Birmingham, Alabama. A Friday afternoon in September. It is the end of my first week in my new American school, and I am at my locker, about to go home. The hallways are deserted, but it’s probably because everybody has already left for the weekend. A girl comes by. “You can’t go home now!” she says. “There’s a pep rally in the gym! Hurry up, you’ll be late!”
It’s been a week full of weirdness. The weirdness of something called “homeroom.” The weirdness of the Pledge of Allegiance (from which I, a citizen of Spain, am excused). The weirdness of diagramming sentences. And the unspeakable weirdness of boys in the class.
And now this pep rally. What is “pep”? What is “rally”?
I find my way to the gym, push open the door, and am blown back by a wall of sound so loud it nearly knocks me over. Never in my thirteen years, and certainly not in my previous schools (run by nuns, for future ladies) have I heard such a din. The entire school is here, even the priests, nuns, and lay teachers, all of them yelling at the top of their lungs. There are repeated “rah’s” and “go’s” and “yay’s,” but are these expressions of anger, alarm, or what? Why are they raising their fists in the air? Is this a political demonstration?
The noise is so loud that I give up trying to understand and stand there dumbly, sure that everybody is wondering what is wrong with me. In the center of the commotion stands a line of girls dressed in flared knee-length green skirts and thick white sweaters with big green letters on them. Grinning maniacally and yelling “rah,” and “go” and “yay,” they shake what look like mop heads made of green and white strips of paper. Periodically they give an extra loud yell and jump in unison, pumping their arms, arching their backs, and making their skirts float up.
Behind the girls is an even more bizarre sight: a group of what I assume are boys with helmets covering their heads and part of their faces, grotesquely swollen shoulders, and capri pants. They are dressed in white, with big green numbers on their shirts.
Then Father H., the principal, steps to the microphone and the yelling subsides. He makes the sign of the cross and the girls drop their mops to the floor as their skirts settle around their calves. “Hail Mary, full of grace…” Father H. intones. I recognize the prayer, so I say to myself “Dios te salve, María…” But what are we praying for?
When it’s over I walk home in the amazing Alabama heat, glad to be away from the noise and the alien excitement, but feeling strange and alone. I’m worried that I never figured out what the pep rally was about, and that I will perhaps be asked about it on a test. For the moment, though, my brain unclenches, and I bask in the temporary relief of not hearing, not speaking, not trying to understand English.
At home, I kiss my mother, go into my room, and turn on the radio—very softly because my father is in the living room practicing. Buddy Holly is singing that it’s raining in his heart. I can understand that. It means that he is sad because the girl he loves has gone away. (Will an American boy ever be sad because of me?)
Then comes the mournful refrain: “Oh misery, misery, what’s gonna become of me?” And my brain, ceaselessly working to make sense of the strange world in which I find myself, concludes that Buddy must be saying “Oh, Missouri, Missouri”– which is a state somewhere in the middle of this big, confusing country where that cruel girl has gone and left him all alone, like me.