“What you want? Ain’t got all day now,” says Ms. Trudy, the liver-spotted cafeteria lady. She’s standing in front of Mexican pizzas that look like cheesy cardboard and pre-bunned hot dogs already covered with chili. There are tater tots and French fries at her side.
She’s an intimidating grown-up. I’m a bashful nine-year-old. I have a hard time speaking—I stutter, badly—so I just point to the hot dogs to indicate my choice.
“I can’t tell what you pointin’ at, son. Now what you want?” She sounds mad. My face flushes with embarrassment. I take a deep breath. I hate trying to talk at school.
“I wa, wa, wa, want th, th, th…” I can’t get the words out quickly enough. Travis, the blond fifth grade asshole behind me, laughs. “P… P… Poor Justin can’t ta… ta… talk.”
I’m angry and ashamed. Everyone in line ahead of me has paid for their lunches, grabbed their chocolate milk, and gone off to sit with their friends.
My face starts burning. Travis laughs and the line builds up behind him. I wish so badly I would’ve brought my lunch from home today.
I feel so alone, so different. I can’t even say “hotdog” without causing headaches and mockery. I’m flustered and nauseated. Ms. Trudy stares at me like I’m a pest, a fruit fly hovering over rancid food. She doesn’t care about me.
“Sorry,” I say to Ms. Trudy and I start walking to the back of the line without my lunch. I’ll just start over.
I’m nervous, walking against the line. My classmates look at me as I pass them by. I know they’re whispering about me being gay, strange, or stupid. I wish I were invisible.
And then I see Mrs. Gingerton, my teacher, standing at the back of the line, talking to a guidance counselor. The sight is a relief. I’ll go say hello. Talking to her will make me feel better. She’s the one person at school who treats me like I’m a human being.
I keep my eyes on Mrs. Gingerton as I make my way past my peers; it’s easy to ignore them when I have somewhere to go. I’m almost to Ms. Gingerton when I feel someone’s foot catch my own. I fall to the burnt-orange ceramic tile floor. I land on my knees first, then my hands. My fingers catch under my lunch tray. I cry out in pain.
No one admits to tripping me, but everyone laughs.
“Hey, Justin, ghost faggot,” yells Travis from the front of the line. “Go run to Mrs. Gingerton and tell on us, cry baby.”
I look up and Mrs. Gingerton and the guidance counselor are gone.
Travis calls me “ghost” boy, queer, faggot, or some version thereof, because I suffer hallucinations in class. My mother and I witnessed her boyfriend put a gun to his head a few years back and nothing’s been the same since, including my ability to speak at school. I’m permanently sheepish, the proverbial low-hanging fruit to anyone looking for a laugh at another person’s expense.
I push myself off the greasy cafeteria floor, pick up my tray, and finish walking to the back of the line.
By the time I make it through the lunch line again, Ms. Trudy is out of hotdogs, but she has tater tots. I’m hungry, so they’ll do.
“Ta, ta, tater tots, pl, plu, please.” I force the words out just as the bell rings to end lunch. Ms. Trudy rolls her eyes at me, tells me that lunch is over, and dumps the tater tots into the garbage.
“Sorry,” I say as if I’ve inconvenienced her with my hunger. When I put my empty lunch tray back on the stack of clean ones, Ms. Trudy yells to me, “I saw you fall with that tray, boy. It’s dirty. You put that with the dishes.”
She saw me fall and didn’t help me?!
“Sorry,” I say again. I wish I were what Travis calls me. I wish I were a ghost.
Later that day Mrs. Gingerton passes out Progress Reports—bi-annual updates on our behavior, reading, and math abilities. “S” means satisfactory, the equivalent of a grade “A.”
I open my Progress Report and see “S” beside every metric: “Student is silent during reading time: S.” “Student completes assignments without interrupting others: S.” “Student treats others with respect: S.”
I’m embarrassed by it. Everyone around me talks and laughs during class; they’re all friends and seem so happy. They have “Needs Improvement” beside their Progress Reports’ behavioral evaluations. That’s what I want. I want Needs Improvement. I want friends.
My mom cries because she’s so proud of me. An “S” to her is a sign that things will be different for her son. An “S” on my Progress Report tells her that I’m early along on a path out of the food stamps and government subsidized housing that she and I rely on. It means I’ve overcome Gene’s suicide.
But I don’t care. All I want are friends and to speak like a normal person. I want to be heard. I want a voice.
One day, I promise myself, I will have one.