She was bent over her mathematics textbook, lost in effort, humming softly to herself. Her dark brown eyes would occasionally squint, her brow creasing, as she focused on the Algebra problem. Problem thirty-nine on page four hundred five. She had long since forgotten the page or the problem number: this particular problem she had focused on for three weeks now. The page the problem was on had been since partially torn and dog-eared, to go with the brown half-moon sliver of a soda can stain on it. All her doing.
The rest of the class was working on problem fourteen, on page one thirty-three. Melody didn’t hear when the teacher, Mrs. Lilywhite, called her name.
She stared at the problem. It was a normal one, an expression containing x’s and y’s and z’s, coupled with several integers, two of which were negative; it was a normal mathematics problem save for one symbol, one that, prior to several weeks ago, she had never seen before and struggled to believe actually existed, a symbol that was intensely sharp and radiant when first apprehended, but one that quickly faded in and out of focus, as if seen through a liquid curtain of burning tears. But right now, as she gawked at it, the symbol was piercingly clear. A symbol like a question mark, but without the period—and with an odd, pleasantly compelling curly-Q at its top. The first time she saw it she feared she was going crazy, was seeing things that just weren’t there.
In a mild panic, she had drawn the symbol as best she could and had shown it to her best friend, Yaeko Mitsaki. But Yaeko had never seen anything like it. Still not sure she wasn’t going insane, she faked symptoms of illness so her mother would take her to the doctor, who promptly pronounced her in the prime of health. Then it was the eye doctor, who later bragged to her mother that she actually had slightly better than 20:20 vision. Melody didn’t have the courage to fake outright lunacy in order to get her mother to schedule a visit to the psychiatrist. But it no longer seemed necessary: the only time she saw this symbol was here, in this Algebra textbook, and with this problem. And even then it took massive amounts of concentration….
As she focused the alien symbol began moving, changing shape, changing color even … even seemingly growing out of the page as a three-dimensional character, appearing wooden, then metallic, then clear and green as an emerald, an object brought to life by some magical woodworker or jeweler, from a remote, faraway time and place. She smiled absentmindedly even as she tried to grasp it with her mind, to try to make it do her bidding—
A large, beefy hand slammed down on her desk. “Miss Singleton!”
Mrs. Lilywhite loomed over her, her round fat face tight and red, an angry tomato threatening to burst. “When I ask you a question, young lady, you had better respond!”
Several of her classmates giggled nervously. Several others started whispering. She thought she could hear “freak” and “weirdo” and “dork” among the silenced hissing. This wasn’t the first time she had been caught like this, focusing on another problem, oblivious to the class—or the lesson. Mrs. Lilywhite leaned back, bringing her hands to her enormous cup-holder hips. “The answer, Miss Singleton?” Her self-righteous glare, coupled with the very slightest of sneers, told Melody that Mrs. Lilywhite already knew that asking the question was unnecessary.
She heard from a corner of the classroom: “It isn’t Melody Singleton, but Melody Simpleton.” Mrs. Lilywhite did nothing to quiet the harassers or the laughter that followed.
She swallowed hard, looking down and away from that oppressive glare, her face flushing with embarrassment. In a voice half whisper, half plea, she said, “I … Which problem are we working on?”
The classroom erupted. A fat boy, Tommy Heffledorf, who sat directly in front of her, slapped his hand on his desk. “Put her in special ed!”
“I think she already is!” another shot back.
A third remarked, “She’s too stupid to be here, Mrs. Lilywhite. Can’t you just move her to another classroom?”
Mrs. Lilywhite shook her head with professional disdain, pinning Melody like a butterfly to corkboard. Finally, after another minute of hostile noise, the volume of which was climbing by the second, she raised a hand and quieted her students. She eyed her down a wide, bulbous nose, on which a pair of old black cat glasses sat halfway, giving her a sharp, studied appearance, despite her considerable wide heft.
Melody softly closed her book. She knew what was coming: she had been warned a week ago—no, wait: three days ago—that if she was caught “napping” again in this advanced mathematics classroom she’d be moved to a lesser one. She had no doubt the boom was about to be lowered. Her face burned. She felt not an inch tall, but miles long, as if her body had been stretched painfully, unmercifully for all to see and laugh at. Her hands felt too large, her forehead too broad; her clothes clung to her, suddenly threadbare, suffocatingly tight, and woefully out of style.
Mrs. Lilywhite held her teacherly pose for two seconds longer than Melody thought she could bear. She stared down at her desk, waiting. Finally she heard: “This is a GATE class, young lady: Gifted and Talented Education. There is no time to wait for you to get your act together! Gather your belongings and come with me, please.”
She stood clumsily, jamming her Algebra text into her backpack, which was already stuffed full. She didn’t wait to zip it shut, but hurried after Mrs. Lilywhite, who was already walking out the classroom door. Her legs wobbled. She wanted desperately to disappear, to simply vanish. As she passed the front row, someone reached out and yanked hard on the open flap of the backpack. Her books spilled out, one after the other, falling loudly on the nearest desk, falling open on the floor. Her pencils and pens tumbled out as well. The closest students kicked them away from her as she went to grab them. The pages of several texts had been crushed; one page had torn down the middle.
“Melody Singleton, right this instant!”
The kids laughed louder. Melody came up—and bumped her head hard against the corner of the desk she was under while groping for her mathematics text—the most important one of all. More raucous laughing. She heard: “Loser!” “Look at her—she’s an idiot!” “Du-u-h!” “Buh-bye, freakazoid!” She stood, her head throbbing, fighting back the tears. She hadn’t grabbed all her books, or even most of them, but she had a death grip on her math text, and that was enough.
She hurried out the door to an impatiently waiting Mrs. Lilywhite. A wad of white notebook paper flew in a wide arc over her shoulder, bouncing ahead of teacher and student alike. Mrs. Lilywhite looked sternly back into the classroom. “The rest of you will do problems thirteen through thirty-seven, odds, on page one thirty-three. I will collect the work when I return to the room! Now get to work!”
The classroom groaned. Mrs. Lilywhite grabbed her arm. “Off to the principal. Let’s go—now.”
The wide hallway they walked down was empty and very quiet, save the classrooms they passed. The doors to those classrooms were closed, but still the muffled sounds of children talking or teachers lecturing filtered out to greet them. Mrs. Lilywhite grunted in disapproval any time she heard children talking or laughing behind the doors. It was an involuntary grunt, one that she was completely unaware of. She walked with a limp, the result of hip replacement surgery the year before, and Melody, now in the middle of a months-long growing spurt that had seen her add four inches to her lanky frame in a single year, had to shorten her stride to keep from walking ahead of her. Mrs. Lilywhite's limp made her look like a very well-fed zombie from Dawn of the Dead as she hobbled up and down the tomb-like depths of the hallways, her pasty white features and perpetual frown only complementing the effect. She released Melody’s arm, and now, between disapproving grunts, lectured her:
-grunt- “I’m sorry, my dear, this is the only way. I suspected all along you weren’t cut out for this class; I tried talking reason into Mr. Jefferson, I truly did, but he just wouldn’t back down. Thought you were the brightest thing since sunrise. Now I’m forced to have a word with him as well….”
-grunt- “It’s Sally Armitage’s Pre-Algebra for you, that’s where you’re headed next. I’ve done all I can …”
-grunt- “You are not allowed to daydream in GATE, young lady, though I suppose this is a moot point now. Yes, this will reflect poorly on you, Miss Singleton. Very poorly. Your mother will no doubt be quite disappointed….”
-grunt- “I know the kids can be harsh with you. But it’s for your own good. The real world is harsh. Get used to it. The sooner you realize that the sooner you’ll be able to succeed in it. In the meantime I am going to have the school counselor evaluate you for learning disorders. It’s way past time, in my professional opinion….”
-grunt- “... Lord, lord, lord …”
Mrs. Lilywhite stopped lumbering and lurching. She grunted again. Then again. Both grunts were much more authoritative than the others.
She was glaring into an oddity: a classroom whose door was wide open. The children inside were in groups and working on some project that involved large sheets of variously colored construction paper, cutting an assortment of shapes out of them, which were then pasted on large white pieces of cardboard for more work and eventual display. Other kids colored the shapes or drew interesting designs on them. The students laughed and talked as they worked; they laughed and talked freely, without fear of reprisal or humiliation. They weren’t unruly, but neither were they being perfect little angels. Every now and then Melody heard a deep, gentle male voice direct his charges back to work; a voice with an accent, though she didn’t know the accent’s culture of origin. English, perhaps? The noise level would drop temporarily before rising slowly once again. And—was that classical music she could barely hear? The workings inside the classroom looked like heaven on Earth to her—what she always imagined school to be like. It even looked bright and cheery. She cautiously craned her head to look closer.
At that moment the teacher appeared. He was a tall, broad man, his green eyes immediately intense. His hair was graying and short, still peppered with the remnants of a youth long since passed. He wore a closely cropped beard, also gray, attentively kept, that framed strong cheeks, making his eyes appear even more powerful. His eyebrows arched sharply over those eyes, giving him a devilish appearance, conveying a mocking disdain of all things petty and mortal. A sardonic smile formed on his lips. It seemed to say: Ah. Caught you kissing that boy behind the backstop again, did she? When he shifted his gaze to Mrs. Lilywhite the grin stayed, but was now colored with the slightest edge of contempt. “Is there a problem?” he asked. His voice was a low rumble, and that accent—English? Irish? He glanced back at Melody. “Who have we here?”
“Mr. Conor,” said Mrs. Lilywhite. “We didn’t mean to disturb you. It seems you have problems enough in your own room—” Her frown increased.
Mr. Conor looked over his shoulder at his students, then back into the hallway, his brow wrinkled in amused confusion. “No problems here, Mrs. Lilywhite. Is the noise bothering you?”
The round mass next to Melody stiffened. “You are still somewhat new here, so I’ll remind you that disciplinary policies clearly state that classroom doors are to remain closed during class time. I realize this is different than in the high school where you taught; do you not remember the meeting where this was agreed upon?”
Mr. Conor shook his head indifferently, crossed his arms, and leaned against the doorjamb, his solid form now blocking Melody’s view inside. It was quite clear: Mrs. Lilywhite didn’t intimidate him, not at all. This pleased Melody, who listened as he replied, “No. I must’ve missed that meeting.”
Mrs. Lilywhite tugged heavily on Melody’s shoulder, grunting, “Come along, Miss Singleton.” As she limped away, Melody firmly in tow, she retorted without looking back, “It looks as if some teachers are like students and have no regard for rules. Another thing to chat with Principal Mayfield about.”
From behind her came that deep male voice with an accent: “Have a nice day, Mrs. Lilywhite. And you too, my friend.”
Melody turned to smile at Mr. Conor, but was jerked so hard by the angry bulb next to her that she nearly fell over. Behind her she could hear the happy noises inside Mr. Conor’s classroom fading …
… fading like the joy inside her soul.
“No, this is no good. No good at all!”
Mrs. Lilywhite sat straight, her meaty hands on her broad fleshy knees, her spherical mass threatening to spill her off her chair. She sat at its very edge (as far as Melody could tell, that is), and had at times in the past half hour pounded the large desk before her. The desk belonged to the vice principal, Mr. Jefferson, a kindly, tired older man with thick black-framed glasses and reddish hair dyed with Grecian Formula, who always wore white short-sleeved button-down shirts with far too many items stuffed into the lone pocket over his heart. Mr. Jefferson, Melody knew, was the man responsible for setting students’ schedules—or changing them, as the case may be. Melody also knew he liked her, and had taken special pains to get her admitted into the GATE program. He sat back in his chair now and adjusted his spectacles. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Lilywhite, but Ms. Armitage’s Pre-Algebra class is not where this young lady belongs. Her skills are quite clearly superior—”
“She is a continuing nuisance and rarely if ever listens in class!” Mrs. Lilywhite interrupted. “The other students don’t like her; and quite frankly, I’ve lost my patience. Her behavior is too odd, too extreme. She needs counseling.”
Mr. Jefferson leaned forward. “Melody, do you feel you need counseling?”
Mrs. Lilywhite retorted, “What does she know? She’s just a teen—”
“Please. You’ve had your say, Mrs. Lilywhite. Let her speak for herself. Melody?”
Melody’s guts twisted inside her. She hated being here more than anything else in the world; she felt totally alone. After a long time, and without looking up, she said, “I already know everything they’re learning in the book. I know all the answers, even those in the last chapters—”
“This is ridiculous,” said Mrs. Lilywhite, slapping her knee. It sounded like a slab of tuna smacking a side of bacon.
“Shh!” gestured Mr. Jefferson. Mrs. Lilywhite glared at him, and then leaned back in her chair, making it creak and groan ominously under the strain. She crossed her arms impatiently over her barrel-sized chest and glared.
After an uncomfortable pause, she murmured, “The kids don’t like me—and I don’t like them. They’re mean. I want to go to another class.”
“You’d be bored stiff in Pre-Algebra, Melody,” Mr. Jefferson offered. “And there are no other GATE classes here. We’d have to place you somewhere else. The work might be too easy for you. Is that okay?”
Melody swallowed hard. It would be now or never. “I—I want … I want to go to Mr. Conor’s class.”
Mrs. Lilywhite snorted. “Absolutely not. Ridiculous.”
Mr. Jefferson smiled. “Do you like Mr. Conor?”
“She doesn’t even know him—”
“He seems like a nice man,” she said. “A nice teacher. I want a nice teacher.”
“His classroom is a zoo, I’ll have you know, Donald,” grumbled Lilywhite. “And since I am the department Chairwoman, I’ll also have you know I’m having Mr. Conor reprimanded for refusing to follow adopted disciplinary procedures concerning open classroom doors during class time. That’s where our young lady here came up with this preposterous idea. She saw the mayhem inside and thought she’d fit right in.”
“I’ve observed Mr. Conor twice now, Mrs. Lilywhite,” said Mr. Jefferson after a sigh. “He runs a lovely classroom. It’s certainly within your purview to reprimand him, but I think Melody might just be better off with him. That and we won’t have to radically change her schedule. We can do an easy and direct transfer: from your period two class to his. Works for me....”
“To Geometry? Rid—”
“But you just got done telling me she’s not worthy of GATE, did you not? And Geometry is the class just below the GATE curriculum. Or do you simply want to punish this girl?”
Mrs. Lilywhite grunted and came to her feet, her face crimson. “I will not sit here and be belittled in front of a student! Put this … this … girl—” she pointed convulsively towards Melody, whose neck stung from being continually shamed—“wherever you want to. I’m washing my hands of her. And you can call her Wiccan mother, or whatever godless faith she practices, as well! I’m through here!”
With that she stormed from the small office, lurching away, slamming the door behind her.
Mr. Jefferson shook his head, sighing again. He gazed at Melody, whose eyes were focused on her knees. After a time he asked, “It’s none of my business, Melody, but—your mother is Wiccan?”
“No,” whispered Melody. “She’s a vegetarian.”
Mr. Jefferson chuckled. “Ah.”
Melody felt the sting slowly leave her neck. She glanced up at the vice principal, who was smiling gently at her. “You’ll have to forgive Mrs. Lilywhite,” he said consolingly. “She’s got her … beliefs, and she isn’t always comfortable with those she deems … how shall I say it? … different?” Then he shrugged, as if to say, Oh, well.
“I really do know all the answers in the book …”
Mr. Jefferson nodded. “I have no doubts about that. Your entrance scores into the GATE program were remarkable. It’s incredible it took so long for anybody to figure out just how bright you really are. I mean—you started Mrs. Lilywhite’s class after half a school year had already passed!” He took his glasses off and began cleaning them with a white hanky lying nearby. “But Melody,” he continued, “Mr. Conor’s class could be quite a step down for you. It most likely will be. And I haven’t even cleared this with your mother yet—”
Melody leaned forward. “She won’t mind; really. She doesn’t like Mrs. Lilywhite either. Please don’t send me back there, please …”
“Don’t worry. You won’t be going back to Mrs. Lilywhite’s classroom. I’ll send you to your next class a little early—it’s Principles of Aquatics, right? I’m sure Mr. Michaels won’t mind—and I’ll go have a chat with Mr. Conor. His classroom is quite full, but I think I could persuade him to take on one more student. Does this sound acceptable to you?”
Melody smiled uneasily.
Mr. Jefferson finished cleaning his thick glasses and put them on. “Mr. Conor is … well, he’s a different teacher. Ultimately you may be as uncomfortable in his classroom as you were in Mrs. Lilywhite’s. He won’t yell at you, but he just may challenge you more than you may be ready for, outstanding GATE scores notwithstanding. Do you still want to give his class a try?”
Melody nodded silently.
“Consider it a done deal. You may report to Mr. Conor’s class tomorrow morning. In the meantime, let me write you a pass to Aquatics. Oh—and—” he pointed at her backpack—“I’ll need your math textbook before you leave.”
Melody’s heart sank. But what if she couldn’t see the odd, fantastic symbol anymore? What if it could only be seen in this book, over problem thirty-nine on page four hundred five? She hesitated as she reached inside her pack. Mr. Jefferson sensed her reluctance. “It’s okay,” he offered. “Like I said, Mr. Conor will likely challenge you just as rigorously as Mrs. Lilywhite, Melody. Maybe even more.”
She handed the book over to the vice principal, feeling intense frustration and worry. “Thank you,” he said, standing. “Now—off to swimming with you. Did you know Mr. Michael’s Advanced Aquatics class swims around the Pier for their final exam?”
She absentmindedly shook her head as she trudged to the closed door. Mr. Jefferson patted her shoulder as he opened it to excuse her. “Maybe someday you’ll swim around the Pier, you think?” And not waiting for her answer, added, “I’ll call your mother and inform her of this change. See you soon, Melody.”
As she walked towards the natatorium, she let herself smile just a tiny little bit. Despite her sour mood, she felt a sudden sensation—an affirmation, really—when, in her imagination, she placed the weird symbol seen in her now-confiscated Algebra book with an image of the Pier. It felt so natural to do so, like the pleasant sensation one gets when a puzzle piece fits perfectly with another.
She thought: I sure hope I see it again.