A Mango-Shaped Space Read online

  “The same old school, the same old faces,” Jenna says with a sigh.

  We watch two cheerleaders run up to each other and embrace with a squeal.

  Jenna shakes her head. “I really don’t think they need to wear their cheerleading outfits on the first day of school. I mean, it’s not like they have a game yet.”

  “School spirit and all that,” I tell her as we make our way through the crowd and into the school. “I forgot about your cheerleader phobia.”

  “I don’t have cheerleader phobia,” she insists. “I just think the whole concept is sexist and stupid.”

  At that moment, two boys from our grade run by, hitching up their jeans as they pass us. “Did you see that new cheerleader?” one of them says to the other. “She is h-o-t. Hot!”

  Jenna opens her mouth to respond, but the boys are already down the hall. What could she say anyway?

  “I hate school,” Jenna grumbles as we arrive at her locker.

  “No, you don’t.”

  “Well, I at least hate the first day of school. Everyone’s trying to impress everyone else.”

  “Is that why you’re wearing a dress?”

  “Is it that bad?” she asks, smoothing her skirt.

  “No, it’s nice,” I tell her. “I just haven’t seen it before.”

  “My father bought it for me,” Jenna says, tossing her bag lunch into her locker. “You know, as a first-day-of-school thing. I brought shorts and a T-shirt to change into.”

  “No, you should keep it on,” I tell her as the warning bell rings. “And don’t go into lunch without me.”

  “Do I ever?” she calls out, hurrying down the hall to her homeroom.

  My first class after homeroom is American history. History is one of my favorite subjects because I’m good at it. Once I learn the date of a certain event, I can easily remember it by its colors. I remember names the same way.

  I’d heard rumors about the serious strangeness of Mrs. Morris, the American history teacher, and I can now say that those rumors are fact. She has a bizarre fear of germs, and as soon as she walks in, she lays down the law.

  First she stands by the blackboard and peers at us over her bifocals. Then she says, “Everyone in the front row of desks pick up your books and move to the back. You are to leave the front row empty.” The kids in the front row follow her orders, one boy grumbling under his breath that he didn’t have cooties the last time he checked.

  Mrs. Morris then moves over to her desk and points to two wire baskets. “You are to make two separate piles of homework each day. If you have a cold, you are to place your homework in the pile marked ‘ill.’ You are to wash your hands before class. With soap. This may sound extreme, but cleanliness is next to godliness.” The worst thing about her speech is that her voice is so high-pitched and squeaky that rust-colored spirals rain down behind her.

  My next class is English. I like my English teacher, Mr. Siedler, right away. This is his first year teaching, and he seems pretty nervous. Michelle, the girl who sits behind me and whose father owns the biggest hardware store in town, cracks her gum in my ear. While the teacher is digging through his drawers to find the attendance list, she taps my shoulder and shows me a book on her desk. All I can make out are the words English Class written on the brown-bag book cover.

  “Did we have a summer reading assignment?” I ask, worried.

  She shakes her head and grins slyly. “It’s not a schoolbook,” she whispers. “It’s a dirty book. I put the cover on to fool people.”

  Relieved, I say, “How nice for you,” and turn back around in my seat. Note to self: Don’t ask Michelle to be a study partner. The teacher has us all file up to his desk to pick up the first book on our reading list — Lord of the Flies. Why he’d want us to read a book about flies is beyond me.

  At lunch a group of boys dare each other to eat the most disgusting combination of cafeteria food. After that, one of them swallows a dime and has to be taken to the school nurse. Jenna and I sit with the same group of girls we’ve been eating with since fourth grade. Kimberly and Molly, who are best friends but very competitive with each other, and Sara, who is quiet and very serious. As usual, Sara already has her nose buried in a book when we sit down. Kimberly is talking about how she got moved into the honors math class and how next year in high school she’s going to be ahead of all the other ninth-graders. I glance at Molly to see if she’s going to counter that with anything and am surprised to notice that she was busy over the summer growing breasts. Her tight tank top tells me she has no plans to hide them either. I see Jenna staring too. Molly stands up to find a straw, and I swear at least one boy from each table looks up as she passes. Kimberly sticks out her pointy chin and doesn’t look happy. Sara has an amused little smile on her face.

  I watch Molly stroll through the maze of tables, but I’m viewing her through a jumble of colors that come together like lumpy oatmeal. The voices and laughter of a hundred kids and various CD players echo off the linoleum walls and fill the air with a collage of colors. It makes it hard to relax and talk to my friends, but the only other option is to sit outside alone and I don’t want to do that either.

  After lunch I walk with Sara to our pre-algebra class. I have to hurry to keep up with her. “Hey, Sara, wouldn’t it be fun if for every two steps we took, we took one backward?”

  She doesn’t slow her pace even a tiny bit. “Why would we do that?” she asks. “Then we’d be late. Honestly, Mia. You only have one chance to make a first impression.”

  Who says things like that? I slow down, but she keeps up her breakneck speed. I make it to class right before the bell rings, and the teacher is already writing an equation on the board. I’m sunk already. I just can’t grasp how to solve it. Normally an x is a shiny maroon color, like a ripe cherry. But here an x has to stand for an unknown number. But I can’t make myself assign the x any other color than maroon, and there are no maroon-colored numbers. Without the color, I don’t know how to proceed. I’m lost in shades of gray and want to scream in frustration. I pretend to work on the problem in my notebook. All I write is x = HELP while all over the room hands shoot up to give the answer.

  That all-too-familiar combination of confusion and anger is starting to bubble up inside me again. Gurgle, bubble, sputter.

  Spanish class isn’t any better. I try to match the colors of the English words to the new Spanish words. Hello and hola works fine. Mother and madre is a bit of a stretch, but it is close enough that I can remember it. Boy and chico doesn’t work at all. Neither does girl and chica, good and bueno. Adiós and good-bye to the honor roll. At least I know that one.

  The only good part of the day is my last class. As soon as I walk into the art room and pick a stool at one of the worktables, I feel like I’m home. All of the art students had to be approved by the teacher before they could get into the class, just like last year and the year before. The same kids always make it. While I’m looking around the room, a young woman walks in carrying a huge pile of books in her arms. She tells us to call her Karen. Just Karen. A smooth plum-colored name with little yellow specks. It takes me a minute to figure out she’s the teacher. The girl next to me raises her hand, and Karen looks up from passing out the books.

  “Um, what happened to Mrs. Simpson?” she asks tentatively.

  I am wondering the same thing. Mrs. Simpson had been the art teacher for something like thirty years.

  Karen looks around and then says with a sigh, “Mrs. Simpson went on to a better place.”

  “She died?” the girl exclaims in horror.

  The class emits a collective gasp. I grab onto the edge of the table.

  Karen shakes her head. “No, no. She went to the high school. She teaches there now. My teaching methods are a little different from hers, but I have a feeling you’ll enjoy yourselves.”

  Now everyone lets out a sigh of relief. I think Mrs. Simpson will be happier at the high school. She was always muttering about middle-school hormones runni