"It's only a letter, Elliot. Just words," I murmured. "There's free speech in this country. It's not like we broke her arm or anything."
Elliot rolled his eyes. I raised my arm to open the window to hear what they were saying but he stopped me. Mr. Black turned his head towards us. I pulled back, hoping he'd only see the glare of the sun on the glass. His eyes were sort of crumpled, like he was disappointed, like he thought less of me. I didn't want that. I loved Mr. Black almost as much as I loved anyone. With his geeky glasses, his zany ties, and his unlimited supply of cool science facts, jokes, and stories, he'd made me want to be a scientist. And made me hate Freya for her interruptions and the way she constantly called attention to herself.
We wrote the letter because we wanted Freya to stop ruining things: disrupting class, bragging, telling on us. But we should have realized that she'd tell on us about the letter too. How could we have been so stupid? I guess if I'd thought about it, I would have said that she'd be too ashamed to tell, when she saw all of her faults listed and all of our signatures at the bottom. We'd even persuaded goody-goody Lucy and loner Ryan to join in. I'd had to bribe them: peppermint mocha for Lucy and help with homework for Ryan. There was no way we were going to send that letter without everyone's name. That way we'd be safe, we figured. When Freya read that letter she'd see that we were right and that she needed to change. We'd figured wrong, I guess.
Other students entered the classroom, tossing backpacks into corners, opening and closing desks, chewing gum, pulling off regulation blue sweatshirts and jackets.
Elliot told them about Mrs. Yolen.
"Shit, Elliot, now you've screwed us all," Ryan muttered.
Why did everyone assume that Elliot was the one responsible? I didn't like that people thought that it had all been Elliot's idea and that I was just the side-kick.
A teacher entered the classroom, not our regular first period teacher, but Mr. Jackson. Kids shifted in their seats. Chairs scraped the linoleum. No-one spoke. You could hear the clock and the buzz of the overworked computer, someone snapping a rubber band. Mr. Jackson was short and fit, round-faced but well-muscled. Although he was old, he'd biked 6, 000 miles in the last year, and liked to tell us about it. Nobody screwed around in his classes. Even Freya mostly shut up around him. The teachers had picked him to talk to us about the letter. That made sense. The principal was a nervous little bird and the vice principal was far too jolly. Neither of them would be able to scare us – not like Mr. Jackson.
He stood in front of the class, kind of pale, like he’d eaten mystery meat in the cafeteria or something. He didn't speak at first, waiting for the terror to sink into our hearts. Zach scribbled a penis on some paper and showed it to me. Like I cared. I just scowled and drew three drops of pee coming out of it.
“I’ve been teaching for thirty-two years,” Mr. Jackson finally said, “but I’ve never before been so ashamed of my students.” He looked over at Elliot, looked real hard, and then he turned to me. I was supposed to feel the shame he felt.
"You know what this is about?" Mr. Jackson asked.
Some people murmured yes. Others kept their eyes down.
"In case there is any doubt…" He held up the letter and kept it up until everyone was looking. "Recognize this letter? Elliot Babson, Imogene Wolf, John Anderson, Shamir Gupta, Alex Coker, Leia Baldwin, Ryan McCleary, Zach Olson, Lucy Hong. Recognize those names?"
Lucy giggled when he read her name. Mr. Jackson glared at her. No one else joined in. Some of the kids had wanted the letter to be anonymous. I'd said that that would be cowardly and persuaded them to sign their names. They must be hating me now.
Mr. Jackson started talking about Freya. He pointed out that she was the newest girl in our grade which made her an outsider, sort of like a guest.
I knew what it felt like to be an outsider. I was the second newest kid in our grade. The rest of the kids had been together forever, some since preschool. I didn't want to think about that so I listened to Mr. Jackson drone on. I was starting to feel a little antsy. I wanted to tell him that he shouldn’t blame us. Freya was the one to blame. We were just defending ourselves.
After he'd said the class would have detention and no time for sports after lunch every day for a week, he told Elliot and me to follow him. I worried about the math test I'd be missing, but I knew better than to challenge him. He led us down the corridors and up the stairs, past posters illustrating important character traits like COURAGE and TOLERANCE and COMPASSION.
When we reached the staff room he told me to wait outside and made Elliot follow him. We wouldn't be facing the wrath together; we'd have to bear it alone.
After ten minutes, Elliot opened the door and headed down the hall without a glance in my direction. Mr. Jackson summoned me inside. I peered around the small room–noting the ratty sofas and the books and Mr. Black's yellow anorak.
Mr. Jackson coughed. "I didn't want to mention this in front of the other students," he started. "Some of them are rather sensitive and, I sense, less involved than you and Elliot were in this incident." Pause. "I'd prefer it if you didn't tell anyone else but I think you need to know…"
I moved my thumbs, wishing I could play with my cell phone. He waited until I looked up again.
"… That Freya tried to take her own life last night."
I gasped. "But she's all right?" I stammered. "She didn't actually do it, did she?"
"She's hardly all right, but she is still alive. Her mother found her in time and called an ambulance."
"How did she do it?"
"The family has asked that we not talk about the details – for the sake of Freya's privacy. I just thought you and Elliot, as ring leaders, needed to understand the enormity of what you've done."
"Did she use a razor? Was there a lot of blood?" I needed to know exactly what had happened.
His eyes widened in mute warning.
I looked down at the scuff marks on the floor. How was I supposed to feel about this? Bad obviously. I was supposed to realize that I had almost caused the death of my classmate – that I had almost KILLED her. But something didn't quite hang together.
"So…? What are you thinking, Imogene?" Mr. Jackson asked. His face was softer than I'd seen it all morning. He was less scary in here than in the classroom, more human.
"It's not fair," I started and then bit my lip. "Wasn't that her fault? I mean. Why do we have to be blamed for it? Some other kid might have reacted completely differently…"
I was afraid that he'd be angry but he paused to think about my question. "You have to be in a pretty bleak place to try to kill yourself." He poured a glass of water from the tap, and then spoke more quickly. "You put her in that place – backed her into a corner with no way out."
"We didn't mean to do that," I protested.
"Your words were very cruel." He sat down and took a sip of the water.
"When you say your words do you mean mine or ours?"
He laughed sadly. "I read your essays every week remember. I can recognize your writing. I know you were the one who wrote that letter."
I suppose that was a sort of compliment.
He continued. "You and Freya have a lot in common. I would have thought—"
"No!" I blurted. "We absolutely, completely different."
I remembered a moment two months ago when I had mimicked something Freya said, something like, "My daddy taught me to play chess when I was four. He thinks I'll be the next Judith Polgar." Elliot had applauded my impersonation and I'd felt fantastic, and then he'd said, "You sound just like her," and glanced at the others in a sneaky way, and they'd all laughed so hard they nearly fell off their chairs. And I knew that they thought of me and Freya as a matched pair. I'm not like her, I'd wanted to scream. And then I'd had the idea of setting her straight by writing the letter.
"I'm not anything like Freya," I said to Mr. Jackson, in a calmer voice.
He nodded. "After reading that letter, I can see why you wouldn't want to be anything like her." He stood up and moved towards the bookshelf. When he found the book he wanted he paged through it. "Graham Greene is one of my favorites. Listen to this line. 'Hate is a lack of imagination.' "
"Oh," I said. I didn't know what he meant. Presumably that I 'lacked imagination.' But didn't he hate anyone? I found that hard to imagine.
We were both silent for a bit. "I'm very sorry," I finally said. "I won't do it again."
"Don't apologize to me," he said. "I'm not the one you injured."
"So, what are you going to do to me?"
I was suspended for a week, which is a ridiculous punishment when you think about it. What kid isn't glad to miss school for five days, to stay home and watch TV and play video games in her pajamas? Of course, I had to listen to my parents' yelling. They told me I couldn't have any screen time, but they were out all day and they weren't good enough with technology to figure out what I did when they weren't around.
And I had to write a letter of apology. This would have been easy except that I had to run it by Mr. J first.
I'm so sorry I got the other kids in our class to write a letter listing all your faults. We didn't mean to make you unhappy. We just meant to make you a better person.
Maybe we can go to the mall together some time. Or not. Whatever you like.
I emailed this to Mr. J.
"Try again," was his response.
I couldn't tell if he thought I had been trying the first time. He was a fine one to talk. He always criticized my work. He must have known his words hurt my feelings but, he'd just been trying to make me do better, just like I was trying make Freya do better. I wanted to get him to see his hypocrisy.
Sorry we hurt your feelings. We didn't mean it like that. It was just a bad joke. I guess we didn't realize how sensitive you were.
Let me know how I can make it up to you.
I was starting to enjoy this, especially since Mr. J seemed to tolerate my rebellion.
Sorry to hurt your feelings. We were just being ironic. You're actually perfect: beautiful, clever, athletic, charming. Everyone wants to be friends with you, especially your BFF,
He didn’t say “Try again” this time. He got mad, and let me know I’d better start taking this seriously and stop wasting his time. And he said I couldn't come back to school until I'd written a proper letter.
I knew the kind of letter he wanted, but I couldn't make myself write it. Why couldn't they just give me a whipping and be done with it? Why did they have to make me say things I didn't mean – or worse – think and feel things that weren't real?
Elliot wrote the right sort of letter, of course. Not very imaginative, but stripped of any sassiness. When we talked about it on the phone, he encouraged me to hold my nose and grovel.
"I don't like lying," I said. "It feels weak."
He laughed. "Sure. When you're dictator of the world you won't have to lie. You can just let people know how you really feel and they'll have to deal with it."
I was tempted to hang up on him. He wasn't nearly as cool as I'd thought and he didn't understand me. He was ordinary.
I was enjoying being home alone – in theory-- but in the back of my mind I was starting to worry about school. The kids had listened to me for a while when I was organizing the letter, but now maybe they felt differently, especially now that the letter had gotten them into trouble. I remembered when I'd first started at Bramwell Academy a year and a half ago. I had felt shy at first but then some girls had been friendly and drawn me into their lunch group and invited me to the mall and birthday parties. Being one of them had been the best feeling.
But after six weeks, Leia took me aside and told me that they'd done this only because I was new and they were trying to make me feel welcome. At that point, she hinted, I was no longer part of their group. It wasn't as if they had chosen me because they liked me. I was neither part of the old gang nor new and interesting. So, I was – not exactly in so many words but in fact – kicked out of the group. I was crushed. Maybe it would be like that again when I returned to school – especially now that Freya was gone.
On Friday morning, after my parents left for work, I went out. This was against the rules but I was getting stir crazy. I walked for a long time, enjoying the blue and yellow flowers, the crazy, happy birds, and the air that was just warm enough. I kicked small stones down the road, talked softly to barking dogs behind fences, splashed in puddles, and thought and thought, trying to decide what to do.
Just when I was getting hungry, I realized that I'd walked downtown towards the Starbucks where kids from my school liked to hang out. None of them would be here in the middle of a school day but maybe I could get a latte and a lemon scone for lunch.
Then I saw Freya. She was sitting at a little metal table set up on the sidewalk outside the coffee shop, reading, and picking at a pimple on her neck. She was wearing long sleeves. To cover up the bandages, I wondered. I couldn't see her mother anywhere around. Maybe Mrs. Yolen didn't enjoy her company either. She was difficult, the sort of girl nobody liked.
As I stood watching her from across the street, Freya closed her eyes, put her hand over her face and rested her head on her open book. The picture of despair, I thought with a mixture of pity and irritation.
"Freya!" I yelled, surprising both of us. I'd taken the twenty steps across the road to her table in a hurry.
She looked up, colored, and moved her hand across her mouth, to wipe away the crumbs or whatever.
"Can I sit here?" I asked.
"Sure. I'm just leaving. My mom will be back in a minute." She peered anxiously down the street as if I was a threat.
I suppose I was a threat. I had nearly KILLED HER, after all.
"I have to write you a letter of apology," I said. "I can't find the right words."
She shuddered. “I don’t want any more letters from you.”
I laughed. It was weird that my punishment for writing a letter was writing another letter, but I didn’t say that. I said, “Why’d you try to kill yourself anyway? It was just a letter. Just words.”
"The pen is mightier than the sword," she replied, quoting a poster from our classroom, in that prissy voice that I had imitated.
"Yeah, but they were just middle school words. Not like… Shakespeare or anything."
She closed her eyes. Her nails dug into the paint on the metal of the table. Then she stood up and swayed slightly as if trying to make a decision.
"I was ashamed," she finally said. "You made me see myself as this ugly witch that nobody wanted around – a gross Golum or something. I didn't want to be that. I didn't want to exist if I was that."
And then she started running, lop-sidedly. I turned and saw her mother walking fast towards her. The woman recognized me and shook her fist. Then she gathered her child in her arms. She didn't think Freya was a witch.
Watching the mother and daughter whispering together and glancing back at me, I realized that they thought I was the witch, someone mean and scary who could hurt them. But that wasn't right. I was just a kid who had tried to fix things. I didn't like the way they were looking at me. So I took off.
I ran until my chest hurt. I couldn't stop hating Freya and her mother for what they thought about me. They had no right! Then I remembered what Freya had said about why she tried to kill herself. She didn't like people thinking she was a witch. She couldn't bear to think of herself like that. We had the same problem.
A dog started barking wildly close by, throwing itself against the broken down fence, like it wanted to tear me to pieces. I set off running again, until the pain in my chest and the muddle in my head stopped me. I bent over and breathed head. Who had the right to decide who was the witch, anyway?
Nice to see you yesterday. Not nice really. I felt shitty bad afterwards. Ashamed. I realized what I'd done to you. I'd trapped you in a corner with no way out except to be the witch or to be dead.
I can see that that was a horrible choice to force on someone.
I was trying to be a hero and make the others like me, but I ended up being the bad guy. I don't like to think of myself that way. I guess I know what you felt like now because I feel the same way – at least a little bit.
But I hope I have another choice. Maybe I can change.
This letter was written in ballpoint on a torn piece of lined paper. I didn't bother to rewrite it to fix the mistakes. I just mailed it before I could change my mind. I didn't have Mr. J. check it first, and I didn't tell my parents. Maybe I won't be able to go back. Maybe I'll have to go to another school. And maybe that will be all right. I could do with a fresh start.