The halls rumbled like the thunder of a storm brewing in the distance. The last bell of the day rang, signaling students to a free fall of intimate gossip and the sharing of their complex plans before heading home. Classroom doors flung open wide as chattering students chaotically poured into the hallway. Locker doors clanked open as books and papers spilled out making for small detours and bottlenecking throughout the halls.
Laurie stood with me as I gently placed my books back on my locker shelf. Laurie and I existed in our own small world, not mindful of those around us. We patiently waited, meekly eyeing our surroundings as the chaos roared by us like a train. Seldom would we have homework; we were a part of the "nerdy" crowd and pretty much always worked ahead. Neither of us rode the school bus or had plans that would hurry us along, so our routine was to linger quietly at our lockers until the swell of students disappeared (down the tracks).
We were both out of place and out of step in Santa Fe’s public school system. Most of our neighborhood friends attended private school, but our parents thought we'd be better prepared for “real” society by attending public school. It hadn’t been so bad until today; but today’s routine of antics against us turned a gentle tide into a drowning pool.
Budding teen years can be cruel for many youth, as they struggle with acceptance and independence. For my own youth and those around me, it was no different.
Bullies have always existed.
Suddenly I smelled something vile, like burning flesh. No…burning hair! Laurie’s hair was on fire. Laurie’s long chestnut hair, falling in ribbons down her back was suddenly melting in front of me, with each passing second strands raced to her scalp. I began screaming; Laurie began screaming. I repeatedly slapped my notebook across her back, against her head. In the flash that it ignited, it was squashed. Only the vile smell of burning hair lingered.
Laurie continued screaming, "Helen! My God, Helen what’s happening?"
"One of the boys just lit your hair on fire! Your hair was on fire," I shouted not knowing what else to do but shout. Beyond the shouting I could hear their laughter as they made their getaway out through the heavy metal doors leading outside and across the school courtyard, where the sunlight freed all who passed that way.
"My God, is it out?" Laurie was frantic, as she ran her hands up and down her head of what was left of her brown silky waves. She was stomping her feet and crying and shouting and crying!
"Yes, it's out! It's out! It’s O.K. now,” I said trying to calm her, trying to calm myself. I was shaking. Laurie was shaking. She kept grabbing her head and the uneven clumps of remaining hair, running her hands up and down her head, feeling the short brittle shafts, uncontrollably repeating "Oh my God, oh my God."
The smell of burned hair filled the hallways. An explosion of lockers slammed shut in unison; within seconds an evacuation of students occurred. We stood alone.
The commotion caused Mr. Reyes to walk out into the hall from behind his math classroom door. In the sternest voice I had ever heard cross his lips, he meekly asked, "What's going on out here?"
The vile odor must have immediately filled his nostrils, with alarm entering his mind, as he repeated himself; this time demanding, "What the hell is going on out here?"
I had never heard Mr. Reyes raise his voice, let alone use that language, I thought to myself. Suddenly Laurie began crying louder and hysterically. Mr. Reyes rushed up to her.
The halls were empty. Only a few nondescript stragglers were left behind, oblivious to the most recent assault on Laurie. She was crying; I was confused, trying to comprehend what had just happened to my best friend. I was trying to console my friend, but not sure what to say.
Other classroom doors opened. Two or three other teachers were lured out by the crying and Mr. Reyes' raised voice, I suppose. As Ms. Mahan approached, I blurted out, "one of the Montoya brothers just lit Laurie's hair on fire!"
Laurie's crying intensified. The beautiful ribbons of her hair were now uneven and blackened along the base of her skull right in the center of the back of her head, like something in a hideous nightmare.
Mr. Reyes calmly asked, "The Montoya boys? Are you sure? Was it Raphael Montoya?"
"Yes. Yes. I think it was Raphael. Raphael and Angel walked right up and lit their lighter to Laurie's hair!"
I didn't understand, but, at that minute, that last comment, spewed in all honesty and fear; would change my life forever. Laurie would no longer be the target, I would be.