Welcome to the Spot Writers. This month’s topic is: something nice and unexpected happens on a gloomy day.
This week’s post is by Val Muller, author of the coming of age novel The Girl Who Flew Away. Surrounded by high school students all day, many of her works revolve around the lives of teenagers finding their place in a less-than-ideal world.
by Val Muller
“Are you serious?” Ms. Martel asked. She leaned back in the creaky chair, arms crossed, staring straight ahead at the principal.
“Quite,” said Principal Hutt.
“You want me to eat with these kids? The thirty minutes of the day I have free, and you want me to spend it with my four discipline problems?”
The principal nodded. “You know we’re all about creative solutions here at Echo Academy, Ms. Martel. ‘Discipline problems’ are really just young people reaching out for help.”
“Texting while in class and blowing off assignments is not reaching out for help. It’s just ignoring their responsi—”
But Principal Hutt had already turned away, working on his next email.
“I’ll expect to see you in the dining hall this afternoon, Ms. Martel. And I’m sure your students will find it something to look forward to as well.”
The cafeteria—dining hall, rather—smelled like teenagers and toddler food. It was a miasma of chicken nuggets, wilted vegetables, and teenage angst. And there in the center of it were her four nightmares, the ones who made Ms. Martel dread coming to work each day.
Tommy Sutherfeld, Elayna Cunningham, Marko Jacobs, and Lilliyanna Roth. They sat there like protagonists in The Breakfast Club, unaware of the gravity of their behavior issues. Did they realize they spoiled every Third Block Literature class? Did they realize they were like black holes, sucking out the ambitions and concentration of all other students in the room? Did they get up in the morning wondering how disruptive they could be, or were they simply that uncaring that they didn’t realize how much of an impact they had?
And now, with her paper bag lunch, Ms. Miriam Martel was tasked with the terrible job of—what? Babysitting them? It wasn’t that. Principal Hutt had said something far worse. She had to reach them.
Tommy smiled and raised an eyebrow. “‘Sup, Ms. Martel? The Hutt told us you’d be here today.”
Tommy scooted over to make room for her.
“Hi,” she said.
“We didn’t mean to get you in trouble,” Lilli said.
Elayna looked down at her lap. “We didn’t mean to have the Hutt force you to eat with us. That is, like, the worst.”
“Oh.” Ms. Martel opened her lunch bag, pulling out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“Is that really what you eat for lunch?” Tommy asked. “Or did you bring that because you knew you’d be eating with us?”
“I didn’t find out until this morning,” she said. “Principal Hutt called me in before school.”
“I stopped eating PB and J in like fifth grade,” Tommy said. “Why do you eat that?”
Ms. Martel shrugged. “It’s fast. It’s cheap.” She eyed their lunches. Two of them had footlongs from Subway. Two were sharing half a pizza, probably leftover from last night’s dinner. She fought the threat of a flushing face. “I’m saving to replace my car, or at least fix it,” she said.
“What’s wrong with it?” Marko asked.
“Starter, I think. I don’t know. Sometimes it just stalls.”
“Alternator, maybe,” Marko said. He was always talking about cars. And researching cars. On his phone. During class discussions. During classroom observations with Principal Hutt.
“Well…” Ms. Martel forced a smile and unwrapped her sandwich, taking a bite.
“If you’re going to be eating with us all week, like the Hutt says, we can get you Subway,” Lilli offered. “I mean, it must suck to be stuck with us. You probably have teacher things you like to be doing during lunch. My parents say I’m dragging them down all the time. And now I’m dragging you down, too.”
Ms. Martel shook her head. “That’s nice of you, but I’m okay—I mean, peanut butter is relatively healthy…”
“I haven’t even started my Macbeth project,” Tommy blurted. “I just wanted you to know. I haven’t turned it in because I’m just a complete slacker. There’s no excuse. If I turn it in, will you be able to eat with the teachers again?”
Ms. Martel inhaled, stalling for time to think of a response.
But Tommy continued. “It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that I’m the worst. My parents pay all this money to send me here, and I just can’t force myself to care. No offense, Ms. Martel, but learning about witches and ghosts or whatever, written in Old English, just isn’t my top priority.” He sighed. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to fail my parents’ expectations. You know, being a failure.”
“I—” How was she supposed to reach these kids?
“See, grades just don’t matter,” Tommy continued. “Not everyone gets As in high school, and some people who get As turn out to be real—” He stopped himself. “I know, think of a smarter word,” he said. “See, I do listen to you in class sometimes, Ms. Martel. My point is, didn’t, like, Steve Jobs fail out? Or Bill Gates? The system just can’t hold some of us. It’s like a prison. You have to break out of the system. I promise I’ll do big things one day.”
“We’re gonna open up a garage,” Marko said. “Refurbish old cars. You know, like old punch-buggies and Mustangs and all that.”
“A boutique garage,” Lilli said. “I’ll be their marketer. We’ll appeal to nostalgia.”
“That’s another vocab word you taught us,” Tommy said. “Nostalgia.” He patted her on the shoulder and rubbed against her jacket, tugging it a bit. Ms. Martel scooted over. Principal Hutt wanted her to get close, but this was too much. She didn’t want to actually touch them.
She left lunch with two bites taken out of her sandwich, a stomach ache, and an impending headache. At the end of the day, Principal Hutt called for her to stop by on her way out.
“Looks like you’ll have to eat with them again tomorrow,” he said.
“Why?” Ms. Martel asked.
The principal pulled up an attendance report. “The four of them skipped the rest of the afternoon classes.” He shook his head. “I wanted you to reach them, not make them worse.”
“Look, I—” But Ms. Martel stopped herself. There was no point trying to explain things to Principal Hutt, who wasn’t even in a classroom more than a few minutes each day. “Okay,” she said. “Tomorrow, then.”
She walked to the parking lot and reached into her pocket for the key.
She never took her key out of her pocket. When would she have possibly—
“Son of a—” She spoke aloud.
“Think of a smarter word, Ms. Martel,” said Tommy, behind her.
She spun around to see him smugly twirling her keyring around his finger.
He held his hand to stop her, and he pointed to the visitor parking spots. There was Marko, leaning against her car. Lilli and Elayna were there, slurping smoothies from the place down the street.
“You stole my—”
“Fixed, not stole,” Tommy said. He handed her the keys. “Though we did take it for a test drive to make sure it worked.”
“We left you a berry smoothie in the cup holder,” Elayna said.
Marko smiled. “We cut class and took your car to the autoshop. Our mechanics teacher always lets us bring in our cars to work on them. You have a Honda. Super easy to find parts for. We found you a new alternator. It works good as new now.”
Tommy tossed her keys in the air, and she caught them. “Maybe at lunch tomorrow you’ll bring something better than PB and J, huh, Ms. Marko?”
She smiled as she got in her car and listened to it start up right the first time.
“Maybe I will,” she said and watched them smile at her in the rearview mirror as she drove away.
***The Spot Writers—Our Members:
Val Muller: http://www.valmuller.com/blog/
Catherine A. MacKenzie: https://writingwicket.wordpress.com/wicker-chitter/
Phil Yeats: https://alankemisterauthor.wordpress.com
Chiara De Giorgi: https://chiaradegiorgi.blogspot.com/