It wasn’t so bad, the bullying. In fact, Emma shouldn’t have noticed or cared about it—at least that’s what the grown-ups said. Was it even bullying? Perhaps Emma was the one who misunderstood things?
Like, after classes, when Lyanne and Meredith passed Emma while she was waiting outside the school for her mother and little brother. Lyanne stopped close enough to Emma, so Emma could smell the strong detergent that had been used on her classmate’s blouse. Then the smell became stronger as Lyanne leaned confidingly toward Emma and remarked in a low voice, “I hope you make it home with your brother before he poops”.
Casual tone. Silky smooth. Because it must be so uncomfortable sitting on your own poop in your stroller, even if you wear a diaper, right? And so sad for Emma that her six-year-old brother still used diapers, right? But not her fault, of course!
Lyanne and Meredith had taken up positions on each side of Emma now, as if she had asked them to wait with her. Meredith suppressed a snicker. Emma stared stiffly at the cars coming into the school’s parking lot, knowing full well that her mother would come walking with Michael in his special stroller. Her dad had the car. As usual.
“I’m not going to talk to you.” Emma folded her arms around her school bag, hugging it to her chest, like a protective shield.
“You just did,” Meredith said.
“She thinks she is better than the rest of us,” Lyanne said, casual tone intact. “Because her dad’s a policeman.”
“Yeah.” Meredith nodded knowingly at Emma. “Didn’t he give your dad a ticket once, even though he was parked legally?”
“He sure did.” Lyanne nodded back. “He knows his job.”
Emma clutched her bag tightly. She kept looking straight ahead and kept still, pretending it didn’t matter, like she had been told. But the sun was beating down hard, and it was like everything was moving in slow-motion in the lot. Her mother was late. Just like summer holidays …
Lyanne sighed. “I guess everyone makes mistakes.”
Emma whirled around. “That’s a lie! You know it’s a lie!”
“What is?” Lyanne asked, tilting her head.
For a brief second there was a flash in Emma’s mind of the last time she had hit one of her classmates and the roller coaster of talks with her parents, with her teachers, that had followed. Then she dropped the bag and knotted her fists.
It only seemed to egg Lyanne on. “Are you gonna punch me again, Em? Scream? I guess your brother’s not the only one who is like a baby all the time.”
Emma took a step forward. She could only see the heat now. Searing and white.
“—Now what are you girls still standing around here for?”
They all looked up and saw Mrs. Collins slowly close the school entrance doors behind her, one hand on a handle, the other on a briefcase. The principal regarded the fourth graders carefully, with the same gentle but firm look that was her hallmark, no matter what time of day it was.
“Nothing, Mrs. Collins,” Meredith said. “We were just going.”
“I don’t see that,” Mrs. Collins replied, her ebony eyes firmly fixed on Lyanne and Meredith, but not Emma.
Without a word Lyanne grabbed Meredith’s arm and pulled her along. They skipped down the stairs and soon they were out of sight.
Mrs. Collins quietly took a few steps down until she stood at Emma’s side. She put her hand on Emma’s shoulder until Emma stopped shaking.
“I’ll talk to them again,” she said. “And their parents. But you have to make an effort, too, Emma—”
“Why?” Emma looked up defiantly. “It’s not my fault.”
“I know, hon, but it will make it easier. For you.” She sighed and squeezed Emma’s shoulder. “To get on in life, you have to have help, but you also have to learn to be strong. Both are important.”
Emma looked down. She felt like crying, but not in front of Mrs. Collins. She didn’t want her parents to know either.
As if on cue, Mrs. Collins asked, “Is your father coming to pick you up today?”
“No, mom and Michael.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right.” Mrs. Collins nodded to herself. “Lester told me he’d be home at the same time as your father today.” She smiled. “They have a meeting after the shift. I think your father and some of his colleagues might get new patrol cars soon.”
“I don’t care.” Emma removed herself from Mrs. Collins’ hand.
The principal frowned but said nothing. Her white dress stood perfectly to her chocolate skin like a symbol of cosmic balance. Emma had always thought the principal wore pretty dresses, but she didn’t feel any balance right now.
“Emma—over here!” They both saw Emma’s mother coming round the corner, pushing Michael’s buggy. It was a special stroller built for a boy who was no longer fit for normal strollers. It was shaped a bit like a race car, Emma had sometimes thought, but it only had three wheels. She kind of liked it, except when she did not.
Mrs. Collins nodded as Emma’s mother and little brother halted before the school entrance. “Hello, Carrie.”
Emma stood stiffly on the same step she had been standing on all the time. She hadn’t picked up her bag.
Carrie’s hands tightened around the stroller’s grip. “Anything wrong, Janice?”
Mrs. Collins shook her head. “Just the usual. Do you want me to call tonight?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Emma protested and shot an angry, tearful glance at Mrs. Collins.
“No need to call.” Carrie breathed heavily. “Emma, come here. We’ll go to the Dollar General and buy something on our way home.”
“I don’t want anything.”
“It … was for Michael.” Carrie eyed her son, who flailed his arms happily at the sight of Emma.
“Now he is living up.” She looked resignedly at Mrs. Collins. “I haven’t been able to get him to look me in the eye all afternoon, when I’ve tried to explain things we saw on the way, trucks, dogs, even a bloody model airplane. But I’ve counted a hundred cable box serial numbers with him … ”
“It is difficult,” Mrs. Collins agreed professionally but kindly. “You have to really work to get eye contact and attention.”
“Yeah,” Carrie said, not trying to hide her frustration.
“He always looks me in the eye,” Emma said.
“He does?” Mrs. Collins smiled warmly at Emma.
“Always.” Emma put on her school bag and walked down the stairs to stand beside her brother’s stroller.
- EMMA, 23 JUNE 2015