeping the spandex, if only to show them they couldn’t change her. They needed to see someone dare to stray from the norm they had created.
Besides, the gym floor was not kind to bare knees skidding across it; and Hanna’s would have to endure that unpleasantness frequently. The girls here played a very intimidating game – especially the lanky Twin Towers and the feisty Bakers – but Hanna wasn’t going to shrink back in reaction, the way she used to. She might be the most clumsy kid in the class, but before coming to this school, she’d been a perfectly confident player. She didn’t want to lose that again.
It wasn’t easy to regain that confidence. Even though they began with the simplest of all games, dodge ball, Hanna was used to cowering in a corner and lamely protecting her head when a ball strayed in her direction. But her body was young and healthy, if not particularly fast or coordinated – and the novelty of it made her bold. After successfully catching a few balls aimed at her, she became more assertive, testing her new strength, using it, working her muscles. It felt good, even when she was eventually hit and had to go to ‘jail’.
Back in the change room, she felt a difference in the air. Her odd comments at the first recess, and her standoffishness at lunch, had confused the other girls. The game had made her approachable again.
“What are you wearing?” asked the girl closest to her.
Julie Price. She wasn’t really being mean. She thought Hanna was strange, and her clothes were stranger, but she wasn’t trying to make fun of her. A bunch of the other girls were quiet, waiting for Hanna’s answer.
“They’re leggings,” she said, giving them a more modern name than spandex. She liked the sound of it. And it was kind of a thrill, remembering that in approximately 14 years time, this style would be the height of fashion. Not a fashion she particularly approved of, but still.
“Why do you wear them?” Julie asked.
Hanna felt very teacherish, explaining. “I took gymnastics at my old school, and we all wore these. They don’t fly up when you’re upside down. Plus, it doesn’t hurt so much if you skid on your knees. Most of the girls were in gymnastics, so we wore them for Gym class, too.”
They latched on to the mention of gymnastics.
“We don’t have gymnastics here,” moaned Natalie. “I wish we did.”
“Were you good at it?” asked Bethany.
Hanna shrugged. “A lot of the other girls were better. I can do front walkovers and handsprings, but not back ones.”
Her first time in grade seven, she would have played up her abilities, desperate to impress these girls. It had not worked nearly as well as her nonchalant, self-deprecating attitude did now.
“Did you ever take dance?” asked Bethany, now properly dressed and folding her gym clothes.
“No,” Hanna said, without hesitation. She could have given them several reasons for this, all true. She chose the most interesting one she could think of. “Mennonites don’t dance.”
She saw their eyes widen, curious.
“What are Mennonites?” someone asked.
This, she could talk about. “They’re kind of like the Amish, but not quite so old-fashioned,” she said, knowing that some of them would at least have heard of the Amish – though when she’d first moved here, she’d been unfamiliar with the term, herself. “They have cars and electricity. Old-order Mennonite girls have to wear dresses, but I lived in a New-order community, so they wore normal clothes.”
And just as she was beginning to think she’d made it, she caught a mocking smirk from across the room. Yvonne.
“I guess they didn’t shave their legs, though.” She, and two girls beside her – all with perfectly smooth, ivory legs – broke out laughing at the joke.
Hanna felt her face turn red, again. No one could bring out the twelve year old in her quite like Yvonne.
Before anyone else could say anything, there was a knock at the door – Mr. Carey, reminding them not to dawdle. The girls hurried out into the hallway and joined the boys, heading back to class.
There were no glances of sympathy in her direction. No one willing to call out Yvonne for her pettiness. Hanna had been right about these people. They weren’t worth her effort.