I sat in the passenger seat of my mom’s car, watching the rain drops from outside roll along the window as we drove. When I was little I used to pretend that the droplets were in a race against each other to see who could reach the end of the car window first. My eyes focused on two droplets rolling side by side along the window. I watched as they approached the edge of the car window, when one suddenly veered sharply downwards and stopped. The other droplet reached the edge of the window.
“And we have a winner,” I mumbled to myself.
“What did you say, Beth?” Mom asked as she pulled into the school parking lot.
“Oh nothing.” I tugged nervously at my skirt as we pulled into a parking spot. I never wear skirts, but I had let Mom talk me into wearing one just this once, since it was my first day at a new school and I wanted to attempt to look nice.
“Would you stop it with the skirt? Sweetheart, I promise it’s not too short. Wait, hold still.” Mom reached out and plucked something from the ends of one of my curls. She inspected the fuzz that was now stuck to the end of her bright blue finger nail before flicking it away.
“Okay Mom, thanks, I think I have to go,” I said, grabbing the strap of my backpack.
“Alright, sweetie! Remember, don’t be afraid to approach people first. Go to the bathroom after lunch to check your teeth for food. Don’t get overwhelmed by the syllabus, and - ”
“Okay thanks! Bye Mom!” I jumped out of the car and slammed the door, stopping to yank the hood of my jacket over my head. As I started to walk towards the building I heard the car window rolling down.
“Hey! I love you! Have a good day!” Mom yelled out the window. I turned around and waved, then walked up the steps into the building.
My first impression of South Ridge High School was that it was like walking into a war zone. The hallways were crowded with kids, some taking up most of the hall in big packs, others huddled by their lockers, almost as if they were trying to crawl inside of them to avoid being bumped into. I walked by a big group of guys dressed in suits and ties, dribbling a basketball back and forth between them. They were oblivious to everyone around them, so when I had to duck as their ball flew over the top of my head, it didn’t come as much of a surprise. I looked up and saw a sign that said GIRLS LOCKER ROOM and immediately hurried toward it.
I threw open the door to the locker room and walked inside. The smell of B.O. mixed with cheap perfume was almost overpowering. I saw a bathroom stall in the corner and quickly walked past the girls who were changing into their P.E. clothes, keeping my head down. I set my backpack down in the stall, locked the door behind me, and sat down. I tried to steady my breathing as I pulled my crumpled up schedule out of my jacket pocket. I looked for my first class: Johnson - English III- Room 205.
English, I thought. You like books. You’re good at English. This will be like your safe haven. It won’t be so bad. I jumped as the locker room filled with the loud screeching sound of the first bell ringing.
“Oh, great.” I yanked up my skirt and threw my backpack over my shoulder, running out of the locker room like a bat out of hell. The hallways were empty of all but a few stragglers, making their way to their classes. I saw a sign pointing down a hall that read ROOMS 201-210 and hurried towards it. I slowed down a bit as I began to pass classrooms. “208, 207, 206...”
I stopped in front of 205, passing under a rainbow-colored sign above the door that read MRS. JOHNSON (SHE/HER). In the classroom, students were chatting at their desks, not worrying about the noise they were making since the teacher had yet to arrive. I quietly hurried towards an empty desk in the back corner of the classroom and sat down, slipping my backpack under my chair. I looked around the room. There was a large window on the right side of the classroom that looked out onto a baseball field, which was wet and muddy from the rain. The rest of the room was covered in floor-to-ceiling book shelves, each labeled by genre. There was even a small book shelf under the chalkboard in the front of the class, hidden partially behind the teacher’s desk. Mrs. Johnson had decorated the outside of her desk with posters of book covers. From where I was sitting, I could see Black Boy by Richard Wright, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
I was trying to make out what other book covers decorated her desk when Mrs. Johnson herself came marching into the room, donned in a bright yellow rain coat and matching boots. She had frizzy gray hair that I am sure would have completely enveloped her face if it weren’t for her thick, purple rimmed glasses. She walked to the corner behind her desk and started to hang her coat up on the coat rack, which was shaped like a tree.
“Good morning class,” she said, her back still partially turned toward the room. A string of half-hearted replies filled the classroom. Mrs. Johnson took a seat in her chair and began to take attendance. I zoned out a bit as she went through the long list of names, until finally I heard mine.
“Beth Thatcher?” Mrs. Johnson’s voice called.
“Here,” I responded quietly, trying not to draw too much attention to myself. Mrs. Johnson looked back down at her attendance sheet.
“It looks like you’re new here! What are your pronouns, dear?”
“She/hers,” I replied, pleasantly surprised she would make the effort to take note of people’s pronouns. Mrs. Johnson nodded and penciled my response onto the attendance sheet.
“Wonderful,” she said. “Would you feel comfortable coming up and introducing yourself? I like to make sure everyone knows one another in my classes. Just say your name and pronouns again, as well as your favorite book and a book you would like to read in the future.”
“Okay.” I tried to remain calm as I stood up and walked slowly down the aisle of desks to the front of the room. I was trying to determine what books I would say when all of a sudden I began to hear quiet giggles coming from the back of the classroom. As I kept walking forward, the giggles grew louder until the whole classroom was erupting with laughter. I turned around to face the class and saw that some kids had pulled out their phones. I slowly realized that they were videotaping me.
“Class!” Mrs. Johnson yelled. “That is quite enough-”
“Her ass is hanging out!” I heard a student yell. It was one of the boys I had seen earlier with the basketball.
Feeling frozen in place, I instinctively reached back to tug the back of my skirt, but felt nothing there. As soon as I realized what had happened, I was already out the door.
“Look at her run!” I heard someone yell.
I ran through the school until I saw the sign for the locker room again. I burst through the door, relieved that this time no one was in there. I stopped in front of the mirror and slowly turned to the side. My black plaid skirt, that Mom had sworn was not too short, had somehow found its way inside my underwear. The little unicorns on my panties smiled at me in the mirror, as if they hadn’t just been the source of an embarassment of a lifetime. I stared back at them in shock. Mom had bought them for me as a joke last Christmas.
The gravity of what had just happened began to hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt myself panicking. My heart began to pound, my breathing became faster and more shallow, and the room felt like it was closing in on me. Suddenly, I heard the door to the locker room open. Feeling too mortified to see anyone, I dove into the same bathroom stall I had been in before and locked the door. I leaned back against the stall and closed my eyes, trying to slow my breathing.
My eyes shot open, but I didn’t dare to respond. I looked down at the floor and saw someone’s feet on the other side of the stall door.
The voice spoke again. “Hey, it’s okay if you don’t want to talk, I just thought you could use these.”
I heard rustling, and suddenly a pair of brand new black tights was being pushed under the stall door, still in their packaging.
“I’m in theater and I was part of the costuming team for the play last month. We had an extra set of tights. If you don’t want them, that’s fine.”
I stared at the package of tights on the floor, not saying anything. My heart was still pounding, but my breathing had returned to normal. I slowly bent down and picked up the package of tights, my hand still shaking. I studied the packaging. They were in my size, thank God. I took a deep breath. I opened the stall door a tiny crack and peeked out. I recognized the girl right away as someone who had been sitting in the front row of desks in my class. She was wearing a long, floral skirt with a black AC/DC t-shirt tucked into the top. Her long brown hair was pulled into a braid that hovered just over her waist. She smiled at me as I poked my head out further from behind the stall door, looking me up and down with fiercely bright blue eyes.
“Thank you,” I whispered. “I’m Beth.”
“No problem, Beth,” the girl responded. “I’m Ivy. By the way, love the unicorn panties.”