Fantasy teaching high school Romeo and juliet english class

Finding Orson

By James Van Pelt
Mar 25, 2020 · 6,301 words · 23 minutes

Buddha in Bhutan

Photo by RKTKN via Unsplash.

From the author: Patty is a gifted teacher, literally. She sees the emotional aura around her students. All would be well until Orson, a quiet, sullen boy's aura turns startlingly, distressingly black.


O she doth teach the torches to burn bright. - Romeo and Juliet

Patty tried to ignore Elaine’s contentment, but it broadcast like orange campfire light from her desk across the otherwise empty office.  Patty looked away and filled the umpteenth bubble on the student evaluation sheet.  Her grade book lay open beside her, the quarter’s penciled percentages covering the sheet in gray smudges.  Each student’s final test, the quarter grade and a comment had to be marked in the appropriate bubble for the computer to scan.  The grades came from her book; the comment she took from a possible comments list taped to the book’s inside cover.  Assigning grades weighed on the first year teacher.

She considered one student, Fran, whose talent levitated tissue paper and twisted them into odd shapes in the air.  Since Fran paid attention and turned in her work, Patty marked forty-five, “Works to capacity.”  Patty filled the two circles (the forty and the five).  Fran had declared earlier in the week she wanted to read Juliet’s parts and her boy friend William should play Romeo, but she changed her mind when Patty said they couldn’t act out the lines, “O then dear saint, let lips do what hands do--” in act I.  Patty moved to the next name to repeat the process.

Patty noticed the thirty-year veteran, Elaine, worked at twice her speed.

“How do you manage to do these so fast?  I put the darn grades in the wrong circles, and I have to erase.”

“Don’t do that,” Elaine said without looking up.  “The computer will mis-read and you’ll have to redo the whole sheet.  Leave the mistake and correct it when they print the confirmation copy.  The secretary will hand-enter the new grade.”

Patty bent over her work and finished three more students.  “Well, it’s not the mistakes that slow me up, anyway; it’s the comments.”  She tried to decide if Matt should get a fourteen, “Fails to complete assignments,” or a sixty-two, “Absences affecting performance.”

“Give everyone an eight.  It’s just one bubble.”

Patty ran her finger down the list.  “‘A pleasure to have in class’?  That doesn't describe everyone.”

“Sure it does, honey.”  Elaine looked at her kindly.  “Some are more pleasurable than others is all.  Besides, they don’t have the comments I really want like ‘Your parents must be cousins,’ or ‘Not allowed to operate heavy equipment.’  What are you going to put for Bobby Beddows?  Is he controlling that talent any better?”

Patty wrinkled her nose.  “I handed back their essays Monday, and when he saw my corrections, he made a smell like a paving operation.  I thought I'd have to evacuate the room.”

“Freshmen can produce some pretty repellent odors without it being their gift.  Better you than me.  Think of it as paying your dues.  Oh, you might ask Rachael Yashita to help.  She can raise a breeze to clear the air.  Last year at the middle-school the counselors scheduled the two together.”

“I'm more worried about Orson.  He hasn't displayed any talent at all yet.”

The bell rang, ending their planning period, and they gathered their books and materials.  Elaine said, “Be patient.  I've had a couple like him, and it’s rough to develop late.  Kids can get cruel about it.  Besides, isn't your formal evaluation today?  There’s something to worry about.”  She paused at the door.  Behind her students streamed to their next classes.  “Well, I'm off to beat back the boundaries of ignorance.  Oh, and don’t forget we have a Career Days assembly at 1:00.”  She stepped into the traffic flow and disappeared.

A video camera, cables and boxes filled the door to Patty’s room.  She watched her step to avoid tripping.

“Don’t mind me,” said Vice-principal Drabbe.  “You won't even know we're here.”

A student assistant waved to her from behind the camera.  Drabbe had pulled a desk from the circle and put it next to the camera.  Evaluation tools spread across the desk top: a large stopwatch, a log to record observations, a memo pad, and a hand-held tape recorder.  Most students sat in their desks, and she could see Drabbe had already written in the log.  He scribbled a memo, folded it and handed it to his aid to deliver.  Drabbe’s memos were famous for their inscrutability.  Elaine still joked about one she'd received the school’s first week that read, “Remember the hats rule.”  She'd said, “And all along I thought it was the principal.”

Students chattered about the Career Days assembly, and Patty walked around the circle, greeting each one before the bell rang beginning class.

Inga, whose talent caused intestinal cramps, said, "I want to learn about taxes.  I hear I.R.S. agents make money galore."

Her friend Natalie said, "Someone told me a horticulturist will be speaking.  That sounds interesting to me."  Natalie's talent made plants hum.  The first day of school, she'd waved her hand over Patty's African Violets on her desk, and they'd sung low, musical tones for ten minutes.

“Hi, Ms. Epson,” said Thomas.  He stood a sheet of paper on edge, stacked a second one on top and was tried to get a third to stay in place.  An odd talent, but it made him proud.  “I'll get them to the ceiling before the end of the semester,” he said.

“I'm sure you will, but class is about to start.  Can you put those back in their folder where they belong?”

Drabbe mumbled into his tape recorder and scribbled into his log.  The red light on the camera glowed, and class hadn't begun yet.

When the bell rang, Drabbe started the stopwatch.  Patty collected the Romeo and Juliet project proposals she'd assigned for today, took a deep breath and launched into act II.  She'd cast student parts earlier, and after they'd read for a while, she stopped them to write in their journals on the topic, “Imagine a conversation between Juliet and her dad if he had seen her kissing Romeo at the masquerade.”  Patty turned to her desk to make sure everyone had submitted project proposals.

Drabbe said into his recorder, “Journal writing at twelve minutes and twenty-one seconds.”  He smiled genially in Patty's direction when she glanced at him.

Everyone had turned in a proposal except Orson.  The students bent over their journals while Patty walked behind them, peeking over shoulders to see what they wrote.  Her own talent worked well today.  When she passed close enough to each student she picked up a wash of  emotion, which she sensed as a colored cloud surrounding them.  Most were neutral, cruising along in what Patty considered "the gray mode," not ecstatic or depressed, but functioning normally.  A nice-feeling light blue shade wrapped itself around Inga.  Patty had heard the swim-team captain had asked her to Homecoming before first hour.  Pink tendrils flowed through the blue, reflecting her good mood. 

But a frightening black fog surrounded Orson, an ebony-haired, serious boy, a half-head shorter than the next shortest student in the room.  The color circled him, obscuring him as she drew closer.  Patty held her breath, not wanting to breathe it in.  He wrote methodically, pencil thumping the paper at the end of sentences.  Patty bent to whisper to him, “I didn't see your proposal."  He'd been writing the same sentence over and over, filling the sheet: “Consider the Romeo solution.”  Goose bumps prickled the back of her neck.  She stood behind him for a bit, half-bent at the waist until he looked at her, his eyes a dark brown with darker circles beneath them. 

“I don't like tragedy,” he said, and then without pausing, as if on the same subject, "Everyone else has something."  This close to him, so deep in his cloud, the lights from the room dimmed.  She'd poked her head into a sad, twilight world, and they were alone.

“Maybe you could work with that as your project."  She put her hand on his shoulder.

The muscles under his shirt knotted, as if the boy strained against some internal explosion, but as soon as she rested her hand on him, his color lightened.

Drabbe spoke into his recorder again.  He mumbled, and it sounded like, “Touched a pupil, " but Patty kept her hand there.

“How could I do that?”  Orson whispered.  She strained to hear, but he always spoke softly, and she'd grown used to it.

Patty glanced up, thinking.  The other students continued to write.  Behind them, the Globe theater and Stratford on Avon posters decorated the walls.  Earlier the class had written sonnets, and examples filled the bare spaces.  Underneath the clock, a sign from a teacher who'd had the room the year before said, “TIME WILL PASS; WILL YOU?”

“Well, maybe explore what it means to want something and not have it.  That’s what Romeo and Juliet went through.  It's their tragedy in the play.  Remember at the beginning when Benvolio asks Romeo what sadness lengthens his hours?  Romeo said, ‘Not having that which, having, makes them short.’ Sometimes I think Shakespeare wrote this play about yearning.  Do you know what yearning is?”

Orson nodded.

“So maybe you could write about something you yearn for.  If that’s what the play is saying to you, you could write about it.”

Orson turned his head and squinted one eye as if considering the idea.  His color faded to gray.  Then he said in the same, quiet voice, “Fly.”

Patty straightened.  “Excuse me?”

“Fly.” Orson pointed to a fly buzzing against a ceiling light panel.

Before Patty could stop it, Harmony, a plump girl whose face always looked flushed, aimed her finger at the insect and said, “Bang.”

With a loud snap, the fly disintegrated into a tiny cloud.  Its disembodied wings fluttered to the floor.

Giggles erupted from all sides for an instant, then stopped.  Students covered their mouths and glanced at Mr. Drabbe and his video camera.  The camera’s single eye stared at Patty.  Drabbe’s pencil in one hand poised over the log, and his other hand held the recorder, ready for comment.  For a moment all waited, then Vivian said, “Ew, gross, Harmony.  You got fly guts in my hair.”

Dead cat smell filled the room.  Patty’s eyes watered from the strong odor.  "Bobby, this is inappropriate."

For five minutes chaos reigned.

Bobby claimed innocence.  “Sometimes my emotions get away from me,” he announced straight faced, then spoiled the effect by snickering.

Harmony blamed Yonda.  “She’s always summoning flies.  She knows it drives me crazy.”

Yonda flipped Harmony the finger.

“You know where to find me, girlfriend,” said Harmony, and they both laughed.

In the midst of Patty’s attempts to restore order, a student from the nurse’s office delivered notes for four students to report for hearing tests.  Patty delivered the notes, tried to dismiss the four with as little disruption as possible and failed while asking the class to resume their journal work.  Drabbe wrote on the pad, dictated notes and directed the camera with frantic intensity.  When Patty passed his desk, she saw his emotions: bright, sun-shiny yellow.  He was a happy man.

Then, when all had calmed down and the class turned to the play's next act, the intercom clicked loudly and dismissed the students for Career Days assembly in the gym.

Elaine asked Patty about the evaluation.  In the teacher's lounge bright light, surrounded by the coffee pot's and pop machine's comforting normality, Patty's unease about Orson faded a bit.

"You might try a clapping trick I learned from a kindergarten teacher, " said Elaine.  Her lunch, a rice and vegetable mixture, smelled of cayenne pepper, which she stirred before dipping her fork in.  "You clap your hands once and say, 'Anyone who can hear my voice, raise your hand.'  Then you clap your hands twice and say the same thing.  It sounds childish, but when it works all the kids will have their hands up, and class will be quiet."

Patty had bought a cafeteria chicken-fried hamburger topped by a mashed potato scoop, drowned in gravy.  The roll beside it glistened with butter and weighed at least a quarter of a pound.

Elaine said, "I don't know how you can eat that.  If I have a school lunch, I spend the afternoon running to the rest room."

"What am I supposed to do about Drabbe?  He's got the whole disaster on videotape.  The lesson self destructed."

Elaine leaned back in her chair.  "Oh, Drabbe is O.K.  You should see him handle problem kids.  Once he stopped a fight between three football players, and by the time he finished talking to them, right there in the hall, before a huge crowd, the three cried and hugged each other."

"Wow, that's quite a talent."

"It's a skill.  His talent alphabetizes objects.  He showed me once.  If you put any three items on his desk--say a paperclip, a stapler and a notebook--they'll slide around into alphabetical order.  He minored in German in college, and he told me when he thinks in German the items line up in Germanic, alphabetical order."

Patty laughed.  "It fits him."

"He can be a little anal.  If he were a student, I'd mark a forty-seven on his bubble sheet."

"What's that?"                                         

"Does not work or play well with his peers.  He'll give you all kinds of advice about your class you can ignore, and what he writes down on your evaluation will be so full of educationalese Andrew Carnegie wouldn't be able to make heads nor tails of it.  You're going to be a fine teacher.  Pay attention to the kids.  They'll let you know if you're good."

Elaine checked her watch.  "I've got bus duty."  She shoveled in the last few spoonfuls of lunch, then dumped the dish and silverware on her desk.

"It's lunch.  What buses?"

"The kids from the vocational center.  Hard to believe a Master's degree and thirty-two years of experience qualifies you for a fifteen minute lunch and a chance to watch the bus unload."  She grabbed a handful of student notebooks as she went through the door.

Patty looked at her meal.  None of it appeared appetizing, so she walked to the Counseling office.

Ms. Reed, the freshmen counselor greeted her with forms and brochures.  “I'm the building’s union rep, and I see from my membership list you haven't joined yet.  Let me tell you about the benefits."

For ten minutes, Reed talked about step raises, maternity leave, the sick day bank, insurance breaks and other items ". . . your hard-working teacher's union had earned for you."

"As a first-year teacher," Reed said, "you can't afford not to join."

Finally, Patty told her about Orson.

"Students write self destructive journal entries all the time.  I wouldn't worry about the boy quite yet.  If you see other signs of depression, though, let me know."  Reed handed her a pamphlet entitled, Permanent Solutions to Temporary Problems: Teens and Suicide, and it reminded Patty of Orson's journal entry, "Consider the Romeo Solution."

"I don't know why you English teachers have to give them Romeo and Juliet.  Seems every other year someone's in here thinking he's Romeo or she's Juliet.  I wish you could give them a positive classic like . . . Mary Poppins with Julie Andrews."

Patty puzzled on how to answer.  It seemed like such a non sequitur.  Finally she offered, "That’s a movie."

"Oh, really?  Well, what do you know.  Anyway, Orson’s a youngster.  His talent hasn't come in, and that's sure to bother him.  But youngsters' lives are filled with ups and downs.  You watch: tomorrow he'll be high as a kite about some good event."

Patty thought about the cloud around Orson.  Funeral black, a palpable sadness.  She'd seen depressed students before, but nothing to compare to the moment in class when the cloud swallowed him.

Reed said, "I'll schedule an appointment with him if you're that worried.”

When the bell rang, sending Patty to her next class, Reed piled more union information onto the stack she carried.  Reed said, "Remember, students come and go, but if you stay with the district, you could be in this building your whole career.  The union has your best interests at heart."

A directive Patty found in her mail-box before school started dictated the day's lesson.  The administrators and the Counseling Department had decided a good follow-up to the Career Days assembly would be for all the English teachers to administer a career interest survey to their students and then to discuss career possibilities with them.  The memo was signed, "Educationally Yours, Mr. Drabbe."

Patty sighed.  She'd worked well past midnight preparing material for today’s classes, and a half-page memo wiped out half the lesson.

As class began, she passed out the survey, and the students laughed at some of the questions like, "Do you take drugs?" and "Do you know more than two foreign languages."

Alice asked, "Does Pig-Latin count?"

Stephanie added, "I know Shakespearean English, forsooth.  That dost sound foreign to me."

Thomas said, "The question is, do you know two foreign languages while you're taking drugs?  That would make you employable."

Patty looked forlornly at the Romeo and Juliet Project Progress Reports she'd prepared for the day, so after the class completed the surveys, instead of leading a talk on career choices, she asked them to write about them in their journals, figuring they'd finish writing quicker than they'd finish discussing.  She walked behind the circle of desks, reading over their shoulders while they worked.  Most wrote about jobs that related to their talents in some way or another.  Zach, who could calm angry animals, wrote about veterinary medicine as did Charles, who could make dogs howl.  Jen wrote about becoming a writer.  Her pens and pencils talked, and if Patty listened, she could hear their squeaky, little voices (always with a slight British accent) giving corrections like, "'Ere, wot makes you think a comma goes there, deary?"  Stephanie wanted to become an electrical engineer, which went along with her ability to amplify static discharges.  Her hair always flared away from her neck, and the other kids had learned to not brush against her, or they'd be zapped.

Orson scribbled, and Patty sidled beside him to read his journal.  His cloud disturbed her again.  Although not jet-black as it had been before, black tendrils snaked through it.  Other colors roiled in the cloud too, oranges and reds.  He wasn't writing about careers, and he covered the page with his hand.

"I'm working on the project you suggested," he whispered.  He didn't meet her eyes.  "You know, the one about yearning?  I don't have a clue what I want to be anyway."  His cloud darkened.

Patty put a hand on his shoulder again, but this time his colors remained.  "That's O.K., Orson.  I didn't know what I wanted to do until college.  What's the project?"

"I'm rewriting Romeo and Juliet.  I don't think it has to be a tragedy."

"Really?"  Patty squatted beside him to be on the same level.  "That's ambitious.  How are you going to do it?  It's a long play, and it would take a lot of changing."

He paused for a moment, as if struggling with how to answer. "Maybe not so much.  You said yesterday the difference between comedy and tragedy is the ending, but I don't think that's all.  It starts earlier in the play."

Patty leaned toward him.  She could feel her eyebrows raising.  This differed from the way most kids approached their projects.  Elston and Katy were working together on Romeo and Juliet flashcards.  The card's front contained a quote, and the back identified the speaker.  Uma wanted to draw a balcony scene poster.  Quenton had brought a shoe-box and a macaroni noodles package to make a diorama of Verona.  The other projects seemed elementary compared to this one, and Orson's reasons for doing it worried her.  She thought about her adolescent development classes, but couldn't remember a matching case.

She said, "Tomorrow everyone reports on their progress.  Are you going to finish in time?"

Orson whispered, "Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.'"

Patty started to say, "That's Mercutio, isn't it, act III?  You're reading ahead," but a fire alarm went off.  Smoke and burning smells swept through the room, and for a second Patty almost panicked.  She imagined flames outside her door and reached for a chair to throw through a window, but the kids laughed, and Bobby looked at the ceiling as if something interesting had appeared there.

"Bobby," she sighed, "this is not appropriate." 

Then everyone scrambled for the door.  As she joined the crowd in the hall, she tossed away the day's lesson.  Even if this were a drill, they'd lose ten minutes standing outside, and it would take ten more to get class on track again.  Later, as she shooed kids farther from the building, it occurred to her Mercutio was dying as he said those words, and she looked for Orson in the faces around her, but he had vanished.

At the day's end, a student senate announcement reminded everyone to support the Career Days assembly tomorrow by wearing clothes that reflected a career choice.

After school in the English office, long after the halls had cleared and the janitor's vacuum whined in a distant classroom, Elaine said, "So do you think he's suicidal?"  She plucked a spiral notebook from the pile beside her, put it to her ear for a second, then dropped it onto the stack by her desk.  Books spoke to her.  They told her how many words the students had written, and whether they'd completed the assignments.

"He's scaring me.  Ms. Reed gave me a pamphlet on suicide, but the warning signs are so vague they fit half the kids most the time.  Mood swings, for crying out loud.  Behavior changes.  That's normal freshmen."

Elaine chuckled.  "You don't sound like a rookie to me.  Is there any popcorn left?"

Patty checked the bowl.  "Nope, just some kernels."

"Those are the best."  She pinched one from the salty buttery mess at the bottom and crunched it between her teeth.  "If you're genuinely worried, you might call the boy's parents.  You could find out if there's something going on there."

Patty tried a kernel, but it was like sucking on a greasy pebble, and she couldn't bring herself to chew it.  "Maybe I should."  She spit the kernel into a napkin.  “Have you seen this yet?”  She held a form in triplicate from the administrator's office.  "We're supposed to put every course we've ever taken on it with a brief explanation of its impact on our instruction.  Why does it seem I never get to teach English?  I thought all my time would be spent wallowing in the classics, but instead I deal with distractions."

Elaine said, “You teach the kid, honey, not the subject.”  Elaine reached for the form, and Patty handed it to her.  "This is a recertification questionnaire.  You're not supposed to have one until your teaching certificate expires.  It must be in your box by mistake.  Give it back to the secretaries.  Did you fill out your new emergency contact card?  That was due today."

Patty put her head in her hands.  "No.  Nobody told me this would be a part of my day when I chose education as a career.  What happens if I'm late with it?"

Crunching another kernel, Elaine said, "Nothing except Drabbe will record it on your evaluation.  It's the part that deals with professional responsibilities.”  She leaned back in her chair and laced her fingers across her stomach.  “You know, education is like the old joke about the pigeon that plays checkers.  What amazes is not that it wins a game every once in a while, but it can play at all.  Are you calling Orson’s folks?"

Patty put the form on the pile of other forms on her desk.  “I don’t know.  What would I say?  Your son admires Romeo?  My talent reads emotions and your son looked black yesterday?  Keep him away from the apothecary?  People are pretty uncomfortable with that anyway.  It’s too close to telepathy.”

“How was he today?”

“He doesn't know what he wants to be.  The Career Days assembly didn't help.  But a little better, I think.  He stayed busy in his journal until the fire alarm.  Said he's rewriting Romeo and Juliet so it won't be so sad.”

“Working in class is a good sign, I believe.  As long as it's not a good-bye letter.  While he’s at it, ask him to rewrite my contract.  I shouldn't have to monitor the lunch room the same year I'm the Junior class sponsor.”

Patty grinned.  “O.K.  I'll talk to him.  But if he does that, I'll want him to rewrite Drabbe’s evaluation.  I'm afraid it will read like Hamlet.  I'll get to the end, all these bodies will be strewn across the stage, and they'll all be me.”

“Goodnight, sweet prince,” said Elaine.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

“Don’t forget to dress like your career choice tomorrow.  I think I'll wear cowboy boots, a ballet skirt, a medical smock and a fireman’s hat.  I always tell the kids I can't decide what I want to be when I grow up.”

After Elaine left, Patty sat alone in the office for another hour, deciding how to grade the Romeo and Juliet projects when they came in.  She'd made the assignment and tried to give the students several ways to complete it, but she hadn't thought all the way through to how they would be evaluated.  If Orson rewrote the play, as he said he would, that would require tons more time and effort than the Shakespearean word search Paul had proposed or Harmony’s crossword puzzle project.

She looked at tomorrow’s lesson plans: “Students to present proposals to the class.  Discuss.”  It was one of those dangerous plans that might take ten minutes to finish, and then they'd be left with the rest of the hour to fill, or she might not get through half the class.  It depended on how talkative they were.  Hopefully, though, the students would find things to respond to in each other’s proposals, and she would serve as a discussion facilitator.  She thought about Orson.  Would he stand in front of the class and talk?  The students knew he'd exhibited no talent so far, and even if they didn't tease him, he knew they knew.  That could be enough to keep him from speaking.  A professor she'd had in a teaching methods class the year before had said, “A sense of isolation can be a contributing factor to failure in the classroom.  It can even provoke desperate actions.”

She put her plans away and looked up Orson’s phone number, connected to an answering machine, then left her name and number.

In the hallway before class the next morning, Patty turned the corner to see Mr. Drabbe striding toward her.  No place to hide, so she kept walking.  A couple student senate members hung a Homecoming poster.  One wore a clown suit, and the other dressed as a policeman.  The halls were empty otherwise, and their voices echoed.

“Ms. Epson, how are you?”  He grinned like a shark circling the lifeboats, she thought.  “Could you come by my office after school today?  I'd like to discuss your evaluation.”

Patty tried to remain calm and professional, but she could feel herself freezing up.  “Certainly."  She noticed she'd crossed her arms across her chest.  If she could sense her emotions as she could others, she believed she'd be a bilious green.

“There’s some very interesting conclusions I've made from watching your video,” he said.

Patty closed her eyes briefly.  “I'll look forward to hearing your thoughts."

He nodded and continued on his way.

In the mail room, she checked the day’s announcements.  As far as she could tell, no assemblies scheduled, no dismissals for any sports teams, no field trips that would suck students from her classes, no standardized testing, no medical screenings, and nothing else that would interfere with her lessons.  In short, it looked to be an unusual day.  She thought about Orson.  If all went well, he would explain his project in the middle of the hour.  Assuming no fire drills, bomb scares, power outages or student senate interruptions, he'd get a chance to present a unique project for the class.

This provoked a new worries, however.  Freshmen were mercurial.  They might find Orson’s unique proposal interesting. She thought it interesting, but she taught English, and she'd already discovered the lessons she loved weren't always what students loved.  Also, “unusual” meant one of two things to freshmen: “cool” or “stupid.”  She prayed they'd go for “cool,” and forget for the moment Orson had no talent.  It would do his self image so much good.  But she couldn’t shake the feeling of the cloud around him, that dark moment when his despair almost blocked the light.  She had an image of it tightening around him, absorbing him so he'd be lost within and never come out.

A new lesson plan excited Elaine, and Patty envied her as she busied around her desk, gathering books and papers.  When the warning bell rang for first hour, Elaine said, “There are days I can't believe they pay me.  Well, I'm off to be the wizard.”

Patty wished she felt a third as industrious, but mostly she thought about Orson.  She sketched out strategies to preempt any possible disasters with the class.  If she prepped them right, maybe they'd stay positive and give Orson a break.  So much depended on Orson, though.  If he screwed up, the kids would go after him.  It wasn't they were cruel; it was just freshmen's nature.  They were beautiful, young timber wolves.  You could sense their nobility and strength, but if you seemed the least bit weak or sick (or different), they'd pull you down.

Of course, Orson might decide not to present at all.  Like Melville’s Bartleby, he might say, “I prefer not to,” and that would be the end.  The kids would brand him a loser again (not because others might not do their homework, but because it was Orson).  He'd sink deeper in the cloud, fulfilling the conclusion they'd reached about him by believing it himself.  She wrote in her plan book, “Be ready, Orson!” like a little prayer.

Class started with an interruption.  Patty announced the order of presentations, and when Rachael, wearing a placard that said, “I'm a weatherman,” stepped to the podium, the intercom clicked on to announce six cars in the parking lot with their lights on.  Rachael stood at the podium miserably, the reading of license numbers delaying her public speaking moment.

After the interminable announcement ended, Patty slid around the desks until she stood behind Bobby.  Bobby wore a perfume bottles necklace.  If she stayed by him, she figured, he'd be less likely to showcase his talent and disrupt the class again.  Orson looked down at his notebook.  Patty couldn’t tell if he were prepared or not.  She chewed on her lower lip.

Like Bobby, most kids wore outfits to indicate a future career.  Career Dress up Day seemed to be a student senate activity that involved a student majority for a change.  Not surprisingly, Orson had chosen not to participate.

“Go ahead, Rachael,” she said.

Rachael spent a few minutes explaining a hand-puppet version of the battle between Romeo and Paris.  On the chalk board she drew a puppet theater and showed where the actors would hide.  When she finished, she erased the board.

“Thank you, Rachael.  Now we'll hear from Alice.”  Alice, who could set a coin spinning endlessly on her desk, marched to the podium, wearing a banker’s suit.

Student by student, each presented a project to show their interest in the play, and they came closer and closer to Orson’s demonstration.  He never looked up.  Patty couldn’t sense his emotions from this distance.  She gambled keeping Bobby under control was more important than finding out what Orson was feeling.

Finally, Orson’s turn came.  Just as Patty opened her mouth to call on him, the intercom clicked on again.  Vice Principal Drabbe lectured the school for a few minutes about the carelessness of not turning off car lights because it interrupted the school day to find the cars' owners.  The classroom of freshmen, not a driver in the bunch, fidgeted through the droning voice.

Patty waited a few seconds after Drabbe clicked off, took a deep breath, and called on Orson. 

He didn't move. 

The class waited.  Patty knew an unwritten time limit for delay could pass.  A short wait was acceptable, but at some unspoken point, the class would become restive and she would have to call on him again.  She didn't want to do that.  She wanted his presentation to be normal, to be like the others, not different or weird.

She cleared her throat.  Some kids looked at her.  She started to speak, and Orson stood.  Patty’s teeth clicked, she shut her mouth so sharply.  Orson took his notebook to the podium.

Some presentations had gone well so far.  Some had not.  During Paul’s discussion why a scale model of the Globe made from sugar cubes and popsickle sticks would teach him more about Shakespearean theater, the class’s boredom was obvious, and they flat out laughed at Zach when he suggested the class reenact the honeymoon scene with all male actors since, “It would be more authentic to Elizabethan drama.”

Orson arranged his notebook on the podium.  He said something, but Patty couldn’t hear it.  William smirked and leaned over to comment to Fran.

“Could you speak a little louder, Orson?” said Patty.

He nodded and started again with more force.  “Does the play's ending bother any of you?” he said.  He put his hands behind his back and stepped away from the podium.

Nobody spoke.  Patty clenched her hands.  Please let someone be civil, she thought.  Please, please, oh god, please.

Orson didn't move, and the silence stretched.  Outlast them, Patty thought.  A professor last year had taught her, “Ask the question.  Then let them be uncomfortable.  You're not going anywhere.”

Wait them out, she thought.                            

Then Jen said, “I am.  The ending sucks.”

Patty breathed a silent thank you.                     

“Sure,” said Charles, “the ending is lame.  It’s a chick-flick trip.”

Natalie shot back.  “No, it has to end that way.  It’s a tragedy.  And I'll have you know, Charles, there’s no chicks in here unless you're a cock.”

Before Patty could speak, Orson said, “Exactly.  My project deals with how Romeo and Juliet is put together.  I'm rewriting it so it will be a comedy.” 

His pronouncement hung in the air.  Patty tried to read everyone’s emotions, but none were clear.  Leslie raised her hand.  No one else spoke.  Orson looked at Patty for direction, and Patty tilted her head toward the raised hand to indicate it was his call.

“Yes,” he said.  Patty thought his voice pleasant.  Much deeper than his size indicated it might be.  She thought it could be a compelling voice.

Leslie put her hand down.  “I think that’s a cool idea.  How are you going to do it?”

Orson smiled, his teeth even and bright.   Patty had never seen him smile.  “It starts this way."  He turned to the board.  “First, Mercutio and Tybalt are secret friends.  The fight is staged to trick Romeo into giving up his love for Juliet.  They figured when he saw what trouble it caused, he'd drop her and go back to Rosaline.”

“Wow,” said Gloria.  “That is cool.  How about the killing of Tybalt?”

Orson outlined the plot changes on the board.  Class members offered suggestions, and he incorporated them into the outline.  The board filled with names and arrows.

Katy said, “So the nurse secretly loves the friar, and he’s defrocked so they can get together at the end?”

Orson wrote and talked at the same time, laughing.  “Yes, that would work, and Paris falls in love with Rosaline.”

Joy filled Patty.  The class interacted in that magic way that happens so rarely.  Like a perpetual motion machine, it produced more energy than she'd put in.  Hands went up.  Their suggestions overlapped and the babble was happy and unrestrained.  She wished she could hold the moment forever.

Then Jen pulled on Patty’s sleeve.  “Ms. Epson,” she said.  “Can you see?”

At first she didn't, but the class fell silent as Orson continued writing on the board and talking about what else had to change.  He looked out at them.  No one spoke, and they stared, like Patty, with their jaws a little dropped.

“What?” he said, and for a second a hint of black cloud swirled around him.

“That is really cool,” someone said.

“What?” Orson asked again, and then he turned to look at the board.

All the words he'd written glowed.  The names and arrows, boxes and lines, lit in pulsing color, revolving through the spectrum.  Reds dissolved into oranges and yellows.  Blues shifted into green, then indigo and violet.  It was hypnotic and so unexpected.

Jen said, “Oh, Orson, you got your talent.”

Orson looked from the board to the chalk in his hand like a magician’s wand, and light from the board glowed off his face.  He met Patty’s eyes and said in wonder, “I think I know what I want to be, Ms. Epson.  I think I know.”

She could see the teacher in him.

The room flooded with the odor of freshly cut flowers.

Smiling at Orson, Patty touched Bobby’s shoulder.  “Thank you, Bobby.  That’s very nice.  Very appropriate.”

And she quit worrying about her evaluation meeting with Mr. Drabbe.

This story originally appeared in Strangers and Beggars.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."