by Bobbie Crocker
It is summertime. Late enough that the sun has long since killed off all of the pollen and grass seed that leave my eyes red and my nose perpetually runny.
It’s quiet in the house. My sisters have all run outside to play in the sun. I am sitting in the living room playing with my Barbie dolls. It was my older sister’s birthday last week, and she got a new Barbie. I am playing with it while she’s outside. She’ll yell at me if she catches me, but mine are all missing their shoes, and their hair is a tangled mess.
The babysitter comes in. I look up as I shove the borrowed Barbie behind my back. I relax; I’m pretty sure she won’t tell on me.
“Put away your toys now,” she says.
I try to tell her that Ken is taking Barbie and Kelly to the beach, so I can’t do it now.
“Put your toys away,” she says again.
The way she’s talking is scaring me a little. She sounds angry.
“Then clean up your breakfast mess, go make your bed, and go outside.”
My heart feels like a hummingbird in my chest. There’s too much to do. I can’t do it all at once! She hates me! She’s gonna tell Mommy on me and I’m gonna be in trouble.
Daddy would say that I’m spazzing out right now; that I need to take deep breaths. I try, but I can’t seem to remember how right now.
I’m on the ground. I don’t know how I got here. Someone is screaming. Oh, it’s me. I’ve ruined everything. I know it.
* * *
I’m five years old, and today is my first day of kindergarten. Mommy bought me a bright red dress and shiny white shoes that haven’t been worn by anybody but me!
“How long will I be there, Mommy?” I ask.
I’m not scared. I’m not.
On the first day of class, we learn to write our names. I’m gonna go by “Barbara.” I’m named for both of my grandmas and I’m tired of “Bobbie” all the time.
I hear a memory of my parents yelling at my older sister for her chicken-scratch handwriting. I’m hiding in my room, peeking through the door. I don’t want them to yell at me too; it’s better to hide here till they are done. If they yell at me, I’m just gonna cry like always. Why am I such a cry baby?
I’m gonna make my handwriting the best, then Mommy and Daddy won’t yell at me or my sister!
My tongue is poking out of the side of my mouth as I copy everything Mrs. Penné does. I’m taking longer than everybody else but looking at the scribbles the boy next to me is making, I know it’s gonna be worth it! My letters fit perfectly in the dotted lines! Mine has to be the best in the class. Mommy is going to brag to Auntie about my writing and how I’m much better than my cousin Sean. She will tell them how I am her perfect daughter and how happy I make her.
Mrs. Penné is coming to my table to see how I’m doing. I hand her the paper with pride, waiting for the praise that she’s going to give me. She clicks her tongue and hands me a new paper.
“Do it again,” she says, “It’s wrong. Everything is backwards.”
I hear the words “It’s wrong” repeated over and over in my head.
Tears run down my face as I try, again and again, to get it right. I still don’t do it by the time Mommy picks me up at the end of the school day.
I am humiliated. I let everyone down.
* * *
I am the only third grader in fifth grade math. Math is my favorite subject. I’m good at it. There’s always one right answer and, if you know what you’re doing, it’s easy to find. Math makes sense, and the rules don’t change.
Every morning at 10:00 a.m. a big kid comes to the Little Room and escorts me to Math class. When I go to recess I get to tell my friends all about the Big Room!
We’re learning something new today: long division.
I’ve done plenty of division. Last year I passed my division test. I was the fastest. I finished twenty-five problems in less than two minutes! It was pretty easy after multiplication.
But this long division looks different. The numbers are really big. Where’s the division sign? There’s just a weird box thing. Ms. Dowd is talking about remainders and saying, “Make sure you carry the five over to the next number.”
Everyone else knows what they’re doing. Maybe they learned this in fourth grade math.
I don’t wanna look dumb, so I’m not gonna say anything.
* * *
Tears run down my face as I sit in the guidance counselor’s office. He’s telling me that I’m currently failing Calculus and Physics. I’m not going to graduate. I’m the only kid in this whole damn school who can’t make it out of here!
“It’s possibly depression,” he says, “Have you been tested for ADD?”
Yes, I do have trouble focusing in class. And no, I don’t think I’ve done homework at home since the sixth grade.
Nothing is going to come from this line of questioning. Nothing ever does.
No, I don’t have any help at home. Mom is in Alabama for work.
She’s been gone for three weeks. The cupboards are bare at home. Have you noticed that my younger sisters and I eat way too much cafeteria food at lunch? That we owe over 300 dollars for it? Of course you haven’t.
No, my dad’s living in California. No, my younger sisters hate each other so all they do is fight.
“I need to go home. I’ll make sure to have someone get my sisters. I can’t go back to class like this.”
My Calculus teacher stops me in the hallway. I try to hide that I have been crying. I don’t want him added to the long list of teachers who’ve had to comfort me while I cry. I’ve at least upgraded from “cry baby” to just “emotional;” an attribute inherited from my Italian and Irish ancestors, according to my grandma.
He takes me to his office and tells me that we can fix my grades. He can help me.
I hold on to that like a lifeline.
* * *
The Nursing program is hard. They tell us they don’t want to weed us out, but I can’t help but think they’re lying when they say that. It’s the week before finals of my junior year. I’ve been on the phone with my mom every day for the past two weeks; I’ve told her not to be surprised if I don’t pass at least one of my classes. She’s flown out here to help me study. A three-thousand-mile trip, just to help me pass my classes.
I have the best mom ever.
I go into my final feeling very confident. I’m sure I could recite the book to my professor by that point.
The test is online, and it’s a little intimidating. I’m the second to finish; I’ve always been a fast test taker.
“Your score is being calculated,” the screen says.
My heart flutters nervously and then breaks into a million pieces as my final grade is displayed on the screen.
“You have received a 68%.”
I try to keep it together long enough to make it back to my dorm. I know the grade I needed to pass, and that was not it. As I climb into my bed, wishing I could die, I start crying.
“Bobbie? Are you okay?” the voice of my roommate is muffled by my door.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
I hear her walk away. I shouldn’t have snapped at her. She was only trying to help.
I curl up into a ball. Maybe if I make myself small enough I’ll just disappear. Then I won’t have to deal with any of this.
Mom’s called three times now; she wants to know how I did. She was so sure that I was going to pass, that I was going to make her proud. I don’t have courage enough to tell her that all the time spent studying with her was wasted.
She’s wasted so much on me, and I’ve failed her.
* * *
God, what is wrong with me? What happened that made me so different from the rest of my family?
I still strive for that perfection that I sought out as a kid. I still want to make my family proud. Why didn’t I get my share of the work ethic that my family is famous for?
From the outside, it looks like I am right up there with the rest of them, but I’m just compensating. Everyone thinks I’m perfect and, since I am far from it, I’ve gotten pretty good at pretending. I’ve always managed to squeak by on mediocre work and good luck, but that doesn’t work in the real world. Hell, I’m not even in the real world yet, and it’s already not working.
I get motivated at the most inconvenient times, usually at bedtime or when there’s no way I can do my work. I tell myself that I’m going to keep up my enthusiasm the next time I face those problems, but it never happens.
I do alright for a few weeks, a month or two if I’m lucky, and then something happens that makes me fall behind again. Every year it’s the same thing and I’m sick of it! Something needs to happen. Something needs to change.
Maybe it’s me.