One day when it was “Show and Tell” in third grade, Mikey Johnson brought his dad’s medical bag to show what he wanted to be when he grew up. Miss Ahearn asked Mikey questions as he pulled out the stethoscope from the bag. You ached with wanting to raise your hand and say the word “stethoscope” before he could say it. Even though Amy’s big sister was going to nursing school, Daddy told you that you were too smart for that. “Being a nurse would be like filling your glass half-full.”
The lessons had started when you were three. You, Mummy, Daddy, and your baby brother, Steve, were living in the same house in Cicero where you had gotten hit by the car the summer before. Daddy said that at your last appointment, when the doctor was checking your head to make certain you had healed the place on your scalp where the car’s bumper had hit, (so much blood. why is Mummy crying? where’s Daddy?) the doctor had told Daddy that most of the big scar would be under your hair, so no one would ever see it. But then, he had said something really important to Daddy: “If you don’t start exercising Lorraine’s intelligence, she will lose it.”
So every night, after dinner at the kitchen table, Daddy had taught you to read, to tell time. He had taught you about machines, like pulleys, levers, and ramps. He taught you math. When the new Time-Life book came each month, that night you would look at the wonderful photos inside it. You loved the way the pages of the books smelled. It wasn’t as good as gasoline smelled, but those smooth, shiny pages didn’t smell like ordinary books. One of those books had been how you had learned about those machines; and, in another one, you had seen photos of a baby growing inside her mummy; and what the eye of a fly looked like under a microscope. Sometimes, the lessons would go so late that Mummy would come into the kitchen and say, “Ken, it’s way past her bedtime.” And you would feel sad because these nights with Daddy were your special times.
Once, Daddy poured two glasses of water in the plastic cups that felt nubby under your fingers. You had wished that you had real glass glasses to drink out of, but Mummy said that plastic wouldn’t break, but you didn’t like them because sometimes they would taste like the soap that Mummy used to wash the pots. Other times, if you were drinking milk, the plastic would smell like Cherry Kool-Aid, just like the plastic had turned red inside. When you drank out of the glasses that your cousin, Tracey had at her house, you never tasted anything else but what was in the glass. But sometimes, you thought that Mummy just told you that plastic wouldn’t break. They had really nice things at Tracey’s house that your house didn’t have, and so when you had asked Mummy if you could have a canopy bed like Tracey’s, Mummy had said that “money didn’t grow on trees,” and you had gotten a feeling under your skin that made you feel cold, like you were in trouble, but you didn’t know why. So you never asked again.
Daddy had told you that the “half-full” one meant that you were an optimist because you didn’t say it was “half-empty.” But he also said that these glasses were your “potential.” Daddy had talked about Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King and Bobby then. You and he talked about those three men a lot. Daddy had told you how Mahatma Gandhi had come to Manchester—that was where you and Daddy and Mummy were from before you came to America—and Gandhi had spoken to the factory workers and they had supported the Indian people after that. Daddy said that Dr. King and Bobby and Mahatma Gandhi had all filled their glasses to the top. They had been using all of their potentials when those men killed them.
“I know you’re not going to fill your glass just half-full. You are going to fill yours to the top. You could change the world.” Daddy would smile at you and that would make you feel all big inside because he said you were so special. But it scared you but you didn’t want to tell Daddy about being scared.
One night, you and he had decided that you were going to be a doctor. Daddy told you that doctors were special people who used all of their potentials, and it would be a good thing for you to do because you could help people and use your brain. So, from the time you had been four years old, every time you saw books about being a doctor, Mummy or Daddy would buy them for you
Mikey is talking about how his dad is a doctor. He wants to be a doctor because he thinks his dad has the best job in the world. Your bum itches but you know you can’t scratch it right now. You look at the top of your desk. You love this desk because you can tell it’s old. It’s got initials carved in the top of it. They have turned black and the rest of the desk is the same color as “Super Sugar Crisp.” That’s your favorite cereal but Mummy doesn’t let you have it every day. You and Steve have to share that and a box of plain cereal, like “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes,” when you go to the grocery store. You and Steve always finish the good cereal in a couple of days because you both eat more than one bowl on those mornings (unless Mummy catches you), and then you have to eat Corn Flakes until they’re all gone before Mummy will buy you more good cereal.
You rub your fingers in the grooves of the letters carved in the desk. Somebody wrote words on the desk, but those have been scratched out and you can’t read them. You think the desk should feel all rough. Instead, it’s all smooth and when you rub your fingers in the grooves of the letters it makes you feel that you should go wash your hands. But you don’t know why.
Mikey stopped talking. Everyone clapped. Those were the rules. You had to be “courteous.”
Miss Ahearn told Mikey what a good job he did and then she turned toward the class. Miss Ahearn is the same kind of pretty as Mummy. They have the same kind of hair because Miss Ahearn’s is about as long as her shoulder blades, too, and she has some of it combed on top and then toward the back of her head. It’s held there by a big, brown barrette. Mummy won’t let you have long hair because she says your blonde hair is “baby fine,” and since you hate brushing it, it always gets big knots in it and when Mummy brushes it out, you start crying. And you can’t see her, but you think it makes Mummy cry, too, but she keeps saying, “If you brush your hair every day, Lorraine, I wouldn’t have to do this.” And then one day she had taken you to the hair salon and ever since then you have had a pixie cut.
“Does anyone else in this class want to be a doctor?”
As soon as she started to ask the question your hand shot up. You wanted to be first.
Everyone laughed. You felt the icy squiggles in your stomach. It felt like you had to be sick, but it was more like the feeling you got when you had done something wrong—not the kind of naughty where Mummy shouted at you. That always made you cry. But this feeling was the kind of wrong when Daddy spoke so low that you had to sit without moving and you couldn’t cry because then you would miss something that he said. You hated the icky feeling more than anything in the world. You figured out that Daddy used his soft voice when you did something that he told you should make you feel “ashamed;” you didn’t know what that was supposed to feel like.
“Boys and girls, don’t laugh,” Miss Ahearn said. “Girls can grow up to be doctors.”
“No they can’t.” Scott sounded mad.
You were afraid of Scott because he had a crew cut, like the soldiers you saw on the black-and-white telly at night. He was much bigger than you, and on the playground, you were afraid that he would hit you. Last November, he had been one of the group of boys who had surrounded you under the jungle gym. “Girls are stupid,” he had said. “You should shut up, Lorraine.”
Mrs. Flowers, the playground lady, had started to walk over to you and the boys but they had seen her and they had just run away. You had told Mrs. Flowers that you had to go pee, and when she said you could go inside and use the girls’ room, you did, and then you had gone back to the classroom and sat at your desk and read a book until everyone had come back in from recess.
The day before Thanksgiving holiday—you thought everyone knew that the name of the Pilgrims’ boat was the Mayflower—Miss Ahearn called on Scott but he had been taking too long, and you had tried really hard to be patient, but you had stretched your hand up as high as you could and you said “Mayflower” and then he had said “teacher’s pet,” and you had heard it but you didn’t think Miss Ahearn had.
“No, Scott. Lots of doctors are women.” That seemed to make them laugh louder.
You had wanted to cry but you knew that Scott would just call you “stupid crybaby,” and then that would make you cry so hard that you would get the crying hiccups, and then you would have had to go see the nurse and you would have told her that your stomach hurt and could you please go home?
Miss Ahearn had grabbed the pointer from the chalk tray and she slammed it, whack! on her desk and everyone knew they had to “freeze,” but not like freeze tag.
You knew that this was your fault. Maybe if you hadn’t raised your hand, you wouldn’t want to cry.
(Still didn’t know what you’d done wrong. Still wanted to say you’re sorry.)
Lorraine Berry teaches creative nonfiction at a small state university in New York. Born in England, raised in Seattle, she follows the progress of Manchester City FC, on whose official site she was a blogger. She has worked at Talking Writing in various capacities for a while now. Her work has appeared in such places as Salon, Dame Magazine, Diagram, Slow Trains and a raven’s conspiracy of others. On Twitter, she’s known as @BerryFLW. You can read about her passion, “A Traveler’s Notes from terra incognita” at gofund.me/robertww1.