Oct/Nov 2003  •   Fiction

Random Girl

by Theresa Boyar

Photo-Art by Tara Gilbert-Brever

Photo-Art by Tara Gilbert-Brever

The class is Written Communication, and it's the only requirement standing between my diploma and me. I'm one of 19 girls in this room, all of us at varying stages of pregnancy. Together, we wash into the room in a rainbow of skin pigments and waist sizes. Some of us are not even showing yet. One—a girl named Wanda Jones who has a curled-lip way of looking at you that makes you feel your skin is the shade and texture of a pickle—is about to burst. There are no boys here. No men. And even though attendance is voluntary, even though nobody forced us to make the transfer, I can't help feeling like we're being punished. Like we were locked away here, quarantined from the other girls, the good girls, the girls who still bop along hallways in skinny clothes and jangling bracelets at our old high schools. The girls who didn't let this sort of thing happen to them.

In almost all the classes at the McGill Center, we move forward at our own pace. We read chapters in Science and History and then approach the teacher and ask for the chapter test. The word teacher I use loosely, because most of the ones here do little more than sort through files and administer exams. Other than that, they occasionally glance around for signs of cheating, grade our tests, and sometimes keep the girls from calling each other sluts or swinging textbooks at each other. Most of them bring along things to read: newspapers, fashion magazines, fat books of crosswords, anything to make the long hours beneath the jaundiced classroom light pass a little more quickly. I've seen teachers step from these rooms at the end of the day and they always pause for a moment to take a deep breath. It's like the day, the real day, cracks over them and you can almost hear the little trigger muscles in their hearts catch and restart.

Janice Cummings, the Written Communications instructor, is the only one here who tries to run things like a normal classroom. She uses the chalkboard to post announcements and gives us lectures and assigns compositions. She's a tough grader, too, and has us rewrite and revise essays until she deems them satisfactory.

A lot of the girls sneer at her, preferring their progress to be measured in a more palpable way, by the inch-thickness of a textbook they've completed. They hate not knowing what's coming next and would rather see what's expected of them up front, like those charts we all received when we first enrolled here. The three trimesters broken down, telling us when our babies would hit certain milestones, like growing eyelids and fingernails, and giving us fair warning about the changes we could expect each week, everything from a metallic taste in our mouths to "rehearsal" contractions.

With Ms. Cummings, we know generally where we stand, we know 18 essays are required to pass her class. What we don't know is the topic, the substance of each upcoming essay. It's a little like entering a room blindfolded, knowing how many steps it is across to the exit, but not knowing at all what the room looks like, or if you're headed in the right direction or counting steps toward some dark corner.

For the past month, Ms. Cummings' chalkboard has displayed a message announcing a contest, an upcoming reward for the best essay in her class. An anonymous donor has established a college scholarship to the local community college. Not exactly a trip to Harvard, but nothing to smirk at either. Many of the girls assume the anonymous donor is Ms. Cummings herself. They say this loudly in the cafeteria, wrinkling up their faces with disdain, saying they would be willing to turn the tables and pay Ms. Cummings if she'd agree to stay home and quit teaching. "She's a flake," one of the girls says. "Get out of my hair, woman," says Wanda Jones.

Still, I get the feeling most of the girls would secretly like to win. At the very least, I can't imagine any of them turning it down. As for Ms. Cummings, I like her. The things that bother the other girls are exactly the things I like about her most. She doesn't talk down to us, she doesn't have low expectations. She doesn't assume since we're future teen mothers, we're incapable of intelligent thought.

Ms. Cummings' standard outfit is a long wrap-around skirt paired with a bodysuit and vest. Each vest she wears has different attachments and charms speckling the fronts. I've heard from the other girls that Ms. Cummings makes the vests herself. She visits flea markets and antique shops and even rummages through the occasional trash can in search of broken lockets or unpartnered earrings. I like watching the different trinkets jiggle when she talks about the body of a letter. I like to watch the fluorescent lighting strike them bright and sudden while she lectures on the importance of good grammar, explaining the difference between their and there. They look like tiny windows, appearing and disappearing, a reminder there is a day churning itself away beyond the flat sea-green walls of the McGill Center.

I've learned there are some people who flash through your life in brilliant bursts of light like that. You don't realize how brief their presence will be until you round a corner and it becomes clear your paths have disconnected and you'll likely never see each other again.

My baby's father was like that.

He showed up at our door one Saturday morning and asked if I would pay him five bucks to mow our lawn. He grinned wide and when he did, the sun rolled over his dark lips and caught itself in his teeth. My mother was stretched out on the couch behind me. She groaned and flung her forearm across her eyes, still sleeping. Mowing, like everything, was my job, and I didn't mind it as much as I minded the dishes or the laundry. I told the boy I would pay him two dollars plus lunch. He stepped back and measured our lawn with his eyes, his head turning back and forth until finally, looking a little defeated, he agreed.

When he was finished, I brought him a plate of ham sandwiches along with some sliced tomatoes and lemonade. I sat next to him on our back porch, and in between bites he told me his name was Willard and he had just moved in with his Uncle Roy, a man who spent his days on his front stoop, crushing Winston after Winston into the concrete. I knew his uncle as someone who said little but smiled a lot whenever I walked past his house. It was an odd smile, one that took place in his lips only, so that his eyes tightened and my pace grew quick and tense until I was sure I was out of his sight. I tried to imagine Willard's sparkling grin clouding over through time into his uncle's tobacco leer. It didn't surprise me when Willard said his uncle's glowering silence outside gave way to insults and gritty cloudburst speeches about ungrateful relatives behind closed doors.

I went in to sift through my mother's purse, her breath heavy and even behind me, and came back out with three dollar bills. Willard smiled at the bonus and thanked me, and when he did, I watched beads of sweat curve around his forehead, a face littered with light.

Five weeks later, school had started up again, and I was someone I never thought I would be: a senior with a boyfriend. Willard and I spent every evening together at my house. My mother worked nights, and that was where we could be alone. We did our homework, taking short breaks for long kisses and retrieving snacks from the kitchen.

Often, he would spend the night. As long as we left a few minutes early for school, we didn't have to worry about running into my mother. We stayed up late and talked about going to college together, getting an apartment. He had given me a tiny heart-shaped locket, and I quickly fell into the habit of twisting at it unconsciously, running the smooth metal against my lips, sometimes placing the small heart on my tongue.

The future we saw for ourselves involved a lot of rising, a lot of moving forward. Rising to challenges, rising out of our neighborhood, our town. Moving forward elsewhere, as if we were being propelled along by some higher force. And we were practical about our dreams. We checked out books on colleges in different states and drew up charts comparing cost and reputation. We saved up and bought an SAT study guide with pull-out practice tests we xeroxed at the supermarket and took together on our kitchen table. We were following a plan, an outline. We knew what we needed to do, what was expected of us if we were to continue taking steps forward. And we did it. Unfailingly, we did it.

After the final bell one day, Willard stood at my locker, waiting for me. In the air conditioning and school lights, his skin looked dry and dull, and when he smiled it was weak, apologetic. He said he couldn't stand to live with his uncle anymore. He couldn't take it. He had already considered moving in with me, living there on the sly, without my mother's knowledge, but had concluded it couldn't work. She would find out eventually. They were lucky she hadn't found out about their nights together.

He said he had thought up a plan, a back-up to the one we had devised together. He would leave, head to California, which we had recently decided was the best place for us to attend school. He had enough money to buy a bus ticket to Colorado. After that, he'd hitchhike the rest of the way. Once in California, he'd find a job, a place to live. After graduation, I would join him and he'd spend the summer months finishing out the classes necessary for his own diploma. He had already called ahead and asked about it. They had a program, he said. Second Chance Summers.

I felt dizzy and hot and told him I needed to get some fresh air. Outside, he told me it was different than what we had agreed on, he knew, but it got us to the same place in the end. He kissed me on my forehead, my nose, my chin, my lips. He folded his hand into mine and grinned at the marbling of our combined skin, his rich and dark, mine lighter—the color, he had teased me, of peanut butter.

It's strange to think about it now, it feels cruel almost, but after my initial unhappiness with the change in plans, I was actually happy to see him go. It was easier to live in my own home, to walk past my mother sprawled in the living room, knowing my time there was limited, that I'd be leaving soon to join Willard. His departure was another step, I told myself. A step in the right direction, one moving us closer to our goals. It was a sacrifice, I thought, that he was making for me. For us.

My mother must have sensed something was different because she came into my bedroom two nights after he had left. I was bent over my trigonometry homework, and she just sat on the bed staring at me until I had to ask her what was wrong.

My mother was a pretty woman with the straightest, blackest hair I'd ever seen. She was slender and her skin was smooth, with a shimmer to it she said came from her Italian-Indian heritage. For all of my mother's natural beauty, however, she always looked as if she were falling apart. Her blouses were partially untucked, her nails were different lengths and the tips of them were chewed and ragged. The effect was a look not unkempt, not haggard, but careless.

She had gotten dressed for work and was smoothing out the fabric of her red skirt. There was a run in her pantyhose creeping downwards from the hem and I nodded at it and tossed her a bottle of clear nail polish from my desk drawer.

"What would I do without you?" she said, dabbing at her thigh.

"You'd manage," I told her, knowing it was a lie.

My mother disappeared every night after dinner and reappeared the next morning. When I came home in the afternoons, she was asleep on the couch, in her red skirt and white blouse from the diner, the smell of cigarettes and ketchup radiating from her hair, filling the living room, all of the drapes in the house closed. She stayed there, occasionally with a bottle of vodka or gin on the floor nearby, but usually just a clean, honest sleep, until she smelled dinner cooking and our whole routine started over again.

I handled everything. I took care of the bills, cooked our meals. I cleaned. I shopped. When something broke in the house, I fixed it or called in someone who could. On the weekends, if my mother wasn't working, she would stay on the sofa, watching television or sleeping until dusk. The inside of our house had seen very little light.

My bedsprings squeaked, and then my mother was standing behind me, eyeing my homework.

"That math?" she asked.


She settled her hand on my shoulder and scanned the textbook, cracked open to reveal its coded language.

"Mmmmmm," she sighed, "my baby's a genius."

I knew she meant to make me smile, I knew her words came from that pure part of her that had been steadily diminishing over the years, the part of her that had once been the whole of her. Before her mother died, before my father left, before life's cruel jokes, as she liked to call the more unfortunate turns of her life, had changed her.

I knew it must have taken a lot of effort for her to summon that lost core of herself. Still, I said, "If I were really a genius, I'd have gotten out of here a long time ago."

It was like pinching out a tiny birthday candle, and the smoke of its small death hung between us for a moment.

Then my mother withdrew her hand from my shoulder, set my polish down on the edge of my desk and walked out of the room. A few minutes later I heard the front door shut. I tried to return to my homework, but felt my stomach lurch into my throat and had to run to make it to the bathroom in time. I thought I was coming down with a virus. Later, I recognized that night as my first experience with my any-time-of-the-day-or-night morning sickness.

I stayed home from school the next day, when an attempt at frying an egg turned ugly. The sight of it quivering in its cloudy gel made me feel as if a hand had reached down my throat and squeezed. I threw a lid over the pan, turned the faucet on full force, and heaved into the sink.

When my mother came home from work, I told her she needed to call my school and excuse the absence. She nodded and walked into the kitchen to use the phone, her black hair swaying against her back.

I spent most of that day curled up in sleep and was grateful, for once, that my mother did the same. Around dinnertime, I got up to tell her I wouldn't be doing the cooking. I had been running through the steps I'd have to take to make hamburgers, but the mere thought of handling the raw meat, of molding it into patties, made me gag.

My mother said, "Okay," and nothing else and rose from the couch. I returned to my room, but as soon as the sizzling noise and smell of the burgers began winding through the house, I had to run to the bathroom again. I knelt before the toilet and held my hair back, and when I was sure I was finished, I wiped my watering eyes and stood up.

My mother was standing in the doorway behind me, her skirt and blouse looking crumpled, strands of her hair standing out like frayed black electrical wires.

"You're pregnant," she said.

"You're crazy," I told her and pushed past her back to my bedroom.

But that night, after she left, the possibility bloomed in my brain until I had to walk to the supermarket and buy a pregnancy test. I tucked it into the drawer of my night stand and, since the test was most accurate when used with first morning urine, waited through the night. Sleep never came. I thought instead of Willard, of a new life in California. I saw us sitting next to each other in classes, eating lunch on the campus lawn, walking on the beach. Then I imagined doing those things while toting around an infant. At five a.m., I figured I had waited long enough and pulled open my night stand drawer. By five-twelve, I knew for sure.

I spent the next several days trying to figure out how I would tell Willard. I thought the news would be easier to hear if it came with a plan attached, the way he had given me his news. I called day care centers and government-sponsored programs in California, and eventually I was able to work something out on paper I thought seemed doable in reality.

I never had a chance to find out what Willard thought. Ten days after he left, there was a knock on our door from Christa. Christa lived next door to Willard's Uncle Roy and had three girls she was raising on her own. The oldest, Lissette, was ten. Sometimes, when Roy was in a meaner mood than usual, Willard would escape to Christa's house, and she would stand at her stove in her big housedress and cook for him. Fried bologna, eggs, buttery flapjacks. Her daughters would argue over who got to pour a drink for Willard, and he would joke and smile and say there was plenty of him to go around.

I could see Lissette standing next to her bicycle across the street, staring in the direction of my doorway with her mouth partly open, trying hard to overhear, trying to see. I knew I was in for bad news and waited for Christa to speak, to dispel the possibilities.

"Honey," she said, "Something's happened. I heard it from Roy and thought you ought to know. Roy didn't see how it was your business, but I've seen you and Willard together, and I've heard him talk about you, and if I were in your shoes, I'd want to know."

I didn't. In my head I was asking her to stop, but no words were coming from my mouth.

She told me how a family out for a picnic had found Willard's body on the banks of the Colorado River. She told me the police were calling it a random act of violence. No clear motive, no evidence anything had been taken. With the exception of a bullet hole driven clean through his chest, his body was undisturbed. The family who found him thought he was enjoying a nap by the water's edge until the last course of their picnic, when the mother trekked down to see if he would like a slice of lemon cake.

I tried to focus on the individual words. River, nap, lemon cake. How did Christa know the cake was lemon? What was Willard still doing in Colorado? The bus had deposited him there almost a week earlier. Shouldn't he have been further along on his trip? Shouldn't he have already reached California? Could Willard have had a third plan, a plan he never told me about because it didn't involve me? How horrible was it of me to rush into doubting him like that?

I felt nauseated and was grateful when Christa's large arms reached around me. I saw Lissette hop on her bicycle and pedal like a demon down the sidewalk, eager to be gossip queen for a day. Christa walked me in, and I saw the look on her face melt from sympathy to disgust when she saw my mother, who had a pillow over her head and was curled towards the back of the sofa. Christa sat me down in the armchair and brought me a glass of water from the kitchen before she left.

I spent a lot of time running over that scene on the riverbank in my head, sometimes replacing the picnicking mother with Christa, sometimes imagining myself there as well. I thought up a thousand ways I could have saved Willard, diving in front of the bullet at the crucial moment or nudging him towards the woods and safety. Mostly though, I wished I had taken a stand when he told me he wanted to leave. I wished I had come up with an alternative for departure.

I cried a lot. Quiet, muffled cries when my mother was home. Large, gasping cries when she was gone, like having swallowed a baseball, each breath a struggle. I couldn't stop fingering my locket and rubbed the small heart until it was hot under my thumb.

There was a stack of papers on my desk with phone numbers and notes from my research into California. I threw everything into the trash. I threw out the college comparison charts we had graphed together, the S.A.T. practice tests. Then, after the garbage trucks rumbled away, I cried more because maybe I should have saved them.

I alternated between feeling angry and guilty. Angry because I saw maybe we could have worked something out here, maybe he could have moved in with Christa, maybe my mother would have allowed him to stay with us. Guilty because I knew he was doing what he thought was best. Still, when I couldn't sleep, I'd repeat the word "random" to myself over and over until it became unstable and fell apart in my mouth, the structure of the word broken, crumbled. Ran. Dumb.

I let the housework slide for several days after learning about Willard's death. My mother, who had not set foot in my room since the night she used my polish on her pantyhose, knocked softly on the door one Sunday afternoon. When I didn't answer, she entered, sat on the edge of my bed, and peeled the covers back. I was a frightening sight. My lips were cracked from dehydration, my eyes swollen from crying. I hadn't showered or brushed my teeth in days. She watched me for a while without saying a word, and I knew she was uneasy, unsure of how to proceed. Finally, she reached over and pushed my hair back from my face, a stab, I supposed, at maternal warmth, but her hands were shaking and a jagged fingernail scraped across my forehead.

"Come with me," she said suddenly, pulling me up and disregarding my pleas to be left alone.

She led me through the kitchen to the back door. The afternoon sun was bright and painful, and after spending so long sobbing in a dark bedroom, it felt like razors were slicing into me from every direction. I shielded my eyes and followed my mother blindly. Later, I wished I had watched her during that trek outside. I wished I had seen her reaction to the harsh light of day, whether she winced as much as I did, whether she too found it painful.

She brought me to the edge of our garden plot and eased me onto the grass. I still had my eyes closed tight but I felt her sit down next to me. The sun warmed my skin and for the first time in days, I was aware of how thirsty I was.

We were quiet for a while and I gradually opened my eyes and looked around.

Our garden was a mess. When we first moved into our home, the garden had been the biggest selling point for my mother. It wasn't large, but it was enclosed with a short wall of bricks salvaged from some historical buildings. Some of the bricks had dates embedded on them, some from as far back as 1889. My mother had loved this sense of history about the garden and my father, who at that time still took a delight of his own in making her happy, caved in and signed the paperwork. We had four good years together after moving in, and a lot of our happy times centered around our experiences in that little bricked-up patch of soil.

My mother turned out to be a lousy gardener, but what she lacked in skill, she made up for in enthusiasm. Each morning, she'd run out to check for new growth and then report her findings to us at breakfast. She never succeeded at growing anything substantial in the garden, but it wasn't for lack of trying. She planted things too early and they froze overnight, or she planted them too late and they never reached maturity. The zucchini she planted the summer before my dad left didn't go into the ground until late July. By harvest time, the largest one was only two inches long. My father was able to hold the entire crop in one thick palm but instead of being disappointed, my mother laughed and popped them into her mouth, crunching them like popcorn.

By the next summer, my father was living in Florida with Isabel, the receptionist from the auto dealer where he worked when he was with us. They had a new baby, a girl named Melita, and a little pink house. My maternal grandmother died shortly after Melita was born, and my mother surmised out loud it was from a broken heart, the birth of Melita having certified in my grandmother's mind that my mother and father would never get back together. In our garden that year, mint cropped up out of nowhere. Little thick clusters broke through the soil and thrived in spite of neglect. My mother stopped tending to the garden, she planted no new seeds, and the mint quickly took over. It was snarled and disorderly and had crept over the edges of the brick walls so the engraved dates my mother had admired so much were now hidden from view. The small tract of land that had once made her so happy had become something else entirely and was no longer recognizable.

Outside that day, my mother pulled a length of mint from the ground and crushed it between her fingers. The scent was crisp, fresh. It made me want to scrape off the misery of the past few days and break clean.

"Here," my mother said, "out here, you can tell me. It's okay."

There was a brisk wind rushing through the grass as I detached myself from my story, handing it over to my mother. She rolled the mint between her palms and listened. When I was finished, she dropped the mint and pulled me to her.

In Ms. Cummings' classroom, certain patches of the chalkboard have grown permanently cloudy with years' worth of assignments and erasures. If I squint at the lower left hand corner I can make out a word that is either grace or graze and I wonder in which context either of those words could have appeared. Ms. Cummings looks at the clock and the moment the second hand sweeps past the 12, she tells us she'll be choosing the winner of the scholarship contest today. She holds up a blue and silver certificate of merit with a blank where the winner's name will be entered. She says she'll announce the winner later today, at the assembly.

At the McGill Center, we have an assembly once a week. We gather in the auditorium and Mrs. Brody, the principal, introduces us to a guest speaker, who tells us how intelligent we are, how we've made a difficult, but smart, choice. The talk about how education is essential and we are proving ourselves to be good parents already because we are pursuing an education despite formidable circumstances. We are setting an example.

Ms. Cummings stands at the board and smiles at us, wishing us all luck before pacing the room and telling us about the essay subject, which I'm surprised to learn is a How-To paper. She turns and writes "How-To" in tall letters.

"I want each of you to write about something at which you excel. Some special knowledge you possess. Something," here she pauses, lets her eyes float over us mysteriously, "something we might find surprising about you."

She sits at her desk and once there, she's all business. "Use details. Be specific. Tell me, step by step, how to accomplish a task. Begin."

I sit in the back row and watch as each girl tilts her head down and begins to scratch out an essay. I have no idea what to write. I take a deep breath and some invisible speck of dust goes in and tickles the soft flesh way back in my throat. I cough. Then another cough. Then I'm lost, my esophagus contracting involuntarily in a series of short tight little hacks. Wanda Jones turns from her seat at the front of the room and glares at me.

I twist myself out from behind my desk, and leave the classroom without asking, which we're allowed to do here. I get some water from the fountain down the hall and wait until my cough dies down. Then I return to class and stare at the blank paper on my desk.

Everyone around me is scribbling. Everyone is an expert at something, arranging their advice into neatly numbered steps. I consider scratching out a few paragraphs about mundane activities. How to Tie Your Shoelaces. How to Send a Letter. How to Chew Gum, Clean a Toilet, Pay the Electric Bill.

Ms. Cummings leans over to scratch her ankle, and when she does, I watch the trinkets on her vest flash on and off. I hold Willard's locket and discover it can be angled against the classroom light to create a similar effect, casting sparks across the front of Ms. Cummings. I do this for a few seconds and then I remember something she told us once, something about just picking up a pen and writing if you're stuck, even if you didn't know what would come out. I decide to give it a try and at first, just write my name over and over. Then I write Willard's name.

I consider for a moment writing a paper on how to identify people whose appearance in your life, no matter how bright and exciting, is sure to be only temporary. I could cite Willard as an example. My father too. I could write about Ms. Cummings and the McGill Center and how I know there will come a day when I will look back on my time here and remember only a collage of swollen skin, textbooks gone soft at the spine, and classroom lights flashing off Ms. Cummings' vests. But the How-To format is not a good fit, and I cannot come up with a list of sure-fire methods for determining a person's impermanence.

I force myself to start over and have just written a title at the top of my page, "How to Be Me," something I think is clever and might stand out, when a high-pitched whine from the front row cracks the room's silence and is immediately followed by the shifting din of eighteen girls lifting their heads at the same time.

We all stare as Ms. Cummings speeds over to Wanda and whispers in her ear. I can see Wanda's hand clench the corner of her desk. Ms. Cummings tries to help her stand, but Wanda shakes her head and shoves her away. With her right hand, she continues writing her paper. I know Wanda is at the same stage as I am as far as requirements go. This class is all she needs.

Ms. Cummings moves to the wall behind her desk and presses the little silver intercom button. She cups her hand around her mouth and speaks in a quiet voice, but we can all hear her say, "I believe Ms. Jones is ready. Please send someone," and in that stifled air, it sounds like a betrayal.

Wanda screams and it is a sound which makes us all jump in our seats. Some of us wrap our arms around middles. We look at each other, and it's clear we don't know how to act, we don't know what to do. We sit without writing until Mrs. Brody leads two paramedics through the door. They load Wanda into a wheelchair, and the whole time she's crying she needs to finish her paper. The pen is still in her hand, and I worry she'll use it to stab one of the paramedics, that she'll plunge the sharp end into a neck or a well-meaning hand, but then she sucks her breath in deep and when she lets go, it comes out as a piercing cry again staggering the room. The pen drops to the floor, and Wanda glares at us.

"You wait," she yells, "You just wait. Ain't none of you ready. Ain't none of you ready for this."

The light rolls off her forehead, and her mouth ohs itself back into a groan. The paramedics wheel her out while Mrs. Brody holds the door open. We hear screams fading as Wanda disappears down the corridors.

Ms. Cummings tries for humor, but it's clear she's nervous and doesn't know what to say. Something has changed, and the room aches with it.

"That was a bit of excitement," she laughs.

Eventually we begin to write again. I look at my paper marked "How to Be Me" and begin my essay with step one: Be born to a mother and father who love each other very much. I write about growing up convinced no two people were ever more in love than my parents. Later, I talk about my mother and her collection of "cruel jokes." I talk about my father and his departure, my grandmother and her death. Isabel. Melita. I write about Willard. For five paragraphs, I write about Willard. I write about the visit from Christa and how her face changed when she saw my mother. Then I'm back on my mother again. I write about that day in the garden, how she temporarily unbound herself from her dark world and brought me with her into the lucid day, with its light at once harsh and insistent, yet pure and warm and loose. I end my essay by talking about my desire to continue my education, to go to college and study physics maybe, astronomy. I read it over and feel I've told my story honestly and cleanly. I've made it fit the assignment in what I consider a creative way. I feel proud.


For a lot of the girls, the assembly is the highlight of the week. It's something out-of-the-ordinary and comes with free juice and snacks. More importantly, the guest speakers bring door prizes donated by community service groups. A jumbo-size package of diapers, a breast pump, receiving blankets, gift certificates for Lullabyland, the local baby supply outlet. They hand us tickets when we enter the auditorium, and at the end of the presentation, the guest speaker randomly pulls a winning number from a fish bowl.

For me, the assembly comes after Ms. Cummings' class. I write my name in large looped letters at the top of my essay, staple the pages together and turn it in. Ms. Cummings smiles at me briefly before returning to her task of grading papers.

I wait in line to use the bathroom and then head over to the auditorium, where I'm handed a ticket I slip into the front pocket of my overalls. I grab a paper plate and scoop up some fruit salad from a large bowl. Then I fill a cup with grape juice and take a seat with the other girls.

The room is packed, and it takes a while for the buzz of dozens of conversations to fade out before Mrs. Brody introduces the guest speaker. There is an obligatory round of applause, and Mrs. Berniece Schmidt from the Healthy Moms program gets behind the microphone and congratulates us all for simply being there.

"Your presence here alone," she says, "speaks volumes about your determination, your integrity, your character."

I suspect a lot of the girls are like me and tune out Berniece Schmidt after the first few sentences. I sit quietly and occasionally rub the side of my stomach or reach my arm around to press my knuckles into my lower back. Finally, she's finished, and after another round of applause, Mrs. Brody walks onto the stage carrying the fish bowl.

Ms. Schmidt reaches into the bowl and in the silence just before she announces the winning number, the auditorium door squeaks open. Ms. Cummings comes in. From where I'm sitting, I see the certificate in her hand along with what I assume is the winning essay. I strain my eyes and recognize my own looped handwriting on the paper. Ms. Cummings begins to scan the audience, and I know she is looking for me. I know this as surely as I know my own name.

"5-6-5-3-4-9," Berniece Schmidt calls out.

Ms. Cummings is squinting across the audience, searching me out, but in this room, everywhere she looks, she sees the same thing: a pregnant girl pulling out a ticket, comparing the numbers, and hoping for a little luck. I could be any one of them.