MARK TWAIN High School, usually just called MTS for short, or what was currently left of it, sat on the corner of Birch Ave and Tercero Blvd in the city of Hawthorne. It was a neighborhood high school, serving kids from Lennox and Hawthorne and occasionally neighboring Lawndale.
The school, at present, was undergoing major reconstruction and had thus become even more chaotic than usual. The entire Tercero side was inaccessible due to new office building construction, so everyone had to enter and exit the campus from Birch Ave. The school had always been unorganized, but the construction crews with their daily chorus of hammering and sawing and pounding and ripping added a whole new level to the usual unruly atmosphere of the place.
Students, mostly Latino, pushed and bustled and flirted and texted their way between classes, darting in and around and under yellow caution tape strung about the place like a senior prank gone viral. Lance zipped in and out of the crowd and stopped briefly at the side of sixteen-year-old Enrique. He paused long enough to whisper something in the other boy’s ear before Enrique nodded in understanding and moved off. Lance ducked beneath the caution tape to bob up alongside fifteen-year-old Luis and hurriedly followed him around Building Eleven toward the parking lot by the pool.
Jenny McMullen, blonde and attractive, intelligent, but not brilliant, in her late-twenties, had been teaching English at MTS for seven years now, ever since she’d gotten her credential from Cal State Dominguez Hills. She’d been a literature undergrad and had always wanted to teach English since she’d been in high school herself. But the difference, she’d discovered, between the private school she’d attended and the public school where she now worked, was literally night and day. None of her credentialing classes had prepared her for the level of apathy she’d encountered amongst the students, or the level of disorganization from the school board on down.
It seemed like every decision was made in a vacuum, without thought or recourse as to how those decisions would affect the kids. She knew too well the overreaching power of the unions, both certificated and classified, and had come to recognize that the needs of the students were not foremost in either of their agendas. Still, weren’t they all here to educate the kids, to bring them to a better place than where they’d found them? Even this construction was an enigma. They managed to get money for rebuilding the entire school, but there wasn’t any to reduce class size or buy newer computers or new software or books or supplies or even athletic uniforms. The kids had to raise their own money to pay for a uniform, for crying out loud!
Ever since she’d begun teaching at MTS, all Jenny ever heard from the top was how they had to shove every kid into college. But she knew full well—because she actually talked with the kids—that many of them didn’t want to go to college. They wanted a good trade, a good skill so they could raise a family, but most didn’t want or need a standard bachelor’s degree. And yet that seemed to be their only choice here. Electives were few and far between and even some of those were half-assed anyway. Jenny had been teaching for seven years, and yet the system was already burning her out.
Her freshman English class, as all of her classes, bulged at the seams with forty-two rambunctious, often ill-mannered and completely uninterested ninth graders. Knowing the neighborhood kids fairly well by now—reading was disdained, but they liked photos and visuals a lot—Jenny had adorned her classroom with pictures of famous writers and poets, like Shakespeare and Byron. She’d posted school and classroom rules, not that it did much good. Teachers at this school were left pretty much to their own devices when it came to discipline. There was a dean, but unless a kid committed murder on camera, suspensions were kept to a minimum. Wouldn’t want to lose that ADA money, would we?
Jenny also loved movies, and knew the kids liked them too, so she’d displayed numerous posters of popular films, mostly recent ones the kids would know. On display were several movie posters depicting King Arthur, most too old for her students to have ever seen except maybe on television. Jenny loved Arthurian legends and stories and attempted to incorporate them whenever possible—not much these days with the rigid curriculum and fixation on the state standardized testing. She’d also put up pictures of castles and a large map of medieval Britain.
At the moment, she had her back to the class as she quickly wrote page numbers on the whiteboard. As she turned back to the class, she observed Lance Sepulveda whispering to another boy seated beside him. Ah, Lance, she sighed inwardly. Probably the smartest kid in the class, when he chose to show up, that is.
“Ahem. Lance, something you’d like to share with the rest of us?” she asked with a raise of her well-groomed eyebrows.
Lance looked at her, a bit startled, but immediately regained his aplomb. He smiled sweetly. “No, Ms. McMullen.”
He suddenly noticed two cute girls sitting a few rows over giggling and smiling his way. He blushed and quickly looked down at his graffitied desk in red-faced embarrassment.
The bell screeched and signaled a mad scramble for the door. Jenny quickly shouted, “Leave your papers on my desk!”
The two girls sighed and brushed up against Lance on their way out. He refused to look up until they were gone.
Pushing and shoving their way loudly toward the door, the students tossed their papers haphazardly atop Jenny’s desk as they whizzed on past.
“Neatly!” Jenny added, knowing it was fruitless. Within seconds, the room had emptied, and the papers were a shambles. Lance hung back, skateboard in hand, as always, and paused to straighten the pile, much to her amazement.
“Thank you, Lance,” she said, gratefully. “It’s nice to see you in school today.”
She’d taken a liking to the boy immediately, with his sharp wit and keen intellect. And what a beautiful boy, she’d often thought. His hair was silkier than hers! And those green eyes were striking. She’d seen many a girl this year trying to get close to him, but he seemed to shy away from all the kids. She’d occasionally see him during lunch chatting with one of the other skaters, but more often than not he’d be sitting by himself staring off into space. She didn’t know what was troubling him, but she liked him enough to want to find out. However, his attendance was spotty, and he so seldom spoke up in class that it was hard to get to know him. She’d tried calling home, but could never seem to get hold of a parent or guardian at any of the numbers in the school’s computer database.
“Ms. McMullen, do you know anything about King Arthur?” Those green eyes were open and expectant.
Jenny’s eyebrows shot up in surprise, and she smiled wryly. “Look around you, Lance, then take a guess.”
Lance looked around at the posters and photos of castles as though seeing them for the first time. In fact, he never had paid much attention. But he’d always had a good feeling about the pretty young maestra and felt she might be the only one around here he could trust. To a point, anyway.
Jenny pushed a strand of light-blonde hair back from her face. “If you showed up to class more often, you’d know that Arthurian stories are among my favorites.”
Lance heard her, but her sarcasm didn’t even register. His gaze remained riveted to one of the King Arthur movie posters, transfixed by the artist’s rendering of Arthur. Pushing his flowing hair back away from his eyes, he shook his head.
“He don’t look like that.”
That caught Jenny off guard. “Who?”
Lance sighed heavily. “No one. Is he real, King Arthur?” He couldn’t take his eyes off that poster.
“He was, yes,” Jenny replied evenly, slipping into her “teacher” voice. “But where facts end and legend begins no one really knows.”
Lance pulled his gaze from the poster and looked the pretty young woman in the eye. He was easily as tall as she. “Did he ever die?”
Jenny was truly mystified. Why the sudden fascination with King Arthur? And those eyes looked so intense, so uncertain. “Well,” she went on, “he was supposedly wounded at the Battle of Salisbury Plain, and then taken to a mystical place called Avalon. There he was to wait out the years, to return one day when Britain needed him most.”
Lance looked at her in confusion. “What’s ‘Britain’?”
Jenny pointed to her map of Britain. “England, Lance. You know, the country?”
Lance shook his head in confusion. None of this added up. “But this ain’t England.”
Jenny laughed nervously. The boy wasn’t just asking random questions. She knew his style well enough. Something was going on. “Now I’m totally lost. What are we talking about here?”
Lance stopped then, realizing he’d probably said too much already. “Nothing. Just something I saw on TV. Gotta go, Ms. McMullen.”
He glanced one final time at the King Arthur poster, then turned and hurried to the door, as Jenny’s fourth period students pushed past him aggressively. One burly boy leered and sneered, “Oh look, Pretty Boy’s back!”
“Eat shit and die,” Lance muttered as he shoved his way out the door, leaving Jenny gazing after him in consternation. These kids!
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Genre – Edgy Young Adult
Rating – PG13