Informal Letter Written by a Student to Her English Teacher Whilst Having Too Much Time Left Over in Gym 2 After Finishing the SAT Way Too Early

Bradford Philen

Dear Mr. Sturdivant,

This is Amanda from English 12. I know letters don’t usually have titles like the one above, but you always say we should give a clear title to everything we write, so there you go. I’m only typing this now because when I finished hand-writing a draft of this right at 12:50 on scrap paper, our exam proctor, this old lady who wore everything wool and smelled like fart dust, said we couldn’t take any papers out of the room—even our scrap paper—and I really wanted to finish this because I have to finish what I start, no matter what.

In case you’re wondering, fart dust is a term Jeremy Russell made up. Fart dust is like perfume. As Jeremy Russell puts it, “it mists from your anus and sticks to your clothes so it follows you wherever you go,” and that’s a direct quote. It’s not too awful-smelling like a stink bomb, it more just sort of lingers like a malodorous shadow (malodorous is a high-level SAT word). Sometimes I get a whiff of fart dust when I hug my Grandma and that makes me afraid to get old. Jeremy Russell is about the grossest boy I’ve ever met, but at least he’s nice most of the time and honest. You know he won’t hurt you.

How do you feel about the word whilst? I feel like it’s a word that people probably either love, hate, or are confused about. I get it though. Whilst is just the British, fancy-pants way of saying while. The opposite of something fancy-pants to say would be I reckon. I wonder what British people would say to that transitive verb, Mr. Sturdivant. I can think of about a million things people around here say that would confuse the mess out of British people in the same way whilst confuses the whole of Wake county. Maybe that’s why we won the American Revolution or maybe that’s why the British lost. Either way, whilst was on one of the reading comprehension questions of the SAT. There was a passage from something one of the Bronte sisters wrote.

Do you believe in ghosts, Mr. Sturdivant? On the topic of paranormal activity, I believe the same as I do with extraterrestrials. Does anybody really know if either exists? Does it matter? Maybe it only matters what you believe in.

Wait, now, I don’t want to be caught in a lie. I take some of that back. Whilst I do think ghosts exist, I reckon I don’t really care about extraterrestrials. And space for that matter. And especially movies about space, space travel, the future, or hobbits (who aren’t real). Why do boys care so much about all that mess? Like, the entire boy population. The nerdy-math-Asian boys who all wear glasses. The geeky-environmental-science boys who have pet frogs and wear tethered Birkenstocks. The redneck boys who hang out in their big Dodge trucks at the Sheetz on Avent Ferry Road. Even the untouchables, like Tucker Briggs and Billy Pitt (more about them later). I will say I liked the movie Interstellar, but only because I love Matthew McConaughey. He’s the type of guy I want to marry one day. But, please, don’t take me on a date to see any Star Wars episode. Ever. I do believe in ghosts though, because Aunt Mildred visits me every once in a while in my bedroom when I can’t sleep. If I had to bet, I would bet you like space movies, Mr. Sturdivant. You probably really like hobbits, too. You seem like the hobbit-type.

In case you’re wondering why I’m writing this letter (as I’m sure you are), I guess that means I’ve taken too long with The Greeting. I wanted to write to tell you about what really happened that night when everyone got real drunk at Andrew Turtle’s house and then the incident that everyone knows about that got Tucker Briggs and Billy Pitt expelled and almost arrested too. Everybody knows about it because that’s what everyone has been talking about in the hallways in between classes, in the library, in the cafeteria, all over school and on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat too. What do y’all teachers talk about during lunch anyway? I’m sure it’s been a topic of discussion at some point for you. I’m sure y’all don’t just talk about grading papers and tests and leftovers. I bet y’all gossip worse than us kids do.  

Whenever I see Aunt Mildred appear in my room as an apparition (I remember that word from when we read Macbeth) she’s always wearing the same thing: a red blouse, a pair of overalls, those beaded necklaces, jingly bracelets, and long, loopy-dangly earrings she always wore. Her earrings remind me of the Dream Catcher Daddy hung on the wall in the kitchen that he bought in Cherokee when we visited there one summer. The thing though that’s always different about Aunt Mildred’s ghost from when I remember her when she was alive and not a ghost, is she’s always wearing big sunglasses now. They take up half of Aunt Mildred’s face. She doesn’t tell me why she’s wearing them, but I’m sure she’s covering where her husband Dirt hit her. Her husband’s real name was Donald Dirt McGirt and he’s just about how you imagine someone with that name would be. That’s not how Aunt Mildred died, but when she comes to see me, she always says the same thing: “don’t ever let anyone treat you like you’re lesser.”

Everyone knew how Uncle Dirt beat on Aunt Mildred, but no one said anything about it. Even Daddy, who was also Aunt Mildred’s brother. She started to hit him back, either with her fists or her sass, and just when Aunt Mildred clearly started getting stronger than Uncle Dirt, she got breast cancer, and that’s how she died. I think she was mad at herself for wasting all that time on a man who wasn’t any good for her. I was mad at God because why would he give Aunt Mildred cancer like that just when I needed her. I was thirteen. I believe in ghosts, but I’m not sure they come from God.

Before I get into The Body of this letter, the “Meat and Potatoes of what you want to write,” as you say in class, how come you have so many cats at your house? I only know that because Sarah Buckley told me you sometimes ask her to feed your cats when you go out of town. I think I’m more curious about the cats than where you go when you go out of town. I asked Sarah how many cats you had, and she said, “I don’t know, maybe five.” Jeremy Russell would probably call that a gang of pussy or a pussy riot or something gross and inappropriate like that.

The truth is, I think, there are many ways to understand what really happened that night. For instance, when did the night really even start? Was it when the party at Andrew Turtle’s house started? That was at about 9:30. I was sober the whole time, even though me and Sarah were both carrying bottles of Coca-Cola Zero mixed with rum (hers was actually mixed with rum, mine wasn’t). I’d argue that, no, the night didn’t start when the party at Andrew Turtle’s house started.

Did it start, then, before, maybe when it started to get dark, after our team, the Athens High Jaguars beat the Cary Imps by one point at the buzzer when Tucker Briggs made a three-pointer and everybody ran onto the court and was jumping around and celebrating like it was New Year’s Eve (that is my sixth simile so far in this letter, so when you say I need to have more figurative language in my writing, is that what you mean?). Everyone was lit.

Here’s what no one knows. At the beginning of the game, just before tip-off when all the players on the court shake hands and shake hands with the referee too, Tucker looked over at Billy, our class president, who was on the bleachers with the rest of us, the gym was packed, and they made their signature hand-signs to each other which everyone gawks at because they are best friends and basically run the school. I don’t really care about it, and I guess it does look kind of cool, but I bet they’ve practiced it a million times which makes it actually not that cool but no one will tell them that anyway. It was how they looked at each other, like they thought they owned everything, that put fire ants in my britches.

Earlier that day in Psychology class, I sit next to Tucker and the teacher was going on and on about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Tucker had his laptop open like he was taking notes, but then Billy messages him on Skype like: Yo!

I could see Tucker’s screen light as day, so why wouldn’t I look. 

Yo, Tucker types back.

Yo you think she’ll say anything

Tucker writes: Sarah??? 

Yeah 

Bitch better not.

U sure?

Chill bro 

U still got those pics tho?

Took them off my phone but I got them

Aight good 

Later tonight at Turtle’s

After the game?

Yep 

Yep

Out

Out 

One

Sarah’s on the Gymnastics team. She’s cute and short. I run Cross Country and have freckles and moles. Sarah’s really cute. I’m lanky and have big earlobes. People say Sarah looks like Reese Witherspoon, which is to say, yeah, like, she’s really cute. She’s quiet though and a kind of sweet gullible that’s dangerous. Maybe that doesn’t come out in class, Mr. Sturdivant, but believe me, she’s the worst kind of sweet gullible. If you were being silly and said you needed to borrow a dollar to buy something free, she wouldn’t hesitate to give you a dollar or two. She’s book smart, but when it comes to street smarts, she’s about as useless as a crooked nail. But, like I said, she’s really cute, and that’s usually more important when you’re a girl. At least in high school.

She had told me what happened. She tells me everything, even bad stuff, and then makes like it’s nothing. She was over at my house and we were watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother and sort of out of nowhere she says, “Can two boys take the same girl to prom?”

I gave her a look. “What in the world are you talking about Sarah?”

“I think Tucker and Billy are both going to ask me to prom, and I want to go with both of them.”

“Sarah,” I said, “they both got girlfriends. What makes you think they’re going to ask you to prom?”

As you know, Mr. Sturdivant, Tucker goes with Melissa “Miss Everything” Evans whose Daddy is a preacher, and Billy goes with Jennifer Spivey, probably the best head cheerleader we’ve ever had.

Sarah said lately she’d been staying late after practice to get her balance beam routine down and that she’d see Tucker in the lower gym, too, and he would come over sometimes and watch her and just, you know, as she said, chit chat and small talk. Her North Carolina accent is even thicker than mine, so when she says chit chat and small talk, she means she’s being flirty. And, besides, no guys just small talk with girls wearing leotards.

Every weekend there’s a house party somewhere and some parents are funny. For instance, Andrew Turtle’s folks actually let Andrew have these parties. Mr. Turtle stays in his garage fixing whatever it is he fixes, maybe cars, and Mrs. Turtle sits right there at their kitchen table and smokes Doral Lights, one after another. She takes everybody’s car keys at the door, and before they leave, she makes them blow into the air, like she was a breathalyzer, and even makes some walk in a straight line. “Ha,” she’ll say, “you ain’t getting your keys. You can stay here if you need to and sober up.” Like I said, some parents are funny. Mrs. Turtle looks crazier than a three-headed serpent sitting there telling off drunk high school kids about the dangers of drunk driving when she’s the one who tells her son, yes, it’s okay to have a house party when I’m at home sitting at the kitchen table watching reruns of Golden Girls.

I mean, I guess she means well, like, she thinks it’s safer when she knows where everybody is drinking since kids will get out and do it anyway. I understand that, but it’s like she’s condoning all that happens upstairs where the party is too. The stuff she doesn’t know about.  

Sarah told me it happened a few times. Once or twice in Tucker’s black Escalade in the parking lot down at the lake where nobody goes after the sun goes down. Once or twice in The Yard at school. In the bathrooms in the basement by the Electronics workshop. There are no hallway cameras down there and the stalls are bigger in the bathroom because that’s where they used to have to roll in the wheelchair kids before they made that big ramp at the front entrance of the school. Once or twice, late night, at Andrew Turtle’s house, after midnight and closer to one or two when everyone was finally sleeping or passed out and Mrs. Turtle took all the leftover car keys to her bedroom to hide.

It started with Tucker in the lower gym and his small talk and then him taking her small hand in his big palms. He’s almost six foot three. Tucker says something cute, and they kiss, and then there’s always the walk to some place “more quieter,” Sarah says. Sarah says it’s always just them two, her and Tucker, and nobody else is around.

“You like that,” Tucker says when he places his hands all over Sarah, like he was caressing her, but really he’s just lying to her and he knows she’s going to say yes on account of how dangerously gullible she is.

Here’s the real Meat and Potatoes, Mr. Sturdivant:

After a while of Tucker heavy petting and kissing on Sarah, he gets her to do whatever he wants her to do, and I won’t go into detail about how powerful a boy like Tucker Briggs can be whilst he is with a vulnerable girl like Sarah Buckley. Some synonyms for vulnerable would be defenseless, exposed, liable, sensitive, susceptible, weak, unguarded, tender, sitting duck, and wide open. I know there are a lot of girls like Sarah Buckley.

I mean, part of me wants to think, it’s difficult to blame them completely. I mean, I can see how some girls go blank and turn inside out. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be the girl who hooked up with a boy like Tucker Briggs or Billy Pitts. Boys that will run the world one day, one way or another (Tucker’s daddy is a judge; Billy’s daddy is a doctor). But when Sarah told me about how Billy started showing up too and he started to touch her and they took pictures and filmed Sarah with their phones in all kinds of dirty porno-like ways and about how Tucker said the last thing Sarah would want would be to see that footage somewhere where everyone could see it, wouldn’t that be awful. Sarah told me it wasn’t a big deal, like she does everything, like nothing in the world is a big deal except for mastering her balance beam routine.

I told Sarah about Aunt Mildred. About how Uncle Dirt beat on her and all, but about how Aunt Mildred acted like it wasn’t a big deal for a long time. And then I told her how she figured it all out when it was too late and her time on earth was limited, and then I told her about how she visits me and then I dropped the line to her. “Sarah,” I said to Sarah, “don’t let them treat you like you’re lesser.”

“What do you mean?” Sarah said.

“They’re taking advantage of you, girl, and they know better.”

She said, “No, they’re not, Amanda. They said they like me, like a lot a lot. And, I like them. Besides, I don’t want to get anybody in trouble.”

Sarah needed an intervention. Jeremy Russell would have said Sarah had “rats in the attic.”

I knew what I had to do then.

I was going to give those boys exactly what they wanted.

The night started when I acted like I was drunk and Mrs. Turtle said she’d be happy to call my parents and talk to them about me staying. Are you crazy, I thought. My Daddy would have driven straight to the Turtle home and dragged me out of the house with one hand, whilst flipping Mrs. Turtle the bird with the other. I was already supposedly staying the night at Sarah’s anyway, so it didn’t matter. “I’ll just crash on the couch upstairs like everybody else,” I told Mrs. Turtle.

Sarah was really drunk. So was everybody. It was that type of night. That’s what happens on buzzer-beater nights in high school. Everybody gets drunk. Most everyone was passed out in the big living room, but there were a few bedrooms upstairs too.

Mr. Sturdivant, you know what it looks like, I’m sure. Tucker and Billy stand about two feet apart. Their shoulders wide and stance sturdy and then they do their routine, which goes fast: they side five both palms and then the back of their palms and then go pound, pound, pound, pound with their fists, then do something with their fingers that looks like “the itsy-bitsy spider,” but it’s way more macho, then they high five again but this time higher in the air, then they King Kong their chest two or three times, then they fake-box a few jabs at each other, then they bro-hug and yell, “One.” It’s all about as silly-looking as square dancing, if you ask me.

Too bad Tucker isn’t as pertinacious with his phone code (pertinacious was the SAT word of the day the morning I took that God-awful test). When it was all quiet that night at Andrew Turtle’s house except for the one TV on playing infomercials about Mane ‘N Tail shampoo and the moonlight slivered through the blinds, I got up and tip-toed around upstairs, poking my head in each room, staring through darkness until I found Tucker and Billy and the rest of their highfalutin clique sprawled every which way on cushions and pillows and bed sheets. It was dark, but the moonlight creeping in made it so I could still see good enough. The Turtles live in one of the more-fancy Cary neighborhoods, which means everyone in the family can have at least two rooms to claim for his or herself. People only get into trouble with all of that space if you ask me. On the floor, Tucker was lying face up, snoring, and Melissa Evans was hugged up to his side in a way that her preacher Daddy wouldn’t like. I knew Billy was somewhere in the room too, because I could smell him, which is to say I could smell his cologne, which I would call The Drunk Skunk if I could name it. That’s what he smells like to me.

Tucker carries a little kiddy Elmo book bag to every party. It’s another one of his things. Boys and their things and their ding-a-lings. That could be the title of a Country Western song, don’t you think, Mr. Sturdivant? Tucker left his stupid Elmo bag by the door. I took it to the bathroom and realized this was all going to be much easier than I thought because his iPhone was right there in the front pocket. I had a few plans in mind, and Aunt Mildred approved of all of them. I punched the ID Sensor and guessed correctly on the first attempt with the passcode: 2388. 23 is Tucker’s basketball number and 88 is his football jersey number. How’s all this shaping up for Dramatic Irony? If I had to bet, Mr. Sturdivant, I’d say you know how this is all going to end.

I started taking pictures of myself with Tucker’s iPhone. I mean the kind of photos that Sarah was telling me about. I knew that wasn’t enough though, and Aunt Mildred gave me another idea. I started to text them to Billy with Tucker’s phone.

Yo Billy check these bro u won’t believe what I got this bitch to do…

Just a little Rum and Coke and popped her the pills you got me…  

Worked like a charm… 

She was on my cock suckn n screamin for the venom 

Then it was on

One…

I’ve been around boys long enough to know how they Code Switch and can turn into Locker Room talk quicker than striking lightning.

Then I texted me. The pictures first and then:

Remember these?

U r the one who said you wanted it

I know you wont try anything, right?

See you in Spanish chica ;)

I’m not too good in Spanish class, as evidenced by my C+ report card and Daddy who says, “I reckon a C+ means you’re not too good in Spanish,” but No nos tratarás como una perra, Tucker Briggs and Billy Pitts. We’re not your bitch.

Now, do I know all what Tucker and Billy have to do with pills and whatnot? No, but that doesn’t mean there might not be some truth in it. The real question is why does all this happen in the first place? I mean about boys and the things they do to girls? When I ask Aunt Mildred she doesn’t say anything. I just hear her Dream Catcher earrings dangling in the dark. It’ll be like that for a while, quiet except for all the unanswers circling around my bedroom and then Aunt Mildred will laugh like she does and that makes me forget for a minute about all the other things I’ll have to take care of.

Mr. Sturdivant, those boys started it.

They’ll be all right.

They’ll survive.

They’ll just go to another school, move, start over without flinching, and end up being safe from everything in the world like their daddies because they’re rich.

I’m not sure about Sarah Buckley.

On the following Monday I was in my counselor’s office, Mrs. Duncan’s office, crying about how something bad happened over the weekend, but I wasn’t sure I remembered it all clearly because of all the alcohol at the party. I showed her the pictures on my phone and then it all ended for Tucker Briggs and Billy Pitts. They confiscated their laptops and phones. There were other girls. I knew there would be. I’m sure you knew, too, Mr. Sturdivant. Everybody kind of knows, right. That’s what’s so thought-provoking and compelling about it all. How the world works and all and how everybody knows how it works.

A clever way to end this informal letter, Mr. Sturdivant, might be to jot down a quote from literature that sort of recaps all of the main points, but to be honest, I reckon I’m a little tired of clever and what people want.

I want to build a house one day whilst blasting Guns N’ Roses on some loud speakers.

How’s that for an ending?

Respectfully,

Amanda

P.S.: I guess I am a little curious about where you go when you go out of town.

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Bradford Philen writes and teaches high school English in the Philippines where he lives with his wife, son, daughter, and dog Bear. He holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Anchorage and his full list of publications can be found at https://bradfordphilen.com/.