By December, Henry Chipchaw, my art teacher, had figured out that I was in trouble. He was pretty cool about it in the beginning, trying not to embarrass me. Instead he embarrassed the bullies by pointing out their barbaric behavior. The head asshole, Brian Pullman, a sophomore, had pulled a number of stunts in the lunch room and the hallways when Mr. Chipchaw was on duty. He had given Brian and his friends several detentions and I heard other kids saying that the principal had spoken to them. But there reached a point, sometime in March, where the abuse got worse and Mr. Chipchaw decided it was time to take more action.
At lunch that day, I had positioned myself in a corner of the cafeteria, hidden behind a few tables of annoyingly loud girls. Safely out of sight from Brian, I was almost invisible, and tried to pretend that I chose to eat alone. I busied myself with my sketchpad, but on other days, I would read a book or sometimes play a game on my phone. Once done eating, I would bolt outside and find a spot where I could hang out unnoticed. That was usually up in the very top of the bleachers, in a corner, while everyone else played basketball, wall ball, soccer, or just hung out.
On this one day, Brian Pullman and his gang saw me trying to sneak out of the lunchroom to the recess area and quickly caught up to me.
“Hey it’s the runt, Jonah! Jonah the lonah!” He shouted as his big hand grabbed my neck. “Where you been, buddy? We missed you,” he said laughing. His friends grinned and laughed, eager to carry out whatever Brian was plotting. “Come on and play dodge ball with us, Runt.”
There were multiple hands all over me, practically carrying me to the multicourt, where students played wall ball. The Manning twins, also part of the gang, rolled up a cart of rubber balls. The rest of his gang pinned me against the cement wall.
Brian threw the first ball from close range and hit me square in the face, hard, giving me a bloody nose. While I touched it and examined the blood on my fingers, I was suddenly pelted with a couple dozen balls by Brian and friends. They laughed as I ran off to the school nurse.
Mr. Chipchaw passed me in the hall on my way to the nurse and stopped and looked at me.
“What happened Jonah?”
“What happened Jonah?” he asked again.
“I had an accident playing wall ball.
“Hmmm…I’ll see you in the nurse’s office.”
I sat on an examining table with an ice pack and a washcloth, wanting to die. A few minutes later, I heard Mr. Chipchaw come in and ask Mrs. Mateo, the school nurse, if we could have a moment alone.
“So, Jonah, I see you are becoming more and more popular with Brian Pullman and his band of merry morons.”
I nodded, eyes looking away from him.
“They're all getting a week’s lunch detention. Their parents will be notified. And I think it’s time to call your parents. We need to take some more serious measures here.”
“No! Please don’t call my parents,” I protested. “Please Mr. Chipchaw! Please!”
“Look Jonah,” he began, “Brian and his friends have been giving you a hard time for quite a while. I’ve tried to help you out, but we need to involve your parents now.”
“I’ll tell them. I promise. Please. Please Mr. Chipchaw. Let me handle my parents.”
Mr. Chipchaw must have seen the terror in my eyes because he put his hand up. “Alright, but you need to let them know, I mean it. And this is for the very short term. I’m meeting again with the principal next week and your parents will have to be informed.”
He hesitated for a moment. “Okay…we're going to need a plan. A good one.”
He took a seat opposite the examining table and scratched his head, accidentally flattening a section of his hair. The rest of his hair shockingly defied gravity. But given his strange sense of fashion, the hairstyle felt appropriate. Other than the black Converse high top sneakers, the rest of his ensemble – the checkered pants, paint stained lab coat, shiny disco shirt, goggles, and Mardi Gras beads, all made a pretty frightening statement. Like he either got dressed in a dark closet or he was on some serious drugs.
Despite my miserable situation, I had to ask, “Hey Mr. Chipchaw, why do you wear different colored Mardi Gras beads every day?”
Breaking his deep train of thought, he smiled and looked down at the beads around his neck.
“Mardi Gras is my favorite. I go every year. I love the music, the people dancing in the streets, all dressed up and having a good time.”
I must have looked puzzled.
“Well, isn’t it obvious?”
I shook my head no.
“Even if I have to be in an important meeting and I’m in a stuffy dress shirt and tie, the beads are still underneath. A reminder that we need to celebrate each day. Live life to the fullest. Sing and dance and play music every day. Or just have fun! Otherwise, what’s the point of being alive?”
It dawned on me suddenly just how much he had in common with my parents. And why he was probably still single.
“Alright,” he began, “here’s what we’ll do. You must be aware of the Underground Lunch Society by now?”
“It’s a sort of…land of the misfit toys, if you will.”
I was still confused.
“There are plenty of students in this school who would never set foot in the lunchroom or on the multi-purpose court. They aren’t ever going to be comfortable with…the mainstream.”
“Oh, I see where you’re going.” I said, shoving a clean tissue up each nostril.
“Sure, so kids go to the library, the work shop, the band room, the computer lab, and the art room. And they either hang with their own peeps or they fly solo. It’s not ideal, but it works on some level.”
“So, you’re thinking that I should go to…?”
“My art studio, of course. You’re an artist! You can eat in peace and create! Draw, sleep, read, listen to music, whatever. No one will bother you.”
“Except I have no friends in the art room.” I answered.
“Well, it doesn’t look like you have any friends right now.”
That felt like a knife through my heart. I looked down. Mr. Chipchaw leaned forward, looking at me intently.
“I’m sorry to say that. Look, I know you want to hang with the jocks and all your old friends, but for now, I think the art studio is a safe place for you. Until we can figure out something else. Otherwise, I’ll have to call your parents today.”
“Okay, fine.” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Good!” He stood up. “When you come to my room tomorrow, I will go over another idea with you…to maneuver all the landmines in this place.”
“I can’t wait,” I said, sarcastically.
Mr. Chipchaw stood there patting his various pockets and then finally found what he was looking for. He pulled two white shoe covers from an inside pocket, quickly slipped them over his sneakers, and started out towards the hallway. I followed him to the door.
“Are we okay, Mr. Duffy?” Mrs. Mateo called from her desk.
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine now.”
“Alright, here’s a pass so you can go back to class. Take some extra tissues with you just in case.”
I walked over to her desk, took the pass, thanked her, and then quickly headed out the door. I caught the tail end of Mr. Chipchaw speed skating in his shoe covers at a good clip down the hall, before crossing over and turning right.
I realized it was probably only a matter of time before I spotted him roller skating on some main city street in a crazy outfit, grooving to disco tunes. It became even more important that he and my parents should never meet.
The next day I made my first appearance in the art studio for lunch. When I walked in, I saw Mr. Chipchaw sitting at his desk, putting the finishing touches on an enormous Krazy Straw. He was totally engrossed in the intricate network but after a few seconds he popped out of his seat and exclaimed, “Voila!” A couple of the students clapped. He stuck the giant straw contraption in a jug of water, took a huge sip, and then looked up. When he noticed me, he rushed over.
“Good, glad you’re here Jonah.” Alright, shall we introduce you to some of the other students?”
I shook my head no.
“Okay, not up for that just yet. No problem, plenty of time for that later. Why don’t you have a seat and get settled. I want to go over something with you.”
I took a seat at an empty table and unpacked my lunch. I noticed two students painting on canvasses. Actually, one of them was just smearing peanut butter and Fluff on a canvas. Another boy was making an elaborate structure out of pipe cleaners, while the girl next to him played with modeling clay. At the very back of the room, there was a student working on a large and frightening sculpture composed of at least twenty mannequin arms. He stepped back to examine it. His friend advised, “Needs more arms.” And the sculptor nodded, adding, “I was thinking the same thing.”
I ate my turkey sandwich and opened up the large school binder that contained all my subject notebooks. I flipped passed my Geometry notes, Biology, World History, Spanish, and English sections until I came to a back divider. This was a secret section that contained pages of hand drawn maps and diagrams. I took out some colored pencils from my backpack and began charting out various routes, safe spaces, and danger areas. My locker was definitely a red zone, as were certain bathrooms. Mr. Chipchaw approached, munching on an apple.
“Oh, this is excellent,” he said, leaning over me. “I guess great minds think alike,” he added, quieter. He scanned the class and then cautiously produced from inside his strange lab coat, some papers. He discreetly handed them off to me and whispered, “This is classified information. Do not share this intel with a soul.”
I swallowed hard. “What is it?” I whispered.
“The class schedules for…you know…” he whispered back, his eyes peering around the room suspiciously. “You need to copy this information and then I’ll immediately destroy it.”
“Oh, okay. Right.” I answered. I suddenly realized Mr. Chipchaw was giving me the academic schedules for all the bullies.
Before he stepped away, I pulled on his lab coat and whispered, “You’re risking a lot for me, Mr. Chipchaw.” He must have seen the concern in my eyes because he took a seat next to me.
“Well, as a teacher, I have access to the portal so I can enter grades for all my students. Every teacher can access any student’s schedule. You’re correct though, I shouldn’t be sharing this with you, it could land me in a heap of trouble.”
“Then why are you doing this?” I asked him.
Mr. Chipchaw exhaled loudly and put his hand on my shoulder. “Because I want to keep you safe, Jonah.”
I nodded. “Thank you. I’ll make some notes and give this right back.”
“Roger that,” he replied, winking at me.