1. Anxiety

October 2

Mr. Underhill slapped my calculus test face down on my desk.

“The high score on the exam was 15 out of 40,” he said as he continued walking down the aisle to the next student. His corduroys swished in the silence.

I regarded the unturned page. If the high score was only 15, maybe it was mine. I’d attempted every problem and even completed a few. Maybe he’d given partial credit.

I was too scared to look.

At the very least, I needed a better score than Heidi Jones. I looked across the room but couldn’t read her expression. She wore her boyfriend’s football jersey over a turtleneck and his class ring on a chain around her neck.

Mr. Underhill deposited the last paper and returned to the front of the classroom. “Clearly, we’re still missing a few of the basic concepts here.”

He wrote one of the derivative formulas in the upper left corner of the front board and began talking and scribbling. I grabbed my notebook and turned to a blank page. I copied derivations as fast as I could, but by the third line I was already lost. There were too many variables and numbers to keep up with. From my perspective, the board might as well be covered with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics describing the weather on the Nile delta. Still, I kept writing frantically with some vague idea that I would study my notes later and somehow make sense of them. Maybe in the quiet hour of 1:00 a.m. I would suddenly discover the Rosetta stone to calculus.

At the second board, Mr. Underhill stopped explaining, and the room went quiet except for the manic tapping and scratching as he wrote. A little tuft of hair waved from the top of his gray head as he added line after line of simplification, each one more confusing than the last. My hand began to cramp.

After filling the front two boards, he raced over to the side wall of the classroom as if he were a skinny game show contestant matching prices with appliances lined up on a stage. He began to repeat the last line from the previous board, but halfway through his copying efforts he stepped back and placed his hand under his chin.

“No, that's not right…” He trailed off, writing ghost messages into the air as he tried to reconcile the formula. His shirt had come untucked.

While he tried to sort out his error, I glanced at my test, which remained face-down on the corner of my desk. Pass or fail? I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and flipped over the sheet: 4 / 40, F.

My breath caught in my throat. I’d never had an F on a test in my whole life. Quickly, I turned the sheet over again. My test was a scarlet letter. I didn’t want to look at it again. I couldn’t think about that. And I couldn’t think about whether or not I beat Heidi’s score—unlikely! I needed to breathe. I needed to pay attention.

“I made a mistake back there,” he said, returning to the front board.

He erased a few variables in the middle of the first board and made some corrections. I tried scanning my own notes to make the same corrections, but I had no idea what he’d changed or why. Plus, I couldn’t read half of his handwriting—or mine. Trying to fix my notes would be as futile as finding and modifying an individual pictograph written on the inside wall of the Great Pyramid.

As soon as the bell rang, I ran for the bathroom. Pain clenched my stomach, and my hands shook. I chewed a couple of antacid tablets. Then I leaned against the wall and looked at the test again.

Fail. F.

Red marks slashed across my solutions to the problems. Wrong, wrong, wrong! The marks welled up like blood. For a moment I closed my eyes. I felt so shocked and depressed about my grade that I didn’t know what to do. How could this have happened?

Voices in the hall reminded me of the time. Responsibility kicked in. I put the test away and ran my hands under hot water to warm myself. I felt cold, numb, but I couldn’t hide in the bathroom all day. The second bell was about to ring, and I had fourth period Physics. That class was almost as confusing as Calculus. I had to pull myself together—at least until lunch.

--------------

My best friend Donna met me outside the cafeteria after fourth period. She’d had her blonde hair highlighted and permed again last weekend, and yesterday after school she’d stopped at the tanning beds. Now in her white sweater top and jeans, she looked positively Floridian.

I shook my calculus test in front of her face and wailed, “What am I going to do? I’ve never scored this low on a test in my whole life!”

Donna looked at the page, and her eyes widened. “You failed a test?”

“Yes! The whole class failed. The high score was only 15.”

“If everyone failed, why are you so upset?” Donna grabbed a lunch tray and stepped into line.

“Because my 4 is a long way from 15.” I folded my test paper and shoved it into my bag. “I failed much worse than the person who earned the high score.”

“Who was that—number two or number three?”

I shuffled forward. “Three.”

Tricia Cline—number three in class rank—trailed behind Heidi Jones and me by only a single B that she received in tenth grade. Heidi and I both had perfect straight A’s, but I had a slightly higher GPA because I’d taken an extra class last year while Heidi took a study hall.

Donna drummed her acrylic mango-colored fingernails against the plastic tray. “How did number two do?”

“Heidi scored a 10.” I made a face.

“See, even your archenemy failed. All is not lost.”

“With the curve, she only scored a D. I scored an F. Fail.”

“You’re going to bring your grade up the same way you always do: hit the books, study, earn extra credit points… All that good stuff.”

I knew Donna meant to encourage me, but her words felt hollow. “What if that doesn’t work? I think I’m in real trouble this time! I’m just too stupid to figure this stuff out.”

Donna sighed and rolled her eyes. “You always do this! You become so worried and negative about yourself, but it always works out. Just stop it!”

Her words stung. I opened my mouth to protest, but she continued.

“And stop being so depressed all the time. I know that you’ve gone through a lot lately, especially after your parents separated this summer, but it’s time to snap out of it. This is our senior year. We’re supposed to be having the best time of our lives.”

“Sorry I’m killing your buzz,” I said angrily.

“You’re killing your own buzz.”

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t believe she was being so unsupportive and harsh.

“Kim, you only have one senior year. Don’t waste it with all this stress and anxiety that doesn’t solve anything.”

“But you know how important grades are to me,” I said. “And you know why.”

“Exactly! Which is why I think you need to find a cute guy to be your Calculus tutor. He could double as your boyfriend. All of your problems would be solved.” Donna smiled and poked me in the shoulder.

I stuck out my lower lip but allowed myself to be drawn into the joke. After all, I didn’t want to appear depressed all the time. That was no fun. Even if I felt that way.

“But none of the guys in my class are very good at Calculus,” I said. “Well, except one guy who also scored a 14—but he’s definitely not cute.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“I am not a beggar. Who do you know in other school districts?” I asked, raising my eyebrows hopefully.

“I can ask around. But I’m not sure I know people who know people who can be math tutors. My people know people who can fix your car.”

I giggled for real. “Imagine a cute math tutor who could also fix your car!”

“We really need to find a boyfriend for you.”

“I spotted that cute guy again between third and fourth period, near the library.”

“Do you know who he is?” she asked.

“No.”

“What grade he’s in?”

“No idea.”

“Do you know anything at all about him?”

“He seems to have a class somewhere around the library between third and fourth period,” I said.

“That’s excellent detective work,” she said dryly.

We shuffled forward in line and put our trays on the railing. Food was finally within reach. My stomach felt like a pouch of boiling acid below my heart.

“Actually,” I said, lowering my voice, “there’s a guy in Writer’s Club who’s not a joke.”

Donna’s voice hushed to a whisper. “Really? Do tell.”

“He has beautiful eyes. They’re the most gorgeous blue-green color—they almost look fake—but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t wear contacts.”

“What’s his name?”

“Elliot, but I just think of him as The Poet. You cannot believe how this guy writes.”

“Elliot? I don’t know—”

“He’s a junior. From California. He just moved here over the summer.” So far, the few things I’d learned about him since school started only made him more fascinating. He was someone I might actually want to have a conversation with—not just stalk from a safe distance.

Donna clucked her tongue. “The Poet. I like it.”

“Next time I see him, I’ll point him out to you.”

“If you’re so interested in this poet, why haven’t you made a move?”

I shrugged. “Because I don’t think he’d be interested in me.”

“You’ll never know unless you do something.”

“I don’t see you doing anything about Jason,” I said.

Donna fluttered her eyelashes. “I’m being coy.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’m giving him time to make his big move.”

She’d been flirting with Jason for over a year. “Why do guys suffer from inertia?” I groaned.

“Hey, don’t be throwing your big physics words at me. Save it for your homework.” She laughed again, and I snickered with her.

We picked out our food, and Donna pushed her tray forward and handed money to the cashier. I slid into the next line, pulled a free lunch ticket from my pocket, and passed it to the woman. Donna pretended not to notice. Even so, my face and stomach burned.

--------------

I dashed into my last class and sat down just before the bell rang. Mrs. Piper was crocheting behind her desk. She was the art teacher and ran my afternoon study hall. I’d taken her Advanced Art class every year until this one, when I’d opted to take Physiology to boost my GPA by a few extra hundredths of a percentage point. Science A’s were worth more than A’s in art.

Voices hummed all around me as students went to their seats. Cinderblock painted a glossy cream color was the standard classroom décor, but at least here we also had in-progress student paintings to look at. I reluctantly opened my Calculus book. I missed geometry with all its right angles and concentric circles. Geometry had made sense. Plus, in geometry, we had our own compasses. There was something totally supreme about a class that had its own “special equipment.” Protractors and compasses almost put geometry in the same league as art.

Trigonometry and algebra had been okay, too. I’d always done well in math. I needed to study it, but I eventually figured things out.

Calculus sucked. Nobody in the whole class understood, and I mean nobody! Mr. Underhill was so mad about our terrible scores that at the end of today’s class he had passed out two extra worksheets of problems. What made him think we’d be able to figure out the homework when we obviously couldn’t work through the problems on the test? He might as well hand out War and Peace to a group of first graders and say, “Here, kids, learn to read.”

I stared at my Calculus book with determination. I refused to let this class ruin my life.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around.

“I heard a rumor about you,” Lonnie said.

“Oh yeah?” I tried to be cool. Lonnie Peterson was one of the tough-looking kids who sat at the back of the study hall and played cards every day. He was very cute, tall and broad, blonde, with big hands. He seemed like a giant.

“Are you really the top student in our class?” he asked.

I nodded. Why was he talking to me? And where did he hear this rumor?

“So you’re super-smart.” He made the statement with a half-smile.

“No, I just study a lot.”

He gave me a long look, then leaned forward and stared pointedly at the pile of books on my desk. “Yeah, I’ve noticed that about you.”

He’d noticed me?

“Who’s number two?” he asked.

“Heidi Jones.” Just saying her name made my lip curl.

He smiled. “Well, you definitely have to beat her.”

“Oh, I intend to.”

“You make it sound personal.”

“I have my reasons.”

“Good to know.” He leaned closer to me and lowered his voice. A thrill shot through me at his proximity. “I was going to say you have to beat her for us, because she’s in one of the cliques—and you’re not.”

I gulped. “That’s one of the nicest compliments anyone’s ever given me.”

He shook his head and smiled. “And I think that’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.” He waved his hand at my books. “Go, study, win.”

I turned around, face flaming. What an idiot. I sounded like some kind of desperate pathetic boob. No wonder I didn’t have a boyfriend.

Being valedictorian wasn’t so much about beating Heidi Jones—although that victory would be sweet. More important than anything, I wanted to go to college. Maybe to be a writer, maybe a civil engineer or graphic designer, maybe an architect, maybe a CSI tech or FBI agent. I wasn’t sure about my major yet, but I definitely wanted at least a bachelor’s degree—maybe even a master’s.

But the cost of tuition at some universities was more money than Mom earned in a whole year. The only way I could attend a good school was by scholarship, by being at the top of my class, perfect GPA, valedictorian. My whole future rode on this. Everything.

My dad had high standards, too, with his whole “Be number one!” thing. I wanted him to be proud of me. I wanted to win.

I wanted to be able to move to a fun city, where I could be somebody and have a good life and be successful. That meant that I needed to wrap my head around this calculus stuff before it completely got away from me. We were already a month into senior year, and I felt totally lost. My only comfort was that everyone else seemed to be lost in that class, too.

--------------

When I walked into Writer’s Club after study hall, I glanced around the room first thing, my eyes searching for The Poet and finding him at one of the tables. He was here. And the chair beside him was empty.

I went over to the filing cabinet with the critique folders. Each writer put copies of their work out for critique, and others submitted anonymous—or not—comments on a worksheet. My latest story had four comment sheets, all positive, and a few editorial marks on the pages.

The Poet wrote, “Great job, Kim! I love it! You’re an awesome writer!”

Instantly, I memorized every stroke of his handwriting. I fantasized that his words about my writing reflected his feelings about me. Like maybe he meant, Kim, you’re awesome, I love you.

Mr. Brown wrote, “You can’t simply write something, call it fiction, and deem it so because you’ve changed the name of the main character from Kimberly to Lisa. This can’t simply be your story. It must be yours and more than yours! And the further it can move away from yours, the more depth and power it will have. Fiction demands that the writer reach beyond the known into the unknown and make discoveries.”

Mr. Brown, also my first-period Honor’s English teacher, was our Writer’s Club advisor. He was the newest person on the school faculty, only here three years, young and full of energy and ideas. He had thinning reddish-brown hair and a full beard and mustache, and he wore glasses with dark frames and thick lenses.

He had formed a creative writing group during my sophomore year. This year, he had a whole new stack of exercises for our meetings. In addition, we were going to publish three issues of WordCrafters instead of two. I liked working on the graphic design and page layout of the student literary magazine, as well as contributing stories. Sometimes I also submitted artwork.

I hugged all the comments to my chest. I could already see how to make changes to my latest story. Half of me wanted to go home immediately and start revising, but the best part of Writer’s Club was about to begin.

No one had taken the empty chair beside The Poet yet.

Donna was right: if I was so interested in him, I ought to make a move. I pulled out the chair and sat down.

“Thanks for the comments,” I said to him.

“Sure.”

I twirled my pencil on the table. I kept thinking up other things to say—and then rejecting them.

“We have a lot to do this afternoon,” Mr. Brown said. “Has everyone been writing in their journal?”

A few of us nodded. Most looked at the floor, the table, or out the window. I peeked at The Poet. He looked straight ahead with no change in his expression one way or another. His black eyelashes were incredibly long and thick, giving even more emphasis to his unusual eyes. I glanced away again.

“The best way to get over writer’s block is to write, people,” Mr. Brown said. “It doesn’t matter what, and it doesn’t have to be good. Just write. Write in a journal. Write on a scrap paper. Write something. There haven’t been many submissions for WordCrafters yet. Are you blocked?”

He looked around the room. Writers shrugged. The Poet sat with his elbows and forearms resting on the table, unmoving. He wore a black tee-shirt, and I watched how his biceps bunched.

At that moment, he turned his face toward me and raised his eyebrows. I quickly looked forward at Mr. Brown again. My face was probably as red as a tomato.

“Tell you what,” Mr. Brown said. “This next exercise should prompt your creative juices. Who knows what satire is?”

“Making fun of something,” The Poet said.

“Sarcasm,” one person said.

“Ridicule,” another said.

“Irony,” The Poet added.

I wondered if he was still looking at me, but I refused to find out. There was no way I could talk to him about anything now that he’d caught me staring at him like that. He probably thought I was a total freak. So much for my big move.

“Good, very good,” Mr. Brown said. “Who’s heard of Weird Al Yankovich?”

A few hands went up.

“Some of you, okay. Who’s heard of Michael Jackson?”

Everyone’s hands went up.

“You might remember a little song of his called ‘Beat It?’ Weird Al did a parody of it called ‘Eat It.’ Let me play it for you.”

I tried to concentrate as we listened to part of the original Michael Jackson song, but I couldn’t stop obsessing about that look The Poet had given me. Did he raise his eyebrows because he liked catching me staring? Maybe. Or maybe he thought I was a dork.

“Now here’s Weird Al’s version,” Mr. Brown said, and he played the satirical one. Everyone laughed.

When that one finished, Mr. Brown said, “He did another one of Jackson’s songs, ‘Bad,’ which became ‘Fat.’ Listen to this.”

I wanted to look at The Poet again. Could I do it without him catching me this time? No, I was too chicken. Sitting beside him had been a mistake. I could hardly concentrate on anything else—and I loved Writer’s Club.

“Okay, now it’s your turn,” Mr. Brown said. “We’re going to do a satire of one of these songs.”

He held up five sheets of paper with the titles and lyrics of popular songs, and we spent several minutes debating over which song to do. We finally settled on “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. After that, he gave us twenty minutes to write a new song that satirized the original.

“Okay, who wants to read theirs first?” Mr. Brown asked.

“I’ll go!” The Poet stood up and sang his new song:

 

It might seem crazy what I’m about to say

Canine’s here, and I’m ready to play

I’ll fetch balls as fast as you throw them away

And I will dig big holes all over the place

 

[Chorus]

Cuz I’m a puppy

Bark along if you want cuz barkin’s what puppies do

Cuz I’m a puppy

Chew the shoe if you want cuz chewin’s what puppies do

Cuz I’m a puppy

Shred the mail if you want cuz shreddin’s what puppies do

Cuz I’m a puppy

Leave a poo if you want cuz poopin’s what puppies do

 

Here comes bad news biting this and that, yeah,

Well, teething’s what I got, and my gums hurt bad, yeah,

Well, I should probably warn you ‘bout that puddle, yeah,

And I ate something I threw back up

(Sorry)

 

[Chorus]

 

Hey, come on

[Bridge]

(puppy)

Sit me down

Can’t get me to sit down

Energy’s too high

Sit me down

Can’t get me to sit down

I said (you told me, “sit down”)

Sit me down

Can’t get me to sit down

Energy’s too high

Sit me down

Can’t get me to sit down

I said

[Chorus]

 

His performance throughout the song gave me an excuse to watch him. His musical voice sounded as beautiful as he looked, and his song lyrics cracked all of us up.

“Excellent, Elliot! That was a perfect example of satire. Someone else?”

One by one, we read our songs to each other, laughing. When it was my turn to read, I felt very self-conscious just thinking about The Poet watching me, wondering if he stared at me the way I’d stared at him, and so I tripped all over my words, face flushed. Still, everyone thought my song was funny.

Mr. Brown made everyone feel like their work was special. I knew that was his job as the teacher—to encourage us—but he made it seem real. He was genuine. He said things to us like, “If you change anything in your work because of a bit of criticism, you must change it because you believe in your heart that it’s wrong, not just because someone else says it’s wrong—even if that someone is a teacher.”

Too soon, it was time to go home. I went out to my car. It was the only positive thing to come out of my parents’ separation, and I’d gladly give it up if they’d get back together. Dad insisted on buying me a used car so that I could visit him anytime I wanted. It wasn’t much to look at, but at least it was reliable and passed state inspection.

In the rearview mirror, I met my own baby-blue eyes, highlighted with black mascara and eyeliner. My strawberry blonde hair hung in straight layers that framed my face and went down to the middle of my back. Freckles dotted my nose. I stuck out my tongue at myself and grinned. I felt totally excited about writing. I hadn’t written much all summer, though I did some revising on my old stories. Now I wanted to create something brand new—and I also wanted to revise my story based on the comments from the other writers. But first, I had four quizzes tomorrow to study for and homework due in every subject: Calculus, Honors English, Physics, Physiology, and Economics.