Square Peg

By Frances Howard-Snyder

Leah sat near the front of the room as always. She liked to be able to focus entirely on the teacher without distractions. But the teacher, Mrs. Elliot, was not in class today. She’d rushed in, briefly explained something about an emergency involving her nephew and a parrot, and written an assignment on the board in neat copperplate handwriting. “Which fits better: a square peg in a round hole or a round peg in a square hole? Defend your answer.”

Leah wanted to ask what the question meant but the math teacher was gone and even if she’d stayed, she would have chuckled and said that that was part of the puzzle, to figure out how to approach the question. Leah’s too wide thighs stuck and unstuck to the wooden chair. Damn these short uniform skirts. Damn this unholy heat. She looked around the room for inspiration, but the posters of Euclid, Newton, Euler, Fermat, and Leibniz, showed sour-faced men who didn’t offer any assistance. Deep red, dusty rhododendrons bobbed outside the window, looking thirsty. The Pacific Northwest wasn’t supposed to be this warm in May. Some of the other sophomore girls were whispering together but Leah doubted they’d be willing to share their ideas—or that their ideas would be much help if they did.

She needed to pee. Perhaps a visit to the john would clear her head. She left the room. Sitting on the toilet she had an idea about how to solve the puzzle, to boil it down to a simple geometry question.

Back in the classroom, the other girls bent their heads over their desks. Leah had better hurry. She attached a pencil to her compass and drew two circles and then used a ruler to make a square inside one and a second square outside the other. She heard a scattering of laughter—like tacks thrown on a tile floor. She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, pushed her bangs out of her eyes, and looked at the board to check the assignment again. The instructions looked different. The first words had been erased and replaced with fat, schoolgirl letters that now read: “Which is Leah Grey: A square peg in a round hole or a round peg in a square hole?”

Leah caught her breath, feeling her face burn and prickle as if a horse blanket had been thrown over her head. The titters united into a roar. How should she react?

Should she storm out of the room and tell the principal? She’d tried that before. In her first week at the school, fresh out of homeschool, before she’d learned the rules of living with others, she’d told the principal what one of the other girls had done to her. That was when the trouble really started.

Should she simply ignore the joke? She’d tried ignoring them before, tried acting as if she didn’t notice when they excluded her or laughed at her. But that made them raise the stakes, anxious that they hadn’t yet done enough to get her attention, to make her suffer. Why? Why were they so obsessed with hurting her?

Because they were pigs—obviously. They didn’t think of themselves as pigs, of course. People don’t. They believed she was the monster, while they were the defenders of justice, burning with righteous indignation. In their version, she’d injured one of their tribe, and no punishment was too severe for her.

Should she stab the most likely culprit in the eye with her compass and whack another with her heavy math book? That would be satisfying. But it would confirm the story that she was a monster: they’d made a little joke at her expense, a few words… and she’d mutilated them!

All she could do was bend her head and work through the puzzle, set her answer on the teacher’s desk and leave the room, her only consolation the thought that they didn’t know the answer to the question they’d written on the board—they didn’t know who she was.


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