Of all the kids in the seventh grade at Camillo Junior High, there was one kid that Mrs. Baker hated with heat whiter than the sun. Me.
And let me tell you, it wasn’t for anything I’d done.
If it had been Doug Swieteck that Mrs.
Baker hated, it would have made sense. Doug Swieteck once made up a list of 410 ways to get a teacher to hate you. It began with “Spray deodorant in all her desk drawers” and got worse as it went along. A whole lot worse. I think that things became illegal around Number 167.
You don’t want to know what Number 400 was, and you really don’t want to know what Number 410 was. But I’ll tell you this much: They were the kinds of things that sent kids to juvenile detention homes in upstate New York, so far away that you never saw them again. Doug Swieteck tried Number 6 on Mrs.
Sidman last year. It was something about Wrigley gum and the teachers’ water fountain (which was just outside the teachers’ lounge) and the Polynesian Fruit Blend hair coloring that Mrs.
Sidman used. It worked, and streams of juice the color of mangoes stained her face for the rest of the day, and the next day, and the next day—until, I suppose, those skin cells wore off.
Doug Swieteck was suspended for two whole weeks. Just before he left, he said that next year he was going to try Number 166 to see how much time that would get him.
The day before Doug Swieteck came back, our principal reported during Morning Announcements that Mrs. Sidman had accepted “voluntary reassignment to the Main Administrative Office.” We were all supposed to congratulate her on the new post. But it was hard to congratulate her because she almost never peeked out of the Main Administrative Office. Even when she had to be the playground monitor during recess, she mostly kept away from us. If you did get close, she’d whip out a plastic rain hat and pull it on.
It’s hard to congratulate someone who’s holding a plastic rain hat over her Polynesian Fruit Blend–colored hair.
See? That’s the kind of stuff that gets teachers to hate you. But the thing was, I never did any of that stuff. Never. I even stayed as far away from Doug Swieteck as I could, so if he did decide to try Number 166 on anyone, I wouldn’t get blamed for standing nearby.
But it didn’t matter. Mrs. Baker hated me. She hated me a whole lot worse than Mrs. Sidman hated Doug Swieteck. I knew it on Monday, the first day of seventh grade, when she called the class roll—which told you not only who was in the class but also where everyone lived.
If your last name ended in “berg” or “zog” or “stein,” you lived on the north side. If your last name ended in “elli” or “ini” or “o,” you lived on the south side. Lee Avenue cut right between them, and if you walked out of Camillo Junior High and followed Lee Avenue across Main Street, past MacClean’s Drug Store, Goldman’s Best Bakery, and the Five & Ten-Cent Store, through another block and past the Free Public Library, and down one more block, you’d come to my house—which my father had figured out was right smack in the middle of town.
Not on the north side. Not on the south side. Just somewhere in between. “It’s the Perfect House,” he said.
But perfect or not, it was hard living in between. On Saturday morning, everyone north of us was at Temple Beth-El. Late on Saturday afternoon, everyone south of us was at mass at Saint Adelbert’s—which had gone modern and figured that it didn’t need to wake parishioners up early. But on Sunday morning—early—my family was at Saint Andrew Presbyterian Church listening to Pastor McClellan, who was old enough to have known Moses. This meant that out of the whole weekend there was only Sunday afternoon left over for full baseball teams.
This hadn’t been too much of a disaster up until now. But last summer, Ben Cummings moved to Connecticut so his father could work in Groton, and Ian MacAlister moved to Biloxi so his father could be a chaplain at the base there instead of the pastor at Saint Andrew’s—which is why we ended up with Pastor McClellan, who could have called Isaiah a personal friend, too. So being a Presbyterian was now a disaster. Especially on Wednesday afternoons when, at 1:45 sharp, half of my class went to Hebrew School at Temple Beth-El, and, at 1:55, the other half went to Catechism at Saint Adelbert’s.
This left behind just the Presbyterians—of which there had been three, and now there was one.
I think Mrs. Baker suspected this when she came to my name on the class roll.
Her voice got kind of crackly, like there was a secret code in the static underneath it.
“Holling Hoodhood,” she said.
“Here.” I raised my hand.
“Hoodhood.” “Yes.” Mrs. Baker sat on the edge of her desk.
This should have sent me some kind of message, since teacherss areeeen’t supposed to sit on the edge of their desks on the first day of classes. There’s a rule about that.
“Hoodhood,” she said quietly. She thought for a moment. “Does your family attend Temple Beth-El?” she said.
I shook my head.
“Saint Adelbert’s, then?” She asked this kind of hopefully.
I shook my head again.
“So on Wednesday afternoon you attend neither Hebrew School nor Catechism.” I nodded.
“You are here with me.” “I guess,” I said.
Mrs. Baker looked hard at me. I think she rolled her eyes. “Since the mutilation of “to guess” into an intransitive verb is a crime against the language, perhaps you might wish a full sentence to avoid prosecution-—something such as, ‘I guess that Wednesday afternoons will be busy after all.’”
That’s when I knew that she hated me. This look came over her face like the sun had winked out and was not going to shine again until June.
And probably that’s the same look that came over my face, since I felt the way you feel just before you throw up—cold and sweaty at the same time, and your stomach’s doing things that stomachs aren’t supposed to do, and you’re wishing—you’re really wishing—that the ham and cheese and broccoli omelet that your mother made for you for the first day of school had been Cheerios, like you really wanted, because they come up a whole lot easier, and not yellow.
If Mrs. Baker was feeling like she was going to throw up too, she didn’t show it. She looked down at the class roll.
“Mai Thi Huong,” she called. She looked up to find Mai Thi’s raised hand, and nodded. But before she looked down, Mrs.
Baker looked at me again, and this time her eyes really did roll. Then she looked down again at the roll. “Daniel Hupfer,” she called, and she looked up to find Danny’s raised hand, and then she turned to look at me again. “Meryl Lee Kowalski,” she called. She found Meryl Lee’s hand, and looked at me again. She did this every time she looked up to find somebody’s hand. She was watching me because she hated my guts.
I walked back to the Perfect House slowly that afternoon. I could always tell when I got there without looking up, because the sidewalk changed.
Suddenly, all the cement squares were perfectly white, and none of them had a single crack. Not one. This was also true of the cement squares of the walkway leading up to the Perfect House, which were bordered by perfectly matching azalea bushes, all the same height, alternating between pink and white blossoms. The cement squares and azaleas stopped at the perfect st...