Shannon tapped her pencil on the desk, trying to command my attention. Everything about her annoyed me—the way she sat, the way her hair fell into tangled strands across her face, and the way she incessantly tapped that goddamn pencil against the kidney bean-shaped desk in our sixth-grade classroom. We’d been assigned to work together by the teacher; it was not by choice. We kept as much distance from each other as possible, I at the tip of the bean, she on the outer curve.
Finally, when I was on the verge of ripping the pencil from her hand, I glared at her. With immense satisfaction, she tapped once more and shot her tongue out at me. Despite being the weird new girl, Shannon had a knack for playing offense, but she didn’t yet know my specialty in basketball was blocking. I was a defensive all-star. In retaliation, I wrote on my paper and turned it so she could see: Shannon sucks. I looked at her with told-you-so eyes, sure my message would be enough to erase her stupid smirk. It wasn’t. She squinted back at me. Then she wrote the horror beyond all horrors on her notebook and nudged it across the kidney bean close enough for me to see: Gavin is ugly.
Gavin. As in my Gavin. Gavin Rossdale. The lead singer of the alternative-rock band Bush. Gavin. Whose poster I kissed every night before bed. Gavin. Whose face was printed on my t-shirt. Gavin. The recipient of my perfume-drenched love letters. Gavin. The epitome of all things lovely and good to adolescent girls everywhere with a disposition for head-banging to grunge music (behind the safety of closed bedroom doors). My face flushed and contorted with rage. She raised her eyebrows to ask if I had any other moves in my arsenal. Nope, my game was shot. I couldn’t block that one. She won The Battle on the Bean, but from that day forward, I started sharpening sticks and recruiting allies.
Earlier that year, Shannon had joined our class of eleven students in the small town of Port Republic, NJ. Her prospects for fitting in seemed bleak: thin, mouse-like demeanor, baggy clothes, pursed lips, and a small vocabulary. Her stupid purple sunglasses seemed to be her most prized possession. She didn’t talk much at first. When she finally did speak, it sounded like she was trapped inside a plastic tube. The words could barely escape her tiny mouth. Shannon’s speech impediment meant she had to get extra help with her school work, so she was automatically lumped into that group—you know, the “dummies,” the kids who dreaded report cards and parent-teacher conferences. With only twelve kids in our grade, the division between the “dummies” and the “smarties” was exacerbated twelve-fold.
I was a smarty: one of those know-it-all elitists whose worst nightmare involved a B+. Before the final bell had rung on her first day at our school, we smarties had already agreed upon Shannon’s status. She was definitely not one of us.
Shannon was an ‘army brat,’ and her perpetual new-girl status had provided her a strong offensive game, but even that couldn’t have prepared her for the vengeance I plotted. In the name of Gavin Rossdale, Shannon had become enemy number one. Did she actually imagine that she was ever going to fit in? If you asked Shannon, probably not. She’d tell you that our class was Lord of the Flies, and I was Jack Merridew—the tyrant leader of the cruelest kind of soldiers: a pack of sixth-grade girls.
Soon after the Gavin incident, I appointed myself president the We Hate Shannon Club. Every day at recess, all of the sixth-grade girls except for Shannon met by a set of double doors at the far end of the school. No one ever used those doors, not even the teachers. A two-foot overhang and brick walls formed a small cave—where we hunted for wild pigs—where I became Jack Merridew, rallying the wildlings.
We carved and scribbled our unoriginal insults into the bricks and on the doors. Shannon sucks. We hate Shannon. Whoever thought of the best Shannon-hate slogan was crowned winner for the day. The better the insult, the greater the reward—distributed in superficial flattery and cackles from the pack.
After several weeks in the cave, I hatched a more devious plan. At lunch, communicating only in whispers and hushed giggles, we waited for the right moment. Each morsel Shannon ate lasted an eternity. Finally, she stood up from the lunch table to buy ice cream. Casually, I stood up as well, walked to Shannon’s empty seat, snatched her beloved purple sunglasses, stuffed them in my pocket, and took my place behind Shannon in the line for ice cream.
The pack watched from the table as I smiled, triumphant. Shannon stood in front of me, buying her ice cream, not yet knowing what I’d done. Taking her seat, however, she realized immediately that her sunglasses were gone, her sunglasses, the mask that hid her reactions to our persecution and the wetness in her eyes. She got up and told the teacher on duty. Then I had no choice. I had to dispose of them.
During recess, out of sight of teachers and other kids, we, the pack, tossed the purple sunglasses around in a circle until they landed back in my hands. I threw them on the ground and stomped on them, cracking both the lenses and frames. Dust rose as I ground my foot into the glasses, thinking of my love for Gavin, which was then surpassed by my hate for Shannon, hate for things I didn’t understand, and most of all, hate for myself.
The other girls began stomping out their secrets too: divorces, illness, abuse, and other unspoken forms of hate that we’d filtered into Shannon. We hid our rage behind laughter, the way Shannon had hidden her tears behind the sunglasses.
We destroyed Shannon’s sunglasses, but the hate within us only grew stronger. We left the glasses in a drainage hole, but a pang of fear told me I couldn’t leave them there. Once the last bell rang, I snuck back into the school yard, found the glasses, and threw them into the woods behind my house. I smiled to myself, another smile of triumph, without a single feeling of regret or shame.
Later, when our principal questioned me about Shannon’s missing glasses, I knew he knew I had done it, but I also knew he had no proof. I played the clueless honors student who couldn’t fathom such a vicious crime. Only the beating of my heart could have given me away. He had nothing, and, with an unhappy sigh, he released me to return to class.
Shannon was no dummy. She knew I had taken her sunglasses. She even tried to fight back, but the pack swarmed her like bees when their hive is threatened. She cried until her eyes were red and swollen from our stings. She cried without the protection of her sunglasses, but this only made us torment her more.
One day, at last, Mrs. Smith, our language arts teacher, asked all the girls in our class but Shannon to skip recess and return to her classroom. I felt another pang of fear, a stronger one. Sitting at our desks, we exchanged anxious looks. Did she know about the glasses? The cave? Would she tell our parents? Would we never be allowed to go to recess again? When Mrs. Smith entered the room the tension thickened. She had something to say:
“What I saw over there, outside by the double doors, made me sick to my stomach.”
Something deeper than anger emanated from her words. She repeated what we’d written in the cave, “We hate Shannon. Shannon sucks. Shannon is dumb. Die Shannon die.” Each word spread venomous gas around us. We couldn’t look at each other.
“Do you know what that reminded me of?”
No one spoke. We couldn’t. We waited for an angry speech. Instead, Mrs. Smith said only two words:
The wildlings in the seats around her, me included, began to disappear and human beings, adolescent girls, my friends, took their places. I felt sick. Anger and hatred morphed into nausea, a knot hardening in my gut.
“Yes, the holocaust,” Mrs. Smith repeated. We, the pack, the sixth-grade girls, stared down at our desks. “This is where it starts,” Mrs. Smith continued as I began to recognize the truth of what we’d done. What I had done. “This kind of disgusting, unwarranted hate is where it starts.”
Mrs. Smith stood in front of us, a mirror of truth, forcing us to see through our distortions, our anger, our intolerance. The flies of Hate Island swarmed over me. Yes, I’d been Jack Merridew. I had sharpened the sticks and set out to hunt. I’d held the flag of victory after each slaughtering. And none of it could be undone.
Looking back, I realize Mrs. Smith reached us before our sacrificial rites escalated from plastic sunglasses to the physical self; before the fire on top of the mountain went out. Although, if you ask Shannon, she would probably not agree.
*Editors note: The names of some of these people have been changed.
Samantha Brown was born in Atlantic City and grew up in the small town of Port Republic, NJ. She is a recent graduate of Rowan University and holds an M.A. in Writing. "Hate Island" tells the true story of an experience she had in middle school. Samantha also writes fiction and her award-winning poetry has been published in several smaller venues. Her poem "House on Moss Mill Road" was featured in Lines + Stars Winter 2012 issue. She lives in Clementon, NJ, with her husband and is writing a middle grade fantasy novel.