“It is when your voice is shaking that you need to speak the loudest.”
Sheryl had heard this and remembered it, but at the moment she did not believe it. Her uncle had been an activist who had worked through civil rights movements, protests against poverty and injustice, and continued to be respected and loved by people Sheryl never knew and may never meet, apart from certain school teachers who were curious about the family name: “Is he your…?” “Are you relations of…?”
She looked down at the paper in front of her, her vision swimming and her stomach hot with fear. In the park, some people were playing with their kids (she was surprised by the number of new faces around her; she had not babysat for them yet); there were at least three joggers circumnavigating the area; other people were being walked by their dogs (that was how her mom described it); and then there were the school kids who would be out in around an hour. They were the reason why she was here.
She checked her equipment. It was a simple set up: microphone and speaker, something that could be used for karaoke (she had never done that before, but her uncle had…in Japan! She had to ask him about that one day). At home, she had put it in the basement the day before and checked the sound. It could be loud enough when it was needed. And today was the day when it would be needed. She heard it hum and buzz as she turned it on. The only thing to do now was to speak.
Now this part was something that she expected, but it was quickly followed by what she could not see coming.
Right in the cafeteria, right in front of everybody, and Alison Gatlyn was not even concerned about who saw or heard her take down her favourite victim. Sheryl tried to hide behind her schoolbag, but Adidas was not on her side and she was the only one at her table.
“You, the loner! Sheryl!”
Now the rest of the room was torn away from their reheated and homemade lunches, staring at the corner of the dull green and white room at a girl that they all knew was a loner and therefore a person who could take the heat from the rest of them. A human lightning rod for every bully and thug in the school, she had her role to play.
“You see me, dork! You see us!”
Her group was with her, as always: Rita, Lisa and Maria (Sheryl wondered if they were actually named with such a rhyme scheme), all dressed in the sharpest clothes despite the school’s dress code and their obvious challenge to the authority of teachers (and where were they, anyway?).
“Enough! Didn’t say I wanted to hear your voice. I just want to talk and you are just going to listen and shut it!”
She sat across from her, her team lined up behind her both smiling and grinning.
“Amazing the things people say about a dork at this school.”
Sheryl looked around to see if anyone was on her side. A lot of heads were turned her way, but they were staring and waiting for something that was too ugly for her to enjoy. She had never been in a fight before. There were insults and things overheard at school when she got special notice for test scores and projects, but nothing physical. A lot of people were staring at the crew in front of her. Other dorks were pretending not to notice. She actually understood why.
“They say that you are going to the dance.”
She waited for more.
“They say that you are going with someone…someone special.”
One of the girls behind Alison – was it Lisa or Maria – started to giggle a bit and covered her large mouth. This was going to get ugly.
“And who is it that they said you are going with? Hmm? Any hints?”
When was the bell supposed to ring, thought Sheryl? She stared down at her empty tray.
“Okay, let me fill you in on what you already know and what will never happen: my brother! My football-playing, track-running, athletic brother is supposed to go out with…you. You! Y.O.U.!”
And now, the whole space was watching. Some food dropped onto trays and floors; the staff ladling out mashed potatoes and soup looked up for once; the air felt very heavy and hard with heat.
“NO ONE WANTS YOU!”
And with that, the trio backed up, allowing Ms. Gatlyn to get up and walk down one path among the tables with her clue.
It was a very long time before anyone said a thing. And then the noises of a high school cafeteria returned.
Sheryl looked at the clock and then at her plate.
She did not say a word.
But she did have a plan.
That got their attention. She heard the school bell ring twice as they were coming out of the building on her left. The joggers were the first one to pause and wonder what this girl was doing in the park with her equipment. Parents looked over, took a second to see where their kids were playing and then ignored her until she spoke again.
“My name is Sheryl Daniels.”
There was a little more attention on her now. The students who saw her were either waiting for the buses to take them home or about to pass through the park and see what she was doing.
“Um…my name is Sheryl Daniels. I am thirteen years old and I am a student at…this school.”
She pointed at the building, noting some of the eyes now following her arm.
Her paper was still hard to read.
“I was told in the cafeteria that no one wanted me and that I should not even think about dating the brother of the most popular athlete at our school. I was told that I should not even consider going to the dance because I was unpopular and no one wanted me there.”
That last part was not shared in the cafeteria. Notes had been passed by Alison’s group and she had kept them all (it was easy to quote them with this).
“The problem is that I am going to the dance.”
Some voices were laughing. Was it for her or against her?
“And I am going to it with the most popular guy at our school. Athlete, I mean. The reason why this is happening with someone as unpopular as me is that he wanted to go out with me.”
She noticed it on the edge of her vision and then wondered how many were involved. The silence that followed her statement came with some motion and what appeared to be a group huddled and ready to respond. No one approached her and she did not make a move.
“Jason Gatlyn asked me out the dance and I can prove it.”
Again, all planned.
“Hey, Sheryl. I wanted to thank you for the help you gave me with the project and for not letting my mean sister get to you. And…I was wondering if you wanted to go to the dance next week. Are you free? Please call me.”
The phone message played out very clearly over the speaker (that was how she had tested the equipment at home). That motion on her left seemed to grow and get a little more vocal.
“He asked me out, the unpopular girl who gets straight-A’s, studies and does her homework on Friday nights, reads books that are not assigned at school and who has never had a boyfriend was asked out by…”
She felt a shove at her back and fell forward over her machine. When Sheryl got it, she noticed that Alison was all alone (no crew to support her this time). Some of the other kids who did not need to take the bus were right behind her or forming a circle.
“Your brother asked me out.”
It was easy to predict what Alison was going to do. The phone was in Sheryl’s right pocket and had not fallen out with the attack. Alison tried to go pockets, but she was denied by something that no one really expected.
It was a true thing of beauty.
Jason Gatlyn was the star athlete of the school. And he had also taken up judo in his free time. While getting help with his homework, always away from home at a local gym or at a rec centre, he had shown Sheryl some basic moves. A good trade, they both thought. Her parents were happy that she was helping someone with his grades and he was happy that he finally understood math and science. No one asked Sheryl if she was happy.
No one at all.
Alison stared up at the sky and the people surrounding her. Sheryl wrapped the microphone up and looked down at her.
“No one wants to help you.”
As she walked away from the scene, the crowd parted and stared off at her. School kids were now laughing behind her (yeah, it was for her this time), and the others in the park went on their way. Some of them heard her name and wondered if she was related to another Daniels, but most went home that night with only the pleasant thought that they witnessed something very interesting in the park that day.