When school started up again I was officially in first grade. No more of this wimpy half-day of class for me. I got to play on the big playground and stay at school all day. After Mama passed away it was really all that I had to look forward to. (And yeah, I ended a sentence with a preposition. I'm a rebel like that.) It wasn't like I really played with any of the other kids. I pretty much continued to keep to myself, and the events of the summer hadn't exactly helped with that.
Along with Mama passing away and fighting with Shawn, I managed to slip in the bathtub a few weeks before school had started back up again. This left me with an abscessed front baby tooth that decided to turn a lovely shade of brown. I guess it was the universe's version of payback for knocking out Shawn's front tooth. Either way, it made me even more popular than I was before. I was still the "Cootie Girl" but now I was "Rotten Tooth" on top of it.
Since it was a new year of school, I thought that I would be happier because I'd be getting a new teacher, but this one was just as bad as the first one. Her name was Miss Miller and she had a terrible tight '80s perm that looked like an afro and wore so much makeup that her eyelashes scared me because they looked like spiders. She introduced us to the fun and exciting world of discipline and had a row of pockets up at the front of the class containing colored cards. If you were "Good" you got a Green Card, if you were "Bad" you got a Red Card and if you were "Tolerable" you got a Yellow Card. I was pretty much Yellow most of the time because she really didn't like me very much. I know that sounds paranoid, but when someone is always glaring at you and sighing when they have to acknowledge your presence, it makes their feelings about you somewhat clear. This card system that she had also encouraged kids to narc on other kids to get to the Green level.
In addition to Miss Miller's value system, the school itself also had a system that it used for students first grade and up. If you were caught doing something good like picking up trash or helping someone who fell down, then you got a Golden Good Behavior Slip. On the flip side, if you were caught throwing the trash on the ground or shoving someone off the jungle gym, you got a Pink Slip. The important part of those sentences were "if you got caught." It was very rare that someone got caught making fun of me or pushing me or spitting on me, but you had better believe that if I ever did anything bad that they were on me like white on rice. It wasn't because I thought that they were out to get me, it's just that it was kinda hard to miss one of the tallest girls in the class, who stuck out like a sore thumb.
I figured this out particularly quickly when I got into an altercation with one of my new classmates, Wesley. Loren had been put into some other class that year and I didn't really see much of him after that, so Wesley was in many ways his replacement. He wasn't very nice to me, but I really thought that I had a chance at making friends with him because (and I know this sounds terrible) he looked like he was poor too, with his ratty long hair and hand-me-down clothes, and I figured that we would have some common ground. But unlike me, Wesley had something positive that set him apart from everyone--he was an amazing artist and all the other kids respected him for it. This kid could draw anything and I would be shocked if he wasn't famous for it now. But before I get into that, let me give you some more background here.
Now, I don't know if I have mentioned this or not yet, but at this point I had two other siblings: Jerry and Heather. I'm not going to use their real names, because they both have very unique names like myself and when shit gets fucked up later on in this book, I'm sure they will appreciate not being mentioned by name. Jerry is one year younger than me and Heather is about four years younger than me. (Altogether there are four of us, but I will get to that later!) Jerry had started school that year and he was picked on just as much as I was. We both went to the same daycare located next to the elementary school so that we could go to daycare after school was done and I saw first-hand how mean the other kids were to him. He pretty much looked like the boy version of me, but chunkier and more freckles. Also, he was pigeon-toed and that just made things worse.
I wish that I could look back and say that I was an awesome sister that always defended my baby brother and came to his rescue when kids were being mean, but I wasn't. I was the bitchy sister who didn't want to be associated with her sibling and joined right on in when the other kids were teasing him to try and take some of the heat off of myself. In fact, when Jerry would do something out of the norm and I saw it, I would be the first to point it out to see if I could make the other kids rally with me. It often backfired.
Case in point: One day after school the daycare took us to the public pool. We were all swimming or relaxing up on the grassy hill overlooking the pool. One girl even sat with me because she liked my new Barbie towel. It was starting to look like a good day. I should have just left well enough alone, but nope, not me. I had to--as my mom would always tell me--"stir the pot." I saw my brother over by the drainage grate and he was trying to impress another little boy--by eating a snail. Yeah. This wasn't an unusual occurrence with Jerry. Sometimes people would cheer him on for eating weird things or doing crazy stuff. So being the bitchy little pot-stirrer that I was, I yelled out, "Eww! Jerry's eating snails!" And everyone dropped what they were doing to watch. There was all kinds of racket and reactions and eventually it died down, but when Jerry went to go swimming afterwards, this stupid little bitch Stacy (who was, by kid standards, way bitchier than me) pushes him under the water and won't let him up while yelling, "The Snail Eater is trying to get in the pool with us!" So instead of drowning, my brother bit her so that she would let him go. He wasn't a very strong swimmer anyway and he was in the shallow end. What does the daycare do? They fucking expelled him and didn't do a damn thing to her.
The daycare said that he overreacted to the situation and shouldn't have taken it to that level. It was absolute bullshit. I am too young to know all of the details, because even though I have a decent memory there is still the veil of adult-type stuff over your childhood, but I'm pretty sure that the daycare was just looking for an excuse to get rid of us since my mom was always late picking us up and they would always get pissed off. Either way, Jerry getting expelled meant that I was going to be gone too because after that my mom decided to quit her job and be a stay-at-home mom--much more on that later--since her mom was no longer there to provide free babysitting services and it didn't make sense to have one kid in daycare and one kid out. So, with all that explained, we then come back to the Wesley situation.
I was still in a pretty fragile state and it didn't take much to set me off after everything that had happened over the summer. I really hated coming to school and I just wanted to be left alone since interactions with other kids didn't really end well. When we weren't in class I spent most of my time at the far end of the playground with what I still think is one of the creepiest things I've ever seen at a school before. There was this girl in my class, Erin, and she had an older sister who had gone to the school and had passed away at a very early age. In memoriam of this girl, the school decided to plant a tree in her honor--and then put what looked very much like a gravestone over it and put a creepy white picket fence surrounding it. And it was right next to the playground!
The rumors that circled about this thing were everywhere. Kids were saying she fell off the top of the slide and died or that she swung all the way around the swing set or that she had cancer or that she and her sister had been in a terrible fight and that her sister just got out of jail. Kids are fucked up. And then there were the kids who said that her ghost still haunted the school or that her body was buried under the tree making it grow faster and all this other garbage. This, of course, intrigued me somewhat after Mama's death, and I started to have a keen interest at an early age about what happened to people when they died. I would visit "the grave" nearly everyday at recess. It gave me some kind of comfort when I was feeling sad. I knew that it wasn't Mama's grave, and in the back of my head I knew it wasn't the little girl's grave either, but it made me feel like all dead people and creatures were connected and that if this place was peaceful, then maybe everything was going to be okay. There was a huge wall of honeysuckles growing next to the fence and when me and the other kids in school weren't taking the middle part out of the flower and eating it like the teachers told us not to, I would take some of the white flowers and sprinkle them on the stone.
I was performing this morbid flower sprinkling ritual one day when Wesley came over and asked me what I was doing. I told him that it was for my grandma and he immediately asked me if she was Christian. I wasn't sure what that was, so I took a guess and said yes. "Good," he told me, "because if she wasn't then she isn't in Heaven right now. She could just be walking around like a ghost or in the other bad place." Then he just walked away. I sat down on the bench and kept trying to understand what he meant, but I was completely clueless. I had so many questions.
The next day I went to talk to Wesley on the playground and ask him what he was talking about the day before. He was on top of the new play structure that the school had just built. To me, it looked like a castle made of blue and red plastic and plexiglass. It was relatively tall and I was scared of heights. So I braved the ladder, the stairs and the tunnel and finally made my way to him. He had been playing with two of his friends and they stared me down. Before I could say anything, Wesley asked me what I was doing there and told me to go away. His friends told me to go away as well. I caught a brief glance at the ground and how far up we were from it and got all shaky. I decided it probably would be best to get back to the solid safety of the splinter-riddled tanbark. I turned to leave and I heard Wesley say, "She's so weird."
I have no idea why that set me off, but it did. "I'm not weird!" I yelled triumphantly. "You're weird!"
"Well at least my grandma is still alive!" was his response. So I kicked him. Hard. His friends slid down the slide and ran away and I was left alone with Wesley who wasn't sure what to do next. I told him he was stupid and he slapped me in the face. I kicked him again in the other leg and then he punched my arm, but I grabbed him and summoning all of my Jerry-like courage, I bit his hand as hard as I could. It tasted disgusting. I think I might have even eaten a tanbark splinter. There was no blood, but it left a mark. "Rotten Tooth bit me!" he screamed and then ran after his companions who had already alerted the yard duty parent.
I knew that I was in the wrong, but I couldn't think of what to do. I was scared from the height and the adrenaline in my little body was pumping. I crawled into the tunnel, curled up in a ball and started sobbing uncontrollably. I could hear the bell ring for class in the background, but I stayed put. "Vindi Birch? Are you in there?" the yard duty called out to me. I didn't say anything, so she came up to get me. "You're in big trouble young lady." We (the lady, Wesley and myself) marched down to the principal's office and had to talk to Mr. Taylor, the school principal, who was almost always smiling, but now just had that disappointed parent look in his eyes as we sat in the chairs in his office.
At first I tried to say that I didn't bite him, but Wesley showed off the mark I had left on his hand. In addition to having a brown tooth, I also had giant gaps in my top row of teeth, so the bite mark that I had left really couldn't have belonged to anyone else. I was so embarrassed. Not only had I got caught being a bad person, but I also got one of those dreaded Pink Slips that I had tried so hard not to get all year. Wesley got one too and blamed me for it--perhaps somewhat rightfully. It was his fault for being a jerk, but it wasn't his fault that I was being all emo and physical.
A few weeks later, while we sat in the classroom doing busy work with the other bad kids, the good kids got to attend the "No Pink Party" with ice cream and movies at the end of the year. I looked over at Wesley and felt sad that I had pretty much messed things up with him. At the time of our altercation the principal made us apologize to each other, but I still felt bad, so I approached him myself after class let out.
"Hey, I'm sorry that you didn't get to have any ice cream today," I told him in a tiny voice.
"Yeah, me too," was all he replied. He started walking away but I stopped him to ask him one more thing.
"Hey, Wes. When we were talking before you said there was another place that dead people go. What's the other bad place?"
"My grandpa says it's called Hell and it's for people who live bad lives and do bad things like not being Christian or killing people..." And then this smart-ass first grader finishes with, "...or biting people!" And then walked away leaving me wide-eyed and afraid.