Michael walked into the lab and took his assigned seat in one of the metal lab stools at station number three. Next door, he could hear the noisy chatter of the freshman biology students, actively engaged in another one of Miss Clarkson's review games. He glanced over at Samantha, who seemed to be taking notes and paying attention, for the most part, also at station number three. The whole room reeked of a nasty sulfur compound, even though the fan was turned on.
"Take out today's notes and leave them on your desk. Surprise notebook check." Those words seemed like ice dropped down Michael's back as he exchanged a begrudging look with Samantha. Mr. Sharpe had never been a popular teacher with any of his students. He was a difficult taskmaster and not an easy person to get along with, infamous for his pop quizzes that most students manage to fail and surprise notebook checks without any warning, not even a change in the tone of his voice. Everyone in the class let out a collective groan, especially those sitting in the back of the room, the students who didn't see it necessary to take notes or even pay attention in class.
"It's going to be a long day," Samantha managed to whisper, as Mr. Sharpe collected their binders up in the front of the classroom. Michael nodded in agreement, but didn't dare say anything. He only wrinkled his nose in disgust. In addition to the sulfur compound, which made the entire room smell like rotten eggs, and was probably the result of the advanced chemistry students' lab earlier that morning, the overwhelming scent of formaldehyde and dead corpses filtered through the door from the anatomy lab on the other side.
"Okay, okay," Mr. Sharpe said, tapping his foot on the tiled floor in impatience. He glanced up at the clock. Only ten minutes of class left for the day. "Back to your seats and finish the notes." All the students filed back to their respective lab stations and sat down. Michael took his place at station number three and resumed copying down the notes on wavelength and frequency. He was perfectly silent as he wrote, and the only sound coming from his desk was the light scratch of his mechanical pencil (he rarely chose to use pen) against the lined sheets of notebook paper. Other students tapped their pens against the smooth black tables or shuffled through papers nervously, as if they were taking an open book test and were trying to find an answer that wasn't there. Michael covered his ears and tried not to pay attention to the noise because he knew that he needed to finish writing the notes down. Several of the students, already finished writing down the assignment, started talking all at once.
As if it is not difficult enough to try and concentrate without them talking, Michael thought to himself. He couldn't tell what they were saying, but he could hear his name, though it might be another Michael, and some of the other kids snickering, their mouths hidden behind hands in an attempt to hide their cruelty from anyone who would disapprove. Mr. Sharpe, who was busy preparing for his next class and muttering swear words under his breath, did not notice.
Sam leaned over in her stool towards Michael, looking over his shoulder to see his notes. They were in his typically neat, but almost miniscule handwriting that none of the teachers were able to read with any ease whatsoever. She also raised an eyebrow when she spotted Michael's open backpack, his Bible resting at the very top.
"What's that for?" she whispered, pointing down at the Bible. "You know how much trouble you could get into for having that at school!" Like Michael, Samantha was also a Christian and her family attended the same church that Michael's father was a pastor at, but Sam usually only talked about her faith when it wouldn't get her into trouble.
Michael pretended not to notice Samantha, carefully fixating his eyes on what he was writing. While he was writing, he didn't notice Mr. Sharpe walk by. Sharpe had a habit of pacing around the room while he lectured and while the students took notes, probably to see that they were paying attention. He felt a slight tap on his shoulder and he jumped.
"Mr. Liu," a voice said, coming from up above him. Michael glanced up to look Mr. Sharpe in the face for a brief moment, and then his eyes dropped back down to the floor. Sharpe was a tall man, with dark eyes and very dark hair. His facial features were well-defined and could almost be described as chiseled. He was a man that no one wanted to reckon with. "Put that book of myths and fairy tales back in your backpack and never bring it to school again." A long finger pointed down at Michael's Bible, which had fallen open to his bookmarked page in Romans chapter one. He swore out loud this time, almost loud enough for the whole class to hear, but Michael was the only one who appeared to be taken aback by this. "Is that clear?"
Michael nodded slightly, still looking at the ground. "Yes, sir," he replied, his voice barely coming out as a whisper. Sam gave him a look that said I-told-you-so, but either he didn't realize it or he didn't respond. Mr. Sharpe then proceeded to resume his position in the front of the class and began his lecture again.
He paced back and forth across the front of the classroom near the chalkboard, holding a piece of purple chalk in one hand. He tossed the piece of chalk up in the air and caught it in neatly in the other hand. "Class," he said, a piercing voice catching everyone's attention. All eyes, even those belonging to the students in the back of the room, turned to look towards him. "I need your attention for a minute before you leave." There was a slight pause. "There are to be no books or materials in here unless they are used for school classes. Is that understood?" Everyone nodded, and Michael could feel Mr. Sharpe speak especially to him. "I want no religious texts in here, either. There is no place for myths and fairy tales in science and anyone who disagrees may discuss it with the principal after school." Michael opened his mouth to speak, but Samantha glared at him, not wanting him to get into anymore trouble with Sharpe for the day.
Mr. Sharpe wrote the words: Religion≠Science on the chalkboard in large scrawl. "Is that clear, ladies and gents?" he asked. "I will take no more of this religious crap in my classroom. Any student who mentions religion will be immediately sent to the principal's office." Michael sighed inwardly. The bell rang, and a collective groan filtered its way through the class of students. "Class dismissed."
As soon as Michael and Samantha had walked out the door and were surrounded by other students, all rushing to get to their next class on time, Sam confronted him by grabbing his arm loosely. "What on earth were you doing in there?!" she asked, her voice rising to be heard above the noise of the busy, public high school. "You could have gotten yourself expelled or worse."
Michael just shrugged and turned around, pulling himself free from Samantha's grasp. "Listen, Sam," he said. "Expulsion at this point would not be so bad. Really." Before she could answer, he ambled through the crowds to his next class, art with Miss Kennicot. He took his semi-assigned seat near the back of the room next to Tyler, for once glad that Samantha was not in his art class.
Art class began and their assignment was to draw a self-portrait. Simple enough, Michael thought to himself, as he listened to Miss Kennicot explain their project. He started sketching his face: dark hair that hung into his dark brown eyes, glasses with lenses that reflected the light, olive coloured skin and an emotionless expression. But something didn't seem quite right with his drawing; there was something missing.
"Looks pretty good," a voice next to him said. Michael looked up to see Tyler eyeing his work. He breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that it was only Tyler and not someone like Ricardo, one of the class bullies.
"Thank you, but not really," Michael replied, shrugging his shoulders. He kept drawing lines, shading parts of the drawing in, and erasing pencil marks until the end of the class period when the bell rang.
The rest of the school day went along in the same manner as the beginning: Michael ate lunch near the grove of trees between the English and history buildings- alone- because he didn't care for Samantha's company at the moment and Tyler had a basketball meeting at lunch; some of his peers teased him in English class because he sounded almost exactly like the British Shakespearean actors in the movie they were watching, Romeo and Juliet; and, worst of all, Mrs. Ollivier handed back their math tests and he hadn't done nearly as well as he had hoped. I am never going to live this down, he thought to himself as he walked home from school by himself. He didn't even wait for Samantha to walk home, even though she lived just down the street from him.
Later that evening, the Liu family ate dinner together: baked chicken, broccoli and, as always, rice. Andy and Elizabeth, Michael's brother and sister who were in seventh grade at the local middle school, talked to their parents about the science fair project they were starting in class. Cassandra, who was in fourth grade, was telling their dad about her ballet class that afternoon. Michael didn't mind that everyone was talking all at once; his own thoughts about school kept him from paying much attention. Instead of eating his broccoli, which was usually one of his favourite vegetables, he just moved the pieces around on his plate, back and forth, with his wooden chopsticks, his eyes focused on a distant, but undefined point in space.
The rest of the family finished eating and cleared the table, but Michael did not notice. He still hadn't eaten much more than a few bites of his food. Other than him, the only person still in the room was his father. Everyone else had left: Mom was busy getting Hannah, his three-year-old sister, ready for bed, Cassandra was upstairs in the room she shared with Elizabeth, probably drawing, Andy had gone to work on his math homework and Elizabeth was on the telephone with one of her school friends.
"Michael, could I talk to you for a moment?" his dad said, sitting down in one of the chairs. Michael looked up briefly from his plate and nodded slightly.
"About what?" was Michael's response.
"School, for one thing, and church for another," his dad replied. As one of the pastors at their local church, Reverend Liu was put as the head of the program that worked on youth outreaches, especially in the community.
"What exactly about school?" Michael fiddled nervously with his chopsticks, not wanting his parents to find out about what had happened at school that day. The only decent part of the day had been his art class, which was normally one of his favourites.
Michael's dad let out a sigh. "I need your honest opinion on this, Michael," he began. Michael nodded, as giving an honest, though usually more blunt than people wanted, opinion was not that difficult for him. "What's going on at school with you? You've been really quiet lately, and your mother and I were just wondering if there's anything going on that we should know about."
Michael neither talked nor responded in any way for quite awhile. In kitchen, the clock ticked, keeping track of the seconds that passed. It was about a minute and a half before anyone said anything. "Yes, and no," Michael replied. "I really do not like school anymore…" his voice trailed off and he didn't finish his sentence.
"But what?" his dad asked.
"Everything," Michael answered, and reluctantly told his dad about what had happened at school, especially chemistry, and even including his comment to Samantha after class about being expelled. He hated having to tell his parents everything, but he knew from previous experience that they required the whole truth to be told, no matter what. Michael cringed slightly, and bit the inside of his lip, almost afraid of what his father's response to all of this would be. Both Reverend and Mrs. Liu had instilled academic excellence in all five of their children, probably partially the result of homeschooling at least through elementary school and through eighth grade for Michael.
However, much to Michael's dismay, his father was almost smiling, or at least trying not to. The corners of his lips were turned slightly upwards and he did not look upset. However, he only said, "I suggest you go and talk to Mr. Alton after school tomorrow and I will discuss this with your mother." Michael nodded and left the dining room, putting his left-overs away and rinsing his dishes in the sink before going up to his room to work on homework.
When he got up to his room, Andy was already working on math. Michael didn't say anything as he entered the room he and his brother shared and he sat down at his desk. On his desk was a can of pencils and pens, his sketchbook, an old notebook and his laptop computer, which was given to their family by another family at the church about a year ago. He logged onto the computer and checked to see if he had any new messages.
He only had one and it was from Samantha. Something about chemistry and it could wait until later. After class today, he really wasn't in the mood for anything chemistry-related or even chatting with Samantha. He logged off and got started on his homework, wanting to get it done as soon as possible and go to bed early. Tomorrow would be another busy day.
The next day, school went on as it normally did. Nothing exciting happened during chemistry or art. Mr. Sharpe was in a foul mood and assigned two worksheets to his students instead of one. English was spent working on understanding the language in Romeo and Juliet, as well as assigning parts for acting it out. Michael was fairly pleased because he would be playing the part of Mercutio. Spanish and math were also fairly uneventful.
After school, Michael walked over to the science wing of the school, looking for the first biology lab. Mr. Alton's classroom wasn't the lab right near Sharpe's room (that belonged to Miss Clarkson), but it was on the opposite side of Miss Clarkson's classroom, closer to the physics lab. Once he found the room, he noticed it was locked. He knocked a couple of times after peering into the window and seeing Mr. Alton sitting at the computer, probably entering grades from the last lab.
Mr. Alton noticed someone was knocking at the door, wanting to be let in from the chilly March air. It was an unusually cold day in the early part of March, especially for California, so Michael wasn't wearing a jacket or anything like that. Mr. Alton was an older gentleman, probably in his late fourties or early fifties and he had been teaching at the particular school for as long as most anyone could remember. His brown hair was streaked with grey and his eyes held a kindly look deep within. Any of his students would remember that he is one of the nicest teachers, but he required a lot from his students. They would also remember his rather inventive ways of punishing them if they deliberately disobeyed in his class.
"Come in," he smiled. Though Michael did not know him well and he did not know Michael well, they both attended the same church and had known each other from there. "Make yourself comfortable, but don't touch any of the specimens. I just have to finish this little bit up." Michael nodded and sat down on one of the tables in the biology lab, feet dangling down because they did not touch the floor. Mr. Alton finished up entering grades in his computer and shut it down.
The biology lab was very different from the chemistry lab. Everything was put in its proper place, and the whole room was very orderly, though it had a welcoming feeling when one walked inside. Posters around the room were a mixture of science-related posters, inspirational quotes and pictures, as well as at least one painting that Mr. Alton's daughter, a student at the Art Academy up in San Francisco, had done while still in high school.
Michael fidgeted in his seat, slightly anxious to talk to Mr. Alton. He knew Mr. Alton was a strong Christian, a biology teacher and someone who gave good advice, but other than that, he really didn't know Alton very well. "Mr. Alton," he said quietly. "What would you do if you were having problems with a certain teacher?"
Mr. Alton walked over to where Michael was sitting, pulling his comfortable chair behind him. He sat down. "I would talk to the teacher first," he said, pausing for a moment to see if Michael was paying attention. "But some people don't listen to reason, and Sharpe is one of those people." He smiled slightly, reminding Michael of the Cheshire Cat from The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland.
Michael's jaw dropped slightly. "H-h-how did you know it was Mr. Sharpe?" he asked, almost amazed.
Mr. Alton smiled once again. "I've gotten complaints in the past," he replied, shrugging his shoulders slightly. For a man dressed in a fairly nice, navy blue business suit, the last thing Michael thought he'd be doing is teaching a bunch of unruly high school students biology and listening to complaints about teachers like Mr. Sharpe. "But you should really figure out what you're going to do about it, shouldn't you?"
Michael paused for a moment before replying. There was a minute or two where everything was quiet inside the classroom, its own little microcosm away from the outside world. "That is exactly it," Michael said. "My parents both want me to attend school here, but I do not want to." He figured Mr. Alton would know about the situation that happened the other day in chemistry (word has a way of rapidly traveling among the teachers), so he related his side of the story to Mr. Alton.
"Ah," Mr. Alton said, standing up and walking over to the chalkboard. Like the chemistry lab, the biology lab also had a chalkboard. In fact, all the science rooms at their school had chalkboards instead of whiteboards, even though no one is sure why this is. "So, Mr. Sharpe is giving you guys the religion versus science lectures again, eh?" he said. Michael nodded, so Mr. Alton continued. "There isn't much that can be done about that, unfortunately. I've tried talking to him before, but he's one of those atheists who won't listen to my reasoning. Listen, I've known the man since he was in graduate school, and I've dealt with him plenty of times. He's a stubbourn man, and best not to be reckoned with by his students."
Michael nodded, ears eagerly listening for any sort of information that would help him deal with such a teacher. "So, what you are saying is…?"
"All I'm saying, Michael, is to talk to your parents about what's going on, and see if they could talk to Mrs. Kerrington because she's the one who would be best to go to," he replied. "Also, your dad mentioned something about English class being a problem for you…"
Michael nodded. "Not as much as chemistry, but," he didn't finish his sentence.
Mr. Alton patiently waited for Michael to continue, but when it was obvious that Michael wasn't going to complete what he had begun to say (after waiting about two minutes), Alton resumed. " Maybe your parents should check out the part-time program, which you can take a couple of classes here and a couple of classes at the local community college or elsewhere. Mostly it's for the upperclassmen who need more advanced classes, but my daughter, Mandy, was part-time all four years of high school."
Michael remembered Mandy, who had now graduated from college and married, as one of the older teenagers who had helped in the Sunday School classes when he was younger. He had never known she'd attended the same very school, probably in Mr. Alton's first years of teaching, too.
Michael nodded and then he left Mr. Alton's room, being sure to check his locker before leaving the school campus for the day. He walked down the street and turned toward Chestnut Avenue, the street that his house was on.
The next day was Saturday, so a day completely free from school. Michael stayed in his room most of the morning, not even coming down for breakfast. Andy was over at a friend's house, probably playing video games, so he wasn't home and Michael had the room to himself. He was working on some homework for Spanish, one of his easiest classes, when he heard a knock on his door that had been closed so that neither Cassandra nor Elizabeth would bother him by playing their music too loudly.
"Could I come in?" a voice asked. Michael opened the door and both of his parents walked in. The voice had obviously belonged to his mom, but his dad had been the one to knock on the door. Michael sat back down on his bed, stretching out his legs. His mom sat on the swivel chair that Michael usually used when sitting at his desk. His dad sat down on Andy's bed on the opposite side of the room.
"Michael," his father began. "Your mother and I were discussing school with each other and with Josiah and Sherry Alton about the whole school situation, and well…"
Michael's mom continued from where her husband left off. After many years of knowing each other, there were occasional times this would happen. "We think it's a wise idea to pull you out of most of your classes at school and, yes, still take chemistry with Mr. Sharpe," she answered. Michael's parents had explained earlier that it was necessary he take science classes elsewhere because of the difficulty of the material and the labs.
At this news, Michael was both relieved and even pleased. He would have much rather taken his classes either at home or even at church with some of the other Christian homeschooling families in the area. However, he chose to conceal his emotions as much as possible and only smiled slightly and thanked his parents briefly.
Monday came and Mr. Alton, who was in charge of the part-time program, had notified all of Michael's teachers and had spoken to Mr. Sharpe in person. Miss Kennicot was the only teacher who spoke to Michael (he made a special trip all the way out to the art room) and she said that their art class would miss having him around.
Chemistry was rather uneventful. Mr. Sharpe handed back their quizzes they'd taken about a week earlier on basic ionic and covalent nomenclature. He liked to give quizzes on such fundamental principles throughout the school year to make sure his students remembered everything. After class, Samantha blocked Michael's exit from the door.
"What's going on? Did Sharpe get you in trouble?" Sam wanted to know everything and for Michael to spare no details. After going more than just a couple of days without talking to each other, there was a mutual feeling of missing the other's fairly constant friendship.
"Long story, Samantha," Michael replied with a smile. "Remind me to tell you the whole thing later. You have to get to class and I have to get home." Without replying to Samantha's confused and slightly bewildered look, he squeezed by her and left. He turned towards Chestnut Avenue, the street that his house was on, walked down away and was gone.