A Clean Slate (Why Cursing in Class is Wrong and I Won’t Do It Again)
by Susie Derkins
It is not my fault that Calvin got in trouble on the first day of middle school. All I wanted was a fresh start. A clean slate. A chance to forget the horrible awfulness that fifth grade was. I would have thought Calvin would want that chance, too—not that I know how his fifth grade went, but if it was anything like first grade then he was going to need a clean slate.
First grade…what a year that was. It felt like we had barely moved to town when Dad left and the custody battle took the rest of the school year. I was too distracted and miserable to make very many friends. My grades have never been that low again. On top of all of that there was Calvin. Calvin at school, getting me in trouble and grossing me out at lunch and blowing off group projects. Calvin at home, with his stupid no-girls club and his icy snowballs and his games of house that were way too much like my real house.
I had actually almost forgotten about Calvin until today. Dad got custody, in the end, and his neighborhood was so normal it was hard to remember that someone as weird as Calvin could exist. Plus I was hardly going to bring up my time with Mom, so without talking about them, those memories started to fade.
But when I saw Calvin today, blond hair sticking up everywhere just like I remembered, it all came rushing back. Not just the stuff about Calvin, but also how scared and mad and confused I’d been that year. And standing there in the hallway of what was supposed to be my fresh start, my clean slate, I panicked. I couldn’t let myself get tied to Calvin in people’s minds—weird, loud, crazy, trouble Calvin.
He saw me and I felt frozen to the spot as he squinted at me, trying to figure out why I looked familiar. He was probably imagining himself as some kind of robot running a facial recognition scan. Or maybe even Superman, looking over the top of his glasses like he had X-ray vision.
It felt like long minutes but it must have been about two seconds, because Candice didn’t seem to notice anything strange when she tugged on my hand and said, “Come on, Suse!” I saw Calvin recognize me then. The metal of his braces glinted as his mouth opened in a wide O. But as Candice dragged me away, the corners of his mouth turned up and light flashed off his glasses, hiding his eyes and making him look a little demented. Oh no, I thought.
(Ms. Moore looks like she doesn’t believe I’m actually writing a confession or explanation or whatever this is. I guess she thinks it shouldn’t take more than a paragraph to explain what happened. But what I did doesn’t make any sense without knowing this part!)
He found me at lunch. I’d packed a pudding cup, hoping I would meet a new friend to offer it to, and I was just pulling it out to give to Candice when Calvin came bounding up. His backpack dangled from one shoulder half-unzipped. I thought I caught a glimpse of something orange inside, but he hitched it up and I couldn’t see anymore.
“Susie Derkins!” he yelled. At least I felt like he was yelling.
Candice laughed, maybe because Calvin looked half-crazed standing there out of breath and grinning. “Oh my god, Suse, you know Calvin?”
I hesitated. I saw my clean slate in front of me, and Calvin standing right there about to scribble all over it with chalk. “No,” I said slowly, “I’m sorry, you must have me mistaken for someone else.”
I had sort of expected him to make one of his crazy faces and call me an evil doppelgänger, maybe even steal my backpack and run away laughing at having outwitted the alien queen of planet Zobmorg. I didn’t expect him to look like I’d punched him in the face.
He recovered pretty fast, though. He smiled and shrugged and said, “Oh, sorry,” and walked away. I thought I saw an orange-striped…something hanging out of his backpack, but I blinked and it was gone.
Candice was still laughing. “That was brutal, Suse! His face!” I tried to smile with her, but a lump in my throat was making it hard. I suddenly remembered the time I had gone over to give Calvin a homework assignment and his mom had told me he was in the backyard with his dad burying a baby raccoon. I slipped the pudding cup back into my lunchbox.
It turned out Calvin and I had one class together, last-period history. I was glad Candice had math instead. Maybe I could do some damage control with Calvin without completely ruining my chances at a fresh start and new friends.
He was already there when I got to the classroom, sitting in a back corner and scribbling furiously. I frowned because I didn’t want to get stuck sitting in the back for the whole year. But maybe I could explain what happened and still have time to take a better seat in the front. I walked to his seat and stood there awkwardly for a minute, trying to see what he was drawing. Whatever it was, it had his attention. Or maybe he was ignoring me on purpose.
“Um, hi,” I squeaked.
His pencil slowed down for a second but he didn’t look up. Definitely ignoring me. I sighed.
“Listen, Calvin,” I started. He looked up, blue eyes drilling into mine.
“So you know me now,” he said quietly. I couldn’t look him in the eye anymore and my gaze dropped to his backpack, sitting half-open on the floor next to his desk.
“Is that…” I trailed off, distracted, pulling out the old stuffed animal. It was even more beat-up than I remembered and you couldn’t really tell what it was. A tiger? That rang a bell.
Calvin snatched it out of my hands, his face getting red. I couldn’t believe he’d actually brought it to school, to middle school. It was one thing in first grade, but—
And then I remembered why Calvin had brought his stuffed animal to school in first grade. Not for show and tell. Not even for comfort, like I had done one time with Mr. Bun. He’d had some wacky idea that it would scare off that old bully who was torturing him. I don't remember exactly what happened, but Calvin certainly doesn’t need me to warn him about bullies.
“Oh my god,” a boy laughed. He grabbed at the toy in Calvin’s hands. “Look what Calvin has! Is middwe schoow too scawy? Does oo need a huggy-wuggy?” he taunted in baby talk.
Calvin tried to grab the tiger back but the boy pulled it out of reach, laughing even harder. Calvin’s face was even redder, making the pimples on his forehead and cheeks stand out angrily. I realized he wasn’t embarrassed but enraged. He lunged again and this time managed to grab the tail. There was a RRRRIIIIPPPP! and Calvin and the boy both stumbled backward.
“Ow, my butt!” the boy teased, because the tail had come off in Calvin's hand, and the whole class was laughing now.
I barely saw him move but suddenly Calvin’s right arm had darted forward and connected with the boy’s face. His head snapped back as he dropped the toy, looking shocked. Calvin scooped up the tiger, shoved it and the tail into his backpack, and stormed out of the classroom.
“I’m going to the principal’s office!” he yelled--I guess at the teacher, who walked in the door just then. His eyes widened as he took in the bleeding boy and the whole class still on their feet.
I realized then that Calvin didn’t need a fresh start. Calvin knew exactly who he was already. And maybe what I needed wasn’t new friends but an old friend. Someone who had played with me when I was new and lonely and sad. Whose antics had distracted me during the worst moments of my parents’ fighting. Whose twisted takes on “playing house” had even helped me work through my parents’ divorce.
I didn't want to waste any time. I had to apologize to him now. But he was in the principal’s office and I was stuck in history class. The only thing I could think to do was to get sent to the principal’s office myself, but I didn’t want to ruin my reputation with the history teacher on the first day…
I thought of Calvin, standing up for his friend without any thought for his “reputation.” Sure, his friend was made of cloth and stuffing, but I knew that wasn’t entirely true for Calvin. Hobbes had been a better friend to him than I ever had, that was for sure. What good was a reputation without friends, anyway?
So I stood up. I had to squeeze my hands together to stop them shaking. I cleared my throat and closed my eyes. And that's when I said, “F***!”
The teacher just stared at me, confused. “I’m sorry?”
I was losing my nerve. I’d never actually been in trouble before, not real trouble, and I wasn’t sure I was up to it. I felt my eyes getting hot and I could barely hear myself as I whispered, “F***…sir.”
He still looked confused, but I guess he thought he had to do something, so he said, “Um, please, uh, please take yourself to the office, young lady. That kind of language is, um, not appropriate in the classroom?”
I ran to the office. Calvin was slumped in a chair by the principal’s door, Hobbes in his lap. His eyes were red and so were the knuckles of his right hand.
“Calvin, I’m so sorry,” I blurted.
He looked up, startled. “Susie? What are you doing here?”
I blushed. “I said, um, a bad word in class.”
He frowned. “How bad?”
My face got even redder. “…‘F***,’” I whispered, glancing around nervously.
He burst out laughing. “You?” He frowned again. “Why?”
“I, well,” I stammered. “I wanted to come apologize.”
“So you got yourself sent to the principal’s office?” He looked kind of impressed. “Well…thanks.”
“It was really crappy of me,” I said in a rush. “You were being perfectly nice, and I realized you were kind of my only friend back in first grade, and I just had a really bad year last year and I wanted to start over and I thought that meant making new friends and you just reminded me of a really tough time but that’s no excuse—”
“Whoa, whoa,” he said, holding his hands out like my words were attacking him. The hands that were still holding his best friend, in two pieces.
“Will he be okay?” I asked timidly. Calvin brought his hands—and Hobbes—back into his lap.
He shrugged but it was a little too jerky to be casual. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he mumbled. “Dumb, right? We’re not little kids anymore, I can’t be bringing stuffed animals to school—”
“Hobbes isn’t a stuffed animal,” I said, more forcefully than I really meant to. Hobbes was a stuffed animal. But I owed Calvin and…well…there is something about the tiger that’s different than, for example, Mr. Bun. Calvin blinked, then smiled.
Feeling awkward, I looked for something else to say. “I could sew his tail back on for you.”
He shook his head, still smiling. “Thanks, but my mom is used to patching him up. Got blood on his tail this time, though,” he continued sadly. “That’s a new one.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised. We both laughed. “Well, how about your knuckles, then? I’ve got a first aid kit in my backpack.”
“Of course you do,” he snorted. But he held out his hand. “Okay, then. You finally get to be the doctor.”
I looked up from rummaging in my backpack. “You remember that?”
“Remember you kicking me in the shins? Yes!”
“Well, you’d earned it,” I shot back. He shrugged and nodded. I realized that Calvin hadn’t had all that many friends in first grade, either. As much as we drove each other crazy, maybe I'd been a kind of lifeline for him like he'd been for me. I wondered what the last four years had been like for him.
“Calvin?” the principal called as she opened her door. She saw us sitting there, me dabbing Neosporin on Calvin's hand, Hobbes laying pathetically in Calvin’s lap. She sighed. “Come on in, son.”
Calvin winked at me as he walked into her office and I heard him start to say, “Did you know that the best way to fight off a shark is to punch it in the nose?”
I grinned, despite everything. Maybe neither of us is going to get a fresh start in middle school, but I have a feeling we’ll be okay.