Friday, March 31, 2000

"Write one page about what you want to be when you grow up."

That was the assignment Mrs. White had written in her large, neat hand on the chalkboard.

I stared down at my paper; a list of empty turquoise lines stared back.

What did I want to be when I grew up? There were many things. I wanted to be an actress, of course. World renown. Possibly a singer. I wanted to be a mom someday. But somehow I felt that those weren't necessarily the answers Mrs. White was looking for. She mentioned something about careers and skills. While part of me was certain I could be a successful actress/singer/mother, it wasn't necessarily due to any special talents on my part, aside from perhaps a talent for drama and an appetite for attention.

I stole a glance at the desk to my left, where Miranda Vandercook was scribing purposefully in large, bubbly letters. She dotted her i's with little bubble hearts. For her, one full page might consist of maybe six sentences. My own script was finer, the letters closer together. I had to go into detail if I wanted to write a full page.

Finally, following a brief period of reflection (and a quick but inspirational glance at my Christian Riese Lassen folder), the answer to my question became clear: I wanted to be a marine biologist.

At last, stirred by this newborn aspiration, words began to flow from the tip of my blue pen. I described my desire to explore the ocean depths and observe and learn all about my favorite animal, the dolphin.
In no time those turquoise lines brimmed with my recorded goals.

Having finished, I triumphantly laid down my pen and gazed eagerly at the clock over the chalkboard. 2:54 pm. The school day was nearly done. I was especially excited that day, because my mother was picking me up from school and taking me shopping at Fashion Bug. (And, while it wasn't confirmed, I hoped and suspected that afterward we would get Chinese take-out from our favorite restaurant, the one whose name I could never remember but that didn't have indoor seating or a drive thru – you just ran in, received your order, and ran back out).

As I waited for the clock to strike 3:10, I surveyed my classmates, most of whom were still writing away at their assignments. Next to me, Miranda was done, her wide-ruled paper stuffed top to bottom with huge, feminine font. She swung her pink Sketcher'd feet back and forth, leaned forward, and whispered to Cassie Ellis, excitedly and audibly, about how hideous Mary Fuhrman's outift was. I peered at Mary (two rows to the left and two desks up from me) to determine her reaction, but couldn't discern whether or not she had heard. Her dark head was bent over her own paper as she concentrated on completing the assignment.

Mary certainly was no stranger to such victimization. While most girls our age strived for stylishness in glittery tee-shirts with snarky phrases and various fashion accessories from Claire's, Mary's attire was generally outdated, mismatched, and almost certainly secondhand. Even had she worn the latest fashions, though, she was uncommonly tall and awkwardly built, with a blunt banged haircut and crooked teeth that looked as though she didn't brush them often. She hardly stood a chance against the Mirandas and Cassies of the world. Today she wore a stretched and faded green Wile E. Coyote tee-shirt beneath wrinkled overalls that were just a hair too short on her, revealing a thick reddish-pink ankle over slouching dirty socks. Miranda and Cassie snickered cruelly. Mary simply continued to write.

Finally, the bell rang, and we all flooded excitedly to the front of the classroom, placing our papers in the wire assignment tray on Mrs. White's desk. She bid us farewell and a happy weekend as we filed out of the room and through the halls, a chorus of windbreakers and excited chatter as we made our ways to our respective modes of transportation. I caught up with my best friend Abby in the hall and we walked together outside as we pulled on our jackets and discussed our weekend plans.

As we emerged from our elementary prison, we each remarked on the beautiful March weather— my jean jacket was almost unnecessary. The sun shone warmly in a cloudless blue sky and the birds sang cheerily, announcing the beginning of spring after another cold and overly long Michigan winter. Finally, we said our goodbyes and headed in separate directions: she to the buses and I out front to the parking lot where parents sat waiting in their cars. Some parents formed a small crowd in front of the building to walk their kids out to their vehicles. My mother wasn't among them, but I spotted Miranda Vandercook's mom. Tall and tan, with a blonde ponytail and big blue eyes, she was an embodiment of the classic beauty Miranda would surely inherit. She snapped a wad of gum and smiled bright and wide as Miranda came skipping out to greet her. She took Miranda's backpack and slung it over the shoulder of her bright red Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt that would look flashy and juvenile on any other parent in the crowd, and they set off together toward their car.

After a quick sweep I saw my own mother, peering out the driver's side window at me with a smile on her face. I couldn't help but smile back. I quickly ran to the passenger's side of the silver Impala, flung the door open, and tossed my backpack into the backseat.

"Hey Lucy, how was your day?" she asked.

"Alright, but I'm excited to be out of school," I replied. She asked a few questions about what we did that day as we began to navigate our way out of the parking lot. As we pulled up to the stop sign near the main road, I noticed Mary Fuhrman making her way to the far end of the parking lot where her father stood outside a rusted red GMC Sierra. Even from a distance I could tell he was dirty—he had a filthiness about him that made me think of Pigpen from the Peanuts. His jeans were muddy, his face weather-beaten. He wore a grimy orange trucker hat over unkempt, dark brown hair. As Mary approached him, he gave her a one-armed hug and opened the passenger door for her. She hoisted herself up into the seat which huffed a cloud of dirt as she sat down. We turned right just as he closed her door, his fingernails rimmed in dirt.

We headed east toward Lapeer, windows cracked and Savage Garden playing on the radio, discussing what we needed from Fashion Bug. I smiled again, excited to go shopping. But in the back of my mind I found myself suddenly wondering, for reasons I could not explain, what Mary wanted to be when she grew up.