2. Rebels without applause

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When we finally reached the 4th floor, Virginia stepped close to me and hugged me really tight. "It's gonna be okay," she whispered. "Don't let it tear you apart."

I smiled. Virginia really knew how to be cheesy, but it was the kind of cheesiness I needed right now. It was sweet, but it was genuine. Virginia's hugs were always the warmest ones. She was a perfect student and she always nagged me to do my homework and to not sleep in class, but today she just... understood.

''We're not gonna miss you,'' Dario said.

''Yes, you are,'' I said.

''Yes, we are.''

I smiled. He smiled too. Gaia rolled her eyes.

''Oh, for fuck's sake, we're already late,'' she said. ''We'll see you at the first break.''

They turned around and left. Just like that. Every morning would be different now. Every morning they would walk away from me and I would have to stand there all alone in front of the door with the sign 10th grade B hanging on it. That's not where I was supposed to be, I was supposed to be with them. God, I was scared. And I didn't even know why. Perhaps it was the idea of stepping into a classroom full of strangers who wouldn't understand and who would judge too easily or the familiar gaze of a teacher who doesn't actually give a shit. But maybe it wasn't the abundance of problems that overwhelmed me, but simply the absence of the only thing that comforted me. How could I survive this day without them?

I sighed. I was already late. I had to focus. I clenched my hand into a fist and hoped no one would notice my anxiety, but as soon as I knocked on the door my knuckles shook. If there were someone who kept the record, mine would be the most quiet and embarrassing knock of history. Not only it interrupted abruptly with a nervous tick, but it contained all the frustration I felt and couldn't put in words. It exposed me.

The eternal silence after the knock soon turned into the cracking sound of a door swinging open. Miss Libertini stood in front of me.

"Rossi," she said, as though she knew I was supposed to be here, yet she was surprised by my presence anyway. And I just stood there and tried to avoid her gaze, because she was my Italian Literature teacher since the beginning of high school and she was the only one that hadn't given up on me. What was she thinking now, seeing me in 10th grade again?

"Miss Libertini,'' I mumbled. "Good morning."

She looked at me with narrowed eyes and then walked to her desk. I followed her. With her bob haircut and pointed toe loafers, she looked exactly like she did last year.

"Do you have an excuse for being late?" she asked.

"Uhm, yeah. I'm sorry, I missed the bus."

''No, you didn't.''

Right, I forgot I was talking to Miss Libertini, the lady of 'no bullshit' policy. I couldn't lie to her. She was the only teacher I liked, the only one who liked me.

''I had to finish my cigarette," I said.

Someone in the classroom giggled. That's when I realized there was a classroom, full of people staring at me with boggled eyes.

''Of course,'' Miss Libertini said. ''You can't waste cigarettes in this moment of economic crisis.''

That. That was exactly why I liked her. Unlike other teachers, her face didn't turn red when I made a joke. Sometimes she rolled her eyes or snickered, instead of being oh-so-startled and outraged. But today she was different. No smile was escaping her lips and no amusement danced in her eyes. With a stern face, she told the class to start reading at page 45 – same book as last year, same boring topic. Then, with furrowed eyebrows and arms crossed over her chest, she ordered me to come closer.

"I'm sorry," I mumbled. "That was a stupid joke. I mean, it wasn't even a joke, I just wanted to be honest because – "

"Pietro." She looked at me with a stone face and I realized that all the gibberish I just said didn't really matter. "You flunked," she said. "Do you know that? Do you know that you flunked an entire year of high school?"

I frowned. She was saying it as though I genuinely had no idea. As though it hadn't been the only thought on my mind for the past few months, as though people weren't asking me about it every time they saw me. She didn't know that there was a voice inside my head that never shut up and reminded me of it every second of my supposed-to-be-fun summer holiday.

"Of course I know," I whispered. "Why would you – "

"Then why would you come in here, on the first day of school – late, drunk, stinking of nicotine and looking like this?"

She was yelling. Perhaps her voice was low and no one could hear her except me, but she was yelling. Because her words were flames and waves of acid crashing against a door that was already so thin and vulnerable.

"Are you trying to make a point?" she asked. "Because you're not the only one, you know? There are dozens of students in this school alone who are now repeating the year. Most of them were probably the first ones to enter the classroom this morning, with shame written on their faces, ready to prove everyone that they're not a failure. But you, you come in here ten minutes after the bell, not having a care in the world. Why? To show everyone that those nasty teachers who tried to punish you didn't actually get to you? That you decided to avoid maturity and keep being this stubborn, childish rebel? Because you know what, Rossi, message received."

She was wrong, but she was also right. And that's what infuriated me the most. She didn't know me, she had no idea what she was talking about, yet her words struck me. I didn't know why, I wasn't supposed to care. But I did. I felt like there was something inside of me that would soon explode, but I couldn't say or do anything because her flames and waves of acid poured on me and didn't let me breathe. I lowered my head and clenched my jaw. My eyes were burning and I couldn't let her see that.

"I understand," she said, "why you might feel like you contributed to society by being a class clown. You and Dario were the perfect duo. Always messing around, making sure that school isn't such a dreadful experience. But you see, Dario isn't here now. You're all on your own. You can choose to skip class, sleep, not participate, but you will not interrupt and you will not distract anyone. I don't care what you do outside of this classroom, I don't care what you do with your life. These are good students. I won't let you drag them into your abyss."

I raised my head and looked her in the eye. I didn't care if she could see the miserable expression on my face. I didn't care if she could see the red in my eyes, the trembling lips. The word abyss. It hit me. It slapped me on the face and grabbed me by my throat and squeezed my heart. Anything, any word, any sound was less violent than abyss. She really meant it, didn't she? It was in her voice. The scorn, the hopelessness, the lack of interest. I would have had a comeback to any other teacher, any other insult. But not her. Not this. Maybe I would have had that courage if Dario had been here. But he wasn't.

''You can go sit down now.''

I turned around and walked to the back of the classroom, as far as I could. I wanted to disappear, to become invisible and never ever be Pietro Rossi again. I dumped my black Eastpack on the floor and leaned back on the chair, with the word abyss still floating in my head.

"Hi, I'm Noemi."

I turned my head and realized I was sitting next to a girl. She looked at me with a bright smile on her face and all I could think was 'Oh god, I don't want to see anyone smiling today'. 

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