It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times. When Charles Dickens used words similar to these, he was speaking of the clash between French nobility and commoners. I use the words to describe the tensions between teacher and student caused by a simple school assignment.
Perhaps I shouldn't say "simple." The assignment was a seven-page report on any aspect of the 1920s. I was rather interested in this subject, but the concept of seven pages is simply over and beyond the average eighth-grade mind. When Mrs. Ashburn, our English teacher, informed us of the project, nearly everyone groaned. One giggle rose above these groans: that of Chris Winthrop. He was our dedicated history buff, especially when it came to the early twentieth century. While everyone banged their heads to heavy metal, Chris tapped his toe to Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman. He was an anachronism. He lived in a hundred-year-old house and owned a victrola, but insisted that his personal computer and compact disc player were necessary for survival. Everyone saw the fine line between uniqueness and eccentricity.
Chris personally owned many books about the twenties and could easily have an intelligent conversation with someone from that era. The rest of us knew we would have to live in the library for days while Chris could use the information in his memory. In the weeks that followed, everyone scrambled to find source books and write rough drafts while Chris daydreamed about old Cadillacs. He fully knew he could write the report the day before it was due and still get an A+. We ignored Chris from now on.
Our teachers easily grew tired of our obsession with this assignment. We began working on the report during every class and no longer paid attention. The teachers responded to this by imposing a fine on any student caught writing during class. Understanding the versatility of eighth-grade students, it's easy to see why this failed. The teachers, too, learned to despise the report.
My best buddy Eric and I worked pretty closely together in these weeks. We visited the public library together and proofread each other's rough drafts. After much hard work, we made a lot of headway. The night before the report's due date, we went home confident that we could finish without a hitch.
1800 hours: I finish my final copy of the report. 1815 hours: My hand uncurls from its grasp of my pen. 1830 hours: The phone rings. I answer, and hear this greeting:
"No, Eric, that should be 'hello.'"
"Brendan, I'm in trouble!"
"Trouble?" My sick sense of humor kicks into overdrive. "What, did your girlfriend leave you for a soap opera star? Did you run out of clean underwear? No, wait, I know. The KGB is after you!"
"Stop acting like a dork!" Eric screams. He only loses his temper when something is truly wrong. I shut up. He goes on. "I forgot my rough draft and note cards at school. I can't write my final copy without them!"
"Eric, it's due tomorrow! And do you remember what she said? No late papers accepted and if you flunk the paper, you flunk the quarter!"
"I know all that! What are we gonna do?"
"We? Who's 'we'? Have you developed a split personality?"
"That's how this conversation started." I wrack my brain for ideas. "We've got to get those note cards."
"But they're locked up at school."
"Yeah...." The theme from Mission: Impossible starts bouncing around in my subconscious. We could break into St. Bernard's, steal Eric's materials, and escape before anyone knew we were there. I instruct Eric, "Meet me at my corner at 1900 hours."
"Have you ever seen Mission: Impossible?"
"Think about it. I'll see you in a few minutes."
I hang up, and my mind races. Everyone has wanted to be a spy at one time, and that includes me. I go to my room and find the keys to the school. The custodian lets me keep them because I help clean up the cafeteria every Friday before school. I gather some other items and notice that it is seven o'clock...rather, 1900 hours. I go to meet Eric.
I reach my corner and see Eric running from his street. As he passes under the streetlight, I notice his clothing: a black sweatsuit, stocking cap, and dark shoes. I roll my eyes, saying to myself, "At least he didn't paint his face black." He looks at me like I'm undressed.
1905 hours: We jog to school, about a mile from my house. 1915 hours: We arrive at St. Bernard's and I take Eric to the side door of the gym. We rest. Eric takes a canister of black make-up out of his pocket and rubs it on his cheeks. He offers some. I decline.
1920 hours: I study the lock on the door, wondering which key to use. Eric fishes a nail file, a hatpin, and a thin length of wire out of his pockets. He attempts to pick the lock. I observe, chuckling softly. After a few minutes of failing at juvenile delinquency, Eric stands aside.
"You think you can do better?"
I unlock the door and open it.
"Sure, take all the fun out of it."
1925 hours: We move down the gym's rear staircase to the cafeteria. I unlock the kitchen door and snag a few cookies. We reach a set of double doors. They won't budge.
"This is latched, not locked with a key," I moan. "I forgot about these doors." Eric looks heartbroken. "But I have an idea."
1930 hours: From a broom closet, I toss a metal trash can to the floor. Within seconds, the custodian-in-residence darts from his apartment down the hall looking for intruders. He unlatches the doors and continues down the hall. We slip through the doors and take a shortcut through the library to the junior high wing of the school. We watch the custodian return to his apartment, shaking his head.
1935 hours: We reach Eric's homeroom, whose walls held his materials captive. I draw forth an old credit card and slip it between the lock and doorjamb. The lock clicks open. With a triumphant gesture, I let him inside. I smile as her digs through the papers in his desk. I go to Mrs. Ashburn's desk and do my best imitation of her. Eric snickers as he pages through the papers. 1945 hours: Eric looks up and says, "Maybe I did bring them home."
I look for a sharp object.
"Oh, here they are!" Eric breathes. I take the scissors from his neck. I nod, and we quietly exit the room. Eric heads for the doors leading outside, and I nudge him the other way.
1955 hours: Eric nervously sits next to me as we watch MTV in the school's television room. I empty my duffel bag of the remaining supplies: two cans of Pepsi and a bag of popcorn. Neither of us have cable television, so I thought we could watch some music videos while on our mission. I stand up to play air guitar wildly. Then, as I dance and sing along, I see a shadowy figure in the hall.
"What?" Eric queries. Then he notices the person in the hall and suddenly has trouble breathing.
I babble, "Uh...ah...we'll clean this all up...I'm sorry...we'll be on our way...uh..."
"Hey, calm down. It's just me." Chris Winthrop steps into the light.
I try to faint but fail. "Wha...what the heck are you doing here, Chris?"
"Research? You? But you have your own library at home. Why do you need to use St. Bernard's library?"
"Well, you know how old my house is...." Chris shuffled his feet.
"The plumbing is just as old. A pipe burst and ruined all of my books." His face grew mournful. "And what's more, I have writers' block."
Eric is chuckling in the background. "Chris, have you ever heard a proverb that says, 'He who laughs last....'"
"You can I-told-you-so me all night for all I care. I have work to do." At that moment, I hear footsteps in the hallway.
"Uh...Chris? Did anyone come with you?"
"No, I came alone."
"Oh, great." I grab my duffel bag. "Run away!"
The three of us shoot out of the television room like scared rabbits. We run for the nearest exit and assume we are safe. I lunge for the doorknob and grab it. The doorknob doesn't turn. I panic and begin to pray. Eric calmly grabs his hatpin, jams it in the keyhole, and opens the door in one motion. I feel the custodian's breath at my neck as we escape into the night.
Chris breaks away from Eric and me. "My writers' block seems to have cleared up!" he calls as he runs for his house.
Eric and I run the mile in seven minutes. At 2005 hours, I collapse in my driveway and say goodbye to Eric. He jogs home and I crawl inside my house.
"Where have you been?" my mom asks from behind a newspaper.
"I broke into a security building and stole some vital documents," I gasp.
The next morning, Eric's mom picks me up for school. Eric whispers in my ear: "I forgot my note cards in the chase." Angrily, I search for another pair of scissors. He starts to laugh and says, "Just kidding!" as I sock him in the jaw.
Later that morning, I walk into English class with my report ready to give to Mrs. Ashburn. To my surprise, the woman sitting at Mrs. Ashburn's desk was not Mrs. Ashburn. I sit next to Eric, who grins weakly.
"I am your substitute teacher," she announces. "I understand you all have a report due today. Mrs. Ashburn would like you to give those to her tomorrow to avoid confusion."
I look at Eric.
He looks at me.
I look for one more pair of scissors.