An Excerpt From
SM The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet
I hadn’t figured out a way to stop time, join the circus, or make myself invisible. I hadn’t been able to contract a serious (but not life-threatening) illness, change my identity, or get into the witness protection program. I hadn’t even been able to talk my mother into staying home or waiting in the car.
Instead, I had to follow Mom—dressed like an Elizabethan-era superhero with purple velvet cloak billowing and bells a’tinkling—down the hall. I had to escort my sister to the main office. I had to act like this was normal.
I had to start eighth grade.
Every seventh and eighth grader in the main hall watched us like we were a parade: They stopped spinning locker dials and cut off “how was your summer” conversations. The already confused sixth graders just stood and stared. I couldn’t blame them. I mean, how often do a woman dressed in full Shakespearean regalia, a seven-year-old, and a humiliated eighth grader traipse through the middle of a junior high school on the first day of classes?
So I kept my eyes glued to the floor a few feet in front of me, my face neutral, stayed as far back from them as I could . . . and tried not to see the gaping mouths or hear the giggles and murmurs that filled in behind us as we passed. Just as we reached the main office, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my two least favorite people: Saber Greene and Mauri Lee, nudging each other. Ugh.
Mom pushed the office door open and went in, followed by my sister. I scooted in last, which at least cut off my view of the not-so-dynamic duo, and tried to pull the heavy, slow-moving door closed.
“Good will to you.” It was Mom’s standard greeting.
Mrs. Pearl, the school secretary, didn’t even blink at Mom’s billowy poet blouse, cloak, severe bun, or teeny round reading glasses. To her, I’m sure my mother’s seventeenth-century attire was the height of style. No one had ever seen the secretary leave the office. For all we knew, she could have been there since the 1600s.
“Good morning and welcome back! This must be our new student,” Mrs. Pearl chirped. She leaned over the half wall surrounding her desk to get a glimpse of my sister, who was barely tall enough to see over it. Dezzie gave her a tight smile.
Our secretary sat down and pecked at the keys on her computer, one finger at a time. “Now, let me see . . . it’s Kennedy, right?”
My mother nodded. “Desdemona Kennedy.”
I shifted from foot to foot, feeling anxiety coil in my belly. This was not the way eighth grade was supposed to start. The computer churned and gurgled.
“Here you are! What a pretty name! Unique, like your sister’s.” Mrs. Pearl scanned the screen. “Schedule . . . schedule . . . Here we go!” The first bell rang.
“Is that the late bell?” Mom asked as the buzzing died down. She twirled the tassels on her cloak and picked at the hem. Dezzie rocked back and forth, from heel to toe, while we waited. I stuffed my hands into the pockets of my capris and clenched my fists.
“Three-minute warning,” Mrs. Pearl explained. My mouth went as dry as the top of her desk. This was actually happening. Would the freeze-frame scene in the hall be repeated every day? “Then we ring the late bell.”
“Well, better three hours too soon than a minute too late,” Mom replied, using one of her favorite Shakespeare quotes. I cringed.
Mrs. Pearl nodded. Her printer whirred to life. “Now, Desdemona,” she said, plucking the paper off the tray, “these are your classes. I see that your day ends after fourth period?”
“Yes,” Mom said. “That’s when she’ll go home to work on her college curriculum.” She placed a hand on my sister’s shoulder.
“And Hamlet will escort her to each room, or should I assign a student helper to do that?” Mrs. Pearl asked. The three pairs of eyes—Mom’s, Dezzie’s, and Mrs. Pearl’s—swung in my direction. I swallowed hard, then nodded.
Like it or not, my seven-year-old sister was in eighth grade with me.
This is how it happened:
The Scene: Two weeks before school begins. Mom, Dad, and me in the living room. Gold velvet drapes hang to the floor, heavy dark furniture lines the perimeter of the room. It’s clear that this space isn’t used much. Mom and Dad, seated on the sofa—what they call the “settee.” Me, in the chair across from them—what I call the “hot seat.”
Mom (grinning): We have something special to tell you!
Me (knowing that “special conversations” + living room = not good): . . . ?
Mom: We have been told that Desdemona needs some additional coursework before taking her next step. And we think it would be perfect if she did that work with you.
Me (sure I hadn’t heard right): With me? At HoHo?
Dad: She needs the social experience. She’s too young for high school.
Me (shocked): She’s too young for eighth grade too!
Mom and Dad exchange glances.
Me (trying to regain control): She’ll be bored. The work’s too easy for her. Teachers won’t know what to do with her.
Mom (frowning): She is going to follow her special academic curriculum in the afternoons, but will be taking regular fine art and music classes in the morning at Howard Hoffer. The decision has been made.
From that point on, there was no changing their minds.
See, Dezzie’s a genius. Certifiable. Her IQ is off the charts—she scored a 210 on some test when she was only two years old. Whatever that number means, it was high enough for two newspapers and a magazine to write about her. At four, Dezzie ripped through the assigned reading for my parents’ courses before Thanksgiving. She could barely hold a pencil, so she dictated assignments into a mini voice recorder. Seriously.
Mom and Dad homeschooled her, let her sit in on the classes they teach at Chestnut College outside of Boston, and gave her every “academic opportunity” they could.
So by the time she was five, she’d started her “immersion projects.” That’s her name for them. My name is “nutty obsessions.” A nutty obsession project starts when something catches her curiosity—something she reads about, something on the news, in a museum, whatever—and then she learns everything there is to know about it. So far, she’s “immersed herself” in Chinese political history, the Black Plague and its effect on medieval Europe, Olympic curling, Greek drama, and ornithology (the geektastic study of birds). She was supposed to be going to college full-time this year, but since she hadn’t taken any art or music, Chestnut College wouldn’t let her declare a major until she held a paintbrush or sang a song. Howard Hoffer Junior High to the rescue.
And Hamlet Kennedy to the land of embarrassment.
Mrs. Pearl passed Dezzie’s schedule to my mom.
“So, Desdemona will be in Mr. Symphony’s homeroom, with her sister,” Mrs. Pearl said. By the way her eyes jumped from my mom to Dezzie, it was clear that she didn’t know who she should be talking to. Behind me, the door kept opening as other kids came in to deal with first-day problems. I gazed at a spot over Mrs. Pearl’s desk and hoped that no other eighth graders were in the room.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my sister. And we actually get along, mostly because we don’t have much in common. There’s no reason for us to bug each other. I mean, really—what am I going to do, steal her math textbooks? Hide her pipettes?
But now we’d have one major thing in common. Something that I never had to share with her: school. A whole year’s worth—starting today.
“Then there’s music appreciation. After that, you’ll both go to Art IIB, then you’ll go to choir and the TLC room.” She glanced at my mother apologetically. “We scheduled the music classes close together, so we thought TLC would be the best place for Desdemona to wait until you can pick her up at lunchtime.” Mom had two morning classes this fall, and Dezzie was too young to walk home on her own.
“TLC? What’s that?” Dezzie asked. It was the first time she’d said anything since we’d left the house, and her pipsqueak-y voice snapped me out of my wishing-hoping-praying.
TLC was The Learning Center, a place where kids went to get extra help on their work.
“Well, she doesn’t need any extra help,” my mother said. I had to agree with her.
“We thought Desdemona could use the library and read during that period,” said Mrs. Pearl.
I wanted to shake my head, or snort, or roll my eyes at the thought of my super-smart sister in our junior high library. She’d probably read half the books in there already. She’d kill the other half in a week.
“I could do my calculus homework,” Dezzie suggested.
“Lovely idea!” chirped Mrs. Pearl. My mother beamed.
Where was that serious (but not life-threatening) illness when you needed it?