“I know that most of you enjoyed the summer reading list, and I can tell you why.” Mrs. Powell, a thin, birdlike woman with close-cropped auburn hair and slender, pale fingers, paces before the class. “It’s because they are classics that delve deep into questions common to us all…”
We’re divided into groups with our desk pulled into tight circles. June Bug sits in front of me, all broad shoulders, black hair, and rolling I-told-you-so eyes. But true to form, her Austen and Bronte are in front of her-yellow and pink tabs highlighting essential passages-along with an opened three-ringed binder, and two No.2 pencils, each sharpened to needle points.
“The characters, though of a different time, present us with universal lessons we can all learn from.” Mrs. Powell- known as “Turkey” due to a sudden and extreme weight loss that’s left her with excessive neck skin-walks to our group and slaps her ruler on sleeping Matt Sumter’s desk. She spends a moment leering at him through a pair of elegant gold-rimmed glasses. “And you will learn or fail.”
He looks up, eyes red, a string of drool connecting his cheek to the desk. First period on the first day of school is too early to study anything let alone English Lit.
Turkey struts away, carrying on about grading criteria, attendance, and extra credit, before returning to her favorite subject: dead authors.
June is more alert than most, her eyes drifting between each member of our group. She studies writing utensils and notebooks, hand movements and facial expressions. While all have at least a pen or pencil-odd Rebecca Greene (known for sporting the same bowl cut hair style since preschool) is grasping a black Sharpie-none have the summer reading. Not out anyways.
“Estamos rodeados de idiotas.” June whispers.
I nod. We are surrounded by idiots.
Turkey, standing now in the center of the room, as theatrical as a Shakespearean actress, mentions something about laziness and how the slothful never prosper. I’m sure she gave this same day one speech to Morgan when she was a sophomore, and will give it to Oliver in a few years. What is it they say about old dogs and new tricks, about old habits? “Now to start the year with a bang.” Turkey’s voice sifts from slightly pompous to genuinely excited, “We have a group assignment.”
The class, West Greenville High’s finest, exhales a tormented groan as she begins handing out stacks of papers, each printed front and back with short answer questions. Needless to say, multiple choice isn’t Turkey’s cup of tea. “Thirty questions, ten per book, shouldn’t be a challenge for the collective minds before me. Your grades will be averaged. You have to the end of class. Begin.”
The trick to group work, June once told me, is to remember that everyone around you is a dumba**, and if you rely on them, you’re screwed. I look at her remembering the advice. She’s already on her fourth or fifth question.
“Let’s see what you got there,” Matt says, peering sideways, attempting to make out June’s meticulous script.
“After I’m done.” She says, eyes down, pencil (one of her prized Ticonderogas) working feverously. She turns the page.
“We need to discuss some of these.” Penny Warren taps June’s paper; her fingernail is painted an adorable morning blue. “The grades will be averaged.”
“My answers aren’t changing,” June words come out casually as if she were ordering a Big Mac with fries. She shoos the finger away. “You can copy mine when I’m done.”
“Why would we do that?” Penny stiffens, lifting her naturally upturned nose an inch or two higher. Last year she was the junior editor on the yearbook staff, and for the previous two, she’s played Mother Mary during the school’s Christmas program. The Greenville Trumpet gave her rave reviews, calling her a ‘rising star.’ Perhaps she thinks that makes her a loud noise in the ears of June P. Rodriguez.
“Did you hear me?” Mother Mary asks, chewing her syllables like bubble gum. “Why?”
June’s pencil stops. She looks up, eyeing each member of the group. “Because you’re lazy, and you want a good grade.”
Around us, other groups of mostly white middle-class teens, stumble their way through the first few questions, each using more eraser than lead.
“Did you hear me?” June Bug, a descendant of some long dead Aztec bloodletter, shows her teeth.
“Ok, ok! Turkey’s looking at us.” Matt whispers, “She’s just scaring us anyways. This s*** won’t count.” Rebecca Greene, and all-but-invisible Megan Something, nod in unison.
“Yeah, a test on the first day…” Penny’s words trail as she pulls a massive book from her backpack, a worn copy of The Complete Jane Austen. Along its pages is a rainbow of carefully placed coloured tabs, each annotated in pen. “And I’m writing my own answers. It’ll be a giveaway grade anyway.”
“That would be nice.” June Bug says, eyes again on her paper, writing more quickly, her perfect, unused eraser fluttering about like a desperate, pink insect.
“What would?” Penny asks.
June opens Pride and Prejudice and begins citing a passage. “To be given something.”