The teacher droned on while Eli fought to keep his eyes open. They were closing, closing, drifting down, glazing over… He snapped them open with a shake of his head.
History 201 was the wrong class to fall asleep in. Ms. Sommers wouldn’t hesitate to smack him with a ruler if she caught him dozing. Teachers could get away with corporal punishment if parents didn’t raise a stink and Eli’s parents wouldn’t care if Ms. Sommers smacked him.
In fact, they’d take her side. His mother would fret over why he’d done such a stupid thing, why he wasn’t paying attention, and his father would rant at him for wasting his opportunities and misplacing his priorities.
Eli didn’t bother to cover his yawn.
Ms. Sommers spotted it immediately. “Am I boring you, Mr. Pelier?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Eli responded easily.
Rochelle Martin, seated next to him, gave a snort of muffled laughter, and behind him he heard a chorus of chuckles, scuffling feet, and a thud of a book being knocked off a desk.
“Damn it, Eli,” came a hissed whisper from the corner of the room. “What’d you go and do that for?”
“Mr. Jones,” snapped Ms. Sommers. “No talking in class.”
Eli shot a glance over his shoulder, meeting the narrow-eyed glare of Tony Jones, an occasional friend. Well, friend was too strong a word. Once in a while they got stoned together, out behind the school, before classes started. But it wasn’t deliberate, more like they happened to be in the same place, doing the same thing, at the same time, and weren’t overtly unfriendly to one another.
“I apologize, ma’am.” Eli sat straighter in his chair, lifting out of his typical slump. “But I know you frown upon dishonesty.”
Ms. Sommers pursed her lips. She’d been pacing by the blackboard the way she did, not writing on it, but talking about something or other, some labor movement or coal miner’s protest, nothing that meant anything to Eli, but she’d stopped moving when she asked her question.
Around Eli, papers were rustling, people were shuffling. The classroom had gone from still and motionless to active, moving. Next to him, Rochelle stuffed her tablet back into her back and pulled out a notebook and a pen.
Ms. Sommers folded her arms across her chest and regarded Eli silently.
His fellow students slowly stopped moving until silence fell again.
“I find myself intrigued by your choices, Mr. Pelier,” Ms. Sommers finally said.
“Ma’am?” He lifted a quizzical eyebrow.
“I also find myself wondering if I’ve become a bit too predictable in my behavior.”
Eli didn’t say anything. The answer was too obvious. And, of course, further evidence of rudeness on his part if he agreed with her.
“Ms. Martin.” Ms. Sommers turned her gaze away from Eli. “What are you doing with that paper?”
Rochelle’s eyes went wide. She looked down at her notebook, up again, over at Eli, down again, and then back up at their teacher. “Getting ready?”
“Um… the pop quiz.” Rochelle’s tentative voice made the statement almost, but not quite, a question.
“Indeed.” Ms. Sommers pulled out her desk chair and sat. “Far too predictable.” She tented her fingers on the desk in front of her, then gave a nod to a raised hand in the back corner. “Mr. Jones?”
“We could skip the quiz, Ms. Sommers, and I could just beat him up now,” Tony offered.
“A generous offer, Mr. Jones.” Ms. Sommers dipped her chin in a single gracious nod. “Alas, the school board would surely disapprove were I to accept.”
As would Eli. Tony out-massed him by three inches and thirty pounds. Eli might be able to do some damage — he’d definitely fight back — but Tony probably could kick his ass if he was motivated enough.
“Mr. Pelier.” Ms. Sommers gave him a tight smile, with no evidence of warmth or humor in it. She gestured to the open space next to her desk. “Since you evidently have complete comprehension and understanding of this material, why don’t you come up here and teach the class?” She leaned back in her chair.
Eli didn’t move for a couple of seconds. His brain and body didn’t seem to be coordinating their responses properly. His brain was saying something like, “Oh, shit, oh, hell, oh, damn, what do I do now?” but his body was filling with excited energy, like taking a good upper.
His body seemed to win, as he heard his mouth saying, “My pleasure,” and felt his legs lifting him up off his seat and walking him to the front of the classroom.
He turned and faced his classmates. The room felt different up here. Bigger and yet smaller, too. He let his gaze skim over every face, one at a time, up and down each row of desks, making eye contact and marking their expressions. There were smirks and muffled giggles from some, sympathetic grimaces from others, and from a couple the same glazed expression he’d probably been wearing himself a few minutes ago. Even a student as teacher wasn’t enough to break everyone from the status quo of school equals boring.
“So, class.” He raised his hands, gesturing widely, as if to encompass the room. “Today we’re talking about labor unions. Anyone know why labor unions are important?”
He let his eyes skim the room, letting a few seconds go by to see if anyone wanted to jump into this pool of hot water with him. No takers, so he let his hands drop to his sides. “In the old days, businesses worked like this: there was a boss and there were workers. And the workers did what they were told.” On the last sentence, he jabbed his index finger at his audience, enunciating each word. “They worked long hours. They worked in dangerous conditions.” He began to pace across the room. “They suffered! And the boss didn’t care, because there were always more workers. The boss—“ He swept his hand in the direction of Ms. Sommers. “—the boss could give them pop quizzes whenever she wanted to. The boss could assign vast quantities of homework. The boss could make tests really hard. The boss could even hit the workers with a ruler if she wanted to. And the workers, they were helpless to make her change, because they had no power.”
His brain was telling him to shut up, to be quiet, to apologize again, but his body kept walking and his veins were filled with a strange sort of vindictive glee.