Reading Aloud from a Textbook with Weak Illustrations

by Aurora Stewart de Peña

Aurora Stewart de Peña lives in Toronto. She runs Birdtown & Swanville, a theatre company, with Nika Mistruzzi and Mark Aikman. The company is in residence at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Her plays have been produced in Toronto, Brooklyn, and North Yorkshire, and she’s been a contributor to Definitely Not the Opera and Little Brother Magazine.

So my ideal look is romantic. Victorian, but in this very updated way.

In my sketchbook, I drew an outfit: a white dress with a sweetheart neckline like Barbie, and a scalloped hem. I’d wear a pale blue cardigan with pearl buttons, and I’d have a hat. It’d be a straw hat, and the brim pins up with flowers. I’d wear it with Keds. White Keds; it’s a spring look. I’d get on the school bus and I’d smile with super white, straight teeth, and every one can tell I just totally don’t care what they think of me at all.

Jackie would let me sit with her like she used to, Jamie and Scott would make jokes like they used to, and it would just be nice.

When I get off the bus, Alec Wilson would slip a poem in my backpack. A love poem, but it’s funny. I’d show it to Jackie, and we’d both laugh and look over at him, he’d be blushing, but also kind of smiling.

Nobody actually ever wears fashions like that at my school. There’s a strict dress code set by Cara and Amber and their reign of terror. You’re supposed to wear what they wear, which is jeans, no pleats, rolled with thin cuffs, white or pink sweatshirt with a duck or beaver on it, hair in a ponytail or a half-up-half-down with a scrunchie, and Tretorn sneakers, white with some dirt. No deviations.

Last month, Terri-Ellen Doggerall wore a flowered skirt and white blouse because she was going to her cousin’s pre-baptism party after school. She got teased all morning. At recess, Cara body-checked her so hard against the brick wall that the drinking box in her backpack burst and she got juice all over her party clothes.

“You’re supposed to wear what they wear … no deviations.”

I pray high school is different. Two Grade Elevens in town became punks, and one of them has a Mohawk. Imagine what would happen if Cara and Amber tried to tell him what to wear! I’d like to be there to see that. The only reason they have any control is because people are afraid of them, including our teacher, Miss Lill.

The one person they can’t control is Alec Wilson. Nobody can. He can be so lovely, but when he’s having a bad day, even the teachers get panicked.

Alec’s nice, but you have to get to know him. If you don’t know him, he just seems unstable, getting really violent all of a sudden for no reason. He’s been pretty sweet to me, in private. Once, when I was walking down the ramp to the playground, Cara stuck her foot out and tripped me in front of everybody. I scraped my cheek on the pavement. After she left, Alec took me to the nurse and stayed with me while I got a band-aid.

He saw the sketch of my spring dress and said he really liked it. He said I should be a fashion designer, and that if I wore the outfit to school, I’d set a new trend. He asked if he could keep a copy to trace because the drawing was so skilled. He’s great, when he’s not swearing. Once, when I had my hair half-up-half-down, he slipped me a poem that read, “I like your hair-do, you play the kazoo, the kazoo goes poo, and I love you.” But then he denied it was him that wrote it when Cara and Amber confronted him. That hurt my feelings, but he had no choice.

So yesterday, we were in English, taking turns reading from the textbook. Most people try and sound bored while they read, but that’s so dumb. You don’t sound cool just because you’re bored. You just sound bored.  I love to read, and when I read aloud, people can tell that about me. I try to put some feeling behind it and do voices if I can. I read like an actor would.

“You don’t sound cool just because you’re bored. You just sound bored.”

Alec sits next to me, and I guess he liked how I read, because when it was his turn, he went above and beyond the call of duty, making crazy high voices and crazy low voices. He wasn’t taking it seriously, but at least he was being creative. We all thought it was pretty funny. All of us but Cara and Amber, who are looking at Miss Lill like, “Why are you letting him get away with this?” As if they’re such perfect adults. Miss Lill is just sitting behind her desk with her arms crossed with this dark expression on her face. She interrupts him:

“Alec, can you please read the story in a normal voice?”

He’s like, “Yeah.”

Then she says, “Well, can you do it, please?”

And he’s like, “Yeah.”

Then he goes back to reading, but he does it all in swear words, but intonating it like he’s saying regular words.

He does things like this all the time, but he’s never gone this far. Miss Lill’s mad. She tells him to stop and read properly, but instead he makes a fart sound with his mouth. A few kids snort at that.

Miss Lill gets out of her seat and walks slowly over to his desk. She and Alec just look at each other. Her eyes are huge, her fists are tight, the whole class is watching.

Then Jamie Triplehorn starts laughing. Jamie Triplehorn always laughs at the absolute worst times. We’ll be learning about death or something, and he’ll just start laughing.

Miss Lill’s tense; she whips her head around so fast she hurts her neck. She grunts loud and makes this face like a lime. The whole class is just gone, laughing hysterically. Nobody can breathe. It’s bad. Cara and Amber are rolling their eyes at each other, pretending they’re not part of us.

Miss Lill is getting tenser and tenser. Her whole body is shaking. Then, in this crazy deep voice like a demon she yells, “Shut the fuck up!” Her voice is so deep; we can feel the vibrations in our butts through our chairs. Everybody’s quiet. We’re scared. Alec Wilson’s not, though, he makes his voice even deeper and more demon-y and says, “No, you shut the fuck up!”

What happens next happens fast:

Miss Lill reaches down and grabs a fistful of his hair, which she uses to pull him right out of his seat, to the front of the room. His face gets red, and he’s yelling, “Let me go, let me go!” She slams him down on the ground and pins his arms with her knees. Even though he’s one of the tallest boys in our class, he’s still not as big as Miss Lill.

She’s right on top of him, shrieking in his face, “Don’t you ever swear at me! Don’t you ever swear at me!” and it’s clear she’s lost it. Even Cara and Amber are terrified.

And then Alec starts to cry. It’s something nobody’s ever seen before. He gets angry, but he never cries. It’s a big cry; his nose is full of snot and he’s hiccupping. He’s even redder, now. He’s given up being angry; he’s not going to fight back, and when he sobs, “Get off me,” it’s a plea, not a demand.

But Miss Lill is calm again and she says, “Oh, you want me to feel sorry for you, now? Who here feels sorry for Alec?” Nobody raises a hand; that would be suicide. He’s just hiccupping into the ground, not even struggling anymore. She takes a deep breath and asks, “Are you going to keep being disruptive?” He says no.

She goes back to her desk, and he goes back to his. He doesn’t look at anybody.

Miss Lill smoothes her clothes and asks Jamie Triplehorn to pick up reading where Alec left off, which is crazy, because everybody forgot we were even in the middle of English. But what else are we supposed to do?

Jamie starts reading, which is the worst because he has a stutter, but everybody is being super quiet and respectful.

Then Alec starts hitting his head against his desk. He’s doing it rhythmically, like rocking a cradle. Miss Lill ignores him at first, but he starts really bashing his head, harder and harder. Jamie’s stuttering gets worse, and I’m watching Alec, and as his head whips up, I see blood. I shoot my hand in the air to tell Miss Lill, and she says, “He’s fine.” But he keeps bashing away, and there’s more and more blood. Jamie stops reading because everyone’s stopped paying attention. Nobody can take their eyes off Alec. Amber puts her hand up. “Um, Miss Lill, there’s a lot of blood,” and, of course, the teacher pays attention to her.

“ … it’s flat to his face like a Pablo Picasso nose.”

Miss Lill comes over and grabs Alec by the hair again, presumably to stop him from bashing his head, but he’s too strong. He uses the backlash of her hand to hit his head really hard against his desk. There’s a loud crack. She lets go of his hair. He’s still for a second. Then he lifts up his head, and his nose is crooked. Really crooked; it’s flat to his face like a Pablo Picasso nose. He’s covered in blood.

Everybody’s too shocked to even say, “Ew.” Miss Lill sighs deep and says, “Alec, you’re going to have to come with me to the office.” He smiles wide, and there’s blood all through his teeth. He gets up and tips a fake hat and bows, and says, “With pleasure, Madame,” but it’s not funny. Not even Jamie Triplehorn laughs. Then he and Miss Lill leave to go to the nurse’s office. But before he goes, he throws something on my desk. It’s my dress drawing. He’d been holding on to it all class. It’s kind of wet from his sweaty hands.

I showed the drawing to my Mom this morning and asked her if it would be hard to make. She put it on the fridge with a magnet, and looked at it, tilting her head. She said the dress fit itself was pretty basic, but that the scalloped hem might be a challenge. I said I was up for it. I really want to start dressing like myself.


Aurora Stewart de Peña lives in Toronto. She runs Birdtown & Swanville, a theatre company, with Nika Mistruzzi and Mark Aikman. The company is in residence at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Her plays have been produced in Toronto, Brooklyn, and North Yorkshire, and she’s been a contributor to Definitely Not the Opera and Little Brother Magazine.