Buckeye trees bordered the street on the way to my high school in northern Ohio. On this brisk fall morning, I picked up the first buckeye of the season and with practiced ease split the thorny, mottled green covering revealing an inside as smooth as silk. The buckeye itself was dark, shiny brown with a tan eye. I picked up more as I walked to school putting the nicer ones in my jeans pocket.
The bell rang. All the students, like B-Bs swirling around the rim of a puzzle, rolled into their desks in last period study hall. This was not any last period study hall; it was Mr. P’s last period study hall. And, as such it was avoided if at all possible.
I remember the first day I was in his study hall.
Mr. P. snarled, “There will be assigned seats, no talking, no chewing gum, no sleeping, no yawning, no looking up. If you look up and don’t see my shoes under my desk you are dead meat because I am on my way to nail you.”
Mr. P. didn’t so much as sit at the teacher’s desk as hulk behind, over, and around it. One huge ham of a hand grabbed each end of the six foot desk. He looked out at us, eyes wide open like a boxer watching for an opening or a batter watching for that fast ball breaking on the inside. His eyes never moved. He took in the whole study hall and its students in one gulp.
Mr. P. taught shop when he is not terrifying the last period study hall. It’s rumored that the principal is afraid to let him loose with other than shop students. No one else would take last period so Mr. P. was assigned our study hall.
Howard Klein, squint eyed, stared defiantly at his book. He is two rows over and to my right. He picks a scab from the self-inflicted cigarette burns on the back of his hand. Then he starts tattooing himself with a straightened safety pin and ink from his ballpoint pen. I don’t look at Howard much. Howard doesn’t like to be looked at. When Howard doesn’t like something he pummels the nearest victim. No one wants to sit near him. Even two rows over it’s like sitting next to a keg of dynamite.
Rudy Smith, turning his head away from Mr. P. rests his head on his right hand. His right hand is supported by his right elbow which in entrenched in his open history book, which by the way is upside down. Slowly he brings his left hand to his face, ceremoniously makes a fist then nonchalantly extends his index finger and begins probing his right nostril. His eyes glaze over and roll back in ecstasy.
The bell rings! Last period study hall has officially begun.
Mary Jameson, has waist length blond hair shrouding her face. One shoeless heal is tucked into her warmth under her red, green and black tartan skirt. She rocks rhythmically against her heel. She could actually be studying were it not for the blissful smile on her face. She looks at me, blushes, and goes back to her rocking.
Pete Roberts is counting the tiles on the floor. He has already counted the number of desks, ceiling tiles, spit wads on the ceiling tiles, girls, boys, panes of glass, erasers and chalk. A scientist of sorts, Pete has already discovered the only true constants are the floor and ceiling tile.
I check and Mr. P. is still behind his desk.
Alice Areola is the most beautiful girl in school. She’s a cheerleader, of course. There is a pep rally today. She wears her cheerleader outfit: a short pleated skirt a tight sweater which forces the varsity “S” to protrude breathtakingly. She goes through cheering routines with her fingers on her desk. Her feet swing and her thighs open and close in to perfect synchronization to the cheers her fingers perform. Each cheer causes her skirt ride up.
Bill Sams watches Alice. The effect is predictable. He squirms in his seat. He sits sideways. He sits bold upright but to no avail. Slowly he slides forward and down into his seat hoping the desk hides his bulging thoughts.
Once again I check and sigh relief to find Mr.P’s shoes under his desk.
I lower my head and look under my right arm pit to check out Steve Smith. Steve is my idle. Sure enough there he sits, text book open, head resting in both hands, eyes wide open and, yes, fast asleep. I stretch my legs, flex my shoulders, and mimic his posture. I close my eyes to remind myself of the feeling of sleep. I open them. I wait. I cross my eyes slightly to blur my vision. I wait for sleep.
Suddenly, I catch movement to my right. It’s Howard Klein. I focus in time to see his arm swing like a pendulum backwards. His hand is full of buckeyes. Oh, my God! I rivet my eyes to the book open in front of me. The buckeyes hit the floor skittering and rolling loudly towards Mr. P.’s desk.
AND. I have a pocket full of buckeyes. My mind becomes a thesaurus : Armageddon, doomsday, second coming, death, crucifixion. I don’t dare lookup. “No, dummy, if you don’t lookup you’ll look guilty.”
I look up. No shoes. Desks are flying and crashing right and left. “Dear Jesus,” I pray. “Let Mr. P. have seen who threw the buckeyes. Also, dear Jesus, have mercy on Howard if Mr. P. did see.”
Suddenly, Howard disappears from my peripheral vision. I hear Howard’s body, like a bag of potatoes, hit the study hall wall. We listen and cringe as he ricochets off the hall lockers into the distance. Finally, aided by Mr. P. he smashes into the principals office.
As the sound dissolves, everyone returns to their “work”. Not a word is said, but all eyes are glued to where Mr. P.’s shoes had been under the desk. We wait in silence for Mr. P’s return and for the last bell.