The lights onstage were uncomfortably bright. Simon Dell wiped his forehead surreptitiously and tried to look like he was glad to be there. It was a custom of his—he had forgotten why he’d established it—to visit all the public schools in the area the first month or so of school. He’d been at the high school yesterday and would go to two of the elementary schools next week. Today was Middleton Middle School.
Nick Carmichael, dressed stylishly in a gray designer suit and black leather shoes, was standing regally in front of the podium erected at the front of the room. Dell straightened up in his chair.
Stupid school chairs. He hated them. Hard plastic, and cold. They made a man feel ridiculous, having his knees up against his chest, because the chair was too small.
“Attention, please,” repeated Carmichael, in the quiet, authoritative voice of a school principal, and the fidgety children quieted down a bit. “We have a distinguished visitor here with us today. So please give a warm Middleton Middle School welcome to Mayor Simon Dell.”
The gymnasium, which doubled as an auditorium, burst into loud, false applause, and Mayor Dell approached the podium. He coughed, drank some from the water glass provided him, and prepared to give his tried-and-true “Back To School” speech. The school, meanwhile, sat back without enthusiasm and prepared to listen to it.
“Good morning and welcome to a new school year. I’m sure this will be the best year yet at Middleton Middle. Here we have able principals, counselors, teachers, and especially, students.” Another quick sip of water. “Principal Carmichael has told me of the many new improvements this year, made possible in part by the efforts of our city government and school board. You have a new gymnasium, with a weight room, and every other Friday will be designated ‘student choice’ day here in the cafeteria.”
The students murmured their approval.
He continued, “But I’m not here to talk to you about what the town of Middleton has done for you. Today, I’m here to talk to you about what you can do for Middleton.” Damn his dry throat. One more sip of water. “The state is having an essay contest, the theme of which is ‘What Makes America The Greatest Nation On Earth.’ All statewide students, grouped according to grade level, are being asked to participate.”
The dark-haired boy in the next to last row, the one sitting next to the strawberry blonde, perked up and listened. This sounded familiar. He remembered it from the poster in Principal Carmichael’s office.
“The prize, should you win the statewide competition,” said the mayor dramatically, “is to move up to the national level, where your essay will be judged by a group of college professors. Plus, you, your parents or legal guardians, and two other guests will get to go on an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, for an entire week.”
The students again murmured their interest. However, the reaction was not as strong as it had been for “student choice” day.
Dell knew he would have to wrap this up soon or lose their attention. “Anyway, I’d just like to ask you to keep working hard, take your grades seriously, and remember to be proud because you attend the best little school in the best town city in America.” And with that, he took another swallow of water and stepped off the stage.
Carmichael was waiting for him outside the gymnasium. He began walking with the mayor down the hall, while the students pushed past them like small currents against rocks in a stream.
“Nice speech, Simon.”
“Really think the little buggers have got a chance of winning that contest?”
“Of course I do.” Dell raised his chin slightly, a clear sign of his being insulted. “Nick, we’ve got the brightest kids in the whole damned country. Of course we’ll win.”
Principal Carmichael looked at him in amusement. “Really?” he said flatly. “Then how come when they get to high school, their SAT scores always fall in the low to average range?” Then, before the other man could answer, he disappeared around the corner and was accosted by two teachers, who began waving papers in his face.
Mayor Dell sighed.
He supposed he should go visit the individual classrooms. Interact with the students, that kind of thing. Get their feedback on the whole essay contest. Just you wait, Nick, he thought, one of the kids would win. Then he’d show Carmichael what happens when—
Dell jumped, angrily whirled around, and found himself looking into the deep green eyes of a tanned, youngish man with a full head of white hair. “Yes, Mister ... ?”
“Klein.” The man put out his right hand. “Gerald Klein, seventh grade English teacher.”
Dell shook his hand heartily. “It’s a pleasure. Simon Dell, mayor.”
“I was wondering if you’d come to my class. Talk a little about the essay competition.”
The mayor beamed. “Of course, of course. Lead the way.”
With a strange, energetic, somewhat galloping gait, Mr. Klein led the way upstairs to his room of about twenty bored, chatting thirteen-year-olds. They were mildly curious upon seeing their teacher enter the room with the mayor and quieted down.
“Your teacher,” began Dell in his trademarked baritone, “asked me to come here to talk a little more about the essay contest.”
The children looked at him expectantly.
“So. Are there any questions about the contest?”
Like a wasteland. The twenty pairs of eyes roved around the room, bored, and some of the students stifled yawns. Then, slowly, one timid little creature raised his hand the slightest bit.
“I was wondering, ah, what the rules are,” said the boy.
“The rules?” Dell felt the back of his neck go hot. “Well, they’re all spelled out on the sheet, I suppose. I’m sure your teacher has some of those hand-outs.” He realized how uninformed he sounded and tried to do some damage control by saying, brightly, “Say, what’s your name?”
Very talkative kid. “So, Robert, what would you do your essay on? The Revolution? The Civil War? World War Two?”
“Actually, I think I’d like to do the Cold War.”
By now, the other students were giving him dirty looks. In their eyes, he was just being a brownnoser. Mayor Dell, however, grinned.
“Tell me,” he said, “you’re a bit young to remember the Cold War, aren’t you? What on earth could you write about it?”
Robbie knew exactly what he could do: McCarthyism. The only reason he knew of that distinguished senator from Wisconsin, or of the Cold War itself, for that matter, was because of his great-uncle Harrison. In the fifties, Harrison had been a student at a small-town university and had seen several professor lose their jobs over refusing to take loyalty oaths swearing they weren’t Communists.
Harrison always said they’d deserved it. He always said he’d wished he’d gotten drafted for Korea or, failing that, hadn’t been too old to be drafted for Vietnam.
“I guess I’d talk about the Berlin Wall coming down,” Robbie heard himself say, “and how happy all the East Germans were that they were free.”
Mayor Dell praised him for his intelligent interest in America’s history, to the general disgust of the class, and Robbie cursed himself for his cowardice. That wasn’t what he had wanted to say. That wasn’t what he wanted to write about.
The next item on Simon Dell’s list of things to do at Middleton Middle School was to eat lunch in the cafeteria. Besides being a good photo opportunity, it was a chance to talk with the children. He sat down at a table of eighth-graders, carrying a metal tray filled with fried chicken and mashed potatoes, and doled out anti-smoking and anti-drug stickers to them. After lunch, he went out to his car to get his cell phone and call the office for his messages, while the eighth-graders retired to the bathroom for a cigarette break.
Over the phone, Mayor Dell’s assistant informed him that he had to give a short lecture to a pre-algebra class. Dell frowned. He wanted to know why.
“Because,” the assistant explained patiently, “you minored in mathematics. They think that actually means something.” Which wasn’t true, but the mayor agreed to talk to the pre-algebra kids anyway.
He told them about the importance of education in today’s technologically rich world. He told them how much money those majoring in mathematics and science were earning, how in demand their skills were. He concluded by pointing out how math and science had improved their lives: the smallpox vaccine, men landing on the moon, the World Wide Web—
“The atomic bomb.”
Dell looked up in annoyance. The remark had come from a freckled, red-haired girl in the very back row, who was looking directly at him with only slightly contained hostility. The dark-haired boy sitting beside her, who looked familiar for some reason, nudged her with his elbow and motioned for her to be quiet.
“Yes,” he said to her, “and the atomic bomb, which was in fact a good development.” He turned to the rest of the class. “You see, guys, America’s use of the bomb in World War Two helped end the war more quickly. It saved the lives of millions.”
The girl made no further argument, only muttered something that Dell couldn’t quite hear. But, all in all, the talk went well. There were no additional disruptions.
Though he knew he ought to get back to town hall, Dell instead headed for the teacher’s lounge, leaning back in an uncomfortable plastic chair and eating peanuts from the vending machine. He deserved a rest. Every year, the kids seemed to get more and more unmanageable. Just when he thought he was ready to leave the relative safety of the teacher’s lounge, Nick Carmichael strolled in. A big grin was plastered on his smug, handsome face.
“All right, Nick. What’s so funny?”
“Oh, not much.” He dropped some quarters into the vending machine and took out a diet soda. He looked over his shoulder at Simon. “I just heard how you were shown up by a thirteen-year-old.”
“You’re as bad as a gossipy old woman.”
“Don’t feel so bad. The little monsters do that all the time. They have this incredible superiority complex—makes ’em want to show up adults any chance they get.”
“Thanks,” groaned Dell, “but that doesn’t make me feel any better.”
Carmichael shrugged good-naturedly and left with his soda.
After finishing his peanuts, the mayor began to slowly make his way outside. He still felt tired and worn out. But his car sat just a few yards away. If he could make it a few more steps, he would be there, on his way back downtown.
Then he saw the big-mouthed girl, standing beside the same boy she was with before. Robert was his name. Dell blinked in surprise. He wondered how he knew the boy’s name. Of course, that didn’t matter. What mattered was that his little friend had made him look like a fool. Should he go over and talk to her? Explain why it was wrong to show such disrespect for her elders?
No. That might upset the charming little tyke. And if she became upset enough, she might, just might, complain to her parents about how the big, nasty mayor had harassed her at school. And her parents, voting citizens of Middleton, just might become angry. They might not vote for him in the next election. Or even worse, they might blow things all out of proportion and file a complaint against him. The papers would have a field day with that. “Mayor Berates Little Girl In Public; Parents Press Charges.” No. Obviously he couldn’t confront her, no matter how much he personally wanted to.
Better safe than sorry—that was Mayor Dell’s motto.