(Author's note: okay, guys, this is the story I was talking about that I need poetry help with! If you're still interested, I think the guy who originally agreed to help got swallowed by the earth or something, and I need more poems! Songs, actually, but either way – are they the same? This story is inspired by John Cooper, lead singer of the hard rock band Skillet, who grew up in a super conservative Christian family who thought drums were evil. This is the story of four high schoolers and how their common interest in music helps each one grow out of the problems they've caused themselves. As a general rule, I'll update every Saturday/Sunday. Chapter One: Eli, the sheltered homeschool kid. Enjoy! ~not Ross)
One: Public School
I'm at war with the world and they
Try to pull me into the dark
I struggle to find my faith
As I'm slipping from your arms
~Skillet: "Awake and Alive"
Eli's earliest memory was of sitting on his father's lap on the red piano bench in the living room and playing Middle C over and over until the dog started barking. He was doing the very same thing now, without the support of his father's lap, without the monotony of Middle C in his ears. And the dog was sleeping in the back yard. He ran through "Great is Thy Faithfulness" three times like he did every morning. He closed his eyes as he played. Today was supposed to be the happiest day of his life. Well, aside from his wedding day.
Which didn't explain his fear. Not even the music softened his fear.
It had been agony convincing Mom and Dad into public school. Public junior high had been his original goal, but he'd settle for public high school. It was better than homeschooling through all the requirements in two years and then taking online college courses for the rest of his life.
The only person he knew at Roosevelt High was Daniel Clemmens from church. Mrs. Clemmens had offered Eli a ride to school on Mondays and Thursdays, which Mom was of course very open to because it meant $2 less in bus fare every week. Eli didn't particularly like Daniel – Daniel liked to dissect things – but a ride was a ride.
7:30 a.m. A car horn honked.
"Eli, tell Mrs. Clemmens that she'll have the entire neighborhood hating us by October if she honks like that every week," said Mom from the couch. The steam from the black tea in her hands fogged her glasses. "Have a good day, sweetie. Love you."
Eli was three-quarters of the way out the front door. "Love you, too," he said.
The car ride was an excruciating ten minutes of Mrs. Clemmens asking all kinds of questions about the switch from doing school in his sweat pants on the couch to going to a real school. Daniel parenthetically added that sweat pants were technically within the dress code at Roosevelt, and there were couches in the ASB room, so it must be practically the same thing. Eli didn't point out that Mom made him dress like a normal human being every day, even if he was homeschooled. He was glad to get out of the car.
He'd walked around the campus last week with Mom looking for all his classrooms, but the place had been raised from the dead, kids everywhere. That was expected, of course, but so many was unnerving.
At least he wouldn't be getting lost.
By the time he made it to his locker in the C-wing, he'd passed three couples making out, a group of girls that smelled like marijuana, a pregnant girl in a tank top that didn't exactly cover her protruding belly, and a posse of boys with pink hair, two of whom were holding hands. Mom would pass out. But Eli prided himself on not being your stereotypical sheltered homeschooler. He read books, watched TV, he knew this wasn't weird. He was determined to be a normal freshman here. He even had a Beatles t-shirt on to let everyone know that he knew what was going down.
It didn't matter.
His history classroom, J-14, had yellow graffiti all over the gray door. Eli tried to read the words, thought better of it, and slung his backpack against the wall. He tried to stand like he was waiting for someone. He didn't think it was working. He slid the cell phone out of his pocket and pretended to text someone. That grew boring; his phone didn't text.
A small Asian girl marched up to the vandalized door and yanked the handle like she wanted to break it off. Locked. She swore and threw her backpack against the wall next to Eli's.
Eli saw and opportunity. "'Morning," he said to the girl.
She raised an eyebrow and looked up at him, daring him to speak again. "My, aren't you observant."
Eli didn't know what he was supposed to do with a comment like that. "My name's Eli. Nice to meet you." He extended his left hand. No, that was wrong. His right hand. Being left-handed made social situations awkward.
"You're a freshman, aren't you?" she asked, ignoring his arm.
"Well, it's a freshman history class. You aren't?"
"I don't freaking know. Damn school."
Eli cringed. "What's you're name?"
Eli smiled at the name. He liked meeting people with cool foreign names. "Is that Chinese?"
Kimiko turned red underneath her pale skin. She looked ready to slap him, or worse, start spewing out more curse words. "Japanese," she spat. "Are you an idiot?"
He wondered why Daniel insisted on arriving twenty minutes early. There weren't many people to talk to. The only person he'd found who didn't look liable to throw him into a trash can, this Kimiko, seemed to hate him just for opening his mouth.
The teacher showed up then, a Mr. Rollard according to the schedule in Eli's back pocket, and he unlocked the door without a word to his new students, without acknowledging the profanity spray-painted on his domain. Kimiko, who for some reason didn't consider herself a freshman and thus knew the ropes of how things worked, grabbed her backpack and caught the spring-loaded door with her shoulder before it closed. She slipped inside. Eli decided to follow.
The room was long and narrow with double desks stacked in rows all the way to the back wall. Six rows of three each, making for a maximum occupancy of thirty-six, which was more people than Eli's entire high school youth group could claim. Dad had warned him that it would be like this. Kimiko's pink backpack was halfway down the row furthest from the door. She was in the back of the room looking at the wall-map of the world, standing smack in front of where Japan would be. Eli set his backpack on the other half of Kimiko's desk. "Can I sit here?" he asked.
She turned. "Doesn't matter. We'll get a seating chart."
"No, you will not." Mr. Rollard's voice was deep and abrasive. "I'm an economist; I don't believe in seating charts."
"In that case," said Kimiko, "scram."
Eli looked to Mr. Rollard for a short lecture about sharing and free countries and things like that to make Kimiko feel guilty for shunning him. Mr. Rollard was absorbed in a thin paperback book called The Law that looked incredibly boring. Dad had warned him about crazy teachers, too, how teachers should be teaching material, not beliefs, and Eli suspected that Mr. Rollard was a teacher who would cross that line. So he had to ask to make sure. "Mr. Rollard, does being an economist make you a Republican or a Democrat?"
Mr. Rollard looked up from his book. "It makes me an economist."
"Move your stuff," Kimiko repeated.
Irritated, Eli gathered up his backpack and plunked it on the seat smack in front of her.
"Thank you." She didn't mean it.
A bell rang, marking 7:54 and a warning to start heading for the classrooms. Eli had learned from his encounter with Kimiko and decided to admire the posters on the wall rather than greet people. He was getting the idea that this school didn't work quite like his youth group.
The posters were mostly replica paintings of famous leaders of the ancient world and pre-satellite maps of the Earth. A few documents in Latin, some flags, and an entire bulletin board filled with laminated paper money from pretty much every country in the world. It was fascinating.
Above the din of students filing into the classroom, Eli heard the chair next to his own scraping against the dirt-stained linoleum floor. A tall, lanky boy who hadn't yet figured out where his arms and legs ended climbed into the chair. His gangly appearance was helped along by the dark gray skinny jeans that hugged his legs like doting aunts who only came for Thanksgiving but always promised they'd come more. Red hair fell over his eyes, and his shirt left his lean shoulders bare for the world to see. Eli wasn't sure if he seemed nice or terrifying. He searched for something to make conversation and caught sight of three parallel scratches on the inside of the kid's wrist. The other one was the same way.
"What happened to your wrists?" he asked, pointing.
The kid smirked at him. "I cut them."
Well, clearly. "Doing what?"
The kid looked taken aback by such a question. What was so bad about making conversation at this school?" "Cutting them," he said slowly. "My name's Jack."
Eli got the idea that he was supposed to know what that meant and even be appalled by it, but he didn't, so he wasn't. So he said, "I'm Eli." He twisted around in his seat. Kimiko was slumped over with her head resting on her arms. Next to her sat another dark-haired girl with a yellow metal water bottle and a flowery binder in front of her. When Jack turned around, too, her pleasant face went stoic.
"Hey, Irene," said Jack.
"Hi," she said.
"She was in my Algebra class at Stork Hill last year," he explained to Eli.
Mr. Rollard pulled out a clipboard as soon as the 8 a.m. bell rang, and he began to take attendance. Irene Bourdeau was the first name called, and she made her presence known with a quiet, squeaky, "Here," that Eli could barely hear from right in front of her. He looked around the classroom as names were called, trying to label the faces. Most of the kids in there would be the kind he'd duck into a coffee shop to avoid when walking down the street. Everyone seemed to know each other. Jack, especially, waved at most of the people in the room like he knew them. Most didn't wave back. Had they all gone to Stork Hill?
"Clarence Lade," called Mr. Rollard.
Eli blanched. He'd spent his whole life around people who knew not to call him by his first name because it was so embarrassing, so he'd stupidly taken for granted that no one at this school – save Daniel Clemmens – knew him at all. "Here," he said. Mr. Rollard nodded and moved his finger down the roster. "Mr. Rollard?" Eli spouted without thinking through the consequences.
But what was worse, being labeled as a name-snob, or being called Clarence for the next four years?
"Yes?" asked Mr. Rollard.
"Will you call me Eli, please?" It felt like everyone in the room was staring at him. In reality, no one was.
"Like Elijah? It's my middle name."
Mr. Rollard made a note on the roster. "Fine, Eli. Michael LeSage?"
There, that hadn't been so bad.
Something hit Eli on the back of the neck. He turned around and found Kimiko cuing up to spit another wad of paper through a juice-box straw. "Clarence?" she scoffed.
Eli blushed. He noticed Irene blushing, too. "It was my grandfather's name. I didn't have a lot of control over the situation." And this was why he would never let anyone call him Clarence until he turned 90 – and hopefully he'd be dead by then.
Irene was still blushing. "I was named for my great aunt," she said. Kimiko gave her a weird look and then flopped back into her napping position.
Eli became conscious of the teacher's presence at the front of the class, ready to strike a big red X through the name of any person who talked out of turn. Wasn't that how it worked? No one else seemed worried. Then again, they weren't the type to care about anything like that. None of them were. Is that what public school did to people? He surveyed the classroom warily. If there was anyone in the room who had the possibility of being studious, it was Irene, and she was busy talking about her great aunt.
"My, but don't you two have a lot in common," said Kimiko through her arms.
Eli, blushing again and feeling guilty for falling sway to the thorns of conformity, turned back to the front, determined not to grow lazy. At least not so soon.
Mr. Rollard picked up a blue dry-erase marker and drew two sloppy circles on the whiteboard, labeling them X and Y. Someone to the left mentioned something about Geometry. "A man named Beta lives on Island X," said Mr. Rollard. "Beta lives off the land, eating berries and non-poisonous roots and a native cousin of the zucchini that is big and fat and juicy. The best zucchini you've ever eaten."
"I hate zucchini," someone in the back said.
Mr. Rollard ignored the comment. "Is this just?" he asked.
Dead silence. Eli chanced a glance at Jack, who was running his fingernails back and forth across the scabs on his wrist. Finally someone spoke up. "Just what?" said a girl in the front row. The class tittered. She looked genuinely offended. "What?"
Mr. Rollard did not break his cool. "Just as in relating to justice," he explained. So patient. Eli leaned in, watching carefully. "Is this just?" Mr. Rollard repeated, pointing to Island X again.
"How is it unjust?" asked a guy. Mr. Rollard only looked at him with a mildly interested expression on his face. The kid shrank a bit.
"He's not doing anything wrong," said Jack. Eli stared at him.
The cowed kid, a blonde with muscular, veiny arms and acne, regained a bit of confidence. "Exactly."
"He's not doing anything good, either," said someone else.
"Who said good is the opposite of wrong?" demanded an angry voice from the back.
Mr. Rollard stepped in. "Now, that's another conversation altogether. Stick to my question. Is this just?"
Kimiko's chair made a loud scraping sound. "Well, duh, who's to determine what's wrong or good or right or perverted?" she asked. "It's only him. He can't be unfair to himself. It's a stupid question. Nothing can be just or unjust when there's only one person."
"Justice and injustice come with the existence of law, then?" Mr. Rollard asked.
"And there's only law when there are multiple people," Kimiko agreed. Eli would have turned around to stare at her, but he didn't want to make his admiration obvious. She may be cruel and obnoxious, but she sure was smart. He was barely keeping up with the conversation.
Mr. Rollard grinned and uncapped his marker. "So let's make multiple people." Someone in the back made a snide sexual joke that sent Eli's head whirling. But he couldn't let it show, now, could he? "Gamma lives on Island Y. The only thing he has to eat are these weedy zucchinis. They're dense and fiberous, and he could probably sew a tent out of their pulp. Just or unjust?"
Some of the other kids had caught on to Kimiko's line of thought. "Still doesn't matter," said the pimply blonde boy. "They're not interacting."
Eli tried to follow the conversation until Mr. Rollard introduced a family of munchkins who believed in bottoms-up justice rather than top-something justice, which means something about harvesting zucchinis and… well, his mind didn't work as fast as the conversation ran. Was this what public school was like? He wasn't cut out for this.
Jack elbowed him. "Nutso teacher, right?" Eli nodded. Good. He wasn't the only one who thought so. "Want to eat with me today? Bottom of the bleachers."
Eli stared at the wall for a moment. He hadn't even thought about lunch. Well, he had, but that was before he realized that Roosevelt High was not exactly like the youth group at First Baptist Church on Aspen Road. He'd assumed that he could just walk up and join a group of kids at a picnic table or something, but the first and obvious problem with that was the lack of picnic tables on campus. The second problem was that no one in this school would tolerate such a heinous breakage of the social norms.
And third, he would have been too scared to actually do that, anyway.
Wordlessly, Eli nodded.