I thought it was funny.
So did a lot of other kids.
Miss Movado, however, did not.
Neither did Principal Mola, the middle school principal. Principal Mola used to be a drill sergeant in the army. With his shaved head and starched shirts, he still looks like one. He glared at me now above his steepled fingers, waiting, I guess, for me to burst into tears and admit that I was responsible. Instead I stared at the mounted fish that hung on the wall behind his head. Its silvery scales had been painted a dark blue on the bottom and a nose, sharp as a needle, stuck out of the front of it. I wondered if deep down, Principal Mola wished he could do the same thing to some of his students that he’d done to that fish.
“Maeve,” Principal Mola said sternly. “Look at me.”
I bristled. “It’s May. Not Maeve.”
“May.” Principal Mola stood up, leaning his whole weight on just the tips of his fingers until they turned white. “Look at me.” I glanced over at him. A tiny bead of sweat was balanced on his upper lip. “We know it was you. Pete saw you in her room with the spray-paint can.”
Pete was the school janitor. I’d seen the top of his bald head go by through the little square hole in Miss Movado’s door just as I was finishing up, and jumped so fast into the coat closet that I almost fell over. It was a tiny, airless space. One of Miss Movado’s hideous cardigan sweaters was hanging behind me. I waited, inhaling the scent of butterscotch and her too-sweet perfume, until I thought I might get sick. Ten minutes went by, but Pete did not return. Finally I slipped back out, grabbed the can of spray paint, and ran. It hadn’t even occurred to me that he might have seen me.
I shifted in my chair. The back of my legs made a peeling sound against the red leather. “Pete couldn’t have seen me,” I said. “Because I wasn’t there.”
Principal Mola studied me for a moment, as if examining a new specimen of fish. How long had that poor fish struggled? I wondered, glancing up at it once more. How hard had Principal Mola pulled and reeled his line until, exhausted, the poor thing had given up? Probably pretty long. Well, he wasn’t going to reel me in, no matter how hard he pulled or how long he tried.
“We have video of you in the hallway too, Maeve. Right outside Miss Movado’s classroom. Just you. No one else.”
My cheeks flushed hot. I’d forgotten about the school cameras. “It must’ve been someone else. Someone who looks like me.”
Principal Mola shook his head as he came around to the front of his desk. Leaning back against the smooth wood, he crossed his arms over his red tie. A gold wedding ring peeked out from the finger on his left hand. “You’re thirteen years old now, May, correct?” I didn’t answer. He knew how old I was. “Where along the line do you think you picked up such a blatant disrespect for authority?”
This was the eighth time this year that I’d been in Principal Mola’s office. The last time was because I was involved in a food fight in the cafeteria. It hadn’t been a big one—just a few Tater Tots hurled across the room at Jeremy Finkster, who’d thrown one at me first. Maybe a chocolate pudding, too. But Principal Mola had gone off on the whole disrespect for authority spiel during that visit too. It was his army thing. His “Give me five minutes, and I’ll crush you like a bug” routine. I stared at the blue swirl pattern in the rug and jiggled my leg up and down.
“Do you have any idea where this attitude of yours is going to take you?” Principal Mola decided to try a different tactic. “Any idea at all? I’ll tell you. Nowhere, young lady. Actually, I stand corrected. It is going to take you somewhere. It’s going to take you to one big dead end. Period.”
The swirls in the rug were actually a whole bunch of large and small paisley shapes, all crammed together. If I turned my head just a little to the right, they almost looked like they were moving. A great big sea of blue paisleys. Kind of cool.
Principal Mola pulled the cuff of his right shirt sleeve down over his wrist, and then the other. He picked a piece of lint off the front of his creased pants and tossed it in the trash can next to him. “Listen, I know you’ve had a tough year, Maeve. With everything that happened to your—”
“It’s May!” It came out louder than I expected, more to drown out the rest of Principal Mola’s sentence than to correct my name. Something tightened in the back of my throat, a pinpoint of pain, and I swallowed over it. “Could you pleasepleaseplease just call me May? Please. I hate the name Maeve.”
Principal Mola rolled his bottom lip over his teeth. “Let’s get to the real point of this meeting, shall we? I’m here to inform you that Miss Movado has agreed not to press charges.”
“Wait, what?” My foot stopped jiggling. A flash of heat spread out along my arms, all the way up to the back of my neck. “Charges? What kind of charges?”
“Defacing school property. Using foul and derogatory language in regard to a teacher.”
“But I didn’t do it!” I got up out of my chair, fists clenched at my side.
“You did do it.” Principal Mola’s voice was so sharp and so final that for a moment, I almost wavered. Almost. “I know you did it, and you know you did it. And we are not going to waste any more time going back and forth about it. You have two options. You can either be expelled—”
“Expelled?” I repeated. “I thought you just said Miss Movado wasn’t going to press charges.”
“She’s isn’t,” Principal Mola answered coolly. “But I still can.”
I sat back down again.
Principal Mola nodded. “I’m assuming you don’t want to go that route.”
I stared stoically at the rug. Shook my head the merest bit.
“All right, then. These are your options: You can agree to expulsion from this school, or you can retake eighth-grade English with Miss Movado in summer school.”
“Retake English?” I gripped the sides of the chair. “But I don’t need to retake English! I didn’t fail it!”
“That’s not what Miss Movado seems to think.” Principal Mola turned slightly to the right, pressed a button on his phone, and then spoke into it. “All right, Lucille. Send Miss Movado in, please.”
I swiveled around in my chair as the door opened. With her tiny head, wide hips, and stubby legs, it was not hard to imagine where the nickname Movado the Avocado had come from. It didn’t help that her favorite color was green, either. The shirt she had on now was the same shade as celery, and her pants—a polyester blend that made a swiffing sound when she walked—were the color of limes. But Miss Movado’s sad appearance belied her personality. She was the most feared—and hated—teacher in the whole school. She came down on students with a hurricane force. In her classroom, Movado the Avocado made Principal Mola look like Bo Peep. I couldn’t imagine having to spend another period with her—let alone an entire summer. It would be the equivalent of torture.
Miss Movado gave Principal Mola a curt nod and sat down in the chair next to me.
“You failed me?” I stared at Movado the Avocado. “That is not fair! Is this, like, some kind of revenge?”
Movado the Avocado did not answer me. She stared straight ahead at the wall and blinked once.
“What would she need to get revenge for?” Principal Mola asked carefully.
“For …” I stumbled, trying to get my thoughts in order. “For not liking English or something, I guess!” Even I knew it sounded stupid, but it was all I could think of.
“This has nothing to do with not liking English.” Movado the Avocado was still staring at the wall. “My job is not to get you to like English.” Her voice was tight, but strangely soft. I leaned back in my chair a little. It was the first time I’d heard her talk in a normal tone of voice. Usually she was pacing around the classroom, roaring and yelling like some kind of deranged dinosaur.
“Then what’d you fail me for?”
Movado the Avocado turned her head so that she was looking directly at me. Her wide face was damp with perspiration. Small black hairs quivered along her upper lip, and a single curl clung like seaweed against her forehead. “To try again,” she said. “The right way.”
“To try what again?” I asked.
“All of it,” Movado the Avocado said. “Technically, you did pass my class, May. By one point. The effort you put into the work I gave you all year was minimal at best, nonexistent at worst. I want you to do it again—with effort this time—the way you should have done it in the first place.” Her voice was unnervingly quiet. It creeped me out.
“You can’t force people to do things, you know.” I sat back and crossed my arms. “This is America. Land of the free, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Oh, I’ve noticed,” Movado the Avocado answered. “And you’re perfectly free to choose whatever option Principal Mola just presented to you. Me or expulsion.” She shrugged. “You’ll just have to find another school to go to next year.”
I glared at her. Narrowed my eyes at Principal Mola.
But no matter how hard I looked at both of them, the only thing I could see was the wide white sail of my eighth-grade summer slipping away.
© 2011 Cecilia Galante