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She wheeled carefully between the yellow parking lines, then checked to make sure her school parking pass was hanging from her rearview mirror. She grabbed the navy-blue shoulder bag, to which she still referred to as a “back pack,” and after locking her forest green Pontiac’s doors, she set off, striding across the blacktopped parking lot.
Ellanore Bristow entered the classroom, relieved to find that she wasn’t late, and greeted all the sleepy and familiar faces with her own. These were the same faces she saw all week long, every day, in nearly every class. Some were turned away in total indifference at her entrance, still talking with their friends and hanging around their desks in clumps, before the bell announced the start of class. Yet, a few others students turned her way and gave her a smile or at least a glance.
Ella went to her assigned seat and placed her bag under her desk, against its metal leg. She shared a table (four desks pushed together) with three other people. There was a girl named Shayla Cole, her friend Devyn Brinkley, and a boy named Drew Irving. Currently, the three were at a nearby table in a group, Shayla was at the center, bestowing the world with the gift of her radiant, white smile and straight, bleach-blond hair. Devyn was at her side, with a bunch of other girls, watching her with admiration as she flirted shamelessly with Claude Gideon, the captain of the soccer team.
This is the way it was at Holy Cross Academy. The classes were small; Ellanore’s graduating class was comprised of only twenty-six students that year. The school had no football team, but a soccer team instead, to which academics barely were higher priority. The players were the gods of the school; the celebrities. Claude happened to be both smart and athletic. He and Shayla shared many similarities. They were both charming and charismatic, pleasing to the eyes, intelligent, and popular, but they both also had the tendency to be cruel and unforgiving.
The sharp sound of Shayla’s laugh shook Ellanore out of a reverie about her small breakfast and how she wished she would’ve had time to eat more of it.
It was almost time for class to begin. She looked around and longed to join the group in the center of the room. She knew she didn’t agree with everything the group’s members participated in, said, or did, but currently, she preferred these things to her solitude. Without thinking, she stood and crossed the room and after selecting an empty desk on the outskirts of the clump of students, she sat.
Drew Irving, a tall, thin, blonde boy, was sitting a bit farther back than the others; he seemed uninterested, or maybe tired.
Ella could distinguish small snatches of the conversation, which now seem to be about the school uniforms.
“…and, like, it’s total bull‒” Shayla lowered her voice and mouthed the next word. “Who wears their socks up to there,” She gestured to the side of her bronzed knee. “And then wears their skirt past that?”
“I know,” chimed in Devyn,” It’s disgusting.”
“I‒ we only get away with it half of the time because we look hot in it.” Shayla said, followed by some cackles from a few of her admirers. She was talking about how she and many of the of Holy Cross girls would always slightly pull down their white, cotton knee-socks and roll up their skirts at the waist to expose their legs without it being too obvious. If a girl was caught doing this, she’d be sent directly to the principal; someone Shayla had been quite acquainted with in the years past.
The conversation went on for a few minutes longer. Ella thought she had finally come up with something witty to say, so she opened her mouth, but when she tried to speak, the bell rang.
* * *
Ellanore was very critical of herself and considered herself to be a very average sort of person, but in truth there was something about her that made her different; something overlooked and undervalued. She was a great listener. She was an extraordinarily quiet creature that had a tendency to attract the less fortunate, the outcasts, or those who were equally shy as herself. To Ella, though, this virtue seemed like a fault; a curse. She’d always been the “good girl,” the quiet one that often went unnoticed. And though she felt reasonably comfortable staying back as her reserved self, she felt like a dependant nobody. She was ready for a change.
* * *
Lunchtime came around, and Ella situated herself at the end of Shayla and co.’s table. She figured that this could help her social status. She spoke up a few times, twice she made a few of the socialites laugh, and once she gained a smile from the queen bee herself.
Then about halfway through lunch Barbara Minkel walked by. Her dark hair was about shoulder-length, lacking a style, and separated in greasy sections. It fell over her forehead and into her eyes, like an inky waterfall, at whose base were many red pimples on pasty skin. She kept her head down, clutching a book in both arms against her chest. Her uniform looked worn and untidy, with her socks wrinkled and uneven with one another. Her brown shoes were scuffed. The girl sat down at a table alone, pulled out a piece of notebook paper, and started drawing.
Some giggles were coming from Ella’s tablemates.
“She’s drawing again.” Shayla said looking over her shoulder at Barbara, smirking. “She’s always doing that during class.”
“She’s not even good at it,” said Claude. “She sucks.”
They sat there discussing Barbara’s drawing skills, or lack thereof, for the remainder of their lunchtime. Ella just watched Barbara pitifully and then noticed that Drew was once again excluded from the gossip. He sat next to Devyn, who was seated in front of Shayla, with his eyes down and his fork picking at his mashed potatoes.
Is he not participating by his own choice, thought Ella. Or will they not speak to him because of something he’s done? He seems like a nice person…
She studied his profile. She had always considered him to be just another one of the group; another Shayla, or Claude, but lately he’s seemed distant from them, or was Ella just noticing this now? Maybe he had always been slightly distant. She hardly knew.
He was a decent looking boy. He was fair; blonde-haired and blue-eyed. His limbs were on the lanky side, but not too thin. Currently his expression seemed a bit sad, but he didn’t seem hateful or mocking like the others.
Before she realized it, Drew’s eyes had met her own grey ones and she dropped them to the table as soon as she could. But he had seen her staring and now she could see him returning the favor from the corner of her eye.
Ella looked down at her half-eaten food, but promptly stood, tossed it in the round, gray trash can, and walked quickly to class, knowing she’d be early. On her way out she could feel Drew’s eyes still upon her.
* * *
The talk and treatment of Barbara Minkel grew progressively worse over the next few days. The senior group went from insulting her talents to her appearance and personal hygiene.
“She probably never takes a shower,” Said Devyn on Tuesday.
“I bet if you get near her she smells like total B.O.,” Shayla said on Wednesday.
The rumors spread and somehow went from simple gossip, to “known facts.” It was now established that Barbara never showered, she reeked strongly of body odor, and she had no talent in what she loved to do best. The effects of these “known facts” coming into light became apparent by Thursday. The students that sat at a table with Barbara joked and giggled and all scooted their desks a few feet from hers in order to avoid “the stench.”
Ellanore watched from across the room, distressed and nervous that Barbara might catch wind of what all the talk and quiet commotion going on around her was all about. And she didn’t…for awhile.
Ella kept a close eye on the table, one away from hers. She could hear the conversations well enough to decipher the gist of them. Regan Dempsey, a short, haughty brunette that sat near Barbara, actually had the nerve to bring up the topic right there.
“So,” She said, stretching her arms upward and running her fingers through her silky shoulder-length hair. “Derek. When was the last time you showered?”
Derek Benson, who normally would have been slightly put off by a question like this, knew where Regan was coming from, and thus he smiled and replied, “Oh, just last night, Regan. What about you, Anna?”
“Only this morning. Regan?” Said the girl to Regan’s right.
“Same here,” Regan said. “I was just asking ‘cause, like, there are some people that don’t do it all that often. Hardly once a week…maybe once a month.” Regan had the eyes of a serpent. They were a vibrant green hue, and heavily lined in black. She narrowed them and smiled at Barbara, but didn’t say a word to her.
Barbara listened silently to the conversation, but didn’t quite understand what they were getting at; what did showering have to do with anything?
There was snickering when the girl walked by, when she raised her hand, and when the teacher pointed out the ever-growing space between her desk and those of her tablemates.
“What? Did they kick you out?” He said jokingly. “Push them back together. You’ll need to for the next activity.”
Barbara looked at the space and up at her snickering classmates and made a connection. It was her they were laughing at. She hung her head and blushed as she scooted her desk against the others. She was ashamed, and it wasn’t even the truth.
* * *
Ella hated to see Barbara treated this way. She hated for anyone to be treated this way. But she also knew that by extending her hand to Barbara in help, she’d be taking a step backwards in her quest for change. If she did what she would naturally do, well, how would that be change? She wanted to gain the approval of her classmates, the popular classmates. Is that such a bad thing? She would ask herself this question and always hesitantly answer “no.”
She’d give herself pep talks, “You have no friends at this school. They don’t like you how you are. You need to stop being the sweet little, innocent girl and grow some backbone. Gain some status in the world.” These talks would always end up making her feel worse. Then on Friday, Ellanore had to go back to school and see Barbara be mistreated and abused by her classmates.
The poor girl walked into the classroom on Friday morning looking dejected, but soon the look turned to one of horror. Her eyes grew wide as she saw the whiteboard and what was upon it. There was, in black marker, a short note scribbled, that stated, “Barbra Minkel smells. She never takes a shower so stay away from Barbara, and you’ll stay away from B.O. She needs to buy new clothes that don’t look like they were handed down from some ancient deceased relative. She sucks at drawing. She’s never had a date, but how would she when she looks like this…?” There was an arrow pointing to a badly drawn picture of a girl with curvy lines protruding upward from her body and surrounded by flies, signifying a stench. Barbara stared at it for a moment, slid into her desk slowly and seemed to be trying to make herself invisible. In truth, she would have liked nothing more.
Ellanore arrived a few minutes later, after about half of the class was already there. She saw the note after wondering why there was a strange mix of silence and random bursts of suppressed laughter in the room. The note seemed to ignite something deep within Ella, something tender and personal. She knew that Shayla and her minions must be responsible for this. She threw her bag down and stomped up to the board to everyone’s astonishment, and turned to the class. Her eyes scanned the room, but lingered on the face of Shayla Cole, whose smile was now fading quickly. Ella was livid and she guessed that her expression showed it, but this gave her an amazing sense of empowerment and strength over her peers. She grabbed the eraser and haphazardly scrubbed off much of the message, then she ran to a tearful Barbara, who now was sunken so low in her chair that only her head and shoulders were visible over the desk.
Ella gently wrapped her hand around Barbara’s thin arm and tugged it slightly. The girl stood and was led by the other, to the door, down the hall, and into the fresh spring air.
* * *
“Sorry,” sniffed Barbara, once the two girls had had a chance to breathe and speak a little since the note was discovered. They were able to make things a bit clearer and Ella to comfort the hurting girl. “We’re gonna be late for class.”
They were outside, sitting behind a small grove of trees near the school playground where the elementary students played.. Ella was holding her knees to her chest, letting the wind play with her brown curls. Barbara sat with her back against a tree trunk, legs straight in front of her.
“Oh, so what. We’re seniors this year…I’m not saying to blow school off or anything, but I think we can afford one tardy. Especially today,” said Ella, smiling at her new friend.
“Yeah. You’re right.”
The two stayed outside for a few more minutes before they began making their way back to the school. To Ella’s surprise, Drew Irving was there waiting at the door, leaning against the brick wall, and squinting in the morning sun.
“Hey,” He said greeting the two girls. “We told the teacher what happened. You guys aren’t late. He understood. Shayla is in the principal’s office right now.”
Barbara smiled at him, then at Ella and said, “Thank. Thank you so much. I think I’m going to go to the bathroom to wash my face a little.” She pointed to her tear-streaked cheeks and walked off.
When Barbara had gone, Ella turned and looked awkwardly out into the soccer field as the wind continued to tease at her hair. She didn’t know what to say to Drew. Luckily he spoke first.
“You’re the nicest person I’ve ever met.” He said; his tone was serious.
She now looked at him. “I did what anyone else would’ve done.”
“You were the only one that did it, though.”
“She was crying… I couldn’t just let her sit there and be humiliated. Eventually someone, the teacher maybe, would’ve gone to see what was wrong.”
“That’s beside the point. She wasn’t the only one. I remember you helping lots of other people,” he paused and thought for a moment. “Chelsea Baker. Last fall she tripped in gym class while running laps. You helped her up.”
“I laughed at her; not to her face, but I did laugh at her. What about when Devyn lost a contact and you helped her look for it? You got down on your hands and knees with her and searched until you found it.” Drew said, smiling slightly.
“When Shayla needed help with her English homework. You helped her as best you could, despite what she treats you like. I know how she treats you. She only talks to you when she needs something. Why…how do you do it? There are so many other examples I could give.”
“I...I really…” She didn’t know what to say. She was surprised at how much he had been observing her. Why?
“And you’re humble about it all.” He looked satisfied with himself.
After a moment she said, “What’s so great about being nice.” She made quotation marks with two fingers from each hand at the last word. “Everyone thinks I’m a pushover. I’m so dependent on other people. So quiet. I don’t feel like going completely unnoticed anymore.”
“There is nothing wrong with being a nice person, Ella.” He put a hand on her shoulder, and then quickly removed it, blushing, after realizing what he’d done. “Maybe…maybe becoming a bit more assertive wouldn’t hurt, but you’re a good person. Don’t change that.”
He spoke to her heart. She watched him, wide-eyed. How could he read her so well? She wanted to throw her arms around him, but somehow it ended up as an awkward (but nice) handshake.
They returned to class a few moments later. Shayla and a few other students, Ella was told, were still down at the principal’s office with the teacher; Ella and Drew were the only two sitting at their table.
Once they were seated, he leaned over, chuckling a little. “You’re a nice person, but I can’t say the same for the rest of us.” He said this and pointed at the message on the board. The name “Shayla” was in the place that the name “Barbara” had been and the rest of the message was personalized to fit the former, while a doodle of the girl was drawn beside it with extremely exaggerated features.
“Wow. What a true likeness,” said Ellanore maybe a bit sarcastically, smiling and resting her head in her palm. “Drew, did you write that?”
“No, I can’t say I had the stroke of genius to do that. That was David over here,” he gestured to
the boy sitting behind him, who turned and laughed.
Ella turned to David with a playfully stern look and raised her brows.
“You want me to erase it?” David asked, incredulously.
“I know she might deserve it...but we’d be treating her the same way she treated Barbara. Two wrongs don’t make a right.” This is what Ella said, and although she felt like doing the opposite, she knew what was right.
“Alright, alright,” He got up and erased the board with the black felt eraser as Barbara entered the room shyly, but looking less blotchy than earlier. She crept back to her desk and sat down, issuing a soft sigh, and ignoring all the eyes that were currently probing her. Barbara smiled at Ella and Drew from across the room; what a difference a little smile made in her entire countenance! With her friends she was ten times prettier than Shayla, who actually wasn’t all that pretty in their eyes.
Shayla and the others landed themselves in detention. When they all walked back into the classroom from the office they held their heads high and thoroughly ignored everyone’s whispered questions and inquiries as to what had happened.
Barbara now had someone to sit with at lunch, where Ella discovered that Barbara could draw, and very well actually. Ellanore gained a pair of good friends, and maybe even more, out of simply being herself and doing the right thing.
Drew’s words still spoke to her deeply.
“…You’re a good person. Don’t change that.” She wouldn’t, and didn’t want to.