“Perturbation” by Scott Piepho was the third-place winner of our “Lesson Learned” short story contest. We hope you enjoy it.
It’s study hall in the middle of a not-that-annoying day, so I am drawing planets on an old poem. Middle school study hall is one of those “do something or we’ll give you something to do” kind of deals, but I’m done with homework and I don’t have a book with me that I’ve read less than five times, so I riffled through a notebook and found this poem that I wrote last year. I ended it with the line “And the earth would keep going around the sun,” which gave me the idea of illustrating it with planets.
Plus we had just finished a science unit about the solar system with a group project—or at least it was supposed to be a group project but Tyler was busy with play practice every day and Nicole still listens to Madison about me, so she wouldn’t meet after class because apparently I’m this scary person now, and the one time we met during school it just didn’t go well at all. So okay, that was partly my fault because I knew that wearing both a skirt and a necktie that day would provoke her. But three times I leaned in to say something to her—because the whole reason for being there was that we were supposed to working together—and all three times she leaned back and put up one hand between us and said “Myriam, personal space.” Like I would just start kissing her right there in the middle of the library if I even ever wanted to kiss her or any other girl from the old lunch group for that matter, which, absolutely not. So I ended up mostly doing the “group” project myself.
Anyway, I’ve got planets on my brain, so that seems like a good illustration for the poem. And planets are easy if you take your time and pay attention.
The way the study hall is set up, the room holds six long tables with pairs of tables pushed together at the ends to make three extra-long tables running the length of the room, left, middle, right. Ms. Fisher, who is substitute monitor today, just walks around that middle table, between the left and middle, then around one end, then between the middle and right, then around the other end. If you were observing her from above, you would say she was travelling clockwise.
Ms. Fisher is pretty, I guess. The girls from the old lunch table used to talk about her all the time. All those girls are straight, as far as I know, but they talked about which girls are pretty way more than I ever do. So they talked a lot about Ms. Fisher, but to me it feels gross to think about a teacher like that. Besides, she isn’t pretty in a way that would actually be attractive. I think she looks like a glamorous version of a fairytale villain. She is tall with long dark hair that she usually wears pulled away from her face and straight down her back and she makes up her eyes with winged liner and dark eye shadow.
Most teachers, when they are monitoring study hall, just sit at the desk at the end of the room away from the door. Usually they let you do whatever as long as you don’t talk or make a disturbance, even though the technical rules are to be working on something. But when Ms. Fisher is monitoring, she’s always walking around the room, those witchy eyes looking everywhere—at hands and faces, under desks, in open backpacks—to find someone doing something wrong. She looks for trouble like it’s the only reason she can think of for coming into school that day.
My plan is to put Saturn in the foreground because it’s the most planety planet, plus a few Saturn moons, and Jupiter in the background. Yes I know that Jupiter is so far away from Saturn that it would just be a dot of light, but it’s an illustration, okay?
Since it’s a poem from last year, it’s that kind of poem. Last year, Seventh Grade, my Mom still calls Seventh Circle as in Seventh Circle of Hell. It would be easy to say that it was all because of Hannah which would actually make it Madison’s fault for breaking us up. But really, it was a lot of things. Last year, it felt like nothing was holding me to the Earth. I would sit in a study hall like this one feeling afraid that I could not stay down; like any second something would pull me up out of my chair and out and away somewhere where I might do a bad thing. Sometimes I would sit reading with my hand underneath the table holding onto one of the legs. That felt better, like I could hold myself in place. It worked until Madison noticed one day and asked super loud what I was doing as soon as the bell rang.
But this year, I’m all better, see? Like I can feel my back and my butt against this ugly plastic chair and feel like the world is pulling me into it and holding on to me. Like last week I was walking down the hall and realized suddenly that I hardly hate anyone at school now. Like I’ve only needed to write two poems all year.
So Jupiter is done and I’ve put in where the stars will be when I color in black for space. It’s time to draw Saturn. A good Saturn makes anything look amazing. A bad Saturn and it looks like a second grader did it.
We learned in the solar system unit that even though Jupiter and Saturn are a bajillion miles away from each other, they still pull on each other because of their gravity. Even though Saturn is millions and millions of miles away from us, it still pulls on the Earth, and Jupiter pulls even more because it’s closer and really huge, and Mercury pulls even though it’s tiny. They aren’t huge tugs, but they make each planet wobble enough that once scientists thought that the tugs and wobbles were enough to tear the Solar System apart unless God was keeping it together. And everything has gravity. The chair and table and each person in the room. It’s tiny, the gravity of a person, but still we all pull at each other a little bit.
Mrs. King, who normally monitors this study hall, was my Language Arts teacher last year, so she and I already went round and round about my poetry. She pretty much understood anyway, that I didn’t write poetry because I wanted to do a bad thing but because I wanted to keep from doing it. I think she maybe has read this particular poem, but even if not she could be chill about it.
But Ms. Fisher will never get it. If she sees what it’s about I’ll have to deal with one of those teacher freak-outs. I have a dark side, people. Deal with it.
Each time Ms. Fisher walks by, I feel her pass and make sure that my left hand, which is holding the page in place, also covers the poem part of the paper just in case. Maybe it’s just in my mind, but it feels like she pauses just a little bit whenever she walks behind me. Maybe the planets and stars have started to attract her eye. Maybe she doesn’t think that this is really school work. I keep a hand on the paper just to be sure.
Astronomers have a great word for the way all those gravity tugs change a planet’s orbit. Like if Earth comes close to Mars so that Mars starts to pull us a little out of our orbit, they say that Mars perturbed the Earth. When one planet gets close to another planet, it gets perturbed.
Let’s just say that I can relate. What I learned from last year is not to stop because someone perturbs me. I can just keep going on my way, even if someone makes me wobble a little.
So this is how you draw Saturn rings. First you draw Saturn, but don’t try to draw the stripy atmosphere yet – you do that last so it doesn’t get in the way of ring drawing. Then you start with the inner ring. The trick is to make it look like a circle that’s been turn on its side. I can’t really tell you exactly how to do that, it just takes practice. And concentration. For the solar system project I read about how the rings are made up of billions of mostly ice crystals with some rocks and dust, all held together by Saturn’s gravity.
I think about how Madison couldn’t have broken us up if Hannah had really wanted to stay together.
Two of the Saturn’s moons—the shepherd moons—keep the outer rings together. They also perturb the ice and dust and rocks to divide them up into the separate rings.
I wrote this poem after two weeks of Hannah not talking to me.
The rings need to be drawn as smooth curves. They look bad when there’s a little hitch that makes one look like it has corners or something.
This past summer Hannah said that I was still her best friend. But she didn’t say anything about whatever else happened.
If you squished all the stuff in Saturn’s rings together, you would get a rock only about sixty miles wide.
This year, we both avoid Madison and we get together, but it’s not the same.
Saturn is lighter than water. If you had a bathtub huge enough, Saturn would float in it.
When we talk now, she always says at least one thing about a boy being cute. But last year when I kissed her, she kissed me back.
I don’t feel Miss Fisher until she is right behind me and I hear her say “Myriam” in a kind of strange voice. I looked up and see her staring over my shoulder at the paper on the table. When I look down, I see that instead of hiding the paper, my hand is balled up tight and I read next to my knuckles the title I had written almost exactly a year ago: “If I Jumped.” Her face is really serious in a kind of scared way instead of her usual irritated-with-kids way. She bends down and says very quietly that, “Myriam you aren’t in any trouble, but I need to take this and show it to someone.”
She calls someone to be the substitute substitute monitor. Then I follow as she quick-walks to the counsellor’s office, my poem pinched between her thumb and one finger. Saturn flashes at me—there and gone, there and gone—as the paper flaps in her hand.
Scott Piepho is a freelance writer and student in the NEOMFA program studying creating nonfiction. Since 2009 he has written the award-winning column “Cases and Controversies” which appears in a number of Ohio legal newspapers. He authored the 2016 corporate history First in Akron: A History of FirstMerit Corporation. His nonfiction has also appeared in The Akron Beacon Journal, The Devil Strip, and Catalyst, Ohio. He lives in Akron, Ohio with his wife and two children.