Ever wonder if your parents really listen to you? Try adding, “…my poop congratulated me and then slithered off to meet the lizard man…” and see their reaction. If they turn around and weirdly look at you—brows furrowed, mouths agape, eyes glancing at the other without moving their heads—yep, they were paying attention. My parents just clear their throats and say, “Uh-huh, that’s nice, dear.”
Seriously? Like I actually have poop that talks and slithers? Or that there’s an actual lizard man? Then again, in their defense, I do say a lot of weird stuff around my parents.
But I’ve gone off-topic here. My story has nothing to do with parents but everything to do with how a gentle giant of a student became my BFF, and how throwing down a challenge placed a person’s life in danger. My mouth would never have flapped open with that after-school challenge had I known some crucial information. But, I’m getting way ahead of the story, so let me start at the beginning…
* * * *
The bus rolled to a stop, and all the I-don’t-believe-in-deodorant students with smelly armpits shuffled like a pack of zombies to the exit, minus the “Brains!” famous line and outstretched arms. Although, admittedly, I was expecting a growl from one or two of them by their haggard looks. I hung back as far as possible, holding my breath, and then releasing it once I drew closer to the outside fresh September air.
Let me say that starting at a new school is hard, real hard. Factor in that my parents named me Barley—not Bobby, not Brandon, not Bruce, but Barley—and anyone can understand why I hate going to any new school, listening to the sniggers and snort-laughter following me down the halls after homeroom attendance. Like, what am I? A member of the barley grass family? Perhaps I should count my lucky stars that my family name wasn’t Soup. But still…Barley Jacobson. Geez. Destiny had a funny way of showing her support for me. Anyway…
This would be my fourth nightmare in a brand new setting. I wish Dad would stop with these contract jobs and settle down in one city. Yes, I’ll admit, the perks were awesome, like traveling around the country, but at what cost…to me! Ridicule. Constant ridicule in every city we moved to. Never settling down to actually make friends. Pen pals are great, but not when you want to go to the movies, enjoy a concert with others, or simply hang out. I even floated the idea that maybe homeschooling was the way to go. Then I thought better of it, weighing my two options. Ridicule or being home all day with Mom? Not that I have any social life, but homeschooling would definitely squash any social life from materializing.
Getting off the bus on day one in front of the new school, I bumped (more like hit an invisible wall that was so visible I need to get my eyes checked) right into this massive-sized student. Couldn’t avoid it. The kid, who must have been close to three hundred pounds—but not the wobbly type, well, not all of him—hogged the entire sidewalk. His oversized blue T-shirt looked more like a tent. Well, call me silly, but I turned to the circus freak, who I nicknamed Tent Boy, in my mind, and told him, “Move out of my way.” Almost in slow motion, he started to wobble out of my path. Penguins came to mind. I remembered seeing a documentary on them and how they wobble-walked, the same as Tent Boy. I was rude on so many levels, I know. But that was my initial reaction at the moment. There were far bigger things to worry about than a silent nickname I’d never say out loud. The humiliation to come right after the morning’s attendance call when the teacher would call out my name was on my mind.
As I tried to pass on the left-hand side, he yanked me by the back of my T-shirt. My gut screamed that I may have made the biggest mistake of my life. Wouldn’t be the first time. In my life, so far, asphalt pavements and I have bumped into each other on more than one occasion. We’re like old buddies—what can I say? Sometimes, a sarcastic remark floats out into the atmosphere straight out of my mouth. It’s like breathing—automatic. My brain and my mouth play bad cop/good cop. My brain thinks good, but my mouth verbally diarrheas bad. Like now, asking—no, more like demanding—for him to move out of my way.
Putting on my ‘tough guy’ face (you know, the gnarly grin and the one uplifted eyebrow), I turned and looked him squarely in the eyes. “What’s up?” My head was bobbing like a bobblehead while my legs were ordering me to RUN! I’ve handled guys my size, but never this large. I still held on to that thread of sanity, knowing when to pick my fights and with whom. But today? Chalk it up to first-day jitters.
Anticipating a nasty hit on my body, I squeezed my eyes shut, took a deep, steadying breath, and my stomach clenched. (Thankfully, with all that squeezing, nothing exited my derriere. Yes, I speak some French.) My parents had warned me not to cause any upsets on the first day of school. Here I was, causing the first upset on the first day of school. Apparently, I haven’t learned anything from my past experiences. Maybe my brain had a couple of flat, airless tires that connected to my sensibility nerve endings, because how and why I find myself in these situations is beyond me. Honestly, I don’t go looking for them. They just materialize like Fate, Luck, or whatever, have them in store for me. Maybe because my name’s Barley. I was about to raise my hands in surrender and avoid a bashing, when…
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to block your way,” said this quiet, innocent-sounding voice.
Unsure if my ears heard right, I dared to open one eye slowly and checked where his pudgy paw-like hands were. Although the tone of his voice sounded gracious and angelic in my head (with both eyes shut), I may have mistaken sarcasm for sincerity. To my astonishment, his hand waited for me to shake it in greeting. The other hand held on to his brown leather school bag. It reminded me of what a spy carrying Top Secret documents would use. Maybe this wasn’t a student, but a teacher? A very young teacher?
“My name’s Derek Montana,” he said, clasping my hand in a tight grip and shaking it. His ‘tent’ T-shirt wobbled with every shake, rattle, and roll he did with my hand. “I wasn’t watching where I was going.” He continued apologizing, which made me feel bad. A childish grin spread across his cherub features. Immediately, my nerves and angst disappeared, and I swallowed back a sigh of relief. The pavement at Pierson High would have to wait for another time to introduce itself to me.
“H-hey. I’m Ba…” No way would I tell him my name in front of everyone circled nearby like vultures expecting the first fight of the school year. “Nice to meet you.” My racing heart resumed its normal beat. I’m not normally the queasy and frightened type of guy. I’m usually smarter in the sense I pick fights with guys my size. So, knowing my body would continue its healthy state instead of the misery I had expected, I let out a very inconspicuous phew. Besides, I felt lower than a deflated punching bag for thinking him a circus freak. Or nicknaming him Tent Boy.
Everyone smack-dab in the middle of our exchange dispersed once the warning bell rang. They looked disappointed I didn’t get my teeth knocked out. Vultures. My newfound friend (a student, not a young teacher) and I entered the ugly, red brick building, similar to all my other schools. I wonder if it’s like a secret school code to structure schools as monotone as possible to keep us students nice and quiet…well, bored is more like it. Some flowers or even bushes would have spruced up the blah-ness. Then again, maybe their budget didn’t support a gardener. Or maybe that would require too many bake sales.
Talking about bake sales… I have a love/hate relationship with them. On one hand, you can’t wait to go grab your favorite chocolate cake or muffins, and munch them down all before the school bell rings to begin the next period. You rush up to one of the mom-manned tables, look down and spot a neat package with six chocolate-frosted muffins, salivate, point to it, and then take out your money, only to watch a mom open the package carefully and remove one. One! “You’re only allowed one piece.” because they need to keep some for other students. I’m so wishing this new school had a first come-first serve policy, otherwise, I’m keeping my money. Okay, one is better than none.
Stepping through the main entrance, I immediately felt like puking. My breakfast duo, eggs and sausages, were arguing about which one should exit my mouth first. The walls, lockers, doors, ceilings—everything was clean, but not a single mural anywhere, which made me a bit nervous, since every other school had those artistic imprints. Those schools allowed their students to decorate the walls with their artwork and make us feel at home. So, I wondered if I had just stepped into a mausoleum or boot camp or what because it was glaringly obvious to me the kids here either had no artistic qualities or the school’s administration actually ruled a la boot camp style. Great! The only artistic and musical flair here was the hoofing sneaker beats echoing off the walls and floor as everyone trampled inside.
Could this day get any worse? What a stupid question. In thriller movies (yes, I’m a horror buff), the person who asks something idiotic like that is always the first one to get ousted from the film. Then again, this isn’t fiction, but I couldn’t help thinking about it again…could this day get any worse? And once more, I cursed myself for thinking about it a second time.
Yes. A frigid, creepy-crawly dread surged through me as though I walked into a dank-looking tunnel. The hair on my arms stood on end like little soldiers, stirring my senses that something was off. Then it hit me as I looked around these blank walls. There were no windows, as far as I could tell, in any of the classrooms as we walked by. The only sunlight streamed from the hallway’s puny-sized “let’s-call-them” windows. Wonder if all the floors were similar? I stopped for a second and peeked inside a classroom to make sure. And then into a second classroom. No windows. Yikes. Even the Titanic had more windows. And that was over one hundred years ago, with the insight that windows are crucial to a human’s sense of existence, knowing they’re alive by looking out into day or night light. Okay, I have no clue what I’m rambling about because my eggs and sausages are still arguing, frying my brain cells.
“Yo, Derek.” I slipped by several students, who gave me the evil eye for daring to brush by them, and I ran to catch up to my new pal. “What’s up with the lack of windows?”
“Oh, you’ll get used to it.” Derek’s smile spread across his face as he swiveled his head to look at me, his big, bright green eyes twinkling like this was an inside joke. “We really don’t notice. Students are less distracted, more relaxed, that’s what our teachers say.”
Oh boy. Brain-washed much? “Yeah, but how will we know when we’re nearing an iceberg?”
He looked at me as though I was off my rocker.
“Never mind.” I didn’t feel the need to explain my weird Titanic sense of humor to him. I just met the guy. Didn’t want to scare him away.
The rest of the day went by without a hitch. Derek and I hit it off. Six feet plus Derek, and five ten and a hundred-sixty-five pounds me, shared almost every single class. Luck knew I would need Derek somewhere down the line.
And, boy, was Luck ever right.
Gargantua and the Bullies at Pierson High is now available at: