I scribbled the last few words of my story onto the page, grabbed my notebook, and hurried downstairs. I found my little brother Matthew lying on the living room floor, in his pajamas, watching television with our father.
“Hey, Matthew, time for bed,” I told him. “I finished a new chapter in my story. If you hurry, we’ll have time to read it tonight.”
Usually my brother jumped at the chance to hear another chapter in the story I was writing especially for him, but tonight he barely glanced at me. “I don’t have to go to bed, yet,” he said.
I raised an eyebrow. “Nice try, buddy, but it’s actually past your bedtime. Now go brush your teeth.”
Matthew gave me a smirk. “Dad said I could stay up to finish this TV show.”
I turned to my father, who was sitting on the couch. “It’s his bedtime,” I said. “I always read him a story and put him to bed.”
My father didn’t even turn from the television. “Chrissy,” he said calmly, “you are not his parent.”
Maybe if my dad had snapped at me, or acted annoyed, or even looked in my direction, I wouldn’t have gotten so upset. At least that would have shown that he took me seriously. But the way he said it, like he was stating a simple fact—you are not his parent—made me suddenly so angry I couldn’t see straight.
“Of course I’m not his parent!” I wanted to yell. “You are! But you haven’t been around, so I had to step in and take your place. And now that you’re back you think you can change the way we do things? We don’t need to change! You need to change!”
Only I didn’t say any of that. I had been raised to respect my parents, and as angry as I was, I knew it was wrong to scream at my father. I took a deep breath and tried to come up with a better way to express my feelings.
Just then Miss Jones walked into the room carrying a picture book. “Matthew,” she said, “I found that book I was telling you about, the one with the frog and the toad I used to read when I was a kid. Would you like me to read you some before you go to bed?”
“Okay!” Matthew jumped to his feet and raced out of the room with my teacher following behind him.
I stood there in the middle of the living room, clutching my tattered notebook, next to my father whose eyes were still glued to the TV.
I didn’t want to scream anymore. I didn’t even want to cry.
I wanted to absolutely explode!
For years I had been building a careful wall between my home life and my school life. Last year, when my father wasn’t living with us, none of my friends even knew about it—or, if they did know, they knew better than to mention it—because I didn’t talk about my family issues at school. That little brick schoolhouse was my fortress against the outside world, and I was the only one allowed on both sides of the wall.
Then Miss Jones moved into my family’s basement, and suddenly I had a partner in my daily commute across the wall—whether I wanted one or not. If I had an issue with Miss Jones, I couldn’t leave it at school, and I couldn’t leave it at home. She was everywhere!
I sat in class the day after the whole Bedtime Story Disaster and just glared at my teacher.
If I were being rational, I might have realized that Miss Jones hadn’t been trying to hurt me when she offered to read a bedtime story to Matthew. If I were being rational, I might have understood that Miss Jones had no idea she was interrupting something between my father and me, no idea that she had encouraged my little brother to choose her over me. If I were being rational, I might have recognized that I had no reason to be angry at my teacher at all.
But who needs to be rational when you have such an effective Evil Eye?
I gave Miss Jones the Evil Eye all morning long. I followed her movements around the room with beady eyes narrowed to slits and eyebrows knit tightly together. Most of the time she wasn’t even looking in my direction, but occasionally our gazes met, and I took pleasure in the startled look that jumped across her face in those moments.
By recess time I had a headache from all the glaring.
While most of my classmates played tetherball or swung on the swings, I climbed to the top of the jungle gym to be alone with my thoughts.
Within moments I had company.
“So what’s with the stink eye?” Amy asked, climbing up beside me.
“The stink eye. You were giving Miss Jones the stink eye all morning. What’s that about?”
I looked at Amy, this friend I had known for years, but with whom I had never had a truly serious conversation. Oh, sure, we joked around, or talked about school stuff, or complained about our little brothers and sisters, but we never talked about anything real.
I looked at Amy, and suddenly, more than anything else in the world, I wanted a friend to help me break down my wall.
So I told Amy about Miss Jones and the bedtime story, then about Matthew and my father. And once I started talking about my father I just kept going. I told her about my father’s drinking and my parents’ separation and about my dad moving back in and how awkward it was now. And when I finally ran out of things to say I took a close look at Amy’s face to see what her reaction to all of this might be.
Amy’s eyes were wide.
Oh, no. I thought. What have I done, telling her all that? My friends can’t understand this sort of thing. They all have perfect homes with perfect families, like Christian families are supposed to be! Now she’s going to think I’m strange, or messed up, or even worse she’s going to pity me! What was I thinking?
Only as I studied Amy’s face more closely, I realized her look of surprise was not from shock or horror or pity. It was more a look of…recognition.
“Wow,” Amy breathed. “And I thought I was the only one.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean…” Amy paused to allow a small smile to creep over her face. “Your family sounds exactly like mine.” I know it was just my imagination, but in that moment I thought I heard a low rumbling sound—the sound of two carefully built walls slowly beginning to crumble and fall.