Freddy Wales sits silently in the classroom waiting for the constant hum of non-essential chatter to diminish. No one talks with her, but still the conversations abound and if she wants to she could inject herself into any of three confabulations surrounding her desk. She chooses to abstain. That is what marks the twelve year old as different, her reluctance, or rather her insistent removal. She will not be drawn into the all-important nonsense around her.
Freddy is one of those students who actually studies, knows the answers to the questions that her teachers inevitably ask. "Who was the Duke of Aberdeen in 1720s?
Anyone?" Freddy’s hand is already up but the teacher won’t call on her yet. It’s clear she knows the right answer and a wrong answer is required. "What is the square root of 174? Quickly now?" And again Freddy has the answer but is only called on as a last resort. She has reached the stage of ‘quiet resentment’ and is not far away from the one called ‘displaced anger.’ She wants to answer the question, needs to be the one to say the right words at the appropriate moment. She is always the final alternative. Always and constantly.
"Remarks, students," Miss Wilson calls out to the room, "remarks on the verse we just read. Stuart Bilson. Remarks please."
Bilson pulls himself up from his desk and a hand on his shirt tugs him back down toward his seat. He jerks forward, trying to extricate himself from the large right hand of Charlie Towers, seated behind him. At just the right moment, Towers lets go and Bilson falls awkwardly over his desk. This gets the expected laugh.
"Bilson, the verse," Miss Wilson snaps at him. "Now, please."
"Yes, Ma’am," he stammers. "The poem is called Ellighee..."
"Elegy, soft g, please," Miss Wilson corrects him.
"...yes, Ma’am, Elegy, and its about somebody dead." He stops dead.
"Is that all?"
"Yes, Ma’am." He stares down at his desktop. Freddy’s hand is up, but Miss Wilson ignores her.
"Tell me, more, Stuart."
"Yes, Ma’am. It was written by Ed Na Street Vincent Millet and he says...
"She says," Miss Wilson hastens to correct him, "and her name is Edna. Saint. Vincent. Millay. Say it that way, Bilson." He does and she compliments him. "Now, go on." Again Freddy’s hand is up and again she is ignored.
"I don’t know what you want me to say, Miss Wilson."
"I want to know how the verse made you feel. Or what it made you think. Anything at all."
"Oh," he says and he stands there making an ‘Im thinking’ face. Freddy’s hand is up again. In exasperation Miss Wilson calls out her name. She stand s and begins immediately to analyze the poem.
"This is a protest poem about death and all that it means to us, the ones who are left behind to mourn."
"Yes. Very good."
"And it also paints a picture of hope when she says, quote, your young flesh that sat so neatly on your little bones will sweetly blossom in the air, unquote."
"What does that say to you, Frederica?" Freddy hates to be called by her whole name, but will accept it if she can answer a question.
"It tells me that the loved one who died will be pushing up the daisies, and the roses, and the peonies," Freddy responded. "The dead beloved is fertilizer for all that is beautiful and cherished." She paused. "Like Jean Harl ow."
The class laughed instantly, and as a group. Red in the face, flushed with embarrassment Freddy sat down again.
"All right. Well done. Stuart Bilson, would you please thank Frederica for assisting you in the answer."
The boy stuck his tongue out at Freddy, put his thumbs in his ears and waggled his fingers as violently as he could manage. Another laugh and a sudden outbreak of chatter once again.
Class is over in another hour and Freddy, books nestled awkwardly in her cradled arms, walks down the hallway where three boys are waiting, obviously, for her. She slows her pace and begins to glance around the space, hoping for a friend, an ally. Seeing one, she digs her heels in and keeps walking their way.
"Teacher’s Pet," one of the boys calls out to her.
"I’m not," she shouts back. "She hates me and you and everyone knows it."
"Cry baby!" A second voice responds. "Little baby boo-hoo!"
She sticks her own tongue out at this infant villain. She would call him a name but she knows better. This is not the time to start a fight. There are too many obstacles in her path.
She pushes past them and the third boy shoves her, his open hand colliding with her shoulder. She isn’t toppled but her schoolbooks hit the floor in an instant creating an obstacle to anyone else trying to hurry past. She squats down in the midst of them and starts to gather them all back, rather like a Maine fisherman, she imagines, works to haul in his net of lobsters.
Freddy is always imagining such things. She has an imagination. That is why, she believes, she has no friends. People don’t talk to her. No one invites her into their circle. Her circle is a dot and she the only mark within it.
After rounding the corner Freddy is in the homestretch back to her locker. She feels safe in this corridor of the school; everyone in this end of the school is a girl and she feels safer around her own kind. At the locker three down the line from hers is Linda Palozzi. Linda is two years older than Freddy, which is not surprising, for Freddy was an honors student skipped ahead one grade. At twelve she should be in the sixth grade, finishing grammar school, but she is here in the junior high school as a seventh grader. She is proud of this accomplishment, but also intimidated by it. It is the reason, she is sure, that Miss Wilson won’t call on her very often. That goes for all of her other teachers as well. But all she has to do, she keeps telling herself, is get through seventh and when she is in eighth, next term, it won’t matter anymore. No one will care about her age, or notice it. She’ll just be an A+ student and that will be enough of an identifier for her.
"Hi, Linda," she says, smiling for the first time all day.
"That’s Miss Palozzi, squirt," comes the marginally hostile response.
"Sorry," Freddy says.
"It’s okay. Just remember in public to call me by my grown-up name. When we’re alone, you can call me Linda. I don’t mind."
"Don’t mention it!" With a twirl and a turn, Linda Palozzi is off and on her way, her skirt flipping naturally as she bustles down the empty passageway toward her bus. Freddy wonders if her skirt every flips and slaps that way, but she knows it doesn’t. It can’t. She doesn’t know how to walk like that. She admires Linda Palozzi a lot. She wants to be like Linda Palozzi, be pretty and popular and not too smart and have people watch her walk away, her skirt flipping and flapping that way, her hair doing the same, but always the opposite way: right when the skirt going left and vice versa. Freddy knows she has a lot to learn and she want to learn it all fast before it’s too late and not one boy will ask her to the seventh grade dance which comes up in three weeks.
Freddy has a lot to learn. Like who she is, what she’s called, what she wants and what’s important.
"Who are you, anyway?" she asks herself out loud.
"Whose dog are you?" says a voice from behind her. Freddy doesn’t want to turn around and see this boy’s face. She absolutely doesn’t.
Very quietly, almost without sound, she says, "I’m no one’s dog." The voice asks the question a second time. She stands very still and doesn’t respond, pretends there is no voice, no person behind her. As though she was back in her class, only the teacher this time, she ignores this other person with all her might.
"I’m Mikhael Staffiev," the voice from behind her says. "I’m everyone’s dog."
Freddy starts to slowly turn his way, but something holds her back. It’s the question, the answer, the voice itself. She sees his shoes, a strange design of three colors of leather. His pants are cuffed and creased perfectly. It all seems so ... foreign.