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HE COCKED a curious eyebrow as she approached the open door of his classroom. He leaned against the doorjamb as before, arms crossed over a wide and imposing chest. The first bell had rung four minutes earlier; the tardy bell was just moments from sounding. She had hung back as long as she could, terrified that she had set herself upon an irreversible course of humiliation and expulsion, humiliation and expulsion…. Every teacher smiles the first day, she thought glumly. Smiles the first day—angry outbursts every day until the last. And kids laughing in my face the entire time. A new classmate pushed past her, hurrying to get into the room before the bell. Mr. Conor moved out of the student’s way without looking at her, his eyes pinning Melody to the hallway carpet. She took two uneasy steps towards him and forced herself to look up, hoping her advance would also move his large mass out of the way so she could enter the classroom as anonymously as that girl just did.
No such luck. Mr. Conor didn’t budge an inch.
Humiliation and expulsion. Here we go again.
The final bell sounded. It rang loudly, with the ominous feel of a dinner bell at a death camp run by starving cannibals. The hallway fell silent as a tomb.
“Miss Singleton …” Mr. Conor said with his pleasantly odd accent.
Melody nodded meekly, painfully conscious of her every movement, of her very breath.
“…welcome to my Geometry class.” He bowed his head slightly.
She waited, peering up at him.
“I see that your name is Melody.”
“Interesting name,” he said, regarding her. “Pretty name, too.”
She didn’t respond, merely looking down and away for a second.
Her new teacher cleared his throat. “I think you’ll find my classroom a little different than … others.” He waited for her to get the message underneath his words, but when it wasn’t apparent she had, continued, “This is your third maths class in a single year, I’ve discovered. Interesting …” He scratched his bearded chin absentmindedly, studying her. “... interesting indeed…. And yet I am sure you are anything but the troublemaker other, er, professionals here might make you out to be. That said, your abilities are quite clearly superior to the requirements of this class—”
While listening, she glanced furtively past his form and into the brightly lit room where the students sat quietly. Some were trying to listen in, casting curious glances her way.
“—and so for now—and not for disciplinary reasons, let’s be very clear on the matter—you will sit with me.”
She abruptly gazed up, her face flashing silent dismay. Mr. Conor turned and motioned towards his desk. “Your seat is next to mine, Miss Melody Singleton.”
She saw that a student’s desk had been placed next to the teacher’s desk. It faced the classroom and her peers, apart from them, obviously special. Her hopes spiraled downward like an airliner suddenly shorn of its wings.
Mr. Conor’s laser-like stare intensified even further. “You have said nothing,” he observed with an amused smile forming on his lips, “and yet I can sense your despair already.”
He paused for her reply. “It won’t be what you’re thinking,” he continued when it became clear she wasn’t going to. “And—” he held up a stern finger—“no one in this classroom will ever tease you without severe consequences from me. I fully intend to challenge you, Miss Melody. This will be no free ride for you. I need to know just how bright you are. And you will of course still take part in most activities. Fair enough?”
She forced a single nod of her head.
Mr. Conor once again motioned into his classroom, this time with an overdone flourish, saying, “My New Student with the Interesting and Lovely Name, your true maths training awaits you …”
Melody hefted her oversized purple backpack resignedly over her right shoulder and stepped past him and into the classroom, urgently wishing she could disappear. Her new classmates stared openly at her. She chanced a quick glance at the seated crowd watching her before fixing her eyes down on her own feet, hurrying to the sole remaining desk next to Mr. Conor’s at the front of the class. She sat in it as quickly and coolly as possible without looking as though she was rushing. She chanced another glance at the class. Some students she had seen before: there was Tanya from her gym class and Ryan from Spanish, and that cute, quiet boy from History. He sat in the back and when their eyes met a very brief smile lighted his face before he looked quickly away. She didn’t know his name. She sat in her desk just as Mr. Conor strode in.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced loudly, “this is Melody Singleton. Some of you may already know her. She is what they call at university a ‘T.A.’—a ‘teacher’s assistant,’ which means she’ll be treated with the same respect that I get. Understand?”
The students continued looking at her. Some nodded.
“Melody will be assisting me in my teaching duties—grading, projects, planning, etcetera. She is very bright and so if you have a question and I’m busy with another, you may ask her. That’s one of her duties here. Follow?”
More nods. But no one sneered; no one snickered. One or two may have even smiled! Melody had taken note of these things, but almost unconsciously. Her first overriding concern was to try to hide within herself, praying that Mr. Conor would stop talking about her already and move on with his lesson. The announcement of her teacher’s assistant duties was a complete surprise, but not an entirely unwelcome one. True, she’d much rather be left to her own devices, were that possible; yet she knew that this idiocy known as middle school was an inescapable part of her daily misery, as were her ever-present feelings of being a total outsider, an alien. No doubt Mr. Conor had done some homework of his own regarding her before admitting her into his classroom. And deep inside she felt grateful for that, even if at this moment she felt like she were going to die of embarrassment.
“Now—” Mr. Conor clapped his hands together once in anticipation—“let’s talk about your projects ...”
And with that the class was off and running. Her new classmates were designing their own homes: first on notebook and construction paper, which they were doing now, using the geometry text assigned to them as a guide; then, much later, advancing to other materials such as toothpicks, tiles, tongue depressors, egg cartons, even Leggos. Many of the students were struggling over the math involved. And as much as Melody wanted to be cool and detached and apathetic, behaving just like the popular kids, she found herself thinking quite against her adolescent social sensibilities, I know how to do that … I can help with that! … She suddenly flashed back to the odd, mystical symbol she was focusing so hard upon when Ms. Lilywhite so rudely interrupted her efforts—the mysterious question mark with the curly-Q top. It seemed so natural to consider it here, in this classroom, and in the context of this particular discussion, though she didn’t know why.
“Here you go …” A thick pile of lined white paper suddenly plopped in front of her. She jumped in her seat, startled, her reverie extinguished. Mr. Conor pulled up an empty student’s desk next to hers and sat heavily in it. “I want you to grade these today.” He tossed a thin red pen on top of the pile. “Simple stuff, really: a proof of similarity: ten points if correct, five if partially correct, zero if no work attempted or you can’t follow. Okay?”
She considered how she, a seventh-grader, would be hated even more now that she was apparently responsible for grading her peers’ work. Many were in eighth grade, an entire year ahead of her! She’d be lucky to survive her daily walk home! She’d be given swirlies! She’d be stuffed in a locker and forgotten until the janitors show up in mid-summer to discover her skeleton clutching desperately at the air vents!
Again Mr. Conor seemed to be able to read her mind and the panicked thoughts galloping through it. He stood and gave her shoulder a couple of companionable pats. “Nobody will trouble you—here or anywhere else. If they do, do not hesitate to come see me. The ongoing threat they live with is this: behave poorly and I’ll not hesitate to move ye to Ms. Lilywhite’s afternoon Applied Math class. I haven’t heard a peep from them. Maybe it’s because they know I’m sincere.”
Despite herself, she smiled.
He started walking away, hesitated, took two more steps, then turned around.
“One more thing. You have an assignment on the bottom of the stack. A … proof. Much more difficult than what you’ll be grading. If it makes no sense to you, just disregard it and I’ll come up with something more … conventional.” He stared at her oddly for a moment, as if trying to decide if he’d said the right thing or not. He held her glance for a second longer, and in the next had turned away and was off helping his Geometry class.
She had completely forgotten about her assignment, the proof, in the grading of her new classmates’ work. After a long while the grading became somewhat fun: she enjoyed trying to understand the thinking processes of others, of trying to unravel their logic and sometimes indecipherable drawings. She had taken the time to write corrections where appropriate, feeling hugely self-conscious initially, but then relaxing more and more as she became increasingly comfortable marking on papers not her own. Most of the class did really well: she gave lots of 10s. But the period was ending soon and she had only graded perhaps half of the stack. Mr. Conor hardly seemed disappointed by this: in fact, he nodded at her progress approvingly. “Take them home. Finish them there. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He looked at her oddly again, as he had earlier.
And now, with the homework from her other classes completed, she sat on her bed in her blue pajamas and leafed through the remaining geometry waiting to be graded. She had pulled her brown hair back into a ponytail and was absentmindedly playing with its end, brushing it back and forth across her chin. Earlier at dinner her mother had smiled. “Aedan Conor sure thinks a lot of you, Bug. I spoke with him on the phone today. He says you’re quiet and shy and brilliant. Those were his words.”
She nodded silently, not looking up from her meal. Her mother smiled wistfully and added, “Middle school sucks, I know, I know. I was just like you—quiet and feeling clumsy and totally alone. But you’re not, Mellow Yellow. Just remember that everybody there is struggling with similar issues, in their own peculiar way.”
She stared at the homework she was grading. Similar issues … similar triangles. Maybe we’re all just similar triangles having similar three-sided issues.
She finished grading half an hour later. At the bottom of the stack was her assignment, the proof, the one Mr. Conor had included with her classmates’. She had completely forgotten about it. It took her a long time to realize what she was looking at. She snatched at it and brought it to her face, her eyes wide with disbelief. She let go of her ponytail and clutched the paper with both hands, as though to keep it from flying away from her. For a long time she couldn’t make herself believe that what she was gawking at was real.
Drawn on a plain sheet of lined notebook paper was a broken triangle. The ends of each segment of the triangle didn’t quite meet; one line segment seemed to be drawn farther from the others, as if it were set drifting away on the page; and another segment seemed … dented. It was actually split into two segments, one half again as long as the other, as though Mr. Conor had penciled it while driving over a bump on the way to school. The words at the bottom, in inch-high capital letters, read, “SOLVE THIS.”
She had barely noticed them. She was staring, open-mouthed, at the neatly drawn symbol at one of the broken vertices: a periodless question mark with a curly-Q top.
She gaped at the diagram.
The magical symbol in her Algebra book from just yesterday, before Mrs. Lilywhite had loomed over her like a lard mountain, the symbol she once thought was merely a figment of a young teenage mind gone mad stared back at her, rendered perfectly in pencil—a symbol another human being had seen too! She traced it with her index finger, as if doing so would confirm and solidify its reality.
Mr. Conor has seen it too!
A knock on her bedroom door.
Her mom cracked it open slightly and spoke from behind it, her voice muffled. “Sweetheart? It’s bedtime. Are you about ready?”
“Sure … sure, Momma. Another half hour?”
“That’s fine. I let Sara out. Will you let her back in before you crash? I’m going to bed.”
“Love you, Bug.”
“Love you, Momma.”
“Oh—” her mother cracked the door open again—“going to spend the night at Yaeko’s tomorrow?”
Melody shook her head without realizing it. “I’m not sure. I’ll see her tomorrow morning at violin practice and ask.”
“Okay, love …”
She heard the door quietly click shut. She had not taken her eyes off the diagram and ten seconds later had completely forgotten the entire exchange. For the magical symbol beneath the drawing of the broken triangle had astonishingly come alive, flowing, shifting, changing shape …
When she looked up again, the clock on her nightstand read one-twenty. Just like that, three hours had passed. And she still had no idea what the symbol meant or how to manipulate it. She’d look away for a second, less than a second, and there it was, a static pencil-drawn shape, flat, dead.
She heard muffled whimpering. Sara. Sara scratching at the back screen door. Then: the sounds of movement. Her mother. Her mother opening the sliding glass door to let the old black lab in. The low rumble and click as the door was closed. Then—sounds of tired shuffling footsteps down the hallway—towards her, Melody’s, room.
She dropped the paper and lay back on her bed as quickly and quietly as she could. If Momma caught her awake at this hour, she’d be upset. Just as the bedroom door cracked open, Melody closed her eyes.
She heard her approach the bed. She heard her take the stack of graded papers at the foot of her bed and place them on her desk. Momma took the magical proof she had stared at the past three hours and set it next to the graded stack. Or … that’s what she guessed was happening ...
Momma reapproached her bed quietly. She leaned over, kissing her forehead gently, before switching off the overhead lamp attached to the headboard. Seconds later, she heard the door to her bedroom close slowly and quietly.
Her heart sank. She knew without opening her eyes that her room would now be as black as a cavern—a quality she normally loved, since it made her feel protected and cocooned. Now she cursed that darkness. Momma is a light sleeper. She’ll know if I switch the lamp on again. She’ll see the light under the door—and I’ll never get past that creaky kitchen floor to get the flashlight under the sink. Gah.
She rose and inched her way across the room until she reached her desk. She fumbled about on it until she felt the stack. She grabbed the first paper next to it—the proof? —and held it to her face. No good. She might as well be blind. The blackness was thick as tar.
She sighed and frustratingly groped her way back to bed. She flopped down, kicking the covers away angrily.
It took her a long time to get to sleep.
Mr. Conor’s emerald eyes regarded her like a hawk as she approached his classroom.
With a very frustrated sigh, she said, “I couldn’t understand it.”
His face fell. It was his turn to sigh, it seemed; and he was in the middle of a great big one, as though he was giving up on some heroic lifelong pursuit in abject failure, when she completed the thought: “I mean … I can see it change and flow into other shapes, but I can’t make it do anything.”
His countenance came back to life slowly, like sunshine after a passing thunderstorm. He raised his head gradually, his eyes widening slowly, cautiously, brightening until twin green laser beams once again plumbed the depths of her soul. His voice was low, even guarded, but barely within his control as he asked very quietly, leaning over her: “Did you just say … you saw it … the aecxis … you saw it change? flow? Did I hear that right?”
She scarcely noticed the enormous transformation in the spirit of the man towering over her. Her eyes were bloodshot; she hadn’t slept well last night at all; and she had already gotten into trouble for studying this odd “proof” instead of Spanish in the preceding period. In fact, the proof was all she could think of. She groused, “Yeah, it—the aecxis, or whatever it’s called—changes shape and color and even … texture … does that make sense? And it seems to float off the page too. But it does nothing else…. I mean—how is it part of a proof? I’m so lost…. Is this some sort of new math? Why am I the only one who can see it doing these things? Am I going crazy or something?”
Mr. Conor was studying her very intently. She sensed an odd mixture in him: great, unbounded joy colliding with a terrible sense of foreboding, a high-altitude adventurer peering over a rickety makeshift bridge across a deep and treacherous gorge. The silence between them became heavy with tension.
He chuckled and whispered, “Twenty-two bloody years …”
He blinked, glancing at her as if just noticing her presence. “I’m sorry, Melody. I’m a little … distracted. Tell me: the proof: have you shown it to anyone?”
“Just my best friend Yaeko. She had no idea what it was and teased me and told me I probably just needed glasses. But I don’t … do I?”
Mr. Conor gathered her small hand between his own huge ones and patted it reassuringly. “No, no, no, my dear. Not at all. Nor are you going crazy. But—” he stood tall, releasing her hand, towering over her—“don’t share the proof with others, not even your best friend Yaeko. Understood?”
“You have a gift, Melody. You have no idea how long I’ve—” He stopped himself abruptly; she sensed self-reproach in the interruption. “Again, share this with no one. Not yet, at least. Not even your mother. She wouldn’t understand…. You have—” he chuckled knowingly—“you have an ability with the potential to wield great power. But that ability is in its very infancy. You have much to learn.”
Students were filing into the classroom, hurrying past them. The room was three-fourths full now and growing noisy.
“But … Mr. Conor …” she said, “the aecxis won’t move for me, no matter what I try to do! It’s like … like it’s alive or something! How do I get it to ‘solve’ the broken triangle?”
He snorted. “You have no idea how ‘alive’ it is! But it will respond only to a mind—to a soul—sufficiently strong enough. This is your first task—to learn just how strong you are. Keep trying to manipulate it. You have my permission to do that during class today. Just keep trying to manipulate it. Work on your focus. Unfortunately, for now that is all the instruction I can give you.” He noted her frustration and added, “Don’t give up, Melody.”
The tardy bell rang at that moment. Class had begun. As she sat, Mr. Conor patted her shoulder. She extracted the stack of graded homework assignments from her purple backpack and handed it to him. He didn’t even glance at it. Instead he shook his head as he regarded her. “ ... ‘like a spring melody.’ I should have bloody well guessed.”
He noted her puzzled expression. “Don’t give up. Okay?” Without waiting for her to respond, he turned his attention to the class seated in neat rows under his watchful stare.
She didn’t pay attention at all to the lesson that day. Her eyes were glued instead to the flowing, twisting, magical symbol on the single sheet of paper beneath her chin.