Once upon a time, I took a creative writing class in college. I was smitten with the short story! And, so I entered the second story I ever wrote seriously into the University of Alaska/Anchorage Daily News Creative Writing Contest in 2004. My story, “Clever Brianne Reynard” received an honorable mention in the College Fiction division. Wow! I’m just as surprised today as I was that sunny summer Sunday when I bought a newspaper and saw my name printed. Especially, after re-reading my story and doing a bit of cringing.
As a treat for you, I’m sharing the full story here! First, some photographic evidence.
Now for the main attraction! Please note, I didn’t make any changes despite really wanting to. Enjoy!
Clever Brianne Reynard
By T. Budnik
Second hour had just started. I was in English. Mr. Beckis had just given the fast write prompt for the day: “How do you view Jane Eyre’s return to Mr. Rochester? Is it good for her to make the return, or should she have continued living independently, finding a job as a governess?” Great, a class filled with a discussion on the oppression of the British Victorian woman. I knew where this was going. One half of the class would proclaim Jane a victim of the Victorian opinion of women saying that Jane had to marry someone and she just preferred Mr. Rochester over St. John. The kid who had made plans to go to law school back when he was in middle school would say that she wasn’t oppressed due to the fact that Mr. Rochester had become disfigured in Jane’s time away from him and that she had made a free choice to return to him.
I knew she wasn’t oppressed and that her returning to marry a disfigured man wasn’t necessarily evidence of her free will. I knew she was a woman. She had sexual and intellectual and independent desires. She loved Mr. Rochester, she just had to get away and do her own thing for a while, and she did. She satisfied all of her desires, she wasn’t oppressed, she knew what she wanted and part of that was being a woman.
I wrote a sentence and decided that I needed to get out of there. I was hungry. I pulled out my school-issued planner with a couple of lined pages in the back of it that served as a hall pass. I wrote the date and the time like a good student and wrote “bathroom” in the location slot. The ass-clown of the class (every class has one) got up and approached Mr. Beckis just as I was going to stand up. I couldn’t hear what the ass-clown asked of Mr. Beckis, but I heard Mr. Beckis say, “Class just started five minutes ago, couldn’t you have taken care of this during the break?” He said this with his eyebrows raised in displeasure. No one liked the ass-clown and I especially didn’t like him now that he had blown my chance of leaving early.
I had to wait awhile so I wrote a paragraph and then walked up to Mr. Beckis, who was shuffling papers on his desk. I don’t think he ever read the papers; he just shuffled them. On the wall behind his desk was a wall-hanging. I don’t know what kind of pattern it was—it had a bunch of triangles. His wife must have made it for him. My mom was in the same “Quilt n’ Chat” group as his wife. It was just a bunch of women who got together every Tuesday night to work on their quilt projects and gossip. I don’t think my mom ever really talked to Mrs. Beckis, but both my mom and Mr. Beckis had confirmed the connection by telling me they knew each other through Mrs. Beckis and the Quilt n’ Chat group, like I had cared.
I handed him my planner opened to the hall pass page. He took it, looked at it, and silently initialed the entry. He handed it back to me and smiled. I slipped out the door, closing it carefully so it didn’t make a sound. Teachers liked it when students did this. They thought it made up for the inconsiderateness of getting up and leaving in the middle of a class.
Oh, I did go to the bathroom because I did have to go. But, like I said, I was hungry and the lunch break wasn’t for another hour and twenty minutes. I decided to get something to eat. I left the school through the side door. I didn’t have to walk by the office and the door was near the bathrooms. No one was in the parking lot but I sashayed my ass across the lot just in case someone was watching from the school. I looked like I had a purpose, not like I was leaving campus. I started up my parents’ Ford Escort and turned on the radio I had set to the rock station. A quasi-religious rock band was playing and it pissed me off. It was better than the oldies or top 25 stations, so I kept it on.
The drive to the Kwik Mart was short. I bought two Slim Jims and a bottle of Jolt. The cashier gave me a look like she knew I was supposed to be in school, but she had nothing on me. I knew she hadn’t ever graduated from high school and that when she saw GED written, she probably wondered what a “ged” was. She had probably tried to look it up in the dictionary numerous times, but found no success.
I opted to drive back to school and eat my snack in the parking lot. I didn’t want to hang around the Kwik Mart. All of the school bus drivers hung out there, their cheesewagons lining the backside of the small building and they congregated inside the store sitting at the small tables. They often smelled of BO, wore dirty flannel shirts, and I didn’t like them.
By the time I got back to school a Stone Temple Pilots song was on the radio. I entered the school parking lot through the front entrance that went past the separate woodshop and parked the car. I turned up the radio and opened my first Slim Jim. I ate it quickly knowing that I had another and I washed it down with Jolt. The second Slim Jim was better than the first and the Jolt tasted good with the spicy flavor of preserved beef in my mouth. I was only able to drink half of the Jolt, though, so I put it into the cup holder for later.
Twenty-five minutes had passed so I didn’t miss much of English. I got there in time to hear Mr. Beckis coax the class into contextualizing passages that he had selected and read aloud in his best NPR voice. I hadn’t been seated for five minutes when he turned to me and asked, “Brianne, can you juxTApose these two themes for us and tell us what you think they do for the novel as a piece of literary art?”
“Well,” I started getting ready to seriously answer the question, but law-school-boy was always annoyingly there to help out.
“Why would you do that?” he started, “To put those themes together is ridiculous. To support one theme you need evidence that disproves the second theme. The themes can’t co-exist within the text. You have to have either one or the other. They’re contradictory.” It was a classic remark from him. Other students were in awe. I knew better; he just spewed crap and although it sounded good and seemed smart, he didn’t say much of anything. He couldn’t discuss anything seriously; he was always focused on the point of discussing it.
I didn’t get a chance to answer Mr. Beckis’s question. If I had been anyone else, he would have been asking me the question as a punishment for my extended absence, but he called on me because he was tired of the discussion and he wanted me to jump-start the class. Mr. Beckis liked me and showed no signs of being annoyed with my departure. He liked the papers I wrote for his class, although a majority of them I never got back. I don’t think he thought I was smart or anything like that. I think he just liked the fact that I never wrote about the same things other kids did. Half of my work never made any sense, but for him it was better than reading the same tripe thirty times. He was always writing praises on the few papers he handed back and sometimes he would catch me right before or after class to pay me a compliment. He wasn’t praising my work, rather thanking me for doing something different. I think he was bored with his job.
The lunch hour couldn’t come soon enough. I was still hungry. Slim Jims and Jolt will only take the edge off of hunger, never satisfy it. My friends and I ate lunch in the same place every day. They weren’t really good friends, but they were people. We all gathered in our spot in the hall and started our usual chatter. We talked about T-shirts. Like every high school kid across the country, we wanted to design T-shirts. T-shirts with clever sayings, anti-something T-shirts, T-shirts that didn’t make any sense: we were very Po Mo. We had shortened postmodern to Po Mo so that it could be even more postmodern, or at least we claimed we conceived this shortened name. Our honors Arts and Ideas course had taught us too much.
I was half way through my chunky peanut butter sandwich and had started to talk with my friends about the two girls who had gotten into a fist fight the day before. Everyone knew about it; they broke the glass to the trophy case. One of my friends reported that the girls were still at school. They both had showed up to the history class they all had together. The rumor was that Mr. Dempster, the vice-principal, was slow on filling out disciplinary paperwork, if he ever did it at all, so the girls had gotten off. Just then we spotted Mr. Dempster walking towards us from the very end of the hall. He was doing his vice-principal stroll: it was slow, because he didn’t think he had to walk fast. One arm hung down his side holding a walkie-talkie (no one knew who had the second one, but he did on occasion talk into it), and his other hand was holding rolled papers. I had to suppress the caffeine that was still running in my veins from causing me to laugh at his trademark walk.
“Brianne Reynard,” he said in a strong, deep voice, looking at me, “come with me.” I couldn’t imagine what he wanted. So I asked him.
“Just come with me. We’ll discuss this in my office,” he told me with an expressionless face, and I shrugged and followed him down the hall to his office.
He closed the door behind us and told me to sit down. Not wanting to waste my perfectly good sandwich, I continued to eat it. “Now, the shop teacher saw you drive into the parking lot this morning and sit in your car for about fifteen minutes. Can you tell me what that’s all about?”
“Um, I went out to my car for a book,” I said lying horribly because I knew the shop teacher couldn’t have seen me sitting in my car. He may have seen me drive past the woodshop, but I had parked on the opposite end of the lot.
“Brianne, I know that’s not the truth. I checked in with Mr. Beckis and he said you were gone for twenty-five minutes in second hour and had filled out your pass as if you were going to the bathroom. What were you doing in your car?” The school’s closed-campus policy is what made him so concerned with me sitting in my car. The parking lot was considered “off campus.” I decided to come clean on this stupid incident. Two Slim Jims and a Jolt weren’t worth lying for.
“I was hungry during second hour and decided to get something to eat. I took my car down to the Kwik Mart and bought some Slim Jims and a Jolt Cola. I drove back to school and sat in my car, ate them, and then went back to class,” I said smiling because the offense was so ridiculous.
“Do you think you’re funny? I know you wouldn’t eat anything like Slim Jims and definitely nothing as fattening as Jolt cola,” he said staring at me with squinted eyes and his lips tightened against the flabby flesh of his face. He seemed to be sizing me up.
“No,” I said shrugging my shoulders and wondering why the guy was giving me such a hard time. This was the first time I’d ever been called into a principal’s office and he was treating me like I was some repeat offender. “I bought and ate some mid-morning Slim Jims and that’s it.”
“You wanna play this game? Fine,” Mr. Dempster stated. “Follow me,” he commanded. He led me to a small windowless room with three desks in it. He told me to sit down and gave me some paper to write a confession. The paper he gave me was what he had been carrying around rolled up. I told him that I had already confessed, but I think he wanted more excitement and that’s why he put me in the small room and demanded a written confession. Mr. Dempster said that he would be back in an hour and left.
When I was alone, I didn’t write anything. He didn’t leave me a pencil. It was boring in that room. I had been in there once before. My junior year the school nurse and my guidance counselor, who I didn’t even know at the time, had called me out of my third period. They brought me into the room where they had wheeled a TV and VCR into. Both of them asked me if I had an eating disorder. I couldn’t believe that they had asked me that. I knew that I was thin, but how can I help genetics? The only reason why they had asked me was because they had seen my older sister attend this school and now my youngest sister was here at the school as well. I’ll just say that they both are normal—normally obese, that is. They told me that someone had “expressed their concern” for me. I told them that I didn’t have any problems and the whole time I explained to them that my mom (who they had never met) was really thin, they just gave each other worried looks. They wouldn’t tell me, though, who had been concerned with my size.
They left me alone and made me watch a video on eating disorders. The video was old. I think the girl who played Little Orphan Annie hosted the production, or maybe it was an ice skater. Anyway, they had told me to get one of them when the video was finished and that I could then leave. After they left, I pushed fast forward on the VCR and pulled a Glamour magazine out of the English binder I had taken with me when I left the class for the conference.
This was last year and I had English third period then. I often took a Glamour magazine with me, especially while we were reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I would grow tired of the students explaining over and over again why the book shouldn’t be banned from any library because Huck had helped a slave. I knew that Huck was racist, though. He may not have believed in slavery, but the bastard felt he was better than Jim. How anyone could not see that was beyond me, and that’s why I read Glamour in class.
I read an article on finding trendy pants that make any sized woman look great. The video finished fast forwarding quickly, but I stayed in the small room for about half an hour longer because I preferred to read my magazine in peace and quiet and not over the noise of juniors debating the ethics and ethnics of Mark Twain’s book.
Mr. Dempster finally returned. He was still holding his walkie-talkie. He eyed the paper he had laid in front of me without lowering his head. “Where’s your confession?” he asked coldly and I could tell that he was feigning disinterest.
“No pencil,” I replied.
“You mean to tell me you’ve been sitting here for an hour and didn’t ask for a pencil and didn’t do anything? Do you want to be suspended?”
“No, not really, but you didn’t give me a pencil and you told me to stay here. What was I supposed to do?”
“Why were you out in your car?” he asked getting excited. His brow started to shine with sweat.
“I told you, I was eating Slim Jims and drinking Jolt. Yes, I violated the closed-campus policy, but that’s it.” I thought he was overreacting to the whole thing. I was getting tired of his disbelief.
“I don’t believe you. What were you doing in that car?” he asked again. I didn’t know what he was trying to get out of me. The fifteen minutes I was sitting in the car in the parking lot scarfing down the Slim Jims and chugging half a bottle of Jolt wasn’t enough time to do anything. I could tell he wanted something more exciting out of me. He wanted me to confess to smoking or dealing pot out in the parking lot, but who does that for fifteen minutes, just to return to class? He wanted to be able to call the police and have someone arrested from his school. Perhaps he wanted me to tell him that I was throwing up my breakfast. That way, he could have “rescued” me from an eating disorder. Confessing to an eating disorder would make the nurse and counselor happy at least. If either of those situations were the case, he would have been satisfied because then he could go down in vice principal history. He probably didn’t want to return to the pile of papers on his desk and do the paperwork necessary to have the two girls who were fighting yesterday officially suspended. He wanted action.
“Eating Slim Jims,” I told him again.
“You want five days of suspension? Tell me what you were doing.”
“Eating Slim Jims.”
“Seven days sound good to you Miss Brianne Reynard?” the vice principal said. That was it, I was sick of the guy who had nothing better to do than harass me and hold his walkie-talkie. I didn’t have anything to lose so I went for it. He put himself out there and I was going to strike.
“Miss Brianne Reynard? MISS Brianne Reynard?! What is that? You pull out my last name to belittle me, to pressure me into confessing and threaten me with a lengthened suspension, but you also use my marriage status? Miss? Miss? What, is it worth suspending me for seven days because I’m not married? I’m seventeen! Of course I’m not married, but I’ll be damned if I sit here and take this crap from you. You can coerce me into confessing by threatening suspension, but I won’t take being belittled by a title that explicitly shows my marriage status. It is men like you that make this a male world. Do you not respect a woman if she’s not married? Is that why most of your faculty is male?”
I liked the last question I spewed at the unsuspecting Mr. Dempster. I was pleased with myself for being able to use such a small fact so effectively.
I could see the surprise in his eyes. I could tell that he actually started to think about what I had just said. His eyes told me that he was thinking about his unmarried sister who had graduated from college and was a secretary for a law firm. He was thinking about why after working there so long she had never been promoted to paralegal, even though she had all the necessary education. I knew all of this because my dad was friends with one of the attorneys at the firm. A look of surprise and guilt came into his eyes and his shoulders tensed, but I could tell that he wouldn’t let me win. My burst of feminism, which I don’t even know if it made sense or if I even believe it, had caught him off guard but it wasn’t enough.
“Three days, Brianne. I don’t want to see you here for the next three days. You can leave immediately,” he said gripping his walkie-talkie tighter and strolling out of the room in an extra careful vice principal stroll as if he was reaffirming his authority over me. Three days is a lot of school to miss. But I realized that it was Tuesday and the suspension meant a nice five day weekend.
I knew that if Mr. Dempster hadn’t done anything to the girls who broke the trophy case, he wouldn’t ever get around to officially suspending me. So before leaving, I visited all of my teachers and asked them for the rest of the week’s work. They gave it to me without any resistance and were actually happy to do so. All of them, like Mr. Beckis, liked me and trusted me.
“Why won’t you be at school for the next three days?” Mr. Beckis asked me when I requested the homework. I told him and my other teachers that my grandmother was sick and my family was going to drive the three hundred miles to visit her. This lie completely covered up the whole Slim Jim incident because they’d never hear anything from Mr. Dempster.
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” Mr. Beckis said. He shuffled some papers on his desk like he was shaking a magic eight ball for an answer before he figured out what I had to do. “Here you go,” he said handing me a sticky note he had scribbled on and a book. “I hope your grandmother gets better,” he continued as he stood up and gave me a hug. I think I was uncomfortable with this unexpected hug more because he was a male teacher than because I was receiving it for a lie.
My parents found out about my Slim Jim incident, because I told them an hour or so that night before my mom left for her weekly Quilt n’ Chat session. They laughed, but told me that I shouldn’t do stuff like that. They only told me that because they thought that’s what real parents tell their kids. Honestly, they could care less about whether I skipped out of English class for twenty minutes to buy and eat some Slim Jims. They saw my report cards and liked my grades so they were slack with me.
Three days. That’s a lot of time. I have to write a one page handwritten paper for French about the planet with the lamp lighter in Le Petit Prince. That won’t take much time. I also have to read The Heart of Darkness for Mr. Beckis’s class. It’s short and looks interesting. My other classes I can’t make up. They’re all “lectures,” but I’ll copy the notes from someone. Three whole days and then a weekend. I think I’ll watch Oprah.