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Miss Lydia Fairbanks and the Losers Club

MISS LYDIA FAIRBANKS AND THE LOSERS CLUB

by Duane L. Ostler

 

Published on Shakespir by Duane L. Ostler

Copyright 2015 Duane L. Ostler

 

All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced, copied or distributed without the express permission of the author.

 

The author was formerly identified in prior versions of this book under pen name “E. Reltso.”

 

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters of this book and a real person is purely coincidental.

 

Cover art: U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photo, 1943, picture of Miss Norma Kale, Woodrow Wilson High School English Teacher. Photographer Esther Bubley.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

OTHER BOOKS BY THE AUTHOR

 

CHAPTER ONE

Tom Clyde was sick. He had ringing in his ears, grinding in his stomach, palpitations in his heart, aches in his kidneys, arthritis in his joints, and puffiness in his eyes. In addition to these minor problems, he also had high blood pressure and diabetes flare-ups, not to mention the migraine headaches and agonizing shingles stretching all the way up his arms.

Tom Clyde was sick indeed. But he was no fool. He knew what the REAL cause of all these maladies was. It was not a weak or unhealthy body. It was not inherited poor genes. It was not viruses or flu bugs. It was just one simple thing.

His job.

Inner City Junior High School. Even repeating the name in his own mind caused him to shudder involuntarily, and also caused the gurgling in his ulcers to start. Inner City Junior High School. Take any school in the state, shake out all the bad and rough students and throw them together—and they would be mere pussycats compared to the average students who ranged the halls of Inner City Junior High School every day. The place stank. It was not so much a real odor or physical smell that it reeked of. Rather, it stank of harshness, brutality, failure, bullying, despair, frustration, hopelessness and crime. All of these things and more oozed from the very walls every day.

And Tom Clyde was its principal.

With a sigh, he leaned back in the swivel chair in his office. The chair squeaked in its usual irritating way, adding to the general spirit of discomfort he felt just by being here. One of these days the silly chair was going to break altogether and leave him sprawling on the floor. But such a minor tragedy would be laughable compared to what he had to deal with every day in this awful school.

The telephone on his desk buzzed. “Mr. Clyde?” came his secretary’s tired voice. “I just got a phone call from Fred Bozley. You know—he teaches science. He’s going to the hospital to have his head examined. He says two students threw books at him in the hall, and hit his head. Apparently there was a bit of blood.”

Tom groaned, but at the same time almost felt like laughing. Fred was going to have his head examined! That’s what every one of the faculty should do for even working one day in this horrible school—including himself! What sane person in his right mind would ever want to work here?

Tom spoke to the phone on his desk, since he knew Mrs. Jensen was expecting an answer. “Did you call the school district substitute line? Are they sending someone over to take Fred’s classes?”

“I called and they said they’d try,” she answered. “But you know how hard it is for them to find substitutes willing to come here …”

Tom leaned farther back with a groan, causing his unhappy chair to squeak a good deal more. The last thing he wanted to do was go in and substitute himself. It would be like stepping into a warzone.

“How about Coach Mane?” he asked with dim hope. Sometimes the coach was willing, and given his size, the kids didn’t mess with him too much.

“He’s got a class the next hour,” came Mrs. Jensen’s voice. “He said he could sub for the rest of the day after that, though.”

“So we just need to find a substitute for the next hour,” said Tom, drumming his fingers grumpily on his desk. It looked like he might have to do it himself after all.

“Maybe,” said Mrs. Jensen mysteriously. Suddenly she added, “There’s a Miss Lydia Fairbanks here to see you. For a job interview to become a teacher here. She says she has an appointment …”

Tom instantly understood what Mrs. Jensen was thinking. This Lydia Fairbanks person, who was insane enough to come here wanting a job, could perhaps be asked if she would be willing to substitute for an hour …

“Send her right in,” he said flatly. He straightened up in his chair, causing it to squeak more harshly than before. Then he picked up an old silver dollar he kept on his desk, which he flipped aimlessly through his fingers whenever he felt nervous. It got a lot of use every day.

Should he do it? Should he send Lydia Fairbanks into the classroom? He’d read her resume and knew she had just graduated from the local community college and was hoping to fill the writing teacher opening at Inner City Junior High, which was currently being taught by unhappy substitutes. She clearly had no experience, and for her to even consider applying to this school she was obviously struggling to find a job. It was understandable why—writing teachers were a dime a dozen, and as often as not ended up flipping burgers rather than teaching. But no matter. All that mattered today was finding a sub for the next hour, and Lydia Fairbanks could be just the ticket. But he knew if he did send her into the classroom, she’d probably withdraw her request to become a teacher here. That is, if she had any sense—and if she survived.

The door opened quietly, and as Lydia Fairbanks stepped into the room Tom’s heart sank. One glance at her clearly showed she was no match for the tough kids that ranged these halls. Although she was young, she was small and frail-looking, with a plain, unattractive face. She walked with a timidity that seemed to jump out and say, “Look at how unconfident I am!” She fit in this place about like a baby duckling fits in a den of hungry wolves.

“Mr. Clyde?” said Lydia in a barely audible, quiet voice. She stretched out her hand tentatively then pulled it back, clearly at a loss about what to do. Should she offer to shake hands or just sit down? In the end she just sat down, causing her chair to squeak like all the chairs in Tom’s office. “I’m Lydia Fairbanks. I’m here about the writing teacher job …”

It was only too obvious to Tom Clyde that, even if he gave her a job here, she probably wouldn’t last a day. It now seemed like a blessing in disguise that Fred was on his way to the hospital. Lydia’s taking his class would be just the taste she needed of Inner City Junior High School, so that she would leave its wretched halls and never return again.

But he wasn’t going to tell her any of that. He’d start off by pretending this was a real job interview, even though his only goal now was to get her to substitute for an hour. “Yes, I’ve looked at your resume,” said Tom, eyeing her through his puffy eyes, while rubbing his head in an effort to soften his migraine. “I notice you don’t have any teaching experience …”

“Oh, but I can learn!” said Lydia quickly. The pleading look in her eyes jumped out at Tom. “I did a great deal of student teaching while at the community college, getting my degree.”

“I see,” said Tom, rubbing his sore kidneys. He gazed down at his shoes, wondering why he was feeling a sudden pain searing up his leg. Was this a new malady the blasted school had given him?

He looked up at her again. “I think it only fair to warn you that most teachers find this school to be somewhat of a … challenge. Mostly men teachers apply here, and the ones who stay are usually big men, with some training in martial arts …”

The pleading look in Lydia’s eyes intensified. “But I’m very good with children and youth,” she said hurriedly. “They usually respect me. At least that’s been the case in all the classes where I did my student teaching while obtaining my degree—”

“The community college is hardly going to send its trainee teachers into difficult schools,” said Tom with a scowl. “This school is nothing like you’ve ever seen before.” He paused, watching as her lip quivered. She must be nearly penniless to want this job so badly. He made a mental note to himself, to make sure she received a full day’s pay for substituting, even though she would only take Fred’s class for an hour.

“I think perhaps it would be good to try a little test,” he said, while gingerly lifting his foot off the floor and moving it around, with the hope that would make the pain go away. “One of our teacher’s has unexpectedly had to leave today, and a substitute is needed for the next hour. It’s a science class—not your subject, of course. But it seems that we need someone there right now, and you just happen to be here—”

“Wonderful!” said Lydia, rising to her feet and clasping her hands. Tom couldn’t stop himself from shaking his head in pity. “I doubt you’ll think it’s wonderful an hour from now,” he said darkly. “But if you’re willing to do it, Mrs. Jensen will tell you were the classroom is, and you can go there immediately.”

“And if all goes well, will I get a job here?” asked Lydia hopefully. Tom looked at her frail face, so full of hope. Suddenly he felt uneasy to send her into that lion’s den for even one hour. She probably wouldn’t last five minutes, and he’d end up down there himself, subbing for the rest of the hour.

She continued to stare at him with hope-filled eyes. He looked at her and sighed, wearily. There was no need to dash her hopes. What could it hurt to promise she could have the job if she lasted an hour? He knew he wouldn’t see her again. In a matter of minutes she’d be out the door like a rocket.

“Certainly,” he said amiably as he rose painfully from his chair. His doctor had said only last week that he might have gout in his left leg. Maybe that was what this new pain was. “Just come back after the class, and we’ll discuss it further …”

Lydia beamed at him, then quickly went through the door and over to Mrs. Jensen’s desk.

“Poor woman,” mumbled Tom to himself, reaching into his drawer for some of his pills. “She has no idea what she is about to face.” He popped several pills in his mouth, wishing they’d bring him the relief they were supposed to.

 

CHAPTER TWO

“Class, I am Lydia Fairbanks. Today I will be your substitute teacher.”

No one heard her. No one in fact had paid any attention to her from the moment she’d walked into the room. The 27 students were too busy beating each other up, or yelling and screaming profanities at each other, or throwing things at each other to pay any attention. One student threw a book that nearly took a girl’s eye out. It smacked her on the side of the head with a sickening thump that was sure to leave an ugly bruise. She promptly responded by picking up the book and throwing it back in the direction she thought it had come from, even though she had no idea who had thrown it. It hit another girl in the face, nearly breaking her glasses.

A book bag crashed into the window, shaking the glass, but not breaking it. And for good reason. It had been decided long ago that replacing broken windows in THIS school would not only exceed the school’s budget, but probably the entire school fund of the entire state. So a special, fine-wire mesh glass had been installed that was nearly impossible to break. It looked ugly, but did the job and saved the taxpayers a great deal of money. And it even let in a little sunlight as well.

A big, rough-looking kid with a scar under one eye yanked open another boy’s backpack and pulled out a soda can. He shook it wildly, then pointed it point blank at a nearby student and opened the lid. The spray went everywhere. Instantly there were screams, shouts and profanity from half a dozen soda-soaked students.

“Class,” said Lydia Fairbanks again in her timid voice from the front of the room. “I am your substitute teacher today. It is time to begin. Will you all please settle down?” Once again, no one paid the slightest attention to her. A shoe came flying her way, causing her to duck.

Action was clearly needed. And it was action Lydia Fairbanks was obviously incapable of supplying. She nervously straightened her hair, her knuckles white with tension. She needed this job so badly.

Turning, she pulled a compact out of her bag. It was an unusual compact, although it was just a cheap one she had found at a dollar store. It had a black case with symbols of the zodiac scattered across the cover. Opening it up, she walked over to the window and turned the compact so that the sunlight reflected off the mirror inside. She then proceeded to aim the concentrated sunlight at the students around the room.

“What the—?” exclaimed several students. Others responded with varying levels of profanity, some of which was strong enough to make Miss Fairbanks’ ears turn red. But she didn’t falter. She just kept pointing the compact mirror at the students one by one until she had attracted their attention, and their collective noise had subsided to a dull roar.

“Class,” she said for the third time that day, “I am Miss Lydia Fairbanks. I am your substitute teacher today.

“Hey, cut it out with the light!” cried the kid with the scar. “You trying to blind me or something?”

“Is being blinded by sunlight something you’ve been studying here in science?” asked Miss Fairbanks innocently. Half the kids groaned. “Of course not, ugly!” said one of the bullies, who had the nasty habit of calling all teachers ‘ugly.’ “None of us knows what ol’ man Bozley tries to teach us in here, ‘cause none of what he says makes any sense. We only come here ‘cause if we don’t stay out of the halls, Principal Clyde calls our parents or our youth probation officer, and then we catch it good!”

Several of the students sniggered, even though they all knew it was true. They were staring at Miss Fairbanks expectantly, nearly salivating at the fight they were sure was coming. No teacher they’d ever seen responded well to being called ‘ugly.’

But they underestimated Miss Fairbanks. With a faint smile, she turned to the bully who had spoken. “You can be the first one, then,” she said for no apparent reason. She suddenly snapped the lid of the compact shut, and closed her eyes. The students watched, spellbound, completely clueless about what she was doing and what was going on.

Miss Fairbanks began to sway gently on her feet. “I feel the stars calling me about you, since you’re the first one,” she said faintly. Some of the kids laughed, but others ‘shushed’ them to be quiet, anxious to see what was coming next. What was this loony teacher up to?

Inwardly, Miss Fairbanks smiled to herself. She had succeeded at quieting the classroom more than its four walls had experienced in many a day.

“Yes,” she said even more faintly, so her voice was hardly a whisper. “The stars are calling your name … calling your name … calling—”

“Armpitface Arnold!” yelled a kid with bright, yellow hair, who simply couldn’t resist the temptation. Miss Fairbanks eyes snapped open, and she smiled. She now knew the bully’s name, or at least part of it.

“Shut up, maggot breath!” yelled Arnold at yellow hair, launching a book at him. Yelling and shrieking suddenly pierced across the room as everyone started throwing things again. Miss Fairbanks snapped her eyes closed and started to swoon. “Arnold, Arnold,” she whispered.

SHUT UP!” yelled scar face with his considerable lungs. “I want to hear what the loony teacher’s saying!” Although Miss Fairbank’s eyes were still closed, she distinctly heard the sickening thud of a fist smacking into flesh, as scar face backed up his words with muscle. She cringed, and it took all her will power to avoid opening her eyes to see who the groaning victim was.

“Arnold, Arnold,” she whispered again, her voice barely audible. Once more the class was quiet as a tomb, straining to hear her every word. Slowly Miss Fairbanks opened her eyes to see all the class gaping at her. They clearly thought she was nuts, but were very interested just the same. With great effort, Miss Fairbanks avoided a smile, and slowly opened the compact.

“My stars!” she cried out in what to her was a loud voice, but to the students of Inner City Junior High School (who were used to constant screaming) sounded more like the tiny voice of a flea. “Can it be? I knew the mystic compact could tell the future of any person, but this—oh, my!”

“What does it say about my future?” cried Arnold, his face creasing in worry. He raced to the front of the room and rudely snatched the compact out of Miss Fairbank’s hands. He stared at it for only a second, then grimaced in disgust and held it threateningly over Miss Fairbank’s head, as if he intended to shove it down her throat. “There’s nothing there!” he barked. “It’s just a stupid old mirror!”

Miss Fairbanks laughed lightly, even though her heart was racing with the fear that Arnold might indeed strike her with the compact. “Naturally,” she said in as flippant a voice as she could muster. “The mystic compact doesn’t tell its secrets to just anyone! Least of all to the person it is giving a prophecy about—such as the prophecy of your awful future that it just showed me!”

Arnold hesitated, torn between a desire to shove the compact down Miss Fairbank’s throat, or give it back to her and have her tell what it said about him. In the end, his cruel nature won out, and his arm started to swing down toward her throat—but he was stopped just in time as scar face came up and ripped the compact out of his hand.

“I said shut up armpit,” he growled at Arnold. “Who cares about you? I want to hear what the stupid thing says about me.”

Arnold swung a fist at him, but scar face dodged and then elbowed him painfully in the ribs. “Don’t take swipes at me, fatface!” he yelled, giving Arnold a vicious kick in the shins. Miss Fairbanks winced once again, and fought to resist the urge to do the normal adult thing and either start lecturing scar face, or showing sympathy for Arnold’s pain. She knew that neither action would end well.

“Here, toots,” said scar face flippantly as he tossed the compact in Miss Fairbank’s face. “See what it says about me.” Arnold was limping painfully back to his seat.

She looked at him solemnly for a moment. “Very well,” she said slowly. “If you insist. But be warned—the mystic compact never lies, and what it says is often not pretty.”

“Is it as ugly as you?” yelled yellow hair, unable to resist the temptation once more. Miss Fairbanks ignored him, and once more closed her eyes and swayed on her feet. “Oh magic, mystical compact, reveal the future of this poor, misguided child—”

“Child!” chortled half a dozen voices at once. “That’s no child! That’s Bobby ‘antpant’ Vance, leader of the Leeches street gang!” This time Miss Fairbanks could not resist a slight smile. Once more, she now knew his name.

Slowly she opened her eyes. Half the class were looking at her with barely contained glee, while the other half were looking rather worried. Good. She now had half of them convinced. That was enough to keep the other half in check, at least for now.

But she also knew the show wasn’t over yet. And that it would have to be a good one to keep the wolves at bay for 35 more minutes …

Slowly Miss Fairbanks opened the compact. Then she started to tremble so badly she nearly dropped it. “No!” she croaked. “It cannot be!”

“What is it? What is it?” Bobby fairly screamed as he danced in agitation in front of her, looking as if he really did have ants in his pants. A girl at the back of the room tittered, then instantly regretted it as Bobby peeled off his shoe and sent it sailing in her direction. It hit her hard enough to knock her hairpins off.

“My, oh my,” said Miss Fairbanks, shaking her head sadly while continuing to stare at the blank mirror inside her compact. “How terribly, terribly sad.” She looked up at Bobby and sighed. “I am so sorry for you.”

“What is it?” screamed Bobby, dancing around with increased worry. “Tell me! Tell me!”

Miss Fairbanks shook her head glumly. “I’m afraid the mystic compact does not tell its secrets directly. It gives its answers in riddles and clues, which a person must figure out. And the riddle it gave about you looked very stark and bad indeed …”

“What was the riddle?” shrieked Bobby, grabbing the compact out of her hand, then shoving it back since he couldn’t see anything in the mirror anyway. “TELL ME THE RIDDLE!”

Miss Fairbanks shrugged. “It was a short message,” she said simply. “It merely said that unless you change your life, you will end up just like the ancient Quagga.”

Bobby stopped short and stared at her stupidly. “The what?” he asked.

“The Quagga,” said Miss Fairbanks with a sad smile.

"Well, what the #%!*& is a Quagga?" yelled Bobby angrily. Miss Fairbanks shrugged. "I thought you knew. The mystic compact always targets its message in a way the victim understands."

“Well, I don’t know what a stupid Quagga is!” bellowed Bobby. He growled at Miss Fairbanks. “Are you putting me on?”

“Why would I trifle with something so sacred as your future, Bobby?” said Miss Fairbanks seriously. “It is YOUR future after all. Perhaps you had better try to find out what a Quagga is. It seems like I heard of it once. I think it might be some kind of animal.”

“Well, how’m I going to find out about it here!” yelled Bobby. “There’s no internet at all in this stinking school!” Which was true. Principal Clyde had removed the wireless capacity, since all the students did all day when it was on was surf the internet or view questionable websites on their ipods.

In sheer frustration, Bobby smacked his fist into the soft belly of a scrawny kid who had the misfortune of sitting in the front row. The poor kid doubled over in pain. Miss Fairbanks bit her lip, once more fighting to resist the urge to respond as a typical adult.

“While it’s true the internet is not here, we do have other resources,” suggested Miss Fairbanks. She looked around the room expectantly, but all she saw were blank faces. “I’m talking about your science text books,” she finally said bluntly. “I suspect they might tell you—”

There was a sudden thunder as everyone in class turned to yank out the books that none of them had opened since the school year began. “I’m going to find this stupid Quagga fast, so she can look in the mystic compact and see what it says about ME!” exclaimed a large girl with buck teeth, who had the nasty habit of slapping half the kids she met across the face for no reason.

“Yeah, right Slapface!” ribbed another girl who had a skull and cross bones painted on all her fingernails. “She’s going to find out about MY future first!” A good deal of yelling then ensued as each student assured all the others that they would simply have to wait their turn, since Miss Fairbanks would obviously be telling their future before anyone else’s.

“You’re wasting precious time!” said Miss Fairbanks in her loudest voice, which barely carried to the second row of desks. “There will be time for everyone, but only if you quickly find the Quagga!” This announcement resulted in a flurry of ripped pages as students wildly searched their science texts for the mysterious creature who—unknown to all of them—happened to be an extinct variety of African zebra.

And so it was that Principal Clyde and his secretary Mrs. Jensen were met by an astounding, unthinkable sight as they approached the room where Miss Fairbanks was substitute teaching. Out of sheer pity, both had decided they should check up on the frail little woman, to see if she was still alive. What met their eyes was a classroom of students frantically searching through their science textbooks as if their lives depended on it!

“Is anything wrong?” asked Miss Fairbanks curiously as Principal Clyde stopped just inside the classroom door. His mouth was open so wide that a passing fly mistook it for a cave and nearly suffocated from bad breath when he flew inside. Next to him, Mrs. Jensen’s eyes opened so big, her face looked like a frog that’s been stepped on.

“Wrong?” jibbered Principal Clyde nonsensically, as he continued to gape at the class. “No, nothing’s wrong.” Then he stared at her in wonder. “How …” he began, gesturing toward the class.

Miss Fairbanks laughed gently, with a sound like butterfly wings. “They’re all very interested in science today,” she said simply. “Aren’t they like this normally?”

Mr. Clyde shook his head stupidly. Then a big, goofy smile started to spread all over his face. “You’re hired!” he suddenly blurted.

Miss Fairbanks’ heart soared. No more noodle dinners!

 

CHAPTER THREE

The school day was finally over. The sad walls of Inner City Junior High School were only too glad to regurgitate the students who had been trapped inside, spewing them out into the unfortunate neighborhood. The kids mostly ran screaming senselessly to freedom, wishing with all their hearts that they didn’t have to return tomorrow.

Miss Lydia Fairbanks was erasing the chalkboard at the front of the science room where she had ended up substituting all day. She had used the Quagga, as well as the carrier pigeon, dodo bird and Stellar sea cow as hidden ‘messages’ from her magical compact in every class for the rest of the day. Each creature was extinct of course, adding to its mystery, and to the profound nature of the message it carried to whatever unfortunate student was told he would end up just like it if he didn’t change his life. It was a message none of them would take to heart of course, but one had to try.

Miss Fairbanks was exhausted. Principal Clyde had been correct that this school was different from where she had done her student teaching. Trying to keep one step ahead of the killer students had taken every bit of her energy and wit. And now she was expected to do it all again tomorrow, even though the ‘mystic compact’ would obviously have lost its charm by then as being ‘from yesterday.’

Turning, Miss Fairbanks was surprised to see a student still seated at one of the desks, toward the back of the room. He was a slender boy, with mouse brown hair. She had noticed him in the last class, and noticed also that he tended to slump down in his desk as if trying to hide, rather than bash his fellow students like everyone else.

“Not going home today?” asked Miss Fairbanks, looking at him curiously.

“Sure,” he grunted, as he slowly dragged his reluctant book bag out from under his desk. He stood up very slowly, and Miss Fairbanks could see that he was slumped even when standing.

“I didn’t mean to rush you,” said Miss Fairbanks hurriedly. “You can stay as long as you’d like.” He looked up at her curiously, and the two made eye contact for the first time—something he had carefully avoided during class. And the instant he did so, Miss Fairbank’s heart skipped a beat as she recognized something that she had felt all too often herself.

There was pain and fear written in those eyes.

The boy slumped back down into his desk. “Yeah,” he said, trying to sound casual. “Maybe I’ll stay awhile …”

Miss Fairbanks fidgeted with the eraser and the chalkboard, even though there was nothing left to erase. What was she to do? Clearly the boy was afraid to go home, and given the brutal reputation of the homes in this neighborhood, it wasn’t hard to guess why. And now that she realized it, she’d noticed a number of fresh bruises on his skin, all over.

Miss Fairbank’s eyes were suddenly moist. She knew how he felt. Nowhere safe to go, no place to hide. Pain waiting at every corner, and never anyone near to give a kind word.

She walked quietly over and sat down next to the boy. He rustled in his seat uncomfortably, clearly not used to anyone showing much interest in him. His instincts screamed out to him to be wary, since people were not to be trusted. She groped in her mind for something to say that might make him feel better—something that could perhaps give the smallest glimmer of hope in an otherwise negative world.

Miss Fairbanks gazed at him sadly. His shirt was faded, his jeans were shredded, and his shoes were nearly worn through. His hair was tangled and uncombed, and his skin looked dirty, in addition to being heavily bruised. Then she noticed a few small, clinging black hairs to the lower parts of his jeans and on his shoes, which probably meant that he had a—

Now she knew what to talk about. “Do you have a dog or a cat?” she asked suddenly.

He looked up at her in surprise. For a minute he didn’t speak, trying to figure out how she had known. Then slowly, he nodded his head.

“What’s its name?” she prompted gently.

He continued to stare at her for a minute. Then he bowed his head and muttered, “Her name is Isabel. She’s a black cat.” He didn’t offer any more.

“Have you had her very long?” asked Miss Fairbanks.

The boy seemed to scowl, obviously struggling with something in his mind. Why was she asking him all these questions? Was she planning something? Was she going to call his folks and complain that he was distracted in class by his pet?

He looked over at her, ready to grunt nonsense in reply, to play it safe and continue to protect himself. But her eyes were shining with such curiosity and kindness, he suddenly found himself saying, “She’s a stray. She came to our door a few weeks ago, and I gave her some milk. She’s never wanted to leave since then.”

Miss Fairbanks smiled at him. “Tell me more,” she said simply. She rested her head in her hands, looking at the boy intensely. And without thinking, without even wanting to, he suddenly found himself opening up to her, saying things he knew he would regret later. He spoke of private things which he had never told anyone before. Like how he was fascinated by Isabel’s purring, and wished she could speak because he knew she would never say anything unkind to him. Or of his plan to someday travel across the country—taking Isabel with him, of course—so he could get out of the city and see new places and learn new things. Or how badly he wished that Burt, his stepdad, wouldn’t drink so much, since he always became more violent afterward, and started hitting everything and everyone in sight.

Somehow, when he looked at Miss Fairbanks plain face, she seemed to just invite him to say more and more and more …

An hour passed. Grey shadows came through the ugly wire mesh windows and began to stretch lazily across the room. The roaches and ants who didn’t dare come out in the day when students were near skittered and wandered across the floor in search of tidbits and snacks left by the sloppy humans. None of these mindless insects paid any attention to the two humans still left in the room, of course. Even to an ant, it was obvious that these two were harmless.

“ … and then my aunt came over from Jersey City last summer, and it was suddenly so nice I could hardly believe it,” said the boy, still talking. “Burt didn’t drink as much and mom actually smiled a few times, and my sisters didn’t fight as much. Aunt Patty, that’s who she was. She’s nice. You’d like her. She’s just like you. She smiles and listens and doesn’t hit or yell, or say mean things …”

The boy’s face suddenly turned red, as he started to realize what he had said about her. But Miss Fairbanks took no notice of it. “She sounds nice,” she agreed. “Is she going to come again?”

The boy shook his head. “Don’t know,” he said bluntly. “Probably not. She got married after she left us, so now she’s probably too busy to care about visiting us anymore. Or maybe she’s too busy getting beat up by her new husband.”

Miss Fairbanks winced. “Is that the way you think all men treat their wives and kids?” she asked. “To beat up on them?”

“Sure,” said the boy without any hesitation. “You see it all the time. And it’s not just Burt. My mom hits him back as hard as he hits her. Sometimes she hits others too …”

“Is that the way you’re going to treat your family when you grow up and get married?” asked Miss Fairbanks. The boy blushed, and for the first time felt like maybe he should leave. But as he looked over at Miss Fairbanks, the gentleness in her eyes melted his embarrassment like dew before the sun. “Naw,” he replied. “I’d never do that. But I’m never going to get married. I think marriage is stupid. I’m just going to go touring around the country with Isabel.”

Miss Fairbanks was about to say something else when suddenly there was a rustle at the door. Principal Clyde was standing there, looking curiously at the two of them. “Is there some kind of trouble?” he asked darkly. “Has this boy been acting up in class?”

“No, not at all,” said Miss Fairbanks, rising to her feet. “We were just chatting … “

Mr. Clyde stared at her dumbly. The idea that people would voluntarily stay within the stinking confines of Inner City Junior High School after school merely to ‘chat’ had never occurred to him. “I see,” he said slowly. His feeble mind tried vainly to figure out why she would want to ‘chat’ with such a miserable looking loser as this slouching student.

Meanwhile the boy had quickly picked up his book bag and zipped it closed. “I was just going,” he said gruffly, slouching his way toward the front of the room.

“Do you have writing as part of your class schedule?” asked Miss Fairbanks suddenly. The boy looked back at her curiously. “I think so,” he answered slowly. “Why?”

“That’s what I’m going to be teaching here in school, starting tomorrow,” she answered. “I was just a substitute in science today. I hope you’re in one of my writing classes.”

The boy smiled faintly. “Yeah, I’ve got writing. Second period. See you tomorrow.” Then he sauntered out of the room, keeping as much distance between himself and Principal Clyde as possible.

Tom Clyde continued to stand in the door, eyeing Miss Fairbanks critically. The kindness and gentleness he perceived in her roused a sudden fury in his chest. Perhaps it was because such traits were so completely foreign to his experience in this school. Or perhaps it was a deep, inner guilt, realizing that these were traits he should possess himself, but had never been able to attain. On a sudden impulse he said, “I wouldn’t get too close to any of these students if I were you. They’ll speak nice one minute, then stab you in the back the next. They can’t be trusted. Not one of them! They’re all stinking, lousy losers.”

“Oh?” said Miss Fairbanks, faintly, wringing her hands nervously. “Is that why you wanted to become principal of this school? To build their trust and turn them into winners?”

Principal Clyde snorted in derision. “I never wanted to be principal of this wretched school! I used to teach history here, but when they found the last principal lying in a puddle of his own blood in his office, they asked if any teacher wanted the job. I was an idiot and said yes, since I thought somehow the extra money justified the added stress and danger. I’ve been regretting it ever since.”

Miss Fairbank’s fidgeting had greatly increased at the mention of the last principal, and a puddle of blood. “Did he …” she hesitated, then cleared her throat timidly. “Did the last principal … die?”

“No,” Tom answered grumpily. “But he didn’t recover enough to take his old job back and bring me any relief either. He’s in an institution up north. Mental case. The stabbing messed up more than just his innards, apparently.”

At the white, pinched look on Miss Fairbank’s face, Tom suddenly regretted having said anything, and his fury melted quickly away. Suddenly he blurted, “Look Miss Fairbanks, you seem like a nice person. Why don’t you just forget about this job? It’ll probably kill you. In the five years I’ve been here, we’ve had three teachers die, and I don’t know how many students. It’s not worth it. You’d be better to camp out under a freeway overpass, where I’m sure it’s a lot safer. In fact, that’s something I’ve often thought of doing myself.”

Miss Fairbanks was fairly shivering now, at the mention of a multitude of deaths. But a resolute look had also come into her eyes as well. “I’ll stay, thank you,” she said softly. “I think I’ll be all right. After all, things went well in my classes today.”

Tom blinked at her. The he grinned unexpectedly, making his grey face seem ten years younger. “They sure did! I’ve never seen anything like it.” Then, suddenly feeling embarrassed and not knowing what else to say, he merely nodded and left.

Miss Fairbanks walked slowly toward the front of the room to get her purse. Three faculty deaths in five years. A stabbed principal. Multiple student deaths. Parents who drank then beat their children senseless when they got home from school. Profanity so thick you could almost cut it with a knife.

Was this really a place she wanted to spend her days? Was she safe here? Would she even survive? What would happen when the kids grew weary of her little tricks, which would no doubt happen very fast? Could she handle things then? What sane person would put themselves in such a position of danger? Wouldn’t it worry their families to death?

Miss Fairbanks smiled grimly. That at least was something she didn’t have to worry about. She had no family to worry or care about her. None at all …

 

CHAPTER FOUR

After leaving Inner City Junior High, Miss Fairbanks quickly went to the run-down boarding house where she lived and informed the grateful landlady that eviction proceedings were no longer necessary, since she had a job at last and would be able to pay the rent in two weeks. The old woman just grimaced and grumbled as usual, but from the gleam in her eye at the mention of money, it was obvious she wasn’t going to turn Lydia out. She knew she wouldn’t find anyone else willing to take the dingy room the foolish girl occupied, at least anytime soon. So the matter was settled, and Miss Fairbanks happily went to her disgusting room where she boiled some water for her regular noodle dinner.

But this night she didn’t stay at home and read a library book as she normally did (she was too poor to own a TV to watch). Even though she knew it was not safe on the streets after dark in this part of town, she also knew she had an important errand to run. And she knew it was something that had to be done tonight, since otherwise she was not likely to have a very pleasant day at Inner City Junior High School tomorrow. And so she wrapped a ragged shawl around her shoulders and went back out on the street. And instead of heading toward the shops or the mall or any other sensible place, she struck out for the seediest part of town instead. There was a certain bar she had in mind …

Not that Miss Fairbanks was a drinker. Far from it! The gentle woman had never touched a drop in her life, and didn’t intend to start now. Indeed, she didn’t even go into the bar at all. Instead, she summoned all of her meager courage and approached the massive hulk of a bouncer who leaned against the door jamb of the entrance. She spoke with him for a few minutes in a quiet voice, and several times during the conversation he raised his eyebrows in surprise. But her errand was successful, and with a glad heart she quickly made her way back to her dingy room, to take up where she had left off in her latest book, which was Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace.’

The first part of Tolstoy’s title suited her life well, while the second part was something she had rarely experienced but had long yearned for. However, it certainly seemed unlikely she’d be finding peace at Inner City Junior High School!

 

The next day, Miss Fairbanks arrived early and went directly to her assigned Writing classroom. She was so nervous and worried she nearly dropped the bundle of papers she intended to use as handouts in all her classes that day. And when she tried to write ‘Lydia Fairbanks’ on the blackboard, all she seemed able to produce were odd chicken scratches that were hardly readable. It certainly didn’t look like things were starting off well!

The first bell suddenly rang, making Miss Fairbanks jump. Turning around, she saw that her classroom was still empty. Where were all the students? As if they had read her thoughts, clumps of tough-looking kids started straggling into the classroom. They obviously held off coming in as long as they could. She heard snatches of their conversations as they wandered in. “There she is … the crazy ‘mystic compact’ lady … what do you mean you didn’t hear about it—it’s all over school! … naw, it’s just a gag … wait’ll she tries it on me! I’ll make some prophecies about HER!”

The bell rang once more, causing Miss Fairbanks to jump again in fright. Several of the students guffawed, since the sight of suffering or fear in others always made them smile. Others completely ignored her and started belting each other, or swearing or throwing things once more. This was apparently standard procedure, and the students didn’t want to fail in their daily duty. The intercom suddenly blared—making Miss Fairbanks jump yet again—and the national anthem started to play. None of the students took any notice of it, nor did they stand up and put their hands over their hearts and recite the pledge when it came on after the anthem. And indeed, there was no flag in the room for them to face anyway, since the pole it had once rested on was long since broken.

“Class, I am Miss Lydia Fairbanks,” she said timidly, in a voice that no one heard because of the collective noise. “I will be your writing teacher from now on …”

Most of the students didn’t pay any attention to her, but a few looked at her with expectant glee, hoping to see her pull out her compact and try her mysticism like she’d done the day before. And it was only too obvious they would be ready for her when she did.

Miss Fairbanks looked nervously at her watch. It was past the agreed time already, but he hadn’t come. What was she to do?

A shoe suddenly came flying her way, and grazed her head as she tried to duck out of its path. General laughter followed. “Hey, ugly!” cried Arnold Vance, who unfortunately happened to be in this first period writing class. “Aren’t ya gonna read our futures out of your silly compact?” Another shoe was thrown her way.

And then suddenly, without warning, all of the noise instantly stopped and there was complete silence. Without looking around Miss Fairbanks knew he had arrived, and breathed a sigh of relief. Turning, she smiled at the bouncer she had hired the night before at the bar. He had bags under his eyes, and it was obvious this was an hour he’d normally be sleeping, since he had a night job. But half of Miss Fairbank’s first paycheck had been too tempting an offer for him to refuse, since all he had to do to earn it was sit silently in her classroom all day.

“Class, this is my friend, Mr. Brek,” said Miss Fairbanks in her soft voice that could hardly be heard. “He very kindly offered to join me on my first day here, to help while I teach about the business letters you’re all going to write.” Mr. Brek’s eyes bulged in surprise. This crazy little lady hadn’t mentioned anything about business letters at the bar last night!

The eyes of every student were glued on Mr. Brek. No one was laughing or throwing things now. No one said a word. The guy was as big as a tank, and had half a dozen scars on his face and arms. His neck muscles were so bunched and massive they looked like tree roots. His arms looked bigger than tree trunks, and you could easily fit three of the biggest kids inside his chest if there were an opening. When he walked the floor swayed and the room rumbled. And the way he scowled at them all, it was obvious he was just hoping one of them would pop off, so he’d have the chance to get a little exercise.

“Mr. Brek is one of my oldest and dearest friends,” said Miss Fairbanks, causing the bouncer to raise his eyebrows in surprise again. Miss Fairbanks was unable to hide her own smile, since what she’d said was not exactly a lie. She had no friends, and certainly no old or dear ones.

“He lives nearby, and will be dropping in often to see how I’m doing. I’m afraid he’s a bit protective of me, and tends to worry whether I’m safe and all right …” Which was again true, since he wouldn’t get paid unless she was all right. And she planned to pay him to drop in often just to remind her students that he was around.

Several of the kids gulped, and most of them made mental notes to themselves, to toss out all the mean tricks they’d been planning to play on Miss Fairbanks. No prank was worth having your arm ripped out of its socket.

“And now class, I will demonstrate the proper procedure for writing a business letter …” said Miss Fairbanks, turning toward the blackboard. “Afterwards, you will all have the opportunity to write one, and develop this important skill that will probably help you get a job someday, or at least enable you to write a letter to the state employment agency explaining why you’re not working …” There was a collective groan from around the room as the students realized to their horror that they were actually going to have to do some real schoolwork.

And then Miss Fairbanks proceeded to do precisely what few teachers at Inner City Junior High School had ever achieved, but for which they were all underpaid. She taught. And in the process, not only did her students learn more than they had expected when they’d left home for school that morning, but a certain marginally educated bar bouncer learned a thing or too as well.

When Principal Clyde popped his head in a little later to see if Miss Fairbanks was still in the land of the living, he was once more pleasantly shocked at the sight of a classroom full of students diligently writing for all they were worth. He was so astounded he nearly fell over backwards into the hall. He also noticed an incredibly massive student seated at a desk on the far side of the room, also busily writing. The student looked rather old for junior high, but as Principal Clyde knew only too well, there were quite a few students in this school who’d been held back so many times, they were practically old enough for college.

And so the day went as Miss Fairbanks introduced Mr. Brek as her “oldest and dearest friend” in all of her classes. Her students were marvelously well-behaved all day, allowing her to enjoy her first regular day on the job rather than feel tortured as all the other teachers in that school had done when they started. Principal Clyde kept peeking in at intervals throughout the day to see if the spell had broken, and he was increasingly shocked (and secretly annoyed) that it wasn’t. He was completely clueless how she was able to maintain such incredible order where chaos normally reigned. And he was equally mystified at seeing a particularly large student in all of her classes. Perhaps he needed to instruct the school lunch ladies to be more diet conscious in their menus.

Miss Fairbanks was pleased to see the slouching boy she had spoken with yesterday in her second period class, who she learned was named Brent Llewelyn. He quietly told her after class that he just might drop in after school, since there was no need to get home very fast. Miss Fairbanks also took notice of a number of other nontraditional students in her various classes. For example, there was the overweight boy in third period, who already looked like he might be balding even though he was only 14. His eyes had the appearance of a hurt animal, as students around him held their noses at his ‘smell,’ or swore at him, or just elbowed him in the ribs. It was all Miss Fairbanks could do to keep her lower lip from trembling as she taught the proper salutation for business letters, while watching his torment out of the corner of her eye.

And then in fourth period there was a girl wearing a long, flowing dress—in stark contrast to all the other girls who wore jeans and T-shirts. This girl never once raised her eyes or made eye contact, and seemed blessedly unable to hear the many snide comments the kids around her continually made about her dress or her brains, or anything else they found objectionable about her.

But of course, Miss Fairbanks knew the girl could hear what they were saying perfectly well.

And then the day was half over. When the bell rang at the end of fourth period, her students handed up their recently completed business letters with a great deal of rustling. Most of them were surprised they’d written anything that day, since they certainly hadn’t come to school intending to do so. There was the usual scraping of desks and rampant profanity as the room gratefully spewed out its awful students. The bouncer, Mr. Brek, stood up from where he had been sitting next to the window. He stretched, nearly punching holes in the ceiling by mistake with his massive fists since he was so tall. “Think I’ll walk over to Joe’s for a burger or two, or maybe three” he said casually after most of the students were gone. “I’ll be back in about an hour when your next class starts.”

“Thank you ever so much for helping me this morning,” said Miss Fairbanks with sincere gratitude. “I don’t know what I’d have done without you!”

“You’d probably be dead,” said Mr. Brek off-handedly. Then he smiled. “This ain’t so bad, you know. Kind of reminds me of when I was a punk in school. And all that stuff about how to write a business letter—you know, that ain’t so bad either. I never knew how to write one before.”

Miss Fairbanks tried not to cringe at his double use of the word ‘ain’t’ and smiled at him. “You’ll hear it all again in the classes this afternoon. And if you come back tomorrow, you’ll learn how to write a resume.”

The bouncer shook his head. “Naw,” he said as he sauntered toward the door while the floor rumbled under his considerable weight. “One day of this is enough. I need my sleep.” Then he disappeared.

Miss Fairbanks walked around behind her desk and pulled her sack lunch out of the bag she’d brought to school. She knew that venturing to the teacher’s lounge through these deadly halls would probably not be wise just yet. The safest place for her was right here, where word was quickly spreading throughout the school that she had a massive ‘friend’ who could probably knock a person’s eyes through the back of their head by just flicking them with his pinky.

There was a sudden sigh from somewhere in the room. Looking up, Miss Fairbanks was surprised to see the girl with the long flowing dress still seated at her desk. Her eyes were still staring intently at the floor as if the scuff marks covering it were totally fascinating. It certainly looked like the girl had no intention of moving.

Miss Fairbanks stood up and walked over to sit down next to her. The girl jerked around in surprise, apparently having assumed that Miss Fairbanks had left as well (since she’d never looked up to see). “I’m sorry,” she mumbled in a dull voice. “I’ll leave now.” She started shoving things into her book bag.

“No, please don’t,” said Miss Fairbanks. “I mean,” she added hastily, “you can go if you really want to. But it would be nice to have some company, rather than to sit here alone.”

The girl stopped shoving things in her bag and looked over at Miss Fairbanks in shock. Her eyes were so glazed and lifeless Miss Fairbanks nearly cried out. She had never seen such dead eyes on a living person before.

“You want me to stay?” the girl blurted, incredulously. “Why?”

Miss Fairbanks floundered, not knowing quite how to respond. Finally she said, “I thought maybe we could get to know each other better. I noticed you in class …”

The girl’s dead eyes fell. “Everyone notices me,” she mumbled.

“Oh, I didn’t notice anything bad or wrong,” said Miss Fairbanks hastily. She fished around desperately, trying to think of something positive or praiseworthy she could say. “I saw how wonderfully well you concentrated on your writing when you wrote your letter. You weren’t hasty like most of the others.”

The girl tentatively looked up at Miss Fairbanks again. “Really?” she asked in a voice so quiet it was hardly audible.

“Yes,” replied Miss Fairbanks with a smile. Suddenly she said, “Are you hungry? Would you like some of my lunch?”

The girl’s eyes instantly fell again. “No, I’m not hungry,” she said hastily. Miss Fairbanks found that hard to believe, seeing how gaunt and skinny she was. She pulled an apple from her lunch sack. It wasn’t a very good apple unfortunately, since her money was so low she’d had to buy the wormy reject apples from a street vender. But she knew from experience that the non-wormy parts of apples like these were still good.

“Here,” she said, putting the apple on the girl’s desk. “Just eat the side opposite the worm holes.” The girl looked at the apple in fascination while Miss Fairbanks took out the only other object in her lunch sack—a peanut butter sandwich on stale bread—and broke it in half for the girl. “I don’t think I can eat all this,” she lied. “Have some.”

The girl slowly reached out to take the half sandwich. She was eyeing Miss Fairbanks warily, still not sure what to think. Miss Fairbanks smiled at her and took a bite of her sandwich half. “What’s your name?” she asked, trying to sound casual.

“Heather,” said the girl in a soft voice.

“I’ve always liked that name,” said Lydia.

“I hate it,” said Heather without any hesitation. “It’s ugly, just like me.”

“Ugly?” said Miss Fairbanks in surprise. “You? Why do you think that?”

“Because it’s true,” said Heather. “Everybody knows it. You heard what they were all saying. And even my mother says it. She says it all the time.”

“Oh, that’s sad,” said Miss Fairbanks. She spoke with such genuine feeling that Heather looked at her in surprise. “What is?” she asked curiously.

“That your mother says that about you,” replied Miss Fairbanks. “I don’t think it’s true at all.”

“Really?” said the girl. “Do you need glasses? Can’t you see well?”

“No, I can see perfectly well,” replied Miss Fairbanks. “And when I look at you I see a very attractive young lady, who tends to worry too much about what others say.”

The girl suddenly started to fidget so much she dropped the peanut butter sandwich on her desk. “That’s not true,” she said quickly. “I’m not attractive. I’m ugly. And anyone who says otherwise is lying.”

She looked up in sudden embarrassment. “I mean … I didn’t mean … you’re not lying of course,” she stammered. “You’re just … mistaken. Because you need glasses and don’t realize it.”

Miss Fairbanks smiled in return, not sure how to respond to that. Perhaps a change of subject was in order. “What do you like to do?” she asked.

“Do?” said Heather, her eyes staring without understanding. “What do you mean?”

“Is there something that makes you happy when you do it?” tried Lydia again. “Like going shopping, or combing out your hair, or watching mindless TV shows …”

The girl stared for a minute, thinking hard. Finally she mumbled, “I like to write,” she said simply.

“Really?” said Miss Fairbanks in genuine pleasure. “How wonderful! Especially since this is a writing class! Do you write poetry or short stories or—”

“It’s garbage,” said Heather flatly, picking up her sandwich half and taking a tentative bite. “Everything I write is garbage.”

“I’m sure it’s very good,” countered Miss Fairbanks. “How could it not be? I’ll prove it to you. Do you have something you’ve written? I’d like to see it.”

“It’s garbage,” repeated Heather, chewing her sandwich slowly. “Real garbage. I never keep any of it. I throw it away as soon as I write it. So it’s all garbage.”

Miss Fairbanks gasped and clutched her hand to her heart. “NO!” she said in profound shock. “That’s horrible!”

Heather dropped her sandwich again, she was so surprised. “Why? It’s garbage anyway. Why keep it?”

“Because … because …” stammered Miss Fairbanks, struggling to put her thoughts into words. “Because it’s YOU, that’s why! Something you write is purely you! It’s the most personal, real thing that could ever exist, outside the real you! It’s the thoughts of your heart, your secret desires, your hopes and dreams! How could you throw all that away?”

Heather was staring at her with round, dead eyes. She had stopped chewing, but hadn’t bothered to swallow. Clearly what Miss Fairbanks had said was completely new to her, and her mind was struggling to take it all in.

There was a sudden scraping at the door. Mrs. Jensen, the school secretary was standing there, with some papers in her hand. She was looking at Miss Fairbanks curiously. “I didn’t see you in the teacher’s lounge, so I thought you might be here,” she said. “There are some forms you need to sign, so we can process your paycheck.”

“Of course,” said Miss Fairbanks, standing up and walking over to get the forms. “I’ll fill them out right away and drop them off later.”

Mrs. Jensen was looking furtively back and forth between Heather and Miss Fairbanks. Then in a soft voice that she apparently hoped would not be overheard by Heather—or maybe she didn’t care if it was overheard—she said, “I’d be careful of that one if I was you. She’s very strange, and bit scary. Brought a big butcher knife to school once, and no one could make her put it down.”

Miss Fairbanks blinked in surprise, then laughed lightly. “I’m sure there’s nothing at all unusual about Heather,” she said loudly.

But Heather was hastily jamming her belongings into her book bag. “I’ll be going now,” she whispered, heading for the door.

“Do you have to leave?” said Miss Fairbanks sadly. “It’s so nice to have someone to talk to.”

Heather looked at her again with her dead eyes. Then without a word she darted out the door and disappeared.

Mrs. Jensen rolled her eyes. “Very strange, that one,” she repeated, as she also headed out the door. “I’d watch my back if I was you.”

Miss Fairbanks did not reply, but stood silently in the empty classroom, looking sadly at the door.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

With the ringing of the final bell, Inner City Junior High School once more sighed in relief and gladly spit out all of its stinking students. Another day had come and gone, and thankfully no one had died. For that alone, Principal Clyde was grateful.

In Miss Fairbanks’ room, Mr. Brek the bouncer ambled over to stand by her desk as she erased the chalkboard. “You know,” he said casually, “today was kind of nice. Relaxing, actually. Good as a night’s rest. So maybe don’t worry about all that money you were going to pay me. Consider it as my pleasure.”

Miss Fairbanks turned around in surprise. “Oh no, I could never do that!” she exclaimed. “A deal’s a deal! I’ll bring what we agreed as soon as I get my first paycheck.”

Mr. Brek raised an eyebrow. “Well,” he said slowly, “maybe I just won’t accept it. After all, I’m not the type of guy you can force to accept things.”

Miss Fairbanks frowned, not the least bit intimidated. “No welching!” she said firmly. “And your threats don’t frighten me! I’ll be there with the money in two weeks just like I said.” She was fairly certain that, no matter what kind of a change of heart he thought he’d had now, he’d probably feel differently in two weeks after his experience here had faded from his memory.

Mr. Brek just shrugged. “We’ll see,” he said casually as he sauntered toward the door. Turning he added, “See you later, my ‘oldest and dearest friend!’” Then he walked down the hall laughing to himself in what he thought was a quiet way, but which nearly shattered all the nearby unbreakable windows.

Miss Fairbanks continued to erase the chalkboard, and had just finished when Brent appeared at the door. “Hello,” he said so quietly that Miss Fairbanks hardly heard him.

“Come in!” said Miss Fairbanks happily. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

“You have?” said Brent in sincere surprise. “Why?”

“Well,” said Miss Fairbanks, trying to think fast. “I’ve been wondering if maybe I should decorate this room a bit, and I wanted your ideas. Should I put up some pictures or things on the walls to give it some flavor? What do you think?”

Brent looked around at the ugly walls as if seeing them for the first time. Then he looked back at Miss Fairbanks. “Why?” he repeated again.

She laughed gently then said, “Well, it was just a thought. One must add color to life I suppose. Have a seat. I have a leftover apple from lunch if you’d like it. Just be careful of the wormy side.” She pulled the same wormy apple out of her desk that Heather had refused, and held it out to him. He didn’t take it. Then, not sure what to do, he walked over and took the nearest seat and sat down. Suddenly he blurted, “I don’t know why I came here today …” He was suddenly feeling distinctly embarrassed.

“How is Isabel?” asked Miss Fairbanks, trying to change the subject. Brent’s face instantly lit up, and he smiled happily. “She got hold of a roll of toilet tissue, and unraveled it all over my room while I was at school yesterday.” he laughed. Then his smile faded. “It’s a good thing my mom and stepdad didn’t see it. They don’t like Isabel too well. I have to try and keep her hidden.”

“That’s too bad,” said Miss Fairbanks. “Animals are wonderful friends, if we let them into our lives. I’ll bet your mother and Burt would like Isabel if they got to know her.”

Brent stared at Miss Fairbanks in total disbelief. “Burt and my mom don’t like anything!” he exclaimed. “Except drinking, and maybe belting each other, and me. I wish I was big like your friend Mr. Brek. Then I’d belt them back.”

“Would you really?” said Miss Fairbanks in surprise. “I have a hard time picturing you hurting anyone.”

Brent scoffed. “That’s just the sort of thing Burt says all the time,” he said grumpily. “He says I’m such a wimp I wouldn’t even kill a spider.”

“Burt is very confused,” replied Miss Fairbanks firmly. “I suppose that’s because he’s a wimp himself, and is trying to make himself feel better.”

Brent nearly fell out of his chair. “Burt, a wimp?!” he cried in total disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding! You should see the size of his muscles! He works at a steel plant, and when he hits you it feels like it!”

Now it was Miss Fairbanks’ turn to scoff. “He’s still a wimp,” she said firmly. “Only weaklings use violence to get what they want, and to frighten others. They do it because they’re insecure, deep down inside.”

“Insecure?!” repeated Brent, still not believing a word of it. “Burt?!” He barely stopped himself in time from commenting on how crazy Miss Fairbanks must be to say such a thing.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true,” said Miss Fairbanks. “Think for a minute about someone you know who has real inner strength, and confidence—someone who truly feels good about themselves. Would they ever hit someone?”

Brent just stared at her, his feeble mind not fully understanding. Finally he said, “I’ve never known anyone like that.”

“Oh, I’m sure you must know someone who is that way,” replied Miss Fairbanks. “Think hard. Isn’t there someone that you look up to? Someone that makes you feel good when you’re with them?”

Brent screwed up his face in deep thought. “Well …” he said slowly. “I suppose there is Mr. Mason at the church I go to some Sundays. I’ve always thought he was a nice guy.”

“Do you think he feels good about himself, and is confident?” asked Miss Fairbanks. “Or does he go around hitting people?”

Brent laughed at the suggestion. “He’s old! He wouldn’t go around hitting people.” Then he added as an afterthought. “It’s kind of hard to imagine him belting anyone, even if he was younger. It’s just the way he is. He just would never do that.”

“And how about you?” said Miss Fairbanks unexpectedly. “I’ve noticed you didn’t hit anyone in class today. Why not?”

“They’d hit back!” replied Brent truthfully.

Miss Fairbanks laughed. “I don’t think that’s the only reason,” she replied. “I’ll bet there’s some that wouldn’t hit back. But I just can’t picture you hitting anyone. It’s just not you—the same as Mr. Mason. It has nothing to do with the silly idea that you’re supposedly afraid of people, which just isn’t true. It’s just the way you are.”

Brent was starting to turn red. He clearly didn’t know what to say, and just as clearly didn’t believe her.

A slight rustle at the door caused both of them to look up. Heather was standing there in her long, flowing dress, looking distinctly uncomfortable, since she had been hoping to find Miss Fairbanks alone.

Without hesitation, Miss Fairbanks stood up and surprised them both by saying, “Now’s your chance, Brent. Go over and hit Heather! Belt her a good one!”

Brent laughed in nervous embarrassment. “I wouldn’t do that! She’s a girl.”

“I’ve seen lots of boys in the halls of this school hitting girls,” replied Miss Fairbanks. “And usually the girls hit them back. So why don’t you go ahead and hit Heather!”

Heather was looking back and forth between Miss Fairbanks and Brent, clearly wondering if she should go. Suddenly Miss Fairbanks asked, “Do you think he’ll hit you, Heather?”

“No,” she said immediately.

“Why not?” asked Miss Fairbanks. “Is it because he’s afraid of you?”

“No,” said Heather again simply.

“Then why not?”

“Because he’s not the hitting type,” said Heather.

Miss Fairbanks smiled as she gave Brent a meaningful glance. Then she walked over and took Heather’s hand, pulling her into the room. “I was hoping you’d come,” she said. “We didn’t get to finish our talk, at lunch.”

“I thought you’d be alone,” blurted Heather, looking at Brent with a frown.

“Oh, don’t mind Brent,” said Miss Fairbanks with a smile. “He’s another one of my friends, just like you.”

“A friend?” said Heather and Brent at once, echoing each other without meaning to. Neither of them had thought of Miss Fairbanks in those terms at all.

“Of course,” said Miss Fairbanks. “A friend is someone you feel safe talking to, because you know they won’t use what you say to hurt you later. You can be yourself around them. That’s the way I feel when I’m around you and Brent.”

There was sudden silence in the room as Heather and Brent tried to digest what Miss Fairbanks was saying. “Don’t you have lots of friends?” asked Heather suddenly.

“No,” said Miss Fairbanks quietly. “I live alone, and have no family or friends. No one pays any attention to me.” She suddenly blushed, then turned toward her desk, blinking rapidly. She was embarrassed to realize she had suddenly opened up to them, the same way they had opened up to her. How long had it been since she’d said that to anyone?

“Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow,” said Heather, turning to go.

“Please don’t,” said Miss Fairbanks, turning quickly and looking intently at Heather. “I was hoping you could give me some ideas about how to make my room look more attractive. Brent is still thinking it over, but I’m sure he’ll have some ideas for me soon. I’ll bet one of them would be to put up pictures of cats.” She glanced back over at Brent who was eyeing her curiously.

Heather looked around at the stark walls, wrinkling her nose. It was clear she didn’t think much could be done to improve this awful place. At her blank look, Miss Fairbanks walked over to the window. “How about some pink, frilly curtains along all these windows?” she asked.

Both Brent and Heather laughed in spite of themselves. “That would be crazy!” said Heather.

“Kind of like putting curtains up in a prison,” added Brent.

Miss Fairbanks turned to look at them. “Then how about putting up pictures of unicorns all over? Would that look good?”

Heather scrunched up her nose, looking around again at the ugly room. “I don’t think so,” she said slowly, trying in vain to image pictures of happy unicorns on the ugly walls. “It just wouldn’t quite fit.”

“You need pictures of people hitting each other, or shooting each other,” said Brent. “That would fit.”

Miss Fairbanks smiled. “I suppose that would fit in a way,” she said slowly. “But you’re both looking at this room the way it is and the way you’ve always seen it. I’m trying to look at it the way it can become …”

There was silence for a moment as the three of them looked around at the disgusting, cracked walls. And for the first time, Brent and Heather started imagining the room in a different way than they had ever thought of it before. In a way that wasn’t pitifully ugly and wretched and hopeless, but instead could perhaps be interesting and lively and creative.

It was a beginning, however small. And though they didn’t realize it, it was a beginning for them in other ways as well …

 

CHAPTER SIX

“Class, today each of you is going to write your own resume,” said Miss Fairbanks the next morning at the beginning of first period. “A resume is a single page with your name and address at the top, followed by your education, then your jobs and other accomplishments. You use a resume when you try to find a job. I am passing around a sample handout to show you how it’s done.”

There was a collective groan from the group. Each student had entered the classroom that morning looking furtively around to see if Mr. Brek was there. While they were glad he wasn’t, they were hesitant to start their normal routine of fighting, noise and ignoring their teacher just in case he happened to show up and break half their bones.

Clearly however, Miss Fairbank’s announcement of their assignment was going to push some of them over the edge.

“Now, there is something you need to know about the resumes I want you to write today,” said Miss Fairbanks quickly, knowing that she had only seconds before some in her class started to erupt, and chaos reigned once more. “I want the resumes you write today to be a pack of lies. I want you to write a resume that is not true. I want you to create a story for yourself that is completely fabricated, and is as far from the truth as possible. Do you understand?”

The class stared at her dumbly. Finally, ‘Armpit’ Arnold voiced the question that was in many of their minds. “You want us to lie?” he said incredulously.

“Now you’re getting the picture,” said Miss Fairbanks with a smile. “And I admit that maybe the words ‘lie’ and ‘untrue’ are a bit strong. Think for a moment of the action movies you have seen recently at the theater. Are they a pack of lies?”

“Yes,” said Slapface, the big girl in the front row.

“Grow up, slopface,” said Arnold, nearly throwing a book at her, then thinking better of it. “They aren’t lies. They’re just made-up. There’s a difference.”

Slapface turned to glare at him, and launched her pen in his direction, which he easily dodged. “They’re still a bunch of lies,” she said flatly.

“By the raise of hands,” said Miss Fairbanks as loudly as she could, trying desperately to stop a riot from starting, “how many of you think action movies are a lie?” A little more than half the class raised their hands. “How many think there’s a difference and action movies are not really lies, even though they’re not strictly true?” Most of the rest of the class raised their hands, although Lydia noticed there were a few that had raised their hands both times just to be annoying.

“You will be happy to know you are both right,” said Miss Fairbanks. “Whether you call it fiction, fairy tales, make-believe, action movies, or whatever—it’s all a lie because none of it is true. But we humans like this sort of thing just the same, and we are strangely not troubled when we know it’s all fake. We seem to enjoy it. And in a way, our belief in it makes it real—sometimes more real than the reality of our own lives. It’s only if we’re tricked into thinking something is true but later find out it’s not that we get upset and feel deceived. That is why real resumes must tell only the truth. The people you give them to expect them to not be fiction like an action movie, but to be the simple truth. However, today you are not going to write a real, true resume. You are going to write a make-believe, or fiction resume.”

Several of the students screwed up their faces at this, trying to make sense out of what she wanted them to do. Miss Fairbanks smiled. Since Mr. Brek wasn’t here, she knew she had to keep the class on its toes—keep them thinking, keep presenting the unexpected to them. That was the only thing that was likely to keep her alive. Of course, her ultimate hope was to somehow find a way for her class to enjoy writing. Then they wouldn’t give her trouble in class, because they would enjoy the class too much. But she knew this was about as realistic as expecting a pig to enjoy taking a bath, or a typical student at Inner City Junior High School to enjoy reading nursery rhymes.

“The resumes you write today must be complete works of fiction,” said Miss Fairbanks flatly. “For today, I do not want the truth of your lives. However, please remember that when you create a real resume and use it to get a real job, you cannot put fiction into it since that would be lying and your boss will not like it. I am merely having you write a fake resume today to show you how fun it can be to create one. You may begin.” What she didn’t tell them of course was that the real reason for having them write fake resumes was that it might keep their interest for the class period, and prevent the class from returning to chaos.

Some of the students just looked at her in disbelief that she would have the audacity to expect them to work in her class two days in a row. But most of them joined the general rustle as papers were pulled out of book bags and backpacks. Some of them were even smiling at the wild resumes they were planning to write.

“One final thing, before you begin,” added Miss Fairbanks. “If there is even one word of profanity on your resume, it will receive a failing grade which I will have to tell your parents or guardian about, and you will have to write another one. If there is even one made-up reference to something highly indecent—like working for a porn magazine or being a stripper—it will receive a failing grade and you will have to write another. Only weak minds resort to profanity and sexual indecency, and I tend to think this class is not made up of weaklings.”

There were a few guffaws and swear words, as well as a few shocked looks of disbelief. Everybody in this school used profanity, nonstop, and many looked at porn too! Did that mean they all had weak minds? But even though they were not sure they believed her, most of them mentally discarded the profanity and indecency they’d been planning to write. After all, they didn’t want to write the stupid resume over again.

And so it was that when Principal Clyde one more popped his head in the classroom to see if Miss Fairbanks was still breathing, he once again saw a classroom of busily writing students. And while he was grateful to not see the monstrous student he had witnessed yesterday sitting by the wall, he found himself feeling profoundly annoyed that this mousy little woman seemed able to control these hopeless, worthless students in ways he and all the other teaches could not.

Seeing him, Miss Fairbanks stepped out into the hall. “Is anything wrong?” she asked innocently.

“Wrong?” grumbled Mr. Clyde as he glanced at the busy class with a frown. “Oh, nothing—just that your class it … well it’s … I mean I just can’t stand how its …” His mind groped hopelessly for something that would express the pure jealousy he was feeling, without sounding stupid.

Miss Fairbanks smiled at him. “It just goes to show that you’re doing a much better job as principal than you thought,” she said innocently. “Some of my students told me yesterday they would never dream of leaving a classroom and wandering the halls—because of you! So you must have gotten through to them!”

Mr. Clyde stared at Miss Fairbanks, taken aback. He suddenly felt his ears going red, just as gout pains started shooting up his leg. Finally, not knowing what else to do, he just grunted and walked off down the hall.

As Miss Fairbanks reentered the classroom, a paper airplane soared past her head. “My resume,” said Armpit Arnold, looking at her with a smirk on his face. Miss Fairbanks picked it up and unfolded it, then smiled in spite of herself. As she’d suspected, the creativity of the rough kids in this school knew no bounds. Arnold’s resume showed that he was a triple agent spy, a former president of the United States, and the proud owner of a cupcake factory. And as she stared at his ridiculous resume, she got a brilliant idea.

“Class, I was just thinking,” said Miss Fairbanks as she turned to them. “When you’re finished I will read at random some of the things in your resumes and let you try to guess which one of you wrote them.” At the startled, worried looks that immediately crossed the faces of some of her students—especially the more timid and shy ones—she hastily added, “I won’t pick anything that will embarrass you, and will probably only share the things written by the more vocal among you, since that’s probably all we’ll have time for. But if you’ll quickly finish up, we can begin our guessing game.”

There was a frenzied scrambling of pens and papers as most of the class tried to think of something they could add to their resume that would knock Miss Fairbank’s socks off and give the class a good hoot as well. Many of them could hardly believe they were being encouraged to goof off!

Miss Fairbanks smiled. This was exactly what she’d been hoping for. Convince them they’re goofing off, when in reality the teacher is controlling it all and they might learn a thing or two. After all, any good writing teacher always tries to get their class to write creative fiction. She just happened to be doing it in respect to boring resumes.

For the next twenty minutes after the papers were handed in, the noise from Miss Fairbank’s class was at times as great as it had ever been, while students screamed, yelled and shouted their resume guesses for all they were worth. No one down the halls paid any attention since they were used to such sounds. The difference of course was that the roar came and went like a tide on the beach, since Miss Fairbank’s voice was so low they had to shut up in order to hear her next clue from another student’s resume. In short, it was controlled chaos.

“Which student,” said Miss Fairbanks in her loudest voice, which could barely be heard beyond the third row, “has piloted a nuclear submarine beneath the north pole, created a world famous pickle recipe, and invented a spray that turns a person’s fingernails inside-out?”

There was an instant explosion as almost every voice in class yelled their best guess. “Arnold! Slapface! McQuirk! Maggotbreath!” The shouts resounded round and round the room, until finally the students had yelled themselves sufficiently hoarse that Miss Fairbanks could actually hear what they were saying and tell them if they’d guessed right.

And so it went, with each student wildly guessing and yelling and jumping up and down in their seats. And when the bell finally rang at the end of class, a strange and very unusual thing happened. For the first time in most of their lives, the students in a class at Inner City Junior High School found themselves thinking something truly incredible.

They didn’t want to leave!

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

In Miss Fairbank’s classroom after school that day, Brent and Heather were joined by an unexpected new arrival. It was none other than Jerry Drusk, the overweight, balding kid from third period. She had quietly slipped him a note earlier during class asking if he wouldn’t mind meeting her after school.

Brent scowled as Jerry’s considerable bulk appeared in the door, while Heather just looked blankly at him with her dead eyes. “Jerry!” said Miss Fairbanks, coming up to where he was blinking in confusion since he’d thought she’d be alone. “I’m so glad you could come. We’re having a brainstorming session about how to improve the ugly appearance of this room, and I naturally thought of inviting you because you’re so creative.” While Jerry just stared at her dumfounded, Miss Fairbanks pointed to the others in the room. “You probably already know my good friends Brent and Heather. Yesterday we discussed putting up pictures of unicorns on the walls, but finally decided that wouldn’t quite fit in this room. What do you think?”

Jerry just continued to gape at her, not moving from the doorway. Finally he mumbled, “I thought you wanted me to come after school to go over my grade or something.”

“No, nothing like that,” said Miss Fairbanks, taking his arm and steering him to a desk. “I hope I didn’t make you miss your bus or anything. I just wanted your ideas for a few minutes, that’s all.”

Silence reigned in the room as each of its occupants looked uncomfortably at each other. They each had a shared fascination with Miss Fairbanks, who seemed to draw something out of them they had never known was there. But they weren’t too sure about each other. Each of them had learned to never open up to other kids at this school no matter who they were, unless they wanted to be hurt.

“Well, I’ll tell you what I was thinking of last night,” said Miss Fairbanks, since she sensed that her new friends were all so paranoid that none of them was going to say a word for the next hour. “I thought of putting up pictures of cute, cuddly little babies all over! That would create quite a transformation, wouldn’t it?”

The idea was so insane that none of the three could keep from laughing at the stupidity of it all—which was exactly what Miss Fairbanks intended.

“That’d be dumb,” blurted Brent with a smile. “All the bozos like Armpit Arnold would draw mustaches on them, or beards or something.”

“Then they’d make jokes about how they all stank and needed diaper changes,” added Jerry.

“The girls would all complain that it reminded them of their younger brothers and sisters they have to put up with at home,” said Heather. “I think you should put up pictures of wildflowers instead.”

“Wildflowers?” scoffed Brent, causing Heather to quickly lower her eyes in embarrassment. “That’s as bad as baby pictures!”

“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong,” said Miss Fairbanks. “Go to the Disney studios, or Pixar, or Dreamworks, or any of the big movie studios when they’re having a brainstorming session like we’re having, and do you know what you’ll find?” They all stared at her dumbly, wondering what this new question had to do with wildflower pictures. “What you’ll find is that there are no bad ideas, no matter how bad they are,” said Miss Fairbanks confusingly. “The people in those meetings might roll their eyes at some of the wild ideas that get thrown out, but no one criticizes them out loud. And do you know why?”

They all shook their heads dumbly. “Because people only open up with their really good and creative ideas when they feel safe, and know that no one will attack them. And when you get a team like that with the ideas flowing fast and furious, they come up with a lot of nonsense, but also some pretty amazing good stuff too.”

Miss Fairbanks spread her arms wide in a needless dramatic gesture that made no sense. “So I like Heather’s idea of wildflowers. I think it’s solid. We may not decide to go with it in the end, but it’s just the sort of creative thinking I was hoping you would all come up with.”

Heather smiled shyly at Miss Fairbanks while Brent scowled. Then he said grumpily, “I still think pictures of people hitting or shooting each other would fit best in here.”

“And so they might,” said Miss Fairbanks, following her own advice to not be critical of his idea. “But can you think of any other ideas?” She looked at them all expectantly. “Surely you can come up with more than hitting and wildflowers.

“How about action comics,” said Jerry suddenly. “Most kids like them.”

“Yeah, that’s not bad,” agreed Brent. “Thor and Green Arrow and stuff.”

“Excellent!” said Miss Fairbanks, pulling out a paper and starting to write rapidly. “I knew I could count on you three for some good ideas.”

“You could have funny comic strip characters too,” added Heather. “Like Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes. They’re pretty popular too.”

“How about movie posters?” suggested Brent. Suddenly the three of them were all talking at once, offering more ideas than they’d known they had.

Miss Fairbanks smiled. As far as she was concerned, her goal had already been achieved. To see these three open up and feel like they could act like normal human beings was all the decoration this room had ever needed …

 

When Miss Fairbanks got home to her seedy apartment that night, her happy mood was abruptly brought to an end by a letter waiting for her under her door. The landlady always tossed all the mail of her tenants under their doors, along with rent reminder notices to encourage people to pay. This particular letter was in a dark grey envelope with a return address of the state penitentiary. Miss Fairbanks didn’t need to open it to know what it was, or what it would tell her.

She sat down heavily on the couch, her hands shaking slightly. She had always known a letter like this would come someday, and had been dreading it. Sometimes she’d almost convinced herself that maybe it wouldn’t come, that perhaps things would just stay the same forever. But deep down inside she always knew that wasn’t true. It was sure to come, even if it was decades before it arrived.

And indeed, twenty years had passed in which a letter from the penitentiary could have come. Twenty years of nightmares and struggles for Miss Fairbanks, and of hopelessness and despair because of what she had caused. Twenty years ago she had been just a little girl. Now she was grown up and mature, and should be able to handle things better. During those twenty years she had tried to put the events of that horrible night out of her mind, or at least to find a way to cope with them. But she had not been particularly successful. And try as she might, the nightmare events from that night two decades ago were always lingering in the shadows of her mind, never quite letting her experience the peace she so much yearned for.

She stared at the letter, her eyes glazed. Her heart was in that letter. Everything that had once been dear to her was there too. All the childish dreams that she had felt as a little girl were curled around them as well—all of which had come shattering to nothingness on that horrible night, because of what she had caused. Her life was sitting there in that grey envelope on the floor. And it was not a pretty life, either.

Miss Fairbanks suddenly stood up. Although she knew it was dark outside and not entirely safe, she knew she had to go out. She would go to the library—that always helped her to forget, as she became absorbed in the looking at the many books she would like to read. She quickly put on her shawl and grabbed her purse. But she hesitated by the door for a moment, looking down at the grey envelope beneath her feet. Slowly, as if drawn by a magnet, she reached down and picked it up, then stuffed it in her bag with shaking hands.

She would not open it of course. She was only taking it because there was a wonderful trash can outside the library, a trash can decorated to look like Bilbo Baggins the hobbit. That would be the perfect place for this letter.

After all, she knew she couldn’t leave it here. It would just haunt her more and more until she gave in and opened it. And then the news she knew it contained would haunt her even more …

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

The sight of several police cars and an ambulance with flashing lights outside Inner City Junior High School the next morning made Miss Fairbanks slow down as she approached. Something bad was obviously going on, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know what it was. Had another student died? Had a teacher been attacked, and been left lying in a pool of his own blood? Miss Fairbanks shook her head, trying to erase the images that came to her mind. She took a deep breath in an attempt to maintain her composure. Last night’s letter had been bad enough, and now this. She had been able to throw the letter away in the garbage, but such a simple action would not work here, to right whatever wrong had been committed.

As Miss Fairbanks reached the outer foyer of the school she felt profoundly uneasy. Her heart sank further when she noticed Principal Clyde talking grimly with a group of police officers, while curious students milled around them. Naturally, with the police there, the kids weren’t acting up nearly as much as they usually did. But at the same time, most of them didn’t seem interested in going to class, and for once it didn’t look like Principal Clyde was going to make them. Indeed, it was suddenly obvious that no one was being allowed through the doors to the inside of the building at all.

Principal Clyde suddenly looked up and saw her. To her surprise he then cried out, “There she is!” Miss Fairbanks shrank back, startled. Why was he pointing her out? This was not good at all.

Principal Clyde quickly darted over to her, trailed by all the policemen. “He’s holed himself up in your room, Miss Fairbanks!” cried Principal Clyde in a strained voice. “He’s got a gun, and he says he’ll use it on anyone who comes close! He hasn’t pulled the trigger yet, Thank heavens, and he hasn’t taken any hostages. But we’re afraid he’ll start blasting if someone gets close!”

Miss Fairbanks looked at him in total confusion, her heart beating rapidly in fear. She had no idea what he was talking about. Yet a horrified part of her mind guessed what—or rather who—he might be referring to.

“I told you not to waste your time getting close to him,” said Principal Clyde, wagging his finger in her face. “It only leads to trouble when you start being friendly with these loser students. He’s probably holed up in your room because that’s where you and he and some others were meeting last night, in what the whole school is now calling the ‘loser’s club—’”

Miss Fairbanks suddenly dropped her bag and took off at a dead run. She yanked the school door open and darted inside. Her chest felt frozen, and horror gripped her heart. How could this be happening? Not now! Not with one of her new friends!

“Wait!” called Principal Clyde behind her, and one of the policemen. “He’s got a gun! Do you want to get shot?” She could hear them running after her.

She ignored them as she raced down the hall. Rounding a corner she saw that her classroom door was open, and two officers with guns drawn were standing well back from it on either side, keeping carefully out of view of the occupant of the room. They looked at her with startled eyes as she pelted toward them. The sight of a frail little woman running directly toward certain death was too astounding for them to even comprehend at first.

“Wait!” cried one of the officers as Miss Fairbanks rushed past him. He reached wildly for her arm, trying to stop her. He missed. Before he could try again, Miss Fairbanks burst into the room. And the sight that met her eyes made her heart nearly break.

Brent Llewelyn was standing in the middle of the room. He did indeed have a gun—a very sizeable one—which he was pointing shakily at her. His hair was tousled and his eyes were wild and crazed, while flecks of foam dripped from his mouth.

“Don’t come any closer!” he screeched in a bizarre voice. “I’ll shoot!”

Miss Fairbanks just looked back at him while her eyes started to well up with tears. “Oh, Brent …” she said at last. “Oh, Brent!” He continued to point the gun at her, his eyes insane and raging. She knew he might pull the trigger any second, perhaps even by accident. But the fear and hurt that was also in his eyes were so powerful, she simply couldn’t move.

Suddenly he started to go blurry. Miss Fairbanks stumbled toward a student desk to sit down, banging her leg painfully against a chair as she did so. With a feeling of mounting panic she knew she was about to have another of her attacks—the ones where she completely lost control. Usually they happened only at night, triggered by the horror of her dreams reliving the events of twenty years ago. But once in a great while they happened during her waking hours as well, when something unexpected and very bad occurred. And she knew there was nothing she could do now to stop what was coming.

She raised her hands to her eyes and began to sob. “Oh, Brent! Oh, Brent! Oh, Brent …” Her tears started to come thick and fast, sploshing on the desk and smearing the mascara on her face. “Oh, Brent! Oh, Brent! Oh, Brent!” Her hands were shaking wildly.

“He killed her!” screeched Brent suddenly in an agonized voice. “The fool killed her! He got drunk and saw her slinking out of my room. She wasn’t going to hurt him, or do anything bad! She was just looking for another toilet roll, or something to play with! But he got some clothesline and put it around her neck and—”

“NO!” pleaded Miss Fairbanks in a voice so thick with emotion that Brent was startled into silence. She raised her hands in the air as if trying to fend off punches directed at her face. “Please don’t tell me! Please don’t! I can’t bear it! Oh, Brent, oh, Brent! First the letter, now this! It’s all happening again! It’s all happening again!”

For a moment the only sound in the room were the wracking sobs of frail Miss Lydia Fairbanks, as she cried uncontrollably at the desk she had fallen into. Her wretchedness was so complete that she sank from the desk to the floor, showering the ugly concrete with her salty tears. Suddenly she moaned. “Oh, why did it have to happen? Why? Why did I do it? I wish it had been me instead. Oh, how I wish it had been me! Why couldn’t it have been me?”

Brent just stared at her completely confused. What on earth was she talking about? What she was saying didn’t make any sense. Was she really this upset about the death of a cat she had never seen?

Suddenly Brent noticed that his own eyes were starting to blur. Seeing his teacher wracked with such misery reached something deep in his heart that he had never realized was there. Slowly he lowered the gun, then dropped it with a clatter. Miss Fairbanks raised her head and looked around, trying to see through the blur of her tears. Brent was standing in front of her with slumped shoulders, staring at the floor. His own tears were gathering like pools of pure water at the corners of his eyes. “Isabel,” he croaked in a rasping voice. “My Isabel. My little cat …”

Then he also sank to the floor and began to sob. And that is how the officers found them as they entered the room, guns aimed at Brent’s head. Fortunately they didn’t fire, although the gun he had dropped on the floor was within his reach. But he was clearly not paying any attention to it as he sobbed his heart out on the floor, his heart breaking. One of the officers stepped quickly forward and kicked the gun spinning out of the way. Then they quickly lifted Brent up between them and handcuffed his hands behind his back, just as Principal Clyde and more officers arrived at the door.

“I’m sorry,” wailed Brent as he was marched past Miss Fairbanks. His face was streaked with tears, and more were joining them every second. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you, Miss Fairbanks. I would never hurt you! I’m sorry!”

She looked up at him through her tears, her lips quivering uncontrollably and tried unsuccessfully to smile. Tears were still gushing from her eyes. “I know,” she said softly in answer. “I know.”

And then he was gone. Principal Clyde and the officers looked around uncomfortably, not sure what to do with themselves, while Miss Fairbanks shakily tried to compose herself, and to stop crying. She was not successful. Her wracking sobs had weakened her so much she wasn’t sure she could rise off the floor. There was a moment of awkward silence, broken only by Miss Fairbanks’ continual, soft blubbering. Then Principal Clyde said quietly, “I believe I’ll call off school for today.” In another moment she heard the door to her room gently close.

Looking up through blurry eyes, she saw that everyone had gone and she had been left alone. She once more attempted a weak smile, and again was unsuccessful as her mouth continued to twitch and spasm and new salty tears sprayed themselves on the floor around her. This was the way it always was. It was the way it always ended. Every time she was triggered like this, every time she had the horrible nightmare, she would always end up this way, sobbing with every ounce of her strength and completely unable to regain control.

After all the emotion, the sobbing and the guns and violence that she had caused, she was always left completely alone, crying uncontrollably to herself. Just as it had been twenty years ago …

 

CHAPTER NINE

Since it was a Friday when Brent brought the gun to school and classes were cancelled, everyone had an unexpected three day weekend. This was very fortunate for Miss Fairbanks, since the combination of the prison letter and Brent’s rampage had so completely drained her that she was hardly able to function. As it was, she did little more than go home and sit in a chair in her dingy apartment all weekend, staring emptily into space while rocking gently back and forth like an old lady. Occasionally she would sigh and pick up a book to read, only to set it down again, unread, a few minutes later. She ate almost nothing, leaving her skinny frame more weakened and scrawny than ever. It was an emotional battle she was fighting, and she knew that food would not help.

The letter had started it. The letter that had picked the worst possible time to arrive, showing up just as she had started her new job and was developing new friends. The letter that served as a stark reminder that her world was a shattered world, without hope and beyond repair because of what she had caused. Brent’s rampage had only confirmed that. And just as had occurred twenty years ago, all she had been able to do was stand by and silently cry while unthinkable things happened around her.

Day passed into night, and night into day, and still Miss Fairbanks still sat unmoving in her chair. She hardly stirred all through the endlessly long weekend. But in the end, time passed as it always does, and Monday morning arrived again.

Miss Fairbanks finally dragged herself out of her chair and prepared as best she could to go to school. While only the week before she had been full of life and vitality, playfully coming up with ways to keep control of her classes, today, she wasn’t sure she would be able to do much more than walk in the door. She knew only too well that she was asking for trouble to show up at Inner City Junior High School in her condition. But she had a job, and felt like she couldn’t let down Principal Clyde or the students, even if they destroyed her. And so with great effort, she dragged herself to school and into her classroom.

Fortunately for her however, Miss Fairbanks had underestimated her students and the unexpected transformation created by their resume guessing game on Thursday. As the final bell rang and Miss Fairbanks found herself weakly looking at her first period students, fully expecting them to torment her and make her day a living horror, she was surprised to see eagerness in their eyes. ‘Armpit’ Arnold expressed their collective feelings when he suddenly blurted, “So, whatcha got for us today, ugly? Something else as awesome as last week?” The way he said it was almost pleading, as if he and the other students were begging to once more have an unusually pleasant learning experience in this school that was otherwise nothing but a constant torture chamber. Obviously, Friday’s gun incident had been completely forgotten as just another commonplace incident at this school.

Surprised, Miss Fairbanks put her hand over her heart. “Well …” she stammered weakly, not knowing quite what to say. “Since you were all so successful at your resumes last week, I thought you might all write …” her voice trailed off. Her mind was a blank and she had no idea what to say. She had a sense that the detailed descriptive writings she’d previously had in mind would not go down well. And she knew she didn’t have the energy or creativity today to make such an assignment sound fun and attractive.

While her students stared at her curiously, keeping unusually quiet in the hope that she would come up with something fun once more, Miss Fairbank’s eyes wandered aimlessly across her scarred desk. To her surprise she noticed a comic strip drawing of Garfield in one corner. It must have been put there by Heather, since she was the one last Thursday who had suggested putting up pictures of funny comic strip characters on the walls.

When had she brought it? Certainly it must have been after the whole Brent-gun incident, since it hadn’t been there on Friday. Which meant that Heather probably guessed what Miss Fairbanks was feeling, and was trying in her own way to make her feel better …

Miss Fairbanks suddenly felt her eyes going moist again. She cleared her throat and tried her best to focus her mind on the task at hand. Otherwise, she knew she could easily lose control once more, and start blubbering like a little baby. But fortunately the picture of Garfield had given her an idea. It was a wild idea, actually, and rather desperate. But she had nothing else to go on, and hardly any strength either.

“We’re going to do something a little different today,” she said weakly, walking over to the blackboard and picking up some chalk. The schools where she had done her student teaching all had the nice, new whiteboards and markers, as did most of the schools across the state. But not Inner City Junior High School. The blackboards in all of its classrooms were truly ancient, old-fashioned blackboards that required chalk. They probably had been sitting in the school since it was built, staring dumbly out at students for decades.

“We’re going to try our hand at a unique kind of writing,” she said in a voice that her anxious students had to strain to hear. “This writing has to be extremely short and condensed, since it has to fit into a very small space. Today we are going to create a comic strip!”

Her students looked at her as if she had completely lost her senses. A few of them started to guffaw and smirk, and it was obvious there would be a complete loss of control if something was not done quickly. But of course, Miss Fairbanks knew she was not up to controlling them or outwitting them today. She was just trying to survive. And she was doing so by turning to one thing that always helped people in times of stress—humor.

Quickly she drew four large squares on the chalkboard, that took up the entire space. “We will draw the pictures of our comics later,” she said. “I’m sure many of you are much more talented artists than I am, so I will let you do the art. Right now we will just concentrate on the words, to be written in the balloons at the top of each square, just like the comics you see in the newspaper. But of course, to do that, we must first have our characters in mind. The characters are the people who live in our comic strip world. We only need two or three people or animal characters, and that’s all. You’ve all seen comic strips before, so you know the kinds of characters I’m talking about. Who should our comic characters be?”

“Roaches!” cried out Armpit Arnold wildly. Like all the other students, he was ecstatic that their frail little teacher had once again come up with a fun idea, instead of something stupid. He had no idea how bad off she was, or that her idea was not planned at all, but was a desperate attempt at survival.

“Principal Clyde and the lunch ladies!” cried someone else.

“My dad and a thousand maggots!” cried another voice.

Miss Fairbanks smiled, in spite of herself. The twisted imaginations of this class knew no bounds. “Comic strip characters have to be both common, and at the same time unique,” said Miss Fairbanks. “They have to be easily identifiable, but there also has to be something that sets the characters apart from other comic characters.”

“Roaches are unique,” piped up Armpit Arnold.

“So is my dad,” said a short kid with his purple hair. “He puts up pictures of famous politicians all over the wall, then throws darts at them. Since he’s got so many pictures up, he never misses.”

“I still think we should have principal Clyde and the lunch ladies,” said a black-haired girl with tattoos on her ears. “The comic strip can be about how they’re trying to poison us.”

Suddenly everyone was talking at once, screaming suggestions, pounding their desks and throwing out ideas fast and furious. Miss Fairbanks looked at them all gratefully, knowing that they were helping her in spite of themselves. She smiled again and opened her mouth, pretending to say something. Scar face immediately yelled for everyone to pipe down so she could be heard, then backed up his words by punching people. The noise in the room quickly subsided.

“It may not be good to have people we know personally be our characters like the lunch ladies, since they might come in and see our comic strip and not like it,” said Miss Fairbanks. She didn’t mention Principal Clyde’s name of course, but that is who she really had in mind. She could just imagine how livid he would be if he came in and saw his image all over her blackboard.

“Let’s vote on your other suggestions though,” she said rapidly, before the noise level could fully pick up again. “How many want roaches?” Nearly half the class raised their hands. “How many want maggots?” There were fewer votes this time. Miss Fairbanks then went through the other suggestions that had been thrown out. The class voted on whether to have skunks, stinkbugs, roadkill, the people they most despised from TV commercials, the two senators from their state, and a variety of other odd people and creatures. In the end, the vote came out in favor of an octopus on crutches (six crutches, to be exact) and a butterfly dragon that was light as a feather but could melt steel with his fire breath.

“Now that we have our characters, we need to picture them in our minds, and try to imagine what they might be doing in our comic strip,” said Miss Fairbanks. “We need to create the setting for the tiny little story we will be telling in these four boxes.”

Once more the class erupted in total noise. It was obvious they were enjoying themselves, without realizing they were working at one of the most challenging of all labors—creativity.

“They should be doing the backstroke in a river of jelly!” yelled Armpit Arnold.

“How about fighting space invaders with pickle guns!” cried the purple-haired kid.

“I think they should be blowing up Inner City Junior High School!” sang out scar face, following, which there was thunderous applause. No vote was needed to know that this is what their bizarre characters were going to be doing in this four-panel comic strip.

“Good,” said Miss Fairbanks. “We have our characters and we know what they’re going to be doing. Now, to help us in creating the words, it would be good to have in mind how they’re going to blow up the school—”

“With stink bombs!” cried Armpit Arnold.

“With lasers stolen from an alien spaceship!” said the purple haired kid, who was immediately booed and hissed.

“With firecrackers!” yelled a boy who had freckles on top of his freckles. Everyone turned to look at him as if he’d lost his marbles. But to their surprise Miss Fairbanks from the front of the room suddenly said, “That sounds good!”

Now everyone turned to stare at her as if she had lost her marbles as well. “Just think of comic strips for a minute,” she said. “They have to be funny. They lead up to a surprise or twist in the last of the four boxes—something you don’t expect. And they use a lot of exaggeration, and often emphasize the impossible. What would be more impossible than blowing up the entire school with little firecrackers?”

“Are you nuts, ugly?” said Armpit Arnold. “You can’t blow up this school with firecrackers, no matter how many you use.”

“That’s just the point!” said Miss Fairbanks, flinging her arms wide in a needless gesture of emphasis. Her eyes were still moist, but she felt renewed strength slowly coming back to her—the strength born of creativity. “Remember, comic strip characters aren’t always very smart. Maybe they think one single firecracker would be enough.”

“That’s stupid!” grumbled Armpit Arnold.

“No it isn’t, dimwit!” said scar face hotly. “Teach knows what she’s doing. One firecracker, that’s all.”

An argument broke out which took five minutes to subside. In the end the class settled on one firecracker, even though many of them were still grumbling about it.

“So, what should be the words in our first box?” asked Miss Fairbanks, turning to the chalkboard.

“How about this,” piped up the purple haired kid, making everyone cringe since his ideas were always so wild. “The octopus says to the dragon butterfly, “Here, stick this firecracker in your ear, and I’ll reach in your other ear with a match and light it inside your head!” Several kids liked this idea, but were shouted down by the ones who pointed out that would just blow up his head, not the school.

“Probably that’s too many words,” said Miss Fairbanks. “Remember, we have little space and have to be very brief. We build our story in each box, so we should probably start off small.”

“One of them could say to the other, ‘Did you bring the firecracker?’” suggested a short boy on the front row with large owl glasses. It was the first time Miss Fairbanks had ever heard him speak. A new argument broke out about how this idea was too simple, like the simple brain of the guy who proposed it. But in the end, Miss Fairbanks wrote these words at the top of the first box.

“So the picture will show the two characters standing outside the school, and one of them speaking these words to the other,” said Miss Fairbanks.

“I still don’t see how a single firecracker is going to blow up the school,” said Armpit Arnold grumpily.

“That’s brilliant!” said Miss Fairbanks unexpectedly, causing everyone to stare at her curiously. “Those can be the words for our second box!” She started to write them on the board. “That creates a story where one of them has a secret plan and the other is as mystified as we are about how it can possibly work.”

“But can it possibly work?” asked Armpit Arnold. “There’s no way a single firecracker could blow up the whole school.”

“Sure it could!” cut in the kid with purple hair. “If it had a little help.”

“What kind of help?” asked the girl with ear tattoos.

“Maybe the firecracker is like the sparkplug in an engine. It just ignites a bunch of gas.”

“The lunchroom!” yelled half a dozen voices at once. “It’s always full of gas!” But Miss Fairbanks shook her head. “We don’t want to offend the lunch ladies, remember?”

“Who said anything about lunch ladies?” asked scar face. “Have you ever walked between the tables when students at this school eat lunch? There’s enough gas to launch a spaceship to the moon!”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Miss Fairbanks slowly. “Remember, comic strips have to appeal to a wide audience. Many people consider it indelicate and in bad taste to refer to unpleasant bodily functions, like the creation of gas. Can you think of something else?”

“How about the boy’s locker room in the gym?” asked scar face. “There’s enough fumes from unwashed clothes in the lockers to launch two space ships to the moon!”

Miss Fairbanks was still not sure, but the class voted her down. And so, the final version of their comic strip started with the octopus asking the dragon butterfly “Did you bring the firecracker?” In the second box he answered saying, “Yeah, but I don’t see how a single firecracker will blow up the whole school.” In the third box the octopus said “we just light it and toss it through that window into the boy’s gym,” followed by the final box in which the octopus followed up happily by saying, “the fumes from all the unwashed socks and shorts will ignite and do the rest!”

“Very well done,” said Miss Fairbanks to the class after all the words were up. “A comic strip doesn’t have to make people laugh out loud to be good. All it has to do is make people smile.”

“That one doesn’t make me smile,” said Armpit Arnold grumpily. “I don’t like it.”

“Do you think you could do a better one on your own?” asked Miss Fairbanks.

“Yes!” said half the class at once.

“All right then,” said Miss Fairbanks, grateful they had fallen into the trap of giving themselves an assignment. “For the rest of the class, see if you can do it. I’ll give extra points to any that I think are as good or better than this one.” There was a rustle of paper as her students started to work right away, determined to prove they could make a better one, regardless of any points. None of them seemed to realize they had been tricked into working for the third day in a row.

“But remember!” said Miss Fairbanks. “No profanity or indecency or sexual references. Let’s keep it clean and fun, and not descend to weak mindedness.”

“Who’s going to draw the art in those boxes?” asked the kid with purple hair. “We can’t just leave boxes with words and no pictures.” Instantly there were a dozen volunteers to draw the art, and a new argument over who would get to do it. In the end, Miss Fairbanks chose four students, one for each box.

And so it was that when Principal Clyde stuck his head in Miss Fairbanks classroom five minutes later, he once more jealously saw that the students were busily working on papers, rather than screaming and acting insane like normal. Fortunately, he didn’t look at the chalkboard or see the comic strip boxes, since one of the students had drawn the dragon butterfly to look a bit like him.

He motioned for Miss Fairbanks to come out to the hall. Once she got there he said, “I’m frankly surprised to see you here today, after what happened Friday. In fact, I wasn’t sure I’d see you again at all!”

“Well,” said Miss Fairbanks off handedly. “I had a job to do, so I knew I had to come in today.”

Principal Clyde shook his head. “You must be crazy, Miss Fairbanks,” he said bluntly. “No offense mind you, but most teachers in this school jump at any flimsy excuse to take a day off and get a break from these awful students. And you certainly had a good excuse after what happened on Friday!”

Miss Fairbanks just smiled up at him weakly. “It turns out these ‘awful students’ are just what I needed to help me get over what happened Friday. I’m glad I came.”

Principal Clyde’s jaw dropped, and he gawked at her for a minute, clearly clueless how the disgusting students in this school could possibly be helping her. Then he said, “Well, just so you know, Brent Llewelyn is in juvenile detention. Looks like he’ll be there for quite awhile. When I called his dad and told him about it, he just laughed and said he was glad.” Mr. Clyde shook his head. “With parents like that, no wonder the students in this school are such fruitcakes.”

Miss Fairbanks face had taken on a distinct flash of color. Her strength truly had been restored! “That was his step-dad you talked to, and he’s the one who caused the whole thing!” she said hotly. “He killed Brent’s cat, which was all he cared about in the world!”

Principal Clyde looked at her as if a piece of broccoli had just sprouted out of her ear. “A cat?” he said dumbly. “That stupid kid brought a gun to school and scared the wits out of everyone and nearly killed people all because of a CAT!”

“That’s right,” said Miss Fairbanks, her chin quivering. “And he never would have used the gun. He was just feeling hurt and upset, and didn’t know what to do.” Principal Clyde looked at her as if she was obviously crazy. Then he turned and slowly walked away, shaking his head in disbelief.

As Miss Fairbanks walked back into the room a paper airplane floated past her head. “My comic strip,” said Armpit Arnold triumphantly. “And it’s a better one than that stupid thing on the board!”

Miss Fairbanks opened the paper airplane and looked at what Arnold had done. Once again there were four boxes. In the first one, the octopus asked the dragon butterfly, “Did you bring the firecracker to blow up the school?” to which the dragon butterfly answered, “Sort of.” In the second box the octopus asked, “What do you mean ‘sort of?’ Do you have it or not?” to which the dragon butterfly vaguely answered “Well …” In the third panel the dragon butterfly said, “I was pretty hungry, and you know how I like crackers!” The fourth panel showed the octopus panicking while he said, “You didn’t!” The dragon butterfly responded, “It tasted pretty good, but now I feel like I’m about to explode …”

Miss Fairbanks smiled. “See?” yelled Armpit Arnold triumphantly. “Made you smile! It’s a good one!”

 

CHAPTER TEN

Miss Fairbank’s other classes throughout the rest of the day had roughly the same experience. Her second period class chose a flying fish and a cactus as its comic strip characters. They decided to blow up the school in the literal sense, with hot air that shot it far up into the sky. The hot air was generated by all the bullies and show-offs, bragging about how great they were.

And so it went. Third period had a frozen pizza and an old guy in a wheelchair as characters, while fourth period chose a thorn bush and a thundercloud. Truly, the creative minds of the students at Inner City Junior High School knew no bounds.

As for Miss Fairbanks, she was greatly relieved that her ‘awful’ students seemed to be helping her cope with what had happened last Friday, with their ridiculous ideas. Indeed, she was helped so much that she began to think something no teacher at Inner City Junior High had ever thought before—that it was a shame the school day had to end. This was especially true since she knew Heather and Jerry would probably show up in her classroom after school, but Brent would not be there. She wasn’t sure she could face his empty seat.

But of course, whether she wanted it to or not, the school day finally did come to an end. Not long after the final bell rang, Heather came into the room. “Thank you for the picture of Garfield,” said Miss Fairbanks quickly before Heather could say anything. The girl smiled shyly and took a seat.

“I hoped you’d like it,” she said simply. They both knew the events of Friday were the real motivation for it being on Miss Fairbank’s desk first thing in the morning, rather than now after school. But neither said anything about that of course.

A minute later, Jerry came into the room. But to Miss Fairbank’s surprise he was not alone. The quiet boy with owl glasses from first period was with him. Miss Fairbanks soon discovered that his name was Melvin Dugard. The first thing he asked was, “So is this really the ‘loser’s club’ like everyone is saying?”

“Not at all!” exclaimed Miss Fairbanks with a frown. Melvin just nodded. “That confirms it, then. When a teacher denies something, the opposite is usually true.”

Miss Fairbanks glared at him. “Who has been saying this is the loser’s club, and where did they get such a ridiculous idea?”

Melvin and Jerry both shrugged. “Everyone’s saying it,” said Jerry, while moving his big body into a seat. “Even my other teachers and the lunch ladies. I don’t know where they got the idea. Probably just made it up. I guess it’s not very smart for me to show up here knowing I’m going to catch it from the idiots in this school for being in the loser’s club, but I’m always catching it from them anyway. And besides, coming here is still better than going home.” Heather nodded in agreement.

“And why are you here?” Miss Fairbanks snapped at Melvin, incensed that people were labeling her after-school classroom as a place for losers. She instantly felt guilty, since being snappish was not her usual behavior.

Melvin shrugged. “Names like the ‘losers club’ don’t bother me,” he said casually. “I came because Jerry said you wanted help decorating this room. And besides, if I go home now there’s nothing to do but watch my dad drink himself into a stupor.”

“You too?” exclaimed Miss Fairbanks. “Don’t parents in this neighborhood do anything other than drink?”

“It’s the only way they can cope with this awful neighborhood,” said Melvin matter-of-factly.

Miss Fairbanks threw up her hands. “The opposite is true!” she cried. “It’s because they drink that this neighborhood is so awful! If people wouldn’t throw their lives away drinking, they could spend their time improving things. Drinking is the stupidest thing a person can do, because it’s like throwing away God’s greatest gift—the ability to make rational choices.”

“You’re not supposed to mention God in school,” said Melvin, who was apparently the class know-it-all that most people naturally despise.

“Tell that to all the kids swearing in my classes,” replied Miss Fairbanks.

Melvin smiled. “You’ve got a point there.”

It was obviously time to change the subject. But Heather’s next question probably wasn’t the best option to change it to. “So, what happened with Brent? He seemed like a normal guy, then suddenly he tripped out.”

Miss Fairbank’s shoulders slumped. In a low voice she said, “His step-dad killed his cat, which was the only creature in the world that cared about him.”

Heather nodded in sudden understanding. For a moment no one said anything. “I hope he’s ok,” mumbled Miss Fairbanks. “I’m going to go visit him tonight, if I can.”

“Probably won’t be able to,” said Melvin blandly. “Juvenile detention usually won’t allow non-family visitors this soon.” Miss Fairbanks lips trembled. “I intend to try,” she said firmly.

Melvin looked around at the ugly walls, and then up at the blackboard where the sixth period comic strip was still on the board. He read it and smiled, which proved that it was a good one. It showed a toothbrush saying to a jar of pickles, “Did you bring the bomb to blow up the school?” The jar of pickles said, “No.” In the second box the toothbrush said, “Why not?” and the jar of pickles responded, “I found a better way to destroy it.” In the third box the toothbrush asked, “What better way?” and the jar of pickles said, “Red paint.” In the fourth panel the jar of pickles explained, “We’ll paint the roof to look like an Air Force target, and hope the jets won’t know the difference!”

“Very creative,” said Melvin. “Only air force targets have more colors on them than just red.”

“How do you know that?” asked Miss Fairbanks curiously. “Does your dad work in the air force?”

“My uncle does,” said Melvin. “He flies all over the world. I wish I could be just like him someday.” He frowned.

“And why can’t you?” asked Miss Fairbanks. “People can usually achieve their dream if they try hard enough.”

“Not in my case,” replied Melvin. He pointed at the glasses on his nose. “The Air Force only takes pilots with perfect vision. I’ll probably end up working at the slaughterhouse, just like my dad.”

“My dad works there too,” said Heather, looking over at Melvin. “Sometimes he comes home covered in blood. Does your dad do that?”

“Naw, he works in the chicken side,” replied Melvin. “He mostly comes home stinking like chicken gizzards. Sometimes they let him take home the leftover feet and necks, and Mom boils ‘em in a stew.”

Miss Fairbanks could see Heather about to ask another question, and hastily changed the subject. The queasy feeling in her stomach told her they needed to stop talking about blood and gizzards, or she’d have to take a quick trip to the bathroom and lose her lunch.

“So,” she said loudly to Melvin, “why don’t you just skip the Air Force and become an airline pilot? The airlines don’t care if you wear glasses, do they? I’ve seen pilots with glasses.”

“No, they don’t mind as much, although they still would rather you don’t have them” said Melvin. “But it takes money to get into a pilot training school for the airlines. Most guys get into the airlines by joining the Air Force or Navy or Marines first in order to be trained for free. I’d love to fly, but I probably never will. It’s too expensive.”

Miss Fairbanks unexpectedly came over and shook Melvin’s hand, while everyone just looked at her curiously. “Congratulations,” she said heartily. “You have just confirmed that this must indeed be the ‘loser’s club.’ Only losers give up on their dreams so easily!” Melvin scowled up at her. “I’m not a loser,” he said viciously.

“Then prove it!” cried Miss Fairbanks. “Don’t take no for an answer. Improve your attitude of yourself and what you can accomplish! Keep trying to figure out a way to do things, then make them happen! Doers create their world, rather than just waiting for it to happen to them. Doers act. Losers only react.”

“Well, you must be a loser too, then,” said Melvin rudely. “Why else would you be teaching at this loser school?” Miss Fairbanks gaped at him as if he’d gone crazy.

“This is not a loser school!” she cried emphatically. “Which should be obvious because it has YOU three in it! I cannot understand why people keep putting down this school as if it’s full of hopeless losers! That’s only true if we think it is! And people only think that because other people keep saying it! It’s time to throw away that image and see this school for what it really is!” She spread her hands wide in another of her dramatic, needless gestures.

“What is this school then?” asked Jerry curiously.

“A hospital for misguided winners!” cried Miss Fairbanks. “It’s a place where each student has unlimited potential, but many have been so messed up they just can’t see it! So they come here to school every day hoping someone will cure their illness of despair and hopelessness. That’s where we teachers come in.”

“I always thought the teachers here were nuts,” said Jerry.

“Or that they had a death wish,” added Melvin.

“Do you actually like teaching here, Miss Fairbanks?” asked Heather curiously. “I mean, we have to come here every day because we don’t have any choice. And most of the other teachers here frankly tell us they hate it, and are moving on as soon as they can. But you seem to be different. Why do you come here?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” cried Miss Fairbanks looking from one to the other. The three of them continued to just give her blank stares. “Because of YOU!” she finally cried, throwing up her arms again. She suddenly turned and pointed at the blackboard. “Do you know what I saw in my classes today?” They all dumbly shook their heads. “I saw wonderful, fun, creative ideas by wonderful, fun, creative people. I saw how happy you all are when you’re doing something that sparks your brains into action.”

“The action of most brains in this school is just to criticize,” said Jerry. “That’s what they’re always doing with me, anyway. Saying I’m dumb.”

“A lot of students are critical like that,” said Miss Fairbanks. “But I’m hoping to change that.” She paused, while some of the fire went out of her eyes. Then she suddenly said, “I suppose if anyone here is dumb, it’s me.”

“You?” cried all three voices at once. “You’re not dumb, Miss Fairbanks!” said Heather firmly. “You’re the most undumb person I’ve seen in this school!”

Miss Fairbanks smiled blandly at Heather. “Thank you, Heather,” she said softly. “I only said that about me being dumb because of what I believe. And I believe that the kids here are NOT losers, are NOT hopeless, and that they DO have a wonderful potential, if they will only reach inside and find it! And the way everyone else talks about the kids here, I must be dumb because I seem to be the only one that believes otherwise.”

There was silence in the classroom for a moment. Then Melvin looked at her and said softly, “Then I hope you stay dumb, Miss Fairbanks. I hope you never wise up, and get smart like everybody else.”

Miss Fairbanks looked at him and smiled. “Thank you Melvin. That’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me!”

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Melvin proved to be correct about the juvenile detention center. Miss Fairbanks was denied entrance to see Brent Llewelyn, no matter how insistent she was that she was one of his dearest friends and that it would help him if he saw her.

“He’s in detention for a reason, dearie,” barked the tough-as-nails receptionist at Miss Fairbanks. “That kid’s messed up. Try back in a week. If the doctor thinks he’s sane enough, maybe you can see him then.”

Miss Fairbanks glared at the receptionist, then marched swiftly out of the office. If all the people who worked here had an attitude like that, there was no hope for the kids that came here. At any rate, she had no intention of trying again in a week. She would be back every day until she got in to see him.

The evening passed peacefully while Miss Fairbanks read about war in Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace.’ And then it was Tuesday and Inner City Junior High School glumly accepted back all its despicable students. Miss Fairbanks was feeling considerably better than the day before, since her miserable students had cheered her up immensely. As the bell for first period rang, her class looked up at her expectantly, hoping beyond hope that she would once more have something fun and pleasant for them to do. They knew a fourth day in a row of fun was too much to hope for in this school, but hoped for it nonetheless. In fact, they held themselves back from their usual cruel, noisy behavior to give her a chance to talk. She opened her mouth, intending to tell them about the descriptive writings she wanted them to do (with some trepidation, since she knew they would complain), but in that instant Mr. Clyde’s voice came over the intercom into her room.

“Miss Fairbanks, could you come to my office please?” said his voice in a scratchy, nasal tone. The scratchiness was because the intercom was old and didn’t work well, while the nasalness was because he had a cold. “There’s a call for you from the penitentiary.”

Miss Fairbanks’ heart froze as if it had been stabbed by an icicle. Her students however stared at her in awe. “The penn!” mouthed Armpit Arnold. “I never thought YOU would have connections with a place like that!”

Miss Fairbanks did not reply. In one, shattering second, her world had once more melted before her eyes. Practically all the good from the day before was blasted. She knew what the call was about. And it was not a call she wanted to take! In a daze, without even a word to her students, she stumbled out the door. She was oblivious to the rustling of curiosity behind her in the classroom, as everyone asked everyone else what it could be about. As she walked down the hall she started to shiver so badly it was hard to keep going.

Why did they have to call here? Why couldn’t they just leave her alone? Did they think somehow they had something new to tell her? Did they think she was so stupid she had forgotten about him and had to be reminded, and that she didn’t know that his time was up? Didn’t they realize that if she’d wanted anything to do with him, she would have done it long ago? Hadn’t they realized by now that she was the one that had caused him to do it, and that’s why she couldn’t face him?

With an ashen face, Miss Fairbanks stumbled into the main office. Both Mrs. Jensen and Principal Clyde looked at her with almost the same morbid curiosity as the students in her classroom. After all, calls from the state penitentiary were rare, even for this school! And for such a call to come through for Miss Fairbanks of all people seemed unthinkable!

But naturally, they were more polite than her students, and didn’t question her. Instead, Principal Clyde apologized. “I still hope someday my budget request will be approved and we’ll have a telephone installed for each teacher in their classroom,” he said. “But for now, all telephone calls come only to this office, and then I have to alert the teacher by the intercom.”

Miss Fairbanks hardly heard him. The healing that had taken place yesterday was completely shattered, and she knew the instant she picked up the phone the destruction would be total. It was uncertain whether she would be able to function after that. She might have another meltdown, like last Friday! Taking a call like this in her classroom where she would have had an even bigger and more curious audience would have been impossible.

For a second, Miss Fairbanks simply stared at the phone. Principal Clyde and Mrs. Jensen exchanged meaningful glances. They didn’t know Miss Fairbanks well, but could tell this call was extremely troubling to her. Finally she reached out a trembling hand and picked up the receiver. Then in a sudden inspiration, she turned her head away from them and stooped down as if she was trying to listen carefully. In reality however, out of their view she tightly covered her ear with one hand while smothering the reception piece of the phone with the other hand which was holding the phone. She did NOT want to hear what her caller was going to tell her.

Miss Fairbanks stood like that for a moment, her hands still trembling. In spite of her handholds, she could still faintly hear a voice through the phone. Fortunately however, she could not tell what the voice was saying.

She decided that she had better say something or the person on the other end of the line would assume the phone had died and call back. “Yes,” she said in a voice that sounded strained, even to her. “You don’t say? Well, I don’t know.” She could hear the voice continuing to come over the phone, slightly raised in a questioning way this time, since her statements clearly showed that she hadn’t understood a word they were saying. “Absolutely,” she said again. The voice went on for a moment, rising once more as if it was asking another question. “No, I don’t think so,” said Miss Fairbanks nonsensically. Then without any further attempt at etiquette, she hung up. She hoped with all her heart that her bizarre answers would somehow satisfy them, so they wouldn’t call back.

Turning, she saw Principal Clyde and Mrs. Jensen staring at her. The things she had said were obviously as baffling to them as they’d been to the person calling from the prison. “Is there … some trouble?” asked Principal Clyde curiously.

“No,” said Miss Fairbanks simply, heading for the door. “I’d better get back to class.”

“Certainly,” agreed Principal Clyde, his pent up breath escaping suddenly. “We can’t leave these students alone too long.” He and his secretary continued to stare at her as she walked out the door.

Miss Fairbanks shuffled her way back down the hall toward her classroom. Her heart was racing and she felt dizzy. Why did this horror have to follow her here? Why now, when she was just starting this new job? She had finally graduated from college and started her new life, and now this had to happen. The timing could hardly have been worse.

As Miss Fairbanks approached her door, her feet slowed. She could hear screams, thumps and banging that told her the class had returned to its normal behavior in her absence.

A wild thought jumped suddenly into her brain. Why not just leave? She could keep on walking, straight down to the end of the hall and out the door. No one would blame her, and probably no one would care. She could just leave, and never come back. She would go to the library, where she could escape among the books …

Miss Fairbanks shook her head as if to clear it from a fog. Such a thought was unacceptable. She had a job to do. She had no idea how she would get through this day now, but she knew she had to try. Mustering all her bravado, she walked into the classroom.

There was instant quiet. Everyone stared at her, as if they’d expected her to come back wearing a prison uniform. It was obvious they were dying to know what the call was about. And since they were just uncultured kids who didn’t mind being rude and nosy, it was not surprising that one of them asked a question about it.

It was Armpit Arnold of course. “So, what did you brother say when he called? Did he ask you to bring him a cake with a file in it?”

There were a series of guffaws and chirps of laughter. Arnold didn’t know if she had a brother in prison of course, but it was a good joke. Miss Fairbanks looked at Arnold blankly. She had no idea what to say. But something in his taunting face triggered an unexpected response in her mind. And she suddenly found herself weakly smiling as a small trickle of strength flowed back into her frail body.

Of course! It had worked yesterday, and could work just as well today! Her students could help her carry on! It was bizarre she knew, but their innocent idiocy was exactly what she needed. All she had to do was add the right touch of bizarre, zany humor. And Arnold’s question gave her the flash of inspiration she needed to know what that twist of humor would be.

“No,” she said faintly, in voice that she tried to pretend was greatly worried and troubled. This was not hard, because she was. In order to carry out her tricky little plan, she would now be telling them a fairy tale, that was as far from the truth as it could be. “It was not my brother,” she said calmly, while they all looked at her expectantly. Some looked at her in surprise, since they hadn’t expected her to tell them anything about the call. She could see some of them salivating at what they hoped she would tell them next. Who was she to deny their curiosity, even if she had to embellish things a bit?

“It was my Uncle Egbert,” lied Miss Fairbanks, since she had no uncles. “He asked me to help find his box, before it’s too late. But I had to tell him I simply didn’t know if I could recognize it.”

“His box?” said Slapface from the front row.

“You mean his lunch box?” guffawed Armpit Arnold.

“Oh, this was not a mere lunchbox,” smiled Miss Fairbanks at them mysteriously, starting to get wrapped up in the fiction she was concocting. It was as if she was living one of the fiction stories she so much loved to read—like she had gone to the library after all. Only this was better than the library, since this story could be created as she went!

“This was the box that put him in prison,” she continued. “He’s an inventor, you see. And one day he invented something, and put it in a box. Only, he has a black heart, and the thing he invented was not very nice at all!”

Several of the kids were grinning from ear to ear. This was great! A gruesome story instead of a writing assignment! And the thought of dainty, helpless little Miss Fairbanks having an evil uncle with a black heart made it all the better! They all realized she was probably making it up of course. But they didn’t want her to stop!

“This invention of Uncle Egbert’s did unspeakable things to people,” continued Miss Fairbanks. “There were all sorts of dials and knobs and turny things and rubber bands inside, and when he adjusted the controls a certain way and pointed it at someone, they—”

“Started to belch, and couldn’t stop?” yelled Arnold with glee, unable to restrain himself.

Miss Fairbanks smiled. “You’re almost right,” she said to everyone’s surprise. “Only it was far worse than that. It was hideous and disgusting! It was the most awful thing you can imagine!”

“Endless hiccupping!” yelled a kid from the back of the room.

“Making them permanently cross-eyed!” cried the tattoo-eared girl on the front row.

“Making their nose hairs grow a mile a minute!” yelled the purple haired kid two rows back.

Miss Fairbanks smiled. She had to admit those were pretty good answers, and were every bit as good as what she had in mind. “None of those things,” she said mysteriously. Then she paused for a second and threw her arms wide for dramatic effect, while they all waited breathlessly to find out what it was. “They started to LAUGH!” she blurted.

“You’re kidding!” said Armpit Arnold in disappointment. “That’s stupid. What’s so hideous about that?”

“Have you ever started to laugh, Arnold, but couldn’t stop?” cried Miss Fairbanks. “And the harder you tried to stop the harder you laughed! And then you started to panic and the laughing started to gag you, and—”

“And then you go cross-eyed and start hiccupping and grow nose hairs a mile a minute!” yelled the kid with purple hair excitedly.

Miss Fairbanks smiled. The horrible reality of the phone call only a few minutes before now seemed far away. She knew as long as she was here with her crazy students, she was safe. Her only danger was when she went back to being alone after the school day ended, and would start to think about it all again.

“So, where’s the box?” yelled the boy with freckles on top of his freckles. “I want to try it out on my sister!” Suddenly there was mad yelling and screaming as everyone started spouting off about who they wanted to try the box on. Miss Fairbanks expected scar face to yell to everyone to ‘shut up’ to quiet them down, so she could continue. To her surprise however, she saw him sitting quietly at the back of the room looking out the window, not seeming to even know what was going on.

Miss Fairbanks frowned. That was odd.

But of course, the rest of her class paid no attention to scar face. “So your fruitcake uncle wants you to find the box, right?” said Arnold. “He must have given you a clue.”

“Well, yes and no,” said Miss Fairbanks when the class had died down enough for her to be heard. “He just reminded me about when I visited the work shed behind his house, where he stores all his inventions. He said that’s where it is, and I should go get it.”

“So, what are you waiting for?” shouted half the kids at once.

“Well,” said Miss Fairbanks softly, causing silence to instantly seize the room as they all strained forward to hear. “The problem is, my uncle’s work shed is big! There are thousands of boxes in it, and they all look the same. But only one of them is the box of horrifying laughter.”

Armpit Arnold grinned at her. “You’re putting us on, right?” Most of the rest of the class smiled as well, since they all knew that’s what she was doing.

“Maybe,” said Miss Fairbanks casually. “But I DID get a call from the penitentiary today, didn’t I?”

Some of them looked at her, starting to wonder if it could really be true.

“The problem is, I remember seeing his box just once,” said Miss Fairbanks, pacing around behind her desk. “He showed me how it worked when he made a roach on his window start laughing so hard one of its antennae fell off. But now when I try to remember what the box looks like, and also how it looks on the inside and how it works, I get all confused.” She tried to look confused, just for emphasis. “I’m afraid I won’t recognize it because there are so many boxes in his shed. And I’m afraid if I start looking inside all his boxes in the hope of recognizing the inner works, I’ll just get more confused. I need something to jog my memory. I think if I could just see it in my mind’s eye again, I’d know what to look for.”

“You need someone to draw a picture of it,” said Slapface. But Miss Fairbanks shook her head. “No, I’m not a picture person. I remember things by way of words. That’s why I became a writing teacher. I’m sure if I could just read a description of what the box had in it, and how it worked, that would jog my memory and I could find it easily.”

“Hah! I knew it!” guffawed Armpit Arnold. “Now I know you’re putting us on! You just set us up to do another one of your silly writing things!” More than half the class started yelling in agreement. These kids were no dummies.

Miss Fairbanks held up her hand. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe that’s all I’ve been doing. But I’ll bet none of you could describe such a box very well, or tell how it worked.”

“That’d be a piece of cake!” said Arnold. “But why would I want to waste my time doing a stupid thing like that?”

Miss Fairbanks smiled at him sweetly. “Because if you don’t, I’ll have to call your parents or your parole officer and tell them you’ll be staying after school today to do the assignment. And as you know, there’s a rumor around school that a certain club meets here in this room after school is out, so you’d become a member of the club …”

“The loser’s club!” whispered half a dozen kids at once in alarm. Armpit Arnold’s face went white. “You wouldn’t!” he exclaimed.

Miss Fairbanks just smiled at him. “I believe I can find your father’s phone number in the directory in Mr. Clyde’s office.”

Arnold looked at her disdainfully for another minute. Then he grumpily reached down to pull a paper out of his book bag. He was grumbling to himself, but Miss Fairbanks noticed that as he started to write, his grumbles quickly faded. Curiously, Miss Fairbanks knew something about Arnold that he didn’t even know about himself. When he started doing something challenging and creative, he loved it no matter how much he grumbled. And that is what he was doing now.

Indeed, all the students that grumbled had obviously allowed themselves to be “tricked” into doing this assignment. They all knew that Miss Fairbanks probably wouldn’t have called any of their parents, and even if she had, they wouldn’t have come to her class to do any writing after school anyway.

In short order, amazing silence reigned across Miss Fairbanks classroom. It was obvious her students were thinking deeply, trying to come up with a description of the innards of the box and how it worked that would knock her socks off. And in the process they were doing almost the very same descriptive writing assignment she’d originally had in mind to give them that day!

Principal Clyde once more poked his head in the door. Having seen how badly Miss Fairbanks was shaken by the phone call, he thought perhaps he had better check on her. Once more, he looked around her classroom in astonishment and jealousy as he saw all the students busily writing as if their lives depended on it.

Miss Fairbanks went quickly to the door, then out into the hall with him. “Are you all right?” asked Principal Clyde curiously through his nasal voice. He suddenly swiveled around and sneezed, then turned his questioning, watery eyes back on her.

“Yes,” said Miss Fairbanks with a slight smile. “There’s nothing like the students in this school to make you forget your personal problems!”

Principal Clyde looked at her with a blank stare, as if she had completely lost her marbles. “No,” he said slowly at last. “There’s nothing like that at all. I think maybe I’d have to agree with you there …”

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

The day passed quickly. Miss Fairbanks’ mysterious jailbird Uncle Egbert made his appearance in each of her classes as the day progressed. None of her students were fooled, of course. By now they all knew that Miss Fairbanks sometimes mixed fantasy with reality in a tricky way to get them to work—sort of like she did on the very first day, with the magic compact. But rather than resent it, most of them just took it with a smile. It was a lot more fun than being yelled at by Mr. Thacker in history class, or trying to dodge the soggy prunes that Mr. Felcher threw at his noisy students in Algebra. Miss Fairbanks’ class was always weird and fun. Even her threat to make them stay after school and join the ‘loser’s club’ was fun, since they all knew she’d never do it.

And finally the bell rang, and the exhausted school building once more spewed its awful students out into the unfortunate neighborhood. Miss Fairbanks now had a sizeable stack of ‘evil box’ papers to grade, for which she was very thankful. That way, she could take the mindless fun of her students home with her, and keep the horrible thoughts of the real phone call out of her mind all evening.

Heather came into the classroom a few minutes after the final bell and took a seat. To Miss Fairbanks’ surprise, another girl entered the room right after her. She had bizarre pickle shaped earrings—yes, pickles—and had her hair tied up in a lopsided ponytail. Miss Fairbanks had noticed her in her fifth period class. She was always doodling and trying not to pay attention to the snide criticisms of the students around her.

“This is Ella Mack,” said Heather. “I told her about the comic strip figures you were thinking of putting up in here, and she offered to draw some. She’s very good at pictures.”

“Welcome, Ella!” said Miss Fairbanks as the new girl smiled shyly. “Any help with drawing comic characters will be greatly appreciated.”

Jerry trounced into the room, followed by Melvin. “Great idea today about the evil boxes,” said Melvin in his blunt, direct way. “But what was your Uncle Egbert really put in jail for?”

Miss Fairbanks simply smiled at him. “I don’t actually have an Uncle Egbert,” she said. “Although after today, I wish I did. He sounds like a fun character.”

“My dad served in prison for awhile,” said Melvin casually. “Or rather, the county jail. He got drunk and stole some stuff. Wish he would’ve stayed there.”

Miss Fairbanks winced. It never ceased to amaze her how callously her students talked about their abusive parents. She was about to say something when suddenly there was a shadow at the door.

The room was instantly quiet. To Miss Fairbanks amazement, scar face was standing there. He frowned at everyone in distaste, and smacked his right fist into his left palm. Jerry gulped and Heather looked intently at the floor. Scar face fit in with this bunch about as well as an electric eel in a tank of happy clown fish.

“Welcome Bobby,” said Miss Fairbanks, trying to keep her voice from wavering as she did what no one else ever dared to do—use his real name. He stood silently for a moment while no one said anything. His eyes were looking intently at the floor. Miss Fairbanks looked desperately around, fishing for something to say that would make everyone feel at ease. She had no idea why scar face was here, but she didn’t feel she could turn him away.

“We’ve been talking a lot about how to decorate this room,” said Miss Fairbanks lamely. “Maybe you can give us some ideas that will help.” She knew she’d used this idea too much lately, but she couldn’t come up with anything better. Without a word, scar face slouched into the room and took a seat on the front row. He started looking out the window again just as he had all through Miss Fairbanks’ first period class.

There was obviously something wrong. Indeed, the mere fact that he was here at all instead of out on the street with his gang was remarkable. Clearly he had come for a reason. But everyone, including Miss Fairbanks, was mystified about what the reason could be.

Miss Fairbanks fumbled with the papers on her desk, picked up the eraser to wipe the board, then put it back since she’d already done all the erasing. She looked around at her now silent students. It was clear none of the others would say a word as long as scar face was there. Yet he showed no sign of moving, or of saying a word.

Miss Fairbanks walked slowly around to stand between scar face and the window. He glanced up at her, and for the briefest moment they made eye contact. With a start Miss Fairbanks took a step back and put her hand over her heart.

There was pain in those eyes. Tremendous pain. Just as strong as the pain and fear she had seen in the eyes of Brent Llewelyn that first day in class.

“Bobby, what’s wrong?” said Miss Fairbanks, completely forgetting the others were even there. “Something’s happened. I can tell.”

Scar face looked up at her with a blank stare. The pain jumping out of his eyes was so intense it was frightening. He turned and looked at the others in the room, all of whom tried hard to pretend they were busy with something. Heather studied the floor, Melvin pretended to read a book (which was upside down) and Ella was doodling for all she was worth.

“Don’t worry about them,” said Miss Fairbanks. “They’re my friends. We don’t tell each other’s secrets, because friends never do that.” She paused. “What’s wrong?” Taking a seat next to him, she gazed intently into his eyes.

Scar face let out a long breath. He looked back around at the window, and rapidly started to blink his eyes. He was clearly fighting back tears, which no one in the room had ever thought they would see him do. Finally he said in a whispered voice, “My mom’s dead.”

Miss Fairbanks sucked in her breath. “Your mother?” she asked faintly. “No! What happened?”

Scar face shrugged. “Don’t know. Came home last night after running with the gang, and she was just sitting in a chair staring into space. Didn’t answer me when I talked to her, and slumped over on the floor when I touched her. When the ambulance people arrived, they said she’d been dead for hours.”

“Oh, Bobby,” said Miss Fairbanks softly, reaching out to take his hand. “I am so sorry! You must be heartbroken!”

Scar face began to blink rapidly again, then turned to look at the others. They were no longer pretending to be busy, but simply sat in stony silence. Pain was something they could all relate to, and even though they had long seen scar face as an enemy, they couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.

“How is your father taking it?” asked Miss Fairbanks.

Scar face grimaced. “Ain’t got no father,” he said flatly. “Never knew him. He ran off when I was a baby. There’s never been anyone but mom and me.” He paused. “She was nice. She was real nice to me. Always trying to get me to quit the gang, telling me I could do more with my life. I just shrugged it off.” He suddenly looked down at his hand that Miss Fairbanks was holding, then yanked it back out of her grasp. He quickly covered his eyes with his hands, but he still made no sound. He was far too practiced at being tough for that.

“Oh, Bobby, I’m so sorry,” repeated Miss Fairbanks, surprised to learn of a parent in this neighborhood who wasn’t an abusive, heavy drinker. “She sounds like she was a wonderful woman. And I’m sure she was very proud of you.”

Scar face jerked around and stared at Miss Fairbanks with red eyes. “Proud?” he asked in shock, his voice shrieking. “Of me? Are you kidding? I drove her to it! I killed her! It was because of me and my gang! I did it! I—”

“No, no, that’s not true,” said Miss Fairbanks as Scar face suddenly buried his face in his hands and began to sob. She reached out and put her hand on his shoulder. “That’s not true,” repeated Miss Fairbanks. “It can’t be true. She saw the good in you. And so do I. I saw it my first day in class when everyone was trying out the magic compact. You knew it was a fake, but you went along with it. That really helped me that day. You’ll never know how much that helped me.”

Scar face made no move, but continued to sob. Tears dripped through his fingers onto his desk. Tears like this tough, know-it-all boy had never before shed in his life. They were shed for the mother that loved him and who had done all she could for him, even though he had never thanked her for it. They were tears of grief that she had died thinking her son was going to end up just like his father, running away from everything, and getting into needless trouble. They were tears that she had died thinking she was a failure, because of how he was turning out.

“Oh, Bobby, Bobby,” said Miss Fairbanks, gently shaking his shoulders. “Your mother was proud of you! I know she was. How could she not be? With such a strong, brave son, who obviously cared so much about her—”

“But I didn’t care!” yelled scar face, yanking back from Miss Fairbanks once more. “Don’t you get it? I killed her! It was me! I drove her to the grave because I was doing bad things and she told me to stop and I wouldn’t, and it killed her! I killed her the same as if I put a gun to her head! I did it! It was me! I killed my own mother!”

Miss Fairbanks looked at scar face, while her lips started to quiver. Tears were glistening in her own eyes now. She reached out a shaking hand to straighten her hair. “No, Bobby,” she said in a wavering voice. “You’re wrong. You did NOT kill her. It wasn’t you. Believe me. I know what it’s like when a family member kills someone. And when I look at you, I just know you didn’t do it! You’ve got to believe me! Your mother was worried about you, I’m sure she was, but she was proud of you at the same time! She saw the good in you like all mothers do, and that’s why she kept encouraging you to change! If she hadn’t seen the good in you she would have given up, but she didn’t! And she knew someday you would change, Bobby! She knew you would, because she raised you and she knew your heart! She knew it, Bobby! She knew it!”

Miss Fairbanks’ eyes were glistening, and scar face was now just a blur. She quickly put her hands to her face, trying to compose herself. This was not good. Not good at all. Panic gripped her heart as she fought back what she knew was coming. She could tell she was slipping over the edge once again, triggered by what scar face had said. The words echoed through her mind with horrifying clarity, driving deeper and deeper into her. “I killed my own mother! I killed my own mother! I killed my own mother!”

Suddenly the pain of that morning’s phone call was back as strong as ever. Who had she been fooling? She’d only been pretending that call from the penitentiary had disappeared and gone away. But now it was back, as real and ugly as ever. The events from twenty years ago were starting to relive themselves in her mind again, brought to life by the echoing words Bobby had said. “I killed my own mother! I killed my own mother!”

But just as real was this boy sitting in front of her, turning to her because he apparently did not have anyone else to turn to. He obviously couldn’t turn to his gang. They would never understand. He couldn’t turn to his long-gone father, or any of the other students or teachers in this school. And so he had chosen her, weak, silly little Miss Fairbanks, to pour his heart out to. And she couldn’t let him down. She couldn’t let him leave thinking he had murdered his own mother. Not his own mother. Not her, of all people. He was no murderer. Not him. He would never kill someone in his own family …

And suddenly Miss Fairbanks was sobbing as well. She simply couldn’t help it. She knew it made no sense to react this way, but she just couldn’t stop. She had gone over the edge once more. Great gushing tears poured down her face and her wracking sobs shook her weak frame violently. The phone call and the letter were screaming out to her, screaming for all they were worth, along with scar face’s words “I killed my own mother!” She couldn’t shut them out. They kept echoing louder and louder in her mind. And suddenly she found herself saying what she had so often said before when she’d woken up sobbing from one of her unspeakable nightmares, “Oh, why did I do it? Why?! Oh, how I wish it had been me instead! How I wish it had been me! Why wasn’t it me?”

She sank from the chair to the floor, completely helpless in her emotional agony. The tears ran as if they were coming from a bottomless river. Her hands were shaking and her arms seemed to have lost all strength.

“Miss Fairbanks! Are you all right? Miss Fairbanks! What’s wrong?” The voice sounded as if it was coming from a great distance. It sounded vaguely like Heather’s voice. She felt a hand gently pushing on her shoulder. “Are you all right? Miss Fairbanks! Please be all right! Please!”

Her lips were quivering madly, completely out of control. Her hands were shaking so badly she could do nothing but clench and unclench her fists. She opened her eyes and looked up at the blurry image of Heather and Ella looking down at her. Heather was biting her lips in concern, close to tears herself. Slightly to the left, Miss Fairbanks could see Jerry and Melvin looking down at her too, with big surprised eyes. And to the right was the tear-streaked and astonished face of scar face.

Suddenly Miss Fairbanks emitted a choking laugh. “Aren’t I a sight?” she gibbered in a voice that could barely be understood. “Here I am trying to pretend to be strong, and I dissolve like a cube of butter in a microwave.”

Relief washed across Heather’s face to see that Miss Fairbanks was not dying. Gently she and Ella lifted their frail little teacher and set her in the desk once more. “Thank you girls,” she said in a badly wavering voice, trying to pat their hands, but without success since her own hands were still shaking so badly. “I guess I just got a little emotional. Sorry to worry you. I’m all right. Really I am.” Her voice was still so strained and shaky they had a hard time understanding what she said.

For several minutes no one said anything as tears still streaked down Miss Fairbanks face. She knew from experience that once this waterfall got started, it was very hard to stop. She ran a shaky hand through her hair. She kept trying to force it to stop, or at least to compose herself. The effort was not very successful, and left her hair wildly skewed and wet from the tears on her hands.

Looking over at scar face, she smiled weakly. “I’m sorry, Bobby,” she said softly in a shaky voice. “I guess I’m not much help to you. I know what it feels like …” she groped for words, unable to finish. Finally she just said, “I wish I was more help to you. You must be feeling terrible.”

Scar face angrily brushed at his eyes. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again. Suddenly he stood up. “I’ve got to go,” he announced flatly.

“You’ll be all right, won’t you?” asked Miss Fairbanks in concern. She suddenly tried to stand up, then shrank back weakly in her seat, still not sure she could rise. “Where will you go? You can’t go back to that empty house alone!”

“Naw,” said scar face, shaking his head. “I’ve got an Uncle in Jersey. I’ve only seen him a couple times in my life. He’s coming to get me. I’m going to live with him now.”

Miss Fairbanks’ lips started to tremble again. “You mean, you’re leaving? You won’t be in my class anymore? I won’t see you again?”

Scar face shook his head. “Naw, I’ll be in Jersey. I just wanted to come here today, and …” He left the sentence unfinished.

“Oh, Bobby I’ll miss you,” said Miss Fairbanks. “You will write to me, won’t you? Please do!”

Scar face shrugged. “Sure,” he said casually with a weak smile. “After all, you’re my writing teacher.” He turned and sauntered toward the door.

“Bobby!” called out Miss Fairbanks in her weak, shaky voice. He turned to look at her. “Please don’t blame yourself for what happened.” Her lips were trembling again. “I know about these things. I know when someone is truly the cause of something tragic. And it wasn’t you. You didn’t do it. And you can still make your mother proud, when she looks down on you and sees what you’re doing with your life.”

Scar face stared at the floor for a minute. “Yeah, sure,” he said vaguely. Then he turned and walked out the door.

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room, as Miss Fairbanks continued to snivel, trying vainly to compose herself. Melvin went back to reading his book (right side up this time), while Ella went back to doodling. Jerry also seemed to be absorbed in drawing something. Heather on the other hand simply sat and stared worriedly at Miss Fairbanks with her dead eyes.

The minutes ticked by. Miss Fairbanks kept blowing her nose and rubbing her eyes, wishing that this embarrassment had not happened here of all places. These kids probably now thought she was some kind of fruit cake to break down like she had.

But none of them showed it. And after a few minutes Jerry suddenly held up a picture of Scooby Doo. “Here it is,” he said simply. The picture was surprisingly good. Scooby was winking at them while scarfing down a ‘scooby snack.’ “What do you think?” asked Jerry.

“Marvelous!” said Miss Fairbanks in her shaky voice while trying to rise, then sinking down again. “We’ll put it on the wall right behind my desk, so everyone will see it behind me when I’m in front of the class.”

Jerry smiled in pleasure as he went to put the picture on the wall. Melvin however just shook his head. “That’s a bad place to put it. It’ll just make everyone hungry, seeing Scooby up there chomping away.”

“Hungry?” repeated Miss Fairbanks. “You mean it’ll make them look forward to going to the lunchroom at noon?”

Melvin just stared at her for a moment. “Good point,” he said finally. “Maybe it’s ok there after all.”

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Miss Fairbanks was once more denied entrance at the youth detention center when she went to see Brent Llewelyn later than evening. “Look dearie, like I told you yesterday, that kid ain’t seeing anyone! Come back next month.”

“No!” said Miss Fairbanks firmly, who had finally composed herself after her meltdown in class that afternoon. “He’s my friend, and I insist on seeing him TODAY. I want to speak to your supervisor.”

“Doctor Tinface?” said the receptionist in surprise. “He ain’t here. He left me in charge.”

“I doubt that very much,” said Miss Fairbanks. “Please go in and tell whoever is in charge that I want to see Brent Llewelyn NOW. After all, I was in the room when he was apprehended, and—”

“Oh, well if that’s the case, there’s no way you’re getting in, dearie!” said the receptionist triumphantly. “The sight of a victim can trigger a relapse in one of these looneys.”

“I was not a victim!” yelled Miss Fairbanks. “He was alone in the room with his gun when I ran in to see if he was all right.”

“You ran into the room?” said the receptionist incredulously. “And he didn’t shoot you?” She looked at Miss Fairbanks shrewdly. “Is there something wrong with your head? Or do you just drink all the time? What sane person would run into a room where some loony is holding a gun threatening to shoot people?”

“I do not drink!” cried Miss Fairbanks in a shrill voice. “And will you PLEASE stop calling him a loony?” she added in exasperation. “Brent is my friend. I knew he was just hurt and frightened, and he would never shoot me. I simply went to see if I could help him.”

The receptionist looked at her for another minute as if she thought Miss Fairbanks should be looked up in a place such as this as well. Then she got up heavily and tromped into the back shaking her head.

Miss Fairbanks looked around at the dingy reception area. It looked almost as bleak and dead as Inner City Junior High School. A set of straggly yellow drapes hung limply over the window, only half covering it. The reception chairs were lumpy and full of rips, and the carpet was threadbare. There were spiders happily nesting in the corners, and they always had plenty to eat since there were scads of flies buzzing around. The place reeked of despair, which had obviously rubbed off on some of the staff, and particularly the receptionist.

The door suddenly opened and the receptionist entered, followed by a thin, balding man. The receptionist looked distinctly annoyed, which Miss Fairbanks happily realized meant she would be allowed to see Brent.

“Miss Fairbanks?” asked the balding man. “Will you come with me please?”

“Certainly!” said Miss Fairbanks, giving the receptionist a triumphant look as she walked by. The other lady simply avoided eye contact.

“I’m glad you came,” said the man as they walked down an empty hall with more of the threadbare carpet stretched miserably from wall to wall. “Brent hasn’t had any visitors since he arrived here, and we always find that when people come to see the boys—”

“No visitors!” cried Miss Fairbanks. “He’s been here since Friday! Didn’t his mother or step-father come to see him?”

The man shook his head. “I’m afraid not. You are the first. And as I was saying, it can do a tremendous amount of good if someone comes and lets the boys know they are not forgotten, and that someone on the outside cares.”

Miss Fairbanks did not reply, but continued down the hall shaking her head. She’d known his description of his parents was bad, but she was astounded that his own mother hadn’t come to see him.

“Here we are,” said the man, stopping outside a door. “I’ll be back very shortly, since we try to keep initial visits brief.” He opened the door for her, and Miss Fairbanks saw Brent slouched in a chair against a far wall. There was almost nothing else in the room.

Brent’s face lit up the instant he saw her. “Miss Fairbanks!” he called happily, coming quickly across the room. The door closed behind her with a distinct ‘click,’ which meant of course that they were locked in. Miss Fairbanks had no doubt the doctor was watching carefully through the one-way observation window in the door, just in case Brent tried to choke her to death.

“You came!” said Brent happily, standing in front of her and not knowing what to do with himself. Finally he flopped back down in his chair.

“Of course I came!” replied Miss Fairbanks. She gave him another one of her needless gestures, throwing her arms wide. “They couldn’t keep me away. Although that bossy receptionist out there tried. I couldn’t get past her yesterday.”

“You came yesterday too?” said Brent in amazement, clearly appalled that anyone would make two trips to visit him.

“I tried to,” said Miss Fairbanks. “Now that I’ve finally made it in, they’ll have no choice but to allow me in every time I come, no matter how much they grumble about it.”

Brent was looking at her in wonder. “Every time?” he repeated. “But why would you come more than once?”

Miss Fairbanks scowled at him. “To see you of course!” she said firmly as she took a seat on the floor. “How’ve they been treating you?”

“Fine,” said Brent simply, while still looking at her curiously. He was obviously still trying to make sense of her saying she would be back.

“So, do they say mean things to you?” asked Miss Fairbanks. “The other kids here, I mean. Are they unkind?”

“Not too bad,” said Brent with a shrug. “Some of the other guys are a bit like that, but the workers here make them stop. It’s actually a lot better here than Inner City Junior High. They don’t let the bullies here get away with stuff like they do there.”

“Well, that’s good to hear,” said Miss Fairbanks. “And how’s the food?”

“Better than the lunch room at school,” replied Brent. “I haven’t got sick after lunch once! And the mashed potatoes they serve here aren’t purple!”

Miss Fairbanks eyed him curiously. “Are you saying you like it here?”

“Absolutely!” said Brent. “If I’d known it was this good, I’ve have brought a gun to school a long time ago!”

“Brent!” cried Miss Fairbanks in shock. “You shouldn’t say such things.”

“But it’s true!” cried Brent. “And the best part is, my step-dad Burt isn’t beating me up all the time! Or my mom either! It’s great!”

Miss Fairbanks was shaking her head sadly. “That man out there told me your parents haven’t even come to see you.”

“I’m glad,” said Brent. “Especially about Burt not coming. After all, he’s the one that killed Isabel.” He scowled and looked at the floor.

“Well, I don’t suppose they allow pets here,” observed Miss Fairbanks rather nonsensically, since it was a youth prison.

“No,” said Brent. “But I’ll never get another cat. There’s no cat that can ever take Isabel’s place.”

There was an awkward silence. “So, what’s been going on in class?” asked Brent. “That’s the only thing I’ve missed, really.”

“Oh, not much,” said Miss Fairbanks. “Yesterday all of my classes came up with the words for comic strips, and today they wrote about the mysterious contents of a black box that makes people laugh nonstop.”

“Really?” said Brent in surprise. “Gee, I wish I’d been there for that. Sounds like fun.”

“Don’t they have classes here?” she asked.

“Yeah, a few,” said Brent. “But there’s no teachers as good as you.” Miss Fairbanks ears started to turn pink. “Thank you, Brent,” she said. “That’s nice of you to say. I miss having you in class, and in our little gatherings after school. Some new kids have started coming.”

“Really?” asked Brent. “Did you finally decorate that ugly classroom?”

“Jerry put up a picture of Scooby Doo today!” said Miss Fairbanks with a smile. “And Ella put up a picture of Garfield, and another one of Snoopy.”

“Ella?” asked Brent curiously.

“A new girl,” said Miss Fairbanks. “She likes to doodle. And she’s very good at it too. I wish you’d make a picture for me. I’d love to have one of yours up in my room.”

“Aw, I’m not very good at art,” said Brent with a shrug. “Everything I draw looks like a dead bug.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” said Miss Fairbanks. “I’d sure like it if you made me one. I’d like one from everyone who comes after school. Perhaps I’ll even write and ask for one from scar face.”

“Scar face!” said Brent in amazement. “Did he come after school too?”

“Yes, he did, earlier today,” said Miss Fairbanks with a sad smile.

“Did he pound people like normal?”

“No,” she answered in a small voice. “His mother died. Now he’s gone to live in New Jersey.”

“Oh,” said Brent quietly.

The door suddenly opened, and the same bald doctor looked in at her. “Time to go,” he said simply. “Sorry for such a short visit, but we try to stick to strict routines here.”

Miss Fairbanks stood, reaching out to shake Brent’s hand. “Please draw me a picture,” she said pleadingly. “For my collection. Any comic character you want.”

“Sure,” shrugged Brent. “But when will I get it to you?”

“Tomorrow, naturally,” she answered. Both Brent and the bald man raised their eyebrows in surprise. “What are you looking at me like that for?” asked Miss Fairbanks, gazing from one to the other. “I intend to visit every day!”

“Are you quite all right, madam?” asked the balding man, unable to believe his ears. Miss Fairbanks scowled, but chose to ignore him.

“Won’t that take you away from your family?” asked Brent.

Miss Fairbanks just gazed at him blankly. “You are my family,” she said simply.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The next day at school Miss Fairbanks was extremely grateful there was no squawking voice from the intercom telling her of another call from the penitentiary. As usual, her trouble-making students sat on the edge of their seats after the bell rang, wondering dimly what new weirdness she would throw at them today. With a twinge, Miss Fairbanks noticed that scar face’s usual desk at the back was empty. It was profoundly sad to her (but not to anyone else) that he would never occupy it again.

“Class,” began Miss Fairbanks, gazing out over her students, who maintained their mumbling and muttering to a low pitch so she could be heard, “I reviewed your evil box papers last night, which were very good. You described your boxes as being full of everything from kitty litter to grapefruit rinds, and then described how the box works in some very unusual ways. For example, one of you described how the box only works when triggered by fumes from the lunch ladies, and in addition to making people laugh nonstop will turn everyone’s ears into those of a rabbit. Another of you said the box only works if you smash it with a baseball bat, at which time it both makes people laugh and also elongates everyone’s tongue by ten inches, greatly increasing their bad breath.”

Everyone looked around with goofy grins on their faces, wondering which idiot had written that. Miss Fairbanks smiled. Their bizarre descriptions about the boxes were another evidence of their amazing creative talents. It was such a pity most of them seemed to use this creativity primarily for destructive purposes.

“I can see from your papers that most of you are actually very good writers.” There was a collective groan from this, not only because none of them believed it, but because they thought their “goodness” at writing was about to result in another lousy writing assignment being given to them. On both counts, they were wrong. “There is something about good writers that you will find almost anywhere you go in the world …” Miss Fairbanks let them all wonder for a minute what she was talking about, to build up their suspense.

But naturally the temptation was too great for someone to spout off and fill the void. The kid with the purple-colored hair piped up, “Is it how bad they smell, because they don’t use deodorant?” Several kids in the room starting holding their noses in agreement.

“No, it is simply this,” replied Miss Fairbanks, ignoring him. “You will always find that good writers are good readers as well.”

Everyone stared at her dumbly. Finally, Armpit Arnold voiced the question that had popped into all of their minds. “Are you nuts?” Miss Fairbanks was grateful that he left off the word “ugly” that he usually used on all grown-ups he talked to, including Principal Clyde. This was obviously a sign of his growing respect for Miss Fairbanks.

“No, I am quite serious,” she replied, starting to pace slowly back and forth in front of the classroom for no apparent reason. “Good writers always seem to have their heads in a book, and love suggestions from their friends of something good to read. Haven’t you noticed that?”

There were a series of dumb looks as everyone in the room eyed his neighbors suspiciously. In this school, any kid caught reading for pleasure was instantly branded a nerd and treated accordingly. Therefore, it was quite obvious none of them had ‘noticed that,’ since the few kids who DID like to read did it secretly so it would never be known.

“I have in my bag a very good book,” said Miss Fairbanks. “As we read it, you will see precisely what I mean.” She turned and reached into her book bag.

“You expect us to sit here and read all period?” gaped Armpit Arnold at her. “And to pass around the same book? Are you loony, or something?”

Miss Fairbanks laughed her tiny, tinkling laugh that only the first row could hear. “No, of course not,” she replied. “And you aren’t the ones who will be reading. I am going to read to you.”

Eyes across the classroom opened so wide, it looked like some eyeballs might fall out and go rolling across the floor. “You can’t be serious!” said several voices at once.

“No one’s read a book to us since the second grade!” said Slapface in amazement.

“Really?” said Miss Fairbanks, pretending to be surprised. “What a pity. They’ve missed out then.”

“So ugly, you really expect us to sit here like bozos and listen while you read to us like little babies?” asked Armpit Arnold, his voice rising shrilly. He was back to calling her ‘ugly’ again, his new respect for her apparently vanished.

“Would you rather I give you a writing assignment?” asked Miss Fairbanks. Instantly a number of books, shoes and pencils were thrown at Arnold.

“Shut up, will ya?” said a rough kid with a crooked nose that looked like it had been broken in more than one fist fight. “If teach wants to read to us, why would that be a problem?” There were general nods of agreement from around the room.

Miss Fairbanks smiled. She had correctly guessed that there would be little real opposition to her idea. “Of course you realize,” she said as she pulled a book from her bag, its cover wrapped in brown paper so they couldn’t see what it was, “that if there is noise or if people start acting up, we’ll have to do a writing project instead.”

There was instant silence so deep you could have heard a pin drop. Miss Fairbanks grinned at them, then opened the book and began to read. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” she began.

“The hobbit!” cried Armpit Arnold, unable to restrain himself. “They made some good movies out of it, but the book stinks!”

“How do you know?” asked Miss Fairbanks in surprise.

“Because all books stink,” he said simply. Many heads nodded in agreement. Miss Fairbanks shook her head sadly. “I’m disappointed. Certainly you know that’s not true. My goodness, this book is far better than those silly movies they made out of it. There’s simply no comparison!”

“That’s impossible!” said Arnold flatly. “No book could be better than a movie.”

“Those who still believe that nonsense by the time I finish this book will be required to write a ten page paper explaining why,” said Miss Fairbanks with a frown. Once more there were books, shoes and pens thrown at Arnold, and many of the students were already saying, “There’s lots of books better than the movie! Who doesn’t know that?” Of course, none of them actually believed it.

Miss Fairbanks turned back to her book, starting once again. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat; it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green …”

And so it went. Fortunately for the class, and even though they didn’t realize it, Miss Fairbanks was a gifted “reader” who knew just how to inflect her voice, just where to pause, just how to say certain words, so that those listening would be drawn in to the story in spite of themselves. She was not one of those droning readers who makes everyone fall asleep by reading every word in the same monotone.

Indeed, by the time the bell rang towards the end of the second chapter some kids were sitting on the edge of their seats, completely enthralled. The idea that a book could be so fascinating was completely beyond comprehension to them, yet it had somehow happened. Indeed, many of them complained they were sorry class was over, since they would rather stay and hear what happened next. If Principal Clyde had been there to hear it he would have keeled over in a faint.

By the end of the day, Miss Fairbanks was rather hoarse from having read so much. But it had been worth it. Exactly as she had predicted, not one of her classes had been bored or acted up while she was reading. Indeed their reaction was the opposite. It had been thrilling for her to see the looks of amazement on so many of their faces that a book—a BOOK of all things—could actually be this exciting.

Of course, it helped a great deal that Miss Fairbanks had chosen an especially good book. Indeed, it was one of her favorites, and even reading the same opening chapters six times in a row had not made her tire of the story. She had always loved this tale since she first discovered it. And being an avid reader, she knew there were many, many other equally wonderful books out there. Her hope of course was to inspire an interest in reading in her students (which they naturally would have to do in secret from each other, to avoid embarrassment). She was wise enough to know that proper grammar, spelling and writing skills are learned not just from writing, but from extensive reading as well. In short, reading The Hobbit was a perfect writing exercise.

Heather was once again the first one to her room after school. “The Hobbit was wonderful!” she said, her eyes shining. “You’re going to keep reading it to us tomorrow, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” replied Miss Fairbanks with a smile. “If my voice holds out.”

“That’s a relief,” said Heather. “A lot of the kids thought you were planning to trick them into reading, by stopping just when you got them interested. Then they’d have to go out and get the book themselves and read it to know how it ended.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” said Miss Fairbanks with a grin. “I thought of that, but decided it would be cruel since there aren’t enough copies of The Hobbit in the library to go around, and not everyone can afford to buy one. And of course, I suspect that some students in this school will NEVER read on their own, no matter what. The fact that they all know the ending because of the movies was also a factor.” Heather nodded her head in agreement.

Just then, Jerry and Melvin came in the door. “You’ll be happy to know I was able to visit Brent yesterday, and he’s doing well,” Miss Fairbanks announced to them all.

“Wow!” said Melvin in admiration. “Did you bribe them to let you in?”

“Of course not,” said Miss Fairbanks with a frown. “I just insisted on seeing him, that’s all.”

Melvin was clearly impressed. “Boy, if I ever get thrown in there I’ll make sure you know about it,” he said excitedly.

“Now why on earth would you get thrown in there?” exclaimed Miss Fairbanks. “You’re not planning on bringing a gun to school, are you?”

“Naw,” said Melvin casually. “But there are other ways. My cousin got in by blowing up a school toilet!”

“You make it sound like it’s an honor to go to youth detention!” said Miss Fairbanks, raising an eyebrow.

“In this school, it is,” replied Melvin. At that moment Ella came in the door, smiling shyly at Miss Fairbanks as always. “I made some more comic pictures for the room,” she said happily.

“Wonderful!” said Miss Fairbanks.

“Are you kidding?” said Melvin. “You saw how some of the kids in class were making fun of the pictures today.”

“They were just jealous,” said Miss Fairbanks. “People always make fun of good things others do when they think they can’t do them. Let’s see what you have, Ella.”

The girl pulled out a stunning picture of Charlie Brown, and another of Garfield’s human friend Jon. Both were exceptionally well drawn.

“Those should fit pretty good in here,” said Melvin, looking at them critically. “They’re both pictures of losers.”

“The people in this room are NOT losers!” said Miss Fairbanks hotly, turning on Melvin with her hands on her hips.

“But he’s right,” said Ella to her surprise. “I decided to do some characters that fit this room.”

Miss Fairbanks stared at her, not knowing quite what to say.

“Well, you know how Charlie Brown is,” continued Ella. “He never gives up, no matter how many times he loses. And neither does Jon, no matter how many stupid things he does.”

Miss Fairbanks smiled. “I guess you have a point there,” she said softly.

“Miss Fairbanks,” said Heather from behind her. Turning, she was surprised to see her holding out a piece of paper to her. “It’s one of my poems,” she said, almost in embarrassment. “The first one I’ve kept rather than throwing it away. I thought you might like to read it. After that, you can throw it away.”

“I would never do that, Heather!” said Miss Fairbanks, taking the paper. “Did you keep a copy for herself?” Heather shook her head. “Why not?” queried Miss Fairbanks.

“Because it’s garbage,” she said firmly.

“It is NOT garbage!” cried Miss Fairbanks.

“How do you know?” asked Heather. “You haven’t even read it yet.”

Melvin had come over to look at the paper curiously, making Heather’s face turn white. “It’s not for you!” she said rudely. “Only Miss Fairbanks can read it!”

Miss Fairbanks was about to protest, but at the determined look on Heather’s face, she remained silent. She understood. This was Heather’s very first time of sharing something she had written, and she was therefore naturally very sensitive about it. It would nearly destroy her to have something so special passed around casually. It was a great honor that Heather had chosen her as the first one to see it.

She held the paper out of Melvin’s sight. “I think it’s best for us to respect Heather’s wishes, and I’m sure she did not mean to be rude. So only I will read it for now,” she said to Melvin. He just shrugged and went back to his desk. Heather smiled up at Miss Fairbanks gratefully.

Miss Fairbanks then looked down at the paper and read the following poem:

 

“Welcome, friend,”

I say with a sad smile,

as the door swings open on gravel hinges.

 

“You’ve come to stay awhile?”

I ask in apprehensive hope,

my eyes pleading for her to turn back.

 

She only grunts in reply

and takes her accustomed sprawled place on my couch,

tossing her oily coat over my coffee table.

 

We sit silently,

with a comfortable familiarity,

luxuriously drinking in each other’s distaste.

 

“Would you care for something to eat or drink?”

I ask at length

(ever the gracious host).

 

“My feelings perhaps?

with a side-dish

of frustrations and burnt out hopes?

 

Or possibly you would prefer

a simple, painful drink of sweet sorrow

that you always find so refreshing.”

 

She looked at me with mirth-filled, blood-shot eyes,

reeking with broken feelings

and only grunted in reply.

 

It was always like this

when my silent friend came (as she often did)

to gleefully share with me a part of her gloomy day.

 

Her name changed only slightly on each visit

call her hurt, frustration, disappointment, or loneliness,

lost love, discouragement, despair, or pain.

 

She answers to all such names,

with the same eager readiness to devour my tender feelings

like a boy gorges on a custard pie.

 

Yet for all that I hate her, she remains as always

my close companion, my erstwhile comforter,

my constant visitor, and most familiar friend.

 

“My goodness Heather!” said Miss Fairbanks, putting her hand over her heart. “This is fantastic! The theme is a bit dark and depressing, but the writing is incredible! I never knew you could write poetry like this!”

“Is it really good?” asked Melvin, standing up and coming over again to see it. Heather’s face went white once more. “No, please!” she pleaded. “Please don’t let anyone else read it!” She started biting her lip in a painful way.

“But it’s so good!” said Miss Fairbanks gently. “When you share something this good, everyone benefits.”

“Please don’t!” pleaded Heather again. “I just couldn’t stand it if you did!” She looked with round, begging eyes at Miss Fairbanks.

Miss Fairbanks smiled softly. “Of course Heather. We’ll keep it just between you and me for now. But someday you’re going to have to share your poems with others! It’s wrong to keep such a talent hidden.”

“Maybe someday,” she said with a huge smile of relief. “But not today.” Then she looked at Melvin in embarrassment. “I don’t mean to be rude, you know. I just couldn’t …”

“Hey, no big deal,” said Melvin with a shrug. “I used to draw pictures, but I was too embarrassed to let anyone see them. So I understand.”

“You draw pictures?” said Miss Fairbanks, making Melvin scowl that he had admitted this awful truth. “Well for Pete’s sake, start drawing! We’ve still got lots of wall space to fill!”

Melvin was about to reply when he looked past Miss Fairbanks at the door. His mouth instantly snapped closed, and his face turned white. Turning, Miss Fairbanks was surprised to see Armpit Arnold there along with the boy from first period with the crooked nose, whose name was Jared Applebee.

“So, this is the loser’s club, eh?” said Arnold, looking around in glee. Miss Fairbanks frowned. “The people here are NOT losers!” she said firmly.

“Ok, if you say so,” said Arnold spreading his hands wide in defense. Then he sauntered over and took a seat. Jared did as well. They sat smirking around at the other occupants.

Miss Fairbanks felt a sudden sense of panic. This was unexpected. She knew her friends would stop coming if the club turned into the same horror they experienced from bullies in all their classes. And Armpit Arnold was at the head of their most-hated list. Drastic action was needed.

Miss Fairbanks walked over to frown down at Arnold. Although she secretly liked him, she wanted to protect the others. And she knew since he was always so blunt with her, he would probably not be offended if she was blunt with him.

“Why are you here?” she asked in a tight voice.

“Hey, I just wanted to come and soak up the atmosphere,” said Arnold with a smile, leaning back with his head in his hands. Miss Fairbanks looked over at Jared who just shrugged. “We figured if scar face could come here, we could too,” he said more truthfully. Miss Fairbanks let out a slow breath. Deep down she knew he was right. Her class was open to everyone no matter who they were.

But that didn’t mean their presence didn’t come with a price.

“Ok then,” said Miss Fairbanks suddenly. “There’s no problem with your being here.” She could sense the instant dismay from Heather, Jerry, Ella and Melvin on the other side of the room. “However, everyone in this ‘club’ must abide by the rules. If they don’t, they get tossed out. Understand?”

“Rules?” said Arnold, screwing up his face in an unnatural expression of thoughtfulness. “What rules.”

“Yeah,” echoed Melvin suddenly, “what rules?”

“You know,” said Miss Fairbanks as she turned to look at the blank faces of the others in the class, who hadn’t known until that moment that there were any rules at all. “The RULES! The BIG, unchangeable rules. And the first one is that no one here can speak negatively about anyone else while they are here. If they say even one unkind comment here—out they go!”

Heather suddenly smiled at this wonderful rule, as did Jerry and Ella. Arnold and Jared gulped. “You can’t be serious?” said Arnold in disbelief.

“Sorry, that’s the rule,” said Miss Fairbanks firmly. “And I will enforce it strictly.”

Arnold looked around the room at the other kids, then back at Miss Fairbanks. “How?” he asked suddenly.

“How what?” replied Miss Fairbanks.

“How will you enforce it?” This was an obvious challenge to her authority, and a reference to her small size.

Miss Fairbanks smiled pleasantly. “I’ll just tell my friend Mr. Brek the name of the offender, and—”

Arnold was out of his chair like a rocket. “Hey, there’s no need to do that!” he said with a worried smile. He headed toward the door.

“Where are you going?” asked Miss Fairbanks. Arnold turned to look at her, completely mystified. “You haven’t said anything negative yet that I can recall.”

“I haven’t?” said Arnold, scratching his head, trying hard to remember just what he’d said since he entered the classroom. He was so used to saying unkind things that he couldn’t remember whether he had or he hadn’t. Once more, the effort at concentration created an unnatural scowl on his face.

“Are there more rules?” asked Melvin curiously. As the unofficial know-it-all, this question came quite naturally.

“Yes,” said Miss Fairbanks firmly. “Rule number two is that our time here is a shared secret. Nothing that anyone says while we are here can be repeated outside this room later. If I ever hear that this has occurred, you will not be allowed back in.”

Once more Arnold gulped, while the smiles on Jerry and Heather’s faces grew broader. It was obvious they loved these rules.

“And rule number three,” said Miss Fairbanks, flinging her arms wide in another one of her needless gestures, “is that everyone in this room genuinely cares about each other. We would never do anything, anywhere, to tear each other down, or to hurt one another.”

Arnold whistled. “That does it,” he said firmly. “I’m out of here!”

“Why?” asked Miss Fairbanks.

Arnold gaped at her. “You know me! I spout off all the time. There’s no way I could keep those rules!”

“That’s true,” agreed Melvin, while the others nodded their heads in agreement.

“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Miss Fairbanks, looking intensely into Arnold’s eyes. “You may find these rules more pleasant and easier to keep than you thought. Why don’t you give it a try?”

She could see he was struggling inside himself. But once again, the natural side of him won out, and he turned to leave. “Maybe someday,” he called over his shoulder as he sauntered out of the room. Then from the hallway he called out, “Hasta la vista, LOSERS! And I didn’t break the rule because I’m not in the room!” Then he smirked at them and trudged off down the hall.

Miss Fairbanks shook her head, but there was a smile on her face. “Such a creative mind. I hope he comes back someday.”

“I don’t,” said Melvin bluntly. Miss Fairbanks frowned at him. “Nothing negative. Rule number one, remember?”

“Right,” said Melvin, gulping. Then he smiled weakly. “But he wasn’t in here, so I didn’t break the rule.”

Miss Fairbanks turned to look at Jared. Unlike Arnold, he made no effort to leave. She well knew that he was known as a class bully. But of course, she couldn’t kick him out if he kept the rules.

She decided that a test of his sincerity was in order. “We’ve been drawing comic strip characters to put up on the walls. Which one would you like to draw?” She fully expected him to grimace in disgust and spout off something negative or critical, which would promptly get him ejected. But to her surprise, he reached in his book bag and pulled out a spiral notebook. He flipped it open and held it out to her. “Which ones would you like?”

In spite of their fear of him, everyone in the room came over to see what was in the notebook. They found themselves looking down at Marvel comic characters like Green Arrow, Batman and Superman that were truly amazing.

“Awesome!” said Melvin in admiration.

“Wow!” said Ella, looking up at Jared in surprise.

“Did you really draw those?” blurted Jerry. Then he put his hand to his mouth in fear at having challenged the integrity of a school bully.

Jared merely shrugged. “Yeah. I like to draw them. Takes me awhile though. I’m not fast like some artists. One of these takes me two whole days.”

There was an awkward silence in the room for a minute. Then suddenly, Miss Fairbanks held out her hand toward Jared. “Welcome to the losers club,” she said simply. Jared blinked at her and just stared for a minute. Then he grinned and shook her hand.

Miss Fairbanks found herself sincerely hoping he would keep the rules. But as she looked in his eyes, she decided that just maybe he would …

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

The next day, the fascinating tale of The Hobbit continued. Other than a few jealous and snide comments about the new pictures of Charlie Brown, Jon and Green Arrow that now graced the walls, the students clamored for Miss Fairbanks to start reading the instant the bell rang. “I want to see if those dopey dwarves get eaten by trolls,” said the kid with purple hair.

“You goofball, haven’t you seen the movie?” snapped Arnold at him. “Of course they don’t.”

“Yeah, but that was the movie,” replied purple hair. “The book is different.”

And indeed it was. Although the story was often the same, the way it was presented was no longer the single image they had seen on movie screens. Now the scenes took on the fantastic proportions that the students’ imaginations gave them, far exceeding anything that could be portrayed on film. Miss Fairbanks smiled in pleasure to see the creative awakening that was occurring in her students. They were discovering the incredible power of their own minds, and how imaginative those minds could be.

Miss Fairbanks had barely started reading at the start of second period (and her voice was already starting to get hoarse), when there was a rustle at the door. Turning, she was surprised to see Mr. Brek standing there. He looked much the same as before, with massive, bulging muscles and bags under his eyes from being up all night. If the classroom had not been quiet before he arrived, it would have instantly turned quiet now.

“Why, Mr. Brek, what a pleasant surprise,” said Miss Fairbanks with a smile.

“Hello, oldest and dearest friend,” said Mr. Brek with a return smile. “I’m sorry if I interrupted you.” There was an awkward silence as he continued to stand there. Finally he cleared his throat in embarrassment and said, “Do you mind if I come in for awhile?” Miss Fairbanks realized in surprise that for some reason he was afraid of entering without being invited.

“Why of course not,” said Miss Fairbanks. “Take a seat anywhere you’d like. We’re just reading ‘The Hobbit’ by J.R.R. Tolkein. Have you read it before?”

Mr. Brek’s eyes bulged at the question, since he hadn’t opened a book in over ten years. “Uh … no, I haven’t,” he said as he tip toed across the room, making the floor buckle with his weight. “But don’t let that stop you. Just go on ahead as if I wasn’t here.” He sat down and smiled at her.

Taken aback, Miss Fairbanks said, “Well, I’m afraid we started yesterday, so we’re already up to page 75.”

“No problem,” said Mr. Brek with a wave of his hand. “I’ve seen the movies. Just carry on as if I wasn’t here.”

Miss Fairbanks smiled uncertainly, not sure what to think. Why on earth was he here? Then with sudden realization she understood. It was almost payday, so he had come as a gentle reminder that she needed to do her duty and give him half her paycheck. She smiled. She’d known he would change his mind about not being paid!

Miss Fairbanks went back to reading. The students in her class, who had been rather impatient at the interruption, went back to the dreamy, intense looks they tended to have on their faces all the time she read. She continued steadily on in her skilled ‘reading’ voice, spinning the fascinating yarn of the visit by Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves to the Elf kingdom of Rivendale. Every once in a while Miss Fairbanks cast a furtive glance in the direction of Mr. Brek, and was both amused and pleased that he seemed to be as enraptured as her students.

When the bell finally rang for the end of class, there were the usual exclamations of disappointment (mingled with profanity) that the blissful hour was over. Amidst the shuffling of books, bags and desks, Mr. Brek came over to Miss Fairbanks. “That’s quite a story!” he said appreciatively. “Didn’t think the book would be that good. Sounded better than the movie to me.”

“It does to a lot of people,” replied Miss Fairbanks.

“I just wanted to make sure you remember our deal,” said Mr. Brek, looking down at her. She smiled back up at him. She had been right!

“Of course I remember!” cried Miss Fairbanks. “Tomorrow is payday, and as soon as I can break away from school I’ll cash my check and bring you what I owe you. But I usually stay after school for awhile, so it probably won’t be until about 5:30 that I get there.”

Mr. Brek was shaking his head negatively. “That’s not the deal I was talking about,” he said firmly. “What I mean is the deal where you’re NOT going to come over and bring me any money. That’s the way we left it, remember?”

Miss Fairbanks frowned and stepped back, clearly confused. “Now Mr. Brek, no welching!” she said firmly. “We made an agreement, and I intend to keep it! I will be there at 5:30 sharp and give you the money.”

“Nope,” said Mr. Brek, still shaking his head. “I won’t take it,” he said simply. “So there’s no sense you bringing it to me.”

“I will bring it anyway!” said Miss Fairbanks stubbornly.

“Then I’ll burn it!” he said flippantly. Miss Fairbanks looked at him in shock. “Burn it!” she cried. “Burn money? Are you crazy?”

“Nope,” said Mr. Brek, pulling out his wallet. “I’ve got money to spare. Here, I’ll show you.” He took out a five dollar bill and pulled a lighter out of his pocket. Then to Miss Fairbanks’ horror and the great amusement of her third period class who were starting to filter in, he lit the money and held it by a corner while it burned itself out.

“Mr. Brek!” screeched Miss Fairbanks, in the loudest voice anyone had ever heard her use. “How can you DO such a thing?!”

“Easy,” said Mr. Brek, pulling out his wallet again. This time he pulled out a twenty. But before he could light it, Miss Fairbanks grabbed the hand with the money in it and pushed it away from the flame. “PLEASE DON’T!” she cried. “You don’t have money to burn!” She’d had so little money for so long that even the thought of burning money was more than her mind could bear.

“Well, actually, I do,” said Mr. Brek. “I get lots of tips at the door of the bar, from people wanting me to watch their cars or other stuff. I’m loaded. I don’t need your money. So DON’T bring it tomorrow, or I’ll burn it, see?”

Miss Fairbanks was trembling, not knowing what to say. But meekly she just shook her head. This was not what she had expected at all.

“Good!” said Mr. Brek, sauntering back over to his chair by the wall and making the floor wobble under his feet once again. “If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to hear that last part in the Hobbit one more time …”

“But Mr. Brek, you still haven’t been paid,” said Miss Fairbanks, wringing her hands. Clearly the matter was not as settled for her as it was for him.

“Yes I have,” he said casually. “I learned all about writing business letters. That was good enough pay. Fact is, before I came that day I hadn’t written any letters in years. But I did this past week! Your classes put me in a letter writing mood.”

Miss Fairbanks just stared at him, speechless. Suddenly the bell rang, and her class stared up at her expectantly. Poor Miss Fairbanks wrung her hands a few more times while continuing to look at Mr. Brek. He just smiled at her pleasantly. Finally, not knowing what else to do, she picked up The Hobbit with trembling hands and started to read. Her voice faltered at first, since his steady gaze was making her feel distinctly embarrassed. But after a time she became enraptured in the story (even though she’d read the same section twice already that day) and forgot about him. And once more her class (and Mr. Brek as well) entered into a wonderful world of fantasy.

Mr. Brek smiled at her as she continued to read. It had cost him five dollars, but he’d given her half her paycheck. It was clearly worth it, since it was obvious she needed the money far more than he did.

But he was sure glad she’d stopped him before he burned that twenty!

 

Jared the bully once more joined the ‘loser’s club’ after school. In addition, there were three other new arrivals. One was none other than the girl known as Slapface, and as she entered the room every kid in the club reached up to rub his or her face, for some reason. Slapface was followed by the girl with tattoo ears, and a rough looking boy with deep black eyes named Farley Gruff.

“Tell them the rules,” said Jared, as he eyed the new arrivals suspiciously. Miss Fairbanks looked at him in surprise, then smiled. So did Melvin, Jerry and Heather. It was obvious Jared was one of them now, and could be trusted. And since he had the reputation of being one of the school’s toughest kids, they found themselves in the unusual position of having a powerful new friend, in times of potential need.

“Welcome,” said Miss Fairbanks to the new arrivals as they each took a seat. “Everyone can join us in what is mistakenly called the ‘loser’s club.’ But there are a few rules you need to know, that will be strictly enforced …” Miss Fairbanks quickly went through the rules, wondering if any of them would get up and leave like Armpit Arnold had done yesterday. None of them did.

In fact, Slapface surprised them all be grinning from ear to ear and saying, “Finally! A safe place to go where nobody’s going to say stupid things to hurt everybody else. This school’s needed this club for a long time.”

Miss Fairbanks blinked, then suddenly Melvin bluntly said, “But I thought you were one of the school bullies!”

“Hardly,” said Slapface with a grimace. “I only slap people who deserve it, because of the stupid things they say. Did I ever slap you?”

Melvin thought back. “No,” he admitted with a smile. “You never have.”

Jared was feeling his face tenderly. “You’ve sure belted me enough times,” he commented dryly. “But no big deal. I probably deserved it.”

Slapface smiled at him. “I’ll do it some more if you want.” It was obvious she enjoyed not only her reputation, but what caused it.

“No thanks,” said Jared quickly.

“Have you been back to see Brent?” asked Heather, turning to Miss Fairbanks. Several in the room screwed up their faces, trying to remember who Brent was.

“The kid with the gun last Friday,” said Melvin to spare them the effort.

“Yes, I’ve been there every evening,” replied Miss Fairbanks. “He’s doing quite well. In fact he insists he likes it there, and hopes they don’t send him home anytime soon since his stepdad drinks so much.” Several in the room nodded in understanding.

“Do you mind if I let Harry out?” asked Melvin unexpectedly.

“Harry?” asked Miss Fairbanks.

“He’s my pet tarantula,” said Melvin casually, reaching into his bag and pulling out a massive spider. There were instant screams from Ella, Slapface and the tattoo eared girl. And to the surprise of all, Jared leaped up on his desk in fright as well.

Miss Fairbanks took a step back, her hand over her heart. “My goodness!” she said. “Why on earth do you have him in your book bag?”

“My dad’s threatening to kill him,” said Melvin matter-of-factly. “I didn’t want to come home and find him dead, like Brent came home and found his cat dead.” He stroked Harry’s back tenderly, and the huge spider responded by arching its back as if it was asking for more.

“He’s a most unusual pet,” said Miss Fairbanks, not sure what else to say. “But I don’t know about letting him roam around in here …”

“Oh, Harry won’t hurt anyone,” said Melvin, casually putting the big spider on the floor so it could get some exercise. “He’s very mild mannered. Tarantula’s look scary, but they’re perfectly harmless you know. They’re great pets. They help keep insects out of your room.”

“I can imagine,” said Miss Fairbanks, her hand still over her heart. She had never been overly fond of spiders.

“You’re not supposed to handle them much, since they’re quite delicate,” said Melvin. “And he will bite, but only if he feels scared. So it’s best to not make sudden moves around him that might scare him.”

“If he comes around me, I’ll make a sudden move!” said Slapface firmly. “But it’ll be to get away from him!” The other girls nodded in agreement.

“He doesn’t look scared of people to me,” said Jared from where he was still standing on top of his desk.

“Harry’s not usually scared of people,” said Melvin. “Except people with tattoos, like my dad. For some reason, he’s not fond of tattoos.”

The tattoo-eared girl—whose name was Stacy—quickly clapped her hands over her ears.

“Isn’t it risky to carry him around in your book bag, if he’s so delicate?” asked Miss Fairbanks, retreating to the far side of her desk as Harry started coming her way.

“Yeah, it definitely is,” agreed Melvin. “I’ve got his box in here of course and that helps. But it’s like walking on eggshells in this school to keep other kids from bashing into my book bag. I wouldn’t have brought him to school if my dad hadn’t said last night he’d kill him next time he saw him.” He looked up at Miss Fairbanks, his eyes pained. “Why are parents like that? Why do they do things to hurt their kids?”

“Well, I don’t really know Melvin,” replied Miss Fairbanks, still keeping a wary eye on Harry.

“They don’t care about their kids, that’s why,” said Heather. “If they cared, they wouldn’t do things to hurt them.” Her face wore a bitter scowl, making Miss Fairbanks wonder vaguely what things her parents did to hurt her. But in truth, she was rather glad she didn’t know.

“Scar face’s mom cared about him though,” said Jerry suddenly. “Some parents are like that. My mom’s like that, but my dad isn’t. They don’t fight much because she just gives in to him on everything. He rules like a dictator.”

“Doesn’t anyone in this school have normal, loving parents?” asked Miss Fairbanks in dismay. “Every time I hear kids tell about their parents, it’s always bad.”

“That’s the way it is for just about everyone here,” said Stacy. She looked at Miss Fairbanks curiously. “What about your parents, Miss Fairbanks? Were they nice?”

The unexpected question brought dozens of unbidden images to her mind. Her face turned white and she staggered back toward her teacher’s chair and sat down. While the class watched curiously she quickly tried to compose herself. She wished there was a way to be better prepared for unexpected questions like this. She was determined to NOT have another meltdown in front of club members.

“Actually I don’t have any parents, Stacy,” she said in a forced, casual tone. “I was raised in foster care. I have no family in the world.”

“You’re lucky,” said Heather bitterly.

“I suppose some might see it that way,” said Miss Fairbanks sadly. “Especially if their family is not very nice. But it can be very lonely to have no one.” She ran a shaking hand through her hair. Then she smiled and quickly stood up. “I know family members hurt us sometimes, but our job is to try and forgive them no matter what they do.”

“Forgive?” spat Heather viciously. “Why?”

“Because of YOU, that’s why,” responded Miss Fairbanks. “After all, if you hold a grudge against someone, who hurts the most from it? Them or you?”

Heather struggled for a minute with that one, while most in the room screwed up their faces trying to figure it out.

“Me, I suppose,” said Heather in the end. “But that still doesn’t mean they deserve to be forgiven.”

“Who does?” cried Miss Fairbanks. “None of us is perfect. But we don’t forgive them for their sakes. We do it for ourselves! It’s wonderfully liberating to forgive someone who has hurt you! You don’t have to carry the burden around anymore.” She shook her head firmly. “Forgiveness is very selfish actually. We do it for ourselves, to make our lives less miserable and blame oriented. We forgive for the peace it brings US, not for anything it might bring the person we forgive. If anything, seeing us happy often just drives them crazy.”

They all just stared at her dumbly, not entirely clear about what she was saying.

“But forgiving someone in your family that’s hurt you a lot is hard!” said Heather, close to tears. “Is it even possible?”

Miss Fairbanks looked at Heather thoughtfully, her mind once more besieged by memories that jumped unbidden into her mind. “No, it’s not easy,” she said slowly. “In fact, that’s the most difficult kind of forgiving of all. We have to keep forgiving them again and again. And I sometimes wonder even then if it’s possible. But that’s not the most difficult kind of forgiveness.” She paused for a moment, while everyone looked at her curiously. “The most difficult kind of forgiveness, which is almost impossible really, is to forgive yourself …”

“Hey, look where Harry’s going!” said Melvin, blessedly changing the subject. With a start, Miss Fairbanks realized she had temporarily forgotten about the big, hairy spider. She looked around wildly, then was relieved to see that he had merely climbed up inside one of the windows. There were actually two windows in each window well in school, an outer and an inner one. Harry had crawled up into the narrow space between the windows, through a break in the inner window that had been made through months of constant effort by frustrated students. He was now crawling happily back and forth eating up the dead bugs that had accumulated in the space.

“He likes it there!” cried Melvin, going over to see. Suddenly he looked up at Miss Fairbanks with shining eyes. “Would it be ok if he stayed here tonight? Then I won’t have to take him home. I can even tell my dad I found another home for him, so maybe he’ll lay off for awhile.”

“Well …” said Miss Fairbanks doubtfully. The thought of a massive spider looking at her from her window all day long made her spine tingle.

“You know, that’s not a bad idea,” commented Jared. “Lots of kids might be less likely to act up if they see him staring at them.”

Melvin looked at Jared in sudden worry. “They won’t hurt Harry will they?” he asked.

“I won’t let them!” Miss Fairbanks suddenly found herself saying, to her own surprise. “After all, this is my classroom and I never leave it during the day. Even during lunch I stay here. So Harry will be perfectly safe.”

Melvin’s face broke into a huge, goofy smile. What Miss Fairbanks didn’t mention was the question that kept coursing through her mind: Harry might be perfectly safe from others, but would she be perfectly safe from Harry?

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Another day passed with joyous reading of The Hobbit, while Harry scared the dickens out of all the students seated near the windows as he stared out at them for the entire time they were there. And then it was the weekend once more. Miss Fairbanks was in much better shape than the week before, when she’d been recovering from the Brent-gun incident. While her students fretted and stewed all weekend that they had to wait until Monday for her to read more of The Hobbit (they were coming up on the ending), she pleasantly continued her reading of war and peace. The war and bloodshed troubled her of course, but she had set a goal to read this classic no matter what, and she intended to fulfill that goal, no matter how gruesome the task.

Miss Fairbanks’ one diversion over the weekend was to go to the bar to see Mr. Brek. Not that she went inside the bar. Indeed, it probably would not have been possible to persuade her to go inside such a place for any price. But she still felt like she owed Mr. Brek the money she had promised him and needed to make an effort to give it to him. The poor man was obliged to burn another five dollar bill while she watched in agony. She finally left him, convinced he would indeed burn the entire half pay check if she gave it to him. Five dollars was five noodle dinners to Miss Fairbanks, and she felt profoundly guilty that Mr. Brek had burned it so casually. If the truth were known, Mr. Brek wasn’t too thrilled about it either, since he thought he’d convinced her two days before. But he just laughed it off and made up the five dollars twenty minutes after she left from a tip he got for watching a drunk’s car.

And then Monday rolled around again, and it was time for The Hobbit to continue once more. By Tuesday, each class was experiencing the wonder and horror of Bilbo’s fight with the dragon Smaug, and then the Battle of Five Armies. And on Wednesday, to the dismay of all her classes, the story ended. Some of her poor students were nearly in tears at this unfortunate reality. One in particular was Armpit Arnold.

“But it can’t be over!” he wailed after she’d read the last page, a mere five minutes before the bell was to ring at the end of class. “It just can’t! Bilbo Baggins isn’t dead yet! Why can’t we learn more about what happened to him next?”

Miss Fairbanks smiled. This was another reason she had picked this particular book to read—because it had three even longer sequels that did indeed tell more about hobbits like Bilbo Baggins. “If you really want to know more about Bilbo, I’m afraid there’s just one way to do it …” she said casually.

“What is it!” cried Arnold, jumping out of his seat and starting to dance around like he needed to go to the bathroom.

“Read The Fellowship of the Ring,” she answered casually. “It starts off with his Eleventy-First birthday party!”

Many in the class strained to figure out what ‘eleventy-first meant, but Arnold’s face fell. “You mean the Lord of the Rings?” he wailed. “I saw all the movies. I don’t remember Bilbo in them at all.”

“Then you must have seen them years ago. He’s there all right,” said Miss Fairbanks. “And if you thought the book of The Hobbit was different than the movie, just wait ‘till you read the Lord of the Rings! There’s a night and day difference between them and the movies!”

“You mean you’re not going to read them to us?” wailed Armpit Arnold. She raised an eyebrow. “I thought you once said having a teacher read to you was a babyish thing,” she reminded him.

“So I was wrong, so what,” said Arnold off-handedly. “You’re going to read them to us, right?”

Miss Fairbanks put her hand to her throat, which had become quite tender from five class days of constant reading. “We might need to wait awhile before we do another reading,” she said. “But you can always read them on your own! And there are plenty of other wonders waiting for us in the world of writing!”

Arnold was about to protest some more when the bell rang mercifully.

The loser’s club continued to grow each day after school. Now there were almost twenty ‘regulars’ who stopped by every afternoon. The group talked about rock bands, sleezy politicians, roaches and whatever else caught their fancy. For many, it was the first time in their lives they had been able to talk freely about their ideas, without fear of criticism. The rules made everyone feel secure, and gradually people were opening up who had never opened up before. Heather in particular seemed to be coming to life, and her eyes were no longer as dead as they used to be. And gradually the number of comic strip pictures on the walls began to increase as the club produced more and more of their favorite characters.

Meanwhile Miss Fairbanks continued to visit Brent everyday at the detention center. He looked forward to her visits immensely, but was as firm as ever about not wanting to go home. He had gained a little weight so he was no longer so thin, and his face looked healthier too. It was bizarre that incarceration was having such a positive effect on him, but that was the reality. From what Miss Fairbanks could gather from the people at the detention center however, it looked like it would still be a long time before he was released and could come back to her class. Brent didn’t seem sad about this at all.

On Thursday and Friday Miss Fairbanks had her classes experience the strange world of Haikus, limericks and other poems. Heather’s poetic genius had inspired Miss Fairbanks to have all of her classes try their hands at poetry. Their efforts were bizarre to say the least. None rose to the quality level of Heather’s of course (which she was still unwilling to let anyone but Miss Fairbanks read), but a limerick by Armpit Arnold was quite good:

 

There once was a man with a gas balloon,

Who wanted to fly all the way to the moon.

One day with a sprocket,

He attached on a rocket.

And the last thing they heard was ‘Ka-boom!’

 

And then another weekend came and went. Life seemed to be settling into a pleasant routine, and Miss Fairbanks was starting to feel more genuine satisfaction and deep contentment than ever before in her life. The letter and phone call from the penitentiary were forgotten as she concentrated on new and interesting ways to engage her students in the joys of writing, and enjoyed the simple friendships that were growing stronger every day in the ‘loser’s club.’

On Monday morning, Miss Fairbanks happily greeted her students and informed them that today she was going to check up on whether they remembered how to write a letter. There was a collective groan from the class, since letter writing sounded downright dull compared to all the fun stuff they’d been doing lately. But of course, Miss Fairbanks hadn’t told them the whole story …

“Now as for this letter,” she said casually as she went over to toss a cracker in the window for Harry the spider (who she had grown quite fond of), “it will not be an ordinary letter. Indeed, I’m afraid part of it will have to be rather secretive.” She turned to look at her students, and was gratified to see she had their full attention now. Many of them were chiding themselves for complaining. After all, this was Miss Fairbanks! She always had a way of making their assignments interesting.

“I want you to pretend you are Gandolf the wizard, from The Hobbit that we were reading last week. You’re writing this letter to Bilbo Baggins, in the Shire. You must warn him that some evil orcs might be planning an attack on the hobbits—but you fear your letter will be looked at by the enemy before it is delivered to Bilbo, and so you don’t want to let your enemy know that YOU know what they’re up to. So you must make hints in your letter and give subtle clues to Bilbo that something is not right. Perhaps you will make reference to the adventures you had with him, but change the details in a way that only he would know, so that he sees you are trying to send a secret message.”

Many in the class were looking at her with glassy eyes as if she had completely lost her marbles. But others had caught the drift of what she was saying. “Awesome!” said Arnold, who was particularly fond of deception and giving hints about pending violence. He pulled out a paper and began to write furiously.

“Miss Fairbanks!” said a boy in the third row who wore glasses taped together with plumber’s tape. “I don’t know how to write with runes like Gandolf would write.”

“Don’t worry about runes,” said Miss Fairbanks, wondering how on earth he had gotten that idea. “Just write in simple English. But try to be subtle and send a secret message to Bilbo.”

“Miss Fairbanks,” said a girl on the second row who was always noisily chewing gum. “Could the letter be to Bilbo’s wife? Or could it come from Gandolf’s wife? Or maybe her sister in law?” This girl had been particularly troubled by the fact that The Hobbit had almost no female characters.

“Well, Bilbo and Gandolf don’t have wives, remember?” said Miss Fairbanks. “But you can write it to their sister or cousin or mother or aunt, if you’d like.”

There were a few more questions like these, which Miss Fairbanks always marveled at since her students seemed to be as creative in coming up with bizarre questions as they were at fulfilling their assignments. Then the class was busily scratching away at their papers, concentrating hard on how to send a secret message to Bilbo.

Miss Fairbanks walked slowly down each row, glancing over the shoulders of her students as they wrote. She had learned this was helpful both to assist those too shy to ask a question in front of the whole class, and also to inspire the slackers to get to work. She was nearing the end of a row with her back to the door when a sudden voice froze her in her tracks.

“Hello, Lydia.”

The words were softly spoken, but to Lydia they were like thunder in her ears. She knew that voice! It was the voice of someone long dead—a voice that she herself had destroyed long ago. And it was a voice she simply could not bear to hear again.

Spinning around she stared at the man who had entered the classroom. He looked old and shriveled, with graying hair and a shiny bald spot on the top of his head. His hands were gnarled, and gripped a grimy baseball cap that he kept trying to smooth out. He had taken a few steps into the classroom from the door, and stood looking at her with an intensity in his eyes that showed he was not just a casual visitor.

Miss Fairbanks eyes grew wide, and her hands started to tremble. Her students looked up curiously as she took a stumbling step backward, banging into the desk that used to be occupied by scar face. She stared at the man without speaking, her eyes unwillingly locked on his as if she could hardly bear to look at him, yet could not tear herself away.

“They told me you were here,” he said softly again. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but I wanted to see you …”

She took another step back. There was a roaring in her ears and her heart started to race. This could NOT be happening. Not here! Not now! Not when everything was going so well! Why had he come? To torture her? To reenact events from the past? To remind her of the terrible thing she had done? To bring her flimsy live crashing around her ears once more?

She opened her mouth, but only a croaking sound came out. The sight of the familiar face, the eyes, the hair, all brought a series of memories rushing unbidden into her mind. Surprisingly, some of the memories were good ones, of happy times long forgotten, or pleasant days spent together. But always there was the horror of that last day, the day of death, when her world had been shattered and every good thing had been smashed and utterly destroyed. And all because of what she had caused.

The man’s eyes continued to be fixed pleadingly on the slight little teacher cowering in the back of the room. Miss Fairbanks suddenly felt as if she was going to throw up. Her eyes felt hot with tears as she stumbled back through the desks to the far corner of the room. All of her students were watching now in wide-eyed wonder, their assignments forgotten. This was no play acting of their teacher, which they had come to recognize so well. Something was seriously wrong.

“Miss Fairbanks?” asked Stacy tentatively, who happened to be in this class. “Is anything wrong?”

“Is anything wrong? Is anything wrong? Is anything wrong? Is anything wrong?” The words seemed to echo endlessly through her mind as a sudden blackness leaped up toward her. Then her eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed backward, seeing nothing more at all.

 

Principle Clyde was seated uncomfortably in his hated office, working on the quarterly budget report the school board always expected him to prepare. He scratched his painful leg where gout was eating him alive, and coughed hoarsely, his lungs sounding hollow and unhealthy. He was frowning in frustration at the impossibility of juggling tiny budget numbers to make everything come out looking normal. The task was similar to expecting a donkey to drive a car successfully through rush hour traffic.

There was a sudden rushing of feet and pounding outside his door. Although he was used to loud and unpleasant noises in this loud and unpleasant school, he instantly knew that something was wrong. Before he could even rise from his squeaking chair, Armpit Arnold burst into his office.

“She’s dead!” he yelled at the top of his considerable lungs. His eyes looked frenzied and there was spittle at the corners of his mouth. “She just keeled over and died!” He was waving his arms wildly.

Principal Clyde bounded from his seat, sure that another student was probably lying in a puddle of blood in a nearby classroom. “Mrs. Jensen, call an ambulance!” he bellowed as he blazed past his secretary’s desk. He shoved Arnold out of the way and raced into the hall, not having any idea where the disturbance was. But he didn’t wonder long. A stream of students was pouring down the hall, their faces pinched and frightened. They were coming from Miss Fairbanks room.

Principal Clyde’s heart sank as he raced down the hall toward the door. Was the dead person Miss Fairbanks? With all his heart, and with a certain amount of guilt, he sincerely hoped it would be one of her students and not Miss Fairbanks that he found lying comatose in that classroom. The amazing little woman had come to be looked on with both fondness and jealous wonder by himself and all the other teachers, and the thought of any harm coming to her was simply unacceptable.

As Principal Clyde raced through the door he nearly collided with an older man who was struggling to carry Miss Fairbanks’ limp body in his arms. Principal Clyde’s heart sank through the floor.

“What have you done to her!” raged Principal Clyde madly, grabbing Miss Fairbanks out of the man’s arms and shoving him aside. The man spun back against the wall with a bang. “I did nothing,” he said hoarsely. “All I did was walk in and say her name, and then she fainted.”

Principal Clyde looked down at Miss Fairbanks’ limp body which he held in his arms. She was amazingly light, almost like a feather. “You mean she’s not dead?” he cried nonsensically. He hastily plopped her in her desk chair and grabbed her arm, feeling for a pulse. He felt a faint one. He then again lifted up Miss Fairbanks’ surprisingly light body and charged out of the door and down the hall, while Miss Fairbanks’ head bobbed up and down like a ping pong ball.

Mrs. Jensen was running toward him, her face pinched and worried. “The paramedics will be right here,” she said. As she recognized who the victim was, her face turned ashen. “Oh, not Miss Fairbanks! Not her!”

“She’s not dead, thank heavens,” said Principal Clyde. “Open up the nurse’s station, quick.” Mrs. Jensen scurried back down the hall to unlock the little broom closet with a bed in it that doubled as a nurse’s station. Because of budget constraints, Inner City Junior High had no school nurse other than Mrs. Jensen who had received some nurse training ten years before. Cursing at the lack of budget that left his volatile school without badly needed medical help, Principal Clyde went quickly through the door and stretched Miss Fairbanks out on the bed. A bevy of worried students clustered around the door.

“Is she dead?” many of them kept saying to each other. “Did you see what happened?” asked others. “She saw that old dude come in and just keeled over! Weirdest thing I ever saw.”

“Students, go back to your room,” said Principal Clyde waving vaguely at them while he vigorously slapped Miss Fairbanks’ wrists, trying to revive her. None of the kids moved. Mrs. Jensen was examining her pupils and feeling her neck for a pulse.

“She feels very cold and clammy,” said Mrs. Jensen. “That’s a symptom of shock.” Turning, Principal Clyde saw the strange man standing just outside the door with the students. All of them were giving him a wide berth and eyeing him suspiciously.

YOU!” he cried, suddenly charging at the man. “Who are you, and what did you do to her?”

“I didn’t do anything to her,” he repeated. “I’m her father. I would never hurt Lydia.”

Principal Clyde stared at the man dumbly. “She told me her parents were dead,” he suddenly blurted. “You can’t be her father!” The man’s eyes were moist and he was wringing his hands in a way that strongly resembled how Miss Fairbanks wrung hers when she was stressed.

Principal Clyde became dimly aware of dozens of curious students watching the two of them. He suddenly shoved the man toward his nearby office. “Keep working on her, Mrs. Jensen,” he called over his shoulder. Then he pushed the man into his inner office while he closed the door behind them. He shoved the man into a chair. He knew he was taking risks by being so rough with a stranger, but the sight of one of his teachers stretched out made him less than fully rational. Especially since it was helpless, little Miss Fairbanks.

“What’s this all about?” he snarled. “You can’t be her father! She said her parents both died long ago! Who are you?”

The man’s eyes were moist as he looked up at Principal Clyde. “But I am her father,” he replied. “I was in the penitentiary. I just got out. I’ve been trying to communicate with her for years, but she never responded. Then I lost all trace of her address until recently. When I got out I wanted to come see her.”

Principal Clyde stared at him with glazed eyes. “You were in the penitentiary?” he asked in a bland voice, his rage slowly dying away. “The penitentiary called here a couple weeks ago.”

“That’s right,” said the man. “The warden called on my behalf, to see if she’d let me visit her. He told me he talked to Lydia, but what she said didn’t make any sense. But he also said that as far as he could tell, she seemed to be ok with me coming to visit her when I got out. So I came.”

The door suddenly was pushed open. “Miss Fairbanks is waking up!” yelled the girl with tattoo ears.

“Stay here,” barked Principal Clyde to the older man. “I want to talk to you some more, but I don’t think you should come near her. Not if the sight of you causes this to happen!”

The man stayed in his seat while Principal Clyde left the office, closing the door behind him. He raced over to the nurse’s station, cursing the whole way. The gout in his leg was killing him.

Two ambulance paramedics had arrived and were quickly examining Miss Fairbanks, who lay stiffly on the bed, her face whiter than the sheet she was on. “Still has a consistent heartbeat,” said one of the paramedics as he checked her blood pressure. “Looks like maybe she just had a shock of some kind,” said the other.

Students were still milling around the hall outside the nurse’s station, looking curiously through the door to their teacher. “Will you all please just go back to class?” Principal Clyde blared at them angrily.

Not one of them moved. “We want to help Miss Fairbanks,” said the girl with tattoo ears, her chin jutting out with determination. Principal Clyde looked at the faces of the students, completely mystified. And then he noticed for the first time that these students were not cursing and bashing each other and causing trouble like normal. They seemed genuinely worried about their frail little teacher.

Principal Clyde’s heart softened. “Look,” he said to the students, “what she needs most is to rest. Go back to the class room and tear it apart like normal, and give her a chance to recover.” But still no one moved. They were each craning their necks, trying to see into the tiny room past the paramedics, hoping to catch a glimpse of the still figure of Miss Fairbanks.

Shaking his head in amazement, Principal Clyde turned back toward the tiny nurse’s closet. He watched anxiously as the paramedics continued to examine the frail little woman. There was a tense and expectant silence while each of the people clustered around the door to the closet held their breath, hoping to see Miss Fairbanks open her eyes. But the eyes in the white, pinched face remained closed.

After a few more minutes, one of the paramedics looked up at Principal Clyde and said, “Well, we’ve finished our check and there doesn’t seem to be any serious problem. Looks like she just had a shock and fainted. Give her some time to rest and she’ll be all right.” Principal Clyde stood back to give the paramedics some room while they packed up their gear to leave. The tiny space in the nurse’s station was so cramped it looked like a sardine can.

For several minutes after the paramedics left Principal Clyde tried every trick he knew to make the milling students leave the tiny nurse’s station. He tried yelling at them, wheedling, snarling and threatening to call their parents. None of them budged. Their loyalty to Miss Fairbanks held them there, no matter what the consequences. They simply had to see for themselves that their beloved teacher would revive and was all right.

And finally it happened. After what seemed like an eternity, Miss Fairbanks’ eyes fluttered and she moaned softly. Everyone gathered at the door to stare down at her. As she opened her eyes, her entire class breathed a collective sigh of relief. “Boy am I glad you’re not dead!” blurted Armpit Arnold, voicing the thought that was in most of their minds. She smiled up at them weakly. Then her brow furrowed and she looked confused. “Where am I? What happened?”

“You keeled over when some old dude came into the room,” said Armpit Arnold in his usual blunt way. “We thought you were done for.”

Miss Fairbanks frowned. “Oh yes,” she said faintly, her lips drawing together in a tight line. “Now I remember.”

“All right,” said Principal Clyde loudly, waving at the milling students in an attempt to get them out of the door to the nurse’s station. “Back to class. You can see now that she’s all right. Just go on with whatever you were doing, and she’ll come join you as soon as she’s able.” His words had absolutely no effect at all, as the students still refused to budge.

“He’s right,” said Miss Fairbanks with a faint smile. “I’ll be ok in another minute or two, and then I’ll come join you. Just go back to class and keep writing your letters, please.”

With a good deal of mumbling and grumbling that the excitement was now over, her students started moving down the hall. Principal Clyde looked at them grumpily, jealous that nothing he’d said or done had made them do a thing, while a simple word from frail little Miss Fairbanks had sent them all packing.

He turned back to Miss Fairbanks. “That man,” he said, stepping up to her bed. “The one that came into your room. He said he’s your father—”

“I have no father,” said Miss Fairbanks with a blank look on her face. “My father died years ago.”

“But he says he … he …” Principal Clyde’s voice trailed off. There was clearly more here than met the eye. Miss Fairbanks continued to stare unseeing at the ceiling, the happy smile that usually lit up her face these days replaced with a deep frown. Principal Clyde looked at Mrs. Jensen, who just shrugged.

“Look after her, will you Mrs. Jensen?” he said as he slowly left the room. The few remaining students still hovering around the doorway made way for him like the parting of the Red Sea as he headed for his office. As Principal Clyde opened the door, he saw that the man claiming to by Lydia’s father was still seated there, trying vainly to straighten out his crinkled hat.

Principal Clyde closed the door and sat down heavily in his squeaky chair. He looked at the older man for a long moment without saying a word. Then finally he said, “Maybe you’d better tell me what’s going on. Start at the beginning and don’t leave anything out …”

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Principal Clyde sat staring at the file on his desk. The long shadows of late afternoon came in his office windows, casting shadows that looked like prison bars across the far wall. A spider wandered aimlessly across the corner of his desk, starting to spin a web between there and the wall. Principal Clyde paid no attention to it. His mind was far away, both in time and space. Having listened to the old man who claimed to be the father of Lydia Fairbanks, and then after reading the contents of the file the man had given him, he finally knew the full story about his writing teacher. And like the stories of so many he had encountered at Inner City Junior High School, it was not a pleasant story at all …

It was a case of domestic violence and murder. When Lydia was a tiny girl, barely five years old, her parents had a vicious quarrel. Apparently it was not the first argument of this kind, but it would certainly be the last. From the police report, the fight apparently had something do to with little Lydia, and the cost of the clothes and supplies she needed to start kindergarten. Mr. Fairbanks had been drinking. There was hitting and a good deal of profanity. The little girl tried to hide behind her mother, apparently convinced the whole fight was solely because of her.

A gun was drawn and a shot was fired. Lydia’s parents then went from two down to one. The child saw the whole thing including all the blood, and lay weeping on top of her dead mother. The police report said she kept repeating over and over, “It was my fault! I caused it all! I wish it was me that died! I wish it was me! I wish it was me!” Apparently, in her childlike innocence, she felt that she should have died because she had caused all the trouble.

Her father went to prison of course. Then the years began to pass. Lydia had no other relatives and so had been raised in orphanages and foster care. Most homes where she was placed were not pleasant places. They took her in mostly for the money it brought them, and either treated Lydia badly or ignored her. Meanwhile, Lydia’s file was full of letters her father had sent to her in his bereavement at the state penitentiary. He realized the horror of what he had done and was feeling incredible, intense remorse. He kept writing to his daughter, pleading for her to forgive him, and to write to him. But all of the letters were returned, unopened. In fact in the twenty years he spent in jail he had received only one early response from Lydia, which letter was also in the file. In childlike writing the letter contained only four words: “My father is dead.”

Sadly, psychologists were never brought in by the state to assist the child to cope with what she had witnessed, in spite of the obvious need. She only experienced one brief examination in Junior High School. The overworked school counselor who doubled as school psychologist noted with tremendous brevity in his file, “Mental block by subject, attempting to convince herself her father died. Attempt not completely successful. Still blames self for mother’s death, and wishes she had died instead.”

Miss Lydia Fairbanks. Timid, shy, quiet, unassuming—the type of person no one would pay any attention to, or notice in a crowd. A person who grew up either abused or ignored and forgotten, having to cope from an impossibly young age with a tragic scene no child should ever have to witness. It was a wonder she had been able to function at all. It was a miracle the scars healed sufficiently that she could attend college, and even graduate.

And then of all places, she had come to work at Inner City Junior High School.

Now Principal Clyde understood her reaction when Brent Llewelyn had the gun in the classroom. Now he understood the reports he had had to pry out of members of the ‘losers club’ about a bizarre incident when Bobby Vance—popularly known as scar face—had shown up and announced to Miss Fairbanks that his mother was dead, and he was the one that killed her. In both cases Miss Fairbanks had sobbed uncontrollably, far exceeding any logical explanation for her behavior, and kept repeating over and over, “I wish it was me!” Although she was now an adult and fully knew how foolish this all was, the childlike remorse and terror was apparently still there, rising to the surface in times of extreme stress. At such times she completely lost control and was reduced to a helpless mass of tears.

Principal Clyde sighed heavily, then rubbed at his painful, gout-ridden leg. He grumbled under his breath at the heartburn that always seemed to take him at this time of day no matter what he ate for lunch (and he made sure to NEVER eat anything prepared in the school lunch room). He could feel another migraine coming on.

Miss Fairbanks had miraculously returned to her classroom not long after the incident that morning, after being assured that the man claiming to be her father was gone and would not return. Principal Clyde had tried to convince her to go home and rest but she had refused, mumbling some nonsense about how all she needed was to be with her students. He had then checked in on her throughout the day, and had been amazed that somehow her interaction with the loser students in this insane school seemed to be revitalizing her, giving her new energy. When he had spoken with her at the end of the day, he made sure not to mention anything that had happened that morning. Neither did she. The conversation seemed almost normal, even though both of them knew they were carefully skirting around the real issue. And now she was in her classroom meeting with her group of ‘friends’ from the ‘loser’s club.’ She was trying to act as if nothing had happened at all.

What was he to do now? The man known as Slade Fairbanks had left his contact information, begging Principal Clyde to do all he could to reestablish contact with his long lost daughter. And Principal Clyde had been foolish enough to agree to this request. Which left him in an impossible situation, since he knew beyond doubt that even mentioning the older man to Miss Fairbanks would create great stress that she would not be able to handle.

Principal Clyde sighed again, swiveling around in his chair to stare at the spider that was spinning a web between his desk and the wall. “You know, you’ve got it lucky,” he said to the spider which completely ignored him. “Life for you is pretty simple. If a spider father kills a spider mother, a spider child doesn’t care. He just goes and spins his own web. But that’s not the way it works in the world of humans. That’s not the way it works at all.”

Principal Clyde heavily flipped the folder closed, and put it into one of the drawers of his desk. He was tired. Bone tired. His legs ached, his back was agony, his kidneys were gurgling and his breathing was raspy. Maybe it was time to put Miss Lydia Fairbanks problems out of mind until tomorrow.

He smiled ruefully. So typical. That is precisely what everyone that had ever dealt with her had done, leaving her always to face her impossible tragedy completely alone.

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

One of Miss Fairbanks’ greatest challenges now was how to respond when her students asked about the mysterious man who had caused such a strange reaction in her. This was aggravated by the quickly spreading rumor that he was her father, since several students had overheard him say this to Principal Clyde.

In the end however, the solution proved far easier than one might suppose. “He was not my father,” Miss Fairbanks would respond, her face always a bit white whenever she had to answer this question. “He was the man who killed my father long ago, who’s been in the penitentiary ever since. I don’t know why he’s coming around, and don’t want to know.” And then she would quickly change the subject and move on to something else, trying to encourage people to forget about the incident. When several students suggested she might be in danger from the man, she simply blew it off, assuring them she was quite safe and was confident the man would do nothing to harm her.

And so, life carried on at Inner City Junior High School. By now Miss Fairbanks’ students had grown used to her timid, quiet ways and respected them. They unquestionably treated her differently than any of their other teachers. While other teachers would rant at them until they were red in the face for their students to “sit down and shut up and get to work” (which rantings were mostly ignored), the students piped down as soon as they entered her classroom without needing to be told, and policed themselves the whole time they were there. When other jealous teachers asked the kids why this was the case, most students would merely shrug and say, “Gee, I don’t know. We just do, that’s all.” But among themselves they were more open, and knew it was for two reasons. First, her classes were always fun and zany, in a squeaky clean ‘Miss Fairbanks’ sort of way. Second, unlike all the other teachers who hated Inner City Junior High School, they somehow knew she cared about them.

Miss Fairbanks’ next writing assignment for her students was to write a fiction short story. But she didn’t just dish out the assignment then sit back and ignore them while they went to work. Like all her projects, she presented the assignment in a bizarre way that sucked them in and made them want to do it.

Her first period class was the first group to receive the assignment of course. After the bell rang, Miss Fairbanks went to the chalkboard and drew a random squiggle on it, which made no sense. Turning to the class she then said, “Would anyone like to volunteer to come up and draw in such a way that this squiggle will turn into a picture of a man with a big nose?”

Everyone just looked at her as if she had once more lost her marbles. “There’s no way that mess can be turned into a dude with a big nose,” said Armpit Arnold, voicing the thought that was in all her of their minds.

“Are you sure?” asked Miss Fairbanks mysteriously. “Look closely, and see if there isn’t a way to do it.”

Her students all stared intently at the board. Then most of them shook their heads. “Can’t be done,” said the kid with purple hair.

“Maybe it can,” said Slapface, surprising everyone. “That little squiggle part down there could be part of his beard, and that straight line over there could be his ear—”

“That’s crazy!” said Arnold, jumping out of his seat. He went up to the board and pretended to follow Slapface’s suggestions, succeeding only at messing up the squiggles and random lines into an even greater mess.

“No, that’s not it at all,” said Slapface, coming up to the board and snatching the chalk out of Arnold’s hand. For a minute it almost looked like he would punch her, but at the sight of her upraised hand, he decided against it. Her slaps always stung like sixty.

Miss Fairbanks smiled as Slapface leaned over and worked on the mess on the board. She was blocking the view so no one could really see what she was doing. But when she turned around, to everyone’s amazement there was indeed a picture of a rather ugly man with a big nose.

“Thank you Joyce,” said Miss Fairbanks, startling everyone by calling Slapface by her real name. There were a few sniggers at the name, but all it took was a glare from Slapface to make them stop. They knew they would experience intense facial pain after class if they kept it up.

Miss Fairbanks now went to another part of the blackboard and drew another nonsense squiggle. Turning, she held out the chalk and said, “Who would like to turn this into a dog eating ice cream while riding a roller coaster?”

“You’re kidding!” said several voices at once. But this time there were more takers, and after a few floppy attempts by some of the students, the mess did somewhat come to resemble a very lopsided-looking dog slobbering something that could maybe be ice cream while riding on some wheeled thing that just might be a roller coaster.

“Fascinating, isn’t it?” said Miss Fairbanks after everyone had taken their seat. “There are some people who make a living at this. You see them sometimes at county fairs. They challenge someone to draw a squiggle on a paper, then turn that squiggle into a picture of that person’s own face! Usually the person ends up buying the drawing.”

“Well, ya gotta be a pretty good artist to do that,” scowled Armpit Arnold. “That dog looks more like he’s eating peanut butter and riding on a scooter.”

“It takes practice of course,” said Miss Fairbanks, flinging her arms wide in another one of her needless dramatic gestures. “But as it is with pictures, so it is with writing. Give a good writer any subject and any sentence—any at all, mind you—and he can weave it into a story that will move people to tears.”

“Anything the people in this class write will move me to tears!” yelled the kid with purple hair, since he couldn’t resist the temptation.

Miss Fairbanks ignored him and quickly erased the chalkboard, then wrote the word “Door knobs” in the upper left corner. In the bottom right hand corner she wrote, “A million dollars.” Then in the middle of the board she wrote the following sentence: “As he was coming down the stairs, Fred tripped over the cat and went flying, sending the paint brushes he had been carrying soaring in all directions.”

Miss Fairbanks looked at her class triumphantly while they all just stared back dumbly. “THIS is your squiggle. You will take these seemingly messed up, nonsense words, and turn them into a picture. Only your picture will be made out of words of course, in the form of a fiction short story.”

There were a number of groans, cursing and grumbling from around the room. Miss Fairbanks knew this particular assignment was one she could not have given earlier, since her students would have revolted en masse. But she believed they had enough confidence in her—and in themselves, based on what they’d done so far in class—that they could do it now.

“I have given you a topic in the upper left hand corner of the board. Your story needs to somehow be about door knobs. In the bottom right hand corner I have given you the result of the story—someone at the end will get a million dollars. In the middle is a sentence you MUST use somewhere in your story. I don’t care where you put it, but it must be there and it must flow with the rest of the story and make sense. You can’t just toss it in where it makes no sense at all. It must be part of the story.”

“You can’t be serious!” growled Armpit Arnold at her.

Miss Fairbanks raised an eyebrow. “Is it too much for you then? You don’t think you can do it, because it’s too hard for you?”

“Well no, I didn’t say that,” said Arnold, turning red. “It’s just stupid to go to all that work for nothing! All you’ll get are a bunch of cruddy stories about nothing.”

“But isn’t that the purpose of life?!” said Miss Fairbanks grandly, throwing her arms wide again. “Just how much sense does life make? Just how ‘cruddy’ are the things that happen every day? Stories are life, and life is a story. And in a writing class you write about both, which hopefully helps make sense of both.”

Now everyone was looking at her in confusion. Sensing their lack of comprehension, Miss Fairbanks simply said, “Just do it, okay? Get started. If you don’t finish today, we can work on them more tomorrow—but don’t just sit and dawdle! And remember, no profanity or sleezy, sexual stuff or you’ll get an ‘F’ and I’ll have to call your parents or your juvenile parole officer.”

There were groans from many in the room. This was not the sort of thing they wanted to have happen on a Monday. Why couldn’t she have something more fun, like she often did?

But of course, Miss Fairbanks knew something they did not. She knew that ‘fun’ is relative, and is an ever moving target. Aim at it, and you’re likely to miss, but try doing something else for awhile and it will likely come to you. And surprisingly, ‘fun’ often comes from doing something a little harder and more demanding than usual. When it’s over, you can look back with a thrill of accomplishment and say in amazement, “Gee! I actually did that, and it was kind of fun!” And that’s what this assignment was all about.

In spite of Arnold’s grumblings, Miss Fairbanks noticed he was among the first to get started, and one of those who worked most intensely on the effort. Watching his face when he didn’t think she was looking, she often noticed him smile in delight as a new, weird thought hit him about what to put into his story that would once again ‘knock her socks off.’

She smiled contentedly. Give students a mere assignment to ‘write a story,’ and most of them will flounder and moan that they don’t know what to write about. But give them a theme and a direction, and that little problem is avoided. Then if the theme and the direction are bizarre enough, what otherwise might be a boring or tedious assignment becomes rather surprisingly fun in the end.

And so it went throughout the day. There were the same groans and complaints as always from most of the students, but in the end they rose to the occasion and got to work. She knew they would, because she’d seen how they’d performed in the past. And as she watched, she could tell that most of them were enjoying the process in spite of themselves.

Miss Fairbanks had one little surprise during the day however. Mr. Brek unexpectedly walked into her fourth period class, just after the first squiggle on the blackboard had been transformed by one of the students into a kangaroo wearing a bow tie. “Don’t mind me,” he said casually as he made his rumbling way across the room and took his accustomed seat by the window. For a moment Miss Fairbanks felt completely flustered, her mind having gone blank. Why did his sudden presence have that bizarre effect on her? She suddenly felt rather angry at herself, and told herself she was being silly and to just ignore the big oaf. If the crazy man wanted to join an hour of creative fiction writing rather than sleep, that was his business. Using all her willpower to drive him from her mind, she continued with her lesson.

But to her amazement, when the assignment had been given and all of her students starting writing their stories about door knobs, he joined them as well! In fact, he wrote as fast and furiously as they did, causing Miss Fairbanks to shake her head in amusement. This was truly bizarre.

When fourth period ended, he folded up his paper and put it in his pocket. “I’ll be back to finish it tomorrow, along with everybody else,” he said casually as he walked out the door. She just frowned as he left, determined to NOT get flustered when he showed up tomorrow.

Like Mr. Brek, most of her students had not finished their stories either. Not that Miss Fairbanks was worried about it. She knew that in THIS school assigning homework made about as much sense as asking a brick wall to do the tango, so she always made sure her students did all of their work during class. She figured if they were sufficiently inspired, they might do more writing on their own time, at home.

And so the week went, with crazy stories about door knobs, soaring paint brushes and a cat stupid enough to sit on the stairs where someone could trip over him. And what Miss Fairbanks had told her students proved to be true. Every one of them was able to come up with a door knob story that used the sentence and ended with a million dollars. And yet, every one of their stories was completely different. They had each turned mindless scribbles into something that made sense. And some of the stories were pretty amazing!

For example, Armpit Arnold wrote how an alien from Venus had zapped all the door knobs on earth, making them disappear. When an artist working in his attic heard about it, he rushed downstairs carrying all his paint brushes because he wanted to paint the panic of people trying to cope without door knobs. Unfortunately he tripped over his cat on the way down, and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. But the rear door of the ambulance wouldn’t close (because the door knob was gone), so his gurney slid out onto the street. Because the gurney was on wheels it kept going down the street, then zipped into a bank and into an open bank vault (which was open because it no longer had a door knob). A million dollars in the bank vault fell on the artist, causing him to both be rich and nearly die from money suffocation at the same time.

Other stories were equally bizarre. One told of an inventor who created a spray that made door knobs grow bigger than watermelons, and made them start spitting out money. Another told of a door knob thief who melted down all the metal from the knobs and sold it to earn his million dollars. And Mr. Brek in his story told how a bouncer at a bar got a tip for a million dollars from a drunk who owned a door knob factory. He had some trouble working in the paintbrush-cat-stairs thing, but finally solved it by making his bouncer visit an artist friend at the city museum, where a stray cat just happened to be sleeping on the stairs.

On the day Miss Fairbanks handed back the graded papers to her students (she was a very generous grader, giving them mostly A’s if they made much effort), Mr. Brek was there during fourth period to receive his. “This is crazy,” said Miss Fairbanks as she handed him his paper with a frown. “You don’t need a grade!”

“But I do!” he replied casually, smiling with pleasure at his ‘A’ grade. “I never wrote a story about door knobs when I was in school. In fact, I never wrote about nothin’. I hated writing. But now it’s not so bad.”

Miss Fairbanks gave him a critical look. “I’m glad to hear that,” she said slowly. “And if the reason you’re coming around is because you’ve decided I should pay you that money I promised, then—”

Mr. Brek instantly pulled out his wallet and lighter. “No, no!” said Miss Fairbanks quickly. “Don’t do it! Okay, so you’re not coming around for the money!”

Mr. Brek put his wallet back and smiled. “I come because life is more than standing outside a bar all night, and lying in bed sleeping all day.” He didn’t expound, and Miss Fairbanks didn’t press him on it. Indeed, she had to admit, there was a lot of truth in what he’d said.

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Miss Fairbanks continued to visit Brent every evening without fail. He looked forward to her visits, and was even willing to start doing her writing assignments. She figured since she was visiting him anyway and still considered herself to be his writing teacher, she might as well do her duty. And so he ended up writing a short story on door knobs, as well as a limerick and all of the other assignments as they came along.

Of course he always asked about the ‘loser’s club,’ and was amazed as she reported that membership had increased so much there were hardly enough desks for everyone that came. With a great deal of puzzlement, Principal Clyde approved her request to relocate the ‘club meeting’ to the lunchroom tables if it became necessary due to lack of space. Of course, most students at Inner City Junior High still considered the club to be somewhat of a joke and wouldn’t have wanted to stay after school regardless, since they just wanted to get away from the stinking place. But for a growing number of kids, the club was a wonderful outlet that gave them meaning in their lives. The official club mascot became the tarantula ‘Harry,’ who now lived happily in Miss Fairbanks’ window. The official club initiation for new members was to draw a comic character to go somewhere on the ugly walls. The walls of Miss Fairbanks’ room were starting to fill up at a rapid rate.

And then one day Miss Fairbanks had the pleasure of telling Brent on one of her visits about Armpit Arnold’s joining the loser’s club—then promptly getting kicked out and being accepted back into it again.

“You’re kidding!” said Brent in surprise, staring at Miss Fairbanks in disbelief. “He’s nothing but mean! How come he got back in? How’d he even get in in the first place?”

“He just showed up one day and agreed to abide by the rules like everyone else,” said Miss Fairbanks. “After that very first time that he came and I told him the rules, I sort of figured he’d be back someday once he resolved in his mind that he could actually keep the rules. But you know Arnold! His first day in the club went ok since he tried very hard not to say anything. But sometimes his mouth moves quicker than his mind, and so on his second club day he suddenly called Slapface a stinking lizard face, or something like that.” Miss Fairbanks smiled sweetly.

Brent was fairly certain that what Arnold had REALLY said included profanity and didn’t have much to do with lizards, but of course he knew she would not repeat such a detail. “So what happened next?” he asked.

“Everyone in the club just looked at me,” said Miss Fairbanks. “It was one of those defining moments when all the kids look to see if an adult is going to follow through and do what they said they’d do. Of course I had no choice. He knew the rules. I immediately asked him to leave. When he refused, I asked Melvin to kindly go fetch my friend Mr. Brek, after which Arnold was out the door rather quickly.”

Brent whistled. “I wish I’d have been there,” he said wistfully. In fact, he often said this on Miss Fairbanks’ visits when she described what was going on in class, or in the ‘loser’s club.’ But when questioned if he really did want to leave detention and go home again, his answer was always a firm ‘no.’ And Miss Fairbanks could certainly understand why. So far none of his family had come to see him at all, even though he had been in detention for two months.

“Well, the kids in the club got to talking,” said Miss Fairbanks, continuing the story. “I think they were secretly glad I’d enforced the rule. But they decided that if someone broke a rule and got kicked out, they could be reinstated if there was a unanimous vote by all present to let them back in. And that is what happened.”

“You’re kidding!” said Brent for the second time. “Every kid there voted for him to come back? I sure wouldn’t have, if I’d been there.”

“There were some who were hesitant,” admitted Miss Fairbanks. “But in the end they were persuaded by the others to give him a second chance. They all agreed that if he messed up again, he’d be out permanently. And so he was back. And I must say, he’s now so afraid to say anything for fear of messing up, that he’s been incredibly quiet! Sometimes he’s the same in class, since I think he has a hard time keeping straight in his mind when he has to behave and when he doesn’t, and he doesn’t want to mess up again.”

Brent laughed. “That’s a sight I’d like to see. So, what’s my writing assignment this time? Not that I’ll do it, mind you,” he added hastily as he always did every time she gave him an assignment. “I don’t really have to do it, since I’m in here.”

“Of course,” agreed Miss Fairbanks, as she did every time he offered this objection. She knew he would do it, since he had turned in every assignment so far. It gave him something to do after the detention center classes were over for the day, rather than sit and watch mindless TV, or worry about what would happen when he was finally released and had to go back to live with Burt and his mom.

“You have to write a one-act play,” said Miss Fairbanks mysteriously. Brent raised his eyebrows in surprise. And then she explained how the one-act play idea had come about.

The short stories on doorknobs in all of Miss Fairbanks’ classes had gone extremely well—far better than any of the students had expected. Miss Fairbanks then offered for those students who wanted to, to come up and read their story to the class. Once more the result was controlled chaos as students reacted to the stories, sometimes causing noise levels so high the windows threatened to shatter. Mr. Clyde often popped his head in the door these days, since he was more worried and watchful of Miss Fairbanks, but while they read their stories he never stayed since the noise was often like thunder.

And then the breakthrough came. When a short kid named McGwerk came up to read his story, he brought up a few of his buddies. And rather than just read it to the class, they acted it out. Miss Fairbanks had to hold her hands over her ears as they did so, the pandemonium was so great. But she smiled just the same to see her students having so much fun at being creative.

And then the next day she sprang the one-act play idea on them that McGwerk had given her. Each of them would have to write a one-act play that would take five or ten minutes to perform. As with all of Miss Fairbanks’ projects, the plays were to be squeaky clean with no profanity or indecency. Each student was required to involve the other students as the actors in their play, and each play was to be performed for the class. The students jumped on this idea like a dog on ice cream that’s fallen on the sidewalk.

They had a ball with it naturally. To her surprise, Miss Fairbanks found herself “starring” in a large number of her students’ plays, in roles from a Chihuahua dog to a pretzel stick come to life. Mr. Brek was brought in too, since he was now showing up frequently at odd hours in most of her classes. He was usually cast as a giant or a freight train or something else large. In one play he had to be a mountain of melting ice cream, and did so with a good deal of fake shivering that made his skin wobble like a floppy seal, and which rumbled the whole floor.

But that wasn’t all. One of the kids cast Principal Clyde in a play, in the role of a school principal of course. However in the play, his “school” was made up of bacteria and viruses that lived in someone’s intestines. Poor Principal Clyde found himself barking out orders to his senseless virus students for ten minutes during Miss Fairbanks’ fifth period class. When he came back to his office Mrs. Jenkins was surprised that he was no longer limping or rubbing his sore kidneys like he’d been doing when he left.

“Wild!” was all he said as he passed her desk and went into his office. “That was absolutely wild!” There was a big, goofy grin spread all over his face, and for the next half hour Mrs. Jenkins distinctly heard him barking out orders in his office as if he was re-living the play, even though there was no one in there to hear him.

In the midst of the week her students were presenting their plays, Mr. Brek showed up at Miss Fairbanks’ door one day during her lunch hour. She still ate alone in her classroom, usually only having a simple peanut butter sandwich. Of course, students often wandered in for a chat, or just stayed the whole time like Heather. When Mr. Brek showed up on this day, he was carrying a bouquet of flowers.

“Mr. Brek!” said Miss Fairbanks in surprise, looking back and forth between the flowers and the goofy smile on his face. “What on earth?”

“I just happened to see a flower vender on my way over here,” he said casually, as if the whole notion of flowers had been accidental—which of course it wasn’t.

Miss Fairbanks’ face had gone white, and she suddenly started wringing her hands. Heather smiled broadly, and so did Slapface who happened to be sitting in the classroom during this particular lunch period. Melvin was there too, but he just wrinkled his nose in distaste.

“Well,” said Miss Fairbanks vaguely when she finally managed to find her voice again. “I suppose they need a vase or something with water, so they won’t wilt.”

“Really?” asked Mr. Brek, who obviously knew very little about flowers. As Miss Fairbanks fluttered around looking for a vase in her room—which of course could not be found since there was none there—it was clear she had as little experience with romance as he did with flowers.

In the end a soda can with the top ripped off had to serve as a vase, which naturally tipped dangerously and had to be propped between a number of books on Miss Fairbanks’ desk. After that there were a few awkward moments as Miss Fairbanks didn’t know what to say, after which Mr. Brek said he had to go.

As Miss Fairbanks was saying good-bye to him in the hall, she floundered around again for something to say, as if she was a fish gasping its last breath after it’s been caught and dragged into the open air. Finally, her practical nature asserted itself, as she realized she didn’t want a good friendship spoiled by romance. She blurted, “Look Mr. Brek. You have to understand that I consider you as simply a good friend—nothing more!”

Mr. Brek smiled knowingly. “Your oldest and dearest friend?” he asked.

She frowned. “Will you please be serious? I just want you to understand that there is nothing between us! Nothing at all! We are mere friends, and that is all!”

“True enough,” said Mr. Brek, groping at the empty air between them. “Nothing here but air.”

The frown on Miss Fairbanks’ face deepened. “Will you stop clowning!” she barked at him. She then ran a shaky hand through her hair. “I don’t know what else to say, Mr. Brek. I appreciate the flowers, but I want you to know I will treat you no differently than before and will not consider anything to be changed. Please don’t misunderstand. I enjoy having you come around, but—”

“Are you perhaps against men who go to bars?” asked Mr. Brek, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes!” said Miss Fairbanks, seizing on the idea. “I’m very strongly against men who drink! I think it destroys not only them, but the people around them!”

“True enough,” agreed Mr. Brek. “That’s why I don’t touch the stuff. Not even when the boss offers it to me for free. I’ve seen too many unpleasant things while standing at the bar door all night.” He looked at her curiously, then asked, “Perhaps you’re just against men who aren’t educated like you are?”

Miss Fairbanks face flushed scarlet. “I am NOT that way at all!” she cried. “How much education a person has doesn’t mean a thing! People who think like that should put their head in a microwave until they unlearn their stupidity!”

Mr. Brek just smiled at her. “Well then,” he said casually, “I’ll be seeing ya, my oldest and dearest friend.” Then he turned and sauntered off down the hall whistling to himself.

As Miss Fairbanks came back into her class, Slapface and Heather gave her knowing looks. “Did he ask you out?” asked Heather curiously.

“NO!” yelled Miss Fairbanks furiously. Then she looked at Heather in embarrassment, since it was normally against her nature to be so snappish. “I mean, no he didn’t,” she said in a calmer voice.

“You like him, don’t you?” asked Slapface.

“I DO NOT!” she cried indignantly, completely losing her composure. Her face resembled a very red beet as she hastily retreated to her desk and took a vicious bite out of her peanut butter sandwich and chewed it frowningly.

Heather and Slapface exchanged meaningful glances. Romance at Inner City Junior High School was not a subject either of them would normally comment on. But Miss Fairbanks case was clearly an exception …

 

CHAPTER TWENTY

“Class,” said Miss Fairbanks on a fresh Monday morning, “I have a sad announcement to make.” Worried looks crossed dozens of faces as they instantly assumed she’d be telling them she was leaving Inner City Junior High School forever, and would never return. They had seen many of their other teachers make this type of announcement, although the other teachers always did so with unrestrained glee. Usually the kids were gleeful to see them go too.

“We won’t let you go!” yelled Armpit Arnold, rising to his feet.

Miss Fairbanks blinked in surprise, completely caught off guard. Then she smiled as comprehension dawned. “I am not leaving this school,” she said quickly, which bought instant relief to many worried minds and made Arnold sit down in embarrassment.

“No, my announcement has to do with your next writing assignment.” There were groans from around the room. Not that the students were very upset at having another assignment. In fact, knowing it was from Miss Fairbanks, they were looking forward to it! They were simply groaning because that is what they felt obligated to do, to maintain their image as lazy, work-avoiding students.

“There has been a terrible crime committed,” said Miss Fairbanks, making them all look at her with even greater curiosity. “Your next writing assignment will require you to help right this terrible wrong.” Turning to Slapface, she said gently, “Joyce, will you please come forward and tell the awful thing that happened to you?”

Slapface stood up and moved to the front of the room, looking a bit embarrassed. She was not as skilled at pretending as Miss Fairbanks, and fidgeted with her hands. But she had agreed with her teacher to do this, and was not about to back down now. “Well, it’s like this,” she said, trying to look shaken and disturbed. “I was walking innocently down ‘B’ hall, minding my own business when suddenly I was attacked!”

“By a three-headed alien who wondered why you stink so bad?” blurted Armpit Arnold, chortling in glee. It was one of the few times he was able to remember that he was not in the ‘loser’s club’ and could make snide comments to his heart’s content. Slapface raised her slapping hand menacingly and glared at him. At the sight of her hand, Arnold’s laughter was short lived.

Miss Fairbanks had chosen her assistant well.

“The attacker was a boy wearing a ski mask,” said Slapface. “He raced up to me and he … he …” she struggled to pretend she was truly traumatized at what happened. Finally she said, “He kissed me on my forehead!”

There was a collective gasp from the room. “Was he sick or something?” blurted the purple haired kid.

“Maybe he was just blind!” said someone else. Unlike Arnold, the kids making these comments had not attended the ‘loser’s club’ yet, so they didn’t have to keep straight in their minds what they were saying and where they were saying it.

Slapface glared at them as she re-took her seat. Miss Fairbanks had warned her of course that there would likely be some snide comments. But Slapface was used to such nonsense and knew how to take care of herself. And the plan Miss Fairbanks had cooked up sounded like a lot of fun.

“Yes students,” said Miss Fairbanks, holding her hand over her heart as if she was pained at the horror of it all. “You have just heard the story of the ‘B’ hall smoocher. And I have the further displeasure to tell you that the attacker was one of the boys sitting in this room!”

The kids all looked at each other in amazement, wondering what kid in his right mind would run up and kiss Slapface, even if he DID have a ski mask over his head to keep from being seen.

“And this now leads us to your new assignment. Until the perpetrator of this terrible crime has been uncovered, all of you will be involved in the legal court system in an effort to bring the guilty party to justice. You will be required to write brief legal statements, arguments and accusations or defensive statements depending on whether you are the lawyer who is defending an accused person, or the prosecutor who is accusing him. And then we will hold a trial, right here in our classroom, in which evidence will be presented that hopefully will reveal the perpetrator and resolve this terrible crime!”

“That’s batty!” said Armpit Arnold, voicing the thought that was in many of their minds. Miss Fairbanks smiled at him sweetly. “Thank you Mr. Arnold, for volunteering to be the chief prosecutor in this case. It will be your sad duty to discover the evil villain who dared commit this crime, and bring him to justice!”

Arnold smiled suddenly. “I get to put someone in jail?” he said excitedly.

“Better than that!” said Miss Fairbanks. “The guilty party is to be executed—posthumously, of course.”

Arnold screwed up his face in confusion, which was a relatively normal look for him. “What’s posthumously mean?”

“After the dude’s dead, of course,” responded Melvin, rolling his eyes.

Arnold blinked. “You mean, the guilty guy’s going to be killed for this crime years from now after he’s dead?”

“Exactly!” said Miss Fairbanks firmly. “Now here is how we will organize our trial. Melvin Dugard will be the judge. We already have a volunteer to be chief prosecutor, but we still need two people to act as defense attorneys for the two accused boys. And of course there will be assistant prosecutors and witnesses and a court bailiff, and the accused boys themselves …”

And so it went. To his surprise, the purple-haired boy found that he was one of the two who was accused of committing this horrendous case of smooching. His face turned red as a beet, and he firmly denied it, proving either that he truly was innocent or that he was an exceptionally good actor (if he was the boy who had agreed secretly with Miss Fairbanks to play this role). The other accused boy was Amasa Simmons, a big, lumbering fellow who had the annoying habit of constantly cracking his knuckles all class long. He also strongly denied the attack, making many in the class wonder just who the guilty nut could be.

The students were secretly thrilled of course. Miss Fairbanks had done it again! For the next three weeks as the case wound its tortured way through the legal justice system in their classroom, they would have a ball and learn a bit about legal writing at the same time. It was a genius idea.

This consensus was shared by all of Miss Fairbanks’ classes throughout the day. Of course, she had had to pre-arrange separate victims, accused boys, and judges for each class. But she had chosen her subjects well, and with feverish energy her students threw their efforts into solving the horrifying case of the ‘B’ hall smoocher.

Roughly a week after the trials started, after school one day at the start of the ‘loser’s club’ meeting, Miss Fairbanks said she had a surprise announcement to make to the club. Only eleven kids were present on this day, which was far fewer than normal. The unusually warm weather probably was the cause, since it had been cold and wintry for weeks, and today everyone wanted to get outside at last to enjoy the sunshine. So it was only the most loyal of the students who were there, such as Heather, Ella, Jerry, Melvin, Jared and a smattering of the others.

“Brent is being released tomorrow!” said Miss Fairbanks happily, throwing her arms wide in another one of her needless gestures for dramatic effect. “He only just found out yesterday, and told me when I visited him. So we’ll see him again in class, and here in the club.”

The announcement flew over the heads of many of the students of course, since they had a hard time remembering who Brent was. They had last seen him in “pre-Miss Fairbanks days” when there was no kindness at Inner City Junior High School, and the only people kids took notice of were the bullies who might taunt them. But Heather smiled happily, and so did Jerry. It was good to know their friend was coming back.

“Is he happy about it?” asked Heather.

“He’ll be happy to be back in class and here in the club, but he’s very nervous about going home,” said Miss Fairbanks. She shook her head. “I can’t say I blame him. But I told him to just do his best and get by as well as he can.”

For the next few minutes everyone in the ‘loser’s club’ chatted happily like normal. It was a regular, pleasant day like any other. They were all mindful of course that without Miss Fairbanks and what she had brought to Inner City Junior High School, it would not have been a pleasant day at all. Indeed, they had come to rely on her and the ‘loser’s club’ so much that it was horrifying to think what it had been like before her arrival. A few of them had occasionally tried to thank Miss Fairbanks for what she had done for them, which she always dismissed with an impatient wave of her hand. The rest had learned that the best way to show their gratitude was to simply enjoy the day to the fullest, and to enjoy each other’s company.

Unfortunately however, this day was destined to be a bit different than other days.

It happened after the club had been in the classroom for about half an hour. There was a sudden sound from the door. Turning, the students and Miss Fairbanks were surprised to see a man standing there. He was in his 40s, and was thick and stocky. His hair was disheveled and his eyes were bleary, while he was swaying on his feet. Everyone there had seen enough of those symptoms to know that this man was drunk.

“Is there a Lydia Fairbanks in here?” he gabbled in a slurred voice. Heather’s face had gone white in fear, and Miss Fairbanks was trembling. This was not looking good.

“Who wants to know?” said Jared suddenly, rising angrily to his feet.

“Shut up, boy, or your teeth will be chewing on your tonsils,” said the man. He staggered into the room. Miss Fairbanks glanced nervously at Jared, who said quietly, “I’ll go get help.”

“No you won’t boy,” said the man, pulling a gun from under his jacket. He was still swaying badly on his feet, and it was apparent he had been drinking heavily.

Everyone in the room froze. As drunk as he was it became instantly obvious that he might start shooting at random any second.

“I am Lydia Fairbanks,” said Miss Fairbanks, stepping forward. Her chin was quivering and her hands were trembling, but she was determined at any cost to divert his attention from her students, so that if anyone ended up being a target it would not be them.

“Oh, you’re the stinking teacher I’ve been looking for, eh?” said the man with a cruel grin. “And I guess you’re mighty proud of yourself, aren’t you too?” He staggered closer to Miss Fairbanks. “Aren’t you?” he yelled louder. Her nose twitched at the stench of alcohol on his breath.

Jared took a step forward but the man’s gun was up instantly, pointing at the boy. Without hesitation Miss Fairbanks darted in between the gun and Jared. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said in a wavering voice. “It’s obvious you’ve been drinking and should just go home and rest—”

“Don’t pretty mouth me, you little [email protected]&*%!” he bellowed. “I saw what you did to Brent! You turned him against me! Him and that blasted cat!”

A look of surprise crossed Miss Fairbanks’ face. “Are you Mr. Llewelyn?” she asked.

“Don’t call me that!” raged the man, waving his gun suddenly in her face. “That’s the brat’s name from his real dad. My name’s Burt Sage. And don’t you forget it!”

Jared stepped to the side of Miss Fairbanks, causing Burt to instantly swivel his gun in his direction. Then to the astonishment of all, little Ella darted for the door. Burt swung around and pulled the trigger. The bullet left an ugly gash in the door frame while the shot echoed deafeningly in their ears. But Ella had safely made it out and was racing down the hall.

Jared lunged for the gun in Burt’s hand. The big man tried to swivel out of his way but was too slow in his stupor. Jared grabbed the gun hand and tried to shake the gun out of it. But Burt brought up his other fist and slammed Jared in the jaw, sending him spinning over two desks before he crashed into a heap on the floor. He lay there without moving.

“Now see here—” began Miss Fairbanks angrily. Burt brought up his gun hand and knocked her on the head with it, sending her crashing back into her teacher’s desk.

“Anyone else want to mess with me?” he snarled, waving the gun at each of the kids in turn. No one moved or answered. They simply stared at him with white faces. However, suddenly Slapface got up and started to go toward Jared.

“Stop it there girly, if you don’t want a bullet in your brain.”

“But he might be hurt!” she cried.

Burt snorted. “So what. The brat got what he deserved. Nobody messes with Burt Sage and gets away with it. Nobody!” He turned waveringly to face Miss Fairbanks. “And that especially goes for you!” he yelled, pointing the gun at her head.

 

Principal Clyde was just finishing yet another budget request to the school district when he heard the gunshot. Although his head was throbbing with a migraine, he was instantly on his feet. It was the sound he dreaded hearing every moment of every day he was in this disgusting school.

He raced into the outer office and was profoundly grateful that Mrs. Jenkins was still there, typing up the last of the daily reports. “Where did it come from?” he asked in a frenzied voice.

“Sounded like Miss Fairbanks’ room,” said Mrs. Jenkins in a frightened voice. Principal Clyde groaned and rolled her eyes. “Call 911!” he barked, even though she had already picked up the phone and started dialing. Principal Clyde darted out into the hall and was nearly knocked over as Ella came charging up to him. “A man with a gun in Miss Fairbanks room!” she sobbed through a flood of tears.

“Just one man?” yelled Principal Clyde in her face. She nodded her head. “And who else is in there?” he demanded, shaking her violently for no good reason.

“Slapface and Jared and Heather and—”

Turning, Principal Clyde dragged Ella into the office and over to Mrs. Jenkins’ desk. She was just hanging up the phone. “The police will be right here,” she said in a pinched voice.

“This girl knows who’s in there,” said Principal Clyde. “Get all their names and start calling their families. Including Miss Fairbanks.”

“Miss Fairbanks?” said Mrs. Jenkins in surprise. “But she doesn’t have any family.”

“You know who I mean!” yelled Principal Clyde. Then he turned and raced from the room. With shaking hands Mrs. Jenkins began searching for phone numbers as Ella started rattling off names through her tears.

 

“You’re the troublemaker that’s caused all of it,” snarled Burt as he pointed his gun at Miss Fairbanks. “Filling Brent’s head with nonsense ideas, encouraging him to keep his mangy cat, telling him to run away and not respect his elders! Now the brat’s coming home tomorrow and a bunch of idiots from the state came to my house and spouted off about what I can do and can’t do in my own home. And they threatened to put me in jail if I don’t do what they said! Me—Burt Sage! Well no one can do that to me!”

Miss Fairbanks’ hands were started to shake so badly she tried to hide them behind her back. The horror of her past and the scenes from her childhood were rising like a banshee within her, threatening to once more overpower her and reduce her to a sniveling, sobbing wreck, twitching on the floor. Not here! Not now! She couldn’t lose control now, with her precious students in danger. She had to somehow remain calm and cool, and drive the horrifying past images from her mind.

“Mr. Sage,” she said in a croaking whisper. “I think you are sadly mistaken. Your boy Brent is—”

“He’s not my boy!” yelled the man wildly. It looked as if he was squeezing and unsqueezing the trigger, causing Heather to yelp in fright. Burt turned on her and yelled, “Stop sniveling, you whiney little brat! I’m not going to hurt you! It’s your idiot teacher I want!”

“Well, Mr. Sage, if that’s all you want,” said Miss Fairbanks weakly, “then the others are surely free to go.”

“Not likely!” he yelled again, waving the gun around at all of them. “No one leaves until I say they do! I missed that other bratty girl, but I won’t miss again.”

There was a groan from Jared from where he was lying on the floor. Slapface once more made a move to go over to him. “Stay where you are, missy,” said Burt menacingly. “Let him wallow in it. He asked for it, anyway.”

Miss Fairbanks sank down into her chair, blinking back the tears. Not now! Not now!! She had to stay composed. She couldn’t collapse now! With every ounce of will power in her tiny frame, she fought the images that were reaching up within her, grasping at her with their tentacles of hopeless despair.

But the horror of what her eyes were seeing was so much like what she had seen before, she wasn’t sure she would be able to hold out much longer.

 

“How many of them are there?” said the policeman urgently to Principal Clyde as he ran in the door.

“One man,” said Principal Clyde, feeling a distinctly sharp pain from one of his ulcers. “He’s got a teacher and ten students holed up in a room around the corner and down the hall.” He and the policeman took off at a dead run. Rounding the corner they saw Burt through the open door of Miss Fairbanks room. Unfortunately he saw them at the same time. He rapidly turned and fired in the same instant the policeman brought his own gun up. Fortunately Burt missed.

“There’s kids in there!” yelled Principal Clyde as the officer took aim. The officer hesitated. Burt darted out of visibility, then slammed closed the door to Miss Fairbanks’ room.

The officer swore under his breath. Other officers came racing up to him. “I want a cordon around the building,” barked the first officer. Two officers down there, on either side of the door. One stationed here. Bring in the big communication set. I need an instant link to the chief.” The officer continued to bark orders as Principal Clyde stepped back and slumped against the wall. He closed his eyes and ran a shaky hand through his hair.

Enough was enough. It was time to quit this lousy job, and go live under that freeway overpass.

 

“You can’t keep us here forever,” said Melvin in a surprisingly calm voice to Burt.

“Shut up brat!” said the man gruffly, waving the gun in his direction. “I can do what I want.”

“Melvin’s right, you know,” spoke up Miss Fairbanks quickly. Her eyes were blurry and she could hardly breathe, but somehow she had managed to avoid a collapse so far. And she was determined to keep Burt’s focus on her, and away from her students. “They’ll get in here sooner or later. There’s no sense to what you’re doing.”

“There’s no sense to what you’ve done!” yelled Burt in her face. He reached out and grabbed her, pulling her out of her chair. “You’ve messed with me for the last time!”

“NO!” choked Heather from her seat. Burt instantly turned and fired. Fortunately the bullet went wild. But in that instant a transformation came over Miss Lydia Fairbanks. This deranged man had once again tried to kill one of her students. He might do it a third time at any second. The time for talk had passed. It was time for action!

She twisted free of his grip, then sank her teeth into the fingers of his gun hand. Burt screamed, dropping his gun, which fortunately did not go off. Turning, he struck at Miss Fairbanks with what used to be his gun hand. She dodged. Behind him, she saw Heather racing forward to get the gun off the floor.

“Get out!” she cried. “Don’t worry about the gun!”

Burt slammed Miss Fairbanks against the wall, then turned on Heather. She succeeded at kicking the gun away then shrank back before the big man. From somewhere in his jacket he produced a knife. Miss Fairbanks watched in horror as he raised it above his head, ready to strike Heather down.

“NO!” she cried in what to her was an extremely loud voice, but in fact was not particularly loud at all. Then she pounced, diving in front of Heather just as Burt brought the knife down. It sank deep into her flesh, not far from her heart.

She looked up at him in shock as the pain throbbed through her. Then she slowly sank to the floor while he pulled the knife out and raised it above his head once more. He looked frenzied as if he hardly believed what he’d done. “Now I guess it’s time to finish the job,” he said shrilly.

The door suddenly burst open and a man flung himself into the room. Pouncing on Burt, he brought his knee up to the big man’s chest with a dull thud, while one of his hand’s gripped Burt’s hair. Burt swung the knife around, slashing wildly. He succeeded at slicing his attacker’s arm. But the man on top of Burt seemed to take no notice of the wound. He pounded with his fists and grappled with Burt’s knife hand. “Leave my daughter alone!” he cried.

Staring up at the two fighting men with glazed eyes, Miss Fairbanks saw that the man attacking Burt was her father. His face was twisted in a grimace of grief as he continued to swing wildly at the bigger man.

Burt swung again with his knife, cutting her father’s arm once more. Miss Fairbanks, gasped, causing the pain in her wounded side to rise up in agonizing proportions. The two men were now face to face, and for a minute it looked like her father would succeed at getting the knife off the bigger man. But then Burt broke free, and started to swing the knife down at her father’s heart.

“Excuse me,” said a mild, incredibly calm voice from behind her father. And suddenly Mr. Brek was there, gently pushing her father out of the way! He caught Burt’s knife hand and easily twisted the weapon out of Burt’s hand. Then he casually picked up Burt—all 200 pounds of him—as if he was picking a piece of paper off the sidewalk. Turning, Mr. Brek threw Burt toward the far wall, fully ten feet away, where he crashed with a rather sickening, crunching sound. He fell and lay at the foot of the wall, where he remained very still.

“Lydia!” cried her father as he leaned over her, his eyes wide and terrified. “You’re hurt!” He gaped down at the widening swath of blood that was making its way across her dress. He was completely heedless of the blood that was soaking his own arm.

“Miss Fairbanks!” cried Heather, coming up behind him. In another instant Mr. Brek was there gazing down at her as well. He looked pained, and at the sight of her glazed eyes and wound he suddenly appeared very weak, as if even lifting a feather would now be too much for him.

Miss Fairbanks smiled up at them all. “Hello, father,” she choked in a strangled voice. “It’s good to see you again. It’s been such a long time …”

“Don’t talk Lydia,” said her father, stroking her hair. “An ambulance will be here soon.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” said Miss Fairbanks, trying to act casual. She frowned as their images swam dizzyingly in front of her eyes and began to fade. Her breathing was raspy and didn’t sound good at all.

“You know,” she said weakly, “I always wished it had been me. I always wanted that so bad. After all, I was the one that caused it. It was completely my fault. Why should anyone else have to suffer?” She paused, trying to catch her breath as everything started to go dark.

“Don’t talk, Lydia,” said her father urgently, his voice trembling with pain. “Save your strength. Help is on the way.”

Miss Fairbanks coughed, apparently not having heard him. “And finally it happened,” she continued, whispering gently as a tiny smile stole across her face. “Finally it really happened.” She paused. “Finally it was me.” Her head lolled back and she suddenly became very still.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

Silence reigned at Inner City Junior High School. The students were still in attendance and classes proceeded as normal, but there was silence nonetheless. There was amazing, impossible silence in the halls as students passed quietly to their various classes. Usually there were screams, shouts and acts of brutality in these halls. The transformation was astounding.

There was silence in the classrooms while students studied from their books, wrote out their various papers and assignments, or (in the case of most students) stared stupidly out the windows, doing nothing. Usually there was chaos, profanity and endless bullying in these classes. Once more, the transformation was unbelievable.

There was silence on the school grounds as students traveled to and from school. There was silence on the buses which normally were more dangerous to ride in than a walk in Central Park after midnight. There was silence in the lunch room as students grimaced while eating a variety of foods they could not always identify. In all his ten years at Inner City Junior High School, Principal Clyde had never seen anything quite like this.

There was silence everywhere, and for good reason. In a hospital a few miles away, Miss Lydia Fairbanks was fighting for her life and everyone knew it.

Most of the kids at Inner City Junior High School were not the praying type. But what had happened to Miss Fairbanks changed this. As the students silently went about their business, if they weren’t praying they were certainly wishing with all their hearts that by some miracle she would pull through.

The details of Miss Fairbank’s knife wound were grisly. Most of the attending physicians considered it a miracle she had even arrived at the hospital alive. The majority of them shook their heads grimly when asked about her chances for survival, and refused to say a word. Perhaps most telling of all, the hospital admissions office chose to place her in the ward that was most frequently visited by the local morgue. The exit was closer and handier for them to remove the bodies of those whose sojourn on earth had ended. It was widely assumed by many that Miss Fairbanks would soon be joining them.

Hospital staff were mystified by the attraction the frail, little woman seemed to have on a never ending stream of youth. Morning, mid-day and evening, young, school-aged teens came to visit in large numbers. They were not allowed to see her of course. They simply milled around outside her room, moody, grim-faced and silent. So many flowers were brought for her that a special flower cart had to be arranged outside her door to receive them all. From the look of some of the young people who brought them, there was little doubt many of the flowers were not obtained in a legal way. But they were brought nonetheless.

Two men sat grimly outside her door, day and night. One was old and slight, stooped with age and sporting grey hair and a small bald spot at the top of his head. His arm was bandaged and it was obvious he should have been home recovering in his own bed rather than risking his recovery by staying here. The other man was built like a tank, easily dwarfing his comrade. He rarely moved or spoke. Mostly he just sat and stared emptily into space. Once in awhile he would pull out a worn piece of paper from his pocket and look at it. Then with a sigh he would fold it up and put it back again, returning to his endless staring.

It was the business letter he had written on his first day in Miss Fairbanks’ class.

On the morning of the third day, the attending doctor reported to Miss Fairbanks’ room as normal. Her condition appeared to be the same—critical condition, 24 hour monitoring by staff, check-ups every hour. With gentle, trained hands, he examined the wound and then checked her vital signs. He sat for some time examining the data before him. When he came out of her room he found three men waiting for him there. Principal Clyde had come down to check on her progress, which he did several times a day.

“Well?” said all three men at once. The doctor looked at them for a moment, then said, “It may be too early to tell, but it seems her vital signs have improved slightly. We’ll be monitoring the situation, and will keep you posted.” He then quickly walked away, ignoring the other questions they fired at him, since such questions were unknown and unanswerable.

News of the possible good turn swiftly reached the school. Students started to leave en masse, heading for the hospital. Their departure was not authorized of course, and when Principal Clyde returned to the school and was made aware of it he instructed Mrs. Jenkins to make the usual ‘sluff’ calls to parents. But as the number of sluffers increased to more than half the school, he was forced to have her stop. It was obvious the students were not dodging school out of laziness. They were simply heading to the hospital in the hope that somehow their collective presence would help Miss Fairbanks in her recovery.

The city news desk somehow got wind of what was going on, and a reporter and camera crew were dispatched. Usually the opportunity of celebrity status from being on the news would have turned these teenagers into a rowdy bunch of yelling attention-getters. To the amazement of this news crew however, they found themselves largely ignored. They performed a quick investigation and learned the unthinkable, astounding fact that this throng of students was from none other than Inner City Junior High School, which had the reputation of being the toughest, most brutal school in the state. And equally unheard of, the students had come en masse, openly sluffing their classes, to honor a tiny, weak little teacher who obviously lacked the capacity to handle such rough, unreachable students. Even more amazing, this ridiculous teacher had organized something called the ‘loser’s club’ at the school, which seemed to be highly regarded in spite of its hideous name. In fact, several of the students were proudly wearing buttons that said either “I’m one of Miss Fairbanks’ losers” or simply “I’m a loser.” The buttons had been invented and quickly distributed since the stabbing (This was Heather’s idea).

In short, the story was instant news gold, since it told something so unusual it was almost unbelievable.

The silent vigil of milling, swarming students (who made it very difficult for hospital staff to perform their duties) continued on into the evening. For awhile in fact it looked like it might go on all night, and a large number of annoyed parents started calling the equally annoyed police in droves.

But then the official news came from the attending doctor. Miss Fairbanks had definitely improved. Her condition had finally stabilized after three days. She would live!

The mood among the milling students at the hospital was euphoric. There was so much noise and pandemonium the police had to be called to break up the cheering, back-slapping, yelling students. Families of other dying patients in the ward were appalled. But for the first time in three days many of the students, as well as the two men who had kept vigil at her door, were able to go home and sleep at last. And the 10:00 o’clock evening news had a rare happy report for its viewers, rather than the usual stream of robberies, murders and mayhem.

The change in mood at Inner City Junior High School the next day was truly astounding. Where before the somber mood had made the school seem like a morgue, now it was a madhouse. As hard as it usually was for teachers to keep order in their classrooms, today it was impossible. Fortunately however, the teachers didn’t mind since they were as happy at Miss Fairbanks’ improvement as the students.

Principal Clyde was giddy with relief and pleasure that he hadn’t lost another one of his teachers. He was so happy that his lumbago didn’t hurt as bad as usual, and he didn’t grumble like normal when he had to substitute in all of Miss Fairbanks’ classes for the entire day, since he couldn’t find a substitute. And for once the students treated him with marginal respect. Each class wildly carried on with the prosecution of the ‘B’ Hall smoocher case, largely ignoring Principal Clyde’s presence in the classroom as they empanelled a jury and made their arguments to the court. It was one of the most pleasurable and relaxing days Principal Clyde had ever experienced at Inner City Junior High School, as he watched students he normally considered hopeless and worthless making impressive arguments to the jury about the guilt or innocence of the smoocher.

Although Miss Fairbanks was definitely on the mend, she still had not regained consciousness. The constant stream of students who came to see her—including Brent Llewelyn—were all unhappily turned away. Mr. Fairbanks and Mr. Brek resumed their vigil outside her door, waiting for her to waken.

And on the morning of the fifth day, she did! As she slowly opened her blurry eyes, she found herself looking into the face of the man who had so long haunted her dreams. It was the luck of Mr. Fairbanks that a nurse had let Mr. Fairbanks into his daughter’s room where he could sit and just hold her hand. The nurse had let him do this twice before, and he always jumped at the chance when it was offered to him.

The older man’s eyes were moist as he held his daughter’s hand and looked deeply into her eyes. “Oh, Lydia! I’m so glad you’re alive! I was so worried!” Before she could respond tears sprang to his eyes, and he said pleadingly, “Will you ever forgive me for what happened twenty years ago? I didn’t mean to do it! I was drunk and didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t mean to pull the trigger! I didn’t even realize the gun was loaded! I would never knowingly have hurt her or you! Will you ever forgive me? Will you ever forgive me?”

Miss Fairbanks smiled weakly. “It’s all right father,” she said in a faint voice. “I understand what happened. Of course I forgive you. How could I not forgive you after you just saved my life? And after all, I was the one who caused what happened twenty years ago.”

Mr. Fairbanks was weeping unashamedly, but looked up at her in surprise. “But, Lydia, you didn’t do anything wrong!” he exclaimed. “You didn’t cause it! What made you think you did?”

Miss Fairbanks looked at him, a puzzled expression on her face. “You and mother were arguing about me,” she said simply. “It never would have happened if not for me.”

“Lydia, that’s foolishness!” cried her father. “You didn’t pull the trigger—I did. You didn’t want it to happen and you didn’t cause it to happen! Oh, my little one, you should never think you were the cause. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t you.”

Unable to speak further, he could do little more than make Miss Fairbanks’ bedding soggy with his tears, and tenderly stroke her hand while she continued to stare at him with a confused look on her face.

“But it had to have been me,” she said softly. “You were just provoked. That’s why I couldn’t write to you all those years, and tried to believe you’d died. I provoked you and betrayed you and killed you too—”

“That’s not true!” cried Mr. Fairbanks, startling Lydia with his abruptness. “You didn’t provoke me, little one. I don’t remember any such thing at all! It wasn’t you that caused it. It just simply wasn’t.”

Miss Fairbanks looked at her father for a long moment, as if a thick fog was lifting from her mind. The idea that she was the cause had lived so long in her mind that it could not be expelled easily. Finally she whispered, “Perhaps who caused it isn’t the issue, father. Perhaps all that matters now is to forgive. And I forgive you, if you will forgive me—”

“Oh, Lydia, I forgive you!” cried her father. “Even though there’s nothing that I need to forgive you for. I only hope you can forgive me!” He was weeping so hard his shirt collar was permanently stained.

Miss Fairbanks smiled weakly. “Forgiveness,” she said simply. “That’s what we need, isn’t it, father? We forgive each other, and we forgive ourselves. We don’t hold anyone at fault anymore, not even ourselves. And then we do more than that. We forget too. We both forgive AND forget. And then it is no more.”

Mr. Fairbanks could not reply, but continued to hold his daughter’s hand in a death grip. They remained like that for quite some time, father and daughter finally reunited after the tragedy that had torn them apart seemingly forever. Neither spoke, since words were needless. The peace that finally rested between them seemed deeper than life itself.

Finally a nurse entered, and upon seeing Miss Fairbanks awake quickly grabbed Mr. Fairbanks by the shoulders and steered him from the room. “She needs her rest,” she said gently to the still weeping man. But just as she succeeded at getting the old gentleman out, Mr. Brek slipped in. With two quick steps of his large legs he was at her side.

“Miss Fairbanks!” he said with a smile. “My oldest and dearest friend! It’s good to see you alive!”

Miss Fairbanks smiled. “Thank you for saving me,” she said softly. Then she added, “You are my oldest and dearest friend, you know. And because we’re such old friends, you should start calling me Lydia. And I should start calling you …” She looked up at him curiously. “I don’t believe I ever caught your first name.”

Mr. Brek looked suddenly very self conscious. “Yes, well …” he stammered. “It’s not a name I give out much …” She looked at him expectantly, and he knew there was no way to avoid it. “It’s Throckmorton,” he said, wincing as he said it. “I don’t know what my parents were thinking. All through school I was known as Throck the jock.”

Miss Fairbanks was still smiling. “I like that name,” she said. “Throckmorton. Very substantial. It fits you.”

A big, goofy grin spread over Mr. Brek’s face, and he now started fidgeting so badly with his hands that he nearly knocked Miss Fairbanks IV apparatus over. Meanwhile the nurse had returned and shooed him from the room. And she wasn’t as nice about doing it as she’d been with Mr. Fairbanks. “Get out, you big lumox!” she said, pushing at Mr. Brek, trying to get him to the door. It was like a feather trying to push a boulder, and the nurse started pounding the big man with her fists. Mr. Brek apparently didn’t even feel it. He gave Miss Fairbanks one last silly smile, then fled from the room.

The next few days were among the most difficult the hospital staff had ever experienced. There was a constant stream of visitors to see Miss Fairbanks. Students came in droves, and some of them wouldn’t leave until hospital security was called. Flowers continued to arrive in such numbers that a second and third flower cart had to be obtained. A large number of these flowers were from Mr. Brek, who all the nurses had renamed “Lumox.” News reporters also seemed to be constantly prying around, trying to keep the story alive by interviewing anyone who would talk, and trying like mad to get an interview with Miss Fairbanks. She was appalled at their presence and steadfastly refused to talk to any of them.

To the surprise of Miss Fairbanks’ doctor, one of the first people she asked about after regaining consciousness was her attacker, Mr. Sage. Bizarre as it sounded, she was worried whether he’d survived being thrown against the wall by Mr. Brek. “After all,” she pointed out to the dumfounded doctor, “he was drunk at the time and didn’t exactly know what he was doing. That’s not an excuse for his behavior of course, but I do hope he’s all right.” The doctor assured her he was alive and well (but with two cracked ribs), and was in custody.

Brent Llewelyn visited her the next day. He appeared at her door suddenly, and entered the room quiet as a mouse.

“It’s good to see you again, Brent,” said Miss Fairbanks with a smile as the boy came into the room. For some reason his brow was creased in a frown, as he slowly approached his teacher’s bedside. Looking into his eyes, Miss Fairbanks could see that something was wrong.

“What is it?” she asked in concern, trying to rise, then sinking down in pain. “You’re not in trouble are you? You’re not moving away?”

Brent shook his head. “No, nothin’ like that,” he said slowly. His eyes looked tormented as he gazed down at his teacher’s bandaged frame. Suddenly before she could say anything he blurted, “It’s all my fault! This whole thing was because of me! You never should have spoken to me that first day after class! Then none of this would have happened!”

“Brent!” said Miss Fairbanks in surprise. “How can you say such a thing? You’re one of my very best friends! I’m extremely grateful I spoke to you that day, and got to know you.”

“Yeah, well I’m not,” said Brent with a scowl. His eyes were very moist, and he couldn’t seem to bring himself to look Miss Fairbanks in the eye. “I’m the cause of it all. Burt never would have attacked you if it hadn’t been for me.”

“Oh, Brent, you’ve got it all wrong!” said Miss Fairbanks. “I’ve learned recently that when something bad like this happens, we should never blame ourselves for it or assume it was our fault. While we may have some influence on other people around us, what each person does in the end is their own, unique choice. You clearly had no intent to harm me, so how can you possibly be blamed for any harm caused by someone else? Besides, regardless of what we or others do, and regardless of who is at fault, we have to forgive and move on. Blaming just keeps wounds open, while forgiveness heals. You did nothing wrong at all. And anyway, it turned out all right in the end. I’ll be back to school soon, with no harm done.”

Brent looked at her with forlorn eyes. “You’re really going to be ok?” he asked in a pleading voice.

“Absolutely,” said Miss Fairbanks. “They’re treating me very well here, and I’m getting stronger every day. My only regret is that it’s taking so long to get better. I miss my students, and I miss our after school club meetings.”

“Yeah, the loser’s club still meets every day after school,” said Brent with a slight smile. “The first days you were in here, most of the school showed up, and we had to meet in the lunch room. Jared makes sure everybody keeps the rules.”

“How is Jared?” asked Miss Fairbanks. “He was very brave that day, in trying to protect us all.”

“He’s just as tough and mean as ever,” said Brent. “But in a good way. He’s never mean to any loser club members.”

Miss Fairbanks frowned. “I still don’t like the sound of that name very much. The loser’s club, of all things! I really think we ought to change it.”

“Are you kidding?” said Brent. He suddenly pulled a button out of his pocket. It was bright red and said happily “I’m a Loser!”

“My stars!” cried Miss Fairbanks, who had not seen one of the buttons before. “Who on earth thought up such a thing?”

“Heather,” said Brent. “Everyone’s wearing them—even Armpit Arnold! So you can’t change the club name now.” Miss Fairbanks smiled faintly.

“And you should see how many more comic characters there are on the walls of your room!” said Brent. “You can’t even see the real walls anymore. Even Principal Clyde put one up, of his favorite comic character Mr. Wilson, from ‘Dennis the Menace.’ He says he feels just like him most of the time.”

Suddenly Brent pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket. “I finally finished my drawing for your wall too,” he said. “Want to see it?”

“I’d love to,” said Miss Fairbanks with a happy smile. Slowly and carefully Brent smoothed the paper and held it out to her. “What do you think?” he asked.

“Why it’s lovely!” said Miss Fairbanks, looking intently at the picture of two cats that he was holding out to her. “But I don’t remember any comic characters like this.” She looked up at him. “Is one of these cats Isabel?”

Brent grinned and nodded. “They both are. I have a new cat named Isabel! My Mom says it’s ok now to have a cat, since Burt’s gone. She’s even come to like Isabel too, and pets her all the time. We got her from the shelter.”

Miss Fairbanks reached out a weak hand and took the picture. “I’ll treasure it, Brent. It’ll go on my wall right by my desk.” He smiled at her gratefully.

 

Miss Fairbanks’ recovery was rapid, and to the relief of hospital staff in two weeks time it was announced that she would be released the next day. This caused a large stream of visitors and well wishers to come to her room, creating consternation among hospital staff. Finally out of exasperation a creative nurse put a sign on her door that she had been moved to another room, and that the new occupant of the room had the black plague. The visits stopped abruptly.

Miss Fairbanks was sleeping peacefully that evening, a slight smile etched across her lips, when there was a scuffle at the door. Shreds of sleep dissipated from her mind like fog in the morning sun, as she heard a series of raised voices by people just outside her door.

“You can’t go in, you big lumox! Miss Fairbank has been moved. Do you want to catch the black plague?”

“I know she’s in there! I’ve been here almost constantly for the last 24 hours and I know she never came out that door! So unless you tossed her out the window, she’s in there!”

“Well, whether she’s in there or not, you can’t go in! Mabel, Clarice, come quick! The lumox is trying to get in!”

“I’ve GOT to see her! It’s IMPORTANT!”

“Whatever it is can wait! She needs to sleep well before going back to that horrible neighborhood and school where she lives and works. Now get out of here!” This was followed by the sound of fists beating on thick flesh.

“But I’ve GOT to see her. I can’t wait until tomorrow!”

“Do we have to call security, you big dummy! Go away! Shoo! Be gone!” More sounds of fists beating on flesh.

“I can’t wait! I have something to give her.”

“What could you possibly have to give her that’s worth all this fuss, you big oaf?” Yet more sounds of fists on flesh.

THIS is what I have to give her!!”

The beating of fists on flesh stopped abruptly, and there was a moment of silence. This was followed by:

“My stars!”

“Oh, my goodness!”

“Well, I’ll be …”

By this time Miss Fairbanks had become thoroughly engrossed in the conversation, and was beside herself at not being able to see whatever Mr. Brek was showing the nurses.

“Well girls, what do you think? Should we let him in? It is against the rules, you know.” Unintelligible mumbling continued for a minute, and then the door suddenly clicked open.

“Mr. Brek!” said Miss Fairbanks as the big bouncer entered the room, followed by three nurses. These were the very nurses who usually had cross looks on their faces whenever he was around, but for some reason they now looked like giddy little school girls. One of them actually giggled in a very un-nurse-like way, while the other two wore smiles so big it looked like their faces would crack.

“What on earth is going on?” asked Miss Fairbanks in alarm, fearful that somehow Mr. Brek had tricked the nurses into taking a swig of something alcoholic he had brought from his bar.

“Oh … nothing, Lydia,” said Mr. Brek in an unusually high-pitched voice that sounded almost like that of a five-year-old girl. Miss Fairbanks’ eyes opened wide. Had he been drinking too?

“I have something to give you,” he said in the same squeaky, high-pitched voice. Then he casually tossed something on the bed in front of Lydia.

“How crass!” cried one of the nurses, suddenly frowning. “Tossing it on the bed!”

“Just like a lumux, to do it that way!” cried another angrily.

Mr. Brek turned and shooed the annoyed nurses from the room. “This is private, ladies,” he said fiercely. To Miss Fairbanks’ surprise, they didn’t start hitting him again, nor did they try to come in after he’d shut the door.

Miss Fairbanks looked down at the object that had been tossed on her blanket. It was a box of M&M candies.

She smiled up at him. “You didn’t need to bring me more candies, Throckmorton,” she said. “I think I’ve gained five pounds from all you’ve brought me over the last week!”

“Open it!” said Mr. Brek, his voice continuing in the high-pitched, girly squeak. He was wringing his hands and had started to sweat even though it was rather cool in the room.

“What on earth …?” said Miss Fairbanks as she opened the box and poured its contents on the blanket. No candies came out, but a gold ring with a large diamond did.

“Mr. Throckmorton!” cried Miss Fairbanks nonsensically, her eyes opening wide.

Mr. Brek swung down on one knee, grabbed Miss Fairbanks tiny hand and said in a rush, “Lydia, I know you want to just be friends and nothing more. And I haven’t forgotten what you said about how there’s nothing between us. But I was wondering if a couple of friends with nothing between them could maybe get married.”

There was a moment of total silence as Miss Fairbanks stared up at Mr. Brek, her eyes filling with tears. Then she suddenly rose up (somewhat painfully) and gave him a kiss.

“I believe that could work, Mr. Brek Throckmorton,” she gibbered. Suddenly she realized he was starting to look rather blurry, as her eyes gushed over.

And from the door, three watching nurses smiled happily. “The lumox did all right,” said one of them. The other two just nodded in agreement.

 

The next day, Miss Fairbanks was released from the hospital. Mr. Brek’s smile was so wide as he pushed her wheelchair out to a waiting car that it looked like half of the grand canyon had transplanted itself to his face. The majority of the students from Inner City Junior High were there to meet her as she emerged from the hospital, and they let up such a cheer that every sleeping resident of the hospital was grumpily roused from restful slumber. Every one of the waiting students was sporting one of the shiny, red “I’m a Loser!” buttons, and several of them (Heather, Melvin and Ella as it turned out) were holding up a big banner that read “Congratulations Miss Fairbanks—soon to be Mrs. Brek!” News of the engagement had swept through the student body like a wave on a sandy beach, and everyone now knew for sure that no one would ever say anything unkind to their writing teacher, or even dare to call her “ugly,” if they wanted to keep their skulls intact.

Not surprisingly, Miss Fairbanks was determined to return to her classes at Inner City Junior High School without delay. But of course, doctor’s orders insisted that she not do so for another week, since she was required to rest no matter how much she didn’t want to. The visits to her run-down little apartment by Mr. Brek, her father, Principal Clyde and a stream of students helped greatly to pass the time, although they were also a great annoyance to her landlady. Mr. Brek was the most frequent visitor, bringing so many flowers that the landlady started to complain the apartment smelled like a perfume shop. And as the day for Miss Fairbanks to return to school approached, the big oaf started acting downright giddy, as if he had a grand secret he was unwilling to share with anyone. Poor Miss Fairbanks could not imagine what further surprise he could possibly be keeping from her.

And then the blessed day arrived. As Miss Fairbanks approached the front doors of Inner City Junior High School, she was surprised to see modern, metal detector booths at all the entrance doors, designed to prevent guns and knives from being brought into the school.

“And it’s all because of you, Miss Fairbanks!” said a smiling Principal Clyde as he greeted her. “You’ll be happy to know that the publicity from your stabbing and near death finally accomplished one of my long-standing budget requests! It’s guaranteed to make the school a whole lot safer!”

“Well then,” Miss Fairbanks replied giddily, “I’ll try to get stabbed more often.”

Principal Clyde suddenly looked very grave as the blood drained from his face. “Please promise me you WON’T do that!” he said earnestly.

A throng of milling students in the entrance foyer nearly deafened Miss Fairbanks as she came into the building. A large banner stretched above the hall which proclaimed in large red letters, “Welcome Home Miss Fairbanks!!” She looked around shyly, and was extremely embarrassed by all the attention. She was touched that once again almost every student was wearing one of the new “I’m a loser” buttons, which had become quite fashionable. She had no doubt the loser club after school today would need to meet in the lunch room.

The students clapped for her all the way to her classroom. At her entrance door was a smiling Mr. Brek—and to Miss Fairbanks shock he was wearing sweats and a T-shirt!

“I’m the new gym coach!” he beamed at her as she looked up at him in surprise. “Couldn’t stand outside a bar for the rest of my life!”

So that was his grand surprise! A smiling Principal Clyde was standing next to his new monster coach. “Since I hired him, my gout has got a lot better!” he said happily.

The applause continued as Miss Fairbanks entered her first period class. All the regulars were there, of course. Armpit Arnold, Slapface, the girl with tattoo ears, the boy with purple hair. They were anxious to tell her the outcome of the ‘B’ Hall smoocher trial—in which purple hair had been found guilty! (And he admitted it, too)

Miss Fairbanks stood smiling in shy embarrassment in front of the classroom as the roar gradually subsided. Then as her students and the onlookers from the door watched expectantly, she threw her arms wide in one of her well-known needless gestures. “Today I feel just like Bilbo Baggins returning to the shire,” she said happily. “And all I can say is what another hobbit said at the end of the Lord of the Rings—”

“Well, I’m back!’”

 

OTHER BOOKS BY THE AUTHOR:

Adult Fiction

 

Crazy Pete

On a dark night in a lonely park in LA, crazy old Pete saves a teenager named Kelly from a suicidal encounter with a street gang. While Kelly initially resists Pete’s kindness, he is gradually drawn into the life and service of his unusual mentor—a lifestyle of total concentration on others, and forgetting of himself. But even Crazy Pete has secrets, and one day, with a shock, the boy learns the terrible history of Pete’s past that turned him into the saint he has become.

My Name is Kate and I Just Killed My Baby

Kate’s journal begins with a very simple entry. “I like pizza and ice cream and going on dates and watching funny movies. I like to swim and text on my phone and go skiing in the winter. Oh, and there’s one more thing you should know about me. I just killed my baby.” Join Kate as she struggles with the aftermath of having an abortion, and the nightmare she never dreamed would follow.

Running for the Guv

Blake Guv is a starving young attorney fresh out of law school, desperately trying to get new clients. In a mad gamble to obtain some publicity he foolishly enters the race for Governor of his state as an independent candidate. But when a series of unexpected events shove him to the front of the race, Blake is appalled at the prospect he just might win—since he hates politics with a passion!

Santa v Afton

Shortly before Christmas the tiny town of Afton is shocked when everyone is sued by a man claiming to be Santa Claus. His lawsuit is for wrongfully ‘firing’ him from his delivery job, since he can only come to people who believe. With less than two weeks until Christmas, will Santa’s lawsuit convince them to change their minds?

Nonfiction

The Anti Stupidity Book

This book discusses six fundamentals of stupidity that lead to the stupid choices we see all around us. These include the belief that there are no moral values, that God does not exist, and that it is acceptable to become addicted and to treat others badly and be proud. In the end we see that the only sure way to avoid and overcome stupidity is through the saving power of Jesus Christ.

The Ninth Amendment: Key to Understanding the Bill of Rights

This book explains how the Ninth Amendment is the key to understanding rights in the United States. The founders created the Ninth Amendment to protect unlisted natural law rights as they were understood in their day. This amendment was never intended to allow future generations to create new rights. Rather, it was to safeguard the morality and natural rights of the founding generation.

Our Sex Saturated Society

Modern society is obsessed with sex. This obsession has led to extreme results that would be considered appalling by prior generations, such as: rampant premarital sex which increases AIDS while decreasing trust and commitment between partners; gays/lesbians elevating sex to such an extreme it has become their god; and abortions in which innocent unborns are yanked out piece by piece.

False Worlds

A false world is like an apple full of worms. It appears juicy and attractive on the outside, but is in fact disgusting on the inside. This book discusses a number of false worlds masquerading as truth but which are in fact false to their core. Included are the false worlds of politics, international relations, law, sexual confusion (premarital sex, abortion and gayness), entertainment and pride.

The First Auto Laws in the United States (Under pen name “Ansel Hatch”)

Stopping speeders by throwing logs in front of their car? Having a man walk in front of the car waving a red flag, to warn it is coming? Putting the initials of the driver on a piece of metal to act as his license plate? Giving a driver’s license to anyone who has the use of both arms? These are but a few examples from this book of the first laws dealing with new-fangled automobiles.

Juvenile Fiction

My Science Teacher is a Wizard

Fifth grader Blake Drywater has a new wizard science teacher, who promptly turns Blake’s class into roaches and earthworms. But Blake soon learns there is more than science going on in his classroom. An evil wizard is seeking a powerful potion his teacher has made. And when Blake is given the potion soon thereafter, he finds himself facing problems far harder than any science exam! Book 1 of ‘The Stewards of Light’ series.

My Math Teacher is a Vampire

Blake Drywater and his fellow unfortunate students at Millard Fillmore Middle School once more find themselves facing an unexpected creature in one of their classes. Because of a sudden ‘neck disorder’ suffered by their math teacher, Blake and his classmates receive a chilling substitute. His name is Mr. Coagulate, who has a strange fascination with blood and dreams. Book 2 of ‘The Stewards of Light’ series.

Detectives in Diapers: They Mystery of the Aztec Amulet

Flo and Mo are not ordinary babies. Although they are only fourteen months old, they can use a computer, trick any mindless adult they want, and help their goofy detective father solve baffling crimes. Then a mysterious girl comes to their father, claiming that her grandmother has disappeared. Will the babies’ superior brains be able to solve the mystery and save their bumbling parents?

Cloud Trouble

Inventor Uncle Ned has discovered that clouds are alive and can be transformed into common objects. He gives his nephew Talmage a cloud turned into a pen, with the assignment to see what it says and does. However, Talmage soon learns that THIS cloud is nothing but trouble since it insults everyone they meet! And since no one believes pens can talk, they think Talmage is the one saying the insults!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Duane L. Ostler was raised in Southern Idaho, where the wind never stops. He has lived in Australia, Mexico, Brazil, China, the big Island of Hawaii, and—most foreign of all—New Jersey. He has driven an ice cream truck, sold auto parts, been a tax collector, and sued people as an attorney. He has also obtained a PhD in legal history. He and his wife have five children. If you would like to contact Mr. Ostler you can reach him at: mailto:[email protected]


Miss Lydia Fairbanks and the Losers Club

Frail, timid Miss Lydia Fairbanks is the newest teacher at Inner City Junior High School, the deadliest school in the state. While the school principal believes she won't last a day, Miss Fairbanks quickly surprises everyone by not only surviving in the midst of her killer students, but actually thriving in the classroom. But even someone as weak and small as Miss Fairbanks can harbor troubling secrets from the past, which threaten to destroy her …

  • Author: Duane L. Ostler
  • Published: 2016-04-26 01:40:09
  • Words: 60074
Miss Lydia Fairbanks and the Losers Club Miss Lydia Fairbanks and the Losers Club