We sat at circular, six-top tables. Each one had a light beige surface finished with high-pressure laminate: This way, pencil marks could be removed easily, with a sponge or spit-licked finger, leaving no trace of what had come before. Underneath, though, there were scars. Scratches went deep into the tables’ darker, damper underbellies.
We were near-adults, in near-adult bodies, and most of us understood this in a hazy sort of way. We had some idea that it was time to harden our minds, to piece together our first true life-story, to fling ourselves along one trajectory or another. We were in a small room. It was half-darkened, and we had worksheets. The subject was economics.
A single worksheet was projected onto a white vinyl screen at the front of the room. A light shone onto a mirror, the mirror reflected, and a copy of our worksheet loomed on the screen. The blanks had been filled in by a chemical-smelling marker. Blue. Sometimes, as we walked in, we heard the sound of the screen coming down and being locked into place.
As students, we were fourteenth century monks: We copied down answers from the screen onto our worksheets. The teacher was brown-haired and observant, and wore dark shirts and dark, ill-fitting pants. Usually, a black shirt was buttoned up tight against his neck, and a large silver cross hung at his breastbone. This was during Gulf War One, and the girls mumbled coquettishly while boys talked about enlisting. One of the boys, full of anxious swagger, taped up a caricature of Saddam Hussein. A faint black target circled the Iraqi dictator’s head, with the bull’s-eye, I believe, painted on his brow. I cannot remember if the teacher remarked on this picture, or if he had an opinion about its relation to economics. No one removed the image.
One of the louder girls came from a family that had fled South Africa after Nelson Mandela’s release. She had wiry brown hair, short on top and long in the back, and spoke with a faint accent. She said that our town was very nice, very much like hers used to be. The room was half-darkened, and we talked as we filled in worksheets. We filled in worksheets, and after a while the teacher would remove one transparency and put up another.
We would search for this new worksheet among our piles—at the beginning of class, he’d have passed out dozens of dry, thin sheets. He would say something like, Number 12, Number 12. And once we’d located it, we would begin to fill it in. Someone, probably a boy, would throw a wadded-up piece of paper at the caricature of Saddam Hussein. Someone else would open his mouth and filth would drop out, words like raghead and camel jockey, just as in certain fairy tales gold and silver dropped from the mouths of princesses. Around our feet, underneath the tables, beasts rubbed against our calves. They huffed and mewled and bit into our ankles. I spoke with one other girl. Meredith.
For the most part, I copied from the overhead projector. Meredith and I were bound by adult expectations, and thus we did even the small things correctly: We wrote prime rate where the overhead indicated prime rate; we wrote Keynes where it indicated Keynes. But there was one blank, at the very top of the page, where the answer was left to our discretion. For me, this blank space was everything.
At the end of each hour of economics—those lopsided, fifty-minute hours—the classroom’s speaker would emit a high-pitched sound. We called it a bell even though it had none of a bell’s musicality, none of its pleasant echoes. The lights would flip back on. We would briefly blink against this change before we moved into the hallway, where far more terrifying beasts confronted us: griffins flying perilously close to our heads, snakes that slid up our legs, bats that dropped from the ceiling, adolescent boys whose hands darted out and groped our uncomfortable bodies. I didn’t know how to respond, whether with complicit laughter or defensive, towering rage. I rehearsed several ripostes, but was never able to draw one out in time, like a rainbow-colored handkerchief stuck too far up a magician’s sleeve.
It was safety, of a sort, when we got to another classroom, to our rows of desks or round tables, and the teacher asked us to recite from something we’d copied, or copy down something we’d recited. In some classes, the teacher was strong enough to banish the beasts and command utter silence, utter absence.
It was safety, but it wasn’t very interesting. I longed for the economics classroom, and that small blank space.
Meredith and I approved of my given first and last names. The middle name, however, was clearly wrong. It was too weak, too flat for an underdog who wanted to pull on shining armor and slay the world’s fire-breathing dragons of War and Ignorance and whatever else might face me.
Meredith and I weren’t ready, then, to put up our own posters. We lacked the necessary words. Or, if we knew the words, we couldn’t fit them into sentences. The next year, when I’d gained a better command of my vocabulary, I pulled on a T-shirt slogan about flag-burning. At that point, the beasties ringed around me, their calls high-pitched and angry. I was predictably, self-importantly, afraid.
But in the year when Meredith and I sat in a darkened economics classroom, at the beginning of Gulf War One, I didn’t think as much about my fears or my importance. I concentrated my attention on moving deeper and deeper into that blank space.
I remember being Marcia the Bold, which was an utter lie, as I am not in the least courageous. I am, in fact, an execrable coward, the sort who’ll agree to a host of small, unnecessary lies so as not to appear different. Of course, back then, I might’ve been an even bigger coward. Or much less of one. It is possible that writing that silly name, Marcia the Bold, changed me in unseen ways.
The thing they called a bell would sound, and I would jerk up to my feet, as I did every day, and leave the economics classroom. Perhaps I went to philosophy, where we read textbook summaries of the works of Plato and Rousseau and parroted them back to the teacher. On certain days, he’d tell us about his moments of youthful rebellion. He remembered—he said, bouncing on his heels—being caught in a speed trap. Enraged by the ruse, he’d scrawled a sign, his own shout to the world, and taken it a ways down the road. Speed trap ahead, it bellowed.
In that classroom, we sat at desks arranged in an oval. The teacher wore light-colored shirts with a department-store tie that covered his buttons. He had glasses and a great deal of nervous energy, and he wanted to motivate us to affect our worlds. Aside from a few personal anecdotes, I remember nothing of what he said.
There were no worksheets to complete in philosophy, at least not during class. There was no blank space where I could imagine a new way of being.
Meredith will have remembered it differently. Or perhaps she doesn’t remember our sweaty, unremarkable economics classroom at all; perhaps she remembers more pleasant places, like algebra or the library. For me, this economics classroom was where I learned who I was—and am. It was where I found my Other.
By the time I was an awkward near-adult, my central character had grown into a sweet-tempered underdog who, in the end, was loved by all. But for my character to have a story, I would need a loud, angry crowd to menace her. I would need them to have power, to resent her difference, to surround her with venom. I would need it to seem likely that they would win.
Meredith had her own central character, of course. The people in the room also arrayed around her protagonist. In another, parallel world, they were defined by her story.
Meredith and I went through names and names. The economics teacher never commented on the myriad of choices; the only marks on my papers were scores in red felt-tip pen. Twenty of twenty. Always 20/20. When he spoke, it wasn’t about names. It was about Catholicism, or city governance, or about whether the worksheets had been photocopied onto white paper or pink or green.
But, while I hadn’t yet found a vocabulary, I was desperate to speak. I needed to see my reflection in other people’s faces. One afternoon, in the school library, I discovered a book about secular humanism. I slipped it onto the teacher’s desk, where he found it the following morning. I don’t remember his words, although he was certainly rattled.
If another teacher had expressed such nervous anger, I might have regretted my small rudeness. But, in this moment, I saw it as a triumph. The economics teacher held my book aloft, and tiny, laughing fairies twittered around his head. He melted into a bad-guy caricature of himself.
I roamed through the library, where I devoured more books. Meredith and I generated more names. The more and better the names, the more the boys and the South African girl and the poster of Saddam Hussein retreated to a manageable distance. The more they became part of a fairy-tale narrative of which I was sole author. The sole, powerful, lonely author.
My father once said that “History will decide” whether Gulf War Two was a just conflict or not. I don’t believe he meant it. When he said, “History will decide,” he meant, “Please, dear, let’s not argue.” He meant, “I’d like to hold onto the illusion that you didn’t change irrevocably when you were sixteen, and that we still see the world in the same manner.”
He wouldn’t have meant that history shifts and twists with the historian’s purpose and the habits of the time. Or that a war could be just or unjust, good or evil, depending on the moral of the historian’s tale. Or that—outside of knowing what makes a good story—there was no way of separating right from wrong at all.
I didn’t mark the day I hit upon it. Or—I can’t be sure—maybe Meredith was the first to say my name. Lynx. It was elegant; it dipped below the line; it ended with an x. We liked how it sounded; we said it aloud several times. A lynx must have been nearby, slinking under the tables in that half-darkened classroom.
We might have known that wild lynx roamed the northern part of our state, where people hadn’t yet overlaid the land with asphalt and billboards and malls. We might have known that lynx were solitary hunters, that they were extremely vocal and made a variety of hissing, chattering, purring, and yowling sounds. We would not have known that a lynx’s emissions were supposed to be desirable, such that some believed its strong-smelling urine would harden into precious stones.
We did know that they were fierce. They weren’t bold, like a knight on a horse. They weren’t even clever. But they had sharp teeth. If you stumbled onto one, it could protect itself, its offspring, its friends. If a boy walked up with filth dropping out of his mouth, the lynx could growl with enough force to make the boy swallow his ugly discharge and think twice before re-opening his lips.
Lynx. I wrote it on worksheet after worksheet, varying the handwriting, sketching the lines of a story-path I was already on. I was no longer quite so fuzzy in the middle, or the same variety of coward. I had a word, which had to be fit into sentences, the sentences back into stories. Later, when small beasts approached me under the table—badgers and weasels and biting lizards—the lynx would open its wide mouth, and sometimes, sometimes, the beasts would revise themselves into something different.
M. Lynx Qualey moved to Cairo, Egypt, in the summer of 2001, and the city has since become home. She writes about Arab and Arabic literature for various publications and blogs daily at arablit.wordpress.com. (updated 6/2011)