In the movies or on TV, school always came off as exciting and/or sadistic. Bullies were blatant and outwardly evil and the teachers always turned a blind eye to the suffering of the smaller kids.
Miranda’s experience was that kids were much more subtle at torturing each other, everyone felt insecure and the teachers were just really busy.
The front doors of Union High School looked like Victorian church doors, complete with stained glass (underneath protective glass and steel mesh.) Two stone lions sat on either side of the concrete stairs. Some quick internet research revealed they’d originally been installed in front of the Dillwyn town hall, a richer town twenty miles west. Some farmers had stolen the lions thirty years ago, each on a separate weekend. Apparently no one had bothered to take them back. Now they added some class to the school.
Cindy waved at Miranda and ran off. Miranda didn’t even get a chance to wave back. She went up the stairs to the school, slipping past two arguing seniors. The front doors were propped open, which was good because they were heavy and warped. Just inside the door vice-principle Brook did her usual nodding at everyone, as if to say, “There is an official presence here.”
No one knew Brook’s first name. She gave Miranda the thumbs up, which Miranda assumed was a sort of hello, since she couldn’t think of any other reason to do it. Miranda waved in return.
The High School halls were worn. The wall cracks were painted over but still lingered beneath the grey paint. The red linoleum had faded to pink-salmon and was cracked in patterns that looked like retinal veins. The lockers had so many coats of paint they stuck shut, especially in the summer.
Miranda usually didn’t talk to anyone when she entered the school, making a beeline for her locker while staring determinately at the floor.
Kids weren’t as bad out in the halls, where teachers could catch them. It was easy to tattle when they hit you or took your stuff. It was much harder to prove mean words.
Still, she kept to herself, waved at a few people so as not to be too insulated. Insulated wasn’t ‘normal’ and kids who didn’t talk to anyone attracted more attention than the loud ones. Dad once said, “Act like people like you and they will.”
Miranda kept a map of the school in her head with likely locations of key people. Principle Wodzinski would be in the teachers’ lounge. Mr. Hanson would be sneaking a cigarette back by the track.
Her locker was on a small side hallway, but fortunately close to the main strip. She didn’t want to be down at the dark dead end. Bobby Hanson’s was way down at the end. He flinched whenever anyone turned in his direction. Maybe Dad was right. If she acted more like Bobby, she’d really be a pariah. She wished she could teach Bobby her equation for responding to questions and jokes. Just smile and repeat back the last half of what they said. Then people generally left her alone.
Cindy wasn’t quite the social pariah that Miranda was, but other kids talked about her behind her back, for all she noticed.
She couldn’t figure out what anyone wanted from each other. No one ever said what they meant, even the teachers. Everything was caged in sarcastic language. Miranda wasn’t good with sarcasm.
Her locker stuck, but she pressed her foot against the edge and pried it open. She fitted her books on the wooden shelf she’d built for the bottom of her locker. The fake cardboard wall made a dull hollow sound. She smiled.
She’d smuggled it in, piece by piece after painting it to match the rest of the locker. She’d never thought of anything to hide behind it, but it was fun knowing it was there.
First class was History, just down the hall. Then she could swing back past the locker for her mathematics book. When she thought about History class, an annoying part of her head added, “without Cindy.” She already found herself thinking of the next time she’d see her. Annoying.
The walk to class was uneventful, and her favorite seat was empty. She sat in the front, having decided best visual access to the board was a reasonable trade-in for people throwing stuff in her hair.
Aught was even worst than the last town in California. The kids here were suspicious of anyone with an IQ over 110.
It wasn’t like Miranda wanted to show anyone up, she just needed good scores to get into college. When she’d tried to explain that to Suzanne Wilkens, Suzanne said, “You don’t need a 4.0 to get into college.” Which was beside the point, really. Mr. Hanson had offered that with Miranda’s grades, she could go to college early. She worried that Dad would find the card from the college. She should have put it in her secret drawer.
But all that work made her the class uber-nerd. It wasn’t her fault she had good genes.
Her desk had a new carving. A little heart with “HI!” carved in the center. She frowned.
Mr. Walter was fun, and liked Miranda, but he ran his class like a circus. Each lesson was sort of an event. That was fun, but Miranda sometimes worried about Mr. Walter’s historical accuracy.
The shades were down and Mr. Walter was playing with a projector in the back of the classroom. Miranda double-checked the schedule in her head to make sure she hadn’t forgotten any assignments. She was a little surprised that Mr. Walter was showing a film. He usually warned them the day before.
Class filled with her fellow students. To Miranda’s quick analysis, thirty percent looked happy and engaged. Ten percent looked scared of everyone else. Fifty-sixty percent looked incredibly bored–those were the ones who usually sat in the back. She formed an equation to plot how many acted bored and how many were genuinely bored. It’d be easier if she had access to IQ records. She suspected the truly bored ones had very low IQ. She could see being bored when class wasn’t challenging, but how could anyone be bored in Mr. Walter’s class?
“And we sit!”
Miranda was already sitting, but everyone else found theirs. Mr. Walter never called anyone a kid or a student. Miranda respected his teaching methods, even though they could be a little stressful.
“You no doubt notice we have a surprise today. Watching a film causes the inability to take notes and is therefore less work than if we used a book.” Kids laughed. “I’ve cued this film after the titles and, without sound, we– ha ha ha, sorry– you have to identify the time period and the location.”
Other kids groaned, but Miranda was excited. She pulled out her notebook and pen. She’d made this notebook too, so every other page was covered in crossed-out pages from their printer. It reminded her of her investigation book. Cindy and the … bird thing dropped into her consciousness like ice water. She’d been in the Bauteil’s car! She could have interviewed them properly. Maybe she could try to get a ride back, but no, dad would probably be home by then.
The bottom of the desktop scratched her knees, which was weird. She’d surreptitiously measured the height of the desk last week when she was thinking about ergonomics. She’d thought it was a little too high then. She doubted she’d grown much in a week. Everyone was focused on Mr. Walter fighting with the projector. She leaned forward to look at the legs.
That explained it. It wasn’t the same desk. The legs were iron and swept forward in a sort of curl down to the floor. Actually, all of the desk-legs in the room were like that. Where had the school system gotten the money?
She sat back up and looked at the top of the desk. The “HI!” heart was new, but it still had the half moon carved in the top right corner, the one she always stuck her finger in while taking notes. She couldn’t figure out why they’d replace the legs and use the old desktops. When had they even had time to do this?
The projector started up, and Mr. Walter called out. “Someone get the lights.”