Hating Libby Lawrence wasn’t just self-defense, it was an undiluted, adrenaline high with a clean conscience. In the fifth-grade, Libby personified a “mean girl” before the term had become popular. From the first day when she ordered me with a sneer and a glare to sit on the left of our shared desk, promptly told the teacher that I smelled bad, and scribbled a black line through my book report, I knew she and I would never get along. Unfortunately, since I was short, thin, and timid, I didn’t stand a chance. To boot, I stopped growing that year. Thanks to some kind of miraculous providence, her parents moved away, and I started growing again.
But from then on, even into my adult years, the name Libby sent chills down my spine. I tried to control my fury when my brother decided to name his first daughter Libby after some relation on his wife’s side. I didn’t care how great the relation; no child deserved to be stuck with such a moniker. Despite my best on-my-knees entreaties, he went forward with his malicious scheme, but to my surprise, the child grew up to be a pretty decent kid.
Years later, when my dream-teaching job opened up in my hometown, I only paused for a brief moment when my eyes tripped over the principal’s name — Libby Macintosh. Couldn’t be the same. After all, the Libby I knew could hardly control herself, much less a whole school.
I steeled myself for the long-distance phone interview from California to Wisconsin. I had taught five years at LA Unified and felt that if I didn’t get an infusion of the four Midwestern seasons soon, I’d dry up and wither away. I also missed my family and Lake Michigan. What’s an ocean I hardly ever saw — much less touched — to a lake that’s got miles of open beachfront?
The interview went well. Ms. Macintosh was courteous and clear. She had a third-grade vacancy that needed to be filled for the autumn term. She wanted someone with experience who would be willing to take on a few extra duties as need be. The lack of specificity about the “other duties” worried me, but the school’s location — just five miles from my parents’ home and three miles from Lake Shore Drive — attracted me like a puppy to an untied shoelace. Daily runs along the lake and easy visits with my elderly parents would be worth a few extra duties. My spirits rising, I felt confident enough to ask a couple personal questions. “You’re a native of Wisconsin? Been a principal long?”
Yes and no was about all Ms. Macintosh had time for that day, but she kindly referred me to her Facebook page where we could connect — if I felt so inclined. Picturing myself on the cover of a Nancy Drew mystery novel, I quickly accepted the offer and gave her my email address so she could send me specifics on the school and the position. I would send my updated resume to her by return email. End of interview.
If it hadn’t been for a series of life crises involving a misfit kitten, an exploding dryer, and an elderly neighbor’s cries of distress, I would have put on my detective cap that same day. But as it was, it took me the weekend to get my life in order and my laptop to cooperate. Finding Ms. Macintosh wasn’t hard. What was hard was swallowing back was my horror at seeing those all-too-familiar green eyes, that pugnacious nose, and the jutting jaw that could clip a hedge.
If my mom hadn’t called at that moment, I would have turned off my computer and made a run for the nearest Dairy Queen — despite the fact that it was nearly eleven miles away.
My voice was a slight bit shaky, though I tried to cover myself. Still, moms have a way of noticing.
“You all right, honey? You sound out of breath.”
“I — I’m fine. Just — you know — busy. With stuff.”
Well, mom was never one to mess around on a long distance call even though she’s got a package deal that — never mind. She got to the point.
“Your father’s birthday is next week. And he’s not getting any younger.”
I could clearly drop my Nancy Drew persona. No detective needed here.
“Well, the plane ticket is pretty expensive, and I want to set up a few interviews before I —”
“Didn’t you have a phone interview this week?”
“Uh, yeah …”
“Well, then, just come home, check in on your poor, aging parents, and stop by the school. Never hurts to show a little interest. Besides, it’s a lot harder to turn someone down when you’ve met them in person.”
I pictured Libby’s furious glare framed by flapping, black ponytails as she pushed herself into my space with a whirling fist at her side. Somehow, I didn’t think she had any trouble turning people down. She probably arranged interviews for the sheer joy of knocking prospective hopefuls on their backsides.
“I bet she even sent you an invitation for an in-person interview. They do that, you know. Have you checked your email lately?”
As surprise and anxiety played touchdown football with my innards, my hand reflexively clicked to my email. A cold shock ran through my body when I saw the subject line: Invitation from Principal Macintosh.
I don’t remember much of the rest of the conversation, but I do know that mom had a list of airline specials for the coming week.
Getting home, celebrating dad’s seventieth birthday, catching up with my brother and his brood of three rapscallions, kept me busy over the weekend. I actually slept a few hours each night — after highlighting plans for a perfect revenge.
On Monday, I dressed in my most professional, intimidating gray suit with matching heels and I toted my very expensive, leather briefcase. I dearly hoped she was an animals’ rights activist and was deeply offended by my insensitivity. I sniffed back disdain till my sniffer was sore. I had a childhood score to settle, and I had not an iota of an intention of accepting the job. I wanted to see her in person, and after she reviewed my sparking work record, my laudable service in Peace Corps, my glowing endorsements, I would slap her offer into the dust. Only then would I remind her of her left-hand seatmate in fifth grade. And, yes, the past can come back to haunt you.
Why I felt the need to torture myself with a quick detour at the lake, I don’t know. I stood on the grassy shore, sucking in lung-fulls of invigorating lake scent and hoped that Libby hadn’t grown much taller since our last meeting. Her Amazonian height was still an issue to contend with. Reviewing the many trials and experiences I had had since fifth grade, I wondered — briefly — if I wasn’t letting my childhood mini-trauma get the better of me.
When I saw a little girl and a bully of a big sister pull the child along like a rag doll, my burning resolve reformed itself. No! Justice demanded an honest accounting. I would face this haunting humiliation — or die trying.
Marching up the steps, I passed a group of middle school kids texting one another. I didn’t even shake my head. It wasn’t worth the effort.
I gripped my briefcase, tapped the intercom, got permission to enter, pushed open the wide, front door, charged down the green and yellow hall — my heels clacking officiously — and entered THE OFFICE. It was empty. Since it was going on five o’clock, I hadn’t expected a crowd, but I was surprised by the stillness.
There was a counter with a little bell. I looked around, cleared my throat, stared at the half-opened door labeled Principal’s Office, and tapped my fingers on the counter. Nothing. Finally, in sheer desperation, I tinkled the stupid bell. A call from the office informed me that Ms. Macintosh was in.
I squared my shoulders and straightened my back. Five foot four inches would only take me so far, but I had every intention of making the most of what I had. Deciding that I didn’t want to appear too interested, I strolled to the wall and glared at the bulletin board.
I heard an odd sound and a horribly familiar voice. “Oh, hi! You’re early. I like that. Thanks for coming, Grace.”
I turned, my eyes lifted high to meet those green orbs, but there was nothing there. Until I dropped my gaze. Sitting in an automated wheelchair was the shrunken visage of my childhood tormentor. I tried to control my intake of breath, but honestly, I could have sucked in the whole of Lake Michigan.
Adding a layer of bizarre on top of my shock, Libby Macintosh didn’t seem even remotely surprised. She just waved me toward her office. “Come on in. It’ll be more comfortable for both of us.”
Since walking was about the only way I could cross the room, and collapsing into a heap didn’t seem like a viable option, I followed.
With expert swiftness, she swiveled her metallic armature into place behind her desk, waved to the empty chair, and beamed at me.
“So how long has it been, Grace? Gosh, it’s got to be nearly eighteen years.”
Yes, my jaw did drop all the way to the floor. Stunned, I could hardly speak. Finally, trying to hide my shaking hands, I squeezed them into my lap, my shiny, leather briefcase forgotten on the floor where it fell when I landed in the chair. “You — you remember me, Ms. —?”
A waving hand and a disarming smile deflected my question. “Oh, not at first. Your mom came by my office a few weeks ago. She helps out in the library, you know. She’s the one who told me that you were looking to relocate. It wasn’t until she brought along a grade school yearbook and showed me your picture that I put two and two together.”
I honestly believe that my brain melted at that moment. I couldn’t think of a thing to say. The impulse to get up and walk out the door was the only idea that made even the slightest sense, but before I could arrange my synapses to fire coherent messages to my skeletal system, Libby chuckled.
With bubbling giggles, she wagged a finger at me. “Do you remember what a brat I was? Gosh, I was terrible. I used to go out of my way to make everyone miserable.” Suddenly, her laughter died as she dried her damp eyes. “But God got my attention.” She gestured to her emaciated legs and the wheelchair in a comprehensive sweep. “Car accident. Just a couple of years later, my dad was killed and my mom never got over the loss — or my crippled legs. She took to drinking. I ended up living with my grandma.”
Blinking back sudden tears, I clasped my head with both hands before it exploded. “I doubt God wanted that.”
Libby nodded with a slow smile. “You’re right. He didn’t. But it changed my life. My parents were troubled people. I was a nasty kid, and I would have grown up to make a lot of people miserable. But Grandma had a faith that could move mountains, and she taught me to use a wheelchair. She also taught me to think about others and to use my newfound understanding to better the world.”
Libby wheeled herself around the desk and arrived on my left. Reaching out, she clasped my hand in hers. “Can you forgive me for being such a wretched brat? I’m sure you must still carry some hurt for the things I did.”
I couldn’t wipe my tears way fast enough.
She scooted her wrecked body aside, pulled a clean tissue out of a hidden pocket, and handed it to me. “I always keep some handy. Never know.” She smiled through glimmering eyes.
Sniffing what was left of my composure under control, I met her gaze. “You know, I came here to teach you a lesson — to show you that I had always been better than you thought. I wanted —” I couldn’t go on. It all seemed so pathetic.
Libby squeezed my hand — comfortingly. “You know, when I realized who you were, I went out of my way to ask your mom to follow up with you. I was so grateful for this chance. There were a lot of people I hurt but thank God, there are a lot of people I help now. And I just thought it would be rather grand — if after our miserable past — that as adults we could work together for the next generation. Would you like to do that, Grace?”
I worked with Libby for twenty-two years until she had a debilitating stroke and had to retire. She asked me to take over as principal, and the school board unanimously agreed. During those years, and every autumn after, we’d start the term with an assembly, retelling the story of our fifth-grade animosity and how, in later life, we became good friends who loved kids and cherished the future.
In the end, loving Libby was the best high I ever had. I have no plans to come down.
Copyright 2018 Ann K. Frailey