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“Jeanne, we need to talk about something.” My tiny, 7-year-old stomach dropped as I looked up at my towering mother. Uh oh, I think I’m in trouble… “What did you say to Danny yesterday while you two were waiting for me in the car?”
My mind race through our argument yesterday, trying desperately to justify the guilty words that had been exchanged. “I didn’t mean to!” I squeaked, not entirely sure what I didn’t mean to do, but wanting very much to run back outside with my brothers.
“Jeanne Elizabeth, what did you say to him?”
“Nothing!” I retorted a little more stubbornly now.
My mom glared at me. Seeing right through my lie, her words were fierier now, “Well, Jeanne, Danny was awfully upset last night about something, and that something tells me it had to do with your fight yesterday.”
“Well, um, I think I told him he was stupid…and…but he told me I was first andâ€”“
“No Jeanne, I think something else was said. What else did you tell your brother?” She doesn’t know how mean he was being to me, I had to win yesterday, I knew it would get to him.
“Um, well, he called me stupid...and…then I think I said â€˜at least I have friends.’” I mumbled, looking out the window.
“Do you know how upset that made him?”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t know!”
“Jeanne Elizabeth, you cannot talk to your brother like that. You really hurt his feelings yesterday.” Tears started welling up in my eyes as the guilt came flickering into my gut.
“Did you know he gets picked on at school?” I knew he didn’t have as many friends as me, but I didn’t understand why. I thought back to my satisfaction yesterday when he responded to my stab with silenceâ€”I thought I had finally won, but now I only felt like a sick cheater.
“You need to say you’re sorry, Jeanne.”
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to!” Tears from deep inside my guilty heart poured down my hot cheeks. I wished I hadn’t said it at all.
“You need to say sorry to your brother for hurting his feelings.” I sobbed and nodded as my mother left the room.
Donnie Carlson, a lanky, freckly boy with a slight stutter, pushed back his thin, spindly glasses and silently stood up from his seat to get a drink from the drinking fountain at the back of the room. We were supposed to be doing quiet seatwork while Ms. Johanson talked to another teacher outside the classroom for a minute. I looked back down at my multiplication worksheet and continued my work. A moment later I heard another clanging of a chair to a desk. This time it was Jack Bullhowser, a skinny, hotshot of a 5th grader and as close to popular as you could get in 5th gradeâ€”and the one kid in the entire school I simply could not stand. Feeling something brewing, I kept an eye on him as he walked towards the back of the room.
Within seconds my suspicions were justified. With a smirk and two gruff hands he shoved Donnie away from the fountain. Donnie’s eyes shot a reproachful look at Ron then darted back down to the floor tile again as Jack sneered. I felt the blood beginning to boil deep in my abdomen.
“Sit down, Carlson, you’re not supposed to be back here.” He said smoothly, shoving him again.
“Go sit down Carlson.” Donnie tried taking a step towards the drinking fountain as Jack thrust his arms out again to push him, and his laughing eyes shot a flaming arrow through me, setting my adrenaline ablaze.
“Cut it out, Jack!” Jack and Donnie both spun and stared at me, both startled to hear anything but snickering. “You’re not supposed to be out of your seat either, so why don’t you sit down and leave him alone?” My cool tone disguised the fire glowing now inside me, but they both obediently returned to their seats, Donnie scuttling and staring at the ground and Jack with his cocky, bobbing stroll. Ignoring the stares pouring into me now from dozens of 10-year old eyes, I slid down in my chair and tried to begin my multiplication problems again.
“Uhh, pull up a chair from over there,” I said to Danny, pointing my finger to the table across the aisle from our packed corner booth. I looked around at the people I was sitting withâ€”a slightly rowdy, fun-loving group of my band buddies, some of them I’d known 3rd grade, some of them I’d met just this year. But that’s why I loved “bandies”, they were the kind of people you could get along with without needing to be close friends. Though a few kids in the band were jerks, and I knew a few kids in this group didn’t get along with my brother, they seemed like good kids so I trusted them enough to bring along Danny.
Danny pulled up a chair and unwrapped his gigantic, disgustingly greasy burger and took an oversized chomp out of it, listening to the conversation. Though we still had a typical quarreling brother-sister relationship, band had brought us closer these past two years with bonding through common friends and our drives to and from rehearsals, chatting about everything from flirting to making the most out of high school.
I laughed at something Sarah said and added something else and the rest of the table started laughing as well. We kept talking, but I noticed Danny keeping unusually quiet. Usually he was the one nagging me to talk to new people and not to be afraid to be myself, but tonight we seemed to have switched roles. I relaxed when he finally burst out laughing and cracked another joke.
“Shut the hell up, Zeller.” Sarah snapped from across the table. Danny’s smile drooped slightly as his brow furrowed and his eyes glazed into that tough-skin mode I had seen him cornered into so many times.
“Yeah, Zeller, no one wanted you here anyway.” Anna added with snickers from Ellie and Matt sitting next to her. I felt the familiar licks of flames multiplying in my stomach as I attempted to pierce my friends’ smirks with my hardened glare. They weren’t really doing this, not now, not in front of me, not to my brother, were they? I had kept quiet so long to all the jerks in the band, in fear of making it worse by being “Zeller’s little sister” protecting him; but these were my friendsâ€”or at least I thought they were.
Matt held his hands up as if to shield his vision from Danny’s chair, “Let’s just try and block out this little cornerâ€”” A ripple of laughter echoed around the table and the flames erupted.
“Let’s go,” I scooted out of the seat, tapping Danny on the shoulder. Their laughter seemed like a mile away. “Let’s go,” I repeated, as Danny looked at me, bewildered. “We’re leaving Danny, let’s go.” He put his sandwich down and picked up his tray. The people at the table, suddenly noticing we had both gotten up, had stopped laughing.
“We’re leaving, bye.” I stated shakily at the direction of the group, turning on my heel to march out.
“Jeanne,” I turned for a moment to look at Sarah, “I’m sorry!” She said in the tone of a 7-year-old trying to get out of trouble. I shot her another cold, hard glare and kept walking towards the door.
I was walking so fast I had to wait inside the double doors for Danny to put away his tray.
When we both got outside Danny beamed, “Jeanne, that was awesome!”
I shook my head, trying to calm the forest fire within me, “I can’t believe they would do that.”
“They were being stupid.” I nodded, fumbling with my keys. Yes, they were.
The boy across the circle was speaking in the vulnerable tone used only when expressing something so dear to you, you’ve never been able to say it. He was speaking about his mother, about how much he admired her Christianity and her patience. We were responding to a talk we had just heard about important people in our lives and the people we looked up to. When the boy was done talking, a familiar, gaping silence fell over our group.
I could feel my group leader watching me. After a few moments he leaned over to me,
“Jeanne, you look like you have something to say,” He whispered gently, “Would you like to talk?” I kept staring at my hands, unsure of what I wanted to say, or if I could even say it if I knew what it was. A tear slid down my cheek. All the memories of the constant arguing and conflict between Danny and I raced through my mind; times I wasn’t there for him all those years, times when he needed me the most. But what I felt the most were all those times in the past few years I had watched him ridiculed by our peers, and the perspective that fiery instinct had instilled in me for as long as I could remember. I thought back to all those precious moments alone in the car with Danny, talking about people and about dreams and about struggles and about passion, and how I was one of the only ones who knew this brilliant, gentle side of him. I felt such sorrow for him. I felt anger and burning pain. I held my gaze at my clammy hands as I tried to take a deep breath, but it only erupted as an unexpected sob. I felt a warm hand on my shoulder, and I finally opened my mouth to speak.
“My brother,” I stumbled out, squeezing my voice not to cry, “He’s just…taught me so much.” Tears streamed freely down my cheeks as I closed my eyes.
I felt my leader put his hand on my knee, and his soft breath on my ear sounded like the tired, wet sigh of raindrops on a dying fire as he whispered, “Thank you, Jeanne.”