Chapter One: The Art of Blending In
Except for the light patter of shoes, the hallway was silent as my fifth-grade class and I headed for the school library. Then came a loud whisper.
“Pssst! Lula Bell! Lula Bell!”
My eyes darted around nervously, because . . . well, I am Lula Bell. Lula Bell Bonner.
As soon as Kali Keele, the girl in line behind me, heard my name in the hallway, she let out a low moo. There were a few giggles, and then came another moo from somewhere else in the line. And then, another, louder moooo.
That’s because kids think “Lula Bell” sounds like a cow. I get it. C’mon, time to milk ole Lula Bell does have a certain ring. But I prefer to think of my name more like a brand of butter. Try Lula Bell Bonner Butter . . . sweet, slow-churned, home-style. Either way, I figure Lula Bell Bonner is a very dairy name.
Then I saw her: Grandma Bernice, dressed in the sweat suit I consider most embarrassing–the cream-colored one with leopard print on the collar and cuffs–standing outside the principal’s office, waving at me like mad.
The other kids spotted her, too. There were a few snickers.
When our eyes met, Grandma’s whole face lit up with happiness, and I thought she might throw her arms open for a big hug. Instead, Grandma clasped her hands together in front of her and squeezed, like she could barely contain her excitement. “You forgot your lunch this morning, so I rushed right over with it,” she said, loud and proud.
I already knew that Grandma had rushed over; her head was covered by a hot-pink scarf that was knotted under her chin. That meant she hadn’t taken the pins out of her pin curls yet. (I did wonder why she’d chosen hot-pink but quickly decided that once a person puts on leopard print, the quesion is no longer why but why not?)
I thought about mouthing thank you at Grandma but was afraid she might feel encouraged and go on and on. I didn’t want to encourage her. So instead, I just barely nodded at her and tried to force a smile, hoping that would put an end to all the noise and flapping.
“I know how important that lunch is to you–I left it in the office,” Grandma added, winking at me as if we shared a secret.
I felt my ears and face heat up–even more. My fake smile melted. I wished the rest of me could melt, too–and disappear. As it was, I lowered my head, hunched my shoulders, and skittered past Grandma Bernice as fast as I could without bumping into the boy in front of me.
(If you are the parent or grandparent of a kid in school, here’s a little tip for you: Don’t show up at school unexpectedly. If you absolutely have to show up, then at least try not to do anything to indicate that you know your kid–for heaven’s sake, don’t speak to him or her. If you absolutely have to say something, make sure it’s not anything private, personal, confidential, or highly classified–like the fact that lunch is important to the kid. Really, it’s best if you don’t talk at all. On second thought, it’s best if you don’t show up.)
Since (thanks to Grandma Bernice) I had a sack lunch that day like the other girls in my class always had, and since (thanks to me) I’d worn my Sassy-Brand shirt like the other girls were wearing, at lunchtime, I made my way to the girls’ usual table in the cafeteria. I sat down quietly next to Emilou Meriweather and hoped to blend in.
When Emilou glanced over at me, I smiled.
Emilou scooted her chair away from mine a few inches and then offered me a weak, apologetic smile.
“Did y’all see the rain boots Celia Thompson’s wearing today?” Kali Keele was saying.
“Oh, I know! So tacky!” Rebecca Lynn Rayburn said.
“It’s not even raining!” Hannah Green said.
“Shhh! Here she comes!” Ashton Harris said.
They all pressed their lips into the same disapproving line and averted their eyes, as if to say, We’re so ashamed of you, we can’t even be seen looking at you, as Celia Thompson walked by.
I turned all the way around in my seat to get a good look at Celia’s rain boots; they were red with orange and yellow flames shooting up from the soles of her feet, and honestly, I thought they were the most stylish rain boots I’d ever seen. Obviously, I was wrong. That just goes to show you that rain gear is always iffy.
That’s why I only wear my rain gear to school once a year. Each year, Grandma Bernice buys me a new raincoat and rain boots–always the same bright, shiny yellow. And then, the first morning it rains, there’s a big argument, which Grandma and Mama always win. As the loser of this argument, I have to leave the house wearing the raincoat and boots. On this day, the minute I get to school, I go straight to the lost and found box, where I shuck my new raincoat and boots, drop them into the box, and march off to class.
(Yes, Grandma and Mama ask about my raincoat and boots every time it rains. And I sweetly apologize for having left these items in my locker at school. Every time it rains. For an entire year. Look, I have enough trouble blending in already. I can’t afford to wear screaming-sunshine yellow from head to toe.)
Well, anyway, when I turned back to face the lunch table, Kali was staring at me like I was a fat, hairy horsefly that had just landed on her perfectly white, perfectly cut triangle of a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich. I tried smiling again, even though my smiles hadn’t exactly produced the desired effects so far this morning. Then, feeling proud to have a sandwich from home just like everybody else–for once!–I made a show of pulling out my sandwich and unwrapping it.
Kali sniffed at the air and made a face. “Is that . . . tuna fish?”
I nodded, looking around at everybody else’s sandwiches; they were all peanut butter and grape jelly cut into triangles, without a sliver of crust attached. Note to self: Crustless peanut butter and grape jelly triangles are the only way to go. Tuna rectangles are definitely not acceptable.
“Gross,” Kali said.
“Sorry,” I said, hurrying to rewrap my sandwich before the smell could attack anybody else. I wrapped it up so tightly that the corners caved in, and my tuna square became more of a squished tuna circle.
“And speaking of gross,” Kali continued in an almost friendly voice, “remember the time you came over to my house, Lula Bell?”
My right foot began bouncing furiously under the table as I looked up and shook my head. I had never been to Kali’s house.
“Yeah,” Kali continued, “and my mom made chicken and dumplins for dinner, and you gagged on the dumplins–literally gagged at the dinner table!–and then you told my mom how the dumplins tasted like big wet boogers. Remember?”
“How rude!” Hannah gasped.
“That’s not true,” I told my tuna circle before I threw it back into my lunch bag.
“You’re such a little liar,” Kali announced, looking at me and then turning to the other girls. “She knows it’s true, every word of it.”
It was true. Only, it was Kali who had come to my house, Kali who’d gagged, and Kali who’d compared dumplins to big wet boogers when my mama had made chicken and dumplins for supper.
I opened my mouth to say so but snapped it shut once I got a good look at all the other girls staring at me. They all believed Kali, even Emilou–I could tell–and somehow, I knew there wasn’t anything I could say to change their minds. It was clear that Kali knew it, too, the way she sat there so confident, so absolutely sure of herself, smiling a mean little smile at me. So, I grabbed my lunch and stood up.
“And that’s not all,” Kali said. “You won’t believe what she . . . ”
I hurried away so I wouldn’t have to hear what came next. If there was nothing I could do about it, I didn’t want to hear it. Honestly, I didn’t want to hear it no matter what.
I plopped down two tables over, next to Alan West and his friends from Miss Cousins’s class, Richard Smith and Bill Leavey. Alan looked way too happy to see me–like Grandma Bernice had looked when she’d spotted me in the hallway this morning.
Ignoring Alan and Richard and Bill, I unpacked my lunch–except for the smushed sandwich. The last item I pulled from my lunch bag was a banana, and apparently, this was a downright magical moment for the three of them.
Alan lifted the banana from his own lunch tray and waved it at me, as if liking bananas would instantly and permanently bind us.
I nodded, hoping Alan would put his banana down. He didn’t.
Richard immediately pulled a banana out of his lunchbox and announced, “I call this pure potassium.”
Alan lifted his banana to his mouth like a microphone and said in his best Alex Trebek from Jeopardy! voice, “Oh, I’m sorry, Richard, that’s incorrect. In addition to potassium, bananas also contain magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, sodium, iron, selenium, manganese, copper, zinc, and three kinds of sugars. Not to mention fiber.”
He’d barely finished when Bill spoke into his banana, “I’ll take fruits for six-hundred, Alex. This fruit can help reduce the symptoms of stress and depression, can help improve eyesight and digestion, and can help to prevent certain cancers, kidney problems, high blood pressure, and anemia. What are bananas?”
“I would be remiss if I didn’t point out,” Alan/Alex responded in his most condescending voice, “that bananas can be classified as fruits, herbs, or berries because–”
“I hate Jeopardy!” I mumbled, rolling my eyes and shoving my entire lunch back into its sack, banana first.
The table fell silent. When I looked up, Alan, Richard, and Bill were all gaping at me as if I’d said I hated America, or worse, Star Wars. They all lived for Star Wars. And Jeopardy! too, I guess.
But the silence didn’t last long. After that, they all argued passionately over the proper scientific classification of bananas.
Meanwhile, I just sat there with my chin propped on my hands until we were finally excused from the cafeteria. I didn’t listen and I didn’t talk, because I don’t care about bananas that much. And I didn’t eat, because no matter how bad it is, I prefer a hot lunch–or no lunch–to a cold lunch. Granted, I would’ve been willing to eat a cold lunch every single day if it meant fitting in with the other girls. But bringing my lunch hadn’t helped me one bit.
As I sat there, I remembered Kali tasting Mama’s dumplins back when we were in the third grade, back when Kali and I were actually friends. To be fair, I have to say that Kali was upset that night. It was, after all, her first time visiting my house, and she’d been on her very best behavior; she’d wanted Mama and Grandma Bernice to like her–especially Grandma Bernice, I could tell. And then the first bite of food she put in her mouth–a dumplin–had caused Kali to gag and cough until tears ran from her eyes. Honestly, I thought she was going to throw up right there at the supper table–I think Kali thought so, too. Once she spit the dumplin out and got control of herself, she continued to cry a little, and that’s when she blurted out the bit about dumplins tasting like big wet boogers. I don’t think she meant to insult anybody but to explain herself–she seemed embarrassed. I wasn’t mad at her at the time. No one was. We all felt sorry that we’d made Kali gag and cry.
After that, Grandma Bernice ran down a list of things she could make for Kali “in a jiffy.” It took a lot of encouraging, but Kali finally admitted that she liked peanut butter. So, Grandma got up and fixed Kali a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich cut into triangles, without crusts. Kali had thanked her over and over again, and I remember thinking, What’s the big deal?
My thoughts drifted from chicken and dumplins and PB&J sandwiches of the past to the day’s tuna fish. What kind of idiot brings tuna? I asked myself. Might as well have brought a can of stinky sardines and shown the other girls how their little heads were ripped clean off their little bodies. Idiot.
I should’ve known better. See, blending in at school is a very delicate art form. For starters, it requires the right lunch, the right clothes, the right friends, and relatives who don’t show up unexpectedly. And I had none of those things.
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