I leaned up against the wall, letting my backpack take my weight and settling comfortably into my squishy blue shoes. To avoid the crush at the door, I slid over to the lockers, and slouched, throwing one foot up against the wall. I munched my barbeque potato chips and felt content, in the quiet way you do when you don’t even notice things are going well for you.
It was math next, and that meant a long, stupid test where I didn’t understand the vocabulary and muddled my way through twenty-so problems I didn’t care about and would probably never see in the real world. I had gotten to class early for the first time in weeks, so the door was still locked and the teacher off at lunch. A couple other kids were milling around me, and some more were meandering around the door across the hall. A familiar scene, with nondescript pimply faces, and basketball shorts, and high-heeled shoes. There was the girl who had fifteen boyfriends, and forty-two hair colors. And there were the sports kids, sweating and mired in their own profanity. There were the Regulars, like me, who shuffled off to class with one or two friends and were really nothing to notice.
And then there was the turtle.
He looked like a turtle. Shoulders hunched over, face to the ground, his long neck bent at the chin and his Adam’s apple bobbing. His hands were deep inside his pockets, and his Ninja Turtles t-shirt was just slightly too small. The cuffs of his jeans were ratty and torn, and the knees of his pants looked white with wear. His face was what captivated me most. He looked happy. He looked alone, but happy. I was suddenly jealous of his ability to be comfortable within his own shell. Eying him with an eyebrow up, I slid the last chip in my mouth, then crumpled up the bag.
That’s where it all went wrong. From across the hall, a million miles away and too close all at the same time, I watched as the turtle was dragged out of his shell.
“Hey-y, man!” a sports kid, complete with loafers and aztec-print shirt ambled his way. The smile slid off the turtle’s face, and he scuffed the toe of his tennis shoes around in the puddle of his untied laces. He said nothing.
“I said ‘hello,’ man,” the kid in loafers said. He hunched his shoulders, crouched, and then put his face really close to the other kid’s in a fast, calculated movement. The movement of a predator, trying to scare. “Why don’t you give me a high-five?” He put his palm up, fingers outstretched.
I had never seen a more threatening gesture.
His open palm was frightening.
“C’mon, I said hi. Gimme a high five.” His hand, with five fingers up, hovered, closer and closer to the turtle’s face. Then lowered. I breathed a sigh of relief. But then I noticed his hand was getting closer and closer to the turtle’s chest. His shell was about to be breached. He was going to be dragged out, pale underbelly quivering, and chewed alive by these wolves in aztec print and loafers.
“Hey hey hey,” I said in my loud, rattling voice, the voice I only use when corralling kids at family parties. I took a deep breath and stepped across the hall.
I stepped forward, two huge steps, spanning the distance from safe anonymity to the horridly uncomfortable. I crossed that hallway in two steps, two footfalls, two heartbeats, too scared.
My soft blue shoes were spongy underneath my heels, springing upward every time I set my toes down, propelling me forward and whispering go, go.
I was there.
I took a deep breath.
“You leave him alone.”
“Aww, I was only high fivin’ him!”
“He’s obviously uncomfortable. Why don’t you lay off it?”
“Lay off it. Leave him alone.”
My hands bulged with nervous tension around my potato-chip bag. My ears were filled with raging blood, and my eyes with rising indignation. I stared at that wolf. My blue shoes touched the toes of his loafers. I was ten feet tall, there, in that hallway. Ten feet tall and defending some dumb turtle I had never met. But I was only a Regular, and so my giant’s status went unnoticed. My mud-brown eyes were still a million miles away, staring at the face of that wolf, square chin set in wobbling anger. The wolf’s teeth were right there.
“Fine.” he mumbled under his breath. I watched, standing in the way, as he slunk into his class. I was disgusted.
I didn’t look at the turtle. It seemed too intimidating to look into his eyes and see… what? What? I couldn’t guess. So I didn’t look. That turtle I had just defended was stronger than me. His inner strength was his fortress, untied shoes and turtle shell intact while I shivered and quaked in my blue shoes. I had to become a giant to talk to those boys, and he just stood there in his turtle shell.
And so he simply nodded and smiled at me, while he slid into class, right behind that wolf. He walked in, adam’s apple bobbing, while I had to clutch the wall to still my racing heartbeat.
High school is no fairy tale. This wasn’t quite a happy ending. The turtle may once have been shell-less. It had to be made, boxed into his shell by people like those wolves. And little old me, who turned into a giant, only had my blue shoes to comfort me. The turtle had no one.
High school is no fairy tale.
But in that moment, I was a giant.