Schooled

I was worried. “Did something happen to Mr. Donnelly?”

  “Nothing that hasn’t happened before,” she sighed. “He took off without so much as a good-bye.”

  “But what about the driving test?” I protested. A license might have been just a piece of paper, but to Sophie it meant everything.

  She shrugged. “We’ll just have to reschedule for when I can take her. My ex-husband is not a terrible person, but he doesn’t see things through. He rolls into town, gets everybody’s hopes up, and then he’s gone until the next time, when he does it all over again. I learned my lesson and got off the roller coaster. My daughter hasn’t figured it out yet.”

  I felt terrible for Sophie. She was really crushed. Mr. Donnelly left town so suddenly that she hadn’t even gotten her bracelet back from the engraver. Who knew if she’d ever see it again? But, of course, it was a lot more than losing a silver bangle that upset her.

  Life certainly gets complicated when you know more than one person. I could only imagine what it would be like when I knew eleven hundred.

  On Trigonometry and Tears, there was a character named Rishon, who really bothered me. He didn’t cheat on his girlfriend like Nick, or spread computer viruses just for fun like Aurora. But his irresponsible behavior was almost impossible to bear.

  Sophie definitely didn’t agree. “What do you care? It’s a TV show.” Her mood had been in free fall since Mr. Donnelly’s departure.

  “But if he doesn’t retake the SAT to bring up his score, the University of Florida is going to withdraw his acceptance!” I exclaimed.

  She looked at me pityingly. “So?”

  “He hasn’t even started studying! And he overslept and missed the practice test!”

  “That’s what they do on T & T,” she explained. “They take perfectly normal people and turn their lives into pond scum. That’s why it’s fun to watch. If everything was perfect, there’d be no story.”

  “But what’s Rishon going to do next year?” I persisted.

  “Probably find a part on a different show. He’s an actor.”

  Because Sophie had been watching TV her whole life, and not just a few weeks like me, it was easier for her to watch Rishon throw his whole future away. For me it was agony.

  Rain always said that when we judge others, we’re really judging ourselves. That was the real reason Rishon upset me. How could he think his SAT scores were going to go up by themselves? How could he ignore the fact that he was about to lose his spot in college?

  It was all too familiar. As eighth grade president, I was in charge of the Halloween dance, and I was giving it the Rishon treatment. I was ignoring the whole thing, almost as if I thought it might go away.

  Then, on T & T, it all worked out for Rishon. One of Aurora’s viruses found its way into the admissions department computer at the University of Florida, wiping out half their records. All that were left indicated that Rishon was accepted. He ignored his problem—and the problem just sort of melted away.

  With a growing sense of wonder, I realized that the same thing was happening with the dance. I was still doing nothing, yet somehow, the arrangements were being made. Students would come up to me in the halls; they would sing along when I played guitar in the music room; they would join in my morning tai chi routine—and then they would volunteer to help. So many people were working on the party that I was beginning to think we were actually going to have one.

  No wonder T & T was such a popular show. It was practically an instruction manual for life.

  Garland Farm followed simple logic: you plant tomato seeds, you get tomato plants. No seeds, no tomatoes. Cause and effect. But a real school was so messy and random that solutions sometimes fell into place by sheer luck. It was almost like getting tomatoes without first planting seeds.

  I thought I’d never get used to the outside world, with its chaos and clutter. But with millions of puzzle pieces being tossed up into the air, it really did stand to reason that the occasional one would come down in the right place. That was why Rishon would go to college, and C Average would have its Halloween dance.

  Even Rain would have to admit that there was something kind of impressive about that.

  “Anderson—come over here! I need a word with you.” The words jolted me out of deep meditation. I looked up to see Mr. Kasigi glaring down at me.

  “Why haven’t you come to meet with me yet?”

  I was floored. “I did—the day I registered.”

  “Don’t play dumb with me, mister! I’m hearing talk of deejays and pizza ovens on wheels! How were you going to pay for all that?”

  “I don’t have any money.”

  He was getting red in the face. “Nobody expects you to pay for it! The school has money set aside for the dance. But if you don’t present your budget, I can’t release one penny!”

  “I don’t have a budget,” I explained honestly. “I just have people who help me do things.”

  “Like what? Fix your cuckoo clock?” He launched into a long speech about how he had volunteered to be on the program committee for some principals’ conference, so he didn’t have time to nursemaid me through Finance 101, whatever that was.

  “But it’s all taken care of,” I tried to tell him. “The food, the music, the decorations—it all just worked out.” I stopped myself before telling him about Rishon. I had a feeling Mr. Kasigi was not a T & T fan.

  “And who’s writing the checks?” he demanded.

  “Checks?”

  Rain had a checkbook, but I never saw her touch it. “Sometimes we use money to get along,” she used to tell me, “but that doesn’t mean we have to become its slave.” To Rain, financial matters were a distasteful but necessary private function, like going to the bathroom.

  Mr. Kasigi said I would have to write checks. Not only that, but he would have to cosign them or they wouldn’t count.

  After school, he drove me to the bank. I’d never been in one before. But the instant I stepped inside, I knew this was a place that represented everything Rain and I were rejecting by living at Garland. Money was all that was important here. People were depositing it, withdrawing it, borrowing it, and paying it back. They were counting it in broad daylight. I honestly felt like running away.

  But how could I? For one thing, there was a man in uniform guarding the door. I practically jumped out of my skin when I realized that he had a great big gun strapped to his hip.

  Mr. Kasigi noticed my reaction. “Calm down, Anderson. He’s a security man, not a bank robber.”

  Every time I thought I was fitting into my temporary life, something would remind me just how much of an outsider I still was. I wanted less than nothing of what this place had to offer. But to people outside Garland, money was so desirable that the bank had to hire armed guards to keep criminals from stealing it. When I finally got back home, I was going to drop to my knees and kiss the ground.

  Mr. Kasigi and I met with an assistant manager. And when it was all over, I was holding a book of checks marked Claverage Middle School: Student Activity Fund. “You’ll need these to pay for music and food,” he explained, signing the first twelve checks on the spot. “And I’m sure there will be other expenses that come up. They always do.”

  I tried to tell him that I didn’t know the deejay or the pizza company—that other students had made the arrangements. But he interrupted me with this long lecture about how this money belonged to everybody, not just me, and how I had to be responsible. And I would have been—if I had the slightest idea what he was talking about.

  All I wanted was for him to leave so I could get out of this awful place. I wouldn’t even let him drive me to the Donnellys’. I needed to walk there in the fresh air, just to get the smell of banking out of my nostrils.

  A few blocks down the street, a sight met my eyes that stopped me in my tracks. There, in the display window of a small jewelry shop, gleamed a silver bangle with multicolor stones. It was exactly the same as Sophie’s birthday gift from her father—the one
he’d taken for engraving and never brought back.

  I stepped into the store for a closer look. It was beautiful, but also kind of sad, because it reminded me of how upset Sophie had been lately.

  The idea came immediately. If I bought this bracelet, had it engraved, and sent it to Sophie, she’d never know that it hadn’t come from her father. And it would make her happy.

  I didn’t have any money. But I had something even better—checks, which automatically counted as exactly as much money as you wrote in that little box. It probably wasn’t what Mr. Kasigi had in mind. But I remembered his exact words: Be responsible.

  Rain always said that nothing was more responsible than doing what was in your power to make another human being happy.

  “I’ll take it,” I told the woman behind the counter.

  “It’s a hundred and seventy-five dollars.” She was wary.

  “Do you accept checks?”

  17

  NAME: MRS. DONNELLY

  I left four messages for Frank Kasigi before he finally called me back.

  He was apologetic. “Sorry, Flora. You know I’m chairing the principals’ conference this year, and it’s just details, details, details.”

  “Sorry to bother you when you’re so busy. I thought I’d better check up on Cap Anderson. Has he been fitting in any better?”

  “Fitting into what?” he asked. “The Age of Aquarius?”

  I felt my heart sink. “That bad, huh?”

  “Actually, not really. I had the boy pegged as a train wreck. But considering how odd he is, and how sheltered his life has been, things could be a lot worse.”

  “He has friends?” I asked hopefully.

  “Not friends, exactly. More like followers.”

  “Followers?”

  “Ever since that stunt with the school bus, the kids just flock to him. He put together a tie-dyeing clinic with the art teacher. You wouldn’t believe the turnout! It was”—he chuckled—“what did they call big events back in the sixties?”

  “A happening,” I supplied automatically.

  “Right. And that’s the least of it. He picks up a guitar in the music room and strums a few old Beatles tunes, and pretty soon he’s got twenty people in there singing along. He’s running some kind of martial arts class on the front lawn. He’s got more kids working on the Halloween dance than will probably come that night. He’s even got a few meditators. If I didn’t know the kid’s history, I’d probably have the police making sure he wasn’t setting up a cult.”

  It triggered an explosion of images from my own childhood at Garland. Cult was exactly the word for it, with Rain as its philosopher/guru.

  Still, the news made me breathe easier. “That’s a load off my mind. When I found out they made him eighth grade president—well, Sophie filled me in on what that might mean.”

  “I’ve heard those rumors too,” he admitted. “It certainly hasn’t gone smoothly for the last few in that office. But we don’t want to be the only middle school in America with no student government. So we threw the dice, and this time we lucked out.”

  “Thank heaven.” But maybe I should have realized that Cap was holding his own in his new life. He was still a fish out of water, but he didn’t seem to be quite so thrown by every little thing as he had been when I’d first brought him home.

  One major clue was the fact that he was taking a genuine interest in that school. As a social worker, I kept current yearbooks from all the buildings in my district. Not only was Cap borrowing the Claverage books, but he was spending hours studying them. Imagine, a boy who had never had even a single classmate now wanting to know about more than a thousand of them. I found it heartwarming.

  Things were even thawing slightly between Cap and my daughter. Mind you, that had more to do with a change in Sophie than a change in Cap. She was in a better state of mind because her father had finally remembered to send back her extremely belated birthday present, duly engraved.

  Truth be told, I’d never expected to see it again, and I don’t think Sophie had either. So imagine my surprise when she opened a padded mailer with no return address and pulled out that silver bangle. There was no card, not even a scribbled note. The only thing that spoke for this gift was the engraving on the inside of it:

  ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE

  To be honest, the inscription threw me a little. It certainly didn’t sound like the Bill Donnelly I used to be married to. His idea of sentimentality was the presentation of the Lombardi trophy at the end of the Super Bowl. But I guess he could still surprise me. He certainly got this one right. Sophie was thrilled.

  It almost made up for the fact that he had walked out of her life yet again.

  Even with the new, kinder, gentler Sophie, Cap was still a whole lot nicer to her than she was to him. He probably had a crush on her. An attractive high school girl had to look good to an eighth grader, especially one who had barely laid eyes on a female who wasn’t his grandmother.

  I couldn’t prove that, of course. But one day, I came home from work, and the two of them were on the couch in front of Trigonometry and Tears, that awful teen soap opera geared to the interest level of chimpanzees and various species of plant life. A steamy make-out scene was taking place on the screen. Sophie was watching it intently. And, more to the point, Cap was watching Sophie. He was a difficult one to read, but I believed he was trying to work up the guts to lean over and put his arm around her.

  So I slammed my briefcase down on the kitchen counter and said the first thing I could think of: “Who’s up for a nice tall glass of lemonade?”

  “Mother!” Sophie exclaimed in exasperation. “What century is this?”

  I told myself I was protecting my daughter. But the truth is, I was protecting Cap from what Sophie would have done to him if he’d made a move on her.

  The pain of my own adjustment from Garland was decades in the past. But it felt like yesterday when I watched this poor boy. I took Frank Kasigi at his word when he said Cap was doing well. But I knew I wouldn’t sleep at night until he was once again with Rain, hobbling back toward the sixties as fast as her pinned hip would carry both of them.

  18

  NAME: HUGH WINKLEMAN

  I was the first dropout from Cap’s morning tai chi group. Literally.

  Not that I’d ever been the star of the class. Two left feet weren’t exactly an asset in martial arts. But I was Cap’s friend—as much as it was possible to get close to someone like him. I wore my tie-dyes proudly, secure in the knowledge that I had more right than anybody. After all, who hung out with Cap before he ever drove a bus, or masterminded a dance?

  So there I was, waving my arms and hopping around like a turkey amped up on Mountain Dew, when the planted foot was kicked out from under me. It was so sudden, so devastating, that to this day, I have no idea who did it to me. Darryl Pennyfield is my prime suspect, because he was close by, but I didn’t catch him in the act. One minute I was upright—the next, I was on the grass, rolling. To the other kids in the group, it must have looked like I’d just vanished into thin air.

  Were my deepest, darkest fears coming true? This was a great school year because Cap was taking the heat off me. But he wasn’t a target anymore. Target, heck, he was practically a celebrity! It was the bus-driving thing that started it. When your whole world is a cheesy, prepackaged rehearsal for being alive, like middle school, a kid your own age who can pilot a twenty-ton bus is impressive. Plus the fact that he saved somebody’s life, obviously. Now people were treating the eighth grade president like—well, like an eighth grade president. Someone who was admired and popular, a student leader who took an active role in the school.

  And that was great—for Cap. But what did it mean for me? Was I back in the crosshairs because he was out of them? Only time would tell.

  Of all the newly minted Cap fans, the biggest surprise had to be Naomi Erlanger. She was with that whole Zach Powers crew, and not as a hanger-on either. She was part of the inner circle, Lena’s b
est friend. That was royalty around here.

  Needless to say, I didn’t know her well. Steering clear of that crowd was a good way to avoid being dangled by my ankles over a toilet bowl. But I’d heard that she had a big crush on Zach. And let’s face it, if the rumor had made it down to my lowly rung on the ladder, you had to figure it was all over the school.

  So what was her sudden fascination with Cap? She was star pupil of his tai chi group; she was constantly turning up at his locker to show him a new peace-sign bracelet she’d bought, or a magazine article on Vietnam or the Beatles or anything about the sixties. Come to think of it, hers had been the first face at the door after the PA announcement on tie-dyeing day. The eighth grade wing was on the opposite end of the building from the art room. She must have sprinted the entire distance.

  Of course, she was still one of the beautiful people. So when I spotted her, flanked by Lena and Darryl, coming our way in the hall, I was on my guard.

  “Hi, Cap,” Naomi greeted us. Another thing about Naomi: I was invisible to her. Either that or I was like Cap’s pet ferret—a subhuman companion, undeserving of attention. “We’re walking in the March of Caring this weekend, and we need sponsors.”

  Darryl looked me up and down, a threatening expression on his face. “It’s for a really good cause.”

  I pulled a pair of crumpled dollar bills from my pocket. It made no difference to me if the money was going to support throwing puppies off thirty-story office towers. This wasn’t a charitable donation. I was purchasing wedgie insurance, and Darryl was Allstate.

  “Sorry it can’t be more.”

  With a grunt of acknowledgment, Darryl snatched the money out of my hand and passed it on to Lena.

  Naomi’s worshipful eyes never left the eighth grade president. “What do you say, Cap?”

  He took out the checkbook and began writing on it.

  I frowned. “Isn’t that the school’s money?”

  “Mr. Kasigi said spend it responsibly. What could be more responsible than giving to charity?”

  “Paying for the dance,” I replied. “That’s what it’s supposed to be for.”

 
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