‘Emerson Watts,’ called my first-period Public Speaking teacher, Mr Greer, startling me from the light doze into which I’d drifted. Well, whatever. Do they really expect us to be alert at eight fifteen in the morning? Come on. ‘Here,’ I called, jerking my head from the top of my desk and surreptitiously feeling the side of my mouth, just in case I’d been drooling. But I guess I didn’t do it surreptitiously enough, since Whitney Robertson, seated with her long, tanned legs crossed beneath a desk a few feet away from mine, snickered, and hissed, ‘Loser. ’ I threw her a dirty look and mouthed, Bite me. To which she responded by narrowing her heavily made-up baby-blue eyes at me and mouthing back smugly, You wish. ‘Em,’ Mr Greer said with a yawn. I guess he’d been up pretty late last night too. Only I’m guessing it wasn’t because he’d been frantically finishing his homework for this class, like I was. ‘I wasn’t calling roll. It’s time for you to give the class your two-minute persuasive oral piece. We’re going in reverse alphabetical order, remember?’ Great. Just great. Chagrined, I slid out from behind my desk and made my way to the front of the room while the rest of the class tittered. All except Whitney, I saw. That’s because she had dug her compact mirror out of her bag and was gazing at her own reflection. Lindsey Jacobs, seated in the row beside hers, stared at Whitney admiringly and whispered, ‘That shade of gloss is so you. ’ ‘I know,’ Whitney murmured to her reflection. I fought off a reflexive urge to gag – because I was about to speak in public, not because of their exchange . . . although I guess that could have had something to do with it – and turned round to face the room. Twenty-four sleepy faces blinked back at me. And I realized I had completely forgotten the speech I’d been up half the night writing. ‘All right, Emerson,’ Mr Greer said, ‘you’ve got two minutes. ’ He looked down at his watch. ‘And . . . ’ Amazing. The second he said that, my mind went even more blank. All I could think was . . . how did she know? Lindsey, I mean. That that shade of lipgloss was so right on Whitney? I have been alive nearly seventeen years and I still have no idea what shade of lipgloss looks good on me . . . or anybody else, for that matter. I blame my dad. He’s the one who gave me a boy’s name to begin with, since he’d been so sure I was going to be one – despite what the ultrasound had shown – because I kicked my mom so much while I was in the womb. Dad insisted on naming me after his favourite poet, which is what you get when your father teaches university-level English literature. I guess my mom was still high off her epidural or something, because she totally let him, even after the ultrasound turned out to be right. So Emerson Watts is what it says on my birth certificate. I know. I was a victim of sexual stereotyping in utero. How many girls can claim that? ‘ . . . go,’ Mr Greer said, turning on his oven timer. And just like that, all the research I’d done on my assigned topic the night before came flooding back. Phew. ‘Females,’ I began, ‘make up thirty-nine per cent of people who play interactive computer games, and yet only a small fraction of the games created by the estimated thirty-five-billion-dollar worldwide gaming industry is geared towards female players. ’ I paused . . . but it didn’t matter. I guess I couldn’t really blame them. It was barely nine in the morning, after all. Even Christopher, who lives in my building and is supposedly my best friend, wasn’t paying attention. He was in his normal seat in the back row, and he was upright. But his eyes were closed. ‘A study,’ I went on, ‘by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA showed that the percentage of computer degrees granted to women has now dropped to an all time low of less than thirty per cent. Computer science is the only field in which women’s participation is actually decreasing over time . . . ’ Oh, God. No one in first-period Public Speaking was awake now but me. Even Mr Greer’s eyes had drifted shut. Terrific. Way to be part of the problem, Mr Greer, and not the solution. ‘Many researchers believe this is due to our educational system failing to engage girls in the sciences – particularly computer science – during the middle school years,’ I battled on, staring directly at Mr Greer. Not that he noticed. He was now gently snoring. Great. Just great. I mean, I’d been slightly psyched when I’d gotten my topic, because the truth is, I like computer games. Well, one computer game, anyway. ‘So what can be done to keep girls interested in gaming,’ I went on desperately, ‘which studies show increases problem-solving and strategic abilities, and also helps develop social interaction skills and cooperative play?’ There was no point, I realized. Really. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I could strip off my clothes and reveal to you that under my jeans and sweatshirt I’m actually wearing a tank top and short shorts, much like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider . . . only mine are flame retardant and covered in glow-in-the-dark dinosaur stickers. ’ No one stirred. Not even Christopher, who actually has a thing for Lara Croft. ‘I know what you’re thinking,’ I went on. ‘Glow-in-the-dark dinosaur stickers are so last year. But I think they add a certain je ne sais quoi to the whole ensemble. It’s true short shorts are uncomfortable under jeans and hard to get off in the ladies’ room, but they make the twin thigh holsters in which I hold my high-calibre pistols so easy to get to . . . ’ The oven timer dinged. ‘Thank you, Em,’ Mr Greer said, yawning. ‘That was very persuasive. ’ ‘No, Mr Greer,’ I said with a big smile. ‘Thank you. ’ It’s a good thing my parents aren’t paying for my tuition – I’m on a full academic scholarship at Tribeca Alternative – because I have true reservations about the quality of the education I am receiving here. I went back to my seat as Mr Greer asked – himself mostly, I guess – ‘Now, who do we have next? Oh, yes. Whitney Robertson?’ Mr Greer smiled. Because everyone smiles when they say Whitney’s name. Except me. ‘You’re up. ’ Whitney – who’d gone for a quick nose-powdering after the oven timer went off – closed her compact with a snap and uncrossed her legs. I knew I wasn’t the only one in the room who got a flash of her leopard-print thong as she did so. Suddenly, everyone seemed to be wide awake. ‘Here goes nothing,’ Whitney said with a laugh, and she unfolded her long, lean frame out from beneath the desk, and sauntered – no, really, even though she was wearing four-inch platform heels. How do girls do that? If I tried to saunter in four-inch heels (even in two-inch heels) I’d trip and fall flat on my face – down the aisle to the front of the room, her short, ruffled skirt swaying behind her. When she turned to face us, there wasn’t an eye in room that wasn’t on Whitney. Except Christopher’s, I noticed, when I turned around to check. He was still soundly asleep. ‘And . . . go,’ said Mr Greer, adjusting the oven timer. ‘My topic is about why I,’ Whitney began in a sing-song sweet voice completely unlike the one she uses when she is advising me to bite her, ‘don’t believe in the fallacy that Western civilization’s standards for female beauty are too high. Lots of women complain that the fashion and film industries are attacking the self-esteem of young girls and older women alike. They want these industries to employ more, quote, average-sized women, unquote. I say this is ridiculous!’ Whitney tossed some of her long blonde – dyed, apparently. At least according to my little sister Frida, who knows about things like that – hair and asked, her blue eyes glittering with indignation, ‘How is it an attack on any woman’s self-esteem to promote a healthy weight – which scientists have determined as a body mass index of below twenty-four point nine – as beautiful? If some women are too lazy to go to the gym because they sit around all day playing video games, well, that’s their problem. But they can’t then turn around and blame those of us who take proper care of our bodies of being sexist or holding them to impossible standards of beauty . . . especially when so many of us are living proof that those standards aren’t impossible at all. ’ My jaw dropped. I looked around to see if anyone else was as stunned as I was. This was Whitney’s interpretation of the top
ic Mr Greer had assigned her for her two-minute persuasive piece? That normal-sized women should stop blaming the media for hyping stick-thin models and actresses as the beauty ideal? Apparently I was the only one in the class who thought she’d gotten it wrong. At least if the rapt way everyone else (the male half of the class, anyway) was staring at Whitney’s – admittedly extremely perky – boobs was any indication. ‘If wanting to look as beautiful as someone like Nikki Howard, for instance,’ Whitney went on, naming the current It girl in the beauty-and-fashion scene, ‘was really so wrong, would women be spending an estimated thirty-three billion dollars a year on weight loss, another seven billion on cosmetics, and three hundred million or more on cosmetic surgery? Of course not! People aren’t stupid! They know that, with a little effort and maybe a little more money, they can be as attractive as – well, me. ’ Whitney flung her long hair behind one shoulder, then went on, ‘Some people –’ insert the name Emerson Watts here, the look she sent in my direction implied – ‘might think it’s stuck-up of me to call myself attractive. But the truth is, beauty isn’t just about being five foot ten and a size zero. The most important accessory a girl can have is confidence . . . and I guess I just have plenty of that!’ Whitney lifted her shoulders in an innocent shrug, and almost all the boys – and half the girls – in class sighed as they gazed longingly at her. I whipped around in my seat and was relieved to notice that Christopher’s head had lolled forward in sleep. One guy – out of fourteen – was safe, anyway. I turned back around in my seat just in time to hear Whitney say, ‘And the truth is, contrary to what critics tell us about the ideal being unachievable and women dying to be thin, the only thing killing women in this country is obesity, which is at epidemic proportions. ’ Everyone in class nodded in agreement, as if all this made perfect sense. Which it so didn’t. At least, not to me. ‘Well,’ Whitney said, ‘that’s about it. Was that two minutes?’ Right on cue, Mr Greer’s oven timer dinged. He beamed and said, ‘Exactly two minutes. Excellently done, Whitney. ’ She simpered again and started back to her seat. Since I saw that no one else was going to say anything – as usual – I stuck my hand in the air. ‘Mr Greer. ’ He looked at me tiredly. ‘Yes, Miss Watts?’ ‘Seriously,’ I said, lowering my hand. ‘I thought the purpose of the two-minute persuasive oral piece was to persuade our audience of something using facts and statistics. ’ ‘Which I totally did,’ Whitney said as she slid into her seat. ‘All you did,’ I shot back, ‘was make everyone in this class who isn’t as skinny and perfect as Nikki Howard feel totally bad about themselves. How about mentioning the fact that most of us are never going to look like her, no matter how hard we try or how much money we spend?’ The bell rang, loud and long. I guess I’d been asleep longer than I thought, because that period seemed to have flown by. And as everyone sprang from their desks to get to their next class, Lindsey got up and said to me, ‘You’re just jealous. ’ ‘Totally,’ Whitney said, running her hands over her slender thighs. ‘And you got one thing right, Em: no matter how hard you try, you’re never going to look this good. ’ Cackling with laughter at her own witticism, Whitney hurried from the classroom with a giggling Lindsey in tow, leaving me alone with Mr Greer. And Christopher. ‘You can bring up those points next week if you want, Em,’ Mr Greer volunteered helpfully, ‘when we do rebuttal persuasive pieces. ’ I just glared at him. ‘Thanks, Mr Greer,’ I said. He shrugged and looked sheepish. I looked at Christopher, who was slowly waking up, and said, ‘Thanks to you too. You were a big help back there. ’ Christopher, blinking groggily rubbed his eyes. ‘Dude, I heard every word you said,’ he said. ‘Oh, really?’ I raised an eyebrow. ‘What was my assigned topic again?’ ‘Um . . . I’m not sure. ’ Christopher’s smile was slightly crooked. ‘But I know it had something to do with short shorts. And glow-in-the-dark dinosaur stickers. ’ Slowly I shook my head. Sometimes I think high school is just something society puts teenagers through as a sort of test to see if we’ve got the stamina to handle the real world. It’s a test I’m pretty sure I’m failing.