Chapter 1

The sun burst into the room like an angry parent, waking Frank where he lay on the sofa surrounded by stacks of unopened mail, pizza boxes, and an empty bottle of cheap Cabernet. Raising himself up, he dug for his phone in the cushions, finding it stuffed half-inside a Fritos bag. Checking the time, he scrolled the headlines. The White Ravens had hacked into sixteen states’ departments of education, deleting or corrupting most of the standardized test scores for the current year and thus jeopardizing their federal budget allotments. They had also blown up two KLIP charter schools, one in Brooklyn and, oddly, one in Dayton. The buildings were closed at the time of the blasts and there were no injuries. Nevertheless, the Secretary of Education was declaring an  “all-out war on the new edu-terrorism”. With a satisfied grunt, Frank rose to ready himself for another day of teaching.

Arriving minutes before the bell, he parked his crumbling Subaru under the lot’s only tree, a massive spruce with a wide skirt that enveloped the entire front end of the car. Everyone else avoided it because of the dripping sap, but Frank appreciated the shade and snow cover it provided. Looking upwards into its dome-like interior of needles, he wondered if he might find himself in some greener place this summer. But there was no time for dreamingwithin minutes, the little bastards would be gathering outside his classroom door.

Inside, the lobby was teeming with kids and adults criss-crossing paths in their parallel worlds. Turning quickly down the central hallway, Frank nearly collided with Jeff Freitag, this years new vice-principal. “Whoa!” cried Jeff bemusedly, his moon-like face contrasting with the crisp cut of his new suit and bright tie. Frank wore the same shabby corduroy jacket and jeans that he pulled off the back of the couch each morning. With shaggy hair and an untrimmed beard, he presented a feral look, the unpretentiousness of which he felt belied a subtle sophistication. “Excuse me,” he said coolly.

“Not a problem, weve both got places to be!” chuckled Freitag.

Frank stared.

“Um, by the way,” Freitag stumbled, “I meant to ask you if you’d had a chance to follow up with our Mr. Carter? He’s back from suspension today.”

“Sorry,” replied Frank, “didn’t have a working number.”

“You know, Frank, it might be nice if there was a little follow-through.”

“Isn’t that your job?”

“It’s all of our . . . ”

“Spare me the village analogy! I’ve got enough on my plate without having to chase down every reject kid in the building.”

“None of our students are rejects, Mr. Plummer!”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” replied Frank, with disgust. Pushing past, he continued on his way without a look back.

Entering his room, he flicked on the lights and began running over his mental checklist: whiteboards, Powerpoint, email, worksheets . . . He paused. There was trash on the floor. The janitor had skipped his room again. One of his “free reading” books was lying under a desk, a battered copy of Where the Red Fern Grows, split nearly in two down the center of its spine. Not far away, a dictionary lay open-faced like a dead bird. How had he not noticed them before leaving yesterday? At the end of every period, he made the kids pick up after themselves, but here, such blatant disrespect! Poking about compulsively, he found the usual stash of candy wrappers behind the file crates. Fresh graffiti was scrawled on the back of one desk: Mr. Plummer is gay! The stapler was also missing. Looking for it, he instead found the tape dispenser at the foot of his desk, all of its tape wound about it in a thick wad like a fly in a spider’s web. How long had it taken to do that bit of destruction, and right under his nose? The shits! Where did they get the energy?

Beyond the door, he could hear their rising clamor: Javier running at breakneck speed to catch up to Miguel and slam-dunk his head in the trash barrel, Charlene and Taneeka huddling by their lockers, bursting into random fits of hysterical laughter. And then it came upon him in a flash. He hated them. Finally and at last he could admit it. “Hmm, funny,” he muttered to himself. “What would Arianna have to say about this?” he wondered. “Nothing that she had not said a thousand times before,” he concluded. He snorted with resignation. She had been a real professional when it came to pissing all over his “best practices” in the classroom. She had sneeringly labeled him “a stylist and a narcissist”, who taught out of a love of subject rather than a love of kids. After three years of battling with her on the same grade level team and her countless snide comments, public and private, they ended up sleeping together, then moving into together; until she bolted like a deer. He came home to an empty apartment to find a state testing manual on the table with a note scrawled on the cover: Drill-and-kill all you want. Then you wont be completely wasting their time! The word “completely” was capitalized and underlined three times. Tossing it in the trash, he called the locksmith.

* * * *

Wherever help was needed, Paul Kinnell was there, be it last-minute ticket sales at basketball games, passing out water bottles at track meets, or chaperoning dances. And when it came to fundraising, he was Clara Brown Middle School’s undisputed leader. He did not just set up the coin bucket in his roomhe carried it around the school, browbeating every staff member he encountered and tracking his collections with a big thermometer chart on the outside of his door. The only recompense his colleagues received was at the annual Spring Fun Fair, when Paul enthusiastically volunteered for the dunk tank and pie toss.

This morning, he was particularly upbeat for no particular reason. Having come in early to set up his Articles of Confederation quiz, he was ready to go. Rising from his desk with an approving scan of his cluttered and messy room, he left to check his mailbox and shoot the bull with whomever he met in the staff workroom. On the way he passed Plummer talking with Freitag. He did not know Frank all that well, aside from his reputation, and he hated being judgmental. Still, Frank had never said so much as a “hello” in the three years that they had shared the hall. But no, he caught himself, nothing was going to ruin his mood on this, or any other morning! Forcing a smile in passing, he didn’t even glance back to see how it was received.

The staff room was surprisingly empty when it should normally have been abuzz. With a snort of disappointment, Paul went rifling through his mailbox, pulling out a flier: “Social Studies Summer Adventure Camp!” With an interested grunt he turned to leave, nearly bumping into Freitag coming through the door. “Hey, Paul!”

“Hey!”

“I meant to tell you, Mick Carter should be back from his suspension today.”

“Yes, I know, I spoke with his mom last night.”

“Is that so? Well, I’m glad you’re keeping up, Paul. I wish we had more teachers around here with your conscientiousness.”

Grinning sheepishly, Paul departed for his room only to encounter Marjorie Klepp, barely five meters out the door. “Good morning, Paul,” she said, with an up-and-down scan. She was tiny, craven, and clad entirely in lime green polyester, her cloud of gossamer hair barely reaching Paul’s shoulder. She had reputedly turned down retirement several times.

“Did you hear about those White Ravens blowing up the KLIP schools? I love it! Knowledge and Learning Intensifies Power . . . So much for that acronym! The only intensifying going on these days is the strength of those blasts! What’s your take? Do you consider them heroes or a menace? You know the old saying, ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’”

“Marj, the bells about to ring,” Paul pleaded.

“Hmph!” she snorted. “You’d do well to develop an opinion about something, young man!” Chuckling, she turned and headed down the hall. Paul hurried to his classroom, but halfway there, he was stopped by Theresa, a debilitatingly shy sixth grader with a jammed locker. Quickly reentering her combination and popping the latch, he was back on his way, leaving her with an encouraging pat on the shoulder. Then two boys went racing past him at full speed. Calling loudly for them to stop, he spun about and gave chase. Ignoring him, the boys led him back toward the staff room before finally heeding his commands. Reprimanding them sternly, Paul then let himself get drawn into discussing the current NCAA playoffs until the sounding of the bell jarred him back to his priorities. Sending them on their way with passes and a smile, he raced to his room where his own kids were chatting in their seats. “Hey, guys!” he called out cheerfully.

“Hi, Mr. Kinnell!” they responded in a disjointed chorus.

“I want to know what you guys can tell me about the Articles of Confederation. Why was it such a great plan for those newly independent colonies?”

“Huh?” asked Marisol, her face screwed up ridiculously in an expression of mock indignation. She was a tall girl with a disheveled mass of black hair perched atop her head like a large bird. Her purse was out on her desk with lip gloss, eyeliner, and a bottle of body spray that, judging from the sickly sweet cloud around her, could only be “Peaches and Cream”.

“Am I going to have to take those, Marisol?” he asked disapprovingly.

Rolling her eyes, she quickly scooped the items into her purse, dropping it with a loud smack on the floor. Several other girls likewise stashed their purses and one boy in the back suddenly shot bolt upright.

“If you were a just little less obvious, Bobby, I’d never know you were texting!” Bobby smiled smugly. “C’mon, you guys! I know I’m late. My bad! But you should all know this by now. I should be able to walk through this door and get answers right off the bat.”

“I thought the Articles wasn’t good for the colonies,” said Brandon. His Eeyore eyes were framed by matted ringlets of hair and he was wearing the same threadbare t-shirt he had worn the day before, now more rumpled and covered with more animal hair.

“It’s a trick question!” interjected Cary, darting mischievous looks around the room. Everyone ignored her. A perky fox-faced girl, Paul found her taxing, despite his tireless optimism. Several other hands were waving insistently in the air.

“They didn’t work out because they made the states fight over stuff,” called out Mick Carter in his monotone. He was a moody, uptight skater, but Paul was sure he was reachable.

“That’s right, Mick! And it’s very nice to have you back in class, by the way!” smiled Paul.

“Whatever,” said Mick.

“So, what ‘stuff’ did the states fight over? And by the way, remember, it’s states now, not colonies anymore. We’re past the Revolution.”

“Taxes on products being sold in different states,” replied Mick again.

Can you explain?” he asked, looking for another bite. Taylor timidly raised her hand. She was his brain-trust, but not a risk-taker. “Taylor?”

There was a problem with taxes.”

“Okay, explain.”

“Like, Congress couldn’t make states pay taxes.”

“Pay taxes to who?”

“To itself, for the whole country.”

“Right. Good. You got it. But what else?”

“I don’t know.”

“Someone else? Where did all those hands go that were up a second ago?”

“They went down,” said Todd. His eyes were small and pinched in a way that made him look stupid. Paul could not tell if it was a put-on or if he really was lost in his class. He had been suspended twice during the year, once for fighting and once for stealing. A week earlier in the staff room, Frank Plummer, in a rare moment of levity, had said “Todd McAllen is getting all the training he needs here for his prison career.” Everyone broke into laughter, including Paul, although he felt bad about it later. Still, the kid was a pain in the ass, and Paul guiltily hoped for Freitag’s expulsion proceedings to go through. Undaunted, he continued, “What else about taxes?” Several more hands went up and as they shared he scrawled out notes on the overhead. “So here are your points. These will be on the quiz. Lets write them down.”

“Mr. Kinnell?” asked Taylor softly.

“Yes, Taylor?”

“My dad says the government doesnt control anything anymore. He says the government is controlled by corporations now.”

“Well, thats debatable, Taylor,”

“Thats what my Dad says.”

“And thats your Dads opinion.”

“So if thats true, then whats it matter if we got rid of the Articles of Confederation or not?”

“Well, Taylor, I didnt say it was true, and thats a pretty big leap into all sorts of things we dont have a whole lot of time for right now. You know, Taylor, after the Revolution, people were worried about government having too much control like it did when King George was in charge.” In the corner of his eye, Paul could see Marisol sneaking a compact and eye-liner pen out of her purse, but he let it go in order to hold onto the teachable moment. Here and there in the room a mild shifting began. They were only moments away from a general squirming.Paul pressed on. “They didn’t want their government to be too strong because they were afraid it might get too powerful again.”

“So the government couldnt make the states do things, but the states had all agreed to the Articles, so what was the big deal?”

“Well, its not quite that simple, Taylor. It was simply too hard for the first Congress to get anything done because the states couldn’t come together. Each state was only looking out for itself.”

“Thats what my dad says about Congress. He says theyre only looking out for the corporations because the corporations do them so many favors. Isnt that kind of the same thing as when we had the Articles of Confederation? I mean, in a sort of way?”

“I think were straying too far into the realm of opinion here, Taylor.”

“Yeah, but its interesting,” said Todd, to Pauls surprise.

“Opinions can be a real problem.”

“Why?” asked Todd.

“They’re unreliable.”

“How are they unreliable?” asked Taylor.

“Because everyone has a different one and no one can agree!” laughed Paul.

“What’s wrong with that?” asked the boy. “At least it keeps things from getting boring.”

“Boring or not kiddo, too many opinions are going to get us off-track from what we’re really here to do—review for the quiz!”

“Booorring!” sneered Todd. Taylor slumped back in her chair and began distractedly picking at a tear in her binder.

“Guys, c’mon,” said Paul, throwing his hands in the air, “my job is to teach you about your constitution and your government. You guys have got to know this stuff first before we can get bogged down thinking about what it all means!”

* * * *

Principal Darin Robinson ambled about in the tiny storage room like a bear in a motor home, knocking stacks of files onto the floor with the tail of his jacket no sooner than he had carefully arranged them. A desk and two overloaded folding tables dominated the space, as well as chairs piled with boxes, old trophies, and other school paraphernalia. Above the door, a small sign read Fire Hazard! Carol, his secretary, had posted it there some years back. It was here that he gathered himself in stolen moments during the school day, finding relaxation in organizing, despite there being no end in sight. Today, however, the usual calming effect escaped him. He had told Carol to call in Frank and Paul. The storage room was not where he normally met with staff, but it was discreet. A sudden bleating of the intercom startled him out of his thoughts and he dropped a thick file, cascading its contents in a neat path from his feet to the door. “Mr. Plummer and Mr. Kinnell are here to see you, sir,” came Carols nasally voice.

“Um, send them right in,” he said, stooping and quickly sweeping up the sheets in a single deft maneuver. Opening the door, he ushered the two men inside.

“The storage room, eh?” said Frank. “This can’t be good.” Paul looked about the room with an armadillo in the headlights expression..

“Good morning, gentlemen,” said Robinson, ignoring the comment. “I’m glad you could make it down. I know how busy you guys are. This won’t take long.” Working his way around his desk, he waved distractedly at two chairs. “Have a seat. I cleared off a couple.”

“Thank you, sir,” replied Paul.

“Gentlemen, I hate to be the bearer of bad news . . . ”

“Ah, we’re getting cut,” said Frank.

Paul looked at him askance with alarm. Robinson, clearing his throat, leaned back in his chair, glancing up at the ceiling, then, leaning forward, faced them squarely said, “I can always count on you to be frank, cant I, Frank?”

“Certainly,” smiled Frank.

“Sir,” began Paul, leaning forward, “is this true?”

“I’m afraid so, Paul,” replied Mr. Robinson. “You’re well aware of the severe cuts to the District budget next year. Ive gotta cut twelve positions from next year’s staff.”

“And you finally got me, eh?” said Frank. “Not enough probationaries left to drop?”

“Yep, Frank, I’m finally able to get rid of you. Quite a stroke of luck for me. Not nearly as much paperwork and none of the unpleasantness of a termination hearing.”

“Hmm, I guess the game’s really up.”

“Yes, and thank you for being reasonable.”

“Excuse me sir, but I’m being let go?” asked Paul, leaning forward.

“I’m afraid so Paul. And I want you to know how sorry I am about this.”

“I guess I shouldn’t be shocked, but why am I sitting here with Mr. Plummer? These should be separate meetings.”

“They should be, and they usually are, but I have some good news involving you both, and I’d like you to keep it between us, if you don’t mind. I don’t want anyone else on the staff raising a stink because they’re not getting the same offer. I have an opportunity for you that will more than ease your exit from Clara Brown.

“I was recently reacquainted with an old friend, a man named Tim Schimmel. We met more than twenty years ago when I was finishing graduate school at Stanford. He was an interesting fellow, to put it mildlya very unusual mind, and with a passion for education unlike any I’ve ever seen. He was dead determined to change the very nature of education in the United States, but he said that he didn’t want to get stuck simply writing books about it. He used to say that another book about improving teaching was the last thing the world needed!” exclaimed Robinson with a snort. “When I pressed him about what he might do, he said he wasn’t sure, but that whatever he landed on, it was going to really shake things up. He said he wanted to change the very nature of what it meant to be a teacher. So he suggested the idea of creating an education theme park.”

“An education theme park?” asked Paul.

“Yeah, I really got a kick out of that! Like I said, he’s brilliant, but a bit of a nut,” Robinson chuckled, shaking his head. “But Ill be damned if he didnt pull it off. It’s called Lost Apple Education Park and it’s located out in the Arkansas Ozarks. Hes just opened it and he wants me to send him two teachers for a multi-week summer course, part of what hes calling an ‘Initial Visiting Party’. Youd basically be part of a test audience. All expenses are paid in addition to a generous financial incentive.”

“Financial incentive?” asked Frank.

“Yes, he’s eager to get this place off the ground, so if you complete his program, he’ll match what would have been your District salary for the coming year. I suspect this will more than tide you over, buy you a little more time than you could otherwise expect.”

“Darin, youve got to be fucking kidding me!” exclaimed Frank.

“Im not.”

“Okay, so why is it so important for this guy to get people into this place, aside from it being located in the outback?”

“Schimmel believes he can change society by re-orienting its values around education.”

“Hes that vain?” asked Frank.

“What exactly is this place?” asked Paul.

“A whole range of installations and facilities.” replied Robinson. “Theres an experimental school, a model farm, even a brewery.”

“And who would fund such a thing?” asked Paul.

“He’s funded it himself. Hes a billionaire,” replied Robinson. “He was a noted chemical engineer who cut his teeth in the high tech composites industry. He developed some cutting edge materials for military and commercial uses, but education has always been his real life’s work. Actually, I should backtrack. Hes made his real money in international shipping. Have you ever heard of Schimmel Lines?”

“Can’t say I have,” said Frank.

“Pacific trade out of Los Angeles, Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney . . . you name it.”

“So, what am I supposed to get out of this?” asked Paul.

Who cares?” said Frank. “For that kind of money, I’m willing to spend my summer in seminars that will teach me to be more responsive to the needs of children of color. I’m even willing to draw metaphors on butcher paper as I squarely confront the inborn inequities generated by my white privilege.”

“No, no! It’s not like one of our training sessions, Frank.” interjected Robinson. “Everything that happens at Lost Apple is better labeled as anti-training!”

“And what happens?” asked Paul.

“Well, that’s just it, and this is the challenging partI’m not supposed to tell you.”

“Says who?”

“Says Tim Schimmel. He wants me to recruit two teachers from Clara Brown and ship them out blind.”

“You’re a hell of salesman!” said Frank. “I guess that’s why you ended up in the public school system!”

“Listen, gentlemen, I knew this wouldn’t be easy, but there’s more. Not only are you to go without any knowledge about the program, but you’ll need to sign a liability waiver.”

“What is this place, some kind of re-education camp for teachers?” laughed Frank.

“Yes, I think that’s a good way of putting it. In fact, I believe he used that term himself in one of our conversations.”

All three were quiet for a moment and then Paul asked, “Why us?”

“Schimmel asked me to send him two teachers about whom I have my doubts. He wants a small group of four teachers. He’s been calling around to old friends working in the schools. He even called my sister Patricia in St. Louis.”

“Patricia knows this guy?” asked Frank, raising eyebrows.

“She was at Stanford, too. Sorry if I’m touching on a sore spot.”.

“It’s fine. Arianna and I quit talking long before your sister hired her.”

“We know why Frank is leaving,” cut in Paul, “but what doubts do you have about me, if I might ask? I thought this was about budget cuts and falling enrollment.”

“Glad to see you and I are getting off on the right foot!” said Frank.

“Essentially, it is,” replied Robinson.

“Don’t get me wrong Paul, you’re a wonderful staff member, but as a teacher . . . I just dont feel that you’re growing.”

Not growing?”

Paul, you have nothing but potential, and years ahead of you in which to keep developing your professionalism. You’re enthusiastic, caring, and a cherished part of the Clara Brown community.”

Then whats the problem?”

“Let me finish, son. I know how it feels to be young and confident, but you lack a certain . . . direction of heart, for lack of better words. When I look at you, I see a teacher who doesn’t really know why he’s here, and I wonder what you can bring to young people without a clear direction for yourself? To be honest, I really don’t know what motivates you to teach.”

“Thats a pretty fuzzy reason to drop a teacher,” said Paul, dropping back in his chair with a huff.

“Ah, but the good news is that Lost Apple is all about discovering ones purpose! I think you could really benefit in that regard, Paul. Of course, if youre not interested, I believe the new KLIP school is hiring. Despite the bombings, theyre going ahead with two new Denver outlets. Of course, they dont offer the pay or benefits, but . . . ”

“Okay, okay, I get it!” said Paul.

“You need some time to think,” he said, leaning across the desk and touching Pauls hand. Paul withdrew it. “Um,” continued Robinson, “have you ever felt like everything was going in the right direction, yet you still felt like something was off-track?”

“What line of crap are you feeding the kid?” asked Frank.

Without taking his eyes off of Paul, Robinson continued, “I’ve got passionate teachers in this building, Paul, including you, but I sense that you might become something much more if you can navigate out of your doldrums. Nows the time to put the oars in the water and quit worrying about the limpness of the canvas.”

“My doldrums?” asked Paul.

Limpness of the canvas!” hooted Frank. “I’m going to miss you Darin!”

“That’s right, gentlemen.” Frank and Paul looked at each other quizzically, then back at Robinson. “Now, you don’t have to give me an answer about Lost Apple today, but I do need to know by early next week.” Rising from his chair, he extended a hand to each. “Think it over. And I want you to know that I’ve appreciated working with both of you, even you, Frank.”

“You’re too kind,” replied Frank.

Shaking Paul’s hand first, he said pointedly, “I really hope you’ll consider this remarkable offer. It might be just what you’re looking for.”

“Until now sir, I wasnt looking for anything!” replied Paul.

* * * *

A few blocks from Clara Brown was a Starbuck’s where Frank often stopped in the afternoons. Noticing his car in passing, Paul made a hard right into the lot, pulling up next to it. Stepping out, he noticed a bumper sticker with a picture of Earth from space and the slogan Love Your Mother. “Must have been a previous owner,” he muttered. Inside, Frank was sitting at the window counter with a plain black coffee.

“So, what did you think about all that?”

“Like he said, it’s an opportunity.” replied Frank, staring out the window.

“I don’t understand how you’re so calm. I thought you were just putting on a face in there, but you seem like youre okay about it.”

“What do I have to lose?” asked Frank. “It’s been time for me to go for a long time.”

“Well, Im taking it a bit differently.”

“Sure you are. He burst your bubble.” Taking a sip, he added, “Fence-riders like you always take it hard when your constant stream of validation gets disrupted.”

“I barely know you, but your reputation certainly precedes you.”

“If I remember right, you werent too kind to me in there,” said Frank, “but if you thought Robinson was a straight shooter, I’m much worse.”

“Pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?

“I don’t concern myself with what anyone thinks.”

“And why is that?”

“If you don’t mind my changing the subject,” said Frank, “why did you come in here? You saw my car outside and decided you could pop in and commiserate? A little collegial bonding after a rough patch with the boss?”

“I don’t get you,” replied Paul. “Why are you so angry? And what’s this ‘fence-rider’ business?”

“Simply that you’re an organization man, a go-with-the-program guy, that’s all. You let other people set the motions you go through. Of course, that just makes you a typical school teacher. If it makes you feel any better, I include myself in the description.”

Taking a sip of his caramel macchiato, Paul deposited a dollop of cream on his mustache. “That’s a bold assessment for someone you hardly know!” he said. “But don’t worry, I’m not offended.”

“That’s good kid.”

“I’ll have you know I take my job very seriously!”

“Sure you do, just like clerks, garbage men, and proctologists do, but I wasnt criticizing your dedication, just your practice. By the way, you’ve got some cream . . . ,” he said, pointing. Paul quickly wiped his mustache. “Anyway,” continued Frank, “sorry if I’m putting you off, I just don’t have a lot of patience with certain points of view.”

“Oh? And what points of view would those be?”

“You know, Mr. Kennel—it’s Kennel, right?”

“Kinnell,” Paul corrected.

“You know, we don’t have to have this conversation, we could just talk bullshit.”

“You may have started down this track, but don’t think I can’t handle it.”

“Oh, I’m sure you can!” Frank laughed, “I just don’t see the point.”

“I think there’s definitely a point. I’d like to know something about Robinson.”

“Alright.”

“What does he want? I mean really, nothing was ever less clear to me.”

“First of all, why are you griping? I’m the one he’s been hoping to can for years. You’re the one who’s ‘remarkable’, or something like that. Even when he was criticizing you he was praising you. You’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re exactly what he wants. This Schimmel fellow requested two teachers and Robinson figured you were smart enough to handle it. The whole situation is a compliment to you. Guys like you are indispensable. Who else can tell the kids which page to turn to next?”

“I’m not a page-flipper!”

“Look,” said Frank, “guys like you really bust my balls. You love kids—kids, kids, kids, kids! Youre all knocking yourselves out to see who cares the most. But you’re just a sorter, putting each one of the little brats in his and her place for their life-roles in The Machine. You do it. I do it. We all do it. It’s a systemic problem.”

“That’s a tired old argument.”

“It’s the truth that I’m willing to accept, but that you deny.”

“What do you know about what I do or do not deny?”

“It shows.”

“And how’s that?”

“Consider this, I suppose you think that caring for young people is the highest thing a teacher can do. But love isn’t enough. They need to know how to think for themselves if theyre going to be anything more than the rabble they are. History shows who ends up under whose boot heels.”

“And I should be like you, the top referral writer in the school? If you were really making such a difference in their lives, their respect for you would show it. You don’t get much respect from your kids, do you?”

“The difference between you and me is that I dont give a shit. And you? You’re helping them to be successful at mediocrity, and that, of course, is the plan. Hopefully you’re picking enough bright apples out of the basket to become the bosses of the bruised and worm-ridden ones.”

“You’re a sad case.”

“Let me ask you an honest question. Did you ever give a smart kid a special project tailored just for him, something that you’d enjoy doing if you were in his place? Did you ever not give the same or a similar project to a dumb kid who tries hard, or even another smart kid who’s a pain in the ass?”

“You’re a burn-out. That’s the long and the short of it.”

“Guilty as charged, but can you answer my questions?”

“Why should I? There’s nothing I need to justify about my teaching . . . You are right about one thing though, I did come in here to ‘make a connection’. Despite my setbacks, I keep trying.”

“Honestly,” began Frank, “I don’t know if I can handle your pluck and verve. Get a load of yourself! It’s teachers like me that they want to ship out to the Ozarks, or shove off a cliff, whichever comes first. For you, it will be a paid vacation, and afterwards you’ll be right back in the game, like a cat landing on its feet.”

“Maybe,” said Paul, suddenly reflective, “but this ‘opportunity’ was the last thing on my radar. I’m not unhappy at Clara Brown. I don’t have any motivation for going.”

“How about the money?”

“I’m not cynical like you. Despite what you might think, I have a career, not a job.”

“You’re really killing me!” chuckled Frank.

* * * *

“Park it, Javier!” commanded Frank the next morning. The fat kid was shambling back

from the pencil sharpener in his sagging trousers.

“Whatever,” he mumbled, without looking back.

“I didn’t quite hear that. Did you have something to say?” Regaining his desk, the boy refused to look at him, instead staring at his splitting binder spewing crumpled papers across his desk. “How many times do we have to go through this, everyone?” Frank addressed the class with arms akimbo. “I’m talking. You’re sitting.” Snickers erupted throughout the room. “We ask if we need to get up for something.” Something flew across the room smacking loudly against the chalkboard behind Frank’s head. “Alright, fine. If that’s the way you want it,” said Frank. Moving across the room, he plopped down in his chair throwing his feet up on the desk. “Work’s on the board, you can figure it out on your own. Due date’s there too, just like always.” Snatching up some papers, he pretended to engross himself in reading. The kids stared ahead for several moments, then a few got to work, but a minute or so later most began turning to one another and chatting in hushed voices. Frank continued reading.

“Dude,” said Todd McAllen, in the first row near Frank’s desk, “why’re you always trippin’?”

“It’s Mr. Plummer, not ‘dude’,” said Frank, without looking up.

“Still . . . ”

“Still, what? Isn’t there something you could be doing right now?”

“I don’t get you, Mr. Plummer. Sometimes you’re cool, but most of the time you’re . . . ”

“A pain in the ass?”

“Oooh!” murmured several kids nearby, then Cindy called out for all to hear, “Mr. Plummer just said the ‘A’ word!” Laughter rose along with the volume of chatting as everyone relaxed. Frank went on reading.

Natalia, sitting next to Todd, spoke up. “Aren’t you going to teach us?”

“Nope,” said Frank, glancing up at her. Her big doe eyes were grossly exaggerated by an excess of eyeliner and for the first time he noticed that her hair was cut short and styled similarly to Arianna’s. Adolescence, he mused. Such an enigmatic stage of life, neither adult nor child, yet qualities of both. A balanced . . . disequilibrium. That was it! Balanced disequilibrium! Reaching for a pen, he quickly scrawled the words at the top of the paper he was reading, folding it carefully, and stuffing it in his shirt pocket. Looking back up at Natalia, he asked, “Still here?”

“Isn’t not teaching us like . . . illegal, or something?” she asked.

“If you don’t want to learn, why should I teach?” he asked.

“I do want to learn.”

“They don’t,” he said, nodding toward the class.

“That’s them!”

“Like I said, your work’s on the board. You’re welcome to do it. Im not stopping you.”

“Why can’t you be cool like . . . ” she began.

“Cool like who?”

“Like Mr. Kinnell. He helps us, and he’s nice too!” Turning, she stormed back to her desk. Throwing his arms behind his head, Frank stared up at the ceiling, wondering just how hot it got in the Ozarks during summer.

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