A story about being different and finding friendship
Mary Vaster would rather drop dead than go to Gym class but on Monday morning at 10:30 a.m., she poured into the locker room with the other fifth grade girls. They changed at their lockers as Mary made her way through the noise. Please don’t follow me…Please don’t follow me, she whispered to herself as she passed by them. She had almost reached the toilet stall when Susan McCallister called out, “A whole turkey for Mary.”
Pushing her one-hundred seventy-seven-pound body into the stall, she locked the door and then sat on the toilet. While she undressed Mary listened to the girls laughing as if they were watching their favorite cartoon. She wanted to laugh with them, to have them talk to her, but they never did.
Susan crawled into Mary’s stall, yelling to the others she said, “Mary has a bra on. What big tits she has.”
“Get out before I step on your face.”
“Whale lady wants to squash my face,” Susan laughed.
Mary motioned as if she were going to stomp on Susan’s pretty little face. After Susan scrambled away into the adjacent stall, Mary squeezed into her Fort Ridge Academy gym shirt. The synthetic material rubbed against her arms, and she bumped her elbow on the stall wall causing pain to shoot up to her shoulder. Putting on her shorts meant it was time to leave the stall.
Ever so slowly, Mary placed her school clothes into a locker. It was August, only the second week of school and already she wanted to change schools. I look like an elephant she told herself as she slunk into the gym wearing her yellow shirt and blue shorts. Knowing her dad wasn’t going to let her change schools for the third time in two years just because people teased her, she charitably hoped to become invisible instead.
Susan, with her blonde ponytail bouncing from side to side, ran up to Mary showing her teeth in what could only be a deceitful smile. “Get away from me. I mean it.” Mary walked onto the basketball court.
“I just want to be your friend,” Susan said, getting on her tip toes to put an arm around Mary’s shoulders.
“No you don’t,” Mary jerked away.
The other girls leaped into the air chanting, “Fat Mary needs to burn that fat.” They trapped her in a circle of yellow shirts and blue shorts. She expected the girls to end their chant when Mr. Green stepped into the gym, but he seemed preoccupied with his own thoughts.
“Please tell them to stop,” she called out as Mr. Green walked pass them.
“Fat Mary needs to burn that fat.”
“Shut up,” Mary said even louder. Kicking and punching but not really aiming for anyone, she caught only air and heat flooded her face. “Just leave me alone.” Mary grabbed Susan’s dangling ponytail, she tugged hard causing Susan to skreiched.
“Alright, alright that’s enough,” Mr. Green called out. He squeezed Mary’s wrist until she released Susan’s hair.
“I asked you to make them stop.”
“Are you ok?” he asked Susan.
“Yes, but Fat Mary tried to kill me.”
“No I didn’t–you liar!”
“Calm down everyone and lineup, we’re playing volleyball today,” Mr. Green stretched his arms and pointed, “You, you, you and you team captains. Four teams, six girls per team.” He swiped his hand into the middle of the girls, “You ten here and you ten there.” He pointed to the far court and then pointed at one of the team captains saying, “Heads or tails.”
“Heads.” she answered.
Mr. Green threw the coin into the air and then caught it. “Heads it is. You pick first.”
After the ninth-pick Mary looked down at the floor. She was the last pick which put her on Susan’s team. “Ok fat Mary, I’m stuck with you. You can serve first.” Mary loved one thing about volleyball. She pounded the ball over the net. If only the school had co-ed gym classes, then she could see how she measured up against the boys. Susan positioned the other girls, and then said, “Ok serve now!”
Mary’s first serve was an ace, but no one cheered. After her next serve the ball came right back at Mary, her shoes squeaked on the floor as she positioned to hit the ball. She passed it to another girl who spiked it over the net. With sweat pouring down her face, feeling a little short of breath, she scored another point. It was seven to Zero.
“Look at fat Mary move that fat,” someone yelled out.
“Shut up and leave me alone.” Her serve flew over the net. When the ball came to her again, she whacked it out of bounds causing a side-out.
“First name Mary, last name Fat,” the girls chanted as they rotated positions.
“Let’s play,” someone shouted.
The server hit the ball over the net resuming the game. The other team aimed the ball at Mary, forcing her to chase around the court, going back and forth three, four and then five times they targeted her until they scored a point. A few side-outs later, Mary found herself at the net. Her heart pounded. For several serves, they spiked the ball right at her, showing their wicked glee every time they scored. Even the girls on her own team laughed at her. No one had to say it, when her team lost, she knew it was her fault.
The girls switched sides, readying themselves for another game. Mary walked over to Mr. Green, “May I get some water, please?”
He stood up, looking past her, he said, “Ok girls, let’s take a break. You got five minutes.”
Everyone ran to the water fountains at the back of the gym, wanting to be first, the girls pushed and shoved working to get a drink. Feeling cold, dizzy and drenched in her own sweat, Mary headed to the water fountains. Mary twitched, jerked her head and then opened her eyes. She focused on the white pellet Mr. Green held near her nose.
“Nurse needed at the gym,” he said into his phone as she started to come around. “Stay here. Don’t get up. The nurse is coming.” When Mary started crying, Mr. Green looked down at her. “Mary,” he said, with such gentleness, it surprised her. “You’re okay. The nurse will check you over when she gets here. In the meantime, take some deep breaths.”
“I’m sorry,” she said crying.
Mr. Green changed positions and squatted beside her. He took both her hands, placing them over her chest, he said, “Pay attention to your breathing and relax yourself.”
“Everyone is looking at me.”
“No, all the girls are waiting in the hall. Please, stay calm and just wait for the nurse.”
Moments after the gym door opened, Mary saw white shoes near her head. The nurse knelt beside her, “Listen sweetie,” she said with the softest voice. “I’m Nurse Walters.” She touched Mary’s forehead. Mary looked up, relaxing in response to the nurse’s soft copper eyes and the smile on her face. “Do you feel any pain?” Nurse Walters asked.
“No. Can I get up now?”
“Yes, but do it slowly. First, roll onto your side and then sit yourself up.” The nurse was a stocky woman, with large firm arms that easily reached around Mary to help her stand. “Let’s get you back to the nurses’ station.”
In the nurse’s office Mary drank juice, ate some crackers and felt the cool cloth on the back of her neck.
“Did you eat breakfast, today?”
“No, I woke up late.”
“You need to eat and especially drink water too.”
“I don’t need to eat. Everyone already teases me,” Mary played with the empty juice container.
Nurse Walters wrinkled her nose. “Did your parents talk to your teachers about the other kids,” the nurse asked pulling over a stool.
“My mom died three years ago, and my dad works all the time.” Mary told the nurse all about how the girls picked on her every time she went to gym class.
“Alright then, maybe we’ll see about you coming to my office instead of going to your regular gym class?”
Mary bounced down from the exam table. “No gym shorts?” she asked.
“Not at first. We’ll work up to it.”
On Wednesday morning, there was only a little old man in the nurse’s office. He scribbled in a notebook. His hands moved across the page in short bursts as if he were working on something important. When Mary interrupted him, he looked over his glasses. “Yes, what do you need,” he said.
“I’m here for Mrs. Walters,” she handed him a hall pass.
“Have a seat. She will be back soon.” He returned the pass and then wrote something in his notebook.
Mary waited several minutes, the whole time believing the nurse had forgotten about her. I bet this is what I’ll do every day, she thought, just sit here bored. Although she didn’t want to sit there bored to death looking at the old man write in his notebook, she did think it was way better than going to gym class.
“Sorry you had to wait.” Nurse Walters said when she came into the room. She wore sneakers and a Fort Ridge gym uniform. She looked like a coach, not a nurse. Mary noticed how her leg muscles bulged like that page in her anatomy book, except with skin on them.
“I thought you forgot.”
“Nope, here I am. I’ll be back in an hour,” she told the writing man.
Feeling like a duckling, Mary followed the nurse through the school and out of the building. They walked until they reached the Fort Ridge high school campus. Nurse Walters opened the gate with the key that hung around her neck. Mary stared at the black track, wondering if she had to run around it.
“Ready to start?”
“Do I have to run?”
“No, we’re going to walk. Our goal is one mile. That’s four times around.”
“I’m going to just die.”
“You won’t die. See the benches around the track?
“We can stop anytime you need a break.”
They stepped on to the track. Mary walked slow, but nurse Walters didn’t seem to notice. The hot sun burned into her back as she moved around the track. They were only halfway around but Mary’s heart pounded in her ears and her breathing got louder too.
“Let’s take a rest.” The nurse gave Mary a bottle of water. “How is the school year so far?”
“I love my classes. Especially biology, math and anatomy. And the teachers don’t allow teasing in class.” Mary told her all about dissecting a frog. She liked the way the nurse’s eyes grew wide when she talked about taking out the heart. Nurse Walters even laughed when Mary said, “The boys were scared, but not me.”
The nurse stood. “Ok, lets walk a bit more,” she said. The next time Mary got winded, the nurse told her to take a sip of water. “Do you know about walking games?”
Mary shook her head and then put the cap back on her water.
“Let’s start with the alphabet game.”
Mary liked the game because it took her mind off walking. As they completed their first lap around the track, Mary called out Appendix, Bread, Crabs and she added Doughnuts. They played the game all the way to S but stopped while Nurse Walters silenced her phone alarm saying, “Time to head back.” They cut across the grass at the center of the track and then walked out of the gate playing the alphabet game. Mary jumped around when the nurse forgot Tyrannosaurus because it meant she had won.
Three days a week, Mary met the nurse instead of going to gym class. After the first week, she went to the nurse’s office for breakfast and lunch too. In there, she ate the special meals the nurse suggested to her father. Every few days, she’d get a whole new box and her father never complained about paying for them. He said, “Now, I don’t have to worry about seeing after your eating.” At home, she made her special dinner every day at 5:30, making sure to follow all of the instructions.
By October, she wore her gym clothes for their walks, but she got to change in the nurse’s station. On the first Wednesday in October, Mary met Andy Johnson, a fragile looking boy with an exceptionally pale face. He was sitting in her chair when she came to the nurse’s station.
“Good Morning, Mary,” Nurse Walters greeted her. “This is Andy. I asked him to walk with us. How does that sound?”
It sounded awful. Mary didn’t know what to say, having Mrs. Walters all to herself was fantastic. Working hard not to disappoint the nurse, she said, “It’s okay, I guess.”
That day, nurse Walters walked with Andy. She instructed Mary to go around four-times. They were working up to six times around, so Mary knew the nurse was being nice on account of inviting Andy along. On her third lap Mary slowed to walk next to Andy. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
“I have arthritis,” Andy answered walking like an old man.
“My grandma has that. I thought only old people got it.”
“He has juvenile arthritis,” nurse Walters answered. “Go ahead with your laps. I know, you have at least one more to do.”
Mary remembered how she liked it when Nurse Walters stayed with her. “Do you know the alphabet game?” she asked.
“No, never heard of it.”
“I can teach you. First, what grade are you in?”
“I’m in sixth grade.”
Mary explained the game and then called out “Apple” starting with the easiest word of all. Andy added hard to remember words like biometrics, haggis and nauseated. After the second round, Nurse Walters said, “You two play fast. I’m sitting this one out.” The game got faster and the words harder but Mary loved it. When Andy got tired, Nurse Walters told Mary to keep walking while she and Andy rested. For the first time, Mary found herself wanting to speed around the track. The way she figured, the faster she got around the sooner she could talk to Andy.
For several weeks, they met in the nurse’s station wearing their Fort Ridge gym clothes. Both Mary and Andy had advanced math and science classes. Their games expanded to multiplication and then to calling out the elements. Mary learned to get her laps done quick so that she could finish up with Andy.
On Tuesday, the last day before the Thanksgiving holiday, Andy found Mary at her locker. “Want to come over for Thanksgiving,” he asked.
“I’m not sure that—”
“Isn’t your father going to be out of town?”
“Yes, but my aunt is coming to stay with me.”
“Fine, okay.” Andy reached into his book bag. “Want to come to my birthday party?”
Mary lowered her head. She had lost more than thirty pounds, but people still teased her.
“It’s just going to be my parents, my two sisters and my brother. Oh, and my best friend James. You know him. He likes you.”
“Let me think about it.”
“It’s Saturday… next Saturday, so be there,” he said and then headed off to class.
That night, she ate dinner and then went into her dad’s office. “Can I get some new clothes,” she asked.
Her dad smiled, “I’ve been wondering when you were going to do that. All your clothes are so big on you now.”
Mary hugged her dad. “But you’re leaving for a whole month. I want to go to Andy’s party wearing my new clothes.”
“Your Aunt Susan will be here. She can take you.”
Having a woman to help pick out clothes sounded even better than having her dad go along. When she crawled into bed that night all she could think about was going to Andy’s party. She was going to look so pretty in her new clothes.