Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The kid has to go, part 1

I was thinking about stories where kids find out they're wizards or child prodigies and go to magic school or battle school, respectively, and also Louis Sachar's Wayside series; see also the hundreds of knock-offs of magical young protagonist books that have come out in recent years with increasingly stupid, derivative titles-- so anyway, this is sort of my answer to everything I loved and hated in the good books, and everything I hated so much in the bad ones that I didn't read more than a few paragraphs (I'm looking at you, Eragon).

Everything I have so far follows below:

Chapter one.

Principal Brink felt a shocking, but profound and unshakable hatred for the kid. It was a small elementary school, and he saw the kid often, in the hallways or on the grounds. The kid had never been to his office, had never been substantially in trouble; the principal didn't even know his name. But every time he became aware of the child's presence, he was overcome by a sickening loathing.
He underwent small crises of educational professional angst every time this happened. He was supposed to care for every child and work for their success. Principal Brink had no idea what to do, but he was certain he didn't trust himself to address the kid. He took to reclusive, paranoiac habits, waiting to go in hallways until he was completely alone.


The kid was doing what he considered to be his greatest achievement: minding his own business. He had managed to make it to his final year of elementary school with no unfortunate nicknames, no reputation, no confirmed embarrassing moments. This involved a certain degree of solitude, but he considered that a small price at most. The reward was freedom, not only from mean-spirited playground gossip but also from being called on in class; his near-invisibility extended to the adult world as well. The kid had worked hard to cultivate this nondescript existence, and he cherished the ability he had to melt in and out of crowds, to be forgettable, to be unknown and therefore unjudged.


The superintendent was a bulgy-eyed bulldog of a former college wrestling champion. He paced as though he were restrained by a chain, barely held in check. His voice even barked when he spoke. He did not tolerate sick leave, snow days, long recess or comparisons to the headmistress of the school in a certain book by Roald Dahl.
He was troubled (more of a boiling preparatory rage than an anxiety) by rumors that one of his star principals was getting a little bit strange, and he resolved to pay Brink a visit.

Chapter two.

The principal dreamed and did not know it. He was speaking to his mother about his two biggest problems which were, in order, his worsening male pattern baldness and then the kid he hated. His mother was blandly reassuring him, repeating "That's alright, that's alright" as though she hadn't heard a word he was saying. He tried to explain that it wasn't alright, it was all wrong. As he did, huge chunks of hair began to fall from his scalp. He dropped the phone, recoiling in horror at his own hair.
He woke with a start, discovering in that instant that he really was holding his phone, which was emitting a steady dial tone, and remembering that he was stony bald and had been for years. So the kid-- the kid was his biggest problem.


The kid loved secrecy in a way that only an eleven year-old boy who has never done anything that really merits a secret can love it. He was still not ashamed of the imaginary world where his mind spent most of its time. It was better than the real world, which did not have a single dinosaur that the kid was aware of, let alone grizzly bears driving tanks.

Chapter three.

Principal Brink clutched a styrofoam coffee cup in his left hand and fiddled with his office window with his right. He was standing in the bushes outside the window, and it was earlier than most people would arrive at the school. Still, he was being cautious. He was anxious, and every time he realized that he was anxious, he would question whether or not this was a rational feeling to have.
That was a mistake, because in asking himself, he would list in his mind every reasonable anxiety he might have, and would then move on, unable to stop himself, to the unreasonable ones. Reasonable: someone might see the principal acting strangely, or even think he was a criminal breaking into the school. Unreasonable: he had heard that styrofoam was more or less unrecyclable, doomed to sit in the ground for millennia until it burned and turned into carcinogens or something. Also unreasonable: thinking about carcinogens led him to reflect on that one mole on his back, which was sort of oddly-shaped.
He shook his head and returned to the task at hand: getting the window open and climbing inside, while managing not to spill his coffee or scuff his shoes or be seen by anyone.


At home, the kid was equally unobtrusive, but in a more secure sort of way. He was loved, and he knew it, and he required no confirmation or reminder of it. It was a good thing, too, because his parents were equally reserved and quietly confident. The kid had only a dim idea of what they did all day, and their family dinners usually passed in companionable silence. Even little brother was remarkably quiet for a three-year-old.
It was rare that the anxiety of his school life should cross the threshold of his door and follow him through the kitchen, down the hall, and to his room. On this particular day, though, it had. The kid did not feel it consciously, but it was such an out-of-place feeling among his books and legos that he decided to go outside and collect his thoughts.
The air outside held, like the apples ripening on the tree whose branches hung over the neighbor's fence, a delicate balance between sweet and tart. Fall was not far off; some leaves had already begun to turn. The yard was just large enough to hold some degree of mystery and to permit some exercise of imagination. The kid looked around absentmindedly for a stick which might serve as a hunting spear or a staff. He also tugged at the tangled ends of his thoughts, somewhere within which must be what was troubling him.
In the end, all he could figure out was this: some kind of big change was on its way, something he could not expect or plan for. Try as he might, the kid could not figure out why he was so sure of it. He did, however, find a really fantastically long, straight stick, which would be put to good use.


The superintendent burst through the front doors of the elementary school, which was the only way he knew how to use doors. He was feeling the pleasant adrenaline rush that always accompanied giving a good chewing out, which he planned to do whether or not it was deserved, because honestly, it must be deserved for something or other. If the rumors had reached all the way to the superintendent's office, he reasoned, something must be up.
He prowled the hallways, realizing it had been a while since he visited this particular school and not quite able to find the main office. He should have the whole place torn down and build a more straightforward building in its place. Finally he found it, though, and glared at a receptionist who didn't really look the part. Not one to mince words, he barked, "Brink."
The receptionist looked like a bank teller about to activate the silent alarm. This is because this scenario had been rehearsed at the insistence of Principal Brink and, though it did seem really legitimately crazy to the receptionist, the principal did seem to take it seriously. The desk phone connected to the office phone, rang twice, and was abruptly hung up. "He's not in right now," said the receptionist flatly.
The superintendent decided that something was fishy and went ahead past the desk and up to the door of the principal's office. He turned the handle, swung the door open and saw through the window, which was half open, as a tweed-suited figure ran across the school grounds and through the bushes.

Chapter four.

Principal Brink, now almost totally sure that the coast was clear, slunk through the window back into his office, as nearly as his middle-aged body and his suit permitted him to slink. He put his ear to the office door, and heard nothing. He knocked with the secret pattern he had devised and taught to the receptionist, and waited for the return signal that would say he was safe.
The receptionist put down a boring magazine and leafed through the papers on the desk, but couldn't find the paper where the codes were written down. The principal would have felt overwhelming anxiety if he had known that the signals he had so carefully invented were in such a vulnerable written format, and held in such careless hands, at constant risk of interception. The receptionist was growing slightly irritated by the necessity of dealing with the principal's idiosyncrasies, and had written down the knocks because they did not merit memorization.
The anxiety that the principal would have felt about all that was instead raised when the receptionist, failing to find the paper, called his office phone instead. He heard the dialing, knew it was from the other side of the door, but didn't pick up. Hadn't that fool ever heard of wiretapping?
In an effort to calm his nerves, he tried to trace his mental steps back to the origins of his anxiety. The most pressing and immediate cause he could think of was being seen by the superintendent. Why didn't he want to be seen by the superintendent, or indeed by anyone?
The principal didn't think he had paranoid delusions, and didn't believe in any conspiracy theories that he was aware of. The only reason which came to mind, in the sort of internal logic he would have been helpless to explain to anyone else, was that he hated that kid. The one whose easily-forgettable name he could never remember.
He realized, as he pulled his thoughts from their mental tangle, that he was not hiding from the kid, who would be relatively easy to avoid. Instead, he was hiding himself, because he suspected that a principal who hates a child is either losing his mind, or is a horrible person, or both. Principal Brink had been trying to quarantine himself.
He couldn't keep it up, though, and even if he were able to, it wouldn't be fair to the rest of the school. And so the solution became glaringly obvious: the kid had to go.
What a happy coincidence, then, that just as he came to this conclusion, Principal Brink glanced down at his desk and saw, on the top of a stack of mail, a pamphlet from a charter school he had never heard of. Now accepting transfer students, it read. And the principal began to form a plan.


The kid appreciated the little things that day, like the unusually large proportion of cherries to peaches and pears in the canned fruit bits which were slopped onto his plate in the cafeteria, and the way his teacher from somewhere else pronounced a certain sound when reading to them. He felt a relative calm in this place, which was all he could ask for, really.


Principal Brink was going to take control of a bad situation, one which wasn't really anyone's fault, and he was going to do something simple which would make everyone happy. He hated the kid, but had no idea why, and hated hating anyone. Out of sight, though, meant out of mind.
The kid had to go, and the principal had memorized the pitch from the brochure of the nearby charter school. He had done a little research, found the other school to be rather bland, if perhaps slightly more experimental than the average elementary or middle school. He thought (and felt guilty for thinking) that he would probably have tried to convince the kid's parents to send him to even an unpleasant, authoritarian place. But no point thinking in hypotheticals; there was a place to send the kid, no one would be hurt by this decision, and the principal could be a sane person again.
He had the receptionist call the kid's parents to make an appointment.
The next morning, Principal Brink had to practice in the mirror for a solid half hour, but eventually he was able to smile in all the right places, in a manner which reflected none of the puzzling ill will he felt so deeply. His voice held to an even tenor of pleasant and bland good humor, and he felt that he was ready to face the kid's parents.

Chapter five.

The kid's parents, for their part, responded calmly to the voice message inviting them to meet with Principal Brink the following day. They never suspected for a moment that the kid had gotten himself into any trouble, and weren't terribly worried about any misbehavior on his part. They did ask him, at dinner, if anything interesting were happening at school, and were satisfied with his answer that currently, the most exciting thing at school was a book he had found in the library. They trusted him. They scheduled an hour off work for the next day, and spent little mental effort, if any, on wondering what the meeting would bring.

As for the kid, he knew nothing of it. He walked to school that morning, finding the tart autumn morning air not at all unpleasant, and thinking he had seen a particularly awkward deer running through the bushes that surrounded the playground of the school. He would almost have thought he had seen a flash of tweed, but he attributed it to an overactive imagination.


The meeting was distinctly uneventful. The kid's parents were ushered into a surprisingly small and crowded office. It appeared to have recently been in serious disarray, then artificially and hurriedly neatened. The tidiness clashed with the principal himself, who looked like he had undergone the same treatment as his office, but perhaps less successfully so. The parents, had they been asked to describe him after their meeting, might have said that he seemed wooden. A nice-enough, overworked man.
As for Principal Brink, he only hoped that the nervous sweat in his armpits wouldn't show until after they had left.
The formalities first: the kid was doing well (actually very well) and definitely wasn't in trouble. In fact, the principal said, forcing himself not to bite his lip, this school and the public middle school where the kid would go weren't really equipped to maximize the potential of highly gifted students, as good as these schools were for average and struggling children. Then he was finally able to truly, deeply mean it when he said that he was pleased to announce the opening of a nearby charter school which was especially for kids like the kid. He expressed his recommendation that they seriously consider enrolling their child as soon as the new year.  He gave them the brochure and they thanked him and said they would research it, and they left.
The floodgates of sweat in his armpits had burst, but Principal Brink had done it, and now he would wait. He put a celebratory crack in the office blinds, and nervously relished the slits of sunlight shining onto his desk.

Chapter six.

The parents talked about the idea on their way home, and both felt that the new school would be worth looking into, if the kid was interested. If they were to be really honest with themselves, they had to admit that he seemed a little bored with the school as it was. Maybe he would open up if he were surrounded by kids with similar interests. So they agreed to pitch the idea to him when he got home.
They brought it up at dinner. The kid listened with calm interest, taking the news as though it were a motionless ton of bricks, significant but unsurprising. They were proud of his prodigious stoicness.
He said, upon brief reflection, "We should look at the place before we decide anything." They nodded. "I mean," he added in an introspective tone, "what if they're all raving lunatics?"
"We'll make sure they aren't raving," his father answered. "But nearly everyone you meet is a lunatic."


The superintendent had been waiting by the principal's car every day for what felt like an hour, and which in reality usually turned out to be several hours, in the hopes of catching him and forcing him to explain himself. This was because the superintendent was now obsessed with getting to the bottom of the mystery of the principal's erratic behavior.
Today, he saw the familiar rustling in the bushes and the shape of a man running out of them, but this time the figure ran towards him. He braced himself, wondering if he would be attacked and get to finally fight someone for once. It was indeed the principal, but the man stopped short and was breathing heavily.
"Superintendent," he said, hands on his knees, hunched over, "I can explain."
He told what seemed to be a very long story, but told it very quickly. He mentioned a kid, and being paranoid, and a charter school (the superintendent didn't catch the name, but he hadn't heard of any nearby, and definitely not one matching the description) and then Principal Brink looked up at him, catching his breath a little more, and said, "I think I'm ready to be normal again, if that's alright."

Chapter seven.

It was one of those almost painfully bright mornings, the kind which the kid's brain would later, in long-term memories, recall only as a washed-out, color-bled burst of brightness where people and trees were seen by the long, dark shadows they cast and the light which made him squint, which made even his memory squint and stare at the ground.
He was checked out of classes for the morning and was going with his mother to have a look at the charter school. Though the kid disliked the prospect of standing out at his own school (though his absence might reasonably go unnoticed) but was even more concerned about being labeled at this new one, where he might end up going very soon. He thought of ways of ditching his mother, if only in front of the other kids. And how would he find his way around with no adult? He might get rounded up into a class if he were caught in the hallway.
The kid made himself no promises. He would do what he had to do.


There were rows of fire trucks blocking the way in, so they parked on the road and walked hesitantly toward the school. They saw no smoke, and no apparent emergencies. The kid was the first to spot the assembled classes lined up on the field in front of the building, being counted. His mother asked if it was just a fire drill, but he had never seen a fire drill with actual fire trucks show up.
They found the principal standing in a circle with a few teachers. He seemed a little bit agitated, with an exterior of calm. The school, he explained had just had what seemed to be a fire alarm malfunction. Would they like to just see the grounds today?


Levi was ostracized, then glorified, then mostly ignored in the short space of a week when it was discovered that his name could be rearranged to spell 'evil'. He maintained a stoic outlook during the whole affair, but on the inside he did question whether his fate was sealed by the name- whether he was destined to become Evil Levi. He tried to compensate by being extra kind and generous, but wasn't sure it was working.


What the kid liked most about his visit to the grounds of the school was that, though every single student of the school had been out on the field, he had drawn the attention of none. He was sure that a few had remarked his presence, but those who had seemed not to find it remarkable. For a kid who treasured life under the radar, that would be heaven.
Even the teachers, he had observed, seemed pretty laid back: they had allowed the children to break ranks after a while, when the fire alarm malfunction showed no signs of being repaired or repairable. Even most of the firemen gave up, standing in circles with the teachers or answering the children's inane questions. Only their chief had kept plugging away at a control box on the outside of the school, but he only seemed to be able to change the sound of the alarm, not turn it off.
Anyway, the kid had a good feeling about this school. He was pretty sure he would like to go there.

Chapter eight.

So the kid told his parents that he wanted to go to the new school, that night at dinner. He didn't catch the significant look they exchanged with each other, but wasn't really surprised when his dad said, "But you didn't actually go inside and see how it was there?" The man was practical.
"No, but I saw what I needed to see. The kids there are different. I think I'll fit in there." The kid did not add, I think most of them are like me, trying to keep to themselves. He didn't say it, but his parents knew this about him and tacitly approved.
The dad said, "I still think you should go one more time, when there isn't an all-day fire drill, and meet some of the teachers."
Everyone nodded agreement, but no plans were scheduled. Things got in the way, as is the way with things. When the deadline for application arrived the next week, they still had not returned to the new school, and so the kid's mom filled out the forms anyway and sent them along. The kid was satisfied.


Meanwhile, Principal Brink was returning to the edge of a nervous breakdown and looking down into the psychological gully below. He didn't want to go back to his paranoid, reclusive self, but there were circumstances beyond his control. Namely, that he hadn't seen the transfer papers cross his desk yet. The papers which were supposed to, as if by magic, send the one kid, the one he inexplicably hated, away to a different school and out of the poor principal's mind. And the deadline was the next day.
As he mentally craned his neck over to look down at just how mentally ill he was about to become, the principal bit his upper lip and willed his heart rate to slow. He would not think about what would happen to him if the kid stayed and if he lived in constant fear of seeing the kid in the hallway, of being unprofessional; even if no one found out, the shame of being a principal who hated a child. He could not afford to have a breakdown from thinking about the possible upcoming breakdown. A cold sweat broke out on his bald scalp.
But then the idea came, just as he was succumbing to his dread.
Principal Brink snapped back into his right mind, and then a bit further past it into a focused, collected state of steely self control. He calmly rummaged through a filing cabinet, where he found the kid's files. He went to another and took out the transfer forms, copying the kid's information over and doing what was actually a pretty near imitation of the kid's father's signature. He then wrote his own signature on the bottom line, and stamped the form with the date.
The kid was going no matter what.