Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.
On Monday morning I wore my green platform boots to school for the first time since I had started at Edison Middle School.
It was the day of the poetry festival, and I was excited. At my old school, I had won the poetry ribbon every year. I’m horrible at sports, too shy to be popular and I’m not cute—but I do write good poetry.
The poem I wrote for the Edison Roetry Festival was about my dad. I had a good feeling about sharing how special he was to me, even if it was just with the fifth grade and Mrs. Baker.
English class was not until after lunch period on Mondays, so by the time we started poetry, I was so nervous my mouth was dry as toast. When Mrs. Baker called on me, I had to clear my throat, take a breath and swallow about ten times before I could speak. I didn’t even bother to look at my paper. I’d spent so much time perfecting the rhymes, and counting the beats, that I knew the poem by heart.
I had just started the third verse when I noticed Mrs. Baker was glaring furiously at me. I stopped in the middle of a word and waited for her to say something.
“Linda, you are supposed to be reading an original work, a poem you made up yourself, not reciting something you learned. That is called plagiarism!”
“Oh, but it’s not. I mean... I did make it up, it’s about my dad.” I heard a “Yeah, right!” from somewhere behind me, and someone else giggled.
I felt as if I’d somersaulted off the high dive and then, in midair, realized that there was no water in the pool. I opened my mouth to explain, but no words came out.
“You will leave the room and will not return until you are ready to apologize,” said Mrs. Baker. “Now. Go!”
My last thought was a flash of understanding as to why the kids had nicknamed her “Battle-Ax Baker”—then my brain just fizzled out, and I turned and left the room.
I’d been standing outside for about half an hour when Joseph, the school janitor, came over to ask me what heinous crime I’d committed to be banished for so long. He loved using unusual words.
We’d made friends one morning before school, when he saw me sitting alone, pretending to do homework. He invited me to help open up the classrooms, and after that, it sort of became my job. He always talked to me as we wiped down the chalkboards and turned on the heat. Just that morning he’d been telling me that Mark Twain once said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. I liked that. My dad would have liked it, too.
Now as Joseph waited for me to answer, he looked so kind and sympathetic that I poured out the whole story, trying not to cry. A tightness flashed over his face, and he jerked an enormous yellow duster out of the pocket of his gray overalls. “So what are you going to do?” he asked, rolling up the duster into a tight ball.
I shrugged, feeling helpless and sad.“I don’t know.”
“Well, you are not going to stand here all day, are you?”
I sighed. “I suppose I’ll do what she said. You know... say I’m sorry.”
I nodded. “What else can I do? It’s no big deal. I’ll just never write anything good in her class again.”
He looked disappointed with my response, so I shrugged once more and turned away from him.
“Linda.” The tone of his voice forced me to look back. “Accepting defeat, when you should stand up for yourself, can become a very dangerous habit.” He twisted the duster around his fingers. “Believe me. I know!”
He was staring right into my eyes. I blinked and looked down. His eyes followed mine, and we both noticed my green boots at the same time. Suddenly his face relaxed and creased into a huge smile. He chuckled and said, “You’re going to be just fine. I don’t have to worry about you. When you put on those boots this morning, you knew you were the only Linda Brown in the whole world.” As if he didn’t need it anymore, he cheerfully dropped the duster back into his pocket and folded his arms across his chest. “Those are the boots of someone who can take care of herself and knows when something is worth fighting for.”
His eyes, smiling into mine, woke up a part of me that had been asleep since I’d come to this school, and I knew that he was right about me. I’d just lost direction for a while. I took a deep breath and knocked on the classroom door, ready to face Mrs. Baker—ready to recite my poem.