The Melinda Theory
By Cathie Byers Hamilton
There is a girl, this girl in my English class. Actually, she’s been in almost all of my classes since elementary school, this girl, Melinda. Maybe you know her. She always has an extra pencil in her backpack, and it’s always sharpened. Or a pen, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Say you need a tampon, or a tissue, or a stick of gum. You could ask her for it, and Melinda will sift through her carefully organized backpack and pull out your desired item, maybe discreetly, like a drug dealer, or maybe with a Tic Tac smile, I hope you feel better. It depends on what you ask for. If you get a tissue, though, take a second and smell it before you blow your nose. Even though it’s been sealed in its crinkly, cellophane-packet sleeping bag, it has an oddly pleasing scent, the combination of mint, hairspray, Eternity, and aspirin—there’s nothing like a Kleenex out of Melinda’s backpack. She’s a human vending machine manufactured by the Boy Scouts: Always prepared.
Whatever happens, when Melinda reaches into her bag, the contents don’t spill out onto the floor like they do when I dig around in mine. Notebooks, hairbrush, rubber bands, library card, quarters, balled tissues, and eye shadow clattering on tile, like a miniature cabaret that missed a few steps and ended up in a tangled, tap-shoe mess. No, Melinda isn’t afraid that she’s going to accidentally hand you a used tissue. Her change is in her wallet, and her lipstick is zippered away in a pocket; Melinda always uses her compartments.
English compositions come back on Mondays, after Mrs. Brayer spends the weekend holed up in her split level, as rumor has it, alternately grading them and sneaking cigarettes in the bathroom, out of the sight of her incredibly hot, health-nut husband. When she hands the compositions back—tattooed with sweaty, nicotine fingerprints—she uses this efficient paper folding technique so that we can’t see each other’s grades. But we do. Because we compare and contrast, analyze, inquire, and defend—primitive law school—during the ceremony of competitiveness that always accompanies the return of test results in advanced placement classes.
And there, on Melinda’s paper, is the A. And on mine, there is the B. Or the B+ or B-, but never the A. The A belongs to Melinda and to a few other select people who wear loafers, the kids who bought a Trapper Keeper during middle school because it helped keep them organized, not because there was a cute animal or bold psychedelic scene on the cover. Melinda tucks her paper into a binder so that it can nestle itself among a fraternity of equally superior, previous assignments, then immediately puts the binder in her backpack. I shove my paper into the back of my English book, where it will remain until it falls out one day, onto the floor of the bus or the bottom of my locker.
I wonder if Melinda gets an A, all the time, because she is Melinda. Not for being smart or insightful or profound—which she is—but just for being Melinda. Melinda who was always the first to finish her workbook pages in the second grade; Melinda who helped Mr. Suarez find Cameroon on the pull-down map in World Cultures; Melinda who took educational vacations to Gettysburg and the Grand Canyon with her Brady parents and sister while the rest of us were lucky to go camping at a KOA or to Niagara Falls, for God’s sake; Melinda who is class treasurer because it’s the only position that really counts, and, after all, she is very responsible, and we need someone like her to help save us from typical adolescent schemes like using the class bankroll to sponsor a Cambodian child just so we can make him the school mascot. Melinda could write, “Mrs. Brayer can fart the National Anthem” in the middle of one of her compositions, and it wouldn’t matter because Mrs. Brayer doesn’t really read Melinda’s work, anyway. She spies that name across the top of the page and scratches out a bold, red A. I could write a fucking epic that rivals Beowulf and I would get a B.
Because she’s Melinda and I’m me. And that’s the way it goes.
That’s The Melinda Theory.
Cathie Byers Hamilton's work has appeared in Flashquake, The Summerset Review, Frederick's Child Magazine, and Michael Wilson's book, Flash Writing. She lives in Maryland with her husband and sons.
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