Map of the World ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
On the first day of the new school term, Joanne Torrance was sullen and unhappy. She wasn’t ready for summer vacation to be over; she wanted to be able to stay at home and do as she pleased all the time. It wouldn’t have mattered to her if school had never taken up again for as long as she lived. She was sure she could learn all she needed to know from reading books and magazines and seeing lots of movies and watching the really important shows on TV like Superman and Lassie and The Three Stooges.
As soon as she met her new teacher for the first time—one Ruby Chinn—she hated her on sight. She had long yellow teeth that showed even when her mouth was closed. She had dyed hair the color of beets that she wore pulled into a severe bun on top of her head that resembled a cake made out of hair and that showed the fleshy folds on the sides of her face and neck. Joanne could have told her how she might adopt a more flattering hairdo to complement her round face, but she didn’t care how ridiculous a person’s hair looked when she despised that person as much as she despised Miss Chinn.
Since it was the first day of the new term and people didn’t know each other very well, Miss Chinn had each person write his (or her, as the case may be) name on the blackboard in colored chalk. After writing his or her name, the person was to turn around and face the class and introduce himself (or herself) in a loud clear voice. The boys were then supposed to bow from the waist and the girls to curtsey. This was a chance for everybody to get to know what face went with what name. Miss Chinn referred to this exercise as an ice breaker.
When Joanne’s turn came, she went to the blackboard and picked up the pink chalk and wrote her name in a neat cursive script underneath the babyish scrawl of the person who went before her. Then she turned around and bowed from the waist instead of curtseying. A howl went up from the class and she flushed with embarrassment.
“No, no, no!” Miss Chinn said impatiently with her forefingers extended, two feet apart, as though measuring the length of a fish she had caught. “What do girls do?”
“Curtsey!” the class said in unison.
“And what do boys do?”
“Bow from the waist!”
“That’s right! Now, Joanne, I have a simple question for you and it isn’t that difficult. Are you a girl or a boy?”
Again a howl of laughter erupted from the class. They were enjoying her discomfort, which went a long way toward relieving the tedium of the first day of class.
“I’m a girl,” she said in a small voice.
“What was that?” Miss Chinn said. “I can’t hear you!”
“I said I’m a girl!”
“Well, you certainly look like a girl, but we all just saw you do the thing that boys do. Now, can you prove that you’re a girl and do what girls do?”
“What do you mean ‘no’?”
“I mean I would rather not.”
“And why would you rather not?”
“Not as silly as you are in refusing to do it.”
“I don’t think I have to do it just because you tell me to do it.”
Miss Chinn rolled her eyes and the class laughed again. “If there is one thing I will not tolerate in the classroom,” she bellowed, “it is insolence!”
“You and me both,” Joanne said, but not loud enough for Miss Chinn to hear it.
“You are wasting precious time! Sit down this instant! We’ll deal with this matter later.” She opened her grade book. “I could send you to the principal’s office, but I know he’s busy on the first day and would rather not be bothered, so I’m giving you a failing grade for the day. You may be the only student in the history of this school to get a failing grade for the first day of the new term.”
“Whoo-whoo-whoo!” went the class.
Joanne returned to her seat, wishing she had a pirate dagger to plunge far into the heart of Miss Chinn and everybody else in the class.
The next person to the blackboard to write her name was Veronica Kennedy. She had blonde hair and dimples and a beauty mark on her right cheek. People said she looked like a movie star and would go far in life. She already had breasts and was wearing a brassiere, the outline of which could be clearly seen through her lovely yellow blouse. She wrote her name beautifully with yellow chalk (yellow seemed to be her color) underneath Joanne’s name, and then she turned and faced the class and executed a perfect curtsey, holding her skirt out just far enough so that the edge of her underpants showed. The class erupted in cheers and applause.
“You see?” Miss Chinn said triumphantly. “That is what girls do!”
“Yaw-yaw-yaw!” went the class as Veronica Kennedy smirked with superiority and resumed her seat.
Later in the day, during the social studies lesson, Miss Chinn pulled down a map of the world like a window shade and stood before it with her pointer.
“Now,” she said, “who can tell me where Peru is?”
Joanne was the only person in the class who raised a hand.
“Come now,” Miss Chinn said. “Doesn’t anybody know where Peru is?”
Joanne raised her hand even higher. She was all the way at the back of the room, so maybe Miss Chinn hadn’t noticed her.
“Nobody?” Miss Chinn asked. “Can’t anybody tell me where Peru is? No? It’s in South America. Can anybody tell me where South America is?”
“I can!” Joanne said, waving her hand.
“Who said that?” Miss Chinn asked.
“I did!” Joanne said.
“I believe I’m had quite enough of you for one day,” Miss Chinn said. “You should know by now that we don’t speak in class until we’ve been called on. You haven’t been called on.”
“Hoo-hoooooo!” went the class.
“Now, can anybody tell me where South America is?”
Joanne lowered her hand and slumped down in her chair.
“Nobody? Shame on you! It’s right there!” She pointed to South America, outlining it with the pointer. “And there is Peru!”
During lunch in the school cafeteria, Joanne sat by herself facing the wall. She heard sniggers behind her back and knew they were coming from the next table where Veronica Kennedy and her coterie of followers were sitting. Somebody threw a wet bread ball and hit her in the side of the head, followed by a volley of snorting laughter. She was only half-finished with her lunch, but she didn’t feel like eating the rest of it and so stood up and emptied her tray and went outside.
Rosalie Dunphy was leaning against the side of the building with her head tilted back against the brick and her eyes closed, like a cat sunning itself. She was a large, silent girl with wild unkempt hair who was a couple of years older than anybody else because she had been held back two grades. Joanne knew her slightly from the year before. When she walked up to her, Rosalie opened her eyes and looked at her but didn’t move her head.
“I’d like to poison Miss Chinn,” Joanne said.
Rosalie reached in her pocket and took out a folded-up piece of paper and handed it to Joanne. “I drew this,” she said.
Joanne unfolded the paper and saw there a picture of a witch flying on a broomstick with her heels up in the air and a leer on her face. She was wearing a pointed hat and had a hump on her back and a wart on her chin with hairs coming out of it. It was a perfect likeness of Miss Chinn.
“That’s pretty good,” she said, handing the drawing back to Rosalie.
“I like to draw.”
She stood next to Rosalie against the wall and she somehow felt better and not so alone. “I hate everybody in this school,” Joanne said after a while.
“Come with me,” Rosalie said. “I have something I want to show you.”
She led the way around the building to the long flight of concrete steps that went down from the school grounds to Main Street. The steps were strictly off limits during school hours, but that didn’t make any difference to Rosalie. She went down near the bottom of the steps and sat down. Joanne followed her and sat next to her.
“You have to promise not to tell anybody about this,” Rosalie said.
“I won’t,” Joanne said.
She reached into her pocket again and took out a package of Lucky Strike cigarettes and a little box of kitchen matches.
Joanne wanted to say is that all, but she said nothing because Rosalie surprised her by taking a cigarette out of the pack and putting it in her mouth and lighting it as expertly as if she had been smoking her whole life.
Rosalie took a deep drag on the cigarette and inhaled the smoke into her lungs. “Ah, that is so good,” she said.
After another drag, she held the cigarette out to Joanne. “Try it,” she said.
“I haven’t ever smoked before,” Joanne said.
She took the cigarette from her and drew a little of the smoke into her mouth and breathed it out. “That tastes awful,” she said.
“It takes some practice before you’re any good at it,” Rosalie said.
They smoked the cigarette, handing it back and forth, until it was smoked down to the filter. Joanne didn’t like the taste of it at all, but she smiled every time she handed the cigarette back as if she approved and was enjoying it. When they heard the bell ring to go back inside, Rosalie flipped the cigarette butt away out to the street and they went back up the steps unnoticed.
That evening when Joanne was having dinner with her mother, she had been going to tell her that she had smoked her first cigarette at school that day, but she decided it wouldn’t be a good idea. She had already had enough disapproval for one day. Instead she asked her mother if she knew where Peru is.
“Isn’t that in South America?” her mother asked. “They have those strange animals with the long necks.”
“Llamas,” Joanne said.
“I’m going to murder Old Cakehead.”
“Miss Chinn, my new teacher.”
“Well, all right,” her mother said. “Just don’t get caught. The trick is to try to make it look like an accident or to make it look like somebody else did it. Somebody you don’t like.”
At ten o’clock Joanne got into bed, but before she turned off the light she looked at the map on the wall of her room that had been there for as long as she could remember. It was somehow reassuring to look at it every night before she went to sleep. She loved the colors—the pinks, oranges, browns, greens, yellows—surrounded by a dazzling expanse of blue that was the ocean. And, yes, from looking at the map every night of her life, she knew where Peru was and just about every other country in the world. She knew a lot more than some people were willing to give her credit for.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp