Wendy Windust has done the impossible: fired a perfect fastball on the low inside corner and hit a towering home run at the same time. ~Chris Crutcher, author of Deadline
This memoir is dedicated to my daughter Indi. May you survive middle school in one piece, -
In the locker there are many things. A magnetic, mini-whiteboard. Tiny, erasable, rainbow-colored pens. Pictures of friends. Many other odds and ends decorate the blue metal as well. There is one thing, however, that stands out among the hearts and colorful happiness. It is what led to a one-week suspension from middle school.
I didn’t hear the office messenger come in. Using my Judy Blume book du jour as a shield, I sat in the uncomfortable, plastic orange chair, biding my time until language arts class was over. With my right elbow resting on the faux wood desk supporting my head’s weight, I made a plan to convince my parents to let me go to Stephanie’s party on Friday. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends at break time. “Wendy. Wendy!” As my name found my ears, I rocketed back to the stuffy, pea green cinderblock classroom. Mrs. Crow, my language arts teacher, was demanding to be heard, frustrated by her fruitless attempts to gain my attention. As my head jerked up, I felt caught in her laser-like stare, and knew I was in trouble. Her smiling, kind face was replaced by a scowling schoolmarm. In her right hand, she grasped a paper between two fingers. She wiggled the pink note as a clue. “Wendy,” she called once again in her singsong voice, please come up here.” Her eyebrows arched and lips puckered as she cut off each syllable. I didn’t think in a million years that a pink slip from the office would be for me. We all knew what a pink slip meant. We all knew that it meant nothing good, nothing but trouble. I awkwardly disentangled myself from my chair and stood up, pulling down my skirt that may or may not have met dress code. Trying to look confident, my flaming cheeks told another story. I glanced over at my friends. They were singularly focused on their books. Not a normal sight. This should have been my first clue. It’s probably because of my tardy this morning, I thought, convincing myself. I never felt like I could get enough sleep at night and every morning was a battle, kids vs. parents, to get my brother and I out the door. This morning was especially bad and when I missed the bus, my dad drove me to school in silence. Head down, I somehow made it to the front of the room and received the tiny piece of paper that directed me to go to the office immediately, post haste, do not pass go and do not collect 200 dollars. Walking down the corridor, it reminded me of one of those Western movies, missing only the lone tumbleweed, blowing across a barren landscape and the eerie music at a high noon standoff. The Santa Ana breeze picked up a lost scrap of paper and spun it up into the air like Forrest Gump’s feather. As I passed my locker and then my friends’ lockers, one by one, I looked more closely at the Pepto-Bismol pink rectangle in my hand and saw that the box beside “Mr. Hall, principal” was checked. Continuing my journey, I passed the benches where my friends and I always met for break, perching on the tall flowerbeds that looked like they had never held a living thing save clumps of dry, sun-browned grass. I could see us there now, laughing over how I was so freaked out to go to the office. How it ended up being nothing,
nothing at all. As I walked slowly, my mind raced. A mantra looped in my head, Please, oh please, oh please, let it be nothing. “Hey Wendy, what’s up?” A girl from my math class came out of the bathroom, reapplying what looked like her zillionth coat of Wet and Wild lipgloss. “Oh, um, hey Charice,” I smiled and mumbled in what I hope could pass for a normal tone. Swishing past me, I could have sworn her grin was sympathetic yet knowing, a Cheshire-like smile. Finally reaching the front of the office, the door, heavy as Sisyphus’s boulder, took all my strength to crack open and slip through. Rewarded with a blast of cold air, I spotted Mrs. Frye, the secretary standing at the reception counter. She cradled the phone between her shoulder and chin as she glanced up, her pencil pointing the way to the row of blue, hard plastic chairs, lined up like a formation of soldiers outside Mr. Hall’s torture chamber. Heavy legs and a heavier heart led me to the seat on the end. I wished for a quick escape but didn’t know the charges against me-yet. By the time I heard Mr. Hall’s door whooshing open, I was puke-worthy nervous. His deep timbre requested my presence. He stood at his door, tall and lanky, a grasshopper suited up in plaid and wingtips. Waiting until I stood in front of his desk, he closed the door sharply. As I recovered my heart back into my chest, he sidled over and glanced down at me. “Have a seat young lady,” he prodded, not even a ghost of a smile on his face. I was in trouble, big trouble. “First of all, let me begin by telling you how very disappointed I am to have to call here today.” He crossed one plaid leg over the other, folding his hands below his chin in a sharp steeple. “I’m afraid I have some very, very bad news for you,” the words tumbled out of his mouth like ice cubes. He sighed regretfully, shaking his head. The minutes ticked by. I could feel his eyes on me as I examined the thread-worn brown carpet. Was he waiting for me to crack under pressure? Finally, the door opened. Freedom? As if it could get any worse, who should walk in but my life-giving parents, looking none too happy with their 12-year old offspring. Earlier that morning, our kitchen simmered with frustration. “Why can’t I go to Stephanie’s party?” I accused, disappointed with my unyielding, difficult parents. “You can’t go to the party because number one, you are still grounded after talking back to your mom last weekend and number two we don’t know Stephanie or her parents and don’t feel comfortable with you staying over at her house,” dad explained in a low voice. “We are very disappointed in the choices you’ve been making lately and don’t really feel like we can trust you right now,” he went on, words fast as staccato clicks on a keyboard.
“We just don’t know what you’re thinking lately, Wendy,” my mom added a rock to the mountain of frustration growing exponentially. As anger coursed through my veins, I pretended to take interest in the horrible wallpaper print of lime green and yellow kitchen utensils. I was afraid to open my mouth, to tell my parents what I really thought of them and their stupid rules, and further jeopardize my already hopeless social life. “Now, young lady,” Mr. Hall started, sitting back down in his creaky chair and leaning forward on his elbows on the oversized wooden desk, “We’re here today because we’ve had several reports of a death threat given to one of our grade 7 students.” He went on, forehead creasing, looking more and more stern as his voice took on a reprimanding edge, “In fact, I heard that the death threat came from you.” The day before, I stood at Felicia’s locker, flicking through the combination, a skilled safecracker. As the royal blue locker clattered open, I wrote “Hi Babe!” heart, heart, heart on her mini-whiteboard and set the note from Stephanie on the locker’s ledge where Felicia would see it when she first opened it after the last class of the day. A picture of the three of us caught my eye. Out of the 2,000 kids attending Kraemer Middle School, I knew I was lucky to have found such amazing friends. When Stephanie asked me to put the note in Felicia’s locker, I didn’t even give it a second thought since she knew the combo as well as the rest of our tight-knit group but was in a hurry to run to PE all the way across campus. Folded into a bluelined origami triangle, the note gave off no alarm bells. In fact, I hadn’t given it another thought until now, when the events of the day before whooshed through my head, a blurry video. As Mr. Hall dropped this bombshell, my parents silently communicated through a long look over my head. It didn’t take a mind-reader to interpret that I was in trouble, big trouble. Should I tell them that I wrote the note? Maybe this will be one of those stories that Stephanie, Felicia and I will laugh about, years from now. A loss for words was rare for this twelve year old but I couldn’t think of even one thing to say in my defense-- or Stephanie’s. As my parents escorted me back down the desolate corridor, I begged to wait until class was over to go back into the language arts classroom. My dad demanded, “Do you really feel like you have the right to make requests right now?” My parents stood by the door, arms crossed. When I walked into class, I went over to Mrs. Crow. She met me beside her desk as she whispered, “Yes, I know, Wendy. Get your things and I’ll see you in a few days.” Her smile, warm again, barely registered in my frozen brain. Don’t cry, Don’t cry, I commanded myself as I walked back down the row to my desk and packed my things into my backpack. Thirty sets of eyes weighted my steps on my walk of shame back outside. “I don’t even know what to say to you right now. I can’t believe that you just got yourself suspended from school for a week--an entire week!” my mother proclaimed
from the front seat of the car as we left the crime scene. “A week! Geez! That’s so unfair!” I yelled, my throat aching as I angrily wiped the tears away. As I looked out the car window, I didn’t see anything but the scene from the day before replaying again and again. You don’t even want to hear my side of the story, I thought, miserable and alone. Over the next week, the phone rang off the hook. As the information pieced together, it came out that the death threat was a joke, penned by Stephanie after she found out that her crush had been calling Felicia. Even though I was a clueless pawn in the drama, when it came down to Stephanie’s word against mine, one of us told the truth and both of us were suspended from school, from life, from friends. Stephanie still had her party. I most definitely didn’t get to go. Seventh grade was a big year. I found out that friends can betray and disappoint and let you down when you need them the most. I learned that truth isn’t always believed. When the excitement died down, and my week of suspension ended, I never did go back to Kraemer Junior High. When I felt like it was me versus the world, my parents came to my side as unlikely allies and tipped the scales just enough. I’d be lying if I said that my relationship with my parents was transformed that day. It wasn’t. In fact, it took another decade to appreciate how much my parents gave up as my dad homeschooled me for the rest of the year. When everything else fell away, my parents stood by my side and though they didn’t know it at the time, it meant everything to me. No joke.
I DIDN’T THINK IN A MILLION YEARS THAT A PINK SLIP FROM THE OFFICE WOULD BE FOR ME. WE ALL KNEW WHAT A PINK SLIP MEANT. WE ALL KNEW THAT IT MEANT NOTHING GOOD, NOTHING BUT TROUBLE.
Grade 7. Middle School. One year in Wendy Windust’s life. One big year.
Like her novels, Windust’s memoir is full of heartbreak and poignancy. Candid and casual, Windust shares a story from her grade 7 year in Placentia, California. Reminiscences of some of her youthful rites of passage are painful yet universal. Don Sullivan
No Joke is Wendy Windust’s second novel for young readers. It was a 2012 Prinz Award Winner as well as an ALA~YALSA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults, a Notable Book for a Global Society, and a Junior Library Guild Selection. Her first novel, Northwest Apartment, was ALA~YALSA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults and an ALA~YALSA Quick Pick for Young Adults and was made into a major motion picture. Windust lives in Warsaw, Poland, where she teaches grade 7 language arts to talented young writers. Randomhouse.com/teens Cover art ©Wendy Windust Cover design by Wendy Windust