Thunder rumbled in the corridors outside and above as five hundred students stampeded out of classes and merged into a human current, outflowing towards their afternoon freedom.
At one time, Emma relished the exuberance of school release, the happy conversations, playful banter, and the assembly of plans for telephoning, gamesplay, or homework cooperation. A year ago, two years ago, if one ventured through some arbitrary rewind of her twelve and a half years to a different era of childhood, ebullient Emma buzzed about her activities, before menarche slung her into the wilds of puberty and the vagaries of physical maturation swept her along with like-evolving friends, their group dynamics redirected toward new interests.
Within minutes, the drumming of exiting feet eased its cacophony into intermittent discernible beats. Yet Emma remained tuckered into the first floor restroom stall feet up with arms wrapped around knees, embracing the narrow confines of her temporary realm of refuge. She refused to show her face again to those who fed their egos on the power of inflicted humiliation.
Sadness worked her over, playing on longing for the naiveté and confidence of earlier years, where interests centred on what songs to play and what shows one watched, or when to spring sleepover plans on a pretending-not-to-know-their-intent parent. Not so long ago, no matter who stayed over with her, a stuffed raccoon she named Bronson when gifted nested under an arm through the night, without worry someone might disapprove. Bronson continued as companion to this day, except for the decreasing number of sleepover nights when she consigned Bronson to isolation, hidden from the judgemental and reportive.
Emma left class a half hour ago, her excuse the need of a restroom. No one would bother her in a locked stall. Then again, no one would miss her, save for her mum, but she worked late on Wednesdays and wouldn’t learn of Emma’s absence from home for another four hours. Only those detained like she or the janitors entered this time of day.
“Emma?” surprised and sent her heart on a sprint. “Emma Longstreet, are you in there? You come out this instant. You are fifteen minutes overdue for detention, and unless you show right now, it will be the worse for you!”
Ms Kathryn McNickels sought her, the school principal known to students from their first days of attendance as Cat Knuckles. The name once made her giggle. Now Emma felt guilty for embracing the childish humour, because calling Ms McNickels Cat Knuckles made fun of her in the same way calling someone gay or faggot or lezbo against their will hurt them or meant to hurt, a name forced on someone whether or not they embraced the label.
The paging continued from outside the restroom door, morphing into an impatient and insistent rat tat tat of a fist knocking. The door squeaked inward, smacking the doorstop from the force of opening. “Emma Longstreet, answer me!” Footsteps rushed down the row of stalls, three to a side, the principal on a mission to find her wayward charge. She stopped at the last one on the left, while on the flip side of the door Emma knew she faced the fury of hell, but she didn’t care, not anymore. She didn’t mean to do wrong, break rules, and get detention. What they did…without getting in trouble, yet Emma received three days of detention, a clear message of what side teachers and administrators accepted. What Emma faced from Ms McNickels, she dealt with worse in class, on the streets, on her computer and cell phone, everywhere. She knew of no other safe haven than the one she currently occupied, and she knew not where to turn or what to do.
Seventh grade began with usual optimism five months before. Emma, a September baby and the youngest in her class, trailed most of her sistren in age and development. She wouldn’t turn thirteen until the fall, in eighth grade seven months hence. At start of the current school year, she found conversation amongst her friends now centred on male classmates; Emma lingered in fantasy centred on movies, television, and books. The separation stood out even though she no longer mentioned interests considered trite by the cool, and some of her so-called friends wasted no time making public mention of the growing differences between them and Emma.
Even now any feeling for boys lagged behind; a few intrigued, mainly because she forced her mind to select and convince herself she found them such, but a concurrent stronger stirring scared her, something she would never tell a soul.
A few in her class did draw her attention on a yet unrefined level different from what she felt in the past, beyond the fondness of friendship. Not two months before, the three made her smile. She had liked being with Madison best of all, more even than Brittany or Amanda.
Except Madison now mocked and taunted Emma. Five weeks ago in an unofficial lunchroom summit, the group of friends claimed first rights to their male classmates the others should respect and avoid as targets of their individual amorousness. Raised to love sports by fanatical older siblings, their claim of dibs on various boys reminded Emma of a professional sports league draft. Playing along with their hokey game, she shifted her thoughts boyward, selecting Matt; she imagined kissing him, but her inner feelings and spoken claim rang false. Madison jumped all over Emma with “Why would he have any interest in someone who still watches Arielle hang out with a talking crab, wears her hair in a ponytail, and sleeps with a mangy stuffed raccoon?”
How could Madison know she slept with Bronson still? “I don’t sleep with a stuffed raccoon!”
“I saw it in a corner of your room, and I saw it in the picture you showed me of your bedroom last week, after your parents finished painting the room, right on your bed, so don’t lie!” Emma, knowing Madison spoke the truth, had no idea what to say in refutation. Sensing vulnerability and a way to pretend coolness, the other friends joined in teasing about the raccoon, until Megan blurted out ‘That’s so gay!”
“Gaaaaay!” Madison ran with the word. “Emma’s a lezbo!’
“I am not!” Emma gave a weak protest, wondering how Madison sussed out another one of her dark little secrets and worries.
“You are so! You don’t really like boys. You wouldn’t even know what to do with a boy after you kissed him!” At least half of the other girls didn’t know either, but all pretended they knew, pretending to be in the cool and experienced crowd. As one, they dismissed Emma with derisive frowns of disgust. “Lezbo, Emma’s a lezbo! Want to kiss me, lezbo?”
Emma ran out of the cafeteria, her first flight to a restroom sanctuary.
Thereafter, she abandoned her former friends and ate alone. A few students tried to sit with Emma in the cafeteria, but she only uttered gruff acknowledgement of their presence and went on eating.
No stranger to peer ridicule and ostracising over her solid frame, Hannah Cochran approached Emma while the two waited for their bus ride home.
“Don’t let them get to you, Emma.”
“Easy for you to say, they don’t call you a lezbo.”
Eyes telegraphed disbelief. “Yeah, I’m miss popularity around here.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Actually, I don’t. They call me lots of names, including the lezbo one just the other day. I’m the tallest student in our class, including all of the boys. I weigh more. They use me as the poster girl example of a worse possible girlfriend. Believe me, the comments come often, not as aggressive as with you, but I hear them.”
Emma considered this, evaluated the words against memory. “But your size doesn’t make you a bad person, and you never say or do anything back.”
“Shall I start fights and get thrown out of school? Should I argue every single day while at school? I just decided they are all idiots and jealous I’m tall.”
“So the comments don’t bother you?”
“I didn’t say that; I just don’t show them they upset me. They see you get upset, they watch you run away, they know their teasing has an effect on you.”
The next day, Emma tried this approach the moment the comments began on the bus, to no avail. She heard every slight, felt every verbal jab, and had no ability to tune out the assault. As she left the cafeteria after lunch, Brittany used the lezbo word; Emma walked. Brittany followed, shouting the word at Emma.
For three weeks, Emma ignored or walked away, despite the continued barrage. The act empowered, because she controlled whether she stayed or left. On the final Friday class of the week, she arrived only to find a picture of her and Hannah together, obviously photoshopped, laminated with shipping tape to the top of her desk. A hurried fish in her bag produced a trapper keeper she positioned over the inappropriate photo, while around her, giggles mixed with snide remarks couched in forced coughs.
Mr Nelson instructed the class to put all books on the floor in preparation for an exam. Emma did nothing and drew his ire. Complying with his second order, the instructor noticed the taped paper. “Ms Longstreet, please remove the remaining paper. Consider this a final warning.”
Emma slid a fingernail under the taped image and started peeling it back, but it split and came up in pieces, prompting Mr Nelson to walk over to her desk. Seeing the image, he asked the class, “Who put this image on her desk?” No one answered. “Emma, do you know taped this image onto your desk?”
“No, I don’t know.”
“Unless the guilty person confesses right now, all of you except Emma earn a zero for this exam. Now who wishes to tell me the truth?”
No one confessed, and only Emma took the exam. Because of the mass fail, the other students blamed Emma. Those heretofore uninvolved in her persecution now leapt into the mix. Over the next week, the image surfaced again, this time on Facebook, Twitter, and via the internet capable mobiles most students carried.
Another image circulated. This one depicted Emma with a mullet do superimposed over her trademark long and curly chestnut hair. After arriving home from school, Emma retreated to her bed, curled atop the covers, face buried in a pillow. She pleaded sick the following morning, necessitating her mom use a personal day off from work. Emma slept until 11:30 and on her mom’s recommendation, took a long bath. She emerged still lost in her laggard and depressed funk, a condition revealed by the downturned corners of her mouth.
Her mobile signalled another text message, the fifty-sixth of the day so far. Emma made it to eight before she saw the simple monotonous pattern, deriding her absence, speculating she stayed home to watch Disney movies or chat with her online lezbo friends. She threw the phone against a chair; it bounced off the upholstered back and fell to the carpet. Feeling like an animal mid-road in bright headlights, Emma feigned sickness and refused to eat anything proffered by her mother.
Rap rap rap. “Emma, you come out of that stall or I will break the latch!” Principal McNickels commanded, shaking Emma out of her mental replay of the previous weeks. Rap rap rap.
The door latch twisted and released, bringing administrator and student face to face.
“Explain yourself, young lady…now!”
“I don’t feel-” her throat gagged on the upwelling, modulated air shunted aside for passage of digestive slurry. The principal recognised the telltale sign of imminent vomiting and backed a step, prevented from further retreat by the other row of stalls, insufficient clearance to avoid what spewed forth from the emotion driven eruption of Emma.