Things need to get ugly before they can get better. It’s that simple. It’s a fact of life. Think of a good bruise you got from a football game. That bruise is a nice black-and-blue to start. Then it turns into a nasty green-and-yellow mix before finally getting better. Think of a leaky pipe in your ceiling. My old man would tell ya you’ve gotta cut a big, gaping hole up there in order to fix it. It’s gonna be ugly before he can make it any better. And think of babies. A lot of people think babies are adorable, but I happen to disagree. When my little sister, Meggie, came home from the hospital, I took one look at her and said, “Wow, she’s ugly.” She was all round and pudgy like a snowman, with a floppy and misshapen head.
“Niño! Don’t say that!” Mom scolded.
“Well, she is,” I mumbled. Her dented head reminded me of someone who had just taken his football helmet off.
The good news is, after a while things straighten out and we don’t look so bad--usually. That’s not the case for everyone, though. There were definitely a few kids in school that hadn’t happened for yet--and might never--like Trevor and Mark and definitely like Scott Mason. That boy was a mess. He mighta been one of the smartest kids in the whole darn school, but that didn’t keep him from showing up every day with his shoes untied, his backpack half zipped, and scarecrow hair. He woulda looked better behind a face mask. Meggie, on the other hand, wasn’t all that ugly anymore, but I didn’t dare tell her that. Good looks aside, my little sister was still a royal pain in the you-know-what. Dad liked to say she was fortunate to have his good looks, but I think he meant Mom’s.
My old man said lots of things, and I made sure most of them went in one ear and out the other. He didn’t know what he was talking about half the time, but that truth about things needing to get ugly before getting better . . . I got that from him.
Except that bruise and leaky pipe and baby stuff is simple compared to the kind of ugly that went down this year.
I’ve been doing gymnastics since I was five. I’ve got a natural talent and body for it, but to be great, it takes more than that. It takes lots of hard work and commitment. So when I turned seven, Jane had me join the traveling team and I began practicing five days a week and it was fun.
By the time sixth grade rolled around, I was practicing six days a week. My sessions went for three hours--sometimes longer. Every so often I missed a Friday in school, because that’s when Jane and I were putting on the miles to get to the next meet, but it was worth it. Jane was always reminding me that if I managed to win at some big competitions and kept getting all As, then I’d get a college scholarship.
This year Jane had me scheduled for a few smaller warm-up meets in preparation for my big run at the end of the season--first the state championships and then Regionals. The top gymnasts in the state qualify for Regionals. I made it last year but didn’t do much at the meet. This year Jane’s plan had me winning States and making noise at Regionals. I was already picking at my calluses. Jane kept telling me if I placed high at Regionals, then I’d put my name on the map. She said that needed to happen so college coaches would start paying attention to my results.
Of course, I also needed to make sure I kept doing what I was supposed to in school. Jane said school and grades came first, but she didn’t seem to get nearly as worked up over my tests as she did my gymnastics. School was more like the thing I did in between my practices. That’s just the way it was.
I used to love gymnastics.
Kurtsman Law Offices
I know the difference between right and wrong--always have. It amazes me how people can actually goof that up. I mean, it’s not terribly complicated. When in doubt, stop and deliberate with your conscience. I do it all the time.
Natalie, should you do this?
I know that if I have to ask myself this question, chances are I shouldn’t do it, because something is wrong. So you see, it’s really very simple. That’s why I plan to follow in my parents’ footsteps and be a lawyer when I grow up. (This is also why I document everything.) I know the rules and I follow them. I like rules. It’s also true that lawyers are generously compensated for their services, and naturally I want a job where I’ll make money--I won’t deny that--but not because I’m greedy and want to be rich and famous; that would be wrong. Rather, I hope to do something brave and important. What? I don’t know yet. Ambitious, certainly.
Now, two things happen when one’s always doing what one is supposed to in school. Being well-behaved and following the rules makes one perfect in the eyes of adults but repulsive in the eyes of one’s peers. As a result, one develops the reputation of being a know-it-all. And you might assume that since I’m a know-it-all, I must also be the teacher’s pet.
Objection! That’s speculation.
However, in this case, you’d be correct. I am the teacher’s pet--every year. I could let that upset me--kids saying those things about me--but that would be foolish. So what if I don’t have any friends; I don’t need them. My conscience keeps me company, and our conversations are far more important for my lawyer training than the meaningless gossip that would transpire with any immature kid my age. So what if everyone wants to call me a know-it-all? They can tell me how sorry they are when they come knocking, begging me to be their lawyer because they’ve done something wrong. Lucky for them, if that happens, I’ll do what’s right.
But, Natalie, not everything in life is so black-and-white.
Yes, I’ve heard that before. When it comes to right versus wrong, I don’t believe it.
I should’ve listened more to my conscience. Things got blurry this year. It wasn’t so easy to see clearly.
I might be messy, but I like to help, and I always mean well. It says that right on my old report cards.
Scott is a nice boy. He likes to help out, and he always means well.
They also say I need to work on self-control, because sometimes I say and do things without thinking. And I need to work on completing my assignments, especially in writing, because I hate to write. I love math and reading--but I hate to write! I also need to improve my organization. (Mom swears I’d lose my head if it weren’t attached.) But my report cards have said those things ever since kindergarten.
Something else I’m good at is coming up with ideas, but things don’t always turn out the way I hope or plan--even though I try hard. That’s been noted on my report cards, too.
Scott has no shortage of ideas, but things don’t always turn out as he envisions.
Those are the exact words Mrs. Hollerbeck wrote back in first grade after I caught a snake at recess and brought it inside so we could have a class pet. Lightning--that’s what I named him--snuck out of my pocket, and I didn’t know it until he slithered across Mrs. Hollerbeck’s foot. Boy, did she holler then. I scrambled after my snake, but Lightning didn’t want to cooperate. I chased him this way and that way, zigzagging around desks. It took my fastest hustling, but I finally got him cornered and grabbed him.
By then a bunch of kids were standing on their chairs, screaming and yelling. Trevor and Mark, too, only they were hooting with laughter. And Hollerbeck was still hollering.
I didn’t have to go see Principal Allen that time because there was so much noise coming from our classroom that he came and found me. We walked outside and released Lightning back into the wild before going to his office.
None of this changed in sixth grade. It only got worse. Way worse. I really made a mess of things this year.
I couldn’t wait for school to start--and I didn’t like school. But I liked summer even less. I’d had enough of summer.
A Letter Arrives and School Begins
It was our last summer weekend before the start of school, and me and Randi were hanging out in my yard, throwing the football back and forth.
Randi’d been my best friend since we were little. No, we weren’t boyfriend-girlfriend, even though my snot-nosed sister liked to say that. We happened to live near each other, out in the hills, where there weren’t any other kids around, so we’d been playing together our whole lives. We mostly hung out at my place, ’cause I was always busy watching Meggie. Maybe some people found it weird that a boy and girl could be best friends, but we didn’t. Randi’s name wasn’t very girly, and neither was she. She had a short haircut and was often mistaken for a boy ’cause of it, but that didn’t bother her. No kids made fun of her, ’cause she was tough and she was nasty at football. She was even nastier at gymnastics.
Anyway, we were looking forward to sixth grade. It would be our first year at Lake View Middle School, and we’d both been assigned to Mr. Mitchell’s class.
“Do you really think he’ll be as awesome as everybody says?” Randi asked, passing me the pigskin.
“Are you kidding? He rewards his students with extra recess, and he plays football with them, too. He’s gonna be way awesome!”
“Must be it’s our destiny to have an unforgettable year,” Randi said. She was a big believer in destiny.
“Whatever,” I said. I was a believer in luck--all kinds, even though my family had never known the good sort.
I tossed her a spiral and then jogged out to the mailbox to grab the stuff our mailman had just delivered. There was never anything for me, but I always looked through the stack of envelopes. It was a good thing I did, ’cause this time something caught my attention. There was an envelope for Mom and Dad from school. I opened it.
“Read it,” I told Randi, handing her the paper.
That was when me and Randi first learned that Mr. Mitchell wasn’t gonna be our teacher anymore. According to that letter, Mr. Mitchell had had a family emergency and was moving away for personal reasons. In a scramble, the school had pulled Pearl Woods--an old lady!--out of retirement for a one-year stint teaching our class.
This wasn’t destiny. It was rotten luck.
“I can’t believe it--we’ve been Brett Favred!” Gav said after I finished reading the letter.
“What’re you talking about?”
“Brett Favre? He was only one of the all-time greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL.”
“Don’t you know anything?” He looked at me like I had three heads. “Brett Favre retired after an amazing career, but he came back to play again. He sort of retired a second time, only to come back and play some more, before finally retiring for real. We’ve been Brett Favred!” Gav exclaimed again, grabbing the letter from me. “We’ve got some old-lady teacher who they’ve yanked out of retirement to play again.”
Gavin’s one of those boys who love sports. He’s a football nut, so I was used to him talking like this. I felt bad, because he had really been looking forward to playing with Mr. Mitchell this year. Gav did all his football playing during recess and with me in his backyard. He never got to play on a team outside school. He told all the guys that was because his mom was worried about concussions, but really it was because his family wasn’t in a good spot. His parents were always working, because they needed the money, so Gav was forever stuck babysitting Meggie. His mom cleaned houses during the day and bartended at night--she’d been doing that ever since coming to the United States--and his dad was a plumber with as many evening calls as he had daytime ones. That’s actually how his parents met. His father went to a house to fix a leaky toilet, and Carla happened to be there cleaning that bathroom. Imagine falling in love over a toilet! That’s how it happened.
Call me crazy, but I wished my parents had a love story like that. The only thing they were good at was fighting. Really good at it. They’d only had me to try to save their marriage. I guess a lot of people make that mistake. Turns out I just gave them more to fight about--even before I was born. Dad wanted to name me Brandy, but Jane wasn’t having that. She wanted to name me Destiny, claiming I had an important one, but Dad refused. Jane did her best to compromise by settling on Randi for my first name and Destiny for my middle name, but that’s where their compromising ended. They finally called it quits when I was one. The story goes that when Dad split town, he told Jane she could have her Destiny, because we weren’t part of his. I really wish he hadn’t said that to her.
Gavin’s father pulled into the driveway, just getting home from one of his jobs. “What’s wrong?” he asked when he saw the way Gav was sulking.
“Mr. Mitchell isn’t gonna be our teacher anymore,” Gavin complained, handing the letter to his dad. “He had to move away for personal reasons, so now I’ve got some old lady named Pearl Woods.”
“Pearl Woods?” his father repeated. “I didn’t know she was still alive. She’s one tough old bird.”
“You know her?” Gavin said.
“Sure do. She’ll straighten you out,” his father said, taking the mail and laughing.
Come to find out, Mrs. Woods had taught Gavin’s dad back in the day--before he quit school. He knew exactly what we were in for, but Gav and I had no idea. The only thing I knew was that I could kiss the handsome male teacher I’d been dreaming about all summer goodbye. Instead, I was destined to have a wrinkly old woman. Or maybe Gav was right. Maybe this wasn’t destiny, just rotten luck.
Copyright © 2017 by Rob Buyea. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.