We met your hair before we learned your name.
The school year was well underway when you entered our tenth grade homeroom, hair first. We had never seen anything like it: an enormous heap of frizzy curls, ink-black and wide, spilling onto your shoulders and obscuring your left eye. We sat there absorbed while Sister Marie Esther talked to you at the door. She pointed to the end of the middle row, and you walked to your desk staring at the floor, your hair shielding whatever emotions you may have been feeling.
You were the opposite of us in every way, and we didn’t know what to make of you. We sported Farrah flips, plucked our eyebrows into fine dotted lines, and shortened our skirts to expose our knees and flout the rules. We were thin, trying to be thin, or hiding the thin we couldn’t be. You were broad, had thick coarse eyebrows, and wore an ankle-length skirt.
We assumed you were from some strange country; no one ever bothered to ask. The only truth we’d ever know was that your name was Maria.
That day you sliced through our parochial community shaking us from our stupor of sameness. Our primary occupation that year was to invent your history. The stories grew more fantastical until we decided that you were from Transylvania, your mother had died, and your father was raising you alone in a tiny shack.
I sat next to you in Latin class. You said little, constantly drawing in your notebook. Yet, your name kept appearing next to mine when the honor roll list was published. One day Sister Dolores wrote a Latin phrase on the board and asked someone to read it aloud. It was one of those phrases that sound ridiculous when read phonetically, like feel my boney belly or something. You barely looked up from your doodling and spewed out the English translation instead of pronouncing it, spoiling Sister’s attempt at humor. Your tone was eerie – blank and throaty – revealing that you were listening and couldn’t give a shit what we all thought about you. I probably told everyone at lunch about your bizarre behavior.
We always traveled in packs, so there must have been at least four of us in the bathroom the day you got your first period. From your stall, you let out a low moan like a wounded animal. “I’m bleeding!” you cried. “What’s happening to me?” We looked at each other and smirked, humored by your ignorance. Someone threw a tampon over the door, and we stampeded out of the bathroom. I felt the sting of sin rising in my cheeks, but I swallowed the impulse to run back and help you. We ran into the art teacher’s classroom – Mrs. Lacey, the cool teacher who always talked to us about sex – and one of us blurted out the story to the entire class. Mrs. Lacey went to help you, so it was out of our hands, except for the endless stories we would tell.
You left our school in April of that year. Three years later I saw you coming out of an apartment building, holding the arm of an older, brightly dressed woman, your wild hair still floating freely. I watched your gentle motions as you as you helped the older woman into a car. You drove away, and I kept on walking.
That was the last time I saw you, but I’ve thought about you many times over the past thirty years. I’m a teacher now, and somehow my classroom has become a haven for the misfits of the school. Each morning and afternoon, my room is filled with a collection of outcasts – depressed, motherless, eccentric, uncertain – each one fighting against, yet desperately longing for, acceptance, understanding, and love. I listen to them and help them navigate the hell that is high school, privately seeking atonement for what I didn’t do for you.