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Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars 4


  “Oh, sweetheart,” said my mom into the side of my head, her voice muffled by my hair. “Everyone makes mistakes.”

  “Everyone lies,” I said.

  “Maybe so,” said my dad, “but most people do a lot of good things, too. Don’t give up on the human race, Ace.” Because my first two initials were A.C., my dad had called me Ace ever since I was a little kid. Hearing him say it, that sweet old nickname, somehow made me cry harder.

  When I could talk, I said, “That’s why I have to stop going to school.”

  “What do you mean?” asked my mom. Gently she took my chin between her thumb and forefinger and lifted my face toward hers.

  “I don’t want to give up,” I told her. “I want to keep the faith, like Dean Amory says. But if I keep going to school, I don’t think I’ll be able to do that.”

  “Staying home can’t be the answer, though,” said my mom. “You’d miss it. You’ve always loved school.”

  It was true. I was one of those possibly very annoying people who genuinely loved sitting in a classroom learning new things, surrounded by other people who were doing the same thing. And everything had been fine until sixth grade. I mean, kids had lied now and then, but mostly they were who they seemed to be.

  “Things will get better,” said my dad, sounding just like Dean Amory.

  “When?” I asked.

  “It doesn’t happen all at once, but in a couple of years, when all those kids start to feel more at home with themselves, they’ll start to be more straightforward, and it’ll just keep getting better after that. And meanwhile, all the other things about them, the good, funny, interesting parts, will still be there, more there.”

  A couple of years. It sounded like eternity to me.

  “Then I’ll live in the woods for a couple of years,” I said, burrowing my face back into my mother’s arm, “and wait for things to get better, and then maybe I’ll go back to school.”

  Five days later, at breakfast, they showed me the brochure.

  “Let’s put aside the question of school for now . . . ,” began my father.

  There was no question, only an answer: I wasn’t going. But my parents were obviously so excited about what they were about to tell me that I decided not to say this out loud.

  “. . . and talk about this summer,” my dad finished.

  He handed me the brochure. It was glossy and colorful: cacti festooned with flowers, a wide, wide sky, mountains rising high in the background. Across the azure sky, in big letters, were the words THE JOURNEY TO CONFIDENCE!

  “Wilderness camp,” said my mother, grinning. “Six weeks in the great outdoors!”

  “Oh,” I said, blinking. “Wow.”

  I opened the brochure and read the camp description:

  A six-week, two-hundred-mile trek tracing the historical route of the famous Marquesa de Baca expedition of 1532 through the gorgeous, unpopulated wildlands of West Texas, el Viaje a la Confianza, or the Journey to Confidence, will forever transform your child.

  Days of cross-country hiking through stunningly beautiful but challenging desert terrain, interspersed with six specifically targeted wilderness team-building challenges, el Viaje a la Confianza is expertly led by accredited wilderness authority and former NCAA champion quarterback Jared Eastbrook. Fully stocked food, water, and first-aid checkpoints along the route ensure safety while preserving the isolated atmosphere essential to building the self-assurance of campers and to connecting them with the magical world around them!

  Start your child on the Journey to Confidence today. After el Viaje a la Confianza, no challenge will be too great!

  My dad said, “We think you could use a break, and since you love being outside so much . . . voilà!”

  “Will there be other kids?” I asked, touching a finger to the photo of the bright-crimson cactus flowers. How cool that something so delicate could grow out of something so rough.

  “Well, yeah,” said my dad, “but you’ll all be so busy surviving the wilderness that no one will have the time or occasion to lie.”

  I knew better. But the mountains on the brochure’s cover looked like they’d been painted with a giant brush dipped straight into the liquid heart of a sunset. Wherever it was, it looked like no place I’d ever been, and that was exactly where I wanted to be.

  CHAPTER FOUR

  Aaron Archer

  Dolley Madison Middle School

  West Chester County, Pennsylvania

  A FEW MORNINGS AFTER THE Great Quiz Masters Catastrophe, which is what people had started calling it when they thought I wasn’t listening, Mrs. Dunaway peered at me through her glasses while she took attendance. After Xavier Zug answered “Present,” she announced, “Poetry recitations!”

  After the moaning died down, Mrs. Dunaway called, “Aaron Archer. Please present the poem I asked you to memorize.”

  I hadn’t exactly memorized my poem the way everybody else memorizes poems, by sitting on the edge of my bed, saying it twenty times out loud, and hoping for the best, since, like I mentioned, every word I’ve ever laid eyes on has been automatically filed away on my hard drive. There are poems in there about lovely trees, and boys on burning decks, and clouds, and even one about vast and trunkless legs of stone. But out of all the poems in the world, the one Mrs. Dunaway had asked me to recite was one so crazy it hardly seemed like a poem at all.

  The Red Wheelbarrow

  by William Carlos Williams

  so much depends

  upon

  a red wheel

  barrow

  glazed with rain

  water

  beside the white

  chickens.

  “Excellent,” said Mrs. Dunaway after I was done. I told her thanks and headed for my seat. “Wait,” said Mrs. Dunaway. “I’ve got a question.”

  “What is it, Mrs. Dunaway?” I asked.

  “How much is so much?” she asked.

  “How much is . . . ,” I began. “I thought we were just supposed to recite a poem.”

  “Some of us are reciting,” replied Mrs. Dunaway, “and some of us are reciting and then answering questions.”

  “Okay, Mrs. Dunaway,” I said.

  “How much is so much?” she repeated.

  I mentally scanned the author biography underneath the poem. “William Carlos Williams has long been known as a revolutionary figure in American poetry,” I read off the page in my mind. “Yet unlike other poets of his time who pursued exotic lives and difficult poetic themes, Williams lived in Rutherford, New Jersey—”

  “No, Aaron,” Mrs. Dunaway interrupted. “Perhaps you didn’t understand the question.”

  I didn’t understand the question. Or the chickens. I glanced around at the class. They didn’t seem to understand any of it either. Hardy shrugged his shoulders at me, and Andrea had a little crease of confusion on her forehead.

  Mrs. Dunaway’s eyes focused on me like lasers. “I mean,” she explained, “if William Carlos Williams thinks that so much depends on a red wheelbarrow, then how much does he think depends on a red wheelbarrow?”

  “I get it,” I said. I didn’t get it.

  “Close your eyes,” Mrs. Dunaway suggested. She wore the same expression she’d had when I’d tanked in the Quiz Masters final: concerned, but curious. “What is your red wheelbarrow? Where are your white chickens?”

  “Uh—” I said.

  Everybody in the whole room thought I knew everything in the world, with the possible exception of how King George felt about his American subjects in 1775.

  The problem was, all I really knew was a ton of facts. Sure, I thought about other stuff, maybe not chickens or wheelbarrows, but once in a while I liked to think about what depends on what. Like—how my neighbor Mrs. Larson depends on her six cats, which is why I help her remember when it’s time to give each individual one its worm pill.

  Needless to say, though, I never got as far as old William Carlos Williams. I never got to chickens and wheelbarrows.

&
nbsp; But since I had the feeling Mrs. Dunaway was trying to help, I tried to follow her advice about William Carlos. I closed my eyes.

  “Look at the poem,” she suggested. “Really look.”

  I looked.

  “What do you see?” asked Mrs. Dunaway.

  “Words,” I said, “on a page.” I could even visualize the numbers at the bottom and the fold in the corner of the dusty yellow paper where my mom had turned it down to mark her place in the poetry book.

  “Focus,” prodded Mrs. Dunaway, “on the colors in the poem. Red. And white. And why does the poet mention the rain? What does it all look like, Aaron?”

  “Can you give me a hint, Mrs. Dunaway?” I asked. “What’s the answer? Did William Carlos Williams ever tell anybody?”

  “I’m not sure William Carlos Williams knew the answer,” said Mrs. Dunaway. “But you do. You just don’t know you know.”

  Slowly, I tried to visualize the water drops glistening on the red paint after a huge storm, and the clean white of the feathers, and somewhere, in a far corner of my mind, I started to understand that this wasn’t about chickens and farm tools. William Carlos Williams was telling me something more than that. He’d hidden another idea under his words. William Carlos Williams was telling me that sometimes the plainest things can be very, very—

  The sound of toe-tapping invaded my thoughts. I opened my eyes.

  Principal DuPlessy loomed in the doorway, bald as a billiard ball, a FedEx box jammed under his arm. Unfortunately, a razor mishap had obliterated his eyebrows along with his hair.

  Although Mrs. Dunaway and most of my friends had gotten over the Great Quiz Masters Catastrophe, he hadn’t. Not even close. And when Principal DuPlessy fell into a bad mood—for instance, the kind of mood he might slip into after watching his Quiz Masters team blow its big chance at a state title, and subsequently seeing a bald head and missing eyebrows to remind him of this debacle every time he looked in the mirror—he took his frustrations out on the person he considered responsible: the coach. “Mrs. Dunaway?” he barked. “A word?”

  “I’m teaching,” replied Mrs. Dunaway without a glance in his direction.

  “Mrs. Dunaway,” he repeated. “A word.” This time, it wasn’t a request. Mrs. Dunaway joined him in the hall.

  The principal didn’t scream or throw things, like he used to when he was the basketball coach and somebody missed a layup, but he was still plenty mad. We could hear every word he said out there.

  “Wheelbarrows? Chickens?” sputtered Principal DuPlessy.

  “That’s two words,” pointed out Mrs. Dunaway.

  “Whatever,” muttered Principal DuPlessy. “They aren’t what I came to talk about.”

  “What did you come to talk about?” asked Mrs. Dunaway.

  “The Central Standards Exam!” exploded Principal DuPlessy.

  “Four words,” observed Mrs. Dunaway.

  “Four very important words, when it comes to the reputation of Dolley Madison Middle School,” replied Principal DuPlessy. “Which is in tatters right now, thanks to your Quiz Masters performance. How am I supposed to win Principal of the Year with performances like that?”

  Mrs. Dunaway raised one eyebrow.

  He pointed at a number on the floor in front of her door. He had painted numbers like this outside a few classrooms around the school. They showed everybody how deficient each homeroom teacher had been on the Central Standards Practice Exam, and on which part. Mrs. Dunaway was a –2, LANGUAGE ARTS. Which was kind of a problem, since she was supposed to be teaching us language arts in her homeroom.

  “You’ve got two language arts deficiency points, and you’re asking the one student in your class who’s actually good at the Central Standards Exam about chickens!” cried Principal DuPlessy.

  “I’m quite proud of that question,” replied Mrs. Dunaway. “I thought it up just for Aaron.”

  “It’s not the right kind of question!” spluttered the principal.

  “What kind of question,” asked Mrs. Dunaway, “is the right kind of question?”

  “This kind!” snapped Principal DuPlessy. He yanked the FedEx box out from under his arm, ripped off the label that said DO NOT OPEN UNTIL JUNE 2, dug out a Central Standards Exam question booklet, sliced off the little round seal with his thumbnail—which I was pretty sure broke about a hundred rules—and opened it to page one. He read:

  “Identify the coordinating conjunction in the following sentence: ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.’ A, whether; B, or; C, to; D. held.

  “Well?” he demanded, glaring at Mrs. Dunaway.

  “Well what?” she shot back.

  “Well, can your students identify the whatever in the whatever?” asked Principal DuPlessy.

  “If any of my students ever read the most exquisite first sentence in the history of novels and started picking out the coordinating conjunctions, I’d slap a pointy hat on his head and stick him in the corner for a week!” retorted Mrs. Dunaway.

  “Let me put it this way,” seethed the principal. “Your students have been below standard on language arts for the past four years. YET YOU ARE THEIR LANGUAGE ARTS TEACHER! If it happens again? The school board says I can fire you.” He jabbed his finger at Mrs. Dunaway. But he happened to be holding the question book in his hand. Which flopped onto the floor and lay there in the open doorway. I watched the pages flutter in the hallway breeze, from first to last in less than a second. “If I were you?” the principal muttered. “I’d be more worried about drilling grammar into my kids’ skulls than asking Arthur about that stinking lawn mower.”

  “Aaron,” said Mrs. Dunaway. “Wheelbarrow.”

  “Whatever,” scoffed Principal DuPlessy. “Shape up.”

  “Brianna Bishop,” said Mrs. Dunaway, stepping back into the room. “I cannot wait to hear the poem you’ve prepared for us.”

  “‘Anecdote of the Jar,’” said Brianna. “By Wallace Stevens. ‘I placed a jar in Tennessee,’” she began, “‘And round it was, upon a hill.’”

  “A jar,” muttered Principal DuPlessy in disgust as he snatched the test booklet from the linoleum and stomped away. “In Tennessee. For the love of Pete.”

  But I had everything I needed to help Mrs. Dunaway. And I was going to help Mrs. Dunaway. Because when a teacher makes you recite insanely hard poems and thinks up special questions just for you, even if you don’t understand what they mean, then her heart is in the right place and you need to make sure she keeps her job.

  When that test booklet came fluttering past the classroom doorway and lay on the floor flapping in the breeze, my brain took a snapshot of every single page. After I got home, I looked at the snapshots again, and I picked out three questions I knew everybody in the class would get wrong, because they were hard, and because never in a million years would Mrs. Dunaway spend time teaching us stuff like this when she could be grilling us about poems.

  I only needed three because Mrs. Dunaway wasn’t that far from making the grade. According to the numbers on the floor, if everybody got approximately 2.1 more answers right, then she’d get to keep her job.

  On Monday, as soon as the bell rang, I knocked all of Jimmy Stell’s orange pencils onto the floor and stumbled around helping him pick them up. When I was sure I had the whole class’s attention, I said, “Oh. By the way. Mrs. Dunaway?”

  “Yes, Aaron?” she replied.

  “Is a good example of a transition word A, prestidigitation; B, Glimmerglass; C, moreover; or D, thoroughly? I’m pretty sure it’s C, moreover. Aren’t you pretty sure it’s C, moreover?”

  Mrs. Dunaway was busy rummaging in her drawer for her roll book and didn’t bother looking up. “It’s moreover, Aaron,” she answered, “as I feel certain you already know.”

  “Did you hear that, Hardy?” I said. “Hey—Nate and Alexander. Listen up, Andrea! A good example of a transition word is C, moreover! Amazing. Wow. Cool. Wh
at do you know! Moreover! Who would have figured? Wow!” I figured if I repeated it enough times, it would sink in where it was needed most, even if not everybody was totally paying attention. It would work like hypnotism. Or osmosis.

  On Tuesday, I did the same thing, only with Stephanie’s lunch and a question about passive voice constructions. The answer to that one was D, none of the above.

  On Wednesday, I spilled Hardy’s gym bag, and while everybody watched me stuff his socks back in, I made sure they knew that the narrative point of view of “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe was B, first person unreliable.

  Since I had a long history of blurting out odd facts, I don’t think Mrs. Dunaway thought twice about any of this. At least not at the time.

  On Thursday, we took the test.

  In the front of the class, Mrs. Dunaway read a novel while we worked. David Copperfield. She glanced up at me and smiled. She didn’t have any idea that what I’d been doing for the past three days was giving away answers.

  Well, I told myself. I’d already known the answers before I ever saw the questions, so, technically, they were mine. Right? How could it be cheating for me to give away three answers that I already knew? Plus, in a way, Mrs. Dunaway had taught everyone the answers. I mean, she was the one who’d said they were correct. Am I right about this? Somebody tell me I’m right.

  The classroom clock ticked.

  The pencils of the class scritched inside the ovals.

  The clock ticked.

  The pencils scritched.

  I couldn’t take it. I was not right. About any of what I’d told myself. My insides collapsed. I began to visualize everything that was going to happen. I thought through all the angles I hadn’t thought through before. As soon as we turned in our tests, Mrs. Dunaway was going to take them to the office, where they were going to scan the results and send them to a central computer in Ames, Iowa, which would spot strangely improved scores on questions 77, 93, and 99. Investigators would immediately buy airplane tickets and, by the next morning, converge on Dolley Madison Middle School and begin pulling students out of Mrs. Dunaway’s room one at a time, extracting their statements, comparing notes. Soon they’d figure out the method I’d used to give away three of the hardest language arts answers, and finally they’d call me in and ask me questions that would make me incriminate myself, not to mention Mrs. Dunaway, Hardy Gillooly, and everybody else who’d paid attention while I was busy leaking information. Mrs. Dunaway was over eighteen. About fifty years over eighteen. She’d probably go to jail!