I watch Dad pour the last plaster of Paris batter over the cardboard molds. The substance dries to chalky white lava. Dad inspects his work.
“Perfect. Your Father is a fucking genius and you’re going to win that science fair this year. No doubt.”
No! You’re going to win the science fair this year. It’s your fucking project, like all the rest of “my” assignments.
“The only thing is—Jenny—you have to keep an eye on Mo. I know you love her and all, but I don’t want her getting nervous during the presentation and fucking up your grade, here. Not after all Daddy’s hard work and money spent on this project.”
I stare at him. Motionless like the plaster. Hello, Asshole. It’s our project. She’s my best friend. We’re going to do great. God forbid we don’t get a 100 and win a blue ribbon. Life will go on.
Dad intrudes on my mental rant, shouting with glee, “You know I’m goddamn brilliant, right Jenny?” No, but you’re about to remind me, right?
“I know how to make the smoke. And trap it! We’ll get those little incense cones that I love and glue them inside the volcanoes. Then you just have to tip them upside down and light them. And I think you better do that part, Jenny.” Sounds like a goddamn school fire hazard to me.
“But you haven’t heard the best part yet! We’re going to get wooden stakes and build a canopy with plastic to trap the smoke. It’s fucking perfect, don’t you think?” Fucking perfect. Will you ever be able to think on your own once his voice goes away?
Over the next week, Dad drills me every day in preparation for the class presentation. Exactly what I will say. What Mo will say. When to light the incense. Down to every inflection.
Dad burns enough incense; their musky smolder doesn’t just linger in the air; it settles on the on the sofa, permeates our clothing, and clings to my hair. My nose wrinkles up in rebellion. You’ll never light another one of these fuckers again when you’re gone.
“Are you listening to your Father carefully, Jenny?” I nod. Yes, Drill Sergeant, Tom. At attention!
To spare both our lives, I coach Mo according to his wishes. God. Why would she even want to be your friend? Why would anyone?
When the big day arrives, Mr. Campbell—our science teacher—calls our names, “Mo and Jenny! It’s your turn, girls.”
My hands freeze, ice cold, as we each grab one end of the massive rectangular block that represents earth. Don’t drop this fucker. The tiny white volcanoes dot the surface. The plastic canopy sways as we make our way to the front of the classroom.
The presentation goes according to Dad’s plan. Except my hands shake wildly as I try to light the incense. You’re afraid of fire. Always have been. Of course he can’t know that. The chef’s daughter can’t be afraid of fire.
Mo sees my struggle and chatters on nervously while I finish up. Thank the Lord he’s not here.
Mr. Campbell smiles as we conclude. The class claps. Oh shut up! All of you. It’s his project. This whole thing is bullshit.
At the fair, we repeat the whole thing. People swarm around our table. Dad is pleased with his work. “Well, Jenny. They liked your project the best. That was obvious.” Why did he drop out after seventh grade? He loves school so much.
The next day, we get our final grades. 90. That’s not bad. Oh shit! Yes it is! Very bad!
I dread the 2:15 bell. Dad doesn’t fail. “So, what did you get on the project. At least a 98. I’m betting anything on it.”
“Umm, well actually Dad, we got a 90. Which is really good. A lot of people got in the 80s”
Dad nearly drives off the road. “Did you say a 90?” I glance down at the crimson floorboard.
“No fucking way. That’s not possible! What happened? And you better tell Daddy the truth!”
“Nothing happened. I swear. We did everything like you told us.”
“Bullshit. Your Father knows better. Mo got nervous, didn’t she?” Yes and I did too, asshole. We got a 90. That’s like an A.
“Don’t worry this is not going to stand. I’ll take care of everything in the morning.”
I use the excuse that we have tons of homework to hide in my room as long as possible.
That week, Mr. Campbell talks to me about the project. Just leave it alone, Dad. Let this one go, please. I tell him that I’m satisfied with our grade.
But when Dad drops me off for school the next day, he follows behind me. Shit!
I hear my father talking sternly to Mr. Campbell in the office adjacent to the Great Hall—where I wait for classes to begin. I count the pattern in the marble tiles to occupy my mind.
His voice rises and lowers. Mr. Campbell’s voice barely registers. I flinch inside. Poor Mr. Campbell. He’s the best teacher ever.
“I’m sorry. I respect you as a science teacher, but you know my daughter’s work. She never does less that a 95.” Oh yes, she does. You just don’t know.
“…and you saw this project. Jenny did the best project in the school.” Stop!
He continues, “I told her not to partner up with Mo. But my daughter wanted to and I couldn’t stop her.” That’s right. Stop blaming people! We’re 13 years old. The teacher gave you a 90 on your project, you bastard. Deal with it.
I glance up to see Dad and Mr. Campbell shake hands outside the office door. You should have spit on him, Mr. C. I immediately avert my gaze before either of them makes eye contact.
At the end of science class—7th period—Mr. C keeps me behind. He’s going to be so angry. He’s going to think you wanted a different grade. I cringe in anticipation.
But instead, Mr. C sits on his usual oak stool and grins, warmly. “Jenny, I had a good talk with your dad earlier today.” No you didn’t.
“And I realized that I graded you unfairly the first time. So I’ve reconsidered and decided to raise your grade to a 97.” No! No! No! You let him win. He bullied you. I don’t deserve that grade.
I look up sheepishly at Mr. C. “Thank you so much. I was okay with the first grade you assigned, but thank you, anyway.”
He won. Again. Someday, someone has to stand up to him. What if it’s you?