Skeezie Tookis is not the only one who gets names slapped on him just on account of how he looks. Names come Addie's way, too, only in her case it is because of her being so tall, in addition to the factor of her intelligence, both of which fall on the plus side of the ledger if you happen to be a boy and are major liabilities if you were born into the world a girl. At least, that is my impression of how it goes in the dreaded middle-school years. I will not speak for high school, having neither firsthand experience nor an older sibling to shed wisdom on the subject.
As for Joe, well, he's been called more names than the world's most stinking umpire. He even gives himself names, although they are not bad ones and would appear to arise out of a creative urge that runs deep in him. Joe is the most creative person I know -- too creative for some people, and maybe that is part of the problem. The other part of the problem is that he acts more like a girl than a boy much of the time, and this makes people nervous. Especially other boys. Joe figures he is who he is and what's the big deal, and I figure he is right about that.
Me, I've been called, amongst other things, Pork Chop, Roly-Poly, Dough Boy, and Fluff. I hated that last one most of all. It was the name of choice back in third grade when I ate peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff sandwiches every day for lunch. Everybody called me Fluff that year. Or almost everybody. Not my best friends. And not the teachers. They called me Bobby or Robert, and they were all very nice to me that year, as if I had special needs. Which I guess I would have to say I did. But the way I figure it is, Who doesn't have special needs?
Anyway, most of the kids called me Fluff, and I kept thinking, This is so stupid, because there's a lot more to me than half of what I put in a sandwich. Though I expect the name had more to do with the obvious results of eating nonstop Marshmallow Fluff than the fact of doing it. But still, I wonder if maybe everybody gets names hung on them for only a little part of who they are.
Kids who get called the worst names oftentimes find each other. That's how it was with us. Skeezie Tookis and Addie Carle and Joe Bunch and me. We call ourselves the Gang of Five, but there are only four of us. We do it to keep people on their toes. Make 'em wonder. Or maybe we do it because we figure that there's one more kid out there who's going to need a gang to be a part of. A misfit, like us.
Sometimes I am sitting with Addie and Joe and Skeezie at lunch -- at our table way off to the side and down at the end of the cafeteria, out of harm's way -- and I get to thinking in a philosophical manner and what I'm thinking is this: Maybe it's the whole rest of the seventh grade at Paintbrush Falls Middle School who's misfits. Maybe when they grow up and go out into the big, wide world, they will see that Paintbrush Falls was the only place they could ever feel at home, because the rest of the world is made up of people more like me and the rest of the Gang of Five and Daryl Williams, who stutters and you can see in his eyes how much it hurts just to try and say hello, or that girl who moved here last year and you can hardly tell she's breathing she's so afraid of being noticed, but then she keeps drawing these amazing pictures that Mr. Minelli says are "touched by genius." In other words: people who are misfits because they're just who they are instead of "fits," who are like everybody else.
Anyway, I do not want you thinking that I or Addie or Joe or Skeezie feel sorry for ourselves. We do not. Other people may call us names or think we're weird or whatever, but that does not mean we believe them. We may be misfits, but we're okay. Leastwise, in our own eyes we are, and that's all that really matters.
Addie is the one who got us all together. Of course, Addie and I were actually "together" since before either of us can remember because our moms were best friends when we were born, so we became best friends, too. Then Joe moved in next door to Addie when we were four. As for Skeezie, well, I didn't think he'd have any friends, the way he was. In kindergarten, he got labeled a troublemaker right off the bat and everybody just kind of knew to steer clear of him; at least, you did if you didn't want a chunk of your hair cut off when you weren't looking or a gob of paste shoved down your underpants.
It was Addie who decided in the second grade that what Skeezie needed was a friend. She sent him a secret Valentine. It said, "I think you are nice even if you act like a moron." Skeezie did not know what "moron" meant. He thought it was a compliment. So he announced in front of the whole class, "If whoever wrote this Valentine tells me who they are, I will give them a dollar."
Before Miss Haskell could shush the class and tell Skeezie he would do no such thing, Addie had her hand in the air and said, "I wrote it." Of course, so did every other kid in the class because we all wanted the dollar. But Addie proved she was telling the truth by providing a sample of her handwriting and Miss Haskell believed her and Skeezie believed her and -- here's the part nobody could believe -- he did not cut off any of her hair or paste any of her clothing to any of her body parts. He gave her the dollar, and they became friends.
From that day on, Skeezie stopped making trouble. Just like that. Cold turkey. And even though he still acts a little tough and dresses like a fugitive from West Side Story, he is at heart the kind of person your mother wants you to be friends with. And all on account of Addie.
Addie has always been like that. If she believes something, she does not keep it inside her head like private property with a NO TRESPASSING sign up; she puts it out there in the world and says, "Deal with it." She is not afraid of anything. Not even the names people call her.
On Monday of the second week of school, she strikes again, this time in Ms. Wyman's homeroom. Ms. Wyman is the seventh-grade math teacher. She is also a believer in the religion of Self-Esteem. Her room is plastered with these signs that say things like, TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE and IF YOU DON'T BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, WHO WILL? She keeps fresh flowers on her desk and she likes to start each day with these deep yoga breaths so we'll all be "centered" and "at our best." She's so sweet sometimes you swear you can smell muffins baking. But here is the bad news about Ms. Wyman: If you cross her, watch out. That smiley face of hers'll fall off like a mask that's popped its elastic, and underneath is a dragon lady. And that Ms. Wyman, I swear, wouldn't blink at removing your liver with her bare hands and eating it with a spoon.
So it is particularly nervy of Addie to do what she does, it being in Ms. Wyman's homeroom and only the second week of school and all.
"We will now stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance."
Some sixth-grade voice I do not recognize is giving the morning announcements over the P.A. Ms. Wyman looks mildly annoyed to have her morning yoga breaths interrupted, but she smiles indulgently at the box on the wall and says, "Boys and girls, please rise."
"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of..."
It is then I notice that not all of us has risen.
One of us is sitting with her hands folded on her desk and a new look for a new day resting comfortably on her face.
"Addie Carle," Ms. Wyman says after the rest of us finish and sit down.
"Yes, Ms. Wyman?"
"Would you care to tell the class why you did not rise and say the Pledge of Allegiance with us this morning?"
"Yes, Ms. Wyman." Addie takes a deep breath. "I looked the word 'pledge' up in the dictionary and it said -- "
"Furniture polish," Kevin Hennessey mutters. A bunch of boys around him laugh, Jimmy Lemon loudest of all.
Ms. Wyman furrows her brow. "Continue, Addie," she says.
"It said, well, it actually said lots of things because the word 'pledge' has multiple meanings, as many words do, but as best I could make out, the meaning that applied to the Pledge of Allegiance was this."
She lifts a piece of paper from her desk and reads, "'Pledge: A promise or agreement by which one binds himself to do or forbear something.'"
She clears her throat.
"Now, besides the fact that the dictionary is hopelessly sexist and it should have said 'himself or herself...'"
Somebody says, "Here goes Know-It-All."
Addie presses on. "Well, admittedly, what is pledged is allegiance -- or loyalty -- to one's country. But isn't there the implication of a promise of liberty and justice for all? And do we have liberty and justice for all in this country? I think not."
She casts her eye on DuShawn Carter, who conveniently is seated to her right and even more conveniently is African-American.
"Addie," Ms. Wyman says. "I think perhaps -- "
"Did you happen to read this morning's New York Times?" Addie continues. I make a mental note to tell Addie later about my liver-eating theory in regards to Ms. Wyman and to suggest that it might be best not to interrupt her.
"Well, my parents subscribe to The New York Times," Addie says, to the accompaniment of groans, "and it's a good thing they do. Otherwise, I wouldn't know half of what's going on in the world. Have you seen what is happening in the unfair metropolis of New York? You cannot be a black man and walk down the streets of that city without the word 'guilty' stamped on your forehead. The police arrest you -- or worse -- just because of the color of your skin. I do not call that liberty and -- "
"Miss Carle -- "
"Ms. Wyman, I will not utter empty words, falsehoods, and lies." Addie walks to the front of the room and dramatically presents Ms. Wyman with a piece of paper on which she's neatly penned her dictionary definition of the word "pledge," along with a torn-out page of the newspaper.
Returning to her seat, she says, "I rest my case."
Sitting, she lets out a gigantic fart and turns bright red. Pretty much everybody cracks up. I am sticking the sharp point of my compass into my thumb to keep from laughing because, after all, Addie is one of my best friends.
"Kevin Hennessey!" Ms. Wyman exclaims. I'm sure she figures it is Kevin who put the whoopee cushion on Addie's chair, because statistically speaking -- and statistics are Ms. Wyman's raison d'être (which is French for "reason to be," in case not knowing what something means in another language gets in the way of your following the action) -- you'd have a pretty good bet that Kevin is guilty of just about anything that happens in school. Anything of a subversive or out-and-out nasty nature, that is. Once Skeezie retired as School Bad Boy, Kevin took over the job. But I have the feeling it isn't Kevin this time. No, I have the feeling it is Addie's Living, Breathing Symbol of Social Injustice who has placed the whoopee cushion on her chair. I mean, DuShawn Carter is laughing so hard he is pretty near busting a gut.
Copyright © 2001 by James Howe
Every Friday after school since the beginning of sixth grade, Addie, Joe, Skeezie, and I have gathered at the Candy Kitchen, last booth on the right -- the one with the aforementioned torn red leatherette seats -- to discuss important issues and eat ice cream. We call this the Forum. Due to the change in my employment status, we canned holding the Forum on a specific day of the week and decided we'd have it whenever we felt like it. The Friday Forum became the Floating Forum.
The minutes of the First Floating Forum of the Seventh-Grade Year are as follows:
Addie: Today's topic for discussion is "Liberty and Justice for All."
Skeezie: Do you have to write down every single word?
Addie: Talk more slowly, please.
Addie: Well, I guess we all know what happened in Ms. Wyman's homeroom class this morning.
Joe: You told us at lunch.
Skeezie: It is all you talked about at lunch.
Joe: Wait a minute, did you write my name down as Joe?
Addie: That is your name, the last I heard.
Joe: Not anymore. Now it's Scorpio.
Joe: You should talk, with a name like Skeezie.
Bobby: What happened to Jodan?
Joe: Oh, that putting-my-first-and-middle-names-together thing? That is sooo last week. I like Scorpio. It has, oh, I don't know, energy.
Skeezie: How about Plunger?
Skeezie: Yeah, like in toilet plunger. You get one of those things working, man, talk about energy.
Joe: Wait a minute, I think I hear someone laughing. Oops, my mistake, that was someone gagging in the next booth.
Addie: Excuse me, could we get back to the topic?
Joe: Could you write my name as Scorpio?
Addie: Okay, fine.
Scorpio: Thank you.
Addie: You're welcome. Now, what I want to know is if you guys think there is liberty and justice for all in this country.
Scorpio: No way.
Bobby: Well, I think what the Pledge of Allegiance is about is idealism. You know, like, what we aim for.
Addie: But that's not what is says. It says promise.
Bobby: Where? It doesn't say that word.
Addie: Well, pledge, promise, same thing. The point is --
Scorpio: The point is there's no way there is freedom and justice for everybody in this country. It's, well, I don't mean it's like a total, you know, a totalism kind of thing, whatever it's called.
Scorpio: Yeah, that. I mean, it's not like we've got some dictator guy telling everybody they have to, I don't know, like, wear polyester all the time or something grotesque like that.
Skeezie: Oh, yeah, there's a fate worse than death. Synthetics.
Addie: I think we're getting a little off the --
Bobby: It's cool that you're not saying the Pledge, Addie, I mean it's cool that you're standing up for your principles and all, but --
Addie: Thank you.
Bobby: But what difference does it make? I mean, just because you sit there and don't say the words with everybody else, that's not going to help some poor guy hundreds of miles downstate in New York City who gets beaten up just because he's black or poor or something.
Addie: I contend that it does make a difference.
Skeezie: Oo, she contends. Where's our food, if you don't mind my asking?
Addie: Yes, I contend that every act of conscience makes a difference.
Skeezie: But you're talking about New York City. We don't have the same kinds of problems here.
Scorpio: Hello. Are you kidding? Of course we do.
Addie: Just on a smaller scale. It's important to bring attention --
Bobby: My dad says it's better just to get along, not make waves. He says bringing attention can be a dangerous thing.
Addie: Of course it can! Just look at Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King or...or...
Scorpio: Madonna. Or RuPaul.
Addie: I don't think they're in quite the same league, Joe. I mean, Scorpio.
Scorpio: They bring attention! They're like, "In your face, world! Look at me! This is who I am and if you don't like it, stuff it! I'm as good as anybody else!"
Skeezie: Tell it!
Bobby: Whatever. The thing is, Ms. Wyman is not going to let you not say the Pledge, Addie, so what is the point?
Addie: Excuse me? I do not believe Ms. Wyman has the right to tell me what I can and cannot say. Have you never heard of the First Amendment?
Skeezie: Has that bozo who took our order never heard of first come, first served? Did you see that? He just gave them their food and they came in here after we did!
Bobby: Maybe they're friends of his.
Skeezie: There you are, Addie, a perfect example of how there's no liberty and justice for all. In a just world, I'd be slurping my Dr Pepper by now and instead I'm sitting here parched and deprived because Mr. HellomynameisAdam is giving preferential treatment to his friends. Justice, I say! Justice!
Addie: Skeezie, stop pounding on the table. You're making a scene.
Skeezie: Justice! Justice!
Bobby: I thought you wanted to bring attention, Addie.
Addie: There's bringing attention and then there's bringing attention. I mean, a little kid throwing a tantrum in public is bringing attention and that's closer to what Skeezie's doing right now than my standing up for --
Scorpio: I was just thinking. RuPaul. I really like the sound of that. I think I'm going to be Jodan again. Except I'll make the "D" capital, so you have to, like, emphasize the second syllable, you know? Jo-Dan.
Addie: What are you talking about?
Scorpio: No, no, don't write Scorpio, write...
Addie: Oh, I get it. Okay.
JoDan: Yeah, like that. That's cool.
Skeezie: I thought that was so last week.
JoDan: With a small "d." That was so last week.
Skeezie: Right, whatever.
Addie: So about liberty and justice for --
Skeezie: All right! Here's our food. See, a little protest'll work every time. You were right, Addie! It pays to act on your conscience. Hey, I learned something today. These Forums are way cool. Hey, hey, wait a minute.
HellomynameisAdam: What's wrong?
Skeezie: This Dr Pepper is flat, my man. You gotta get me another.
Skeezie: Justice! Justice!
HellomynameisAdam: All right, all right. Just cool your jets, will you?
Skeezie: Peace, brother.
We do not record the rest of the proceedings, since we never do get back on the topic. If I recall correctly, we spend the rest of our time at the Candy Kitchen that Monday talking about who are the meanest teachers in seventh grade and who are the best. Ms. Wyman scores points in both categories.
Copyright © 2001 by James Howe