Some kids’ heads are in the clouds. Harriet Little’s head is in outer space.
In 1950s America, everyone is expected to come out of a cookie-cutter mold. But Harriet prefers the people who don’t, like her communist-sympathizer father and her best friend Jackie, a tomboy who bucks the school dress code of skirts and blouses in favor of T-shirts and blue jeans. Harriet realizes she’s also different when she starts to swoon over Rosemary Clooney instead of Rock Hudson—and finds Sputnik and sci-fi more fascinating than sock hops.
Before long, Harriet is secretly dating the most popular girl in the school. But she soon learns that real love needs a stronger foundation than frilly dresses and feminine wiles.
Janelle Reston © 2018
All Rights Reserved
The first time I met Jackie, I thought she was a boy. Of course, she was only eight then, an age when most humans would still be fairly androgynous if our society didn’t have the habit of primping us up in clothes that point in one direction or the other.
Jackie was in straight-legged dungarees, a checkered button-down shirt, and a brown leather belt with crossed rifles embossed on the brass buckle. Her hair was short, trimmed above the ears.
“Who’s that new boy?” my friend Shelley whispered as we settled into our desks. It was the first day of fourth grade, and Mrs. Baumgartner had made folded-paper name placards for each seat so we’d know where to go. Shelley always sat right in front of me because our last names were next to each other in the alphabet. She was Kramer; I was Little.
I looked at the blond cherub in the front row. He—as I thought Jackie was at the time—had his gaze set toward the ceiling, eyes tracing the portraits of the US presidents that hung at the top of the wall. A cowlick stuck up from the back of his head. He reminded me of Dennis the Menace, the mischievous star of my new favorite cartoon strip, which had debuted in our local paper that summer. I liked the way Dennis talked back to adults but somehow never got in trouble for it. I wished I had the same courage.
Mrs. Baumgartner walked into the room. The class fell silent and we straightened in our chairs, facing her. “Good morning, class. I’m your teacher for this year, Mrs. Baumgartner.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Baumgartner,” we answered in unison. She spelled her name on the chalkboard in cursive and asked us to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Back then, the Pledge didn’t have the gist of a prayer like it does today; “under God” wasn’t added to “one nation indivisible” until three years later, after Eisenhower became president. I wiggled my toes around in my hand-me-down saddle shoes as we recited the words.
The trouble began when Mrs. Baumgartner started to take attendance. “Jacqueline Auglaize?”
“Here, Mrs. Baumgartner,” Dennis the Menace answered from the front row.
Mrs. Baumgartner narrowed her eyes. “New year at a new school, and we’re starting with the practical jokes already?”
“Will the real Jacqueline Auglaize please speak up? This is your only warning.” Mrs. Baumgartner’s eyes scanned the room. I craned my neck around. I hadn’t noticed any new girls in the classroom before our teacher’s arrival, but maybe I’d been distracted by the Dennis the Menace boy.
“I’m Jackie Auglaize, ma’am,” Dennis the Menace piped up again.
Mrs. Baumgartner’s face screwed up as if she’d accidentally sucked on a lemon. “What you are is on the way to the principal’s office, young man.”
“And a detention for talking back.”
Mrs. Baumgartner called on one of the other boys to escort the new, nameless student to his punishment. From chin to scalp, Dennis the Menace’s face turned red as a beet. His flushed ears looked almost purple against his pale hair.
Kids playing pranks didn’t blush like that.
“I think that really is a girl,” I whispered to Shelley. But if she heard, she didn’t respond. She knew better than to turn around in her seat when a teacher was already angry.
An hour later, Mrs. Baumgartner was quizzing us on our classroom rules when the school secretary appeared at the door. In tow was a student in a frilly cap-sleeved blouse, knee-length blue corduroy jumper with a flared skirt, lace-trimmed white bobby socks, a pair of shiny black Mary Janes—and short blonde hair.
The cowlick stood like a sentinel at the back of her scalp despite the hair polish that had clearly been combed through since we’d last seen her.
An audible gasp filled the classroom. Actually, it was multiple gasps, but they happened in such synchronization that they had the effect of a single, sustained note.
“Mrs. Baumgartner,” the secretary said, “Jacqueline Auglaize is ready to return to the classroom. We’ve explained the school dress code to her mother. The behavior of this morning won’t be repeated.”
“Thank you, Miss Hamilton. Welcome back, Jacqueline.”
Titters filled the room as Jacqueline walked toward her desk. Mrs. Baumgartner slapped her ruler against her desk. “Does anyone else want a detention?”
We went quiet. Detentions are never an auspicious way to start a new school year.
We spent the rest of the morning learning how to protect ourselves from atomic explosions. Mrs. Baumgartner said this knowledge could save us now that the Soviets had the bomb. “When an air raid siren goes off or you see a bright flash of light, duck and cover underneath a table or desk, inside a corridor, or next to a strong brick wall. Then pull your sweater or coat up to cover the back of your neck and head,” she explained.
We all squatted under our desks as instructed. My father said the Russians weren’t stupid enough to bomb us, that they loved the common people and wanted to protect us. But Mrs. Baumgartner seemed to think they were. She went on in excruciating detail about the things that could happen to us if we didn’t duck and cover. Glass from broken windows could fly in our faces, we could get a terrible sunburn from the blast; pieces of ceiling might drop on our heads. I wasn’t sure whom to believe about the bomb—my dad or Mrs. Baumgartner. I didn’t want to think about it. I shut out my teacher’s voice and stared at my scuffed saddle shoes, pondering how a boy could magically turn into a girl in the wink of an eye.
“She’s not a girl,” Shelley insisted as we walked out to morning recess. “Girls can’t have hair like that.”
“They can if they cut it.”
“But no mother would let a girl wear her hair so short.”
“The school wouldn’t let a boy wear a dress to class.”
Shelley must have been won over by my logic, because the next thing that came out of her mouth was, “Maybe she has a little brother who likes to stick gum in people’s hair.” Shelley’s brother had done that to her once, but since he only got it on the tail end of her braid, she hadn’t lost much length to the scissors when her mother cut it out. “Or she got lice. Yuck.”
I didn’t like the direction of Shelley’s last comment. As it was, the new girl was guaranteed to have very few friends after the morning’s clothing incident. If the lice rumor spread, she’d have no friends at all. I’d been new once too.
“She doesn’t look dirty,” I said. “Maybe her hair got caught in an escalator and they had to cut it off.” I was terrified of escalators. My mother had warned me never to play around on one or my clothes would get snagged between the steps and I’d be pulled in, then smashed as flat as a pancake. Back when she worked in a department store, before marrying my dad, she saw a lady get caught by the scarf in an escalator’s moving handrail, and it would have been death by strangling if an alert gentleman with a penknife hadn’t been nearby to free her. I still get a little on edge every time I step onto one.
We got in line to play hopscotch on a board a couple other girls had drawn earlier that morning. I looked around. The whole school was out on the playground, and it was harder than I would have expected to find a short-haired girl in a blue jumper. There were lots of blue corduroy jumpers darting around the swings and monkey bars and jungle gym. Wanamaker’s must have featured them in its back-to-school sale that year. My dress wasn’t new. It was a hand-me-down from my older sister, with a ribbon tie and a skirt made with less fabric than the newer fashions. Shelley and I had done a test run of our first-day outfits the previous week, and no matter how fast I spun around, my skirt failed to billow as dramatically as Shelley’s.
Still, I tried to make the skirt swing gracefully as I hopped down the squares. I had no desire to be dainty, but I liked the aesthetic of fabric twirling in the air. We went through the hopscotch line four times before I finally spotted Jackie. She was over by the fence, poking at the dirt with a stick. Alone.
That last bit was no surprise.
It took three more rounds of hopscotch before I worked up the nerve to go find out what she was doing.
“Where are you going?” Shelley called as I marched off.
I didn’t answer her, afraid I’d lose my momentum. It was risky talking to an outcast. On the one hand, it was the only way to turn her into not-an-outcast. On the other hand, it might turn me into one too.
“What are you doing?”
Jackie looked up. “Thinking about digging a hole to China.”
Janelle Reston lives in a northern lake town with her partner and their black cats. She loves watching Battlestar Galactica and queering gender. You can keep up with her at www.janellereston.com.