A Difficult Lesson

by Lydia Chai

Based on Portrait 1 & book title: Practical Etiquette

John was tired of long and boring math lessons, being in finishing school for young ladies must be so much easier, he thought. During the long, tiring walk home, when he heard his twin sister, Julia, complain about how learning how to hold teacups and spoons properly was so, so difficult, he could hardly believe his ears. Hah, thought John, she knows nothing of the hard, exhausting math sheets and boring literacy books that boys had to study. As he climbed the stairs to his bedroom and sank deep into his mattress that dark night, he dreamed that he received a letter stating that he was to be transferred to The Finishing School for Young Ladies. How silly, he thought, the mere idea of a boy in finishing school…


The next day early in the morning, John climbed out of bed feeling exhausted. He ran down the stairs to see if his sister was awake. She was. They both opened their mouths at the same time. “Can we switch places? As in… I go to your school, and you go to my school?” asked John, feeling his cheeks burn as he imagined his mother’s horrified and disappointed face.

“Umm…” Julia gave him a very peculiar look.

“It’s fine…” John muttered, his face turning deep red as he spoke. “Forget that I asked.”

Julia gave him her usual “stop interrupting me, you’re so annoying” face. “Umm… I was going to ask the same thing so, obviously, yes!” Julia snapped, snatching a hair tie and tying her hair into a tight bun.

“What are you doing?!” John hissed, as he watched his sister stuff her hair under his hat.

“Well, you’ve probably noticed that you don’t walk around with long hair or fancy corsets,” Julia sniffed, “nor do I walk around with short hair or pants! So, if this is going to work, then you have to wear a wig and a corset!”

John reluctantly let himself be dragged upstairs, into Julia’s room. His sister grabbed a white, and VERY lacy corset from her closet, she lifted it high above his head, stuffing it over John’s head. Julia tied the corset as though she did it every few seconds, perfectly knotting the complicated strings and bows. John caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. The tight corset made him look half of his normal width. It was so restrictive that made it hard to breathe, and he started to feel lightheaded.  Julia then scrambled downstairs, dragging a dizzy John with her. She snatched John’s bag and hurriedly went into the kitchen, grabbed a chair, pulled it over to the cupboard, and stepped onto it. Reaching up, she grabbed $10 of their father’s money from the secret stash in the cookie jar on the top shelf. “Oh, hurry up! We’ve got to find a wig for you!” As an embarrassed John attempted to squish the corset under his coat, Julia hissed, “We only have 30 minutes and the shop is a 5 minute walk away.”


After a brisk 5 minute walk to the store, and a hasty selection of the first wig they could find that even remotely looked like Julia’s hair, they breathlessly dashed back home. John crept silently into the foyer with Julia right behind him, still adjusting the uncomfortable wig on John’s head. John’s heart hammered in his chest. He could feel Julia’s breath on the back of his neck. He peeked around the kitchen door’s frame where he saw his mother now sitting there, looking tired and overworked, still holding the broom in her pale hand. “Off to school I hope, Julia?” their mother said in a voice full of disdain and huffiness, unaware that “Julia” was actually John.

John nodded swiftly and left. It was so weird for his mother to call him Julia and speak to him in that imperious tone. As Julia and John raced down the path, they saw their two enormous schoolhouses up ahead. Julia was almost screaming with excitement, although John had no clue why. It was just hard math and science in his school. Her school was way easier.


John was soon swept into a crowded hallway by a scowling mistress. At once, he copied the other girls’ precise combinations of marching and gliding. Soon enough, he found himself wishing for the messy hallways of his school, where everyone could walk as they wished and people looked somewhere other than straight ahead. Unfortunately for him, the worst was yet to come as the day proceeded. He followed the other girls whom Julia was often with, because to be honest, he had no clue where he was going. They soon arrived at a pair of large oak doors with brass doorknobs. Just as he started to get impatient, the enormous doors creaked open. A rather grumpy looking woman with thin greying hair and squinty grey eyes stood in the doorway of the classroom. She gave all of the girls huddled together a disgusted look. “Get into the classroom! Quit standing there, you’re already late! Haven’t we taught you anything?!” she shouted in a rather hoarse voice.

Grumbling to herself, she ushered them inside and took her place behind an enormous desk. “Alright class, let’s begin with our lesson. Everyone get three books, place them on your head, and walk around the class,” the teacher snapped. After giving her terrified glances, the girls and John grabbed three books each. Once everyone settled and lined up, the lesson began. It wasn’t anything like John’s school. This was about good posture and keeping your spine straight so the books didn’t fall down. John balanced the books on his head and attempted to walk around the class. Within seconds, he and the books fell down. John groaned, feeling the top of his head. There was a rapidly growing egg-sized lump. He got up and looked around. Everyone was staring at him and a couple of girls were stifling giggles. He realized that he must have looked ridiculous, with his unruly wig and unravelling corset. One of the girls pointed at him and whispered something to the girl beside her. He could feel himself turning bright red. Both girls erupted into fits of silent giggles. John sighed, rubbing his bruised head. Today was not going well so far.


The rest of the day felt like a millennia; hours of boring, hard etiquette lessons and embarrassment. When John walked home with Julia, he complained about his aching legs and hands. She laughed and told him about her wonderful experience at his school. Math was her favourite subject. John began to understand why Julia complained about her school. And as the days went on, John began to dread school time. Finally, one day, enough was enough. He went up to Julia’s room to ask her to go back to her school so that he could enjoy the comfort of his own school. ” Can you go back to your school now?” John begged his sister. “I don’t want to pretend to be you anymore.”

Julia was enraged. “You were the one who asked me to switch places with you in the first place!” she shouted. “I will not go back to that cruel place! You yourself said it was sooo easy to be me, and now you’re saying it’s hard?!”

John had never seen his sister so angry, he almost felt frightened of her. “Julia! Quiet down, I hear Mother coming!” John hissed, his heart beating faster than ever.

“I will not quiet down, you idiot!” Julia snarled, her eyes blazing with fury.

Julia! Watch your language! Your brother is right! You need to learn to appreciate what you have, at least we’re not in poverty! At least we’re better off than some others! At least I didn’t tell your father!” their mother snapped.

You knew,” John gasped in surprise, “and you didn’t do anything about it?!”

“Why, are you saying I should’ve? I knew you’d face the natural consequences,” their mother shrugged. “Besides, it was harmless and John learned his lesson: appreciate what you’ve got. Oh and by the way, Julia, you are going back to your own school. And you should also learn to appreciate what you’ve got.”


34 years later, John grinned to himself as he remembered that week. He sure appreciated what he had. What about his sister? Yeah, she was busy doing her own version of “appreciating what she had”, by doing what she wanted to do. Despite the fact that she had graduated from etiquette school, she never used what she learned. Instead, Julia followed her heart and went on to study mathematics. What could he say? She was just different, like everyone else, and that was fine.