Victoria Joyner

Anatomy of a High School Drop-Out

 
I am four years old and attending kindergarten in a Dallas elementary school. It’s in the section of the city that people will go miles out of the way to avoid, but it is what I know. I have a teacher who has no business being around children, and most days I go home with skin turning shades of purple and black. After that, I never much cared for going to school.
***
I have the chicken pox in the first grade and I am the happiest of diseased children.  I feel little inconvenience from the fever or the red lumps on my skin that I scratch absently. I love to learn and I am brought my assignments at home to work through as I like; I stretch out my illness far and beyond its duration, but it can’t last. In the classroom, I am surrounded by an aura of palpable malevolence. The stony-eyed glares of too many of my peers follow me; some are malnourished, some in ill-fitting clothing, and others with the haunted, broken look of the abused. They are a portrait of an impoverished school system, and they are raised to see the white of my skin and believe I have stolen a privileged life from them. They are unable to see my ill-fitting clothing, or the rat’s nest tangles in my hair or my teeth rotting from neglect.
At the end of the year I am a straight-A student with 101 absent days. On my skull, I have a dent from a six foot drop onto concrete; the tallest girl in class pushed me off a railing because I was smart, and because I was white.
***
In the second grade, I have only two friends: the Mexican kids living next door.  Their mother does not speak English and she treats lice by combing each child’s hair and picking out the bugs one-by-one. I am fascinated by the process, so I sit in their home and watch her fingers working with tireless precision for an hour or more. My friends never squirm or complain; she is their mother, and they mind her with a soldier’s attention. I watch and wish I had their smooth black hair. I pay no mind to how often I scratch my head or the dark debris under my fingernails.
I have hair to my waist and I have lice, too. For an entire weekend, my mother goes through my hair with a comb and bottles of No More Tears. The bottle lies; I cry for two days and I imagine the process to be what scalping feels like. I take a thousand showers with medicated shampoo, but my sister has to accompany me because I refuse to use it because it hurts. My scalp burns and aches and I beg my mother to cut my hair, but she loves it too much. My father intervenes at last: “She’s the one in pain, not you. Cut it off.” She cuts my hair to my shoulders, and I am lice-free.
I skip into class the next morning, and my classmates look up and laugh at me.
I refuse to cut my hair again for fifteen years.
***
We have a special guest in my third grade classroom. He is young and wears a suit and my teacher thinks we’ll embarrass her, so she gives us a test. It gives her time to flirt with him in the back of the room while the sound of our pencils scratching on paper fills the air. I finish before anyone else; certain that doing nothing would make me an embarrassment, I take out Black Beauty and begin to read. My teacher storms up the aisle to my desk and slams her hand onto it; I startle and meet her livid gaze, her expression tight with anger.
“You’re embarrassing me.” She hisses and sends me to the principal’s office. I start hyper-ventilating as soon as I walk out of the room, as I’d never before been in trouble with a teacher. When I arrive at the office, the secretary asks me what I did, and after I tell her, she gives me the saddest, strangest look. She tells me I can sit in the office and read for the rest of the day.
I still don’t know what I did wrong.
***
After Christmas, my parents move us thirty miles north of Dallas. I am eight years old and we are in a suburb we can’t afford and a house, I realize — when I am older — bankrupts us to build. An inner city school is all I know, but now I am surrounded by white kids and I forget how to speak Spanish.
***
The first day of the fourth grade, I drop my brand new binder and one of my folders rips. A boy I don’t know sees my distress and gives me one of his. His name is Jonathan, and I’m grateful until I realize that the pretty, rich, popular girls — the girls for whom I would walk on fire if they would be nice to me — don’t like him. They treat Jonathan like a leper, and, soon, so do I. I don’t remember those girls’ names anymore, but I remember Jonathan. He is my first moral failure.
***
In the fifth grade, I’m on the field at recess and a soccer ball hits me in the face. I crumple to the ground in pain, but a moment later, a pair of hands pulls me to my feet. I open my eyes to see Wendell, a pretty blond boy and my secret crush.
“Are you okay? I’m so sorry!” He repeats this and escorts me off the field. I manage to nod my head and smile, and, once I’m safe, he goes back to his game.
We never speak again, but it is the first time I get an apology after I’m hurt.
***
I start junior high in Oklahoma, living with my grandmother because we ran out of money in the wealthy suburb. All the students are in the cafeteria and we are supposed to find locker buddies. I shut down in fear and can’t approach anybody. A part of me still remembers being abused for existing, and I am sure that any attempt on my part to ask someone to consider me will end in disaster. I know I can’t take the shame.
A girl named Chelsea walks up to me and asks to be my buddy, knowing nothing about me, and I say yes. She earns all the gratitude an eleven year-old can muster.
From Chelsea forward, things get better for a while.
***
In the seventh grade, I’m at a tournament for my first-ever extracurricular activity, the Academic Team. It is a haven for trivia geeks like me, and we win the final round. The team will move on to the regional qualifier, and I am brimming with pride in myself and my new friends. I have never felt more worthwhile.
My family is not in the audience to see the gold medal I receive.
***
In the eighth grade, my first date is with a high school sophomore who likes me because I can quote Star Trek and I play video games. His name is Mike, and he’s blond, wears glasses, and almost has a beard. Mike is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and is in ROTC, making him lean and athletic, and I think I love him. I love him because he isn’t fat and stupid, which is the sort of man my father says I will marry if I don’t lose weight and get taller and prettier. He has a car that always smells like the uniforms that he keeps in the back, and we have our first nervous, sweaty-palmed kiss outside the mall because we run out of things to say. The kiss is hard and dry, which surprises me.  I expect the world to change.
At school, everyone wants to know if I’m really dating a sophomore, and no boys my own age ask me out ever, ever, ever again.

***
I’m fourteen, a freshman, and eating a grilled cheese sandwich in my grandma’s kitchen. I live with my parents, my sister and my brother-in-law in a rented house, but my grandmother gets me from school. My parents left town for my mom’s business trip and my sister and her husband work all the time now and can’t pick me up anymore.
On my grandmother’s wall, next to a childhood drawing which showcases both my mastery of phonetic spelling as well as my inability to draw trees in a single document, is a program from my school’s award ceremony from a few weeks earlier. It lists several students recognized for exemplary performance in different tests and projects, and only a few freshmen made the list. Most of the names have only a few awards listed. I have nine.
Those recognitions earn me a letter a day from collegesin other states, asking my consideration in allowing them to be part of my academic future: Baylor, Texas A&M, Duke and others. I never open any of them. Instead, I eat my sandwich and wonder what kind of business trip takes three months, or why my mother has so many calls from people demanding to know where she is.
My grandmother has no answers for me, and I know not to ask. She is a sweet old woman that dyes her hair to its former red, and I tell her she doesn’t look a day over fifty-five. It makes her very happy, and she asks if I want another grilled cheese or some tomato soup. My illnesses at my grandmother’s house are, and always were, treated with a hot bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich with the cheese gooey and the crusts a little crunchy.
She knows I’m in pain, but it’s not a cold I suffer from. I smile for her sake and shake my head.
***
Late in my sophomore year, my AP English teacher, Mrs. Franco, finds me in the halls after school. We talk in her classroom because she wants to know why I failed to turn in my last research paper. My rock-steady ‘A’ from the first semester has whittled to an ‘F’. She’s a young teacher, and this is her first year with her own class. She worries because she likes me; she worries because she believes my failure is her failure. I see it all over her pretty face.
I break down and tell her everything: I don’t know where my parents are because they don’t call, and they don’t call because we had police searching our house for them, but I don’t know why. I tell her we lost our house and I’m living with my sister and her husband, but I’m terrified. Sometimes he comes home strung out and angry and I have to hide the knives. I tell her I can’t think, I can’t concentrate, and I can’t care, and I want to drop out; I’m rarely at school anyway.
She hugs me. “You’ll be okay,” she says, but there are tears in her eyes, too.
I drop out shortly before the end of the year. I get my final transcript and am surprised — I have a passing grade in English that I know was undeserved.
I re-enroll after the summer because of Mrs. Franco.
***
No one bothers checking to see if I’m in school anymore, but I keep going. It’s a September morning when I’m late to my first class, and a TV is rolled into the room. My classmates and I watch the news and reporters speculate about what could make a passenger plane crash into the World Trade Center in New York.
The faculty tells us to continue our day like nothing happened, but it’s hard when they dedicate whole periods to watching the news and discussing our thoughts. Some of my classmates wish they lived somewhere else and can’t wait to move; others say the attack was deserved, and a few think it’s an irrelevant event because they don’t know any of the victims.
I keep swallowing my fury until the end of the day, when an ex-boyfriend of mine — Chaz — sees me in the hallway and stops me.
“They’re so stupid and naive!” I explode in tears and balled fists.  The hallway reeks of perfume from girls who don’t know what is enough, of Gatorade spills in lockers left for the janitors to clean, of fresh backpack canvas and new clothes bought without consideration of price. The tide of self-centered, shallow disrespect washes over me in a wave. “If it’s not right in front of them, they don’t know and they don’t care. They don’t know anything about what life is like. Anything! I hate them!”
“They’re afraid, Tori,” he says in a quiet voice. “We all are.”
“Fear doesn’t cut it. They should be angry.”
I walk out and I never go back.
***
It’s May, the month I should have graduated, and I count the days until I turn eighteen. At a movie, I see an old classmate, Zach Thompson, working the concessions. He recognizes me, and tells me his accomplishments: valedictorian, class president, running the Creative Writing Club since I left, and the full scholarship he has for OU. He talks to me like I‘m his best friend I have an urge to smother his curly head in hot butter, but I’m holding it at bay.
“It’s really a shame,” he says while I wait on my popcorn. “Everyone asks about you. It’s too bad you couldn’t stick it out instead of just dropping out of life like that.”
I take my popcorn and walk away, refusing to be goaded into feeling worthless.
***
A year or so later, I have my GED and a college application in the mail. I am doing laundry at my dilapidated apartment facility when Zach Thompson walks in and recognizes me. Over the noise of whirring laundry, he says someone broke into his car and stole his weed. He’s looking for someone who knows where to score some, but I’m not the right person to ask. He smells like pot and sweat, and I want to put him through one of the machines just to get it out of my nose Instead, I mention his scholarship.
“I dropped out,” he says. “I just couldn’t do it. It was way too hard.”
“That’s a shame.” I don’t want to be petty, but I feel I deserve it and give myself permission.        “Too bad you couldn’t stick it out. Dropping out of school doesn’t mean you have to drop out of life while you’re at it, you know.”
I realize after I say it: No. He doesn’t know, and I’m sorry for him.

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