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Chapter 7: School at Fire Oak


       It's Monday morning and we're standing by the front door, ready to go over to the school. Tony leans out around the guy in front of him to look at himself in a windowpane. A frizzle of hair sticks out on one side and he pushes it back in.

       "Sure could use some goop," he says. "You could use some, too." He bats at my head at the hairs that always stick up in back.

       Ferguson pulls the door open when the bell rings. I look across the stretch of grass to the brick school building. It could pass for a school anywhere. A staff guy opens the door over there and waves. Ferguson says, "On your way. On the double."

       We stroll along the sidewalk, fast enough to keep Ferguson from yelling at us, and slow enough to stay out in the fresh air for a while. Pat shoves in line in front of me. I ask him, "What's with this school?"

ThinkLink: Do you sometimes just stare at your homework? How do you get it done anyway?

       "You sorta teach yourself. Do lessons from workbooks to finish up contracts they make you sign. Everybody comes in doing different stuff, or they haven't been in school, so they can't put us together. Me, I sit and look at one page and wait for the next bell."

ThinkLink: Is there anything in the description of the school that reminds you of your school? What is different about this school compared to yours?

       A man calls me out of line when I get to the door of the school. "I'm James Logan, vice-principal ." He leans over like he's telling me something special. "Welcome to Harvey Jenson High School ." He smiles big, but I don't get the joke. "We use a different name for the school so Fire Oak won't appear on the transcript we send to the school you go to after you leave here." I figure that's not gonna fool anybody in Wheatland . Folks there know your history from the time you're born.

       He takes me back through the main office into his little cubbyhole office. His desk's piled high, but sure enough, on top he's got a file folder with my name on it. My eyes roam around the room. Logan talks to himself and scribbles on a form from the folder. "Advanced math will have to be it for Algebra II." He looks up at me. "The teacher probably has a second-year Algebra book somewhere in his room. He'll set up a contract for you to work on. Have the other boys told you about our system here?" I nod, but Logan explains it anyway.

       After a while I tune back in and he's still explaining. He pats all the papers together and then hands me the top sheet. "English, Social Studies, Math and Tutoring . Because you read above grade level, I've assigned you as the teacher's assistant in the Reading Lab first period."

       The bell rings for fourth period and Logan's at the door waiting for me to come out. He wags his hand for me to walk in front of him out into the main hall. There's a teacher standing by every classroom, and a guard standing down by the outside door. Kids walk up and down the hall to their next class, not in lines, exactly, but straight ahead, no fooling around.

       Not much like Wheatland High . There's only a 104 kids in the whole high school, 103 since I'm not there. When the kids are out in the hall between classes, they laugh and push and turn around to talk. They stop at their lockers, grab some new books, and clang the doors shut. Why didn't I know I liked it so much while I was there?

ThinkLink: Have you ever been in a situation where you didnít want people to notice you or pay attention to you?


"Reading lab," Logan says, and he points me through a door. "Mrs. Warren, this is John Hanson, your new tutor. Can you use him?"

       "Certainly can. I'm testing all this week. John, sit over there by Pat Douglas. He'll show you how we do things."

       Four tables fill the middle of the room, four chairs at each table. Only six kids in the room, though. I pull out a chair and plunk down next to Pat. "Show me how you do this Tutoring ."

       He slumps over and looks out the window. His boy-next-door face gets all red, like he's been running. He pushes a book down the table at me. "I'm not the tutor. You are. I'm the one who can't read. I mean I can read some. I just..." He glares at me, like it's my doing. "Lots of guys come in here."

       "Sure. I get it."

       "No you don't." He squirms around and scrapes his chair against the table leg. Mrs. Warren gives us her teacher's stare, so Pat leans over and mutters low, "We was always moving around. I'd think it was fun to go to a new school. Shit. She'd stick me in with the crows or lame ducks. Everybody else got to be bluebirds or robins."

       "So what'd you do?"

       "Fooled around." He perks up. "I figured I was too sly to get caught." Then he grins big. "In fourth grade I skipped school twenty-three days first semester."

       Mrs. Warren stands up behind her desk in back of the room and calls to a guy at the next table. "Denny, bring your book and come back to my desk. And, Gary, now that you've finished your test sit up at Pat's table and read for John. He's the new tutor."

       I slump down when she points me out. I look around to see if anybody's sizing me up. Nobody but Pat is in Taylor so they must be from other cottages. I hunker down. At Wheatland High , the social studies teacher told us an old Chinese saying: The nail that sticks out gets pounded down.

       I watch Gary as he pokes along by the counter that runs under the windows. He stops to ruffle up the pages of a big dictionary.

       "Gary, get to work now," Mrs. Warren tells him.

       "OK hold your horses. I'm just looking up a word."

       "Gary!" Her voice turns screechy.

       "I'm going, I'm going," he says. He struts over to the table and sits down next to Pat. I watch as they whisper to each other, but I can't catch what they're saying. They pass stuff back and forth underneath the table.

       Then Gary calls back to the teacher. "Mrs. Warren, I gotta go to the toilet."

       "All right, but don't stay in there more than two minutes."

       "No one can do number two in two minutes," he booms out, howling out loud at his own joke."


       "Yeah, Mrs. Warren."

       There's a little bathroom right behind our table and Gary slams the door behind him as he goes in.

       Mrs. Warren looks ready to snarl but Pat gives her his sweet look and she turns back to her desk. When she looks away, he nudges me and points to the grate at the bottom of the bathroom door. The smell of tobacco smoke makes its way out to our table first and then down to the end of the room. Everybody looks down like they're reading the best book they ever saw. Mrs. Warren jumps up from her desk and marches toward the bathroom. She bangs on the door. "Gary, get out of there at once!"

       "Yeah, yeah, I'm coming." he says, but his voice is partly covered over by the toilet flushing. He opens the door and steps out in a haze of smoke. He looks real happy with himself, even when she tells him to sit in a chair next to the door while she calls for a staff worker to come and take him to the office.

       "You give him a cigarette ?" I ask Pat, who's flopped over on the table, laughing so hard he's about ready to cry.

       When he can talk he says, "He tore a page outta that dictionary back there, and he made a rollie from some tobacco I traded him. Got it from my brother when him and my Mom came to visit yesterday." Pat looks smug. "Buys me all sorts of stuff. Guys owe me work, junk from the commissary ; you name it, I get it."

       Right after Gary's been led off to the office, still grinning, the bell rings for lunch. Pat walks with me over to Taylor Cottage, while Davis herds us two-by-two on the walkway from the school as Ferguson watches from the front door.

       "I wonder what kind of grub we get for lunch," Pat says. "I must put on ten pounds every time I get sent here."


After lunch, I'm back in the school office again, waiting for the job coordinator. When he comes, I see he's younger than the other staff guys, maybe twenty-five, but kind of tired looking, too. This place must be as hard on the keepers as it is on the animals. He looks through my job folder. "I think you'll like this. The librarian needs an aide. You'll work in the afternoons, every school day from one o'clock until four. You'll report in after lunch every day to Mrs. Morgan."

       When he opens the door to the library, I have to squint . Sun is coming in windows on two sides of a big room. For a minute it feels like I'm back in the library at Wheatland . The job guy leaves me standing in front of the checkout desk. Mrs. Morgan smiles at me. A real one, not a phony ĎI-got-to-smile-at-you-bad-boys-because-my-boss-told-me-to-smile.

       "Glad to have you, John. Have you every done any library work before?"

       I shake my head. Mrs. Morgan's some older than Mom, maybe. She seems like she's a real person, somebody you'd see in a regular library, not a Fire Oak guard kind. I look around and see shelves of books under the windows and clear up the inside wall. Seven or eight big round tables fill up the middle.

       "I'm new here, myself," she says. "Filling in for a while for the regular librarian who's on leave. I do know that I'm to keep a record of the work you do and turn in a weekly report."

ThinkLink: Have you ever wanted to impress an adult you have just met? Who and why?

       Wait'll McGill sees her report. I'll get tags like they've never seen before.

       "I'll work hard." I tell her. "You'll see."

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 Updated on 9/30/03

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