Harmony Molloy sat in the back of her 8th grade class. She stared down at a torn piece of notebook paper. Drawn on the paper was a picture of Mr. Erland, her teacher, being disemboweled by ninjas. She was adding cross-shading to the puddle of blood spreading underneath his body when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She quickly covered the drawing with her Math book. Mr. Erland coughed quietly and pointed his head towards the front of the classroom. Harmony rolled her eyes and looked forward.
At the front of the classroom a troupe of high school students Improv for Improvement! was performing a series of skits about healthy living and staying away from bad influences. Harmony was bored. She wondered what these high school students were like outside of doing stupid skits for elementary school students. Did they buy any of this crap they were selling? Or did they drink, or smoke pot, or have sex in the pool while their parents were away like her sister did? The whole thing was so dumb and hypocritical. She wanted to draw more.
At the front of the classroom one of the high schoolers, a perky blond with a well-endowed chest, was talking about respecting herself and respecting others. Harmony studied her. The way she moved, the way she was talking to them, it was like she was talking to babies, or maybe a pet. She was speaking as though she had some sort of authority. What gave her the right, thought Harmony. What did she know that Harmony didn't? She wondered. The girl was certainly pretty, prettier than Harmony's sister. She probably had a boyfriend, and he'd probably tried to have sex with her. Maybe she'd said no and was speaking with the authority of someone who stands behind their convictions. Or maybe she'd said yes and was speaking as someone who had made the "wrong" decisions. Maybe she just needed extra credit. Whatever was happening, Harmony didn't like it. She didn't like being told what to do, especially by people only a few years older than her. It bothered her even more as she knew that she wasn't the type of girls that guys wanted to have sex with or give alcohol to, so this was pointless anyway. The type of girls this would be useful to, the type of girls who guys were interested in like that, were girls like Vicky Trembley, and everyone knew Vicky Trembley had given Eric Stewart a blowjob while they were working on their science fair project at Eric's house, so it was probably a little late for that, then, wasn't it? Harmony wondered if her sister had ever had to sit through something like this. She probably had, and it obviously hadn't worked out too well for her either.
"You're all going to be going to high school next year," said the bubbly blond, wrapping up the performance. "And you can take it from me, someone who has been there, that you're going to face a lot of these tough decisions. We hope you had some fun and maybe thought about things a bit here today. If anyone has any questions about anything they've heard, or what high school is like, we'd love to answer them!"
The room was silent. "Ok then!" said the blond. "Thanks so much for having us! Remember, we're Improv for Improveme…"
Harmony had her hand raised.
"Um, yes? Girl in the back, do you have a question?"
"Yeah," said Harmony. "Have any of you ever French kissed?"
The other students began giggling. Mr. Erland coughed and stuttered out, "Well, Harmony, I don't know if that question is appropriate…"
"No, that's okay, Mr. Erland," said the blond. She pulled one of the boys in the troupe over to her and held his hand. "This is Stephen, he's my boyfriend. And yes, we've kissed!" The blond leaned up and gave Stephen a peck on the side of his mouth. Some of the students in the class groaned. "We're not here to stop you from having fun or to tell you what to do and how to live. We can do all sorts of things like hold hands, kiss, cuddle up on the couch and watch a movie, we can be very close while still respecting ourselves, our bodies, and without being sexually active."
"My dad says French kissing is a dirty sin," said Harmony. Suddenly the room went silent. "He says your lips should never touch another person's until you are married."
"Well," said the blond, hooking her index fingers into the belt loops on her low-cut jeans. "It sounds like your dad has his own ideas about sex and personal responsibility…"
"They're not just his," interrupted Harmony. "Hasidic Jews aren't allowed to touch anyone of the opposite sex except for close family at all until they're married. Many Muslims also believe similarly." Harmony sat back in her chair and crossed her arms.
"What's your name?" asked the blond girl.
"Harmony, those people have a different set of values than we do."
"So they respect themselves and their bodies more than you do," Harmony asked.
"No, I don't think that's true," said the blond. "I think they're just from a different culture, they have different beliefs."
"So if I was from a culture or a belief system that said it was ok to have sex with whoever I wanted or do drugs, that would be ok as well," Harmony questioned further.
"Well, I don't really think you're from that kind of culture," replied the blond.
"I think you're being a little presumptuous," said Harmony. "I watch Sex and the City."
The blond folded her arms and squinted her eyes at Harmony. "See, everyone. This is the kind of counter-culture media pressure we've been talking about. Every day you are subjected to countless temptations and unnatural urges…"
"I'm going to have to stop you there," Harmony interrupted. "The average female body reaches sexual maturity at nine to fourteen, boys ten to seventeen, so it's actually very natural for us to want to have sex. This is why in ancient times, like the Bible, most people got married well before they were twenty. So what's NOT natural is for us to wait until we're thirty and in a position to be married or teasing our boyfriends with some heavy kissing when it's perfectly natural for them to want a blowjob."
"Harmony!" yelled Mr. Erland.
"I'm sorry," said Harmony. "Now I'm being the presumptuous one. Tell us, Blondie, do you give Steve head?"
The eyes of all the students in the class became round as hubcaps. Tommy Ferland said "Oh shit," but no one heard. Mr. Erland was bright red, so outraged he was unable to speak. Then, rushing from his mouth like hornets from a broken nest, he screamed "OUT OF MY CLASS RIGHT NOW, MISS MOLLOY!" Harmony got up slowly and gathered her books. Mr. Erland grabbed her backpack and the back of her shirt and ushered her out the door, pushing her into the hallway and tossing her bag to the ground.
"You know where to go," he said, and closed the door.
Harmony sighed and headed to the principle's office.
She was left waiting in the waiting area for thirty minutes. Finally she was called into the office and sat down across from Mr. Lawson, the principal. Mr. Lawson sat behind a large wooden desk, his chair tilted back at a slight angle as he studied the young woman sitting in front of him. After a moment he picked up her file and looked through it.
"Harmony Malloy," he said, thumbing through the pages in the folder. "Here we are again."
"It appears so, Mr. Lawson," Harmony said.
"I talked to Mr. Erland," said the principal, tossing the folder down on the desk. "Looks like you're getting another page added to an already fairly interesting record."
Harmony shrugged. "My mother tells me if you can't be pretty, you should at least be interesting."
Mr. Lawson leaned forward on the desk, clasping his hands in front of him. "You need to talk to me here, Harmony. We've got to come to an understanding of what's exactly going on here. Is this some sort of phase you're going through? You've got some aggression you have to work out?"
"I just want to know what I did wrong," asked Harmony.
"You asked a girl, a guest in your class, if she committed lewd sexual acts on her boyfriend, Harmony."
"First of all, I think your use of the term 'lewd' in that sentence is highly subjective. Secondly, I wasn't the one who brought up the topic of sex in that classroom. If they don't want to talk about it, then they shouldn't have brought it up."
Principal Lawson sighed and stood up from his chair. He walked over to a wall decorated with numerous commendations and pictures of the principal shaking hands and smiling with various people. He turned back to face Harmony.
"You're very intelligent," he said.
"And look where it's gotten me," said Harmony, smiling and holding out her arms.
"You've got to learn how to play the game," said Mr. Lawson, sitting on the edge of his desk and rubbing his hands over his eyes. "You've got to learn how to deal with people." Mr. Lawson pointed at a picture of himself shaking hands with a large, big-smiling man in a fancy suit. "You know who that is in the picture with me there?" he asked.
"The governor," Harmony answered.
"The governor, yes indeed," said Mr. Lawson. "Let me tell you something about our governor, just between the two of us. He doesn't give two shits about education." Harmony started at the frankness of Mr. Lawson's words. The principal put a finger up to his lips and winked at Harmony. "I know this, anyone who pays any attention to his policies knows this, and yet when he comes into town to give his stump speeches and talk to the local community leaders I go up and I get my picture taken with a big ole smile, just like everyone. And then I ask very politely for more money, and very politely I'm told a load of political bullshit about times being tight and priorities being what they are and blah blah blah, and then after numerous written petitions and meetings with lackey after lackey this school gets a fourth of the money it needs to survive. Now, there's two things I can do as the leader of this school. The next time the governor of our great state comes down to visit I can stand up in the town hall meeting and mock his policies, call him an incompetent idiot with no foresight or appreciation of our children and denounce him then and there. Or, I can go and smile, and make another polite request and get politely shafted. The second option isn't as fun, and it isn't as flashy and awesome, but it keeps me here at this school that I love, with these students that I care about, and it allows me to keep trying to make this school better one inch at a time. If I threw a fit I'd get the satisfaction of the strength of my convictions, but I also wouldn't be a principal anymore. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Harmony looked up towards the ceiling, then back at the principal. "You're saying it's better to eat shit than not eat at all?"
"No," said the principal. "I'm saying life is balance, and that includes vices AND virtues. Strength of conviction is a great thing, but so is strength of character and the ability to compromise and the quality of the work you do. You understand?"
"You're going into high school next year. You're going to have a lot of important decisions to make, you're going to truly shape the person that you're going to become. I want you to think long and hard about those decisions. You could go anywhere, Harmony. You're smart, you're driven, you're an exceptional young lady. However, you're also your own worst enemy. I want you to put some serious thought into where you want to go, what you want to do, and how best to get there. All right?"
"Fine," said Harmony.
"As for this little incident, you'll be suspended for the rest of the week."
"What?!?" said Harmony. "Come on!"
"What do you want me to do here, Harmony? You asked someone if they gave head in class. If I just let you off with a warning here I'm condoning that kind of behavior, the board will crucify me."
"That's some real strength of character, Mr. Lawson," said Harmony.
Mr. Lawson sat back down behind his desk. "Your parents have been called, they'll be here soon. You can wait for them in the outer office."
Harmony got up and snatched her backpack up, then exited the office with a slam of the door.
Dinner that night was tense. Harmony's father could barely make it through a bite of his pot roast without a pronouncement about the state of Harmony's future and her lack of moral fiber.
"You kids today have no respect."
"I don't even want to know where you learned that type of language."
"I knew we should have private-schooled you. I'd have sent you up to St. Andrew's in Brownsberg, but it's so expensive and we figured the money would be better placed into a college fund."
Bite. Chew. Roll eyes.
"If you even get into college."
"Dad, my grades are fine, that's all colleges care about. As long as I've got grades and you've got the money to pay them…"
"That's not the point!" her father yelled, slamming a fist down on the table. "What good is college going to do you if you spend all your classes talking about… filth!"
"I doubt college classes will have presentations with high school girls telling me what to do with my life."
"Don't get smart with me!"
"Should I get stupid then?"
"I don't understand why you can't be more like your sister."
Harmony choked on her apple juice. Harmony's sister Kelly kicked her from under the table.
"I just don't know what to do with you any more, Harmony. What do you think, mother?"
Harmony's mother sat quiet and straight at the head of the table. She gave a forlorn look to Harmony, then stared down at the table. "I just pray to God that he shows you the error of your ways."
"Well, when I get a message from God that I'm screwing up then I'll make the necessary changes."
"That is it, young lady!" her father rose out of his seat. "I want you up to your room right this instant, and I don't want to see your face until you've thought about what you've done and are ready to apologize. Now march!"
In her room Harmony sat at her desk and drew symbols and markings all over her notebook. She tried doing homework, but could not concentrate. She tried listening to music, but got too antsy. She thought about going down the hall to talk to her sister, but then thought better of it. She lay down on her bed and stared at the ceiling. She thought about her father, her teachers, her fellow students. She thought about what Mr. Lawson had asked her to do, to think about her future and what she wanted to do and how she could achieve it. At one point she had wanted to be a teacher, or maybe a principal or a lobbyist for educational issues and reform. She had wanted to change things and make them better, but now there was only so much bitterness and all she wanted to do was show them that they were wrong, so very very wrong. She thought about how far her ideals had fallen, so far that she could no longer even sympathize with the girl she had once been.
Harmony reached over to her bedside table and reached into the top drawer, her hand crawling all the way to the back, pushing aside all the mess and effluvium that collected there, and pulled out an old, tattered leather-bound book. She knelt beside the bed and clasped the book to her chest.
"Please," she said, her eyes closed with the intensity of her wish. "Please, help me. Guide me. I'm ready to hear what you have to say, I'm ready to take you into my heart. Please, help me. I will be your humble servant."
Behind Harmony the walls of the house began to glow with a bright light. Suddenly a sharp beam pierced the wall near the floor and rose, cutting a line seven feet up, then three feet over, then four feet back down. The door slowly opened, flooding Harmony's room with light and smoke. Out of the door strode a man, tall and lean, dressed in a smart-looking apple red suit, his dark black hair slicked back along his scalp. In his right hand he held the tip of a long black cane, a bright red ring on his ring finger clacking against the brass knob at the top. As he walked the bottom of the cane kept time beside his patent leather shoes.
"Hello, Harmony," said the man.
"Hello," said Harmony, still on her knees.
"Heard you wanted to talk with me?" he said.
"You were right," said Harmony. "They're idiots, all of them, and they're not worth saving."
"So disillusioned for one so young," said the man, taking a seat in Harmony's desk chair.
"So where do we go from here?" asked Harmony. "What do I do?"
"You sure you don't want to try to solve some of these problems?" asked the man. "You never know. You could discover the bright, shining light to lead the people out of the darkness."
"To hell with the light," said Harmony. "I want to bring them fire."
The man smiled and picked up a picture of Harmony and her family from Harmony's desk.
"So come on," said Harmony. "What are we going to do?"
The man looked at the picture, the family all standing together in Washington, D.C., in front of the Lincoln Memorial. In the picture Harmony's father was smiling, standing behind his two girls with one hand on each daughter's shoulder. The man put his thumb over the face of Harmony's father and pressed hard, then twisted. When he pulled his thumb away the picture now showed Harmony's father with an expression of intense, horrific pain. The man threw the picture to Harmony, who looked at it and smiled.
"I've got a few ideas," said the man. He stood up and walked over to the door. He opened it and put out his hand to Harmony. "Please, step into my office."
Harmony got up from the floor and took the man's hand.