Conn had the somewhat formed thought Maybe I should’ve kept my mouth shut moving through his head right before a fist slammed him straight in the middle of his forehead. He fell out of his chair and was flat on his back on the classroom floor before he could blink. It was from this position on the ground he thought to himself the janitor needed to step up his game a little more and clean the mold growing in between the cracks of the tiled floor. His teacher grabbed the mop of dark brown hair growing on top of Conn’s head and pulled him up to meet her face, “Don’t you ever, talk like that to me again. Now get back in your chair and do your work,” she yelled at him through gritted teeth.
His teacher let go of his hair, and Conn stood up and set his face straight, not wanting to appear weak or hurt in front of his classmates. Conn mouthed a curse word, not daring to say it out loud, as he noticed everyone giggling and scoffing at him. He could feel his face burning like someone had doused it in fire, his head still throbbing, and he felt dizzy from standing up so quickly. So, like most intelligent high school junior boys would do after getting publicly shamed, he grabbed a pencil from his desk and threw it at the back of his retreating teacher’s head.
“Ow!” She yelped and held her hand to the back of her head. The class audibly gasped and snickered behind their hands. Conn smirked to himself, glad to not be the one laughed at for the moment.
The teacher glared at him through a fume of fury and opened her mouth to speak. Conn said before she could say anything, “Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re gonna say. Principal’s office.”
- • •
Conn peered through the principal’s front office window and groaned. Of course today had to be one of the days Everly was working. She was sitting at the desk on the left side of the room, looking very professional and sorting through a stack of papers. Everly is the girl Conn has liked since elementary school, before he even really noticed girls. Everly also happened to be the girl with the best grades in the entire senior class, so of course, out of his league.
Conn got down on his stomach and slowly pushed the door open. Crreeaaak. He slithered his way past the door and behind the right-side desk, so Everly wouldn’t see him. He was almost to the back door of the office, where the principal was, when he heard the desk he was hiding behind shift. He slowly moved his eyes to look up. Everly was leaning over the desk, picture-perfect yet very solemnly looking down on him. “Principal again, Conn?”
Conn forced his head to move up and down.
“You know, that’s what this walkway here in between the desks leading to each doorway is for,” she said.
“Yup, I know,” Conn managed to say, “Just practicing my army crawl for the army, you know?”
“Ah, I see,” Everly sighed, leaning back. She walked to the back of the room and opened the door, “Conn is here to see you.”
“Aw come on, close the door! I don’t want all his disapproving air to get on my skin!” Conn said, still lying behind the desk.
Everly glared at him, and Conn couldn’t help but snicker at how angry and embarrassed she looked. “Here we go again,” he thought, standing up, and braced himself for another scolding. Conn walked to the door and leaned against the door frame, “Hello Mr. Wart-Sir.”
The principal looked up from what he was working on. He wore tiny round glasses, which made his face look bigger than it actually was. He said, “It’s Mr. Worcester, Conner, but thank you. Come in and take a seat.”
“It’s Conn, sir, but thank you,” Conn mimicked, moving to stand in front of the chair but not sitting down.
“So, Conner,” Mr. Worcester said, “What brings you in here today?”
“Oh, you know,” Conn shrugged, “Just wanted to say hi. See how our ole principal is holding up.”
“Oh really? Well, let’s see, it looks like I just got a voicemail from your history teacher. She says you wouldn’t do your classwork, talked back to her, and threw a pencil at her?”
“Well not exactly. You see, I had already finished my classwork. So, I had nothing else to do. But yeah, all the other stuff is true.”
“Conner, let me ask you something. Do you want to be held back another grade?”
Conn’s face turned red, remembering his elementary years and the shame of getting held back in fourth grade. It had been and still was difficult to pass his classes, because his parents couldn’t help him understand his homework at home. Neither of them had graduated high school, so what Conn was learning in his junior year was beyond anything they had learned. Conn skipping classes when he didn’t “feel like” going probably wasn’t helpful to his grade either. “No, sir,” he replied.
“All your friends are seniors and are graduating this year. Don’t you wish you could be graduating like them?”
“Well, not all my friends. And yes sir, but it’s a little late for that.”
“Then you need to start focusing on your schoolwork if you don’t want to be held back again. Not focusing on your classmates or getting into fights. I’m not telling you this for my sake or your teachers’ sake, but for your sake. Does this make sense?”
“Good. Well, I’ll let you go this time. Try to make better choices, alright Conner?”
“Alright, thank you sir,” Conn said and backed his way out the door. When he had shut the principal’s office door behind him, he turned around and glanced at Everly as he walked past her desk and smiled and rolled his eyes into the back of his head. She didn’t smile back.
- • •
Conn didn’t go back to class after he left the principal’s office. He waited on a bench in the hallway outside his history class until the bell rang, signaling the end of the school day. His friends came up to him on the bench as they came out of class.
“Hey man,” his friend Joe said, “We’re heading over to the baseball field, wanna come?”
“Do I ever,” Conn stood up and raced them out the door, with teachers and students giving them dirty looks as they brushed passed them with shouts of enthusiasm. The boys ran down the sidewalk and down the road, feeling the crisp air of October bite their faces. They ran past house after house and tall cornfields that had not been harvested. When they had run the mile from the school to the baseball field, they fell in a heap on the ground, all of them sweaty and already tired. They lay there panting and laughing in between huffs of breath, until finally Conn stood up and said, “Alright, alright guys. Let’s play.”
They played four against four, throwing ball after ball, swing after swing, running, sliding, yelling, laughing, the eight of them soaking in sweat and the freedom of youth. “Winning team gets to pick a dare for someone from the losing team to do!” Conn’s friend Elton yelled out, with shouts of approval confirming the deal. They played until the sun started to set and the sky became tinged with pink, and it was clear Conn’s team would win.
“Alright, alright,” Conn’s friend Jim said, huddling up with Conn’s team, “I have an idea for the dare.” After they had given their agreement, Jim called the other team over. “In honor of Elton having the idea to give a dare to the losing team,” Jim started, “We have decided to let Elton carry out the chosen dare.”
“Let’s hear it!” Elton shouted impatiently.
“In English class tomorrow, we dare you to publicly comment on Mr. Williams’s lazy eye. And don’t be nice about it.”
“Oooooo,” the boys said in unison.
“Easy,” Elton said, and they shook on it.
The boys could’ve done something that didn’t necessarily affect anyone other than Elton, like forcing him to jump naked in the pond down the road and swim through the algae. But what’s the point in taking time out of their day to walk all the way down to the pond and all the way back? They needed something that made school more exciting, something that got them through the day. Something that made them look forward to school. And of course, that involved picking on their worst school enemies: the teachers. Conn looked forward to the next day with an excitement and curiosity he didn’t usually feel about school.
- • •
“Where have you been?” Conn’s mom asked before Conn even had time to close the front door of his house.
“School, where do you think?”
“Don’t talk back to me like that, son. You haven’t been at the baseball field, have you? Not before you finished your homework?”
Conn’s eyes wandered to notice his younger brother Jonathan lying on the couch patiently studying his textbooks. The living room was clean and tidy, not a speck of dust in sight. He could still smell dinner coming from the kitchen (casserole most likely), even though he knew they must’ve eaten without him, since it was getting late. He could tell his mom had been working hard all day, and he didn’t want to upset her, but he also didn’t want to get in trouble. “Course not, Mom,” Conn lied.
“Then what’s all this dirt covering your nice school pants?”
“It’s from – It’s just – I was just –,” Conn groaned when it was obvious from the look on his mom’s face he wasn’t getting away with it this time.
“Stand against that wall and don’t move!” His mom roared.
Conn knew what was coming next. But he wasn’t going to give his mom or Jon the pleasure of seeing him cry, not this time. So he faced the wall, held still, crossed his arms, closed his eyes, and made his mind focus on other things. Playing baseball with his friends… WHAP went the sound of the belt against his back. “You are not supposed to go to the baseball field until your homework is finished!” His mom shouted over the sound of his thoughts. Elton’s dare against Mr. Williams tomorrow… WHAP went the belt a second time. “Do not lie to me again!” His mom shouted. WHAP went the belt again. Conn stared at the drowsy brown paint chipping off the wall in front of him, above the brown paneled walls below… WHAP. His mom really needed to apply a fresh layer of paint to these walls… WHAP. It was all Conn could do not to focus on the pain and the tears that wanted so badly to pour out. WHAP went the belt a final time, and then his mom stepped back. “Alright,” she exhaled, then inhaled deeply, “You’re done.” Conn turned around and faced his mom. Her face was red and sweating, and she was breathing heavily. Good, he thought to himself, I’ve finally worn her out.
- • •
“Elton. Elton,” Mr. William’s said in English class the next morning, during the time when Conn was trying very casually to sit comfortably in his seat without leaning back and rubbing his sore back against the seat.
“Sir?” Elton looked up from his notebook.
“Class time is not for doodling, it is for taking notes and-”
“Sir?” Elton said again.
“I said, class time is not for doodling-”
“Are you talking to me?” Elton asked innocently.
“Yes, I’m talking to you!” Mr. Williams shouted in his face.
“Then look at me!” Elton spat back.
Conn’s group of friends roared in laughter. Conn momentarily forgot of his pain as he laughed over the expression on Mr. Williams’s face. His face had turned hot red, one eye staring straight through Elton’s soul, the other looking vaguely to the side.
“Principal’s!” Mr. Williams choked out.
“Yes sir!” Elton stood straight up and walked proudly to the door.
“And the rest of you,” Mr. Williams looked at each boy in turn, “STOP. LAUGHING!”
This is what life was to Conn as a junior in high school. Doing whatever he could to add a little enjoyment to life, never worrying about getting in trouble or facing the consequences. This was when his life was carefree and simple, this was before he fell in love, before he entered the responsibilities of the world, before he woke up to the slap in the face that life had in store for him. This was before Conn started to worry his life would ever turn alright in the end, but it was also before Conn had hope. Hope that maybe something was dawning in the horizon that would give him a reason to forget the pain of his past and look forward with eagerness to a new joy in the future.
Note: Samples should not be read as models. They are provided for discussion.