When “they” walked into the lunchroom the chilliness was almost palpable. Sandra, known as Ms. Whitman in her fifth-grade class, was the leader of the group and she always sat at the top of the long rectangular table. Administration purchased all new furniture in the school’s faculty lunchroom over the past summer, it was far cozier than the previous furniture which could only be described as outdated and ratty. It seemed that when the new furniture arrived, Sandra made it known that the top of the table was her seat; from this spot, she could easily view who came into the room, what someone is saying in the kitchen as well as watch television. There was a silent agreement among the teachers, that no other staff member sat in this space when she was in the room.
Sandra’s clique, or the TAB’s which stood for tall and bitchy, a name derived for them by current and not current staff was comprised of third, fourth and fifth grade teachers. Their names were Ms. Milton, Ms. Brady, Ms. Gray, and Ms. Denton, Judy, Patrice, Lynne and Marta. These teachers ruled the school, and made the mean girls look like the Mickey Mouse Club. It was never proven, but the TAB’s somehow showed up to school with pink accessories, a hair clip, a bracelet, a purse, the rest of the staff knew it was Wednesday when the school was peppered in pink.
“Shhh, she’s coming,” Sandra whispered, but made sure those surrounding her could hear. The kindergarten teachers who were just leaving smirked and shook their head. They passed Sally, or Ms. Lane as her 2nd grade class called her, as she was stepping into the room. One of the teachers whispered to Sally, “like dead meat on a hook”. Sally felt a pang of dread, I should have stayed in my classroom, but she was determined to make the best of her lunchtime.
“Hi, happy Friday,” Sally smiled at the TABs, the dread was alive and well as it sat in her gut.
Sandra gave Sally a side eye glance with a slight brow lift. Her ladies knew this was code for, ignore the cheery greeting.
“Anyone have anything fun planned for the weekend?” Sally said completely aware of the iciness she felt coming from the top of the table but choosing the high road. When no one answered, Sally continued, “I’m going to an art fair tomorrow, it’s for families. I thought I might get some inspiration for new ideas in my classroom. Sometimes I feel depleted, like my creativity has an end and I’ve reached it,” she began to laugh, but stopped abruptly when she realized her own gaiety was the only sound in the room. Biting her lips out of sheer anxiety and a loss for anything to say, Sally, almost automatically, poured herself a cup of coffee. She wasn’t even sure she wanted coffee, but her habit was to keep herself busy when she felt nervous. “I’m not usually a coffee drinker, but the aroma is so welcoming, especially on a dismal day as today,” she felt like she was talking to mannequins, still not an utter.
Sally, with her coffee cup in hand, carefully padded over to the other side of the room where an overstuffed, comfy blue velvet chair sat by a window that looked out into the yard where the children usually play. Today was cold and drizzly, for that reason the playground was empty except for a few squirrels scampering in the trees and running along the fence. There were winds running through the yard and tossing the leaves and leftover milk cartons the children left from recess in their _______. Most of them were pressed against the back fence. Maintenance will be busy today, thought Sandra looking out at the yard from the comfy chair she secured. She positioned the pillows to fit her needs, one was under her left elbow supporting her coffee-cup-holding-hand and the other was at her lower back giving her the assistance she needed to sit up straight because the chair was so soft. Looking in the yard on this autumn day was the pleasure she’d been looking for since she’d found out ____________________
“So, Marta, should I pick you up this weekend to go to the market?” Sandra asked her friend who was sitting to her left.
“The market? …Oh, I mean, yeah,” Marta answered, at first looking confused and then realizing that Sandra was talking in code for Sally’s benefit. Sandra let out, what sounded like a forced laugh. Though her lips were sealed, the laughter pushed itself through causing a pffft sound which, like a domino effect, caused the rest of the TABs to burst out laughing.
“Well, you all have a nice day,” Sandra could still hear the laughter as she stepped out of the room and wasn’t even sure if they heard her leave.
Sally felt too uncomfortable, though the chair by the window was comfy, the lunchroom environment did not feel welcoming. I can’t exactly describe it, but it’s like they were making fun of me, she wondered, if that was true, why?
“Ms. Lane, do you have a moment?” Sally turned to see Ms. Blake, the school’s office manager.
“Of course, is there something I can help you with?” Sally asked, but consciously aware of the fact that she’d just ended the question with a preposition. Always the teacher, I’ll have to check to see what the rules are on that, she thought as she added it to her mental list of “to do’s”.
“Is Stephanie Robinson in your class?”
“Yes, she is,” Sally answered and remembering at the same time that Stephanie’s mother was in the hospital. The two ladies stood in the hallway, in total silence, then Sally gave a quick gasp, “no”.
Ms. Blake knew Sally understood, “Her father is coming to pick her up, she’ll be out for awhile,” she said sadly with tear filled eyes. “I didn’t know her, but to think that, that poor girl will grow up with her mother. It’s just not fair,” she placed her hand on Sally’s shoulder and fought the overwhelming urge to hug her. “Obviously, you won’t say anything, Principal Blythe will contact you. Together you’ll come up with a plan to approach this situation for Stephanie and the class,” she took her arm off Sally’s shoulder and turned to return to her office.
Situation? It’s heartbreaking.
Sally wondered if that was the dread she felt inside her gut while she was in the lunchroom? No, it was the TABs, she answered herself. She continued walking down the hall, but couldn’t stop thinking of Stephanie and how her world will never be the same. Thoughts of sadness filled Sally’s mind, she was walking in automatic to her classroom and quickly turned the corner without paying attention to her pace and didn’t notice the approaching TABs. As she turned her direction, Sandra, holding a plastic cup full of soda bumped directly into Sally. The soda was crushed between the teachers and exploded on Sandra’s white sweater. “Wow! Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” Sandra yelled accusingly.
“I’m sor-, wait, no I’m not,” Sandra couldn’t believe her own words, “You are not a nice person, you’re always snide and petty. This might be my fault, but I’m not sorry,” she said and walked down two more classrooms to her own and left Sandra standing in the hallway with her friends whispering and helping Sandra clean up as best they could.
The last bell rang at 3:00 for children to be released for the day. Sandra was anticipating the weekend and thinking about Stephanie and her family. Her father came to pick her up right after lunch, Sally was not able to speak to him. Maybe a note or an email to express my condolences, Sally thought. Then she remembered, Stephanie’s brother is in Sandra’s class.
Sally took the corridor towards the exit which lead to a path to another building. She knew exactly where her class was, #14. She found the class, softly knocked on the door, “come in,” she heard a voice welcome her in.
She entered the room to see Sandra sitting by her desk, looking outside onto the street. “Hi, I was wondering if we could talk?” Sally asked.
“About what? The soda you made me drop all over my blouse?” Sandra said smugly.
“No, and by the way, I’m not sorry for that. I mean about Jeffrey. He lost his mother today. Maybe we, as the children’s teachers, can do something for the family,” Sally said, hoping she would put her mean girl persona aside and be an empathetic and caring person.
“Like what?” the smugness was still as obvious and glaring as a snowball in Los Angeles.
After a heavy and intentional sigh, Sally continued, “A letter from our classes, a bake sale to raise money for the family, I don’t know. Do you have ideas?”
“No. To be honest I hadn’t even thought of Jeffrey,” she said as if he was the last thing on her mind. Then I saw it, a glimmer of a caring human being. She wasn’t the tough girl, her face looked softer, it was prettier than the usual scowl she shows to the world.
“What is it? Does it have to do with Jeffrey?”
“I do feel bad for him and his sister, but his experience opened up memories and fee…” she stopped, as if she remembered who she was talking to.
“Go on,” Sally encouraged her friend, and right now she felt like a friend, not the leaders of the TABs.
“I know I haven’t been nice to you,” Sandra said slowly. “I guess I’m a cliché, the mean girl who’s been hurt and is lashing out at the world. And those teachers that follow me, they’re weak, they just want to be popular. I’m pretty basic, right?” she looked at Sally, gambling on empathy, she said, “Have I been that bad?”
“Yes, you have. But nothing I can’t forgive. If you need someone to listen, I can do that,” Sally offered, knowing that Sandra needed her to be a wall right now.
“I lost my mother. I didn’t even know she was sick,” she looked at Sally, wondering if she would pipe in and offer some advice, but she just waited for more words. “I remember looking for her, under beds, in closets, out in the yard, I couldn’t believe she was gone. For a time, the world had no color for me, it was black and white. I felt like I was spinning through a maze, and I was only five years old,” Sandra returns her gaze to the street below.
So the mean girl is harboring pain, she has feelings.
Sandra is quiet, waiting for Sally, “I guess you could have guessed there was something in my past to make me a TAB?”
“What?” Sally says so surprised that she almost falls off her chair.
“I know our cute nickname, and it’s correct, we are all tall and yes, bitchy.”
“I’m sorry,” Sally couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“The next time you see me walking down the hall or in the lunchroom…well, I don’t know what to say, but this is who I am,” her words were more of a declaration than a statement.
Through the weekend, Sally kept rerunning their conversation, wondering, was there anything else I could have said? The art fair was poetic, it was like the perfect Autumn day. The leaves were moving through the park, underfoot in beautiful colors of browns and red and there was a chill in the air, but the sun was shining bright. Sally was struck by the self portraits and thought that would be an eye-opening activity for her class. Self-portraits always led to questions about shapes and color, it’s how we learn our differences and relish in our similarities.
By Monday, Sally was eager to get back to school. She wanted to inspire the children artfully by sharing her experience over the weekend. The first person she saw as she entered the building was Judy Milton, one of the TABs. “Good morning Judy,” Sally said smiling. No answer was her usual reply, but Sally was used to being ignored. At the same time, Sandra stepped out of the office, “Judy, did you hear Sally? She said, good morning.”
“Oh…sorry, I guess I was lost in thought, good morning,” she looked confused, but tried to cover her it up.
“No problem, have a good day,” Sally said. As she walked away, she could have sworn she saw a hint of a smile on Sandra’s face and being the ever-optimist, she felt a pang of hope.