When I was 14, Mr. Ruth took our eighth grade math class out into the hallway stairwell. “I am going to grade your quizzes,” he said, “by tossing them into the air and seeing how far they fall. The farther they fall, the better the grade.”
He held the big stack of quizzes in the air, each one three double-sided pages stapled together. Carol Yoshida and I looked at each other. Carol, everybody said, had a crush on me, but I couldn’t imagine what to do about it. The idea of liking somebody enough to kiss them was a wall over which I couldn’t see, even when I jumped. Carol made me jump: but when she invited me over to her house, and we were alone in her room, and nothing happened, she’d sighed. “Everybody says you’re this amazing conversationalist,” she’d said, “but I don’t see it.”
I leaned over to Carol as Mr. Ruth made sure we could see that these really were our quizzes. “Do you think he’s kidding?”
“That would be disappointing,” she said.
“But … but he can’t! I mean, that wouldn’t be fair and … there has to be some kind of …” the word I was probably looking for was accountability. “He can’t just do whatever he wants, there has to be a rule!” I wasn’t actually good at math, a “throw the quizzes over the stairs and see how far they fall” approach was probably a winner for me, but the idea that the world could be so arbitrary and that I could be helpless to stand against it was terrifying.
Carol rolled her eyes.
Mr. Ruth pulled his arm close to his chest and, with a delicate motion, flung the papers into the air like one might a Frisbee made of china. Some caught in the air and fell right in front of his feet. Some made it down the first set of stairs; some went over the railing and fell all the way down the second set of stairs to the next floor.
My eyes were wide.
“All right!” Mr. Ruth said. “See where they landed!” He bent down and picked up the quiz at his feet, the one that had fallen the least distance. “Tyler Matthews!” he said. “Too bad!” He picked up the next one, and walked all the way down the stairs, picking up tests, noting where they’d fallen, and announcing whose quiz it was.
I watched him, but my eyes lost focus. The world really was that arbitrary. Anything could happen.
Stack of quizzes in hand, Mr. Ruth led us back into his classroom and had us take our seats. Carol stuck her tongue out at me as she walked past. I barely noticed.
“All right,” Mr. Ruth said. “Now, for the future, it might be good for you to know why some quizzes fell so much further than others. I mean, if you want to get a good grade, right? So what happened?” Hands went up, and he proceeded to get theories, and it turned out that the papers at the bottom had gone a lot further for reasons that he could use math to help us understand. Gradually it dawned on us that this was our math lesson for the day, and that he probably wouldn’t be grading papers like this from now on, or at all.
But I didn’t feel relieved. I had just been getting used to the idea that anything could happen, and was surprisingly resistant to letting it go. Because if fortune favoured the arbitrary, I could be arbitrary too.
I went over that idea in my mind, like an equation seeking a solution, though math class, and then through lunch, and then through a film in Ms. McKowan’s class about the dangers of drugs where this one girl takes a pill at a party and is in a living coma for the rest of her life. That was a new concept to me, too: a living coma. Paralyzed but aware: all because she’d taken a pill at a party. Did I really want to live in a world where that could happen?
Perhaps the rules were safer after all. It was starting to look like it.
While we were in a poetry unit in Ms. Blazing’s English class, last period, I got permission to go to the bathroom. English was my best subject: Ms. Blazing let me do whatever I wanted. On my way back, I saw Carol, who had Ms. Stout’s science class, which was really hard to get a hall pass in.
“Hey,” I said.
“I don’t think Mr. Ruth is going to really grade our papers by how far they fell.”
She rolled her eyes again. “God,” she said.
She, I realized, was on the other side of whatever wall in my head I couldn’t cross. She already lived in a world where people just do things, and consequences are real, and there’s no appeal. She was, for the first time, a little frightening.
“How did you get out of Stout’s class?”
She looked away, for a second. “I’m supposed to be in the nurse’s office.”
“Well … yeah.”
“Aren’t you afraid you’re going to get in trouble?”
Her mouth curved. “I never get in trouble. Don’t you know that?”
The next moment, I was kissing her. I had stepped up and put my arms around her and our lips together. It was a terrible kiss, probably the worst of either of our lives, but it was a first and so has special dispensation.
A moment later we heard adult footsteps coming around the corner and without a word we bolted in our separate directions. I didn’t want to live in her arbitrary world, I preferred to be safe and appeal to authority – but if she was going to be out here then someday she was going to face consequences, and I liked her enough that I didn’t want her to go through a living coma alone.
Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.
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