Elizabeth Cochrane’s Dream:
A crowd has gathered outside the chemistry room, including Elise Langschmidt; she’s got a wild look in her eyes, and she’s texting like mad. Her thumbs jumping on her phone remind me of crickets in a cage, like the ones I feed Damien, my Australian bearded dragon.
“What’s going on?” I ask Elise.
“Omigod, Lizzie! Omigod! Stuff just started flying off the shelves and smashing against the walls. This huge glass beaker, swear to God, it, like, it just levitated over Mr. Gunderman’s head…”
“Right in the middle of class!” a short blond kid next to us interrupts, “and it smashed down on him. It killed him!”
“We don’t know he’s dead, but he’s lying in there. He’s got blood all over him. Blood, Lizzie! Omigod!”
The chem. room door bursts open, and a gust of cold, foul-smelling wind pushes everyone back. The screaming crowd quickly runs to the other end of the hall. I slowly walk backwards, keeping my eye on the door swinging back and forth like wings. “Lizzie, get away from there!” Elise yells. “Get back! The cops are coming!”
“The cops aren’t going to be able to help with this,” I say quietly. I walk toward the still-thrashing door. I hear the confusion and fear of the crowd behind me, Elise’s voice rising above the rest: “Lizzie, stop! You’ll get killed!”
I catch the door, hold it firmly. It stills. I turn to the crowd and say, “Stay there. I’ve got this.”
I stride into the room. The door slams angrily behind me. The place is a shambles--broken glass, strewn chairs and stools, chemicals of various colors and stinks spilled on the floor. A hissing comes from the corner of the room, and I half expect to look over there to find some ghoul menacing me. I see that’s it’s just the sound of water dripping out of a broken vial and onto a hotplate. I’ve got to hand it to whatever spirits have decided to wreak havoc in the school: The chem room is an excellent target for mayhem.
Mr. Gunderman, crumpled and bloody, lies in the corner. The blond kid’s pronouncement of his death was premature—he’s still breathing. He groans and starts to roll over. A thick textbook rises from the shelf in the back of the room, floats through the air until it’s over Mr. Gunderman, then drops on his head. He collapses again. The book rises over him again, intent on finishing its homicidal mission. While I’m no huge fan of my chemistry teacher, and there is some justice to him getting clobbered by his own torture tool, I’m not in the mood to see him murdered by some pissed-off poltergeist. I reach the book just as it plummets toward Gunderman’s skull. The thing is heavier than I expected; rather than catch it, the best I can do it deflect it so it hits Mr. Gunderman on the shoulder instead of the head. That’ll leave a mark, but at least he’ll be alive to see it.
For a second, the room is quiet. Basically quiet, anyway. There’s still the dripping and the hissing from the corner, the noise of the crowd in the hallway and, far away but getting closer, sirens. I can see it now: In a few minutes, the cops and the firemen will descend, evacuate the building, quarantine the room, send everybody home for the day. But, after they patch up Gunderman and reassemble the place, all they’ll be able to do it scratch their heads and come up with lame theories about what happened--rodents, bad plumbing, vandals. They won’t come to any conclusions. They might even joke on their way out, “Must be ghosts, ha, ha.” They’ll leave, hoping the problem doesn’t come back.
It will. Unless I do something.
The book rises again. I grab it, try to pull it from the unseen hands, but the spirit doesn’t give in easily. After a few seconds of deadlocked pulling, the book begins to shake violently. I refuse to release. My voice comes out like words through a blender, but I shout, “This is not your place! This is not your place, demon!” The book is suddenly mine, its full ten pounds squarely in my hands, but it’s freezing cold, so frigid it burns my palms. Yet I can’t drop it. The icy book is glued to my hands, and the cold quickly seeps up my arms into my chest. I can barely breathe.
The pages of the chemistry book begin to flutter, then flip quickly from the front of the book to the end, then back again. The wind from the pages blows a blizzard in my face. Through squinted eyes, I see the rapidly-flipping pages create writhing, macabre images--a striking serpent, a decomposing skull, my own body catching fire.
The moving pictures in front of me strike to my deepest fears. I feel my spirit shrinking, crumbling inside me. If I don’t do something soon, I’ll end up on the floor beside Mr. Gunderman, a helpless victim waiting for the next book or beaker to come crashing down to usher me out of this world.
With every bit of energy I can muster, I laugh.
The pages suddenly freeze in their movement, then settle back onto the book like windless sails. I fling the book away; it thuds against the wall. I keep laughing. All around me, the room rattles. The chairs, the windows, the beakers, the clock, the desks—all skitter on their surfaces like water on a griddle. I laugh my loudest yet, fling out my arms and yell, “Is this all you have? Is this it? I say again, foul spirit, this is not your place!”
Though my outstretched arms and continued laughter might create a some illusion of confidence, they do nothing to prepare me for the sound of not one demonic voice, but many, echoing, ancient as stone and black as sin: “This is our place, this school and all who dwell in it. We reign supreme.” Then comes a growl so deep I feel it could swallow me whole and keep me falling through its maw forever. I thought I was dealing with one, maybe two trouble-making poltergeists, not a full-scale demonic take-over.
Now the floor starts to sway, and the shaking, which never entirely settled, turns into bucking that shatters every unbroken piece of glass, metal and plaster in the room. I fall to my hands and knees. I hear terrified shrieks from the hallway, Elise’s voice crying, “Lizzie! Lizzie!” She thinks I’m dying in here. She may be right.
This is it. All those hours researching the occult, all those books about necromancy, all those horror movies, all those sleep-overs in the cemetery, and, above all, all those hundreds of words devoted to coming up with the perfect incantation...it’s come down to this. I begin to chant:
Underwood, bitterwood, cravenwood, wormwood,
woodroot, bitterroot, bloodroot, snakeroot,
rootserpent, blackserpent, cringeserpent, serpentbone,
boneblood, bonecrush, boneslash, slashdark!
At first, I try to remember what I had invented those nights I stood naked in front of my mirror, mumbling and etching myself with charcoal. But after the first few words, the sounds flow from my mouth without effort. I am nothing but a channel for the opposing spirits. What I say follows no human logic, but it makes supernatural sense. My whispering expands, filling the room like smoke. I hear the demons scream in fear.
Darmwhirl, smardpool, clodparge, underwhal
whalsove, sovedeel, sovemal, clovekon,
konseef, seelvol, clodwhal, mikklechok,
mikklechok, mikklechok, zordeel, zordeel,
zordeel, zordeel, zordeel karrakum!
The phrases come from my throat but shout in voices far outnumbering those threatening me moments before. The entire room inhales deeply toward me, its center, hold its breath, then burst out in one mighty exhalation that shatters every window, sending the invading demons to a hell so deep and far they’ll never escape.
I’d love to be able to exit the room in Ghostbusters’ style, a little marshmallow on my face, a great one-liner for the crowd. I’m too exhausted from the battle to muster any of that. I stumble into the hallway, take a few steps and collapse against the wall. The crowd peeks around the corner, wondering if I’m still alive. I raise my hand to give them a weak wave. I’m about to pass out. Darkness crowds the edges of my vision.
I figure I deserve a little nap. After all, not just anybody could save the school from hordes of ravaging demons. Glad to be of service. Good night.
Reality Check: Dream 41
ü Title of Elizabeth Cochrane’s research paper proposal for chemistry: “Modern Applications for Ancient Potions.”
ü Comment on Elizabeth Cochrane’s research proposal: “While I commend your passion, Liz, I need something that will involve some hard science.”
ü Number of eviscerated rodents found on the hood of Mr. Gunderman’s car: 17.
Elise Langschmidt’s Dream:
We’re sitting in a circle. It’s our once-a-week Advisory, when a bunch of kids from different grades get together with a couple of teachers and bond, supposedly. The idea is that we’ll be in the same Advisory for all four years of high school, with the same kids and the same teachers. It’s like a once-a-week family. As if.
Some Advisories go outside and play Frisbee, some just have a study hall, some watch movies. I got stuck in an Advisory where one teacher, Ms. Warren, doesn’t give a crap. She just finds an excuse to leave every week, so she lets the other adult, Mr. Dickerson, turn Advisory into a group therapy session. My guess is that Mr. Dickerson needs therapy himself. He’s got bulgy eyes behind thick glasses, and he spits when he talks. All the hair that once grew on the top of his head now sticks out his ears. Basically, the man is disgusting and probably has been all his life, so no wonder he craves therapy. I don’t think he’s even a teacher.
My main thing to do during Advisory is watch Maddy Stender and Randy Moore and die.
Maddy is a skank. Her streaked blond hair looks like road kill. Her voice, all raspy and phlegmy, reminds me of my great-grandmother’s just before she died from throat cancer. How she squeezes all of her cellulite into the tight clothes she wears is the eighth horror of the world. Randy, on the other hand, is a god. Thick, red-blond hair clearly made for female fingers to run through; arms so sculpted they’re practically edible; a voice made of hot fudge; and a personality so polite and helpful you’re tempted to light your house on fire and hang from the upstairs window on the chance Randy might happen by and save you.
Maddy and Randy. They are both Seniors and they are, for some mind-bending reason, a couple. Every Advisory, Maddy leads him by the hand into the room, and all I can think of is a slug somehow commanding a panther or a wolf or some other animal that would qualify as the most noble creature on earth.
Mr. Dickerson finishes spitting out the usual weekly announcements and launches into this week’s therapy topic: “Let’s all think about three goals we have for this next week, ones we can share with everyone else.” All I can do it stare at the slime and the glory across the circle from me. To my left, Lizzy Cochrane is starting to raise her hand. No doubt she’s going to share something about her favorite topics: reptiles or ghosts. Shoot me. Maddy’s looking right at me as she raises Randy’s hand to her mouth. She licks his finger.
I shoot my hand up.
“Oh, well, Elise, would you like to get us started today? This is a pleasant surprise.”
“I don’t want to talk about my three goals for the week.”
“That was just a suggestion. What’s on your mind?”
I take a deep breath, then jump in. “I want to talk about something in this school that is so totally wrong that it makes me want to scream.”
Mr. Dickerson practically jumps to the edge of his seat and says, “Perfect! I like your passion. We’re here for you, Elise.”
“The problem is that some people just don’t realize that they’re settling for way less than they should.”
“Some people? Are you talking about yourself, Elise?” He makes me want to vomit, Mr. Dickerson does, with that oily voice of his that’s supposed to sound encouraging but just comes out creepy as hell. Whatever--he’s not the issue.
“No, not me. I’m talking about a person in this room who is...who is super kind and super good-looking and just an overall awesome human being.” I try not to look at Randy as I’m saying all this, but I can see him lean forward, listening closely. “But the trouble is that this person spends his time with someone who’s just totally wrong for him.”
Maddy twists her skanky mouth into a sneer and says, “Watch out, boys--she’s got a thang for one of you.”
“Maddy,” Mr. Dickerson warns. “Elise has the floor.”
“That’s not all she has,” Maddy mutters, and a couple others in the circle laugh. That’s it. I’m done being careful. I stand up and point right at Maddy.
“You suck!” I scream at the top of my lungs. The shock of it knocks the sneer off her face. Mr. Dickerson’s mouth starts to flap like a screen door in a heavy wind. He gets out a couple quick “whoa, whoas,” but there’s no way, now that I’ve taken the cap off my frustration, that I’m going to try to stuff it back in. “You’re rude, ugly, unfashionable, bossy, stuck up and stupid, and that’s when you’re having a good day!”
“Listen, bitch, you can’t…” Maddy starts to say.
Beside her, John Grant speaks up. “No, let her keep going.”
Maddy spins around, looking ready to smack him. “What?” she yells. “Why should I let her keep trash-talking me?”
John says, “Because she’s got a point.”
“Now, now, now,” stutters Mr. Dickerson, but no one pays attention to him.
Maddy spins in the other direction to Randy and demands, “Are you going to let them talk about me like this?”
I jump in back in. “The thing is, Maddy, if you want to be the most god-awful skank in the universe, that’s your business. Go for it! But when you choose to pollute one of the nicest guys in the world, when you somehow get your hooks into him, then you have crossed a line. Did you drug him so he doesn’t wake up one day and realize he’s been dating a dog? The only thing you have in this entire world you can be proud of is the fact that you are somehow with this guy right here, but do you appreciate him? No! You order him around. You make him your slave. You take the best guy in the school and you treat him like your personal possession!”
“Amen, Sistah!” Lizzy shouts.
“Shut up!” screams Maddy.
“You shut up!” yells Don Brooks back at her in a voice bigger than I knew he had. Maddy turns to bury her head in Randy’s shoulder, but he shrugs her away.
“I’m not putting up with this!” she cries and runs to the door. “Randy!” she yells as if he’s supposed to come lapping at her heels.
I kneel next to Randy. I look in his eyes. “Randy, you made a mistake. You dating her is like pouring pure gold into a latrine.”
“Randy!” Maddy yells again, this time stomping her foot.
“I’ve watched you for years. I know you. I know how kind you are, how you take time to smile at everybody, how you make sure people feel included. Let me ask you something: Are you a better person when you’re with her? Are you?”
“Randy,” croaks the standing pile of dung at the doorway. “If you don’t come with me now, we’re through!”
“Sounds like a good offer to me,” says Isa Johnson. “Let the witch go, Randy.”
“Nobody asked you!” screams the vomit impersonating a girl. “Randy, this is your last warning!”
I keep my eyes locked on Randy’s; he doesn’t look away. I’m wordlessly begging him to see himself the way I see him.
“Randy,” I say. “I love you.”
“Randy!” shouts Satan. “I’ll kill you!”
He reaches for my hand. I take it. He stands and pulls me up with him. He kisses me. Maddy turns to dust. Advisory, for once, works.
Reality Check: Dream 42
ü From Mr. Dickerson’s incident report: “I don’t know what precipitated the fight, but one second I turn around to get a hand-out for Advisory and the next I find Maddy Stender and Elise Langschmidt on the floor, pulling each other’s hair and screaming obscenities. I could get no information from the students, even from Randy Moore, Maddy’s boyfriend.”
Isa Johnson’s Dream:
I open the car door to get out, but Mother says, “Isa.”
“What? I have to go.” Mother holds out a protein bar. “I already ate. I’m full.”
“For me. Eat it for me?”
“Can’t you, please? It’s little.”
“Those really aren’t very healthy. They say all natural but they’re practically just candy bars.” Mother wiggles the thing in the air. She’s smiling but the expression is tight, her eyes pleading. I sigh and grab the protein bar. She doesn’t let it go. I tell her again that I have to go.
“Promise me you’ll eat it.”
“Okay, I promise.”
“And lunch, too.”
“I promise!” She releases the bar and drives off.
In the dance studio, where we’re not supposed to have any food or drink but Callahan isn’t here so I don’t care, I stand in front of the mirror, the unwrapped protein bar in my hand. I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday morning. I’d like to eat the bumpy, chocolate-coated bar, but I’m afraid of it.
I take a nibble. It’s delicious. The chocolate coats my tongue; I think of silk. I chew, savoring the texture of the nuts, the crisp nuggets of oatmeal and toasted rice. I don’t want to swallow. I look at myself in the multiple mirrors around the room. My butt juts out. My stomach is rounded. My cheeks are puffy. If I swallow what my mother has commanded me to eat, it’s just going to contribute to my problems.
The morsel liquefies in my mouth. Even though I’m breaking the dance room rules by having food in here, I’m not going to leave chocolate-and-oats drool on the floor. I have no choice. I make a note to exercise another half hour this afternoon to compensate, and I swallow. My throat, not used to having anything but a couple gulps of water in over 24 hours, scratches as the piece of protein bar goes down. I close my eyes, not wanting to look in the mirrors. Logic tells me the effects of the food can’t possibly be visible immediately, yet, over the past few months, I’ve developed the ability to see the changes that quickly. I sigh--might as well face the consequences of my weakness. I open my eyes.
Strangely, I don’t see it. My cheeks, both butt and face, look the same as they did before I ate the delicious curse. My stomach is no rounder. In fact...no. That’s impossible. That’s truly crazy, to think that they actually look less pronounced. On the other hand, didn’t I just read an article yesterday about metabolism, how eating at certain times could speed it up? I didn’t believe it, and I certainly wasn’t going to risk more calories, but maybe it’s true. Maybe that bite of protein bar actually worked to make me smaller, closer to what I’m supposed to look like rather than the bloated freak I am.
And if one bite worked, could I dare another? I bite the bar again. My mother would be thrilled to see that I’ve gone through almost a third of it. Alarms sound inside me. They have been getting louder and louder lately, warning me away from food, making it my enemy, my killer. I squeeze my eyes shut tightly, knowing the effects of that first bite were just a fluke. I promise myself that I’ll work out to exhaustion tonight to make up for my stupidity.
When I open my eyes, though, I see the miracle wasn’t limited to one bite. I am thinner. I am smaller. I am definitely more beautiful after eating two bites of this protein bar! When I take the third, I dare to keep my eyes open. I watch myself open my mouth, watch my teeth clamp down on the bar, my lips brushing the wrapper. I watch myself chew. What a strange sight!
Not that I don’t look at myself in the mirror; that’s an hourly thing when I go home. Fully dressed, half dressed, naked, from every angle--that’s certainly nothing new. But watching myself eat is definitely a unique experience, especially when, with each bite, I’m not feeling the familiar shame but actually seeing the eating bring me closer to my ideal.
I finish the protein bar and text my mother: “8 it all.” In about three seconds I get her reply: “So proud!” As I walk out of the dance room and head off to Geometry, I take a final glance back at all the mirrors. I’ve never looked so good.
As the day goes along, food surrounds me: Derek Cilley munching on chocolate chip cookies first period; Danielle Schaffer with her peanut M & M’s during social studies; Mr. Dhamrait drinking his coffee and finishing off a doughnut on his way into Computing. My usual reaction to this daily stream of calories is hunger, of course, but when someone offers me a nibble of this or a piece of that, I do my mental work of transforming the food into an evil thing. It’s trying to further misshape me into this lardy mass that no one would even want to look at, never mind touch, never mind even think of loving. Today is totally different. I steal one of Derrek’s cookies. I say yes to Danielle’s offered candy. She says, “Hey!” in protest when I take a handful instead of just a couple. I even yell to Mr. Dhamrait, “Where’s my doughnut?” and he practically chokes when I say it.
I go into the bathroom just before lunch to check myself in the mirror. My reflection shows me that whatever I’ve been doing during the morning hours, which pretty much boils down to the words “pigging out,” has continued to shape me in the direction I’ve been so slowly working toward for the past half a year.
I hear the sound of puking coming from one of the stalls. Morgan King comes out, wiping her mouth with toilet paper. She goes to leave, then does a double take. “Holy shit, Isa, you’re so skinny! What have you been doing? You look great.” I hear the jealousy in her voice and love it.
“Yeah, you know,” I say and brush on out the door.
Lunch is heaven. I pile on everything they have to sell in the caf: a meatball sub with cheese, potato puffs, a salad (a little nod to healthy eating--why not?) and three ice cream cups. I sit down at my usual table and my friends go crazy with questions: “Who’s all that for?” “You’re not going to actually eat that, are you?” “Are you getting ready for a major upchuck session?” “Are you crazy?” But while they’re asking, I’m eating. And eating. April tells me I need to write a book: Eat Like a Hog, Look Like a Princess. I tell her I’ll take it under advisement. I feel like skipping as I take my tray to the window. Hell, I’ve got so much energy I want to do backflips off the tables!
At the end of the day, I go back into the dance room. I have the place to myself. I’m crazy happy and crazy hungry. Fortunately, Sammy Dykes had a stash of candy in his locker; he sold me a ton of it at stupid-high prices, but I paid him. The mirrors send me the message I’ve been aching to see for months. I can’t help giggling. “Mirrors, mirrors, all around, who’s the fairest, pound for pound?” I rhyme and giggle some more.
I strip. Maybe some nut-job janitor is going to come in and get the look of his life, but I don’t care. I take off every stitch of my clothes, put the pile of candy next to me, and watch myself get tinier with each perfect bite. Three Musketeers, Kit Kats, Hundred Dollar Bars, Little Debbie cakes--it all goes down my gullet. I feel like I’m swimming in food, bathing on a nude food beach!
As I watch myself eat, I see I’m not just getting thinner. I’m getting transparent. Bite by bite, I’m becoming just an outline of a person. No bulges, no wrinkles, no marks. The food is eating me. Finally, I am nothing but this energetic space the candy is disappearing into. A tiny black hole. Pure consumption. I am gone.
I am perfection.
Reality Check: Dream 43
ü Question on Health class worksheet: Is there any one of your peers who you think “has it made” in his/her life? Isa Johnson’s answer: Jolene Fines.
Derrick Cilley’s Dream:
We’re in the car on the way to school. My mother sighs. I ask her why.
“Is it about me?”
“Let’s not talk about it.”
“Was that sigh about me, Mom? Because I want you to know, things are going to be different today.”
“You don’t believe me.”
She sighs again.
“You sighed again.”
She sips her coffee. I can see she’s trying hard not to sigh.
“Why do you not believe me, that things are going to be different today?”
“I guess, Derrick, to be absolutely honest, I’ve heard you say…”
“When did they tear that building down? Did you see that?”
“We should turn around. I swear there was a building there yesterday. I think it was a laundromat, and now it’s gone! It’s just a big, empty lot. When did that happen?”
My mother shakes her head. I get it. I interrupted her mid-sentence to tell her about the building that was there and then wasn’t there (I swear to God it was there yesterday morning!), but that kind of behavior is exactly what she was sighing about.
I’m highly distractible. It causes me problems, especially in school. My mother got another call from guidance suggesting we have another meeting since I’m having trouble in most of my classes. Okay, all of my classes. The car is making an odd noise. I wonder if a tire is about to fall off. I’ve heard of that happening. And if your rear tire falls off as you’re driving, it will pass you. I’ve always thought that must be a strange sight, to see your wheel go past you as you’re speeding down the road. But does it pass you first, and then you feel the clunk when your axle hits the road? I suppose that would have to do with how fast you were going.
“...any of the strategies Dr. Comstock suggested?” my mother is asking.
“Oh, boy,” she says, which is just a sigh put into words. “Well, here we are, Honey.” I get out and start to walk into the school until I hear my mother’s voice behind me.
“Derrick!” I turn. She’s holding up my backpack and lunch. I trot back to the car.
“I thought I felt kinda light.”
“Yeah,” Mom says, with that disappointed look she wears so much these days I think it’s just the way her face normally falls. The lights are on over the football field. Somebody left them on, probably all night.
“How much do we pay for taxes?”
“Derrick,” she says, “just go to school. Please…” She’s got hours’ worth of lectures to tell me, but she just settles for “do your best.”
“I will, and it’s going to be a better best than it’s ever been. You’ll see.”
Doubtful look. Tired look. “Okay, honey. See you later.”
I walk away from the car as Mom drives away from the curb. A second later, three steps on my way to the school entrance, a sharp pain clobbers my left temple. I see stars and stumble a little bit. Beside me on the ground I see the culprit: a Frisbee. It has a word, in neon blue and weirdly shaped letters, printed on it, but before I can make it out, a kid snatches the Frisbee and says quickly, “Sorry, Dude.” He yells to his friend across the parking lot, “Nice shot, asshole--you practically took this kid out!”
“Hey,” I say before the kid throws again.
“What’s it say on there, on the Frisbee?”
“Huh?” the kid says, and then holds up the Frisbee to read it. “I dunno. It’s not mine. It says, uh, ‘focus.’ Yeah, ‘focus.’ I guess it’s the brand or something.”
I turn back to the school, shake my head--I can still feel where the Frisbee beaned me--and walk to the door.
The day begins with math. Math is in a bad room for me. It has the typical accessories of the average classroom--desks, chairs, whiteboard, computers--but it’s situated upstairs and on the corner of the building, giving it windows on two sides.
Windows give a view of the wider world. Windows let you see interesting, moving things--birds, cars, clouds, tree branches, plastic bags caught by the wind, kids walking, kids going outside for gym, the school’s marching band warming up, dogs, cats, even what you suspect might be a fox running across the field though you can’t be sure, snowflakes in the right season. Every one of these phenomena has, at one point or another, taken me away from the subject matter: math. Calculating the number of times I have been distracted by things going on outside those windows as well as the number of times I have gotten in trouble for being distracted by things going on outside those windows would, in fact, make a good math project. I thought of that one day last week. Mr. Bluthen was unimpressed. He acknowledged that my thought was math-related, but it was not what we were talking about that day--integers or something like that.
When I walk into math today, I look out the windows to see that the clouds are stacked in some intriguing formations. I see a yellow utility truck on the street, its crew getting ready to cut down a tree. Interesting. Uh-oh. I turn toward the front of the room. I remember my mother’s face as she told me to do my best. As her mouth was speaking encouragement, her eyes were more loudly speaking doubt. My left temple throbs again and I hear the kid reading the word on the Frisbee: “Focus.”
Mr. Bluthen starts to talk about a famous math problem called Zeno’s paradox, where this philosopher said movement must be an illusion because someone who wants to run 100 yards has to first run 50 and then half of that is 25 and so on and so on and since numbers are infinite, no one can ever get anywhere. Mr. Bluthen likes to start his class this way, with these historical math tidbits. Even for the smart kids in class, these first few minutes are zone-out time, so for me, Mr. Distraction, they set me up for mental pinball that lasts the whole period and beyond.
Today is a different story. I find the history lesson fascinating, and when Mr. Bluthen asks if anyone has any comments (no one ever does), I raise my hand a little. Mr. Bluthen says, “Yes, Derrick,” but he says it in a discouraged way that reminds me of my mother because usually I’ll ask to go to the bathroom or tell him that his heater is squeaking a little.
“Isn’t Zeno’s thinking sort of counter-productive? I mean, I get the concept, but what practical use does it serve to claim that movement is impossible when things are clearly moving?”
My question gets Mr. Bluthen cooking for about 15 minutes, talking about the importance of building mental flexibility and how theoretical thinking can eventually have broad practical applications. Einstein’s theories about relativity, for instance, might have seemed liked out-there ruminations at first, but they were instrumental in such life-and-death matters as the atomic bomb. “Tell those on the ground in Hiroshima that Einstein’s philosophical musings had no practical application,” he says. I nod, appreciating what he’s saying. Others around me are nodding, too, but that’s because they’re falling asleep. When the bell rings, I happen to glance out the windows and see that the clouds have cleared and the tree has been toppled. Potential distractions happened; I just never noticed. On the way out, Mr. Bluthen says, “Excellent participation today, Derrick. Well done.”
I go to my locker. I get out my English binder and my copy of our classic short stories book. I remember that we were supposed to have read “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” for class. I didn’t read it because my goldfish, my computer games and the inner workings of my mechanical pencil were much more interesting than any of my homework. I do recall my 7th grade teacher reading the story to us, though, and I’m pretty sure I can pass the quiz since it’ll be multiple choice.
I walk into English and Ms. Warren says, “Derrick, it’s good to see you here on time.” I sit down and skim the story as Ms. Warren takes attendance. By the time she tells us to put away our notes, I’ve refreshed the details enough that I sail through the questions. As everyone else is finishing, I begin the story assigned for tomorrow. Later, we get in small groups to discuss the question on the board: “Is Walter Mitty merely a comic character, or does his plight have serious implications?” I discuss the question and take notes on what the others in my group have to say.
I don’t know myself. I wonder what stranger has inhabited my body and my mind. I’m the guy who comes late to class with the wrong binder and no textbook; the guy who fails the quiz and then only vaguely recalls that he might have heard of the story sometime, he’s not sure when; the guy who doesn’t read the assignment due tomorrow but tries to figure how hard he has to blow on his pencil to keep it just on the edge of the desk without quite falling off; the guy who other kids hate to have in their group because he talks about everything but what he’s supposed to and says, when the teacher asks for notes, “We were supposed to take notes?”
Except today, I’m not that guy at all. Through all of my classes, I go, do, listen, write, figure, calculate, graph, discuss, even extrapolate—as scheduled, as instructed. I am a well-lubricated, highly-focused machine. Call me Clarity. Call me Laser Beam. Call me Happy.
When my mother comes to pick me up at 3:15, I am standing at the curb, right where I’m supposed to be. In my backpack are all the right textbooks and binders, every assignment recorded in my planner. Mom asks, “How was your day?”
“Pretty darned good.”
“I got a call from your social studies teacher.”
“What now?” I ask. I thought I did well in there. We had a debate on the Missouri Compromise. I took the position that it was too timid and therefore set up its own failure. Maybe the whole day has been an illusion, like Zeno’s paradox of school--no matter how close to perfect you try to get, there are an infinite number of things you have to do, so you never actually make progress.
“Mr. Draper said you were outstanding,” Mom says with a genuine smile. “He told me that whatever you had for breakfast, you should have it every day. And I got an e-mail from another of your teachers praising you, too.”
“I told you today was going to be a better best than it’s ever been.”
“Wow, Derrick. What happened?”
I love the hope I hear in her voice. “I don’t know,” I tell her, and I get the tiniest pulse of pain in my left temple. “Something just...hit me, I guess.”
Reality Check: Dream 44
ü Therapist’s note: “Derrick’s distractibility worsening. Need to broach topic of medication again.”
ü Note from Melissa Eisner to Miss Tingdale: “Unfortunately, I can no longer tutor Derrick Cilley for credit toward my community service hours. If you have any ideas for how I might earn those hours, I would appreciate hearing them. Something more rewarding maybe?”