“It’s like a light show. A really damn weird light show.” Andrew Taker muttered that to himself as he carefully stepped through the hallway on his way to first period, eyes darting across the room. The horde of people made the room particularly hot that day. He partially unzipped his jacket while holding his backpack tightly to his chest with his other hand, subconsciously paranoid about the watching eyes of those around him. It was a shocking sight for Andrew. Coming from a small town in Mississippi, his schools were full mostly of white folk. The occasional kid of color who passed through kept their head low, usually grouping together with the other outcasts. Andrew had never participated in the harassment himself, he secretly disliked the horrid conflict, but it was hard not to get accustomed to the idea that the ‘others’ were different. But here, within the walls of a California school, people of all kinds mixed together in a vibrant flood. Some people wore solid shades of brooding black, others in eye-popping arrays of alien-looking colors. African Americans stood alongside whites, a Mexican and Asian couple held hands as they walked past. As one person sprinted past Andrew, he caught the shine of a rainbow pin on their bag, which would be an effective death sentence in Mississippi. But here, they were able to run through the halls without fear of being beaten, only of being late to class. The thought stuck with him as he pushed open the door to his classroom. First period was United States History, an enormous lecture hall three times the size of a Mississippi classroom. He took a glance at the seating chart before hurrying to his chair as the bell rang. Seat A33, at the edge of the room.
This guy looks racist. Sincere Kim glanced at the tall figure as he sat next to them, frowning. It might’ve partially been the fact he looked like a hybrid of every asshole she had been forced to put up with the last 16 years: tall, blue eyes, blonde hair, a perfect example of the Aryan race. It was definitely that, but more so how beneath his dull brown sports jacket peaked out a shirt of the old Mississippi flag, Confederate stars shining. It was hidden, really a lucky chance she saw it, but she would definitely be talking about it during lunch. As the classroom settled, Sincere occasionally casted glances at the boy, trying to pick up on any subtle actions she could report on. Half of them wanted to ask the teacher to move seats, but the louder half wanted to stick around for now, just to see what happened. “Seat A33, Andrew Taker?” “Here.” Of course he’s an Andrew, Sincere thought. “Seat B33… Sincere Kim?” “Here.”
“Alright! Thank you for being here, class! I’m Dr. Heiner, your US History teacher.” He began to pace around the front of the room, analyzing his new subjects. “I hope you enjoy your seats, because this is your permanent arrangement for the rest of the year!” Sincere let out a groan. This wasn’t unexpected but certainly annoying. “Furthermore, for this first week I’m going to assign you all a little project with the person next to you. A short essay on what you believe are the defining themes of US History!” This was what really got to Sincere. Not only a homework assignment on the first day of junior year, an essay at that, but with him? It was going to be interesting discussing the Civil Rights movement with this clown. The classroom erupted into chatter, and Sincere turned to face the boy to her left as he turned to her. “Hey, I’m Andrew.” “...I’m Sincere” “That’s a cool name!” “...Thanks” Sincere tried her best to give a polite smile as the two began to chat. This is going to be one hell of a story, she thought to herself. What a weird way to start the year.
First through fourth period flew by, and now lunch had come. Andrew wandered the vast courtyard looking for any group he might be able to join. He was of course thankful for the opportunity of moving here, for the job offer his dad had gotten, for the bustling city life, but at the same time, there was natural loneliness in moving to a new city. Andrew had had some conversation with his classmates, but nothing that really stuck. After 16 years everyone had their cliques, but he didn’t anymore. A weird feeling, no longer being another identical face in the crowd yet still unseen. Paranoid about being watched yet disappointed nobody was. As he walked past the far corner of the courtyard, he heard the sound of laughter and gasps to his left. He turned towards the tall tree and the small circle of people gathered underneath its shade. He recognized one of them, Sincere he believed? Either way, it was worth a shot, better than eating alone.
When Sincere pointed at the short haired boy walking past her lunch group, "oh, speak of the devil,” while she anticipated the chuckling and surprise from her friends, she did not anticipate him walking towards them right after. Sincere was fairly notable within the school. President of the school’s GSA, choir soloist, math tutor, straight As. However, they still preferred their small friend group and didn’t talk to others unless they had to, and seeing the guy she had been gossiping about walking towards her definitely violated that preference. He gave a polite smile and a “Hey!”. Sincere waved, hoping he didn’t hear the words she shared with the others. “We sit together in History?” He said standing above them, having to crouch to avoid getting hit by branches. “Yeah, Andrew right?” Sincere responded, internally annoyed. “Mind if I sit with y’all? I’m new so…” Sincere didn’t have an answer to that question. In honesty she expected him to leave at the sight of the group. They weren’t exactly the type of people someone wearing the Confederate flag would hang out with. Hunter was trans, Jamie was Hispanic, and Trish was Trish. She couldn’t think of a response before Trish blurted out, “Sure, take a seat! We got some great grass here!” Sincere shot Trish a quick what the hell? look as Andrew took his seat beside her.
Andrew listened as Sincere introduced the other members of her team. Just like her, the others were unlike anyone Andrew had ever met before. Trish had a dark brown buzz cut, with a nose piercing that accentuated her toothy grin. Jamie looked normal enough, a relaxed teenager in baggy clothes with moppy hair. Hunter didn’t look like a Hunter to Andrew. Squeaky voice, short, not exactly the tough guy the name would suggest. Then of course there was Sincere. Large circular glasses, chopped short black hair, jeans, and an unwavering pissed off expression that had emerged the moment he walked past. Despite the blazing heat he kept his jacket zipped up, sweating out of a combination of heat and nervousness of the others seeing. However, that nervousness slowly subsided as the group continued their lunchtime chats. He even found himself joining in when the moment felt right. It was a weird feeling. In Mississippi the lunch tables were crowded and dumbed down versions of the Round Table, just a bunch of loud and noisy guys all shouting about sports or homework or sometimes politics. Here the atmosphere felt casual, intimate. Just some close friends shooting the breeze as they ate. While Andrew felt like an outsider here, he felt no less an outsider than in the crowded mess halls he had spent most of his lunches in, and truthfully he didn’t miss the noise.
“So what do you think?” Sincere pondered that question as she and Jamie walked to their next class. Hunter and Andrew were both headed to physics and Trish had gone off to somewhere. “I don’t like him. I don’t know,” Sincere finally responded. “He gives bad vibes. And still, the shirt!” Jamie shrugged. “I mean his jacket was zipped so, can’t say for sure…” That remark ticked off Sincere.
“I saw it.”
“Never said you didn’t.”
“Then what are you saying, Jamie?”
“I’m just saying don’t jump to conclusions. Maybe he’s alright. He might just not know better.”
“Not know better than to wear that? No way.”
“Look, you’re probably right, I’m just saying. Either way you’re stuck with him for that project.”
Sincere sighed. “I know. Let’s just talk about something else.”
“Sure. Oh yeah, funny story about Trish today…”
Andrew and Hunter trudged through the hallway in silence. Their lunchtime conversation had at one point shifted to classes, who had what when, what they heard from the year above. Andrew had offered to walk with Hunter after realizing they had physics together. Hunter timidly shrugged and said sure. While the walk across campus was long, the silence made it also feel agonizingly awkward. After a brief panic, he turned to his companion. “So, Hunter right? Cool name. Bit weird but yeah.” Hunter paused, slowing for a moment. “What does that mean?” Andrew flinched. There was a harshness in their voice. “Uh, well. It’s a good name! Just never met a girl named Hunter.” Hunter stopped before letting out a heavy breath, closing their eyes and muttering something Andrew could barely hear. “What?” He asked.
“I said, I’m not a girl.”
“You’re not? What do you mean?”
Suddenly Hunter raised his voice, fiery eyes darting up at Andrew. “Jesus, you need me to spell it out!? Fine, I’m trans! God. Sincere was right.”
“Wait, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I’ve never met a trans person before.”
Hunter scoffed, continuing to pace slowly. “That’s not surprising.”
Andrew walked alongside him in silence once again. His dad had warned him about these people when he announced the move. He had a number of words for them, ‘Damn Queers’ the nicest among them. He said they’d corrupt his brain, or harass and attack him, and demanded Andrew avoid them at all costs. Andrew wasn’t one to doubt his parents, they’d raised him and despite their disagreements he loved them, but in this he was unsure. Throughout lunch Hunter and the others showed only kindness to him, and it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to see that some of his dad’s claims were a bit absurd. Andrew thought carefully for a long moment before he replied. “I’m really sorry. I just don’t know anything but you guys. I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“It’s fine. Really,” Hunter responded, giving a polite smile to Andrew. With a few more steps they arrived at their destination. As they walked through the doors to the physics classroom, Andrew asked a favor. “Would you mind maybe telling me a bit more about how this all works?” Hunter chuckled, “Sure thing.”
The moment the final bell rang, Sincere rushed out the doors. She had a ritual of running to the library every day after school. Mom was a doctor and dad was often in meetings, so it would be an hour or so before someone arrived to take Sincere home. Not that she minded much, Sincere had little quiet at home and with the chaos of school this was one of few times she truly had to herself. Whether she was doing homework or losing herself in a good book, it was a place Sincere could simply be. Especially with the stress of the first day alongside the unexpected drama surrounding a certain someone, she was glad to have her break. It was 5 minutes later the silence was broken. Although the library remained largely empty outside a brief period before school and during lunch, there was still a small trickle of people flowing in and out. However, those people did not usually take a seat in front of her with an irritating grin. “Hi. How’ve you been?” Asked Andrew. “...Fine,” growled Sincere.
“Sorry to bother you. Hunter told me you’d be here.”
Sincere sighed. She’d have a few words for him later. However, it was curious. The idea that Hunter would be capable of having a civil conversation with someone like Hunter seemed laughable. Maybe he threatened him? Sincere dismissed the thought. Despite her instincts, she felt no hostility coming from Andrew, just a strange sense of nervousness. After a moment, she gave her reply. She had an idea. “Alright, fine. It’s good you’re here actually, we can work on our history assignment.” Andrew hesitated for a moment. “Actually, can we talk?”
“We can talk after we get this done.”
“Here’s a good conversation starter. What was the cause of the civil war?”
“You heard the question. Answer.”
Andrew was flustered. There was a distinct venom in her question. He panicked to think of an answer. “Well, I mean. I was always taught it was state rights. Big bad North attacking the poor South, y’know? My dad said the North exaggerated how bad slavery was to try and pin it on the South.” Sincere scoffed. “Of course you would think that you dumbass white boy.” Andrew suddenly stood up, raising his voice. “Excuse me?” A smile trickled onto Sincere’s face. Gotcha. She stood up to match him. “Oh, come on! Seriously, what were you thinking coming to a high school like this? You know that it’s like, just one of the most liberal in the country right? You can stop trying to play nice.”
“I’m not playing nice! I was just trying to make a good first impression!”
“Yeah, well that’s kinda hard when you’re wearing a flag of the Confederacy.”
Andrew stopped. A hundred thoughts raced through his head. How did she see it? Why did this have to happen today? Sincere saw his blank expression as a sign of victory. “Stop embarrassing yourself, Andrew. Just keep your head low until graduation and you’ll be fine. Now, leave. I can finish the assignment myself.” Sincere sat back down, waiting for Andrew to retreat. But he just stood there. “Well?” Andrew took a last shaky breath. “It’s not like that.”
“Look, I get why you made that assumption. I do. But, please hear me out.”
“Why should I?”
“Hey, if you don’t like my answer I’ll leave and you won’t hear from me ever again! Just, please.”
Sincere paused. There it was again, that guilty sense of anxiety. Despite her better judgment, it was there. “Go ahead.”
And with that, Andrew took a breath and began to explain his tale of misfortune. “I’m new to town, like I said before. The moving trucks aren’t here yet so we only have what we brought with us. This is going to sound ridiculous, but this was the only shirt left. Mom took the others to do laundry. It was too late to dig through my suitcase or grab one of dad’s, so I just had to put this on and hope nobody noticed. Apparently, somebody did.”
Sincere blinked. She had always been taught to use her head for everything, not to trust others just because they talk nice. Yet at this moment, she couldn’t detect any of the sort from Andrew, only humility and a slight sense of shame. Beyond his talk was a sense of pure innocence. She put her head in her hands as she thought about the day, how Andrew had acted. Their conversation during history, and again during lunch. The fact he had talked with Hunter, and now this. Sincere felt a spike of guilt. Andrew paused, looking down at her, before continuing. “I haven’t always agreed with my parents, or most people where I’m from really. My old school wasn’t exactly great on diversity as I’m sure you could imagine. For what it’s worth I never actually participated in any discrimination. I just stood and watched. I should’ve tried to stop them, should’ve spoken my mind, but I was too scared of being targeted, I guess. That’s why I sat with you guys. You all looked so comfortable being yourselves. I wanted to be like that too.”
There was a void of silence before Sincere raised their head back up. They just stared at Andrew, with an indecipherable expression. Defeatedly Andrew turned to go. “Wait.” Andrew stopped. “I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge. You’re different. I’m sorry I didn’t realize that sooner.” Andrew turned back around, his sullen expression quickly rising back up into a smile. Sincere held back a laugh. He looks like a puppy, she thought silently. “Come on, let’s finish up this assignment so we can go home.”
Sincere and Andrew spent the next hour together, long after everyone but the librarian had left. They spent the first while discussing history, Sincere catching him up on the things that had been lacking in his Mississippi education. But after a while, the conversation dipped into more casual topics. After 20 or so minutes, Sincere finally let out a laugh. It was strange. They’d had the others here with them before, but it was different with Andrew. More relaxed. Weirdly, more comfortable. Like time almost stood still. She’d tell him a basic fact, and he’d stare wide eyed in a way Sincere found delightful. She nearly missed the text message from her mom saying it was time to go. The pair walked out the library doors and across campus, chatting and laughing all the way. Soon they were already at the parking lot and still had more to say. Andrew smiled. “Talk to you tomorrow?” “Of course,” Sincere responded.
“Aright, well, goodbye Andrew.”
“See you, Sincere.”
And with that Sincere entered her car and drove away. The two waved back at each other as they sped further and further apart. Andrew smiled. Things had gone better than Andrew could have hoped, all things considered. Sincere rested her head as the radio played over the car speakers, smiling as well. She couldn’t agree more.