It was disorienting again, waking up on the bottom of a bunk bed.
Everything was the same. Every detail. Lizzy’s clothes from the day before lay scattered on the green carpet. Hanna’s own jeans, with their patchwork inserts down the sides of the legs, hung neatly over the back of the wooden desk chair.
Lizzy’s hair was cut.
Hanna dressed carefully. Slowly. Underwear. Socks. Jeans. Undershirt. Blue t-shirt.
She almost chickened out. Looking at herself in the mirror, she remembered the last time she had tried to make a fashion statement. She had been in grade two. An eccentric aunt had sent her a black miniskirt with neon green trim, matching leggings – striped, in the same two colours – and a neon green sweatshirt, covered in black stars. Trying them on at home, in her room, she had felt invincible. Looking back, she believed her mother had tried to gently and tactfully discourage her from leaving the house in the outfit. But Hanna had been convinced that she looked amazing.
No one had teased her. They’d been too shocked. They’d only stared, with bewildered expressions. Their life experiences had not prepared them for this.
As soon as Hanna stepped onto the schoolyard, she’d realized her terrible mistake, but it had been too late. She was stuck in her freakish costume until she could run home at lunch time to change out of it.
From that day on, her only goal, when dressing herself, had been to blend in.
She looked at her altered jeans, fabulously wide-legged, and knew that they ran counter to her 21-year long endeavour. It was a terrible risk. And all her prior experience predicted that it would end badly.
She didn’t feel 28. She didn’t feel twelve. She was seven years old again, crying with the realization that she had gone to school looking like a bright green bumble bee in a tutu. What made her think she could get away with deviating from the standard dress code, at twelve, any more than she had at seven?
While she was deciding to change into her blue corduroys, and to arrange an accident that would discreetly dispose of her attempt at fashion design so that she could no longer be tempted by them, Emily came out of her room, and saw her.
“Hanna, what happened to your pants?”
The blood drained from Hanna’s face. “I sewed them.”
“They look funny.”
“They look stupid.” Lizzy had returned from the washroom, and was not impressed.
But that made Hanna defensive. “They do not look stupid,” she said with confidence.
“I don’t think they’re stupid,” Emily backtracked. “Just different.”
“They’re ridiculous,” Lizzy maintained.
Hanna breathed. Took stock of her emotions. A bit of fear, some embarrassment. A ton of self-doubt. More than enough to overwhelm the brief sense of pleasure she’d felt in her appearance.
But there was something else. Because she knew, somehow, that Lizzy was lying. Lizzy, with her new haircut, for which any former gratitude toward Hanna had evidently worn off. Lizzy didn’t think she looked stupid. Lizzy was jealous.
She was so wearing these pants to school.
Hanna marched downstairs with an air of self-assurance that even her seven year old self would have envied.
“Mom! Look at Hanna’s pants,” Emily said.
Mom turned, surprised, and surveyed Hanna’s sewing job. Then she smiled. “I had a friend, growing up, who used to do that to her pants,” she said. “I always thought it looked neat.”
It boosted her morale. Her mom’s approval was sincere. Which meant that, even if her classmates could not appreciate her creativity, she would not be disgraced in the eyes of her teachers. Adult opinion mean far more to her, now, than juvenile acceptance.
Then, Mom saw Lizzy.
“Elizabeth Graham.” There was cold-hard discipline in her voice. “Have you cut your hair?”
Lizzy’s jaw was set defiantly. But before she answered – whether to tell the truth or not – Hanna confessed.
“I did it.”
Their mother turned to her. Hanna couldn’t remember her ever looking so caught off guard.
“I’m sorry,” she tried explaining. “It was just supposed to be a little bit. I trimmed mine, too, because I didn’t think it would matter, since mine is so long. And Lizzy saw me, and asked me to do hers. So I did.”
“And you didn’t think to ask, first?” Their mother’s tone dared Hanna to lie to her.
Oh. Hanna had forgotten this. What it felt like to be in trouble – not a good feeling. And what it was like to have to ask for permission, for everything.
Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I didn’t think you’d notice.” There was no point pretending she hadn’t known she should ask. But she’d known her mom would say no. And Hanna was too used to doing whatever she wanted, as an adult whose parents had long ago granted her independence, to let a lack of permission stand in her way.
But to her mom, she wasn’t an adult. She was a twelve year old child. One who had never given her trouble, before. Who she trusted to look over her younger sisters every day after school.
What did she think of her now?
Her mom was looking at her in disbelief. As if wondering where she had come from – and where her well-behaved child had gone. Trying to reconcile this Hanna’s actions with the Hanna she knew.
Apparently, Hanna’s prior good behaviour earned her some leniency. Her mom stepped forward, looking at Lizzy’s hair more critically. Had her turn around.
“Well,” she said, resignation in her voice. “It doesn’t look bad, at least.” She looked at Hanna again. “But I don’t know what your father’s going to say, when I tell him.”
“I’m sorry,” Hanna said, again. “I wasn’t thinking.”
This, at least, made sense. It was true, and it was consistent with her former indiscretions. Her mom knew she rarely did anything wrong deliberately – but she did sometimes forget to think about whether or not she was doing something wrong. Like inviting a friend over to her house when her parents weren’t home – she would always have asked first, when her parents were there; but they hadn’t been there to ask, so she’d forgotten that this step was necessary.
“Well.” Her mother seemed to accept this, chalking it up to Hanna’s absentmindedness, rather than deliberate disobedience. “For future reference, Hanna, you are not allowed to cut your sister’s hair without asking me.”
Emily asked what Hanna would not have dared.
“Can she cut her own hair?”
Their mother glanced at Emily, who was looking on eagerly from a perch on top of the kitchen counter, then inspected Hanna’s hair – which she hadn’t bothered with, before. Hanna’s hair hung down to her lower back, so the change was hardly noticeable.
“Well, it probably needed a trim anyway,” she conceded. “If you want to cut your own hair, I don’t mind. Just ask, first.”
Hanna’s mom really was amazing, she realized suddenly. What other parent would trust their twelve year old daughter to take a pair of scissors to her own hair? A negligent one, maybe, but Hanna’s mom wasn’t negligent. She just didn’t stress over small stuff. She had her priorities, and seeing that her children met the world with perfectly styled hair wasn’t one of them. Apparently, she had decided to let Hanna take her chances.
Hanna hugged her, impulsively. “I’m sorry,” she said again, for the third time. She had to be more careful, she told herself. She might be grown up, but her parents didn’t know this. They couldn’t know this. Whether this was real or not, they didn’t deserve to lose their little girl. And she would make sure they didn’t. She would be twelve. How hard could it be?
On the way to school, Hanna tried to form a plan. What did she have to remember to do, as a twelve year old? Asking permission before doing things was an important one. But what else? Maybe she should ask questions – kids were always asking their parents questions, weren’t they? Adele asked questions constantly – but she was three, not twelve. And Hanna had never been a normal child. She didn’t whine about having to do the dishes. She didn’t complain that she had to watch her sisters after school. She didn’t go through any sort of rebellious stage. She did fight with Lizzy on occasion, but her parents wouldn’t be likely to miss that. She didn’t intend to be exactly like her old self – she was going to be much more amazing. But still, believable as twelve.
She should probably try not to be so smart. It went against the grain, but she would have to do it. For the greater good, she could be a little dumb. Fit in with the grade sevens. Maybe try to make friends.
When they reached the school, there were a few girls from Hanna’s class gathered in a small circle by the doors. She joined them reluctantly. It would be expected. She had decided to be twelve, after all. And, whether she cared about their approval or not, life would be much more difficult if she openly scorned them.
They eyed her uncertainly as she approached, and she remembered her altered jeans. She felt her heart rate speed up and wondered if, perhaps, she had overstated her indifference to adolescent judgment. But by the time she reached the circle, stepping into the spot they willingly opened up for her, they seemed to have decided in her favour.
“I love your jeans,” said Colette. “Where did you get them?”
Hanna let herself be relieved. After all, it meant less hassle. But then she had to focus on the question.
It was meant kindly, she knew. But why should she know, or care, where her clothes came from? Why did these girls care? Hanna still didn’t understand the psychology of it. Her only explanation was that they had been raised improperly. Her clothes came from thrift stores, garage sales, and bags of hand-me-downs. She certainly didn’t remember which items originated from which of those sources. And her twelve year old self had resented the fact that these girls had made her feel embarrassed by that. She still resented it. Because she wasn’t really embarrassed. She didn’t care that her parents didn’t waste money buying her new clothes. She was proud of the fact that they worked hard to give their daughters everything they needed, and didn’t worry about frivolities. Proud that they had principles. It angered her that these girls wouldn’t see it that way.
“I don’t remember,” she said, honestly.
“They’re nice,” said Natalie. Always one to give a compliment, where she felt one was deserved. And equally willing to express her disapproval – which, where Hanna was concerned, had been regularly.
Hanna stopped herself there. These girls were twelve years old. They were immature. And she was not. She was 28, and had a huge advantage over them. Her judgment of them may have been excusable when she had been the same age, but now, she had to remember that she was an adult, and they were children. She had to be tolerant, and hope for the best – that they would grow, and learn, and be better people.
Even if – having seen the future – she knew that they would not.
“Thank you,” she said, smiling graciously at Natalie.
“Did you finish your essay?” asked Tami Baker.
Hanna’s uncertainty showed on her face.
“What you did with your summer,” Tami prompted.
“Oh, right. Yeah. I’m done.” Had been done in 30 minutes during yesterday’s class. The rest of the students had grumbled about having homework their first day of school. She probably had, too, originally, so she didn’t blame them. She was just glad not to be in their place.
School was kind of nice, even if it wasn’t very interesting. That morning, after promptly completing the assigned math exercises – in fact, she had done them during the lesson, paying no attention whatever to the teacher – she read a book she had brought from home, while the rest of the class struggled with the first few questions. She repeated the performance in Spelling, and despite Mr. Carey’s evident irritation, was well into the thick theological tome she had brought from her father’s bookshelf, by the time recess arrived.
But then, Mr. Carey called her to his desk.
“This is your essay from Language Arts class yesterday?” he asked, pushing the pages towards her.
Hanna’s name was written clearly at the top. She nodded.
“Did you understand the assignment?”
“Then why didn’t you answer the question?”
Hanna felt her face begin to turn red. Mr. Carey looked at her as if she were a misbehaving dog. It was petrifying. She wanted to defend herself – knew there were rational arguments in her favour, yet couldn’t think of any.
“I’ll ask you again. Why didn’t you complete the assignment you were given?”
Answer, she told herself. But her eyes were filling up with tears. It took all her concentration to keep them from falling.
“I don’t know how your prior school operated, Hanna. But here, you’ll be expected to do the same assignments as everyone else. Not to make them up to suit yourself.”
The nerve. The intolerable arrogance of the man. Acting as if his stupid little assignment was some all-important skill that no student could possibly succeed without. Speaking to her as if she had deliberately disobeyed him in order to get out of work – when she had obviously done more than what was asked.
When she still made no reply, he sighed, stood, and told her she could stay in during recess to redo the assignment. To avoid a failing grade. As if he were granting a great favour.
Hanna glared at his back as he left the room. But despite – or perhaps because of – her anger, she still felt as if she were going to throw up. She never could speak up when she most wanted to. Strong emotion, especially when mixed with embarrassment, rattled her too much.
To calm herself, she re-read her essay. Was impressed, all over again, by its style and artistry. Sometimes, her writing was painfully awkward; but this was not one of those times. This was a masterpiece. A light, flippant little thing, but her pen had flown delightfully, so that it was a pleasure for her to read. How Mr. Carey had managed not to appreciate it, she could not imagine. It was inconceivable. He must have some sort of vendetta against her.
She had to get out of grade seven.
All her resolve – which, admittedly, had been pretty weak to begin with – to be a twelve year old, was gone. She could do it at home, with her parents. But here? Not here. Not with this man. She owed a childhood to her parents. She owed Mr. Carey nothing.
Hanna slipped the essay into her writing folder. She would rewrite that assignment when pigs flew. If Mr. Carey didn’t like it, he would have to fail her.
Right now, she had more important matters to attend to.
Mr. Lawrence’s classroom was directly across the hall. Hanna approached, slowly. Forcing one foot in front of the other. Driven by a heart that screamed against the injustice done to her. That was utterly convinced of the necessity of making this request. That knew she would be miserable if she didn’t try. But was also pulled back by crippling shyness.
She turned back. What was she going to say? This was Mr. Lawrence, not some insignificant hack like Mr. Carey. She paced the front of the grade seven room, thinking. Planning out her request. The seconds ticked by. Recess would soon be over. She crossed the hall again, this time reaching the doorway. Peeked inside – then retreated once more, panicking.
She almost ran into him.
Mr. Lawrence wasn’t in his classroom at all. He was just walking towards it, from somewhere at the other end of the hall, and had seen both her approach and her sudden retreat.
He was smiling. Amused.
“May I help you?” he asked.
Mr. Lawrence was always impeccably polite. His manners had won her respect from the first. But she was still tongue-tied by the surprise.
“Would you care to come in?” he asked, helping her out.
“I can come back later,” she said, apologetically. “If you’re busy.”
“Not at all.”
She preceded him into the classroom when he motioned for her to do so. Paused inside, then followed him to his desk, where he sat. Took the chair that he indicated, at the desk across from his.
“You’re one of the new Miss Grahams, in Mr. Carey’s class, is that correct?” he asked.
“Yes. I’m Hanna.”
“I’m Mr. Lawrence. I teach grade eight.”
She stuck out her hand automatically. He shook it gravely.
“Pleased to meet you,” she muttered, softly.
“And you,” he answered, with a slight tilt of his head. “Now, how can I help you?”
Mr. Lawrence was a tough teacher. Students feared and respected him. But he was always kind. Hanna told herself not to be nervous. Show no fear. No weakness. She tried to see him as a person, and not just a teacher – having been a teacher herself was helpful in this endeavour.
From the perspective of a child, Mr. Lawrence had always seemed very old. Not elderly, but old and wise – like someone who had seen history. Now she guessed he was in his mid-40’s. Younger than she would have supposed, but a little older than her parents. That was a good age – she got along quite well with people about 30 years older than herself. Anything older than that was scary, and younger – people between her own age and her parents’ – creeped her out. She didn’t know how to relate to them. But in her 20s, she had gotten along really well with people in their 50s.
He had a wife. And children – a daughter, at least. In university. That was all she knew about his family life.
He was a rather handsome man, for his age, though Hanna would never have used the word to describe him. She would have called his face both pleasant and intimidating. It was wide, with straight teeth, and a very suitable nose, if it was a bit lumpy. His colouring was dark, for a Caucasian – brown hair and eyes, and skin that tanned deeply, like her grandfather. He was tall enough, but not abnormally so. Neither broad nor thin. But even now, looking at him critically, what Hanna was most struck by – what she remembered him for – was his strong, authoritative bearing. When he walked, it was as a benevolent king overseeing his lands. When he sat, as he did now, he was a judge, both fair and just.
He waited, patiently, while Hanna quickly took all this in. As if he knew that he would soon decide her fate.
She dove in.
“I don’t want you to think that I think I’m really smart, or anything.”
A useless qualification. If he was going to think her conceited, nothing she said about it would change that. But she couldn’t help saying it, anyway.
She breathed deeply, in and out. Gathering courage. “But I was wondering if it might be possible for me to do grade eight this year, instead of grade seven.”
His hands were folded on his desk. His head tipped slightly to the side in interest. “Oh?”
“I think I’ve already learned the grade seven material,” she continued. “And it seems a poor use of time to do it all over again.” She pressed her lips together. She probably hadn’t been this eloquent at 12, but this was important. She couldn’t help doing her best.
“Were you in grade seven last year?” he asked, sounding doubtful, but open to the possibility.
She took a deep breath. “No. I was in grade six.” He began to look as though trying to think of a way to let her down gently. “But I was in Manitoba, and I think the curriculum there must be different,” she rushed on. “I’ve looked at all our text books for the year, and I’m sure I’ve learned it all before. I can do the Math. And I’ve read all the novels in the class book sets.”
He smiled indulgently. “I didn’t know Manitoba’s education system was so advanced.”
She forced herself to continue meeting his eyes. “Well, our school days were half an hour longer.”
“I see,” he said, voice solemn. “That would add up over the years,” he acknowledged.
He was pretending to take her seriously, both for her sake and because he found her amusing. The way Hanna liked to indulge her niece. But she didn’t mind. He was listening.
“I guess it must have,” she agreed.
“But I’m afraid that even if you could handle grade eight academically, skipping grades is discouraged, these days. We have to consider your social development. Separating a student from their peers can have negative consequences.”
“But the grade sevens aren’t my peers,” she pointed out. “I just moved here, so I don’t know any of them. It couldn’t be much harder to adjust to the grade eight class than the grade sevens. I’m going to be a loner either way.”
He did seem impressed by her argument. There was logic in it. But he still shook his head. “Be that as it may, I think you had better stick with grade seven. My class would be more of a challenge than you realize, and you’ll have enough to deal with, finding your place here and making friends.” Hanna opened her mouth, as if to argue, but he cut her off. “It might seem simple right now, but stick with it. Grades six to eight learning expectations are repetitive on purpose, because social development is a much higher priority at your age. You’ve probably forgotten more than you realize.”
That was it. Hanna deflated. If Mr. Lawrence wouldn’t help her, there was no hope.
The bell rang. With it, she felt the sting of failure. She should have planned this better. She shouldn’t have come over here, impulsively, without thinking it through. She was sure she would come up with better arguments as soon as she got home – but now, she would never get to use them. She’d had one shot at convincing Mr. Lawrence. She couldn’t come back and ask him again.
She nodded, unable to look him in the eye. “Alright.” She stood up. “Thank you for your time.”
She walked out as quickly as possible, humiliation nipping at her heels. Mr. Lawrence had been very kind, as always, but she knew that she had just made a new memory to haunt her: she had tried to convince Mr. Lawrence that she was smart enough for his class, and he hadn’t believed her. She had asked him for something he couldn’t give.
That had never happened before. She’d earned his approval, not asked for it. She had worked hard for his respect. Now, with a single error in judgement, she may have lost it. Ruining her chances of ever showing him what she was capable of.
She returned to Mr. Carey’s class in a fog of apathy. What did it matter, now? She sat through French and History without caring, or trying. She didn’t crack a smile when Nathan made a show of copying her answers. She didn’t react when a group of girls across the room, including Yvonne and Julie, started whispering amongst themselves and casting glances her way. They were irrelevant. Mr. Lawrence didn’t believe in her. He had been the one thing she’d thought she could count on.
At lunch, she rewrote her Language Arts assignment. What she didn’t remember of her summer, she made up. The exercise animated her a little. She made a game out of making it as tedious and immature as possible – if Mr. Carey wanted bad writing, he was going to get it. She hoped he hated it. She hoped it made him physically ill.
Her twelve year old self could be pretty vindictive, she realized. The angry emotions caught her off guard. She’d forgotten this part of her. But she remembered it, now. Vividly. She’d been mad at the world. Not at God. Not at her parents. She didn’t blame anyone in particular for the fact that she’d had to leave the only home she’d ever known. There was no one to blame – God, she knew, never made mistakes; and she believed her parents always did what they thought best. But she had been unhappy. Not all the time, but that sadness and anger had to get out somehow. It showed up in her writing assignments, in the blatant, though harmless, overuse of negative adjectives. And, less innocently, in the thoughts directed toward her new home, and the people in it.
She hadn’t necessarily been unfair. Much of her judgement, she still believed, had been quite right. She hadn’t made up wrongdoing where it didn’t exist. But she hadn’t tried to excuse it, either.
She hadn’t had any compassion. Not for those who got what they deserved.
But she was different, now. More forgiving of people’s flaws, because she saw her own more clearly. More willing to look for the reasons behind people’s actions. Not to overlook evil, but to assume the best in people, rather than the worst. Maybe it wasn’t as easy as the anger had been, but it was better. It was wiser. And she could use that wisdom now, to save herself a lot of pain.
Ok. So, Mr. Carey wasn’t the best teacher. She hadn’t been, either. Reluctantly, she let herself recall a memory she’d been holding at bay. The situation had been uncomfortably similar to this one. One of her students, an incorrigible grade nine, (who was actually one of her favourites) had turned in a decently written paper. One of the best in the class, really. But he hadn’t actually answered the questions she’d asked. She was disappointed, because she’d been invested in that assignment. She’d put thought into it, phrasing the instructions just so. She’d been excited to see what her students, who weren’t lacking in brains, came up with. But the class had grumbled. They’d called it too difficult. Said they didn’t understand. So she’d spent extra time with them, explaining exactly what she was looking for.
She’d been disappointed with the results as a whole. And then, that paper. She wanted to believe Abdullah had made an honest effort, and an honest mistake. But she’d thought it more likely that he’d simply copied and pasted a bunch of information from the internet. It was why she’d been so particular about asking the students for their own opinions, rather than just a recital of facts. She couldn’t trust them not to plagiarize.
She’d been so afraid of being fooled. Of showing weakness. Wanting to be tough, like Mr. Lawrence, who no one would ever dream of trying to put one over on. She had to show them that she was in charge. That her instructions couldn’t be ignored without consequences.
She’d given Abdullah a C. Not a failure – she wasn’t heartless – but certainly not what he’d been expecting. When he questioned the grade, she’d explained her reasons calmly, but she hadn’t backed down.
Mr. Carey wasn’t guilty of anything worse.
The venom was out of her by the time she finished rewriting the paper. She placed it on his desk, not repentant enough to write it a third time, but willing to forgive the insult. She was stuck in grade seven, at least for the time being. She didn’t have to be happy about it, but she didn’t have to sulk, either.
She would do her work. She would get good grades. It wouldn’t be hard. She would lower herself down to Mr. Carey’s standards, and make what she could of them. It was probably for the best, anyway. She wasn’t supposed to be changing too much.
But it did kind of take the fun out of it.