Father raced to my room when he heard my scream. He flipped on the light, and I saw him step back in surprise. And I knew that he too had just felt the power of the sickening odor. Without a word, he opened a window, turned toward me. We looked silently at each other.
Then … “Vickie, did you hear—?”
And then a long, long conversation before either of us surrendered to the sway of sleep.
The next two days in school—Wednesday and Thursday—we worked on our poems in class, individually, with small groups. Ms. Medwin had already announced a surprising plan for us, too.
“Class,” she’d said on Wednesday, “on Friday, we’re going to arrange our room for a formal poetry reading.”
After she saw all the question marks hovering in the air like clouds of gnats over our heads, she explained a little more. “I’m going to borrow the lectern from the school, a microphone. And those of you who want to read will come up and read your poems at the lectern. You’ll deal with questions and comments afterwards. It will look something like an actual poetry reading.”
She explained what that was all about. (None of us had ever been to such a thing.) And then … another surprise.
“And those of you who are going to read?” she said. “I’d like you to … dress up for the occasion.”
Now the airy question marks transformed into noise. All kinds of questions—a few complaints—but overall excitement. Dress up! In school?
Well, if I’d had any doubts before about reading in front of the class, I had none now. It was not going to happen. But all kinds of hands were in the air right now, hands of volunteers. And among them was Harriet Eastbrook.
On Friday morning, out in the cafeteria, waiting for Mr. Leon to open the doors to the academic area, the poetry-readers stood out. Girls in dresses, boys in coats-and-ties, other curious kids surrounding and surveilling and questioning. What … ? And Why … ? And: Poems!?!? I have to say that it was one of the oddest scenes I’ve ever witnessed at school. The readers—the dressed-up ones—all behaved in kind of a royal manner. Yes, I’ll be reading my poem in class today. Even their conversational sentences seemed more … formal. Some carried in their hand a folder that held, I was sure, their poems—but the readers behaved as if they were carrying state secrets.
And even odder than all of this? The other kids seemed almost cowed by all of the formality. After the questions ended, they just stared, as if they’d stumbled into the wrong hotel room and found themselves in an alternate universe where people they knew looked somewhat the same—but something else about them was just very wrong.
When English period came, I was surprised how changes so minor could make such a major difference in the look of the room. Ms. Medwin had moved our table back a little, and put in front of the room the wooden lectern that the principal used for assemblies and other public events. Attached to it was a microphone with a flexible neck to that the speaker could adjust it. And behind the lectern, I saw, was a little platform for kids who needed one to stand on. (As you know, middle school kids come in all sizes.)
And there were vases of flowers around … flowers!
And Ms. Medwin herself was dressed up, too, wearing a floor-length dress. She looked as if she were going to some kind of formal event. It was dark green—form-fitting—and seemed almost to shimmer as she moved here and there, adjusting things. I’ll have to say that most of the boys were very attentive in English on Friday.
When we were all in our seats and settled, Ms. Medwin approached the microphone and said, “Welcome to our first seventh-grade poetry reading.” First? Were there going to be more? “Our theme—the Settlers Cemetery. Today, we will give voices once again to those who have for so long been silent.
“And our first poet today”—she looked at her list—“is Dwayne Hardfall.”
Dwayne Hardfall. The largest boy in our school since the departure of Blue Boyle. Dwayne Hardfall. Who played on the middle school football team and—so I heard—hit other boys on other teams so hard that they took a long, long time getting back up off the ground. Dwayne Hardfall. Who was dressed in a bright blue suit with a bright yellow shirt and a bright red tie. The same red as his face as he moved toward the lectern to read his poem. Ms. Medwin led the applause as he approached.