Satire Science Fiction reading writing Teenagers education teaching Books high school

Pirate Readers

By James Van Pelt
Feb 24, 2021 · 4,326 words · 16 minutes

A good book to start the day

Photo by Callum Shaw via Unsplash.

From the author: People outside of education have no idea what schools are like in the present era of standardized testing, teacher "accountability," and externally applied curriculums and measurements. It's a messy, intrusive, complicated, bureaucratic world where teachers and students try to survive its most dehumanizing aspects. If trends continues, schools like the one in "Pirate Readers" are just around the corner.


             Kelsie tapped her Desktop™ rhythmically, switching the display’s background image each time.  As long as she interacted with the interface, it wouldn’t flag her as being inactive.  Mr. Dettis the instructional coach helped a student across the room from her, so she wasn’t worried he would direct her to spend more “time on task.”  He moved with studied efficiency.  Short, wiry, a mouth that never smiled.  Close-set eyes. Kelsie checked her achievement status update: twenty-seven percent through 8th grade social studies, forty-two percent through math, the same with science, eleven percent through Spanish, fourteen percent through 9th grade literacy, and only thirty-three percent through 7th grade P.E.  It seemed like days since any of the numbers had moved. 

            School was SO boring!  More than that; it was claustrophobic.  Almost no place to go where she wasn’t watched—where she wasn’t evaluated and measured.  For being such a big building, it was the smallest place she knew.

            Dettis followed the same route going from station to station, narrating in a monotone as he went.  “Tom is working on an algebra problem.  Tina has finished annotating a poem.  Kipp is . . . asleep.”  Dettis nudged the student’s shoulder.  Kelsie knew she had at least six minutes before he’d check with her again.  She slipped the book from her backpack, a forty-year-old paperback she’d bought online.  Strictly illegal in school, of course, since her reading rate and comprehension couldn’t be measured as it was when she read electronically.  Also, she wouldn’t keep a progress log, nor would she write chapter by chapter predictions of what would happen next in the book.  In short, she was pirate reading, an offense that had cost her detention three times in the year.

            She opened the old book delicately, careful with the yellowed pages, then sighed with contentment at the first sentence: “Petrified with astonishment, Richard Seaton stared after the copper steam-bath upon which he had been electrolyzing his solution of ‘X,’ the unknown metal.”  She glanced at the chapter’s subheading: “The Occurrence of the Impossible.”  That’s what she wanted, the impossible, or at least a world where the impossible was a legitimate concern.  At school, everything related to her “individual strengths and weaknesses,” her “long term goal” and her “growth plan.”  All reading was mandated or chosen from the “developmentally appropriate independent reading list,” mostly political non-fiction.

            “What’s the book?” whispered Gilbert, a tall, plump boy who wore his black hair short.  He tapped his Desktop too.

            “It’s about space travel,” she whispered back.

            “Oh.”  Gilbert looked disappointed.  “That’s my alternate career track, communications satellites.”

            “No, not commercial applications.  People going to space, like to other planets.  It’s an adventure with characters.  It’s . . . interesting.”

            “Why read?  You can watch a movie.”

            “I get two recreational movie hours a week, just like you.  The school suggests documentaries.  That’s not enough.”

            Gilbert glanced over Kelsie’s shoulder, straightened and turned his attention to his work.

            Kelsie slipped the book between her legs, and called up the multiple-choice questions on the chart displayed on her desk.  Question number one was “According to the graph which month will Farmer McDonald have to increase his water requisition to save his crop?”

            “Kelsie is reading a chart,” Dettis announced.  She sighed with relief.

            At lunch, Gilbert lined up behind her.  “Where do you get books like that without your parents finding out?”

            Her tray popped out from the dispenser along with her nutritional goal card: I WILL CONSUMER NO MORE THAN 140 GRAMS OF CARBOHYDRATES TODAY.  She looked doubtfully at the main course, a pile of oily-looking brown rice with little orange cubes that might be carrots.

            “Don’t browse for books.  That’s a tip-off for sure.  Search for household decor.  There’s a subcategory for a den or study.  Some people buy books for the retro look.  Don’t get leather-backed facsimiles.  They cost a fortune and there’s nothing inside them.  But if you look under “budget decorating,” you can order books with real pages.  They sell them by the pound.  You can also check antique stores, but they’re pricey again.”

            “I don’t know,” said Gilbert wistfully.  “I set up a fake name on our account at home when I was nine, and I downloaded some cool stuff.  There was a graphic novel, and this great story called Little Brother.  I don’t remember who wrote it, but the school caught me.  Mom and Dad were furious.  ‘You’re derailing your education,’ Dad said.  If they catch me again I’ll be chained to my desk.”

            “That’s the best thing about these.”  She held up the book.  “No trail.  I’ve been reading in my room at night.  I have a curfew, and my parents can tell when my lights are on, but my e-reader gives me enough light to see my book, and no one knows.”

            “Clever.”  Gilbert studied his tray, which held steamed vegetables and a serving of limp lettuce.  “I’m cursed by a slow metabolism.  If this doesn’t work they’re going to feed me cardboard.  Do you have any extras?”

            “Food?”

            He blushed.  “No, books.”

            She fished into her backpack, made sure no one was looking, and passed him her copy.  “I have this title twice.  Tell me what you think when you’re done.”

            That night, Kelsie read under the covers about Dick Seaton and his rival Mark DuQuesne.  She found herself smiling at the science, which was terrible, but also hopeful.  Seaton built a spaceship, the Skylark to rescue his kidnapped fiancé and ‘Peg’ Spencer.  There were battles and aliens and marriages.  When Kelsie fell asleep, she dreamed about floating above far planets, about suns with strange light, about looking out her window and seeing possibilities.

            “That was so good,” said Gilbert.  He had put the book in a bag to return to her, but seemed reluctant to hand it over.  Kelsie didn’t know the short girl with spiky red hair standing beside him.  “Bernice wondered if she could borrow it.  And I wanted to know if there was a sequel.  I was going to look it up, but the instructional coaches notice and change my reading lists.  I searched for information on sailing once, and for months, all my reading excerpts were about boats.  I just wanted to know the difference between port and starboard.”

            Kelsie nodded.  Everyone’s curriculum was based on aptitude and interest.  She’d started reading science fiction a year ago and used her computer to look up Connie Willis, a writer who used to be famous.  After that, her reading selections at school became science fictional, which would be a good thing except that the selections were never the entire work, and reading that way wasn’t fun.  She remembered in particular a two-paragraph section from Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” but the questions weren’t on what Kelsie felt about the story or her thoughts; they asked what rhetorical strategy Le Guin used, and then there were a bunch of questions about mood and tone.  She really wanted to read the whole story, but she couldn’t find the complete tale without provoking extra excerpts she would have to respond to.

            She’d asked Mr. Dettis why they were never assigned novels, and he said, “You do not need a long work to learn how to analyze text.  Novels take too much time.”

            Nothing in her life encouraged her to read less than her literacy class.

            Bernice lent The Skylark of Space to Debra who lent it to Richard.  Richard returned the book to her with rubber bands around it to keep the pages together.  In the meantime, Kelsie tracked down the sequel, which was confusingly called Skylark Three.

            She passed it to Gilbert while Mr. Dettis went through a presentation on maximizing multiple-choice test scores.

            “How old do you think he is?’ whispered Kelsie.

            “Forty-nine.  It’s on the school’s profile.”

            Dettis reminded them to start by eliminating the least likely answers, a strategy Kelsie learned her first year in school.  “Why in the world would he take a job like this?”

            “I saw him at the mall once with his family.  He’s really a pretty nice guy.  He’s budded, you know.”

            “Budded?”

            “Yeah.  My mom teaches in the elementary school.  They give her an ear bud that coaches her as she teaches.  They’re monitoring her performance, and feed her scripts.  She says that it’s the school trying to guarantee students receive the best education, but I don’t think she likes it.”

            “Ew, that’s terrible.”

            Both her and Gilbert’s Desktops chirped a warning that they were not taking notes.  She turned to her display and wrote, “Ignore bad choices.”

            At lunch, Gilbert, Bernice, Debra and Richard sat with her.

            “I almost got caught last night,” explained Richard, a pale, blond boy who chewed his fingernails when he was nervous.  “I was in bed.  My sister came in.  I didn’t even hear her.  Fortunately, my back was to the door.  She didn’t see it.”

            Debra said, “My parents have books in the living room.  They’re all in French or something.  Dad dusts them on the weekend when he cleans house.  I’ve never seen him read one though.”

            “There are other authors who write this kind of stuff, right?” said Bernice.  “I love the space part of the story, but the women don’t do anything.  I could imagine parts of it excerpted, and one of the answer choices would be, DEMONSTRATION OF SEXIST ASSUMPTIONS.”

            Kelsie bristled.  “That’s possible, but a likelier one would be, REFLECTION OF THE TIME’S CULTURAL ATTITUDES. Here, try these.”  She gave Bernice The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent; Debra took Frederick Pohl’s Gateway; Richard received Lois McMaster Bujold’s Dreamweaver’s Dilemma, and Gilbert got the Skylark Three title.  “When I buy them by the boxful, I don’t get to choose what’s in it.  I have other kinds of books.  There’s western, fantasy, mystery, thriller and horror.  Do you want to mix it up?”

            They shook their heads.

            Elise shrugged but understood.  “We’ll stick with science fiction for now.”

            Dad met her at the door when she came home.  “I found these in the basement.”  He pointed to paperbacks he’d stacked on the dining room table.  “We have talked about this behavior before, young lady.”

            Kelsie tried to act casual.  She laughed.  “It’s an industrial arts project, Dad.  Multimedia.  I’m learning how to work the carving laser.  Paperbacks are cheap, they carve easily, and I can assemble the whole thing with paper glue.  It’s way better than the aluminum structure some kids are doing.”

            “Did Instructional Coach Dettis assign this?”

            “No, he’s academic.  This is vocational.”

            “Wouldn’t paper burn?”

            “Charred edges are a feature of the piece.”

            Dad looked carefully at her while stroking his chin.  “I think you’re putting one over on me.”

            Kelsie held her breath.

            “If you can push your achievement numbers up at school, I won’t tell your mom about the ‘art supplies’.”

            In the next month, the pirate reading group added two more members.  Bratton liked Larry Niven’s Ringworld so much that he paid her rather than returning it, while Tyra asked only for horror titles.  Kelsie gave her Stephen King and Clive Barker, but when Tyra got a taste of Lovecraft, that’s all she wanted.

            Kelsie found Dorothy Haley at the bottom of the box under a James Patterson title (there were a lot of Patterson books).  Haley wrote Red Star Triumphant.  The cover showed a silver-blue spaceship crossing a bloodshot sun.  Kelsie hadn’t finished by dawn and was still reading when called for breakfast.  She padded to the top of the stairs and called down.  “I have a headache, Mom.  I think I should stay home today.”  After the usual checking of her temperature and the inevitable, “Maybe I should take her to the doctor,” which Kelsie assured them would not be necessary, she went to bed.  Soon, both parents left for work.  Kelsie opened the book, which was newer than many the company sent her.  She buried her nose in it.  It even smelled good.  Stomach down on the bed, her chin lapped over the edge, she let the book rest on the floor.  Jewell Ripkin, the Innisfree’s captain, had lost touch with her crew while exploring the giant derelict ship they’d discovered.  Kelsie turned the pages, drifting from her bedroom.  Captain Ripkin trusted her sensors that told her the air within the ship was breathable.  The first lungful was a welcome change from the suit that recycled what she breathed.  Now, helmet off, ship sounds were clear.  Somewhere, a light ringing, like a thimble on metal caught her ear.  What could be making the noise?

            Kelsie read until she realized she was hungry.  It was nearly 5:00.  Her parents would be home soon.

            At school, Gilbert leaned into her cubicle.  “They caught Tyra.  She’s in the principal’s office now.”

            “Is it about pirate reading?”

            “I heard Dettis talking to her.  She used vocabulary in her last essay they couldn’t account for.  He said, ‘Where’d you get cyclopean, eldritch and gibbous?’”

            “What was she supposed to be writing about?”

            “Rhetorical strategies in George Washington’s inaugural address.”

            “Gibbous?”

            Gilbert said, “Yeah, I don’t know how either.”

            Kelsie stiffened.  Getting caught would be her fourth strike.  If Tyra told who gave her the book, she’d be moved to a high supervision academy.  Instead of Dettis visiting her a few times an hour to check on her progress, she’d be in a constantly monitored class.  No time to call her own at all.  She envied the kids who learned independently.  Most didn’t leave their homes except for field trips.  They could read all they wanted as long as their learning objective were met.

            She said, “You’ve got to hold my book.  If they search my backpack, I’m done for.”

            Gilbert shook his head.  “She could give us all up.  Either Tyra stays quiet, or we’re sunk even if we don’t have books on us.”

            Kelsie tried to focus on her Desktop, her heart pounding.  It was a history lesson.  She was supposed to read three excerpted articles about Joseph McCarthy and the Cold War, watch a short video, listen to a speech, and then write an essay that synthesized the material into “an original argument.”   She’d done this kind of prompt numerous times.  After she submitted it, her Desktop would instantly spit back the piece with all mistakes marked, questions about her thoughts (“What did you mean in paragraph two?” “Can you strengthen your third argument with another reference?” etc.), and a graph that showed where her essay scored compared to both her previous writing and to other students who had responded to similar assignments.

            She couldn’t remember the last time she’d written about anything that mattered to her.

            But maybe if she looked really involved in the essay, Dettis wouldn’t stop at her station.  He wouldn’t put his hand on her shoulder and say, “Can you come with me?” to ask her about the books.

            Dettis didn’t talk to her. 

At lunch, Trya said she sat outside the principal’s office for an hour.  When she went in, he said that there had been a mistake and that she could return to her desk.

            “Weirdest thing ever,” Tyra said. 

            Gilbert said, “We were just lucky.  We should dump the books and pretend to be normal kids.”

            Kelsie looked down the table at them, her little pirate reading group.  Bernice, Debra, Bratton and Richard hadn’t said anything.  She didn’t know how they felt.  She thought about how much she looked forward to discussing what she read with them and hearing their reaction to books she’d shared.  Gilbert was probably right.  There was no way they wouldn’t get caught and her role in the group exposed.

            What would Captain Jewell Ripkin do? 

            At home she sat on the top stair into the basement.  Her parents wouldn’t be home for hours.  Kelsie had laid the books out on the floor.  Not counting the ones she would never give away (she’d found another Dorothy Haley book called Bone Singularity), almost 200 paperbacks stared up at her.  She could shut the group down, read the books herself, even the non-science fiction ones, and never share.  At least she could still be a pirate reader.  She sat for a long time before packing them into the boxes and hiding them again.

            Late at night, lying awake in the dark, she realized what Ripkin would do.  There was only one solution.

            Her backpack weighed heavy on her shoulder as she walked into school.  The students who learned best early in the morning were already there.  Others, whose biorhythms peaked later were yet to arrive.  A couple of instructional coaches passed her in the hall.  She couldn’t tell if they were budded, but the coaches when they weren’t in their classrooms always sounded livelier.  She suspected they didn’t put the ear buds in until they were in class.

            Kelsie went to the girl’s locker room first, a place where there were no video cameras.  Lockers only locked during classes, so she picked one in the corner, where whoever used it would have more privacy, and she put a book in it.  This morning she’d used a permanent marker on a blank name tag to write, IT’S AGAINST THE RULES TO READ THIS BOOK, and then drew a little skull and crossbones.  The sticker went on the back to save the cover image.  She put another one in a locker on the other side.  The third book went into a stall in a bathroom.  She looped a string through the fourth and fifth book to hang in a coat closet.

            When Kelsie headed to Dettis’s room, the backpack was five books lighter and she felt as if the gravity in the school had changed.  She was Captain Ripkin on the bridge of the Innisfree, rocketing forward.  Those books couldn’t be traced to her.  She thought of them as idea grenades she’d rolled into the building.

            The feeling only lasted until she saw a book she’d brought in the trashcan.  At lunch she saw another thrown out, and when she left school for the day, the janitor swept a paperback with his big push broom along with dust, dirt and paper scraps.  He pushed the mess into a dustbin.  The IT’S AGAINST THE RULES TO READ THIS BOOK sticker was clear just as the book tumbled from sight.

            Kelsie walked home, her head hung down.  Nobody read the books.  They were just thrown away!  But the longer she walked, the better she felt.  Sure, three books were lost, but maybe the other two found homes.  Maybe even now some kid was reading it, free from curriculum, reading just for fun.

            She prepared five more stickers and put them on the books.  If she placed five a day, it would be forty school days before she ran out.

            That night, she dreamed about long space voyages and heroes, about acceleration couches and airlocks.  In her dream, she stood at the spaceship door, looking out on a strange landscape and smelling a distant sea.  She woke happy.  By the week’s end, she’d dropped twenty-five books in the school.  Were people finding them?  If they were, they hid it well, but she felt good while doing it.

            Mr. Dettis stopped at her desk before she’d even opened the program to where she’d stopped yesterday.  “I need you to come with me.”  He held a paperback under his arm.  Kelsie didn’t need to see it to know a pirate reading sticker was on it.  She started to speak.

            He frowned and shook his head.

           Dettis lead her from the classroom toward his office.  Silent, Kelsie followed, convinced that everybody they passed knew she was in trouble.  Moving to the high supervision education unit would be bad enough.  Only the worst kids needed that kind of instruction, but her parents would be furious.  She clutched her hands in front of her.  Maybe if she ran?

            Mostly she felt the weight of Bone Singularity in her backpack.  She’d just started it.  If Dettis confiscated the book, she didn’t know if she could get another copy.  It would be like “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” but a thousand times worse.

            A long haired boy, looking miserable, sat in a chair outside of Dettis’s office.  He didn’t glance up as they passed through the office door.  She settled into a stiff wooden chair without a seat cushion in front of Dettis’s desk,.  Dettis closed the door behind her.  He moved behind his desk, then carefully dug into his ear.  A flesh-colored button popped out. 

            “Okay, now we can talk.”  He opened a cabinet and pulled paperback books out by the handful, stacking them in front of her.  “You’re not the only pirate reading group in the school, you know.”

            “What?”

            More books joined the first ones.  They weren’t titles she recognized.  “There’s a fantasy group going pretty strong.  I’ve identified four readers in that crowd, and another that leans toward techno-thrillers.  There’s three in that, but you’re the only one doing guerrilla distribution.”  He put the book with her sticker in front of her.  “What do you have to say for yourself?”

            Kelsie thought about dozens of replies.  Some were questions like, “Have you read books?” or “Don’t you remember being a kid?”  And some were defiant.  “You can’t control what I think” or “Nobody cares about what you have us read.”

            What she went with was, “How did you find out?”

            “Word use in your essays, the same way I caught Tyra.  I had to add words to old vocabulary lists to make it look like she had been exposed to that language before, just like I did for you.”  Dettis spread the rest of the books, covering his desk.  “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

            “Excuse me?”

            “Beautiful, the books.”  Dettis picked up one with an orange, alien landscape called Dune.  “I remember the first time I read this one.”

            Kelsie sagged back in her chair.  “Whose side are you on?  You’re an instructional coach.”

            “Only when I’m wearing this, Kelsie.”  He pointed to the ear bud on the desk.  “Before I got one of those, I was a teacher.  Completely different job.”  He handed her Dune.  “You might like it.”

            She held the book on her lap.  The edges were soft.  It was a much-read copy.  “I can keep bringing books to the school?”

            “If you don’t get caught.”  He returned the books to the cabinet.  Four more cabinets just liked it lined the wall.  Did books fill them all?  “And you’ve got to improve your progress.  Read what you want anywhere but at school.”

            “I don’t know.”  Kelsie thought about Bone Singularity.  Even now she wanted to take it from her pack to see what Dorothy Haley did on the first page.  It also was all she could do to not open Dune.  “That will be hard.”

            “There’s nothing I can do.  I would if I could, but I can help you with this. I can give you title suggestions.  I can find authors for you.  All the pirate readers can benefit if you’ll be smart and work in the system.”

            Kelsie squeezed the book.  Where would it take her?  What other books could Dettis guide her to?  “You’re a pirate librarian!” she exclaimed.

            He laughed.  It was the first time she’d seen Mr. Dettis look happy.  “I guess I am.”  He closed the cabinet and locked it.  “So here’s the deal.  Don’t read in class.  Don’t let anyone see you bringing in books.  If you find something really good, let me know.  Oh, and I’ve got someone I want you to meet.”  He opened the door to let the long-haired boy in.

            “Troy,” Dettis said.  “This is the girl I told you about, Kelsie.  Ask her the question.”

            Dettis picked up his earbud, but didn’t put it back in.  “Go to class when you’re done.”

            He closed the door as he left.  Troy looked embarrassed.  His long hair covered his eyes.  “Hi.”

            “Hi,” she said.

            “Mr. Dettis said you liked science fiction.”

            “I do.”

            “I . . .”  He swallowed hard.  “I wrote a story, actually a bunch of them, with space ships and aliens in them.  On my own.  Not for school.  Mr. Dettis said you might read them and tell me what you think.  He said you were my audience.”

            Kelsie was dumbstruck.  If reading without the school knowing was hard, writing had to be twice as difficult.  He would have to write it all by hand. No computer could check it.

            Troy pulled a notebook from his back pack and held it out to her.  Inside, the first page contained just a title in a tidy script, “The Jupiter Dilemma.” 

            “You’re a pirate writer,” she said.

            Troy blushed.  “It’s what’s in my head.”

            His handwriting covered page after page.  He’d even drawn illustrations.  Characters in space suits.  Rockets balanced on long exhaust tails.  A comet streaking above an alien mountain range.

            “I’m honored,” said Kelsie.  “Thank you for sharing your work with me.”

            “I have other notebooks.”  Troy moved the hair away from his eyes.  They were deep blue.

            Suddenly, the school didn’t feel so small. 

           

           

 

 

           

           

           

This story originally appeared in Deep Magic.


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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."