Week 6, Day 1 When I got back to school, my books hadn’t magically reappeared like I hoped they would have. The girls had them on lock-down somewhere. I could feel their eyes probing my expression as I searched for them. I shut my desk and smiled up at everyone. It was the best tactic I had. I wasn’t going to worry about those books. The girls had them and there was no guarantee that they’d ever turn in my books even after I stopped reading. They might keep them forever out of spite, and based on their recent switch from normal to evil, I dismissed those books as collateral damage in their misguided war against me. The difference between the girls and I is that I was used to being in trouble. The punishments looming over my head were annoyances, but I could deal with them. There was no use worrying about that now because it was out of my hands. I was going to forget about it and be happy, because that was the only way I knew how to conquer their fear tactic.
It was time to fight back.
One thing I learned from reading is that bullies don’t like an enemy. So far I’d managed the damage they threw my direction, but this only encouraged them to throw more trouble my way. If this kept up, they only needed to overload my life with misery until I couldn’t manage it. A school of 200 girls would eventually win, so ‘ignoring the bully’ was out of the question. I needed to go on the offensive.
Fighting back would be difficult. I lived in conservative Iowa, which is protected as a time capsule by the rest of the world. Things were backward here. The girls were immune to any penalty for their crimes unless their crimes were severe. Previously this year I had been attacked by a girl who just started punching me repeatedly, the first two sucker punches in the face. I slapped her hand hard to make her stop. A teacher saw this and immediately came to stop the fight. The girl was coddled for being so innocent and defenseless; I was punished for hitting a girl and had all my recesses taken away for the day to think about what I had done. I did think, confirming over and over that I had done the right thing. The reason I was in trouble was twofold. The first reason is that I didn’t tell on her first, because the first person to tell doesn’t get in trouble. The second thing I did wrong was that I was born a boy. Girls and boys were treated differently, I had noticed over the course of three years in school. Girls were always innocent no matter how malevolent. Boys were always guilty and were expected to just take any abuse. Getting the teachers involved in this would be difficult, because I couldn’t be the first one to tell, it had to be a girl.
I had one advantage. The girls didn’t know that I was fighting back. I’d played possum long enough to surprise them when I turned lion.
First recess came around and the girls all formed their reading circle. I approached their circle, my own book in hand. “I want my books back.”
The girls didn’t answer me, they just stared at their books. It was a free chance to read each of their expressions. A schism was forming, like I thought would happen. Girls tended to follow the rules, be nice to everyone, and be much better human beings than boys. Three out of five of the girls looked nervous and reluctant. This shift to organized crime was out of character and they didn’t like it.
“I said I want my books back.”
Megan was the first to answer, talking in an angry and sarcastic tone. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I laughed. Laughs can convey a great range of things. I felt like mine conveyed victory. The girls all looked up from their books. Speaking couldn’t break their obvious attempts to ignore me, but laughing could. They were expecting anger. Jubilation from their victim was something that scared them. “That’s funny, Megan. It’s funny because everyone here knows that you are lying. You don’t have to admit it, we all know it. That makes you a liar, Megan. You’re a bad guy. A villain. A cheat. A sneak. The problem with liars is that they can’t be trusted. Maybe one day they’ll say something like ‘I promise that none of you will get in trouble for stealing Steve’s books’, and the next day they are telling the principal exactly who did what, because the first person to tell won’t get detention. The first person to tell is a good guy. Liars aren’t, and will say anything they need to in order to save their skin in that moment. The only question is, which of you is going to tell on the others first?”
I walked away. I could hear Megan scramble to her feet, as she got up to go tell on me, exactly as planned. I imagined that she was going to tell on me for calling her a list of bad names, but this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up on. I turned around and said to the girls, “looks like she’s beating you to the punch. She’s probably ratting you all out right now.”
The girls looked scared now. I walked away. Any moment a teacher would come swooping down on me, and I needed to be out of earshot when that happened. I needed the girls to think that Megan had told on them and not me.
Sure enough, Ms Hotchkiss came stomping my direction with Megan in toe. Megan was behind the teacher and was smiling with such vehemence that I knew I wasn’t wrong to call her a villain. “Mr. Steve. Megan tells me that you called her a liar in front of all of her friends.”
“Really?” I asked innocently. “What was she lying about that would make me say such a thing?”
Hotchkiss turned her attention to Megan. Megan wasn’t ready for this. Her plan was to tell on me and get me in trouble and that’d be the end of it. My plan was to force her to confess. I had to tread carefully here; one wrong move and I’d be in trouble for name-calling. Megan was caught off guard, assuming she was in trouble because of Ms Hotchkiss’s sudden attention, when really Ms Hotchkiss was waiting for her to clarify what I was supposed to be in trouble for. Good kids tend to get really nervous when it comes to the recess authorities. I had plenty of experience with them and knew how to keep my cool. I needed a loaded statement that either confirming or denying would still land her in trouble. Megan looked infuriated at me before yelling “nevermind!”
“Because what I asked her was if she knew which of the girls stole books from my desk in order to frame me with the library lady. Megan said she knew who it was but that she wasn’t going to tell me.”
“I did not!”
Megan didn’t even see the trap. She had denied a detail of a story, which still left her guilty. She needed to deny the entire story to stay in the clear.
“Ms. Megan, do you know who stole Steve’s books?”
Tears welled up in Megan’s eyes. It was too late. I was dismissed from the conversation, as Ms Hotchkiss liked to deal out verbal scoldings one on one, something I was very familiar with. I smiled and walked over to the old slide. The girls in their reading circle were frozen in fear. I winked at them.
“I don’t know who has the books, but the safest place to hide them right now is in my desk.”
Week 6, Day 1, Night 1 The fallout from Megan’s capture was severe. Megan couldn’t keep quiet. She’d never been in trouble before and didn’t know how to navigate the principal’s office. She was scared. Everyone is, their first time in the principal’s office, but there are a few rules you don’t break, such as telling on one of your friends and dragging them into your misery. Megan did herself no favors by ratting on everyone she knew who was involved. Ms Hotchkiss called together a parent meeting with all of the girls’ parents to talk about bullying. So many grounded with so little effort. To top it off, each of them had to write me a letter of apology, which meant that ten minutes of reading time was wasted on a letter I probably wouldn’t even read. That’s one hundred and forty minutes right there.
The school did still see fit to hold me responsible for the books I’d checked out. There wouldn’t be the usual threat of detention, but I needed to be responsible for the property I borrowed. I’d have to pay for it with my allowance, but that was a small price to pay to get out from under the girls’ current form of blackmail.
Week 6, Day 2 It happened suddenly. I was walking on my way to TAG (talented and gifted) when a hand reached out and pulled me into the girls’ restroom and pinned me against a wall. There I was, surrounded by a host of my classmates and a couple of larger fifth graders for muscle. The girls from my class were red-eyed from crying, and looked particularly cross with me. I didn’t expect them to call in reinforcements.
I didn’t recognize the girl who was holding me against the wall. She was much larger than I was, but as a very short kid (the shortest in my grade), this wasn’t an accomplishment. Maybe a third grader? Either way she had too much muscle backing her up for me to break free. She spoke with a tone of bullying authority. “Hey Steve. We noticed that you’re still reading. We already told you what would happen if you didn’t stop.”
“You sure did. Can I go now?” I tried to sound dismissive, but this unexpected show of force had me nervous.
Their leader pushed me harder against the wall. “It’s not funny. We’ve still got the books. You’re still in trouble if you don’t return them.”
I looked up at the ceiling and made a face of exaggerated thinking. “Not really. Hotchkiss knows that they were stolen. The library lady likes me. I call her ‘Book Worm’ to her face and she likes it. She got me a book for my birthday and Christmas last year.”
The girls all looked at each other, unsure of how to proceed. This wasn’t going to plan. I imagine they thought I’d cry and wet myself, but that wasn’t what they got. No one had told them that the school had forgiven my future crime of late library books. The time to strike was now. I looked back into the eyes of their leader, still holding me against the wall. “I’m not sure what I’m doing here. If your plan is to beat me up, you can. It’s going to be hard explain why all of you needed a hall pass at the same time to go to the bathroom once they find a boy bleeding on the floor of the girl’s bathroom, but I’m sure that all of you combined could actually beat me up. I’m not even going to swing back, because I’d hate to crowd the detention hall with you.”
A scared voice from the back whispered “what are we going to do? He’s going to get us all in trouble again.” It was Megan. She looked miserable, probably staying up all night crying about getting caught.
“You’re right, Megan. I am going to get you all in trouble. I just haven’t decided how yet, but I’ve got options.”
This wasn’t going as planned. I refused to be afraid and they only had fear tactics. Their leader snared “get one of his books out.”
To my surprise, they had it. I recognized the cover of Island of the Blue Dolphins. I watched the book carefully. I didn’t see whose bookbag they pulled it from, which was disappointing. Their leader turned to look at it, then sneered back at me. “Throw it in the toilet.”
I couldn’t see, but I heard the splash. My mind raced to keep ‘unscared’. The best I could do was formulate half a joke about the Island in the toilet. Still, that was a week’s worth of chores down the drain. Their leader turned back to me.
“This is what is going to happen next. You can read all you want to. Next week, if you want your books back, you’re going to give me the slip of paper with your minutes on it before you turn it into Hotchkiss. I’ll keep your minutes, and you get your books back. If you don’t do this, you’ll never see your books again.”
“Fine. It’ll cost me two months of allowance, but it’ll cost you your character.”
“That’s not all, pipsquek. Think long and hard before you try to defy us again. We can get to you in more ways than this.” The leader fished something out from her pocket. I recognized the tiny salmon colored lunch ticket, because I had drawn a Viking on the back of mine. It looked like I was going hungry for the next few days, but that also gave me more time to read. “We can get your lunch tickets, we can get your homework, we can make you miss the bus, we can tell on you for all sorts of things, we can make the boys hate you, we can make you unpopular, we can spread rumors, and we can keep this up forever. Who are you going to take to the dances in High School when all of the girls hate you? Who are you going to go on dates with?”
I smiled at them all. “None of you deserve me.”
A punch landed soundly in my stomach, knocking the wind out of me. I collapsed to the floor, fully expecting to get kicked next. Nothing happened. I decided to risk another quip. “You know something? I’m glad you did this, because now I know that I’m the good guy in this story, and that each and every one of you is the bad guy. You’ll know it when you look in your mirrors tonight while brushing your teeth. You’ll think ‘I’m a bad guy’. You’ll know I’m right because you’ll be angry with me or angry with yourself, but either way you’ll be an angry bad guy. You can’t win. Even if you win the competition, that ice cream won’t even begin to get rid of the taste of turning into a monster.”
“Get me that minute’s sheet or your life is going to be miserable forever! You see, you might be acting strong now, but you won’t be. The library books were just the beginning. What will you do when your sister comes crying to you because everyone decided to stop being her friend? We can get her too. If you turn in another minutes sheet, you and your sister will see just how bad things can get.”
The girls filed out of the restroom and all went back to their classes, leaving me alone in the girls’ bathroom. I let out a sigh that went from relief to despair. I wasn’t holding up well. I was a social kid. The isolation of Read A Million Minutes was taking its toll. I didn’t want to be the nerdy kid that had to sit by himself at recess. I wanted to be the kid that got to do what he loved and still had people like him for who he was.
Threatening my sister, Kristen, was taking this fight to a whole new level. She was leading her Kindergarten class, putting up more minutes than her entire class. Effectively, she canceled me out in the school competition. It wasn’t fair for her if she was punished for reading. I couldn’t do this to her also. It wasn’t fair to ask a Kindergartner to be a social outcast in her second month of school.
Maybe it would be easier to just give up. I could recapture soccer, the friendship of the boys, the neutral tolerance of the girls, hours of free time, and peace of mind. For the first time I considered quitting.
I got up and looked in the toilet. The girls had made a mistake here. Explaining how my library book wound up in the girl’s bathroom wouldn’t be easy. The hall passes contained the list of possible suspects. The trouble was that I couldn’t be the one to tell anyone about the book, because I had a hall pass also and it might look like I was dumping my own books to frame someone. Instead, I just left.
Week 6 Reading List: The Beast, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Swiss Family Robinson, Johnny Tremain