Yes, there are four other students down at the other end — seniors I think — talking about their senior things. What colleges are you applying to? What AP classes are you in? Who would you go to prom with?
I’m a freshman, so I might as well be a speck of dust or a stain on my end of the bench. I don’t even register on their radar.
Still, it’s better than yesterday. Yesterday was a nightmare. My worst nightmare. If you asked me before school what the worst thing was I could imagine, yesterday would be it.
Started out OK, for the first day in a new school where I don’t know anyone. My parents got me special permission to go to a different high school than the one I would normally district into, so these are people I didn’t go to middle school with. But in English Lit., the class right before lunch, the guy who sat next to me – Rob, I think his name is – started talking to me on the way to eat. It was only natural that we joined a bunch of Rob’s friends from middle school when we got to the lunchroom. He introduced me. Skip sat on the end. Chen (don’t know if that’s his first or last name), next to Skip. Rob across from me, and Kyle to his right.
They asked me a bit about myself, but not much. Did I like the Redskins or the Ravens (everyone likes one or the other, around here)? What was the highest level I ever got to in Krack Kommando VII? Then they started quizzing each other about what teachers they had, and who was boring and who didn’t give a lot of homework.
It was great until Justin joined us.
“This is …,” Rob started to introduce me, but momentarily forgot my name.
“Nigel,” I reminded him.
“Nige,” nodded Justin.
“He went to Shaeffer Middle last year,” Rob told him, correctly naming my old school.
Justin eyed me strangely. Like he could see through me. Suddenly I felt very uncomfortable.
For good reason, it turned out.
After a good thirty seconds of looking at my face, Justin spoke again. “You used to be a girl.”
“Huh?” This didn’t make sense to Rob.
I wish it didn’t make sense to me.
I wish I could have smoothly denied it. I wish I could have laughed it off as too ridiculous even to comment on. But fog suddenly filled my mind, like a kitchen where a stove has been turned on too hot. Before I could stop my mouth, I heard myself say, “How did you know?”
Rob looked at me in disbelief. “What the hell?”
Justin was only too glad to answer my question.
“Josh’s cousin goes to Shaeffer. She told him that there was a girl there who’s turning into a boy and she’s coming here. I didn’t believe him. Thought he heard wrong. But, what do you know!”
It came damn it, that first tear came. I wish I could have stopped it, could have reached into my eye and and dried it before everyone at the table could see it water.
“He’s gonna cry!” Chen announced. I’m not sure whether he’d been listening in, but clearly a guy about to cry was worth remarking on.
I so didn’t want to cry. I prayed not to cry. I promised God, or whoever, I’d do anything if I just didn’t cry. Somehow that made it worse, and tears began flowing. Last year, all over again. That’s all I could think of. I’d come back as a male at the start of 8th grade, and blew everyone’s circuits. They couldn’t deal with it, so everyone used the old female name, the one that I never say, and never even think, but that seems to follow me wherever I go. I’d find all sorts of feminine things stuffed into my locker. Pink ribbons, hair ties, even a worn-out bra. My parents talked about sending me to private school, but the only one they could afford was run by the Catholic Diocese, and not clear whether that would have been any better. I hoped it would go away by starting in a new high school, where no one knew I had changed gender.
Except Josh, whoever that is. And whoever else beside Justin that Josh told. And whoever they told. And pretty much the whole school in a day or two, because a boy that used to be a girl is just too juicy a piece of gossip for anyone to keep quiet about.
The boys at my table quickly lost interest in me, and talked among themselves. I tried to be part of the conversation, but it wasn’t happening. They basically ignored me. As if I were invisible.
It’s better today. At least I’m not trying to be part of today’s discussion. But I’m full of dark thoughts, wondering how I’m going to last through the week at this school, much less four years. And I’m wondering if there will be ways that I could avoid going back to school. Maybe act crazy and get myself put away, or do something else because it just seems so hard to go on living.
I hear a noise immediately to my right. Nervous, I risk a brief glance. Someone has set their tray down next to mine. I watch as a boy slides his way onto the bench next to me.
My heart sinks.
It’s one of the guys from lunch yesterday. Skip, his name is, if I recall correctly.
I pretend to study my food intently as I tense for whatever he’s going to say.
“Nigel, right?” he asks.
“Play any sports?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“I’m on cross-country. Ever run cross-country?”
Again, I shake my head. Is this a trick? Is he going to act all friendly and then turn on me?
“Reason I ask, is ‘cause coach taught us something. Wanna hear?”
He takes that as a yes.
“Coach says, there will come a time during a race – many times, maybe – when your body hurts so much, you want to quit. You think you can’t take one more step. You know that all you need to do is sit down on the grass and you’ll feel better immediately, but that if you keep going, it’s just going to hurt worse. You with me?”
I’m not sure what he’s getting at, but something tells me that he’s not here to harass me. I begin to listen more intently.
“You want to know what coach told us to do?”
“He says, that inside of us, we all have that really strong place. He tells us to picture it, what it looks like. Maybe it’s a rock the size of a house. Maybe it’s steel beam that can hold a thousand tons without bending. Or this huge truck that can plow through a mountain of snow. Can you picture something like that inside you?”
He continues seeing my questioning look.
“It’s OK. Just imagine something really strong inside you. Do it. Just think of something.”
And I’m picturing this huge machine, kind of a cross between an army tank and a giant robot.
“I think so.”
“OK, now you ask it for strength. You ask it to give you some of its strength to keep going. You ask it for the strength to think about the finish line and not how your body feels. Do you see?”
I did see. But I wasn’t sure why he was telling me this.
“You had a hard time yesterday at lunch. Yes?”
I said nothing. I didn’t want my mind to return to yesterday.
“It’s OK, really. I’m not going to pile on. But people can be mean. You can’t stop them, right?”
“I s’pose not.”
“But you can always find that strong place in you to keep going. It won’t always be like this. Lots of people will like you for who you are. That’s the finish line. You’ll get there if you keep running the race. You follow?”
I think about it.
“How do you know?” I ask him. “How do you know people will like me?”
“No guarantees in life, right? No guarantee you’re going to win the race, or even finish. But you keep going anyway. Keep that finish line in your mind. Because otherwise you know you’ll never finish.”
I nod, but I’m not sure I agree. There’s a lot I need to think about.
“Hey,” he says. “Anyone can try out for our team. What are you doing after school?”