Apparently, I’m tragic and dangerous. Oh yeah, I think. That’s right. I am here and now and not just awake, but Awake, and everyone can just deal with it because I am the second freakin’ coming. I lean in and say to them, “I heard he did it over a girl,” and then I swagger all the way to class.
Inside the classroom, I take my seat, feeling infamous and invincible and twitchy and strangely exhilarated, as if I just escaped, well, death. I look around, but no one is paying any attention to me or Mr. Black, our teacher, who is literally the largest man I have ever seen. He has a red, red face that always makes him look like he’s on the verge of heatstroke or a heart attack, and he wheezes when he talks.
The whole time I’ve been in Indiana, which is all my life—the purgatory years, I call them—we’ve apparently lived just eleven miles away from the highest point in the state. No one ever told me, not my parents or my sisters or my teachers, until now, right this minute, in the “Wander Indiana” section of U.S. Geography—the one that was implemented by the school board this year in an effort to “enlighten students as to the rich history available in their own home state and inspire Hoosier pride.”
Mr. Black settles into his chair and clears his throat. “What better and more … appropriate way to start off … the semester than by beginning … with the highest point?” Because of the wheezing, it’s hard to tell if Mr. Black is all that impressed by the information he’s relaying. “Hoosier Hill is … 1,257 feet above sea level … and it’s in the backyard … of a family home.… In 2005, an Eagle … Scout from Kentucky … got permission to … build a trail and picnic area … and put up a sign.…”
I raise my hand, which Mr. Black ignores.
As he talks, I leave my hand in the air and think, What if I went there and stood on that point? Would things look different from 1,257 feet? It doesn’t seem very high, but they’re proud of it, and who am I to say 1,257 feet isn’t something to be impressed by?
Finally, he nods at me, his lips so tight, it looks like he’s swallowed them. “Yes, Mr. Finch?” He sighs the sigh of a one-hundred-year-old man and gives me an apprehensive, distrustful look.
“I suggest a field trip. We need to see the wondrous sights of Indiana while we still can, because at least three of us in this room are going to graduate and leave our great state at the end of this year, and what will we have to show for it except a subpar public school education from one of the worst school systems in the nation? Besides, a place like this is going to be hard to take in unless we see it. Kind of like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. You need to be there to really appreciate its splendor.”
I’m only being about twenty percent sarcastic, but Mr. Black says, “Thank you, Mr. Finch,” in a way that means the direct opposite of thank you. I start drawing hills on my notebook in tribute to our state’s highest point, but they look more like formless lumps or airborne snakes—I can’t decide.
“Theodore is correct that some … of you will leave … here at the end of … this school year to go … somewhere else. You’ll be departing our … great state, and before … you do, you should … see it. You should … wander.…”
A noise from across the room interrupts him. Someone has come in late and dropped a book and then, in picking up the book, has upset all her other books so that everything has gone tumbling. This is followed by laughter because we’re in high school, which means we’re predictable and almost anything is funny, especially if it’s someone else’s public humiliation. The girl who dropped everything is Violet Markey, the same Violet Markey from the bell tower. She turns beet red and I can tell she wants to die. Not in a jumping-from-a-great-height kind of way, but more along the lines of Please, earth, swallow me whole.
I know this feeling better than I know my mom or my sisters or Charlie Donahue. This feeling and I have been together all my life. Like the time I gave myself a concussion during kickball in front of Suze Haines; or the time I laughed so hard that something flew out of my nose and landed on Gabe Romero; or the entire eighth grade.
And so, because I’m used to it and because this Violet girl is about three dropped pencils away from crying, I knock one of my own books onto the floor. All eyes shift to me. I bend to pick it up and purposely send the others flying—boomeranging into walls, windows, heads—and just for good measure, I tilt my chair over so I go crashing. This is followed by snickers and applause and a “freak” or two, and Mr. Black wheezing, “If you’re done … Theodore … I’d like to continue.”
I right myself, right the chair, take a bow, collect my books, bow again, settle in, and smile at Violet, who is looking at me with what can only be described as surprise and relief and something else—worry, maybe. I’d like to think there’s a little lust mixed in too, but that could be wishful thinking. The smile I give her is the best smile I have, the one that makes my mother forgive me for staying out too late or for just generally being weird. (Other times, I see my mom looking at me—when she looks at me at all—like she’s thinking: Where in the hell did you come from? You must get it from your father’s side.)
Violet smiles back. Immediately, I feel better, because she feels better and because of the way she smiles at me, as if I’m not something to be avoided. This makes twice in one day that I’ve saved her. Tenderhearted Theodore, my mother always says. Too tenderhearted for his own good. It’s meant as a criticism and I take it as one.
Mr. Black fixes his eyes on Violet and then me. “As I was saying … your project for this … class is to report on … at least two, preferably three … wonders of Indiana.” I want to ask, Wonders or wanders? But I’m busy watching Violet as she concentrates on the chalkboard, the corner of her mouth still turned up.
Mr. Black goes on about how he wants us to feel free to choose the places that strike our fancy, no matter how obscure or far away. Our mission is to go there and see each one, take pictures, shoot video, delve deep into their history, and tell him just what it is about these places that makes us proud to be a Hoosier. If it’s possible to link them in some way, all the better. We have the rest of the semester to complete the project, and we need to take it seriously.
“You will work … in teams of … two. This will count … for thirty-five percent … of your final grade.…”