Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Chapter Fourteen: Adapted Curve Corrals (Imaginary Friends)

Imaginary Friends is a serial novel. New chapters go up every Friday(ish) (professional demands are causing sliding deadlines right now). If you're new to it, you can catch up by starting from the Introduction or the first chapter.

If you're impatient to read more about Clay Dillon, check out the Books page for ordering information for Nothing is Right, the prequel to this story.

After the encounter with Mrs. Brecker before school, the rest of Clay's first morning at school went very much like it had the year before. Despite the fact that the children were in the second grade, and that they had already internalized the rhythms and the conventions of the adults who were in charge of the facility that indoctrinated them, they still had to sit through many of the same presentations that were used to threaten the first graders into compliance with the school district's particular interpretation of educational theory and child development.

For Clay, this meant that much of the morning was free for him to spend consoling himself about his black eye. In the large-scale gathering that was an assembly at a suburban elementary school in the 1980s, none of the adults cared to peer deeply into the huddled mass of children they had herded into the gymnasium and commanded to sit on the floor, knee to knee and with less than a foot between their kneecaps and the back of the person in front of them.

The sounds and smells of the other children were difficult to deal with, but the concealment that came from the protection they offered was too valuable for Clay to risk. He forced back his tears by intentionally trying to re-create his metal body, to help keep himself from behaving in ways that would attract attention. After dealing with Mrs. Brecker, he did not want to have to explain his eye again. Not everyone would let his swears go like she had.

As the morning ground on, Clay did start to notice small differences between the last year's presentation and this year's. For starters, Mr. Chitwood, spent time talking about “leadership” and “setting an example” to the first graders. Even though it was only the first full week of September, he brought up the issue of snowball fights, and he called on the boys in the group to remember that tackle football was strictly forbidden. He explained that they were in charge of helping the first graders to understand all of these rules, because they were the oldest group at Greenridge school now and so they were expected to know how everything worked.

Despite his discomfort and shame, Clay could not help noticing that Mr. Chitwood's confidence in the maturity of second graders and his assurance of their competence at transmitting school culture did not extend them the courtesy of being spared a thorough reading of the rulebook. He did not tell himself this in so many words, though. Like all of Clay's thoughts, these feelings came through his senses.

As Chitwood talked, the light in the room seemed to hit him in a funny way, exaggerating his facial features and making them seem slightly lopsided. There seemed to be something hungry in his expression, and Clay could not help feeling like the very things that were making other students sit up straighter and pay more attention to the man were warning signs, and that if he followed them, he would be surrendering a part of himself that he did not have a name for and that he would therefore be unable to reclaim.

Clay's metal body agreed with his eyes, too. It hardened his ears, and the discord in Chitwood's words began to sound like silverware clashing. By the time his eardrums were metal, all he could hear was the sound of pots and pans banging against each other, and all he could see was a man in a suit who wanted everyone to give him his way even though he did not feel obliged to find out if they liked his way first.

At some point Clay realized he was sweating. At another point, he realized that the experience was over and people were standing. Clay did not want to stand because he did not want to bump into other students. He was afraid of what would happen if they touched his metal body and cut themselves on him. It would probably lead to his getting in trouble, and since his mother was already vomiting from the burden of dealing with A.J., that would lead to Mark Dillon missing more work and learning how to hate Clay more.

So he stood, and he let himself be led, single-file, out of the gymnasium and through the hallways to his new classroom and his new teacher.

As he walked, Clay looked at the brightly colored posters that decorated the walls of his school. They were detailed and educational, and each one was the size of an entire wall. Each was dedicated to a different subject, too. The math poster detailed different names for large numbers, all the way up too a googol, and explained how those names had been arrived at. The social studies poster talked about Russia, and something called “glasnost”, and Clay wished he had more time to stop and read it. The line picked up speed, though, and that also caused him to miss the details of the dinosaur poster on the science wall and the poster about chapter books.

The posters were the only thing about the day so far that made Clay feel happy, but as he progressed through the building and found himself without enough time to appreciate them, they also started to feel like distractions. At the point where they were just interesting colors that he did not get to read, he began to distrust them.

Eventually, Clay realized that he believed the posters were only put there to keep him slightly distracted. The fact that there was so much information on them but he was not allowed to just stop and read weighed on him. The other children seemed happy, though, and many of them pointed to the bright colors and the illustrated Russian tanks or the Tyrannosaurs hunting and giggled to each other. That was when he decided that the real purpose of the posters was to keep the children occupied, so that they would not focus on the way their classmates smelled as they were packed together or the the fact that they would be trapped in a room for hours at a time, unable to leave without the say-so of an adult that they had never met before.

It suddenly occurred to Clay that whoever could conceive of a way to bring him to that room in a docile way must be a monster. He already knew what the experience of school would be like, after all, so hiding it would not serve to keep him ignorant. It would only make him deliver himself to his fate cheerfully, an act that benefitted the people who wanted him there, but that did nothing to either persuade him that he should be there or liberate him from being there.

The posters were not for him, they were for the people who were ordering him around. They were designed to make that task easier, and all the children who pretended otherwise were being tricked into hurting themselves.

Suddenly, his metal body went away and Clay became very nauseous. He felt like a pink worm exposed in the sunlight, waiting to know if he would be eaten, stepped on, or slowly baked into a dry film on the pavement.

The idea that adults would preoccupy themselves with ways to distract people until they did things without thinking was repulsive, and Clay feared growing up in a world that would revere the kind of person who thought in the ways that the school's leaders thought. There could be no good from a mind whose only purpose was to ceaselessly increase the efficiency of a process without regard to the morality of its results.

Clay averted his eyes from the walls and tried to focus on counting the number of tiles on the floor. He might not be able to stop himself from being delivered to the ends that others designed for him, but he could refuse to express gratitude toward them for what they did.

Next: TV on the Playground

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