10:02. Room 2, Mojave Middle School, Home of the Mustangs.
Minnie McClary, row one, seat four, nervously watched the clock. If a teacher did not show up in exactly three minutes, Room 2 was going to explode. It had happened yesterday, and the day before that, and it was sure to happen again.
Some little thing would set it off, a belch or a fart, a spitwad would fly. Kids would wriggle in their seats. One boy would leave his desk, then another. They would prowl the room like dogs sniffing for trouble, or do some dopey thing to make everybody nervous, like standing on the teacher’s desk.
Minnie was trying not to worry about what would happen today. It was not her job to keep order. Like the rest of the class, she was only a kid. Unlike them, she was the new kid. She didn’t know where she fit in yet, or if she ever would.
She bit her lip and waited.
10:03. Feet shuffled, backpacks unzipped, forbidden cell phones appeared. Alicia, who always sighed dramatically, sighed dramatically. The boy who had allergies and never blew his nose began his nervous sniffle. Somebody hummed the theme from Jaws. Derek’s fingers drummed the desk.
Minnie tried to think about things outside this classroom, like the blank canvas in art class that was supposed to turn into a self-portrait. Her brother, Dylan, who had stopped being nice the minute he turned thirteen. Her uncle Bill, who was building a helicopter in the basement.
She tried not to think about her mom and dad arguing about Uncle Bill, but one thought led to the next, and then she was worrying. Minnie worried too much, her mother said. She should be having fun, like a normal eleven-year-old girl.
10:04. Amira, the girl across from Minnie, turned to her with dark, troubled eyes. She seemed to be thinking what Minnie was thinking: what if nobody came? In the three weeks since school began, their class had had five different subs. Only one of them, the principal’s wife, stayed longer than two days. She had gone on and on about the beauty of verb phrases, and then went home and had a baby.
Mr. Delgado came next. He yelled so loud the windows rattled.
Miss Valentine, number three, had laryngitis and couldn’t talk at all.
Mr. Spinks, a retired engineer, taught them how to make stealth planes out of notebook paper. He didn’t know what a verb phrase was.
And now their language arts class had fallen apart.
10:05. “Ow!” yelled Carl. He leaped from his desk, rubbing the back of his head. “Who did that?” He dived on Jorge and knocked him to the floor. Two of the girls and all of the boys, except for Todd Ingram, whose mother was the school board president, flocked to the back of the room.
Todd sat quietly and drew. Theresa the goth girl opened a book and began to read. Amira bowed her head. A trash can went clattering across the floor. Kids yelled and whooped and jumped around Carl and Jorge, who were scuffling on the floor.
Minnie counted to ten. Twice. She looked at the door through which no one was coming. She checked the clock: 10:06. Her face felt hot and her ears itched. She could not keep her feet still. Without thinking, without really knowing what she was doing, Minnie jumped up out of her seat and, with her fists clenched, shouted “Stop!” as loud as her voice would go. “Stop it!”
And something extraordinary happened. As if Minnie had cast a spell, every kid in the room did exactly what she said. They stopped what they were doing and froze in place. Now they were all staring at her, at Minnie the new girl, the very short, hardly noticeable new girl in the first row. Even Amira, the girl who might have been a friend, stared at her in horror, as if Minnie had sprouted horns.
Even Minnie seemed to be staring at Minnie. She could not believe what she had done, or that the floor would not open and let her drop through.
10:07. The doorway filled with the huge body of their principal, Mr. Butovsky, wearing his navy blue suit and a red tie knotted beneath his chins. “Back to your seats!” he bellowed. Kids scurried to their desks, quick as lizards. Minnie slid into her seat, her heart ticking like a clock gone haywire.
Mr. Butovsky had been their sub for two days. He had read to them out of a book called Crime and Punishment. For a while the class had been patient. But the words were huge and the sentences went on forever. “So he kept torturing himself,” Mr. Butovsky had read, looking down over his three chins and through the reading glasses balanced on the end of his nose, “tormenting himself with these questions, and he seemed even to derive some pleasure from it.”
No one could understand why the principal had chosen to read them the crime book. Yes, they had been bad. Yes, they had thrown spitwads and played games on the phones they weren’t supposed to bring to class. But they didn’t murder any little old ladies like the guy in the book did.
They had listened a while longer to find out what their punishment would be. Maybe this was their punishment! One by one they had all given up on the crime book, even Minnie, who always did everything right.
But Mr. Butovsky was upbeat today and all of his chins were smiling. “I have some very good news, children,” he said, righting the trash can. “We have found you a teacher.”
Nobody said a word. Room 2, fourth-period language arts, was wary of new teachers who blew in and out like the wind across the desert.
“Her name is Miss Marks and she’ll be starting tomorrow,” he said. “You will have her for the rest of the year.”
“The whole year?” said Alicia, who was pretty and brave and always spoke up.
“The whole year,” said Mr. Butovsky. “Now let’s get to work, shall we?” He opened Crime and Punishment to the page he had marked. Eyes glazed over. Jorge laid his head on his desk. Carl used his backpack as a pillow. Amira sat without seeming to breathe, as patient as stone.
Minnie tried, really tried, to listen, but all she could think about, the only thing she could think about, was what she had done. The enormity of the thing. How she had jumped right up out of her seat and yelled at the top of her lungs. She still couldn’t believe that she’d done it. Her face tingled with shame. Her whole body felt hot and sticky. It was wrong. It was wronger than wrong: it was embarrassing, and she would never live it down.
She sat with her hands clenched together, her own shrill voice still ringing in her ears.
Mr. Butovsky looked up from the book, squinting at the window. “Will somebody please lower that blind?” he said. Nobody moved. Then Carl, from the very last seat in the very last row, in his nastiest, nasally voice, said, “Let Miss Goody-Goody do it.”
Every face turned toward Minnie.
Derek and Carl did a fist bump. “Dude!” said Derek.
Somebody snickered, then somebody else.
Minnie stopped breathing. She blinked and blinked to hold back her tears, but they leaked out all the same, rolling over her cheeks and off her chin as Amira, wearing her black head scarf, got up and with her perfect dancer’s posture went to the window and lowered the blind, and Minnie waited to die.
Text copyright © 2012 by Valerie Hobbs