Are You There God? It’s Me, Pearl

Submitted into Contest #198 in response to: Start your story with somebody getting called to the principal’s office.... view prompt

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Middle School Coming of Age Fiction

I hurried behind Ms. Woodall, unrolling my skirt as I rushed to keep up with her, not wanting to get in trouble for my skirt, or legs, being too short. Could they reprimand me for being too short? At this point I felt as if anything and everything would be on trial, and I didn’t have a chance in hell of getting out of here alive.

Ms. Woodall slapped my book on her hip as she stomped towards the principal’s office, over and over like she was whipping herself,  as if she could knock loose all the words and sentences they deemed irrehensible, let them drop, fit only for burning,  I couldn’t imagine burning a book, my stomach turning at even the thought of burning something an author had poured onto pages for months or even years, discounting the work itself, and in turn discounting the author. A writer, like me. Maybe Judy Blume and I were the same, both writers misunderstood and discarded, thrown out with the trash. Hadn’t Ms. Woodall given me a C on my last paper, saying it was too wordy, more details than anyone would ever want to read? She told me to give up trying to be a writer, simply become a teacher or a nurse like any sensible girl. Stop all that dreaming, she had said. She went on, saying women only wrote trashy romance novels. Had she never heard of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Eudora Welty or Harper Lee? How can this woman be teaching English? I would like to see her credentials, besides that big cheerleader coach certificate that hung on her wall. I secretly believed I wasn’t pretty enough, agile enough for her taste, not pompom shaking material. I didn’t talk much in class but when I was forced to when called on, she seemed to sneer and treat me with total disdain. Screw her. Her opinion shouldn’t matter if her teaching skills were limited to jumps and shouts.

Beyond possessing a banned book in school, I had made notes in the margin, and also tucked two stories of mine inside the book, placed there to rub against the pages of a woman who had been published. The book, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, was banned from most schools, but not from Burks Bookstore down on 6th Street. Mrs. Burks was the only person who encouraged me to write, and I practically lived there after school and on Saturdays. The scribbled stories inside that book were ones I had written about the things Uncle Dick did to me and my sister when Aunt Sues wasn’t around. Unspeakable yes, but acts I had to write it down, maybe share with other 13-year-old girls suffering through the same horrific acts, be a book like one of Judy Bloom’s that talked about real stuff girls were going through, not Cinderella stories that didn’t resemble any folks I knew.

Oh my god! What was I going to say? How could I defend myself? Say nothing. Simply answer yes or no but don’t try to explain because no excuse would convince them I was anything but trash. Throw me out with the banned books! I already knew what they thought of me, holes in my knee socks because my family couldn’t afford more than one pair for the school year, washed out in the bathroom sink each night, and hung across the line with Aunt Sues’s stockings and Uncle Dick’s stinky underwear. Nope. Say nothing. Say no comment like they did on TV.  They might only be interested in where I got the book, and there is no way I would throw Mrs. Burks under the bus. I would tell them I found it, which wasn’t really a lie since had found it, displayed on the table in a special section in the back of the bookstore. Mr. Burks had a nook in a dark corner that housed copies of all banned books, a small area most folks thought was part of the office and n. So I found it, was thumbing through it and my eyes landed on “sanitary napkin”, and I dropped the book there and then. About that time Mrs. Burks walked up, grinning, picked up the book, and said “Shocker, eh Pearl?” I could do little but nod my head, mouth agape and take the book as she offered it to me. “I want you to have this book, Pearl. You can pay me later, work it off next Saturday when you come to dust for me. Judy Blume is an innovator, and I believe you will be too one day. Read her words and learn what it’s like to speak your truth, to knock down walls of oppression. Speak the truth from your heart, know you have a gift from God and use it! Words can change the world.” Mrs. Burks was magical, long flowing skirts, seeming to float on air in one continuous motion.

I wish Mrs. Burks was my teacher instead of Mrs. Woodall. I didn’t trust her with my secrets, my truth. I tried to talk with her once after an extremely sickening weekend with Uncle Dick when Aunt Sues went off to sit with a sick friend. Uncle Dick said she wasn’t sick, just sick of her husband, snickering in that creepy way he had. He really didn’t care, just happy she was leaving him in charge of us girls. We were terrified, Ruby especially, who wet her bed the night before Aunt Sues left. Knowing what was coming was just as bad as the actual act.

Yep, I tried to talk with Mrs. Woodall once, after I attempted to tell Aunt Sues, who had just turned around and walked off like I had not uttered a word or shed a tear. Just left me standing there like I was invisible, and of course that’s pretty much how I felt. So after Uncle Dick stayed drunk and on top of us all weekend, I needed to tell someone, and she was the only adult around. Mrs. Woodall said I shouldn’t make up such nasty things about him, that they had been good to us, taken us in when our parents died, and I should be ashamed for slandering his name. I went directly to my dictionary to look up the word slander. It sounded like something dirty too, and I suppose it is if you are making false accusations. So I was invisible again.

Ms. Woodall banged her way into the administrative office, throwing the door open so wide it hit the back wall, rattling the glass in the door. I could smell all those sweaty teenagers who had come through that door, fear dripping off them, covering the good that might have once been.

She stopped, turned grabbed my arm, pulled me and my fears into the office. She was still banging Judy Blume’s book against her leg which had to be bruised by now. Why couldn’t I be invisible today like those other days I needed to be seen?

“I need to see Principal Foster immediately,” Ms. Woodall demanded, practically shouted at the secretary, a bulldozer of a women, the last person I would be raising my voice to.

“Lower your voice Angela,” commanded the secretary. “We’re not in one of your snake-entertaining services.” It was well known that Ms. Woodall attended one of those Pentecostal churches, where parishioners were known to holler in a language no one understood, all the while letting a snake crawl on their heads. At least that’s how I heard it told, and I couldn’t help but grin when she put her in her place.

“I take offense to that Mertle, and if I didn’t have my hands full with Pearl here, I would take the time to educate you on my beliefs. Can I see him now?”

I don’t know why she bothered asking, for she threw open Mr. Foster’s door, once again pulled me in behind her.

“You see this?” She was waving the book above her head in a way the principal couldn’t possibly see what had her all worked up into a lather.

“Well hello to you too Ms. Woodall. Good morning, Pearl.” Principal Foster’s deep voice with that Southern drawl slowed the pace of the situation without additional words. That helped too – effective pause. I read about that once, and this was a perfect example of its usage. “Please sit down, ladies.”

I plopped down in a hard wooden chair, Ms. Woodall taking the seat closest to Principal Foster’s desk. She leaned over the stack of folders on his desk and the book like a bomb.

Principal Foster picked up the book, turned it right-side up and gazed at the cover with what seemed to be familiarity, taking in the title and the pencil drawing of Margaret on the front. I was praying and had my fingers crossed, hoping he wouldn’t fan through the pages, find my notes in the margin, my own stories falling to the floor in an embarrassing snowfall.

Without glancing up, Mr. Foster set the book back down on his desk, and I thought I heard him saw “Hum” as he opened his left drawer, ryfled through several folders and pulled one from its home He set the folder on top on my book, hiding Margaret and her question to God, and I felt a dark cover fall over me. Why hide? I’m invisible. What’s in the folder? Is it the list of prisons where they send a 13-year-old pubertal girl for owning and reading a banned book? Are you there God? Come on now, this is Pearl.

He opened the folder, flipped through several pages, stopped on one and began to run his finder down the page, perhaps a list? Of Prisons?

“Aha!” Ms. Woodall and I both jumped a little with that exclamation.

“I remembered correctly. This book,” he said as he pulled my book from beneath the folder, “was removed from our banned list two weeks ago, at the last Board Meeting. Says here this one and 3 others have been approved reading for Grades 7 and above.”

He placed one hand on my book and the other on the paper, connected and understood. He looked first at Ms. Woodall and then over at me, and I saw the right side of his mouth rise into a slight grin, and there was a twinkle dance in his eyes. Had he read this book that mentioned menstruation?

“How can that be? I wasn’t notified!” Her face was contorted and twisted as if she had tasted something sour.

“I don’t want to contradict you, but what I’m looking at is the original memo sent out to all the teachers last week.” He handed the sheet to her, she snatched it a bit sharper than even she intended, leaving a tiny bit held by Principal Foster. Scanning the memo, she was shaking her head with each sentence. Her lips pulled inward until there was only a thin line indicating a mouth ever existed on her face.

“I’m sorry to have bothered you then,” standing as she returned the sheet to him, her hand frozen in midair waiting to take the book. She didn't seem sorry in the least.

“It’s no bother at all. I know you teachers have mountains of information you must process, and I appreciate your due diligence in this situation.”

Her hand hung in midair. His hand remained on the book.

“I think we can all agree this world is changing so quickly we must do our best to understand the new openness of subjects our young people are facing, help them navigate along the way. The Beaver has left the building and it’s a new world.” He turned a crimson red and hung his head as if he misspoke. What had he said to make him blush like that? Quickly recovering he said, “What I mean is we need to find a new way of communicating, and I believe Ms. Judy Bloom is a pioneer who might just help steer the ship.”

I was still holding my breath as he held my book, Ms Woodall’s frozen in the air, afraid my stories still might leap from the pages.

Finally he handed me the book, nodded his head, and Ms. Woodall turned to leave as she finally dropped her arm, knowing she was not to come out on top of this situation, was not in control.

I hugged the paperback to my chest and turned to make my way out of the room and the heat of the situation.

“Thank you sir.” I stopped, looked back at Principal Foster. “I am going to be a writer too,” I stated as fact.

A wide smile came across his whole face and I saw those dancing twinkles again. “I look forward to reading your first novel, Ms. Pearl Capture.”

As I left the office, for a moment I wondered if he might be the receiver of my truth someday soon.

May 19, 2023 19:24

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4 comments

Steve Delgado
20:47 May 25, 2023

"Is it the list of prisons where they send a 13-year-old pubertal girl for owning and reading a banned book?" Terrific end sequence. Dialog and characters convincing. Love a story where you are told what you can't possibly do by some self-appointed time soothsayer. Nice work!

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Shannon Johnson
11:33 May 24, 2023

Love love love!

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Lynne Boyd
19:24 May 24, 2023

Thanks for taking the time to read it and post. :-)

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Lynne Boyd
19:25 May 24, 2023

OMG! Just realized who it was!!! Miss you woman!

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