Thankfully, no one had taught Yvonne how to hit. Hanna had never been slapped before, but after the initial reaction to the pain, she recovered very quickly. Shaken, more than anything.
Half the class was out of their seats. Nathan Gowanloch was yelling “Girl fight!”. Tami Baker jumped up, screamed, and fell in a dead faint.
But Hanna didn’t react. She glanced at Mr. Carey, at the front of the class. Waiting for him to do something.
He didn’t. Apparently, he was going to let this play out.
Hanna took a deliberate, slow step, closer to Yvonne. Stared her in the eye. And turned her other cheek.
Yvonne seemed confused. She, too, looked at Mr. Carey, probably wondering why he was allowing this. But he continued to stand there, arms crossed, feet apart. Looking on with disapproval, but nothing else.
Having decided their teacher wasn’t a threat, she turned back to Hanna. Her lips curled back at the corners. She pounced.
Hanna had been trained to fight. Her father had made sure she could block a punch, or give one, if necessary. But she didn’t quite know what to make of this – this scratching, hair-pulling demon.
Thankfully, she’d had some other training, as well. For one summer, she’d worked in a group home for adults with disabilities. And had a full day of learning non-violent crisis intervention.
So, after the initial shock, she remembered not to pull away when Yvonne yanked at her hair. Instead, she grabbed, and secured, Yvonne’s wrist, preventing her from ripping the braid out of her head.
In the periphery of her awareness, she could hear the other students shouting, cheering. Heard another, deeper voice, yell “Why don’t you stop this?” Felt heavy footsteps coming toward her.
None of it mattered. She couldn’t get away, and the crazed lunatic was winding up for another slap. She had to end it.
She delivered a solid blow, right under Yvonne’s ribs.
It effectively ended the fight.
Yvonne gasped, her eyes wide with both pain and fear. The hands that had been poised to do damage now grasped reflexively at her abdomen. She stumbled backward. She fell.
There was a moment of stillness. Then two girls converged on Yvonne’s limp form, which was sprawled on the ground. Hanna staggered back, released, stunned. She hit something hard. Turned around – to face the tall, dark, glowering form of Mr. Lawrence.
Well. That was it. If he could have ever forgiven her presumption in asking him to let her into grade eight, he was never going to forget this. She had officially ruined the only good thing about Juicea Dorville public school.
Mr. Carey quickly, if belatedly, tried to take charge of the situation. He ordered everyone back in their seats. The room regained a semblance of order, except for the two girls still on the floor.
Mr. Lawrence, after steadying Hanna, had taken her shoulders and impelled her to sit down, out of his way. Then he knelt by Yvonne. Hanna watched, dumbly, while he assessed Yvonne’s injuries.
Hanna knew what had happened. She had knocked the wind out of her. She’d done it once, accidentally, to her dad, while using him as a punching bag. He’d had the same, surprised look on his face. She’d run, screaming, to her mom, thinking she had killed him.
Yvonne would be fine. Tami, who’d hit her head when she fell, was probably hurt worse. She wondered, vaguely, who was taking care of her. Tiffany probably had it under control. The noise around her seemed to settle, as Mr. Carey came up the aisle to see to Yvonne, and Mr. Lawrence left. Hanna was too dazed to hear what was being said. Too mortified to look at Mr. Lawrence, to see how bad it was.
She didn’t need visual confirmation. She knew exactly how bad it was. It didn’t matter that she’d been provoked. It didn’t matter that she’d taken a hit without retaliating. She had been in a fight at school. And the other girl had ended up on the ground.
Yvonne was finally able to sit up, with help. Alligator tears rolled down her face. Mr. Carey gave her permission to go to the washroom, with Julie and Bethany to support her. She stood, weakly. Hamming it up, of course, but Hanna didn’t blame her for that. She did have to roll her eyes at the sneer Yvonne managed to give her as she walked by, though.
Mr. Carey turned to her, just catching the end of that eye roll.
Mr. Lawrence addressed his students as “Miss” and “Mister” as a matter of course. As a respectful form of address. It injected the atmosphere of his class with a sense of formality. Of importance. Of being grown up.
Mr. Carey used their surnames when they were in trouble.
He sent her to the office. She’d expected it. But she still balked at the idea. She might be embarrassed by how this situation had gone down, but she was pretty sure she hadn’t actually done anything wrong.
She narrowed her eyes at him as she rose to leave. But she resisted making any smart remarks. He might have just lost all her respect, but he was still her teacher.
That’s what she told herself. Really, she was fighting back tears. And the defiant set of her jaw was the only way to keep it from shaking. She thought of plenty of retorts she might have made, later on, but in that moment, she wouldn’t have been able to say anything, without her voice cracking. Never mind coming up with something clever.
She took her time as she made her way downstairs. She’d never been sent to the principal’s office before. She wasn’t exactly sure what she was supposed to do, when she got there. Tell the principal what had happened, she guessed. Well, at least she wasn’t afraid of what her parents would do, when they found out. Her dad would be proud of her.
Or would he? He’d taught her how to fight, but he’d probably hoped she’d never need to. This fight shouldn’t have happened in the first place. It had happened because she had challenged Yvonne. Because she couldn’t keep quiet.
She hadn’t started the fight – either the verbal one, or the physical one. But she’d escalated both. And she would have to admit that.
When she arrived at the office, she had to wait her turn. Tami and Tiffany were already in the inner office, with the principal, so the secretary had her take a seat in the waiting area. The inner door was open, and Hanna could see the Bakers, sitting across from the principal’s desk, waiting for their mother to arrive. Tami was drinking from a juice box, and holding an ice pack to her head. Hanna couldn’t see the principal, but could her hear talking on the phone.
While she had her head craned to see them, Tiffany caught her eye. And, though Hanna wouldn’t have thought her capable of any sort of rebellion, Tiffany gave her a wide, conspiratorial smile. Hanna was just able to grin back. Then she caught the secretary looking at her in disapproval, so she leaned back in her chair.
It was a miserable wait, after that. Filled with the conviction that she had ruined her second chance at childhood. Where would this road lead, she wondered. She had the Bakers, and Nathan Gowanloch, and possibly Kristen Campbell on her side. But Mr. Carey would be her enemy from this day on. She would never be able to take her eyes off Yvonne, or anyone who was friendly with her. And she’d lost Mr. Lawrence.
It was going to be a long two years until high school.
Yvonne and her escorts appeared, about fifteen minutes later, at the door. Hanna stood up immediately, walking to the other side of the small reception area. The idea of sitting beside Yvonne Carrington was not tolerable.
The girls took the empty seats, all three glaring at Hanna as they did so. She leaned against the wall and looked at the ceiling.
When the secretary asked what they needed, Julie jumped up and explained that Yvonne needed to call home, because she had been “hit by another student.” Significant glances were sent Hanna’s way.
At the secretary’s sympathetic condolences, Yvonne’s reserve of tears burst open again. Tissues and water were offered, and gratefully accepted. Mrs. Baker arrived in the midst of this display, and the principal came out of her office, eager to pacify and control the situation.
The space was crowded and noisy, with phone calls and explanations and coming and going. Hanna made herself as small as possible. Waiting for it to pass. She was eventually noticed, and sent distractedly to sit in the office while everyone else was attended to. In the course of things, the secretary came in to set some papers on the principal’s desk, and shut the door on her way out.
Hanna waited. The sounds outside the office gradually dissipated. A clock on the wall ticked slowly. Thirty minutes. School was over. She heard the bell ring. The halls erupted in noise, and then that, too, subsided.
Hanna stood. Opened the door wide enough to look out. The principal was in conversation with the secretary at her desk. They looked up at her in surprise.
“I have to walk my sisters home,” she said. Hating herself for her own timidity, for the apologetic tone in her voice. For sitting in the office, waiting, for half an hour, when everyone had forgotten her.
“I’ll be with you in just a minute, dear,” said the principal, carelessly.
Hanna steeled herself. “My sisters will be waiting,” she insisted. “I have to go tell them where I am.”
The principal glanced at the clock. Before she could render a decision, though, the office was approached by rapid, businesslike footsteps. Ones that Hanna recognized. She shrunk back from the doorway, escaping notice when he entered.
“Do you have Hanna Graham in here?” asked Mr. Lawrence. “There are three little girls outside, looking very lost and wondering where she is. I promised I’d find out for them.”
Both the secretary and the principal seemed to snap to attention at the grade eight teacher’s entrance.
“She’s in my office,” said the principal, though Hanna was absolutely certain she hadn’t known her name.
“Are you going to be much longer with her?”
“I’m not sure,” she said, a little defensively, Hanna thought. “I don’t yet have all the information I need.”
“I think it can wait until tomorrow,” said Mr. Lawrence, smoothly. “If it’s about that incident in Mr. Carey’s room, I think we have all the facts.”
“Well, I could finish our interview later.” As though she were conferring a great favour. As if she’d actually begun to interview her. “Hanna,” she called. “You may go, now.”
She waited a moment. Hoping to hear Mr. Lawrence leave. When, instead, he struck up a conversation with the secretary, she exited as quickly as possible, without looking up.
The girls were waiting, though none too patiently.
It hadn’t been five minutes since the bell rang. But the school emptied quickly. There were only a handful kids around, waiting for their parents to pick them up. Most of the students walked home.
“Sorry,” said Hanna, shrugging on the backpack she had grabbed on the run – only bothering with it, because it contained her key for the house.
“Where were you?” asked Lizzy, suspiciously.
“Did that nice man find you?” asked Emily.
In spite of the circumstances, Hanna smiled. She wondered how Mr. Lawrence would feel about being referred to as a ‘nice man’.
“Yes, he found me,” she confirmed.
“What were you doing?” persisted Lizzy.
Hanna sighed. “I was in the principal’s office.”
Lizzy gaped. “You? You got in trouble?”
Emily gasped. “What happened, Hanna?”
Sarah’s eyes were wide, not quite knowing what this meant.
“It was nothing,” said Hanna. Trying to reassure them. “I didn’t get in trouble.” Not yet, anyway.
“But you didn’t get sent there for no reason,” insisted Lizzy.
Hanna walked quickly, as if trying to make up for lost time. Dragging Sarah along with her. “I may have been in a very small fight,” she admitted.
Gasps. Exclamations. All three girls were talking at once.
“Are you hurt?” asked Sarah, the words filled with worry.
“Did you get hit?” asked Lizzy, eagerly.
“Did you punch someone?” asked Emily – a little too gleefully.
Hanna laughed. It did seem funny, now, explaining it to her sisters – finally out of that horrible school. The idea of her, being in a fight, was just so ridiculous. Crazy – and somehow, not so terrible.
She told them what happened. Described it all, in detail. They were enthralled. And every one of them, Lizzy included, was nothing but proud of her.
Maybe they were only her little sisters. Maybe they were biased. Maybe their opinions didn’t count in the court of public school. But they sure made Hanna feel better.
They were a jolly group, when they crested a hill three blocks from the school, making a left hand turn that led them downward. The girls were still firing off questions, and Hanna was struggling to answer them all. None of them were particularly aware of their environment, and yet, Hanna couldn’t miss the girl ahead of them.
She was about half a block away. A tall, thin girl, walking in the same direction as a number of other students, all who were much farther ahead. Her steps were slower than theirs, with a lilty sort of a limp, and dragging feet. More than that, though, her drooped shoulders, and hanging head, told Hanna that something was wrong. Told the world, if anyone had been looking.
Hanna squinted, concerned. Trying to figure it out. Her sisters saw it, too, and grew quiet.
She looked at them. All three looked back at her, silently asking what they should do. “I’ll go see,” she said. Dropping Sarah’s hand, she ran ahead, overtaking the girl quickly.
“Hey,” she said, gently, jogging to a stop as she approached. “Is something wrong?”
The girl looked up at her, surprised. Her face was covered in tears.
It was Lisa. A year younger than Hanna. She’d been in a car accident several years ago. And then a coma. Hanna had heard this all second-hand. Lisa was in the special ed class, so Hanna had never really interacted with her. All she had was a vague impression of a sweet looking girl whose eyes never quite matched up. She’d never seen her crying.
Lisa stopped. Wiped at her tears. But then, unable to speak, her shoulders started shaking, and her sorrow poured out of her in hurt, little-girl sobs.
Without hesitating, Hanna wrapped her arms around her. Lisa leaned into the embrace, resting her head trustingly on Hanna’s shoulder. Hanna patted her back, whispering calming sounds.
“It’s ok,” she crooned, softly. “It’s ok. You’re alright.”
Lisa’s sobs did not end quickly. She was still crying when Hanna’s sisters caught up. But their approach did prompt her to try to pull herself together.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Hanna asked, as Lisa once again tried to dry her face.
Lisa looked down, surveying the younger girls. Then, back at Hanna. “Some other – kids – were – making fun of me.”
The words brought a new flow of tears. And this time, not just Lisa’s. Hanna looked, helplessly, at her sisters, while Lisa wrapped her arms around her stomach, holding her elbows. All the girls were shocked. This wasn’t a baby, like Sarah, who might cry over any little thing. This was a big girl. Almost as tall as Hanna. A pretty girl, with short, dark hair. And they knew, instinctively, that something very bad must have happened, for a big girl like that to cry like this. And, beyond that, there was something about Lisa’s weeping, something so innocent, so feeling, that it was heartbreaking to hear. Emily, who’d always been sensitive, had a big tear running down her cheek in sympathy. Even Lizzy’s eyes were glistening. And Hanna had to catch herself, or she would be a wet mess, no good to anyone.
Lisa pulled herself together again. “They called me stupid,” she said.
Hanna felt a tap on her arm. Lizzy handed her a crumpled Kleenex, and she offered it to Lisa, who used it to wipe her face and blow her nose.
“That’s mean,” said Emily, fully indignant. “You’re not stupid.”
Lisa looked at Emily, then Hanna. “You don’t think I’m stupid?” The hope in her voice, at such a small statement, was heartrending.
“Of course not,” said Hanna. “You’re not stupid. No one should ever say something like that.”
“They said I’m stupid, and that why I’m in the special ed class,” said Lisa, miserably. “Because I’m not smart.”
“You’re smarter than anyone who makes fun of other people,” said Lizzy. “They’re the stupid ones.”
“Really,” said Hanna, not balking at the idea of throwing the insult back at this girl’s tormentors. “And if anyone ever makes fun of you again, you just come to me. I’ll handle them.”
“Yeah,” said Sarah. “Hanna can hit real hard. She’s not afraid of anyone.”
At that, Hanna saw a transformation she hadn’t been prepared for: Lisa’s look of hope turned to complete trust and awe.
Hanna had just made a friend.
They walked her home. They introduced themselves, and the girls all supported Hanna’s efforts to cheer Lisa up. She still clung to Hanna, walking close and holding her hand or her arm, but they coaxed some weak smiles from her.
When they got to Lisa’s house, which was just across the street from their usual route home, the younger girls hung back. They were in a particularly beautiful neighbourhood of the area most of Juicea Dorville’s students came from, full of huge, century-old homes. Lisa’s house was smaller than many around it, but the large, stately stonework made it seem even more intimidating than the others. Hanna walked Lisa under an ivy-covered stone arch, down a stone path, to a back door, made of heavy wood with large, black metalwork, that was the same shape as the stone arch.
Lisa’s mother met them at the doorway, perhaps having seen their approach from a window. Lisa instantly sought the safety of her mother’s arms. Hanna answered the questioning look in the neat, intelligent woman’s eyes.
“Some kids at school were teasing her,” she said. “So we walked home with her.”
“I’m ok now,” said Lisa, not quite letting go of her mom, but relaxing her grip. “This is Hanna,” she said, politely introducing her. “She was nice to me.”
Michelle’s mother looked back at Hanna with new gratitude. “Thank you,” she said.
Hanna has been very strong, so far. Cheerful and confident, in order to buoy up Lisa’s spirits. But the deep, sincere thankfulness in Mrs. Bolander’s voice did her in. Her eyes teared up, and she nodded, barely managing to get “you’re welcome” out. Swallowing the painful lump in her throat, she patted Lisa’s arm. “See you tomorrow, Lisa,” she said, as optimistically as possible. And then she left.