By John Power
I remember… I remember cubbies. Blue. No, yellow. Well, yellow on the outside, but each cubby was blue on the inside. They were set up in the back of the classroom. Back behind all of the little desks. They were the desks that open up. You lift the lid and they open and all of your books and pens and pencils were inside. The legs were stainless steel or some kind of shiny metal. The top of the desk was wood or made to look like wood. I don’t think it was actually wood. It was fake. Looked like wood, but it wasn’t. But the cubbies were wood, definitely wood. I remember once I got a splinter in my finger from the cubby and Mr. Paulson sent me down to the nurse. Mrs. Lefrarie. The nurse’s name was Mrs. Lefrarie. Each year we would have eye and ear checkups in her office. For about three days straight she just had one long line of kids outside her office. Kindergarten, first grade, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. Three classes in each grade. Tons and tons of kids for her to see.
I remember I went down with the other fifth graders and we lined up outside of the office and we all waited our turn. For the eye exam, I guess some of the younger kids didn’t know their alphabet, so they just had the letter E and you had to tell if it pointed up or down or left or right. And then for the hearing exam, there were these brown plastic headphones that you put on, and a little beep would come up in one ear and you raised the hand on the side that you heard the beep on. Flying colors she would say, Mrs. Lefrarie. I always passed those tests with flying colors.
Mr. Paulson was a nice teacher. We all thought he was cool because he was young and wore jeans to class. All the other male teachers, I think there were only one or two others in the school, dressed nicely, with ties, and they were serious. But Mr. Paulson was cool. The first day of class he was so funny. We were all so nervous, me and the other kids. We were in fifth grade so we weren’t new to first days and we all knew each other since kindergarten, but everyone’s always so nervous the first day back to school. No one knows what to expect from the teacher. And fourth grade was easy. I didn’t do so well at it, but it was easy. But fifth grade—fractions, and decimals, and harder books, and grammar. Fifth grade was hard. Everyone told me that fifth grade was hard, and it was. Mr. Paulson was nice and all, but it was hard. There were tests and quizzes and it was hard.
But on the first day of class we showed up and we all had a cubby with our own name on it, and we put our lunch boxes and backpacks in there. Each desk also had our name on it, and we had to find our seats. I was sitting next to Dennis and Sean. Sean was my best friend, and Dennis was one of the coolest kids in the class.
Dennis had this Tiger Club ranking system for everyone in the class. It was a tiger, puma, leopard, cheetah, lynx, lion, and wolverine. Wolverine was the worst, but only because there was this other kid in the class who thought he was so cool that he started his own Wolverine Club. No one liked him, and he was the only member. Everyone was in the Tiger Club. I think I was a leopard. Sean was a puma. Dennis and one other kid, Brian, were the only two tigers. We had an hour for lunch and we’d always eat as fast as we could and then go out and play football. Dennis and Brian were always the quarterbacks because they were the best. We only played two-hand touch because we were out on a big blacktop playground. Even in the winter we would just put on jackets and keep playing. The only way they could get us off that blacktop was when it rained, and that was because they wouldn’t let us go outside. Whenever it rained they put us in the auditorium and made us watch a movie. I think the school only had about two movies because I must have seen “Labyrinth” and “The Never Ending Story” about five hundred times before I graduated.
I was happy with my seat next to Sean and Dennis. The first day Mr. Paulson made fun of all our names and it was so funny. What was one of them? Sean. Sean’s last name is McBride. So Mr. Paulson said “aye, Mr. Sean McBride” with this big Irish brogue and we all started laughing. That day we played a few games so he could remember our names, and then he gave us a sheet of paper with the supplies we would need written on it, and that was all we did.
The next day we started to work, though. With fractions and decimals and grammar and geography and science, and he told us that we would have a test next week and I didn’t understand what we were doing. I barely passed the fourth grade and now I had all of this work to do and I couldn’t do it. I knew I couldn’t do it. After the first day I was lost and I didn’t understand what he was saying, and I was confused and I knew I wouldn’t be ready for the test next week and I…
“Calm down William.”
Sorry. So I went on in the year. And I was getting behind in everything. Tests came and grades came back and I forgot about homework and I was near the bottom of my class.
One day at lunch we were playing football and I was on Dennis and Sean’s team. All we ever did was pass the ball so I said to Dennis “why don’t we run?” He thought I meant I quarterback sneak, which we did all the time because Dennis was one of the fastest kids in the class, but I was talking about a handoff. It was the first handoff ever and it was my idea. We did a delay so all the defense had gone downfield to cover the receivers, and then Dennis gave the ball to me and I ran. Everyone was so confused that they just stopped and looked at me as I ran in for a touchdown. Then the bell rang and we went back into class.
At the end of the first quarter, grades were sent home to my parents. Dad didn’t seem to care that much. He never got good grades and he ended up as a lawyer. Mom was really mad at how bad mine were. The next week we had parent-teacher conferences. Dad was at work so he couldn’t go see Mr. Paulson, but mom went in and talked to him for over an hour. I was waiting outside and all I could think of was all the bad things they must have been saying. When Mr. Paulson and my mom came out of the room they were laughing, and they shook hands, and then mom took me home. We even had pizza for dinner that night. Dad hated pizza so we didn’t have it that much, but mom went out to Villa Anna Maria and picked up a pie for dinner. She didn’t seem to be mad or anything, and she told me that Mr. Paulson now understood the situation and that I’d be getting extra help from now on. The high school had a program where good students who wanted to do volunteer work could help out students in elementary school who were a little behind. Every Tuesday and Thursday from three to four I would be tutored by one of these high school kids. Mr. Paulson would also give me some special attention to make sure I wasn’t lost.
So the year went on. Mr. Paulson was always checking up on my work and making sure I stayed up with the rest of the class. Every Tuesday and Thursday I stayed after for extra help. There were two or three other kids who stayed after for help from the high school students, and there was one high school kid for each of us. I worked with… what was his name? Tony? Ted. It was Ted. Smart guy. He was a senior that year, and the next year he went to Princeton. That’s why I went to Princeton, I think. I wanted to be just like Ted and if Ted went to Princeton I wanted to go to Princeton too. He was smart, and the captain of the basketball team in high school. He used to roll up his jeans, and then I started to. I still do, see?
William pointed down to his pants with the cuffs rolled up.
Ted was so cool. He knew everything. And he helped me with my work. He made me understand things that we were doing in class. Sometimes when we were done with my work before the hour was up we would play hangman. It’s the game where you have to guess at the letters in a word and you have to figure out the word before a hanging man is drawn on the blackboard. For every wrong guess, you draw an arm or a leg or something on the board.
Working with Ted helped a lot. My grades started to go up and I did better on tests. Also, Mr. Paulson had a policy where if he made a mistake on grading your test and didn’t take off as many points as he was supposed to, you got to keep those points and he wouldn’t take off if he found out his mistake. I started noticing that he was making a lot of mistakes on grading my tests. Sometimes he would add his minuses wrong, or give me more partial credit than he would give someone else. A few times he even marked one of my answers right when it was wrong. I didn’t complain though, and my grades kept getting better and better. Fifth grade was supposed to be hard but it wasn’t that hard. I was figuring it out and it wasn’t that hard. I was even doing better than some of the smart kids on some tests.
One day, Thursday I think, Mr. Paulson gave us some hard math problems for homework, and I knew I was going to need Ted’s help with them. I waited after class with the other kids for the high schoolers to show up, but when they did Ted wasn’t with them. One of the other high school kids, a girl, Sarah I think her name was, told me that Ted was sick, he wouldn’t be coming, and that I could go home. She asked if I wanted her to take me to the principal’s office so I could call home for a ride, but I told her that I always walked home. I got all my books together and left the building. Out on the playground, there were some kids playing football, and on the days that I didn’t have tutoring I normally stayed and played with them, but I knew I had to get to work on the math. Fractions. They were fractions problems and I always had trouble with fractions, so I knew I needed to go straight home and start working if I wanted to get them done on my own without any help.
When I got home mom wasn’t there. The car was in the driveway but mom wasn’t there. Mom was always home when I got back from school. This was the first time I’d ever gotten home and found that she was out. But I knew she wasn’t expecting me home for another hour, and since the car was there I figured she was probably just down the block talking to a neighbor.
I went into the dining room, tossed my backpack on the table, and took out my books. I began right away with the fractions. I had some geography and writing to do, but I knew the fractions were the hardest, so I began with those. I had done a few problems and then I heard some noises upstairs. I had never heard those noises before, and I wasn’t sure what it was. I was a pretty paranoid child; I’ll give you that much. When I heard the noise I thought there was a burglar in the house. I ran into the kitchen and I hid under the table and I waited. I waited and waited and nobody came downstairs and the noise continued. Finally, I decided I would sneak up on the burglar. I would go into the den, get my baseball bat, and go upstairs. I knew I was young and I was scared but that’s what I decided to do.
I went into the den and I got my bat. Slowly, so slowly, I crept up the stairs. The stairs kept creaking and I was trying to be so quiet so the burglar wouldn’t hear me. I got to the top of the stairs and the noise was coming from mommy’s room. I had my bat clenched tight in both hands. So tight. I was holding my bat and I was ready to swing it into that burglar and he’d be knocked unconscious and then I’d dial 911 and I’d be a hero. I’d be a hero.
I flung open the door and I jumped into the room and there was mommy on top of him. She was on top of him, and I was standing there, looking at them. Mommy immediately grabbed a blanket to cover herself, and she pushed me out of the room and closed the door. She left me outside and she went back in. Then she came out again wearing dad’s bathrobe. She told me we needed to talk and she took me into my room and sat me down on my bed. She started talking and I saw Mr. Paulson walk out of mom’s room with just his jeans on, and no shoes or shirt and he went downstairs and mom was wearing dad’s bathrobe. I heard the door open and then close and I knew Mr. Paulson had left.
‘Mommy loves you, William. I want to see you do the best you can. I want to see you be successful. Don’t you want to be successful? You need good grades, William. Next year the school starts tracking for math and science. All the smart kids will be in the same class and move at a faster pace than the other students. And the year after that they separate the kids for English and history. The year after that they separate into advanced classes for a foreign language. If you slip behind now you’ll never be able to get into the advanced classes. If you aren’t in the advanced classes you won’t be able to get into a good college and then you won’t have a good job. I did this for you, William. I love you. Mommy loves you, dear. Your grades weren’t good enough to get into the advanced math and science classes next year. You need to get good grades from Mr. Paulson this year. You needed help and I gave it to you. I helped you because I love you, William. Don’t you understand? You need to get good grades. Everything depends on it.’
That’s what she told me. And if mom said it, it had to be true. The next day I went back to school and I studied and I studied and I got good grades and I got into all the advanced classes, and I did all the extra credit and I carried all the heavy textbooks…
“That’s good William. You’ve done a good job. I think we’ll stop here today.”
Oh. Alright, Dr. Jennings.
“Good. We’ll pick up here tomorrow.”
“OK, Dr. Jennings. Nice to meet you, Dr. Brown.”
“Nice to meet you too, William,” replied Dr. Brown.
Two men walked over to William and escorted him out of the room. Dr. Jennings, the older of the two doctors, made a few notes a pad.
“We made some progress there. That was definitely some progress,” said Dr. Jennings.
“What happened to him, to William?” asked Dr. Brown
“Sophomore year at Princeton he was taking a course in some kind of advanced multi-variable calculus. Very advanced, almost graduate school level. The teacher called him up to the board to solve a problem, and he couldn’t do it. He stared at it and stared at it and couldn’t figure it out. The teacher told him not to worry, that another student would get a chance to try it, but William wouldn’t leave the board, wouldn’t let the other student try. The teacher put his hand on William’s shoulder to try to get him to leave, and William punched him in the face. Knocked him out cold, actually. They called security and William was still just standing at the board, staring at the problem. He couldn’t do it. Security tried to remove him, and William attacked them too. There was plenty of security though, and they dragged him away from that board kicking and screaming. That was two years ago.”
“What’s the diagnosis?” Dr. Brown asked.
Dr. Jennings looked down at his notes, took off his reading glasses and put them in his lab-coat pocket, and began to chuckle to himself. “He hates his mother.”
About John Power
John Power was born and raised in and around New York City, graduated from college in rural Virginia, lived and wrote for a year in Warsaw, Poland, and currently resides in Chicago. His short stories have been published in Cleaning Up Glitter, Hemingway Shorts Vol. 2, Thoughtful Dog Magazine, The Great Lakes Review, and the Journal of Legal Education. His most recent novel, “Participation”, and an earlier “Toy With the Flame”, are available on amazon.com. His first novel, “Golden Freedom”, is available on lulu.com.