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I sat down in physics class two days before Thanksgiving and went through this trail of amazingly satisfying thoughts. First, it was my last physics class before a four-day holiday. Second, the view out the window almost made the class worth having. There's something about old, tall buildings and taller, new buildings, and cabs, and horns, and traffic rushing along JFK Boulevard that is almost as good as television. After Thanksgiving, Christmas lights and store windows would be a decent enough distraction to keep physics boredom from killing me.
Which brought me to my final satisfying thought: I considered it my solemn duty to amuse my friends and fellow humans in the meantime, and some fun with physics was on its way.
People were groaning because Mr. Maddox had come in with his laptop, which meant a Maddox superdeluxe-o PowerPoint presentation (super in his opinion only). I had "borrowed" a copy of his file to make it less sleep worthy, and I now was doing my straight-face relaxation exercises. All my friends say I have some genius for disrupting classes, but that's not really true-there's just one major trick involved. It is majorly important to keep a completely straight face.
Mr. Maddox lowered the lights, and up on the big-screen TV we saw, MR. MADDOX'S SUPERDELUXE-O PHYSICS IN MOTION, FEATURING...
People were yawning. I yawned, looked at Harley Ehrlich, and winked.
She did a double take, having seen the wink. Then she groaned and whispered, "Are we going to have pea soup dripping from the ceiling again? If so, I don't know how you expect him to see it in the dark."
I kept my bored face. She cracked up. She said once that the more bored I look, the better it is.
FEATURING...SISTER AMOEBULAS...THE SCIENTIFIC NUN.
And there beside Mr. Maddox's superdeluxe-o lettering was his little animated nun icon, which he had fallen in love with back in September. She zipped across all his slides, pointing at this and that with superdeluxe-o sound effects. We'd quit wondering back in September if the superdeluxe-o sound effects would have Sister Amoebulas quacking like a duck or breaking glass or honking like a car horn.
Mr. Maddox clicked to the first screen, which was supposed to explain to us the difference between the guts of a proton and the guts of an electron. Harley sat forward slowly, staring. She had noticed, though I'm not sure anyone else had yet. This nun icon was just slightly different than Sister Amoebulas. A little taller and thinner.
"You touched his nun?" Harley turned to me. "In a Catholic school? I'd have left the nun alone and had my fun with some other graphic."
But she didn't understand the whole story. The night before I had seen up on farts.com this little nun character that looked alarmingly like Sister Amoebulas, only with a whole new and different set of sound effects. I was a victim of circumstance.
"They call her Sister Mary Flatulence," I whispered. "She's...a rip?"
Then this little cartoon nun's habit blew out in the back, and a spark cracked, and she broke this way-nasty-sounding wind. Mr. Maddox froze, and I think everyone else did, too, except Harley, who murmured, "Touching a man's software. That's got to be worth a couple of Saturday detentions."
It took most everybody a couple of more sound effects before they believed they were seeing a nun run all around the energy equations, her habit billowing backward to the sounds of yesterday's Fart of the Day.
Harley turned to me, shaking her head. "What'd you do, steal his laptop?"
"Just copied the file onto a disk. Do I look like a hood?"
Mr. Maddox was not being very smart. He kept fast-forwarding through the screens, hoping this edit job would end, but he was just giving the class more and better effects. On the sixth slide, the nun was twirling, dancing on top of a molecule, bowing to one side. Pooooh...She bowed to the other side, and a fatal car accident resounded instead of a fart.
"All right. Mr. Barrett, do you have my real program, please?"
People were laughing more at me, I think, than at Sister Mary Flatulence, because they could never believe I could look so totally clueless. I didn't think he'd point the first finger at me. We had a couple of big-time comedians in the class who were better computer whizzes.
I sat up, coming out of my half sleep. "Wasn't me."
He flipped on the lights, and I blinked sleepily, casting confused glances around at the Cheshire cats having fits up the aisle. He had turned down the volume, but had failed to stop running slides. I watched the nun dancing all over the top of Mr. Maddox's lightning bolt, her dress billowing with what now amounted to SBDs.
"I think it was you, Mr. Barrett."
I shook my head, tiredly. "It wasn't me. I don't think that's funny." I looked at the nun's billowing outfit with stunned awe. "I don't think that's at all funny. I'm a mature person who was raised better."
I watched people cracking up in that desk-pounding way, and it was going over the top. The two cheerleaders in the class were away at some competition, and the queen of the bitch patrol, Grey Shailey, had gone to Maine because her grandmother was dying. That left no one to groan and cast me disgusted glances. The laughter was ripping with nothing to cut it.
"Mr. Barrett, by virtue of the fact that you are the only person not laughing, I would say your guilt is apparent. Between today and yesterday, I've lost about a half hour of teaching, thanks to your comedy shows." And then, he was waving the orange hall pass at me, orange meaning proceed to the gestapo's office, do not pass go.
I had forgotten the pea soup thing was just yesterday. Seemed like a hundred years ago. Clever class pranks are a necessity, in my heart, because most people got tired of doing them after, like, sophomore year. We were seniors, in a barren wasteland of yawns, which my big brother said would change again in college. A couple of his dormies at Penn reprogrammed all the phones in the dean's office so the Three Stooges answered the voice mail. I just couldn't wait to graduate to college, where immaturity reigned supreme.
The class was all moaning, "Come on, let it roll!" Mr. Maddox's ears were red, and I could see hurt in his eyes. I didn't think most people could see hurt in a teacher, but I was like that. I could read eyes like most people could read the title on a book jacket. I was seeing maybe a couple hours' work in this presentation when he could have been watching Monday Night Football.
I moved over to his laptop and started pushing buttons. "Mr. Maddox, put yourself in my shoes. Some of your less apt friends send you up to this...this really rude Web site. And you see a nun who looks so much like dear, sweet Sister Amoebulas. I'm sorry, I just lost all of my self-control."
I had restored his program off the hard drive while blathering. Then I kept scrunching my face in a way that said, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I think most people hate to say "I'm sorry." But it is a secret weapon, because teachers don't expect it, and if they look completely mean next to someone who is being totally apologetic, people will think they are jerks.
Sometimes it works, and I needed it to, because of how they stack up things to have a domino effect in Catholic school. My brain started to follow the trail of dominoes, and I wished I would think harder before I pulled stuff. This orange hall pass would mean my third Saturday, which would mean my third missed soccer game, which would bench me for my final season. Three Saturdays also meant Emmett or Aunt Mel would have to show up here and have a charming conversation with the principal about how I don't apply myself. That meant both my car keys and transit pass would end up in Aunt Mel's desk at the university. All because two cheerleaders and the queen bitch weren't here to frost everybody down.
I had apologies barreling out of both eyes, which Mr. Maddox had been staring at, and, finally, something passed through him.
"Please, Evan. Allow me to teach up to the Christmas holidays without any more comedy shows."
I put my hand up, like, swear, and as I moved to my seat, people were murmuring, "Lucky bastard...too lucky, Barrett..."
I did have this reputation for being extremely lucky, and it wasn't just weaseling out of trouble. Last year I totaled my car in an ice storm and walked away without a scratch. I got kicked in the face in a soccer game, and the doctor said the guy missed my eye by a sixteenth of an inch.
And I felt lucky. I could gaze out at the buildings during physics and not have to worry. Emmett understood physics completely, and he patiently explained any overly painful homework. I concentrated on girls' thighs for about five minutes, feeling lucky about Catholic schoolgirls' uniforms. Then, Mrs. Ashaad stuck her head in the class.
She apologized, said she was leaving for a holiday flight but first, "I need to speak to Evan Barrett in my office before I go."
A groan whizzed through the air with the word lucky echoing through it, and Harley got too jealous. She watched me getting my books and muttered, "Boy, you really are an optimist. What's so important it'll take up the whole period, unless it's something bad?"
"She probably wants me to, uh, 'volunteer' for something else," I whispered. Emmett laughed sometimes about our Orphaned Kid Syndrome, how it makes us warm up to nice adults more easily than others do. It never hurt anything, except that I got asked to do more stuff by the teachers and principal.
"Confident, aren't you?" she muttered, casting me a smug glance. "The only thing I can think that would take all period is that you've been busted for hacking into the administrative file and reading Bear his grades."
I spun to see that Mrs. Ashaad had left the door open, but she was not out in the corridor-which meant she had gone back to her office and wanted to tell me the whole thing in there. Hacking. That was a biggie. There was a big legal notice about hacking posted in the administrative corridor, which nobody bothered to read, but we got the idea that this was definitely expulsion material based on the thick black type and the lengths of the paragraphs. I'd done it for a worthy cause, of course. Bear's dad was threatening to sell his Mustang back to the dealer if he got lower than a C in anything. Bear would have slept with that Mustang if he could have wedged it under his pillow. He just wanted to know how much fast-talking he would have to do when the last quarter ended recently. I took pity on him.
I went as calmly as possible down the corridor, trying to decide if Mrs. Ashaad could possibly know about this. Could a hack be detected and traced backward to the source? I didn't know. But I was a very lucky person who was having a very lucky day, I reminded myself. I walked into her office, actually grinning.
"Sit down." Mrs. Ashaad pointed to the armchair in front of her desk.
I sat, and she kept staring, smiling suspiciously. Actually that's not unusual. I think she wore that smirk for the fighters, the loadies, everyone.
"How are you, Evan?"
She only stared more. My insides started turning hot, and to fight it off, I let go of a line or two. "Of course, you can always ask Emmett how I'm doing. He told me you cooked a great meal on Friday night."
"Where were you?"
"Mrs. Ashaad, um...it would be like sitting down with the gods. I wouldn't be able to digest my food. If you don't mind, um...I'd like to enjoy your company around here and..." I trailed off.
"You like to keep your school life and your private life separate." She didn't look hurt. In fact, she looked amused. "I've had plenty of the students at the house for a meal. Some feel the way you do. I'm just surprised. It's usually those not so involved with everything."
"Well, much weirdness comes from having your brother decide he's friends with your principal and her husband." I shifted around. "Especially my brother. I mean, he's a very nice guy, but I'm stumped. Really."
She dipped her head from side to side, thinking about this. "He talks quantum physics with my husband, and then I don't have to."
But he was twenty-five, and the Ashaads had to be pushing forty-five. The fact that her husband was a math professor didn't cut it with me either. He taught at Penn, and Emmett was finishing the philosophy program at Drexel.
"And he's an atheist. You're principal of a reputable Catholic high school." Which I may be expelled from in about ten minutes, so would you get on with it, please?
"He's a well-behaved atheist. That's all a good Catholic can ask for these days."
She kept staring and smirking. I couldn't help squirming around a little. "Tell me," I asked, "does he find a way to bless himself at the dinner table when you say grace?"
"No. But he's honest, and I appreciate people who are willing to defend things they believe in. Not that I can entirely follow his little vaults over the bar of reason, but he enjoys our company. He says many of his friends are older."
Yeah, Orphaned Kid Syndrome. I didn't want to bring that up. I let the silent standoff go on for about five seconds, then, careful not to take my head out of my hand, I asked, "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"To see if you're guilty."
I didn't move a muscle. Though my body was filling with heat, I could have sworn there was nothing behind her eyes but amusement. She makes herself a hard read sometimes, so I stalled with another joke.
"Um...I know the way I broke up with Callie McCabe last wek was not very, um...discreet? I shouldn't have done it on school time."
"Ah yes." She kept glaring but a slight grin crept up. "Another illustrious member of the female student body bites the dust following your charming send-off lines."
"You don't know what she did first."
"Tell me," she said. I didn't think I could tell the principal that Callie McCabe sang the onion-ring underarm song right in the face of a sophomore with some sort of constant body rash.
"Let's just say I ought to listen to Emmett more about why he doesn't get in relationships. He keeps saying that really nice guys often find themselves attracted to really mean girls."
I looked at my watch without seeing the time, and forced myself back into composure, using my "nerves of steel," as my friends loved to call it. I looked Mrs. Ashaad dead in the eye until we'd both blinked about three times.
Her face relaxed finally, the smirk turning to a smile. "You'd be amazed at what your fellow students confess to when the principal calls them to the office for one thing, and they think it's something else. Out it comes. They're defending themselves before I ever have any idea what it is they've done."
I'd heard this about her. Somehow the rumor of her little tricks didn't prevent people from having vacuum-head when they got in here and spilling their guts about God knows what. Expulsion always hangs over your head in a Catholic school. I doubted kids in public school pissed themselves so easily in the principal's office.
"I'd say right now you're not looking too guilty of anything." She was opening a folder on her desk, but I didn't want to look down at it because she wasn't looking down yet. I was amazed at how other people could not read eyes like I could. This was the principal, for God's sake, and she couldn't see the sparks and seizures of guilt flying through my head. She looked down finally.
The upside-down Kids Helping Kids logo stared at me from a form.
"I want you to do a KHK service project for me, Evan." Mrs. Ashaad was filling out the form now, not looking up.
See, Barrett? You're having a lucky day. My only bad thought was that I wasn't sure I needed my heart to grow another three sizes, which is one of the "joys" of KHK projects. And I didn't see the need to shrink my kick-back-and-relax hours three sizes again.
"God knows you did enough with little Miguel. I wouldn't ask you to do another long-term mentoring project this year. There's certainly not as much time involved in this one. A couple of visits should do it. I'm not saying it will be easy for you..."
She looked up at that point, but I was hung up on the statement before the last one. "A couple of visits? Doesn't foster care tell you that's not the way to approach a little kid?"
"This one isn't from foster care. It's a seventeen-year-old girl. She's in Saint Elizabeth's."
I just stared at her. Then I started shaking my head, though I wasn't sure which I was wary of: the seventeen part, the girl part, or the Saint Elizabeth's part. Saint Elizabeth's.
"She's in..." I almost said, the nuthouse. I shoved my fingers up to my lips. "What could I possibly do to help somebody like that?" ....
Copyright © 2003 by Carol Plum-Ucci
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