Sophomores and Other Oxymorons
An honest and funny follow-up to the popular Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie
Scott Hudson has somehow managed to survive Freshman year. But with a new baby brother in the house and a whole host of adventures awaiting him at school, Sophomore year promises to be anything but boring.
Award-winning author David Lubar pens a tale that perfectly captures the ridiculous, tumultuous, and sometimes heartbreaking truths about high school.
Excerpt from Sophomores and Other Oxymorons
This year is going to totally rock,” I told Lee. We were sitting on the top step of her front porch, badly bloated and overfed from the heaping platters of an outrageous Labor Day cookout hosted by her parents, attended by mine, and peppered with a rotating assortment of both families’ coworkers, friends, and neighbors. My folks loved Lee. Her folks appeared to tolerate me, though I had a feeling it would be a good idea not to turn my back on her father if we ever went hiking near the edge of a cliff. Dads are excessively protective of their daughters. I think my parents were pretty smart to have nothing but boys, even if they were less than smart about the spacing.
“I admire your enthusiasm,” Lee said. “It’s cute.”
“You’re thinking of the wrong Hudson.” I pointed to the curb, where my parents were loading my somewhat amusing but essentially useless and frequently damp baby sibling into the backseat of the car. “Sean is cute.”
“Agreed,” Lee said. “But there’s no quota on cute. And there’s a strong biological argument for shared traits among siblings. Sean’s cute. Bobby’s cute. You’re cute. It’s a Hudson thing. Suck it up and deal with it. What’s wrong with being adorable?”
“That’s for puppies and toddlers,” I said. “We’re sophomores now.”
“Don’t stay out too late, Scott,” Mom called after she’d clicked the seventeen buckles and tightened the half-dozen harnesses that locked Sean’s Kevlar-reinforced car seat securely in place. “You have school tomorrow. It’s a big day. You want to be ready for it.”
“I know, Mom. Thanks. Bye.” I waved and watched my parents drive off. I wasn’t concerned about tomorrow. I’d spent my freshman year mastering the art of functioning without sleep. I’d survived a series of stupid decisions, and scattered brushes with death and destruction. What a difference a year makes. Last year, I’d been clueless. This year, I had a clue.
The door opened behind us. “Big day, tomorrow,” Lee’s dad said.
Lee and I exchanged amused glances, but she didn’t protest. “See you in school,” she said, giving my hand a pat. She closed the book she’d been reading, but kept her place with her finger. Of Mice and Men. That was our summer-reading book. She was near the end. I’d already read it, on my own, years before it had been assigned. Twice, actually.
“What are you wearing tomorrow?” I asked as I got up from the steps.
“What’s the matter? Afraid we’ll show up in the same outfit?”
“I think that would be the first sign of the apocalypse,” I said. Lee had a fondness for dark, disturbing horror-related T-shirts, which she alternated with dark, disturbing obscure-band-related T-shirts. For the picnic, she’d made her parents happy by wearing a solid brown shirt, adorned with nothing except one tiny Jack Skellington pin. Her hair, which had started the summer a bright orange, was now a muted shade of deep purple.
“The apocalypse has been here for a while,” Lee said. “Have you been to a bookstore or a movie theater recently?”
“Quite a few. Good point.”
“Thanks. And I actually haven’t given school clothing any thought yet,” she said.
I took one last look at summer-vacation Lee, then headed for home. When I’d met her last October, she had so many piercings, I was surprised her spine hadn’t snapped under the weight of all the metal. Most of this summer, she’d only worn a handful—I mean, a faceful. Wait. “Faceful” sounds like a lot. But “handful” sounds like a little. I guess I’ll settle for saying she had a handful of piercings on her face.
With Lee, I was never sure what sort of personal questions were okay, and what sort would earn me an I-can’t-believe-you-just-asked-me-that glare, or a bucketful of scalding sarcasm. But curiosity was killing me. I thought back to last week, when she’d come over to show me the camera her parents had given her for her birthday, and I’d finally asked her about it. “You’re wearing a lot fewer piercings.”
“Your powers of observation remain impressive.” She didn’t look at me. She was busy snapping her 235th (by my rough estimate) photo of Sean’s hands. But I didn’t detect any sign of annoyance in her tone. I decided to press on.
“Is it because . . .” I paused to find the right way to phrase my question.
Is it because we’re hanging out a lot?
No. That sounded presumptuous.
Is it because we’re sort of dating?
Nope. That was probably even more presumptuous, and slightly delusional. Besides, I couldn’t honestly call our relationship dating. I’d taken her to one dance. I guess that was a date. But dating implies an ongoing relationship. This summer, we’d mostly hung out in town when she wasn’t working. In my mind, we were more than just friends. Or, at least, close to being more than friends. Though, at the pace things were going, our next real date would coincide with our tenth high school reunion.
“Is it because of what?” she asked.
I grasped the next thought that floated through the vacuum chamber of my mind. “Because your current social clique sports far fewer piercings?” Zero, to be exact.
She pointed the camera at me and captured my digital soul. “Do you think that would be a good reason?”
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Neither do I.” She switched on her flash and fired several shots at my retinas. “I almost put everything back on right after the dance. I didn’t want people to think I’d been motivated to make some sort of drastic change in an effort to gain social acceptance. But I try not to let people’s assumptions guide my actions. So I left them off because I didn’t care whether people thought they knew why.”
As twisty as that might seem, I got it. Though all she’d told me was what didn’t influence her. I still didn’t know her motivation. I realized it didn’t matter. I liked Lee. I didn’t care how many piercings she had. Though, if I wanted to be totally honest, I liked her more without the excess. But even if she decided to wear an iron mask, I wouldn’t mind.
No. That’s a lie. An iron mask would bother me. I liked her face. I liked looking at it. And I liked the way looking at it made me feel.
While Lee could be indecipherable at times, my friend Wesley was just the opposite. He’d been the most feared kid in the school, last year. But he was totally open about his thoughts and goals. Like most guys, he followed a self-created code of honor. Wesley could knock out pretty much anybody with one punch, and he had no problem exercising that ability when a situation called for it. But he would never hit you from behind.
My thoughts about Lee and Wesley carried me for several blocks. It’s a little less than two miles from Lee’s place to mine. I enjoyed the silence of the suburban streets. Things were rarely quiet at home these days. Sean managed to blow a fair number of decibels out of his tiny lungs and miniature larynx. And when a baby appeared, as Sean had in May, it seemed like every person in the universe had to stop by at some point, spout gibberish along the lines of “kitchee kitchee coo,” and fabricate remarks about the adorable nature of such unremarkable, unadorable fabrics as crocheted blankets, quilted bibs, and knitted caps.
My parents were waiting for me in the living room when I got home, perched on the couch that faced the front door. The last time I’d seen them both sporting mingled expressions of joy and fear, they’d just found out Mom was pregnant.
“We have great news,” Mom said. She had Sean cradled in her arms. He was asleep. Car rides were his kryptonite. They knocked him right out. Resistance was futile. I wish we lived in a tour bus.
“You’re not . . . ?” I pictured our house slowly filling up with babies, while a convoy of dump trucks carted off the diapers that spilled out the doors and windows.
“No!” Dad said, after a brief pause to fill in the dots.
Mom’s head snapped toward him as if he’d just spewed a half-dozen swear words, instead of a single relief-filled negative. “I’m not pregnant, if that’s what you were thinking,” she said. “Not that it would be so terrible.” She beamed a fond gaze at Sean. I think babies get their vitamin D from gaze-beams.
“It would be great. Totally super. The more, the merrier.” Now that I knew it wasn’t happening, I could be generous with my enthusiasm, and my clichés. “What’s the news?”
“I’m opening my own garage,” Dad said. “You know that little place on Sibert Street, between the Taco Shack and the dry cleaner?”
“The two-bay service station?” I asked.
“Yeah. They have to rip out the old pumps. Instead of installing new ones, the owner decided to sell the place. It’s perfect for a repair shop. And the price is reasonable.”
“That’s awesome.” This really was good news. Dad ran the repair department at Linwood Mercedes in Allentown. He’d always wanted to open his own garage. He was an amazing mechanic. He could figure out most problems with cars just by listening to the engine. “I thought you needed to save up a lot more money before you could do that.”
“I got a partner,” Dad said. “We’ve been working on plans for a while. He’s handling the financing and the paperwork. I just got off the phone with him, and we definitely have a deal. I didn’t want to tell you until I knew it was really going to happen.”
“But we’re still going to have to economize a bit,” Mom said. “I’d planned to go back to work last year, but that got sidetracked.” She flashed another gaze-beam at our little sidetrack.
I didn’t see how any further economizing was possible. We were already funneling all the family’s extra money into diapers and baby food. From what I’d seen, a baby’s digestive tract is a sort of specialized ecosystem that serves merely to turn money into crap.
“What are you going to do?” I asked. “Rent out Bobby’s room?”
Mom and Dad looked at each other with calculating eyes, as if this was actually an excellent suggestion on my part.
“I hadn’t thought about that,” Dad said. “Rental rates are pretty high around here. We could probably charge a decent amount.”
“Stranger danger!” I shouted. “You want a stranger bringing diseases into the house? There are a lot of sketchy people out there. And you don’t want Bobby to feel like he has no place at home. At some point, he’s going to need that room.”
That seemed to yank them back from the fantasy of becoming wealthy landlords.
“We’ll manage with what we’ve saved so far,” Dad said. “I’ll work at the dealership through the end of the year. The garage goes on the market in January. After we buy it, I’ll give notice at the job, so they have plenty of time to find a replacement. We’ll fix the place up this winter, and we can open in March.”
“Who’s the partner?” I asked.
“He doesn’t want me to tell anyone until after the contracts are signed,” Dad said. “He has another investment he needs to sell, first, to help fund this. It’s good to keep quiet about these things. He told me you never want people to know you’re motivated to sell, or you won’t get a good price. But I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you find out.” He tossed in a wink.
I could tell Dad was excited. I didn’t ruin the announcement by sharing my thoughts. It was great he was going to make his dream come true, but the timing was terrible. Mom was busy with Sean. Bobby just started the second month of a six-month tour with his band. That left me as the go-to guy for any tasks that didn’t require a six-foot reach, an intimate understanding of socket wrenches, or a driver’s license. As for Bobby’s room, I still had hopes of eventually turning it into the site of a slot-car track.
I went up to my room to get ready for tomorrow. As I was digging through my desk drawers for blank notebooks, I found my journal. I hadn’t touched it all summer, but the memories rekindled by my encounter with parental announcements inspired me to flip it open and start writing.
School starts tomorrow, Sean. I know I said I was finished with these journals after you were born. But when parents spring exciting news like “we’re going to be even poorer next year,” it’s a hard habit to break. So I guess I’ll keep it up. Though I’m not expecting anywhere near as much drama this year. I don’t think anyone needs a sophomore survival manual. Juniors and seniors will be less of a threat. I’ll have a whole class of freshmen who get to suffer the role of buffer.
Hey, that was a halfway-clever phrase. I guess I sort of missed this. It feels good to be writing in my journal again. And, just to be clear, this is not a diary. It’s actually not a journal, either. See if you can figure out what it is. I’ll give you a couple days to think about it. I need to get ready for tomorrow. Which basically means I have to put some notebooks and pencils in my backpack, and remember to zip it up.
I was trying to cross a six-lane highway. Cars shot toward me from both directions. Just after I leaped over the center divider, the highway turned into a football field. Cars converged from all directions now, as if I’d wandered into a demolition derby.
What the heck!
I sat up, and tried to blink away the darkness. But it remained blinkproof. I checked my clock. 5:30. A horn blared again. I stumbled to the window. There was a delivery truck at the curb. Bongo’s Bagels. Both the o’s in “Bongo’s” were made of sliced bagels. And the l in “Bagels” was a knife with cream cheese smeared on it.
I saw upstairs lights flick on in two of the houses across the street. I suspected lights might also be turning on in houses on either side of us.
A guy wearing a white cap got out of the bagel truck and headed for my front door. Even from above, I knew that walk. It was Wesley. My pal. My scary, dangerous, awesome friend. And, apparently, my friend with no concept of time or adolescent sleep requirements.
I opened my window, and tried to get Wesley’s attention with a whispered shout before he started pressing the doorbell. “What are you doing?”
He craned his head back and waved at me, then pointed at the truck. “I got a new job. Delivering stuff. To the school. How’s that for a lucky break? I can give you a ride every morning, just like last year. So you don’t have to take the bus. Come on down. I’m running late.”
Teeth unbrushed. Bladder unemptied. Stomach unfed. Eyes unfocused. Brain unactivated. No way. “Thanks. But I’m running late, too. I’ll call you after school.”
“Hey, a couple bagels spilled out when I hit the curb. They’re still hot. I’ll get you one.”
“That’s okay,” I called. But he was already sprinting back to the truck. He leaned in through the passenger window and grabbed something from the foot well. I was still sliding up the screen when he chucked the bagel, flinging it at me with the form and force of a champion Frisbee thrower. Both my hands were occupied. The bagel hit my head, then ricocheted into the room.
It felt like a salt bagel. At least he hadn’t been delivering pies. Or bricks.
I slid the screen down, closed the window, and went back to sleep.
Sean started crying at 5:45 A.M.
This was going to be a long day.
The third time I rose—with the help of my alarm—it felt like someone decided to explore the depths of my ear canal with an electric drill. And something seemed to be missing. But I couldn’t figure it out right away.
As I walked downstairs, I realized the two things that weren’t there—bacon and blueberry pancakes. That’s what Mom always made for the first day of school.
There was nobody in the kitchen. I guessed Dad had already left for work. I opened the fridge and grabbed the milk, then hunted through the cabinets for cereal.
Mom walked into the kitchen. “You’re up early.”
“That’s because I have school,” I said.
Her eyes widened as the words sank in. “Oh, Scott! I’m so sorry. I totally forgot. I got so involved talking with your dad about the garage. He’s really excited. Then Sean woke up several times. And somebody was honking a horn right outside the house. Sit down. I’ll make breakfast.”
That’s what I call “the Sean effect.” Last night, Mom had mentioned school. So she knew about it. This morning, after getting up two or three times to take care of Sean, she’d totally forgotten about school. I wished I could let my teachers borrow Sean when it was time to hand out homework assignments.
Mom snatched an egg from the fridge and the milk from the table, and then grabbed the pancake mix. I checked the clock and did the math. As good as Mom was with a spatula and a frying pan, pancakes would take a while. So would the bacon.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t want to miss the bus.”
“I can give you a ride.”
I pictured her trying to make breakfast, get dressed, buckle Sean into the car, and then drive me to school.
“It’s really okay.” I retrieved the milk and poured some on my cereal. Mom looked so sad that I added, “We can have a first-week-of-school breakfast on Saturday. That way, I can take my time and enjoy everything. Your pancakes are too good to eat in a hurry.”
“That’s a great idea,” she said.
While there wasn’t time for pancakes and bacon, there also wasn’t any need to gulp down my cereal. Freshman year, I’d been so anxious about everything, I was the first kid at the bus stop. This year, I took my time.
“Have a great day,” Mom said as I headed out.
“Be sure to make a good first impression.”
When I was a block away from the bus stop, I saw that half a dozen kids were already there. I recognized some of them from middle school. I was pretty sure, based on their neatly ironed clothes and lack of height, that they were all freshmen. I paused at the curb to study them. Which one would have been me last year? There was a boy reading a book. Even from far off, I could recognize the cover. No More Dead Dogs. Good choice. Another boy and a girl were talking. The remaining three freshmen, two girls and a boy, stood there in isolation. The boy standing the farthest to the right was wearing a knitted hat with a pompom on top. Bad idea. He was the shortest of the group, which was also a bad idea.
A cluster of older kids—mostly sophomores, along with a handful of juniors and two seniors—headed toward the stop from the other direction. When I’d started ninth grade, the seniors had looked like giants to me. This year, the new crop of seniors still looked big, but they no longer reminded me of mythical monsters. During the past year, I’d gained a bit of height, and they’d lost a bit of stature.
The cluster reached the reader. One of the new juniors, Liam Dortmund, knocked the book out of the kid’s hands as he passed by him, almost as an afterthought. The kid waited until the whole group moved by, then reclaimed the book and resumed reading. He was safe for the moment. The mob had spotted the pompom.
Another of the juniors, Bram Eldicott, snatched the hat from the kid. He tossed it to Liam. The kid who’d been de-cap-itated let out a yelp of protest. If the cry had been one octave higher, I think windows would have shattered. Bram and Liam tossed the hat back and forth, while the kid played the monkey in the middle, leaping fruitlessly in an attempt to snatch the hat in flight.
I remembered the mindless bullying that had victimized Mouth Kandeski and some of the other freshmen at the bus stop last year. I’d had my own problems with bullies on the bus, and in the halls of Zenger High. I decided to test the theory that one person could make a difference.
Liam had his back to me. I walked up behind him, waited until Bram lobbed the hat his way, stepped past him, and snagged the hat before it landed in his hands, like a defensive end intercepting a touchdown pass.
“Hey!” Liam shouted.
I ignored Liam and returned the hat to the kid. He was skinny and had frizzy blond hair that still bore evidence of his recently removed headwear. He wore glasses with thick lenses that made his eyes seem enormous. Beneath his jacket, his tan button-down shirt had become halfway untucked, thanks to his failed attempt at airborne-hat recovery.
“Here,” I said. “Put it away. It’s too warm for a hat.” I didn’t bother to add that it’s always too warm for a hat if you’re a freshman at a bus stop.
“Thanks!” He plucked the hat from my hand and started to put it back on his head.
“Seriously,” I said, pointing to his backpack. “Stow it.”
“My mom said—”
“Your mom isn’t here. Trust me. She’d want you to do this.”
As the kid shoved the hat into his jacket pocket, I shifted my attention to Bram. He was the one who could take this to a more aggressive level. Liam was his henchman, blindly following Bram’s lead. The fact that Bram hadn’t tackled me from behind was a good sign. He was casually mean, as opposed to being pure evil or a full-time bully. Still, I’d ruined his fun. Our eyes locked. I kept my face calm, though my heart was getting an aerobic workout. I really didn’t want this to escalate. A fistfight wasn’t the best way to start the school year.
Bram shrugged. The bus turned the corner, giving both of us something safe to look at. As our city-supplied transportation pulled to the curb, I checked to see if we were going to be stuck with the same driver as last year. Nope. No sign of The Shouter. That was a relief. Maybe he’d exploded during the summer, like an overused pressure cooker forced to make one meal too many. This driver was an old guy, wearing a Sixers Windbreaker. He didn’t even bother to look at us as we piled on. That was fine with me. I’d rather be ignored than yelled at. I walked toward the middle of the bus, dropped into an empty seat on the left side, and slid over to the window. Julia Baskins, who I’d had a huge crush on last year, boarded the bus with her friend Kelly Holbrook. I hadn’t seen them since school ended. Julia, still heart-wrenchingly gorgeous, smiled at me when I caught her eye. I nodded and smiled back. Kelly nodded, too. I guess we’d both moved on from harboring bad memories. They grabbed seats together near the front.
“Thanks for the rescue. You’re awesome.”
Hatboy had plopped onto the vacant part of my seat. Apparently, even now that I was over my crush, Julia had the power to distract me from environmental hazards.
“It was no big deal.” I looked out the window, hoping the kid would take the hint and stop talking.
“Oh, wow. She’s beautiful.”
I knew who he was talking about even before I checked. He stared at Julia with the dazed eyes of someone who’s just gotten his first look at a Michelangelo masterpiece.
“Don’t even think about it. You’ll just do stupid stuff in a doomed attempt to get her attention. Trust me. I know all about these things.” I returned my attention to the world beyond the window.
“So, what’s it like?” he asked.
I pretended I hadn’t heard him.
That earned me a triple tap on the shoulder, and a repeat of the question. I don’t like getting tapped on the shoulder. I spun around and glared at him.
He cringed and let out a whimper. I felt like I’d just snatched a bowl of food away from a puppy. I guessed it wouldn’t hurt to answer his question.
“It’s big, crowded, and confusing at first,” I said.
His shoulders slumped. “I’m dead.”
“Keep your mouth shut and your head down, and you’ll be okay,” I said.
“That won’t help. I’m still dead. It’s like I was born with a target on my back.” He leaned forward in his seat, as if to allow me to admire the imaginary bull’s-eye between his shoulder blades. “Today will be terrible.”
I looked at him, all hunched and scrawny in his seat. “You’ll be fine.” I doubt he believed me, especially since I didn’t believe myself, but it seemed like a charitable enough lie. Sort of like how they used to offer the guy facing the firing squad a last cigarette. It wasn’t good for him, but it really couldn’t do any harm.
He said it again. “I’m dead.”
“Probably.” I realized there was no point giving him false hope. “But it will be a survivable death.”
He lapsed into silence. As did I. Then he pulled something from his backpack. At first glance, I thought it was a game. That would definitely be snatched from his hands before the ride ended. But it had only a small display window. I realized it was a calculator. I turned my attention to the scenery as we rolled through the free world, toward the captivity of school.
Two minutes later, another tap interrupted my motion-lulled mind.
“What?” I asked, snapping again.
He had quite a leap for a little guy. After he got up from the aisle and climbed back onto his seat, he said, “According to the blueprint I studied, the school has nine doors, not counting the loading dock, which I assume might be inaccessible. Is one entrance to the building safer than the others?”
“They’re all risky.” I took a moment to picture the maze that is Zenger High. “But the door behind the left rear corner of the building, near the Dumpster, puts you in the hall by Mr. Pangborn’s room, and he likes to keep an eye on things, so nobody will bother you when you come that way. Just don’t linger by the Dumpster, or someone might toss you in.”
“Great. Thanks. And what about—”
“Stop it!” I said.
Man, he startled easily. Long ago, I’d read a book called 5,000 Amazing Facts. The title was about thirty percent accurate, but that still left plenty to savor. One of the amazing facts I’d read was about fainting goats. If you shout at them, they pass out and drop. Hatboy was more of a leaping goat. As tempting as it was to see if I could get him to hit new heights, I decided to try not to startle him again.
After he’d dropped back onto his seat, I told him, “Look, I just spent a year giving advice to a fetus. I’m not in the mood to mentor another embryo.”
“A fetus?” he asked. “You gave advice to a fetus?”
“My little brother. Before he was born.”
“Your little brother is a llama?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“It would be nine months, at most, for a human, assuming you learned of the pregnancy immediately. Not a whole year. Even llamas don’t always take that long. Horses and dolphins do.”
“Whatever.” I turned away.
“I learned that in a book called 10,000 Amazing Facts.”
Oh, great. I was riding through town with a mini-me.
“Gestation is highly variable,” he said. “I came out in seven months. I was really small.”
You still are.
He laughed. “I know what you’re thinking. I still am small. But I’m due for a growth spurt. I researched it. Maturation is even more fascinating than gestation.”
He talked for a while longer, but I sort of zoned out. The bus rolled along, picking up more students, but getting only about half full.
About five minutes before we reached the school, my subconscious handed me an idea. I didn’t want to start up a prolonged conversation with Hatboy, so I waited until the bus pulled into the school lot. When the driver opened the door, I tapped my seatmate on the shoulder.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who reacted to shoulder taps. After the sound of his scream stopped echoing in my ears, I said, “How would you like to buy a freshman survival manual?”
“That would be awesome. Do you have one?”
I sort of did. My first day of school freshman year was such a miserable experience, I’d decided to make a manual for my unborn sibling by writing down any survival tips I could think of. That’s how my journal had started. There was a lot of good advice in it. I could take out all the personal stuff, leave in the practical material, and sell it to this kid. Why not?
“I don’t have it with me,” I said. “But I can bring it tomorrow.”
“How much would it cost?” he asked.
Good question. I named a figure that seemed fair. He didn’t blink. Maybe I should have asked for more.
“Plus shipping and handling,” I said.
“Shipping and handling?”
“That was a joke,” I said. But I had the feeling he wouldn’t have objected if I’d bumped the price up.
“Good one. You’re funny. So you’re probably smart. Humor requires intelligence. A lot of famous comedians have philosophy degrees. I can be quite amusing. Except people don’t always get my jokes. Though I’d bet you would. Want to hear my favorite one?”
Resistance, apparently, was futile. “Sure. But let’s get off the bus first.”
The instant his feet hit the asphalt, he said, “How can you tell you’re near a murder?”
“I don’t know.”
It took me a second to connect the punchline with the name for a group of crows. Despite myself, I laughed.
“I knew you’d get it. Good one?”
“Yeah. Good one.” I pointed to a rear corner of the building. “That’s your safest bet. Good luck. Keep moving.”
“Don’t dawdle by the Dumpster,” I called after him.
I watched for a moment, to make sure his superabundance of fear pheromones didn’t attract lions, tigers, or thugs. After he’d turned the corner, I went in the front entrance and threaded my way through the crowds to my new homeroom. I had no trouble finding it. I knew my way around the school, even though I hadn’t been there since June.
Okay, sophomore year, I thought, I’m ready for you. Bring it on.
I saw a lot of familiar faces when I reached my homeroom, including Mary Abernathy, Diane Zupstra, and Chuck Peterson. Chuck, whose mom worked in the ER at the hospital, was a good source of news whenever something major happened.
We all exchanged nods, as if to say, yeah, nothing new here. It was a big change from freshman year, when everything was new and confusing. We launched into the familiar morning routine and, just like that, it was as if summer had never existed. The homeroom teacher, Mr. Ruiz, took attendance. After the pledge, read over the intercom by the student pledger of the day—who, true to form for student pledgers throughout history, seemed to be encountering “indivisible” for the first time—Principal Hedges welcomed us, shared a brief inspirational message about how a new year meant a fresh start, and reminded us that we could reach our full potential as long as we believed in ourselves and understood the value of hard work and striving to reach our full potential.
The homeroom teacher passed out assignment books and copies of our schedules. I looked at mine. It matched the one I’d gotten online.
My guidance counselor had suggested I try at least one AP class for college credit. The choices were bio or history. I knew AP Bio would be a mistake. I had barely survived chemistry last year. History, on the other hand, pretty much just requires a good memory and the ability to wade through dense volumes of dreary prose without getting too weak and weary. I’d heard geometry was pretty cool. Trig, which came next year, was supposed to be harder, but I wasn’t going to worry about that at the moment. I’d picked up a Spanish language magazine in July, when I was in New York with my dad, and managed to understand a fair amount of it. So I hadn’t completely lost my language skills during vacation. Lee was in geometry, lunch, and biology with me. After that, we’d go our separate ways again until English.
When the bell rang, I headed off to my first class. It was interesting seeing the freshmen bubbling through the halls like guppies in a piranha tank. Lee was already in the room, sitting in the third row, on the aisle. She’d saved a seat for me.
She was wearing basic black. Black jeans, black T-shirt, black nail polish, black makeup of various sorts that girls use around their eyes and whose names I could never keep straight. Her piercings had remained stable, except for several additions to her left ear.
There was a test on each desk. Nothing like starting school with a bang. “I hope this isn’t an omen,” Lee said.
I folded mine diagonally so the top edge was lined up with the side, forming a triangle with a rectangular base, and held it so it cast a shadow on my desk from the morning light coming through the windows. “If it’s not an omen, it could be a gnomon,” I said.
“Scott, it’s too early for wordplay,” she said. “Though that is sort of clever, in an obscure, geeky, word-nerd kind of way. But, really, it’s too early.”
Mr. Stockman, a thin man dressed in a tan suit and plaid shirt, with a fringe of hair encircling three-fifths of the geometry of his head, walked over and stared at the origami in my hands. Or maybe it was testigami. He didn’t say anything. I contemplated explaining that I’d folded the test to look like the thing in the center of a sundial. But I realized that would mean explaining about Lee’s “omen” comment, and hoping that the teacher knew the shadow-caster in the sundial was called a gnomon, while also hoping he had a sense of humor.
“Sorry.” I unfolded the test and put it back on my desk, where it no longer lay flat. I hoped I hadn’t made a bad first impression. I reminded myself that my teachers would be meeting me for the very first time today. It would be smart to sit back and let someone else stand out in each class as the problem student.
Mr. Stockman headed back to his desk. Halfway there, he turned, pointed at my test, and said, “Gnomon?”
“Yeah.” I guessed maybe he’d heard Lee’s comment.
“Cool.” He awarded me a smile. “Nice example of gnomon-clature.”
Lee groaned, then whispered, “You found your tribe.”
“Score one for the geeky word nerd,” I whispered back.
“This test won’t be graded,” Mr. Stockman said after he reached his desk. “I just want to get an idea where you all are, as far as core concepts.”
That seemed fair. I looked at the first problem. It was basic algebra. Solve the quadratic, give the two values of x. I had no trouble remembering how to do that. The next two questions, about slopes and coordinates on a graph, were also pretty easy. Then there were some questions about points and lines. For the handful of questions where I wasn’t positive about the answer, I was able to make a good guess. The fact that we weren’t being graded made the test pretty stress-free for me. As I scanned the room, I saw a range of reactions. Most kids seemed pretty relaxed. But one or two were hunched over, gripping their pencils like they might be called upon to switch tasks and kill a vampire on short notice.
Lee finished before me. I wasn’t surprised. She had a good head for math.
After Mr. Stockman collected the tests, he introduced us to some of the basic concepts of geometry, and tossed out a pun or two. The best one was “Are Euclid-ing me?” The worst one was the well-known joke about the acorn saying, “Gee, I’m a tree.” So, yeah, I was back in school, back to learning things in a classroom environment, and pretty relaxed about everything. It was going to be an easy day. My little glitch with the gnomon had turned into a good thing. And I’d participated enough in the classroom discussion to show him I wasn’t a slacker or a clown.
When the bell rang, I said, “See you at lunch.”
“Stay out of trouble,” Lee said.
“That’s the other Hudson,” I said.
“Bobby or Sean?” Lee asked.
“I think they’d prove equally problematic in the classroom.” I double-checked my schedule, then headed to history.
“Welcome to AP U.S. History. The study of history isn’t about dates. It’s about people, and the things they do,” Ms. Burke said. She looked the way I’d imagine the stereotypical Mrs. Claus would have looked in her late forties, before her hair had turned white, but after she’d developed her rosy cheeks and sunny smile. “We are going to be working very hard all year. We have a lot of material to cover. But there’s no reason we can’t take a few minutes on our first day to get to know each other. Write three interesting facts about yourself. Share a bit of your history.”
The air filled with the scribble of pens. Everyone else started writing immediately, as if they’d entered the room with a fact on hand. Or in mind. I glanced to my left, at Phil Nelson’s paper. I once ate a whole pepperoni pizza.
I knew I could do better than that. Better fact, I mean. Not better pizza consumption. Five slices pushed me pretty close to my gastronomic comfort zone. I wanted my facts to be good. What was interesting? I guessed the fact that I’d read 5,000 Amazing Facts would make a cool fact. Yeah, a fact about a book of facts. I loved the self-referential aspect of that. One down. What else? My mom just had a baby. That would work. I’d probably be the only one in class who could say that. Two down. But I needed something really awesome for the third fact.
As I stared at the page, I heard the clicks and clatters of people around me dropping their pens. I glanced over at Phil. His list was finished. Besides the pizza, though hopefully during the course of a different meal, he’d eaten an entire rotisserie chicken. Not surprisingly, his third fact was that he’d recently bought a new belt and several pairs of pants.
“Okay,” Ms. Burke said, “pass them up.”
Kids passed their papers forward. Kristen Valence, in the seat ahead of me, twisted a quarter turn and held out her hand.
I couldn’t give Ms. Burke two facts when she’d requested three. There had to be something I could add.
Kristen cleared her throat in an obnoxious way.
At this point, the fact didn’t even have to be good. It just had to be. What did I do this summer? What did I do yesterday? What did I do ten minutes ago?
I dug deep and found something. Lee had given me three Venus flytraps on the Fourth of July. I never did figure out the connection, if any, between carnivorous plants and declarations of independence. But the plants were definitely cool. They eat insects. You can give them hamburger, too. I fed mine flies and the occasional ant. That was sort of a fun fact. I could even do it as a couplet: I just feed my plants / live flies and dead ants. I figured everyone would appreciate a bit of light verse during the readings.
I hesitated. I actually had only one Venus fly trap, since two of them had died soon after I got them, but plants worked better in the couplet, so I needed to take some poetic license. Though I guessed I could go with flies and an ant.
As I was mentally tweaking the words, Kristen reached for my paper.
I scrawled I just feed my plants—
I dashed off the rest in a sloppy line as Kristen yanked the paper out from under the pen.
Shoot. But at least that would make three.
Ms. Burke took the gathered sheets and started reading them aloud. The class had to guess who’d written each one. That was pretty easy, since most of us knew one another.
About midway through the pile, she got to mine.
“‘I read a book called 5,000 Amazing Facts,’” she said.
A couple heads turned my way, and I heard at least one whisper of, “Hudson.”
Ms. Burke read the second fact:“‘My mom just had a baby.’” Most of the heads turned my way, and I heard my name whispered by several other kids. Sean’s arrival was far from a secret. The third fact would be sort of stupid, but I didn’t care. At least I wouldn’t be branded a slacker.
Ms. Burke frowned at the sheet in her hand, tilted her head slightly to the left, squinted, tilted her head slightly to the right, lifted her glasses up, put her glasses back down, then shrugged and read, “‘I just peed my pants.’”
“No!” I shouted. “That’s not what I wrote!” Not that anyone would hear me over the laughter that bounced around the room like a barrage of jet-propelled dodgeballs.
As the class settled down from howls and guffaws to chortles and snickers, I said, “‘I just feed my plants flies and ants.’ I have Venus flytraps.”
It was pointless.
Someone behind me whispered, “Venus flytrap,” but substituted the obvious rhyming body part for Venus. In other circumstances, I would have found that amusing.
Ms. Burke studied my handwriting for a moment, then said, “Oh, right. I see. I guess that word could have been feed. And, yes, plants would make sense. It even rhymes. Were you aware of that?”
“Very clever,” she said. “I love poetry. Well, I guess we can move on, since we know who wrote this one.”
Great. Halfway into history, and I was history.
At the end of the class, some kid I didn’t know pointed at my crotch and said, “Hey, you peed your pants.”
I could ignore him. But that might inspire him to try again, or get others to join in, preventing the whole thing from fading away. On the other hand, I could smack him down so hard, he never got back up. Maybe even so hard, it would scare off others. I don’t mean with my fists. There’s an old saying: Never get in a war of words with a man who buys ink by the barrel. If I was as good with words as I thought I was, I could end this decisively, right now. But I had to act immediately. If I hesitated, he won.
I planned to stagger him with a lightning-quick one-two punch, then take him out with a knockout blow.
First jab—surprise him by agreeing.
“Yeah, my pants are wet . . .”
I saw his brows knit closer as he tried to decipher what I was doing. Little did he know he’d just been disarmed.
Second punch, make it about him, and go for the stagger.
“. . . because I was laughing so hard at your face, I lost all control of my bladder.”
And, now that he was stunned, throw an uppercut, to put him out of my misery. I pointed at my opponent, and addressed the mob: “The next time you’re constipated, give Zitgeist here a call. If he can empty a bladder so easily, think what he can do to clogged intestines.”
I could tell from the smirks of the crowd that I’d scored a victory. I headed out.
Yeah—two classes down. One disaster averted. One set of bus-stop bullies thwarted. One pun-loving teacher discovered. Sophomore year was definitely rocking. It wasn’t even lunchtime, and I’d already come back from the dead.
I met up with Lee down the hall from the cafeteria.
“How was your history class?” I asked.
“Dated,” she said. “How was yours?”
“Epic.” We got in the food line. “This is a ridiculously early time to eat lunch.”
“Think of it as brunch,” Lee said.
“Brunch is for adults,” I said. We weren’t close enough to see the food yet. I sniffed the air. “And I don’t think tacos or chicken cutlets are traditional brunch items.”
“How do you do that?” Lee asked. “It all just smells like a barely contained grease fire to me.”
“It’s a gift. Hey, speaking of which, why did you give me three Venus flytraps for the Fourth of July?”
“Because I know from numerous sad experiences that two-thirds of them die right away,” she said. “How many do you have left?”
Lee grinned. “As my dad likes to say: asked, and answered.”
We both got the tacos. I bought chocolate milk. Lee got a soda from the machine. They’d tried to replace all the soda with water and juice last year, but the mayor’s brother is a hotshot executive for a major soda company, so carbonated beverages had a lot of support in our town.
If I’d been by myself, I would have stood amid the tables for five minutes, trying to figure out where to sit. Freshman year, my social circle had been torn apart and stitched together. I’d lost old friends, and gained new ones. But Wesley had been a senior last year. So he was gone, leaving Lee and me as our entire high school clique.
Lee grabbed a seat at an empty table. She would have done the same thing even if we weren’t together. Or she would have sat with the most popular kids in the room, like she did last year, just for fun. She didn’t seem to worry about stuff like social structures, clique hierarchies, and the intangible nature of popularity.
I joined her. I was happy not to have to figure out where I’d fit in best.
Richard Elkhart hovered nearby. I knew him from the paper. I pointed at the empty seats, inviting him to take one. Edith Cutler, also from the paper, joined us. We compared schedules. We all had the same English class. That was good. Richard was in my Spanish class, and Edith was in bio.
The kid I’d thrashed in history walked over. I clenched my fists, ready to protect myself if he took a swing at me, or flung the food on his tray at my face.
“That was funny,” he said.
“Yeah. You really got me good.” He looked down at the table. “Can I sit here? I don’t know anybody.”
“Thanks.” He sat, and doled out basic data.
His name was Bradley. He’d just moved here from Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Apparently, where he came from, insults were exchanged between adolescent males as readily and forcefully as high fives, and didn’t lead to fights.
That was a new way to make friends. One more miracle this morning and I was going to apply for sainthood.
I scanned the room to see whether there had been any major social upheavals or revolutions during the summer. Things looked pretty much the same. Except for one thing.
“Kyle and Kelly aren’t together anymore.” I pointed to where Kelly sat.
“Maybe the alliteration was too much for them,” Lee said.
“That theory is as good as any,” I said. I examined “Scott and Lee” for any signs of intolerable cuteness. The conjunction seemed fine, marred only by its current status as just a theoretical pairing.
“I heard she dumped him over the summer,” Edith said.
“Ouch.” No matter what had happened between Kyle and me, I felt a bit sorry for him. I knew how badly he’d wanted a girlfriend last year.