“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.
“The characters, though of a different time, present us with universal lessons we can all learn from.” Mrs. Powell (the Turkey) 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 the desk to his face. 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. All have at least a pen or pencil (Rebecca Greene is grasping a black Sharpie). None have the summer reading out.
“Estamos rodeados de idiotas.” June whispers.
I nod. We are surrounded by idiots.
“First things first,” Turkey says, standing now in the center of the room, as theatrical as a Shakespearean actress, “a group assignment.”
The class, West Greenville High’s finest, exhales an unearthly groan as Turkey hands out stacks of papers, printed front and back with short answer questions. “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, they’ll screw you. I look at her remembering the advice. She’s already on the 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 Harris, and fat-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. “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 quickly, her eraser fluttering about like a desperate insect.
“What would?” Penny asks.
June opens Pride and Prejudice and begins citing a passage. “To be given something.”