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"He was an odd-looking creature, even in the choppy high school sea of Cro-Magnon adolescents. "

Published onDec 13, 2023

Photo by Armin Rimoldi:

I sat staring at the tiny squares of the pee-stained tile floor, marveling at the idiocy of designing a high school bathroom floor using grout that essentially guaranteed a permanent record of the DNA of every student that unzipped and let loose in this stall. The smug engineers even put tile on the walls, confident that they would be graffiti-proof, completely underestimating the spare time, imagination, and ingenuity of a pubescent high-schooler and the resultant invention of groutfiti. Written in tiny ball-point indelible ink, the wisdom of generations of teenagers was absorbed by the porous grout and made as durable as the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, memorializing such classics as “dare to be grout!” “grout expectations,” “all creatures grout and small,” “for a grout time call Becky,” and on and on.

The groutfiti provided a slight distraction as I sat on the toilet waiting for my anxiety-fired bowels to calm down. I was also waiting for the bell for the start of fourth period in order to avoid Chris Boswell, my tormentor, who often posted himself outside the boys' room while I cowered inside.

It was a game of chicken: Which of us was willing to risk being late for class—him for the pleasure of dumping my books or me for the relief in getting to class unmolested?

Fortunately, I had a secret weapon. I was in the accelerated math program and Mr. Splain, in spite of being notorious for his firm discipline, always seemed to be looking the other way when I slipped into my seat well after the bell. 

This had led to such a decrease in Boswell encounters that it had become routine for me to just wait sixty seconds after the bell and then pull up my pants, flush, and gather my books, confident that the danger had passed. And so it was on this day that I exited the boys' room with no caution whatsoever and one-tenth of a millisecond later my books and papers lay scattered over several square meters of speckled gray high-school linoleum. It was a masterful stroke, I had to admit, and Chris was strutting extra-triumphantly as he tromped and danced through the mess, kicking my books as he headed down the hall, flipping me a double bird as he rounded the corner at the end and disappeared.

I probably slumped my shoulders as I looked at the mess, but I was in such a permanent state of slumpiness in junior high that to an onlooker nothing in my demeanor would have looked any different. I squatted and started the ritual of moving from pile to pile, putting things back in order, pausing for a minute as I looked at the first page of my book report which had a big dusty shoe-print in the middle. It was when I looked up from that book report that I noticed there was another kid squatted down collecting my stuff. He was an odd-looking creature, even in the choppy high school sea of Cro-Magnon adolescents. Tall and skinny with horn-rimmed glasses, he looked like a folding lawn chair as he scissored his frame from paper to paper. He looked up at me and handed me what he had collected. 

“I need a helper. You want to come mimeograph a flyer with me? I can get you a pass,” he said.

It was Peter Patton. I knew who he was, but never really talked to him. He was one of those gadflies that no one ever bothered—even though he looked like prime bully-meat—because nothing seemed to bother him. He operated on a different plane from the rest of us. 

I hesitated. I had never skipped a class before. I had no idea what credentials could gain you that magical scrap of pink paper that allowed you to be places you weren’t supposed to be. But then I heard the word “sure” come out of my mouth and the next thing I knew I was cruising through the deserted hallway with Peter, flying on a different plane. 

Peter and I became an oddball team the rest of the semester and I found myself suddenly absorbed into a special order of kids that were the “glue” of the school—kids that got things done behind the scenes, the ones that knew how to change a bulb in the film-strip projector, thread the reel-to-reel tape recorder, access locked supply rooms, copy and post flyers. The other kids, the tribal kids—the jocks, the populars, the cheerleaders, the ROTC crowd—went about their social business as if we weren’t there, unless they needed us. We were like the pilot fish tending to the reef sharks. 

Funny thing was, I never saw Chris Boswell again. He still existed, but I had stumbled into the powerful gulf stream of accepted social status and was swept up by its velocity while he drifted into the stagnant backwaters of the aimless drugs-and-porn crowd. I was traveling in a different circle and even though we were in the same building every day, our circles never intersected again.

I eventually graduated to more mainstream circles as I got further along in high school. In fact, I became one of the sharks. Well not a shark, perhaps a dolphin, but still, a big fish, and I probably would have forgotten about the seminal event that got me there if I hadn’t rounded a corner in the hallway one day and nearly tripped over a textbook on the floor. I reached down and picked it up. It was a basic electronics book. I looked up to see a scrawny kid gathering his scattered belongings. I reached down and picked up the items close to me and handed them to the kid. 

“You know how to use a soldering iron?” I asked.

The kid brightened, “Yeah, sure.”

“Good. I need a hand fixing some projector wiring,” I said. “I can get you a pass.”

Frederic Martin lives and writes in and about Vermont. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Colby College where he studied literature, creative writing, music, and studio art, and yet somehow graduated with a degree in physics. His first published work, a short story "Maybe Lake Carmi," was awarded the 2018 Vermont Writer’s Prize.

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