Alice held the crumbled paper in her hand. She clenched her fist tightly and tried hard to erase the horrible words that now burned in her mind.
Alice is an idiot, the paper read. Alice didn’t know who had written the words—someone nearby, no doubt—but she had found the mean little message sitting on her desk when she had returned to her seat. Now, defeated and miserable, she wished she had never signed up for this section of Speech 1. She wished even harder that she had never had to stand up to give her presentation. And she wished even harder still that she could believe that the words written on the paper were lies. But she couldn’t. She was an idiot, she was sure.
Minutes before, Alice had walked to the front of the class to deliver her speech. She had prepared for her presentation carefully, had even read the book for her report twice. But something unexplained had snatched her confidence from her the moment she had opened her mouth to speak. Her voice had trembled as she spoke, unrecognizable, wobbling foolishly, and her hands had shaken so badly she was afraid she would knock the podium over. She had barely made it through her speech. By the end of it, she was visibly on the verge of crying. During the long walk back to her desk, she had been afraid to look at the students in the class.
Why? she had thought miserably to herself. Why did I have to go to junior high school? Why did we have to move? Couldn’t I have stayed in the sixth grade forever? Everything within her young, thin frame wanted to be back in Mrs. Martin’s class, to be back in her old neighborhood, where all was familiar and sweet.
And then she had sat down at her desk, and there she had found the nasty message she was certain was true.
I am a jerk, she thought bitterly to herself. I’m stupid and dumb and I have no confidence. I have no friends, either. And I hate this stupid school.
The angry bath of self-hatred washed over her, spilled out of the corners of her eyes, made her feel peculiarly numb in her misery.
But the horror was not over yet.
“Alice?” Mr. Goldstein’s voice called to her, as the bell sounded to switch classes. “Alice, can I see you up front for a minute?”
Alice heard some snickers from a group of boys as she gathered her books. She swallowed, then walked up the aisle to Mr. Goldstein’s desk.
“Alice,” he began. “I was so surprised by your performance today. I know you’re a bright and talented girl. I think you just need another chance.” He paused thoughtfully, then continued, “What if I schedule you to give it another try next time we meet?”
Alice opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Panic filled her. Wasn’t one humiliation enough? Couldn’t he see she was no good at speaking? But Mr. Goldstein’s soft voice rumbled on, something about fitting her in easily at the end of the next class, that he was certain her classmates wanted her to get another chance, too.
Alice walked home from school alone that day. Tami and Susan had offered to walk with her, but she had declined. They weren’t in her speech class, and she didn’t want to have to tell them the sad story of how foolish she had felt. If she didn’t walk with them, she wouldn’t have to speak to any one until she got home. By then, she hoped she could muster a calm hello to her mother, and then take refuge in the room she shared with her older sister until dinner. If she was lucky, Karen would stay late at school, practicing her part for the Autumn Festival play.
Alice walked the blocks home from school, acutely conscious of herself. In every storefront, in the windows of every parked car, she saw her face, her thin and sorrowing face.
Why can’t I wear eye makeup yet? she wondered angrily to herself. Everyone else does, even most of the girls in the ward.
She held her head down before the gusty wind, couldn’t bear to let her bangs blow upward, exposing her large forehead. Oh! it was miserable to be almost 13.
Alice managed to pass by her mother’s scrutiny. Something inside her wouldn’t let her tell her mother. She wanted to keep her horrible failure inside. She wanted to be by herself. Alice closed the door to her room, lay on her bed, face down on the pillow, alone in the safety of her home. Her father had been transferred again. They had lived in this new neighborhood just three months. Alice remembered her painful good-byes now. She rolled over, looked up to the ceiling, felt a flash of nervousness. She was terrorized at the thought of having to present her speech again. How could Mr. Goldstein be so mean?
“What’s the matter with the kid, here?” her older brother had asked, affectionately winking at Alice. “You’re quieter than usual.”
Karen gave the family home evening lesson that night on joy, of all things. Alice listened stonily.
Who could feel joy when everyone thought you were an idiot? she thought bitterly. Worse yet, who could feel joy when you had to go through another horrible day at school? Alice hardly heard her older sister’s comments about how prayer had sustained her during the first weeks of their move.
Tuesday passed. Alice saw only two of the students that were in her speech class, and both of them were girls. They smiled at her, and Alice felt no menace in them. Inevitably, though, Tuesday evening came, the good-nights, the walk up the stairs to bed, the certainty that tomorrow was coming.
Alice turned restlessly in bed. She was still awake when Karen came in. Alice watched the easy confidence with which Karen removed her makeup, fluffed her hair, then reached for the light. There were a few moments of silence as Karen said her prayers beside her bed, then the comforting sound of the bedsprings, the rustling sheets, of Karen settling into sleep. But Alice was still awake.
Hours passed, it seemed, but always the horror of the morning prevented Alice from surrendering to the black walls of her heavy eyelids. She had said her speech 300 times by now, had practiced taking deep breaths, had even imagined the entire occasion from start to finish, the perfect delivery and confident self-assurance. But reality always filled her. Alice was afraid. This wasn’t Primary, this wasn’t Young Women, this wasn’t even sacrament meeting. It was a class full of strangers, some of them older than she was, and all of them better at speaking than she would ever be.
Alice sat up in bed. She looked over at her sleeping sister, peaceful and at rest. Maybe being 17 did that to a person, Alice thought hopefully.
A thin column of white penetrated the dark room, the glow from the streetlight on the corner reaching in from behind the shade. A car passed by, its headlights shadowing wild patterns in the room. The pipes knocked in the basement, followed by the pleasant sound of steam hissing in the radiator.
Prayer is the best way to get through the tough times, Karen had said the other night. Alice had not wanted to think about it then, had thought it sounded corny and dumb. After all, Alice wasn’t a Merrie Miss anymore. She no longer had to sit uncomfortably in the back of Primary opening exercises.
Alice pushed the covers off. The floor felt cold on her feet. She bent down, then knelt awkwardly. Should she fold her arms, or was it enough just to kneel?
It was an awkward prayer, she knew, her first attempt since the faith of her family had begun to seem something weird and distant to her, something not to tell her new friends about, something that had to be done, she guessed, when her parents made her, a burden more than a blessing.
Alice opened her eyes after the amen, lingered for a moment on her knees, beside her bed, looking at the shadows in the light. And then a feeling warmed her, something real and sweet, a glow not from the hissing radiator, but a quiet warmth just the same. Quite simple, really. As Alice pulled the covers over herself, though, the moment lost its simplicity and became profound. The Holy Spirit had filled her, she knew, had warmed her and given her peace.
Alice walked slowly down the hall to her speech class. She avoided the boys who had laughed. She tried hard not to think of her failure or of the horrid little note, or of the minutes until she must surely try again.
“Alice? Are you ready to give it another try now?” It was Mr. Goldstein’s voice, of course, calling her to her second death, she was sure.
Alice stood slowly, picked up her paper, told her legs to move to the podium in the front of the classroom.
She knew her heart was beating too fast already. She was cold and trembling. She took a deep and trembling breath, smiled weakly to the class, then opened her mouth to speak.
And in a timeless moment, suspended somewhere between her trembling breath and her first uneven words, she remembered the warmth of the night before, the sense that her Father loved her, had heard her.
“Mr. Goldstein. Students. Good morning.”