Sneak Preview: “The Man in Black” (1)

The next day started badly. Taylor got a text from Jill. She had woken up with a fever and a stomachache—probably the flu. She wouldn’t be going to school today. Taylor would have to walk to school without her. That wasn’t usually a problem except that, apart from lunch, the walk to and from school was the only time Taylor and Jill could properly make fun of their teachers and classmates. Some of them desperately needed making fun of.

Which led to Taylor’s second problem. At breakfast her dad practically begged her not to get into any more trouble with Mrs. Markowitz, her English teacher. The old biddy had it in for Taylor ever since last September, when she complained, often and audibly, about the novels they were reading. It only got worse when they started a unit on “Technical Writing” last month. Although it fulfilled all the requirements of the assignment, Taylor’s sample complaint letter to the Board of Education about the quality of teachers they were hiring might have hit a little too close to home. Now they had begun a unit on myths and fables—something Taylor actually enjoyed—but Mrs. Markowitz seemed determined to do her best to suck every last drop of wonder from the subject.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to let things go,” her dad said. “Seventh grade won’t last forever.”

“Are you sure about that?” she scoffed.

“Positive. Come here.” He opened his arms and invited Taylor to sit in his lap. Taylor didn’t move. Sometime before Christmas, she had decided she was too grown up for such things. Her dad gave her a sad expression. He wasn’t mad at her, she knew, he just didn’t know quite what to do with her now that she was officially a teenager.

Mom came to his rescue. “All we’re trying to say, honey, is that part of this is up to you. All of your teachers think very highly of you. They just wish you’d—”

“Apply myself? Take school more seriously?”

“Well, yes,” Dad said, dropping his arms. “Taylor, right now, school is your job, and you need to start thinking of it that way.”

“It would help if my ‘job’ weren’t so boring!”

Dad sighed. “Every job in the world is boring some of the time. Do you think doing people’s taxes is a nonstop thrill ride? Do you think Mom has a party every day as Mr. Caulfield’s office manager?”

“No.”

“I understand you haven’t had the greatest year in school, but you still have to go. So, if there’s no way around your problem, and no way over it or under it, you know what you have to do, right? You’re just going to have to put your head down and go straight through the middle of it.”

And with that pep talk, Taylor trudged off to another fun-filled day at Archibald Bulloch Middle School.

Uncle Waldo, the crazy old man in the black suit, was sitting on the park bench again, scaring away the pigeons. There was definitely something odd about that guy. Taylor had noticed him hanging out in the park for a couple of weeks now. All alone, never speaking to anyone except himself.

She picked up her pace the slightest bit. Not because she was scared of Uncle Waldo, of course, but because she really didn’t want to walk to school with Jill’s twin brother William, who was only a hundred yards behind her.

The real fun began when she got to school. Reggie Banks dropped a whole handful of sheet music in Chorus, so when Taylor finally got her copy, it had somebody’s dirty shoe print all over it. As she and her classmates sang “‘Tis the gift to be simple,” she tickled herself with the thought some people were apparently more gifted than others.

Everybody was late for first period because a couple of eighth-graders got in a fight in the hallway.

The pizza in the cafeteria was greasier than usual—but still a better option than the overcooked-and-always-too-salty barbeque sandwiches.

And Jill wasn’t around to help Taylor complain about any of it.

As might have been expected, third period was the worst. Mrs. Markowitz was in rare form. When the bell rang, she called Taylor up to her desk to discuss the homework assignment she had just returned.

“I give up,” she began. She didn’t even rise from her chair. “I’ve tried befriending you. I’ve tried encouraging you. I’ve tried having conferences with your parents. I’ve even tried threats. Nothing seems to get through to you.”

It was all Taylor could do not to grin at the ridiculous shade of red of her English teacher’s hair. The poor woman apparently didn’t want anyone to know she was gray—probably had been for the last fifty years—but she never managed to buy the same brand of hair dye twice. Today, her hair was more violently red than usual. Actually, it was bordering on purple. That was appropriate, Taylor thought, as it pretty much matched the color the veins on her face were turning.

“This should have been a simple assignment for a bright girl like you. All you had to do was write a three-page summary of the major gods of Greek mythology.”

“But that’s what I did,” Taylor protested. She held up her paper with the “C-” written across the top in very large, very angry red pen strokes. She resisted the urge to shove it in her teacher’s face.

Mrs. Markowitz scoffed. “Two pages and only three lines onto the third page!”

“It’s still three pages,” Taylor said.

“In sixteen-point type?”

“Fourteen, and I don’t remember you saying anything about font size when you gave the assignment.”

“It is assumed that papers are to be printed in twelve-point type.”

“Well, you know what they say about what happens when people assume.”

Mrs. Markowitz seethed. Taylor’s lips began to curl into a subtle grin. She absolutely hated her English teacher. Knowing she was getting under Mrs. Markowitz’s skin was like a shark smelling blood in the water.

“Taylor, why must you always behave as if you’re smarter than everyone else at this school—your teachers included?”

Taylor shrugged. An honest answer would not have been terribly diplomatic at that point. She congratulated herself on being able to hold her peace. Instead, she pushed on at her strongest angle of attack.

“Did I leave out any Greek gods that you consider to be ‘major,’ Mrs. Markowitz?”

“Of course not,” she said. “You got all the Olympians and several others beside. But—”

“And I notice you haven’t highlighted any spelling or grammar mistakes. So I take it you have no complaints in that area?”

“Miss Smart—”

“And you have to admit I gave you the three-page summary you asked for. The page numbers are all right there at the bottom. You never said we had to write three whole pages.”

“Don’t try to twist my words, Miss Smart. You know precisely what this assignment entailed. You could have done it properly in your sleep, yet—once again—it seems you’ve put more effort into intentionally misunderstanding my instructions than you have into completing your work. You’ll be off to high school in another couple of years, and I can assure you that coasting along on your natural intelligence and hoping for a passing grade with the least amount of effort won’t get you very far.”

“With all due respect, Mrs. Markowitz, why shouldn’t it? You only teach what’s going to be on the state assessment tests anyway.”

“That is not true!”

Then why couldn’t we ever do anything different? I’ve already read just about everything there is about Greek mythology in the public library. But every time I brought up any of the really cool stuff in class, you shut me down.”

“The ‘cool stuff’ as you call it is not suitable for a class full of impressionable twelve- and thirteen-year-olds.”

“That’s why I offered to write a summary of some other mythology. If the rest of the class needed the basics, then why not let me learn about the gods of the Egyptians or the Vikings? Anything but the same boring stuff I’ve already heard about since I first read The Children’s Homer!

“Miss Smart, we are not going to rehash that conversation—”

“Of course we’re not. Because the truth is, you only teach what the big shots in Atlanta tell you to. That’s why everybody in the seventh grade is doing the exact same lessons in the exact same way at the exact same time. Oh, you may say you want your students to be creative and love learning. Heck, you might even think you mean it. But let’s face it, Mrs. Markowitz, you just want us to score well on the test so you’ll look like you’ve done your job.”

“That is enough of that, Miss Smart!”

“I’m only following your exact words,” Taylor mumbled.

“And I’m only giving you the grade your pitiful efforts deserve.”

The two glared at each other for several tense seconds until students began to file into the classroom. “You’ll be late for your next class,” Mrs. Markowitz said. The conversation, it seemed, was over.

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