The Horace Chronicles, #3
in which we see a teacher make an opening move
The first day of school was really long, because it was really hot. By the end of first period I could feel the sweat trickle down the back of the new Beatles vintage Abbey Road t-shirt my mother got me at Target. Mr. Alfonsin took mercy on us for gym, saying it was too humid to try and do much, and let those of us who wanted to throw a basketball around. At lunch Janito and I grabbed a piece of pizza and went outside to the upper field, where a breeze was beginning to blow. By eighth period some really thick clouds began to roll in and you could hear the rumble of thunder in the distance. When I went into room H-234 for Mr. Smith’s class big wet drops began sneaking in under the open windows. Storms like this usually came later in the day.
When I got there a couple kids had already arrived, and Mr. Smith was sitting at his desk. He had He had on light brown pants, and a green shirt. His gray hair covered his head, but it was also kind of thin, like a halo rising off it. There was a bottle of water on the desk, a stack of textbooks, and a book he was reading really intently. It was battered and thick and had Post-It notes coming out the sides. I staked out my usual position on the near the front of the room but on the side, close enough to feel those drops.
This was my first time in H-234, which was known as Mr. Smith’s room. There was a lot of stuff tacked to the walls – a yellowed front page from the day after Obama got elected; a picture of Central Park in the snow; postcards from all over the United States. There was also a map of the North America in 1733, a poster of Silence of the Lambs, and another from Gone with the Wind, which surprised me because I thought that was a movie about how great slavery was. There were also lots of index cards with words on them that I couldn’t read from where I was sitting. I’d have a look at them later.
“Fifty two minutes and counting.” It was Carl Shamsky, whose books landed with a thud as he sat down next to me. I saw one of them was American Pageant, a book I was supposed to order online and forgot to. Shit. I saw a lot of kids already had it. And my Dad would be pissed. “How’s it hangin,’ Theo?”
“Hey Carl.” I never much liked Carl, Maya, but I can’t quite figure out why. Something about the way he always seems to want your attention. But I don’t know if that’s fair. Particularly since I was probably going to need to borrow his book.
“Hey, isn’t Janito supposed to be in this class?” he asked.
“No, he had to switch into Clark because of the jazz band.”
“Oh, that sucks. My sister had Clark. I had Dyson. She was OK. So was Bergmann. Of course anybody is better than Pavlak. I had him for earth science and he was unbelievably . . .”
I tuned Carl out and surveyed the rest of the room. A few faces I recognized, but nobody I’d really consider a friend. Alan Greenberg was there in back, sitting next to Derek Thompson. They looked hot, tired, and wishing they were anywhere else. I also saw Deana Michaelis, Hannah Wise and Lee Agnelli – the Mean Girls of Hudson High – giggling over something, probably making fun of someone. Probably me. On the other side of the room was a girl I knew from English last year, Liz Ling. She said some interesting things in class, but I never talked with her outside class. You’d probably like her, Maya.
Just then a big flash of lightning lit up the sky outside. The Mean Girls shrieked – you could tell they just liked the sound of their own voices. I’m not sure whether it was the light or the noise that led Mr. Smith to look up from his book and look up at the clock at the wall behind me (I always sit with it behind me, Maya – I can’t stand watching it crawl.) He closed the book and stood up, taking us in. Just then a big crack of thunder led the Mean Girls to go off again. Mr. Smith pursed his lips waiting for both to pass without comment. I thought that was interesting, but I wondered it the girls would take it as weakness.
“Hi kids,” he said quietly, walking around to the front of his desk, folding his arms, and waiting for the chatter to subside, as it did. He used his head to gesture the board behind him. “I’m Horace Smith. Welcome to 11th grade AP U.S. History. As you know, we have a test coming up at the end of the year, and we’re going to have to keep a good pace. In order for that to happen, I’m going to depend on you to do the reading, which we’ll talk about in class. One thing I’m going to avoid doing, as much as I can, is simply reviewing what’s in the book. That will bore the hell out of me, and, more important, that will bore the hell out of you.”
Can you remember a teacher using the word “hell” in class, Maya?
“Truth is,” he said, "we have a limited amount of maneuver here. I have a job to do, which is getting you ready for that test, and your job is to prepare for it too. Actually, I suppose you have multiple jobs to do – this course is one of many you’re taking, and you’ve got whatever else you might have going on. The team, the play, whatever. To some extent, our interests overlap – we both want you to do well – and to some degree they don’t. I’m probably going to want more work out of you than you feel is necessary, and at least some of you will figure out loopholes. I, for my part, am not supposed to give every one of you an A, so you’re not only competing against each other but against my professional standards and my memory of the kids who have come before you.”
I stole a glance around the room. Everybody was paying attention, even the Mean Girls. I don’t think they were used to be talked to this way. I bit my lip to hold back a smile I feared would turn into a laugh.
“Anyway.” He dropped his arms to his sides. “I know it’s hot – the rain should help, but I know you’re all tired. Your homework tonight is Chapter One, the whole thing. I figure you’ve had the whole summer off and might as well jump right in.” He looked a little awkward, even apologetic, his hands on his calves. Then, suddenly, he tapped them. “Just one thing I want to go over before I let you go.”
He turned, a little abruptly, and sat again at his desk. He reached over and grabbed his bottle of water. This was the first time he was drinking it – I could hear the cap click.
“I have here an authentic bottle of Poland Spring water,” he said, which sounded a little funny. “You see this?” He held up the cap. “This is one of the new ecologically correct caps that uses less plastic than the old ones. After school today I’m going to take this cap home and add it to my bottle cap collection.”
He paused, his eyes scanning the room for a reaction. Carl’s eyes were furrowed in a what-the-fuck kind of look.
“Tell me,” Mr. Smith said, looking down at a piece of paper that I guess what his class list. I think he forgot to take attendance. I saw him silently count the students in the room, make an annotation and look up again. “Deana Michaelis. Where are you?”
“Here?” I turned around to see Deana look startled, then frightened – why was Mr. Smith calling on her? “Tell me, Deana: where you keep your bottle cap collection?”
“My bottle cap collection?”
“Yeah,” Mr. Smith responded, with a touch of impatience. “Your bottle cap collection.” He stood up and started walking toward her.
“I don’t know what you mean.” Deana would have been angry if she wasn’t so scared.
“You don’t know what a bottle cap collection is?”
He shifted his gaze. “You: what’s your name?”
“You sound about as confident as your pal Deana, Hannah. Want to check and make sure that’s your name?” A few people laughed. I did too, but felt a little guilty. It wasn’t really fair for a teacher to make fun of students like this.
“Well, Hannah, or whatever your name is. Where do you keep your bottle cap collection? At your beside table, maybe?”
Hannah seemed to decide, without being entirely sure, that this whole thing was a joke. “Um, like, I don’t have a bottle cap collection.”
Mr. Smith looked stunned. “Wait a second,” he said, staring at her, sounding amazed but not entirely serious. “You’re telling me you don’t have a bottle collection?”
Hannah had her confidence back (I was kind of sorry). “Yeah, that’s right. Don’t have one.”
“Wow.” Mr. Smith seemed stunned, unsure what to say or do. Then he turned around suddenly. “What about you?” he said to Carl. “Surely you have a bottle cap collection.”
“You?” He was looking at me. And, really, Maya, I don’t know where my answer came from. “I sold it on eBay,” I said.
“Whoa,” Mr. Smith said. “Harsh!” But his eyes were dancing. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier about a teacher being happy with me. “Well, tell me something son,” he said. “What’s your name?"
“Tell me this, Theo. Did your bottle cap collection have one of these eco-friendly Poland Spring caps?”
“Yeah, it did.”
“And one of the older, full size caps?”
“Any flip tops, like from Dr. Pepper or Pepsico products?”
“Of course.” I was getting into this.
“Yeah, well, my bottle cap collection has one of the old, full-pull off caps from a 1981 can of Budweiser. Don’t even try to tell me you have one of those. And I wouldn’t sell it for a million bucks.”
I didn’t know what to say about that. I did wonder later, though, if tabs were the same thing as caps.
“And what about you?” he asked Dave Trask, who probably smoked a joint at lunch. “Nah, man,” he replied. Don’t save bottle caps. I throw them in the trash.”
“In the trash? You throw them away?”
“Yeah.” Dave wasn’t looking at Mr. Smith. He didn’t seem to know, or care, if Mr. Smith was kidding.
“Don’t you know anything about history?”
Dave looked away, as if he was being hassled, which I guess he was. Mr. Smith walked to his desk and sat down again. There was a long silence. I thought this would bother him. I know I was getting restless.
“What does any of this have to do with history?” Hannah finally asked. I don’t know if she meant to sound jokey/annoyed, but she sounded more mad than funny. “I thought this was AP U.S. history. Why are we talking about bottle caps?”
“Well, now, Hannah, I’m glad you asked. You wonder what bottle caps have to do with history. If we’re going to talk about history what to you think we should talk about?” “I dunno. Books, maybe?"
Mr. Smith didn’t take the bait. “Well, sure. You got one of those. Your homework tonight is reading from a book. I've got a couple extra if any hasn't got one yet. Anything else?”
“I dunno. Like documents?”
“Yes. Documents. Definitely. We’ll be talking about those. But let me ask you something. What if those documents aren’t in English?”
“You could, like, translate them.”
“Yes, though my Spanish isn’t that good. What if they’re in French? Or Chinese?”
“Or what if they’re in an ancient language that nobody actually speaks any longer? And what if those documents got lost in a fire, or got water damaged, or got used as toilet paper by invading armies?”
“That’s gross,” Deana said.
“Well, maybe. But what then?”
Liz Ling raised her hand. She was actually the first person in the class to do that. “And who are you?” Mr. Smith asked.
“I’m Elizabeth. You could look at their buildings. Or their artwork. You could learn about history that way.”
Mr. Smith nodded. “Yes, Elizabeth, that’s a very good answer. That’s exactly what a lot of historians do.” He paused. “But unfortunately lots of buildings and artwork also perish in fires or end up buried under water. So what do we do then?”
Liz didn’t try to answer that one. Neither did anyone else. Another long pause. This time Mr. Smith broke the silence.
“You over there. What’s your name?”
“Dave.” He answered as if he felt some sacred rule was once again being broken: You just don’t call on people if they don't raise their hand. “I said I don’t know.”
“Oh, but you do know, Dave. Don’t you remember?”
“Yes. Trash. That’s what you said you did with your bottle caps. And that’s exactly how some people – they tend to be anthropologists more than historians, but it’s the same idea – learn about what happened in the past. They look through the trash. They figure out what had or hadn’t happened by looking through piles they discovered of what people had thrown away. They figure out when a pile got there by looking at how wide or narrow the pipe stems were that people had used up or that had gotten broken, for example. Pipe stems vary in size. Like the length of girls’ skirts. Sort of a fashion thing. Actually, sometimes what other people thought of as trash we think of as artwork. And vice-versa. Like bottle caps. I think of them as treasure. But Dave here throws them away.” He paused. “And Theo over there, crassly tries to make a buck. Heartless bastard.”
Everybody laughed, even Dave, sort of. I did, too.
Mr. Smith stood up again. “In tonight’s reading you’re going to meet lots of people – a lot of them Native Americans – who lived hundreds of years ago. In a lot of ways, they’ll be like you: they worked and played, loved each other and hated each other. But they’ll also be different from you in the things they cared about, the things they saved and threw away. Now they’re gone. We try to remember them, but the record we have is incomplete. And the way we understand them isn’t exactly the way they understood themselves. Sort of like trying to understand you in terms of bottle caps. Not exactly a lie, but probably not the way you want to be remembered. Something worth keeping in mind as you do the reading. See you tomorrow.”
The rain was tapering. I turned around and looked at the clock. Mr. Smith was ending class a few minutes early. “See you tomorrow,” Hannah said as she walked out the door. Mr. Smith nodded. “A couple other kids said thanks as they left.
I was among the last to go. "Could I borrow one of those books you mentioned? I forgot to order it."
"Sure," he said, picking one up off the stack on his desk.
"Do I need to sign it out or anything?"
"Nah. I got a bunch. I kinda collect them. You can keep it as long as you like."
He looked at me for what I felt was the first time. "You want to borrow it for the whole year?"
"Could I? Really?"
"Well, there doesn't seem to be much demand, and I still have a few. So go head, Theo. I know you're good for it."
"No problem, kid," he said, turning back to the book he was reading. "See you tomorrow."
A few days later Janito and me went to see Riddick at Ridge Hill. After the woman at the entrance to the theater tore my ticket in half, I saw a trash can and was going to throw it away. But then I changed my mind and shoved it in my pocket. When I got home I put in a mason jar on my desk where I keep paper clips and stuff like that. I don’t think my movie tickets are going to be part of any archeological site or anything. But I think I want to keep track of my own history.