Ours was a secret society, government sanctioned, FDA-approved, accredited. Individual achievement was encouraged, homogeny enforced. It was all code—zip, dress, conduct, Morse, silence. From our cinderblock cubicles, we learned reading and writing, history and math, rumor and innuendo.

Afternoons were a groggy waste. Recess, then lunch, then lectures about Americans killing each other. Our classroom faced west. As the minute-hand lumbered, the air grew thicker and hotter with pungent things—pencil lead, peanut butter, little kid sweat.

When the final bell finally tolled we fled our communal incubator in bunches, then assembled in neat cliques to talk about cartoons and teachers and Essie Bolinger.

Essie was famous for all the wrong reasons. She wore the same dress every day. She smelled like turned milk and someone else’s cigarettes. She was a little too skinny, a little too tall, and a little slow. All of which made her the perfect target.

We trivialized the important rumors—the missing father, the shiftless step-father, the drug-addled brother and sex-addicted mother, the eviction notices and missed meals and Essie’s attempts to buy cigarettes with food stamps. Instead, we focused on the one rumor that could wreak the most emotional havoc.

Essie’s head lice was never substantiated. But we didn’t need proof. What we needed was something cruel to rally around, to sing about, to inflict. And when we put our collective mind to it, we were pretty amazing.

The lice rumor survived middle school, then finally died in high school when Essie just stopped showing up. Most of us forgot about her. Some felt bad. A precious few cared enough to try and find out what happened to her. Only two from our class attended her funeral.

The minister said that Essie had a heart condition and that it finally gave out. I think I may be the only one who knows what really killed Essie Bolinger.

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