I’d overslept. Again.
The term “overslept” is a matter of perspective. Personally, I don’t consider myself to have overslept. If it were up to me, I would still be asleep. For hours. But since my parents have determined I need to attend an educational institution, and that institution starts way too early, and I’m not in a position to challenge that, I have “overslept.” Semantics.
You would think that because I’m living in the residence housing on campus this year, I would have a better chance of waking up on time. Nope. Still overslept. Now I need to sprint across the perfectly manicured lawn to the doors of the school to avoid being late. Truthfully, I like pushing the limits of time. For starters, I’m addicted to the adrenaline rush of waking up in a panic every morning. But more importantly, it’s the part of my personality that pushes my dad to the brink. He’s never late. His ultra-disciplined, military-trained brain couldn’t fathom the concept if it tried. It’s hours of entertainment for me to think of his red face and the vein in his neck popping out every time I run down the stairs late again for something.
When I reached the brick steps leading up to the front doors of the school, I took them two at a time and stopped short at the top. I’ve gone through these thick wooden doors hundreds of times in the last couple of years. But this time, is different. This time, I’m standing at the door to my junior year at Narthex Academy.
Narthex Academy was built in 1757 by the original Lord Proprietors of Charleston when it was still called Charles Towne and still the hub of the deerskin trade. (No one can ever say I didn’t pay attention in my South Carolina history class my sophomore year.)
Narthex has stately brick buildings and well-manicured landscaping. It has “Old South” written all over it, right down to the large Live Oaks dripping with Spanish moss lining the drive up to the main building. It was just what the general was looking for when he enrolled me in Narthex my freshman year. He wanted a school steeped in tradition and discipline. I really didn’t care where I went. I just didn’t want a stupid uniform. It’s not a shock who won that battle. The green blazer, white shirt, striped tie, and khaki pants are my everyday nightmare. Well, at least my dad’s happy. That’s what I live for. And, thankfully, Vicky, my step-mom, ordered me extra-long pants this year. Let’s just say I’ve grown a few inches over the summer. That may or may not be an extreme understatement.
The uniform is just one method my dad is using to try to mold me into something that - if nothing else - won’t embarrass him at his alma mater. My dad went to The Citadel, the military academy of the south. Yeah, I don’t see it happening for me. Not even close to happening. I haven’t found a way to break it to him that there’s no way I’m going to The Citadel. But, I have some time before I have to tell him, right?
I pushed open one of the heavy doors and walked in. I was expecting the “scene” of mass chaos that you find on the first day of school: the loud guys greeting each other, everyone checking out who showed up with a new ride, changed their hair, or grew a beard (well, it could happen); teachers trying to answer three questions at once and looking like they need a couple of Motrin at 8 o’clock in the morning and no one interested at all in the fact that they actually have to head to class.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the “scene”, but the “stench” that smacked me in the face as I stepped into the familiar well-lit foyer of Narthex Academy. The “stench” is the mixture of ammonia and fresh paint that is synonymous with the first day of school. It tries to fool you into thinking this year will be different - a fresh start. New Year, New You! Irritating. I’ve never fallen for it and never will.
There were very few people in the foyer. Most looked as if they were heading somewhere in a hurry and no one was really talking to anyone. There was a large poster board on an easel set up in the foyer that read: “Welcome back to Narthex Academy! Please make your way to the gymnasium for our Welcome Assembly.”
Welcome Assembly? I didn't remember having a Welcome Assembly last year.
It took me about three minutes to reach the gym that was attached to the main building. The bleachers were already full. In the middle, there was a large group of students laughing, talking, and excitedly moving around to socialize.
On the far side, away from the excitement, no one was sitting in large groups - just small clusters of twos and threes. A few people were looking around without trying to appear too interested. Apprehension was oozing off of them. I walked across the gym slowly looking at the floor, trying not to make it obvious I was considering my options.
Although I had attended Narthex since my freshman year (well, six weeks into my freshman year to be exact), I hadn’t really made any friends. This is why I hesitantly allowed a tiny, unrestrained bit of optimism tempt me to be bold and try it out with the social students in the middle. After all, I could probably muster a conversation with a few of them if I tried; I knew most of their names. That really isn’t much of a feat; there are only 500 students in the school.
Sadly, my much stronger, more cynical side (I prefer to call it my realistic side) quickly pointed out that those students were probably too wrapped up in their own existence to notice mine. This realistic side told me I would be wiser to take my place among the students of anonymity – out on the fringes. Predictably, my choice was the same as it has always been in my life: better to stay safely anonymous.
I chose a seat at the far end of the gym, half way up the bleachers, and against the wall. It was a place to observe and stay out of the action. It was perfect.
A few girls were sitting a couple of rows behind me, and another group of students was sitting below me to the right, just close enough, so I didn’t look like a loner but far enough away that I wouldn’t be expected to make conversation. I was congratulating myself on the perfect seat choice when suddenly someone was standing in front of me holding a flyer out in front of my face. He was wearing the standard issue Narthex Academy green blazer, tie, and khaki pants, but instead of the required loafers, he wore a pair of red flip flops. His brown hair was much lighter in color than mine and fell over his eyes. There is no way I would survive in my house with hair that fell over my eyes. I’m just lucky the general doesn’t shave my head regularly.
“Hey, I’m Jackson Ammons. Are you new?” He instantly replaced the flyer with a hand intending to shake mine.
New? I almost snorted. I looked at his outstretched hand making no move to shake it and answered his question. “No, Jackson,” I said. “I’ve been here since freshman year, remember? We had English together with Mrs.Frydman. We were partners for the poetry project. We got a B- and you were happy about it because your parents told you one more “C” and they were taking away your gaming system.”
His eyes widened as he realized his mistake. He yanked back his outstretched hand like he had touched a hot stove. I instantly regretted revealing how much I remembered about him. Sometimes I can shock people with my good memory.
Jackson obviously felt like he needed to apologize because he said, “Uh, sorry. Didn’t recognize you. Asher…right?”
“Yeah. Asher Haynes.”
He nodded his head as his brain put the puzzle pieces together. “Now I remember. Your dad is a general.” Then his eyes got large as he looked at my newly stretched-out frame. “Wow! You’ve grown at least a foot! Weren’t you about 5 foot 5 last year?”
I focused hard on not giving him the second eye roll in less than 30 seconds. “Yes, my dad is a general. And yes, I was 5 foot 5 last year. I guess I grew over the summer or something.” I tried to look uninterested in the topic.
He didn’t get the hint. He went on excitedly “Are you taking growth hormones or something? What are you now, ‘six two’ or ‘six three’ maybe?”
This was getting awkward. I thought I had chosen a safe spot. Obviously, it was a miscalculation. “Not sure really. Over 6 foot, I guess,” I replied, clearly bored now. I looked toward the middle of the gym mentally willing the assembly to start. Hopefully, he’d get the hint and shut up.
He stopped talking about my height and instead focused on the flyer in his hand. “Uh, well, I wanted to make sure you knew about the ‘Welcome Back Oyster Roast’ we’re hosting over at Moultrie House tonight. Six o’clock. So, if you wanna come…” He didn’t finish his sentence.
I took the flyer that had been printed on green paper and shoved it in my pocket without looking at it. “Thanks. I’ll think about it,” I said.
“Ok,” he said. Then he walked away. I could see his green eyes glancing at me sideways from behind the hair that fell over his forehead. He was obviously still shocked by my growth spurt. Was it too late to move seats?
As if to spare me any more humiliation, someone standing in the middle of the basketball court belted out into the microphone she held in her hand “Hello, Narthex Academy!” The students broke out in cheers and applause.
The woman speaking was tiny with long brown hair and a smile big enough to reach the top of the bleachers. She was young, and her voice sang as she spoke. She was one of the guidance counselors. Not mine, of course. I’m not that lucky. I’ve had Mr. Larko the entire time I’ve been here. He’s about 98 years old and should be retired. Last year I walked into his office to meet with him, and there was another student sitting in his office. He had to have been a freshman because He looked at me with wide eyes and then turned to look back at Mr. Larko. Mr. Larko was asleep sitting up in his desk chair with his mouth open but not making a sound. The guy said, “Should we check his pulse?”
The woman in the middle of the court continued. “My name is Sara Sims. For those of you who are new, I’m a member of the guidance counseling team here at Narthex, and I can assure you that all of us on the team are looking forward to working closely with you over the next year to make it a successful one. You’ll be receiving notification of your first appointment with your assigned counselor sometime this week. No pressure! We just want to meet you and get acquainted!”
She stepped aside and handed her microphone to the next speaker, Narthex’s chaplain, who gave the opening prayer. I was very practiced at tuning these out. It was always the same. I could practically recite these prayers in my sleep; including the over-used “LORD-s” sprinkled throughout.
When the chaplain finally ran out of things to say, he walked off center court and handed the microphone to the next speaker.
It was a tall, older woman with a gray streak in her hair and a gray suit to match. I thought she looked familiar though I couldn’t place her. “Um, hello, ladies and gentlemen,” she said in a shrill voice, obviously nervous to be speaking in front of 500 plus high-schoolers. She continued, “Some of you may recognize me, others may not. My name is Lynette Pearl, and I am on the Board of Directors for Narthex Academy.”
So, that’s how I knew her! (This is a rare glitch in my memory.) She had been to our house for dinner right after I started here my freshman year. My dad and Vicky know her through one of the dozens of “worthy causes” they are involved with.
Mrs. Pearl continued, “I have been given both the responsibility and pleasure of informing you of some news. Just last week our headmaster, Dr. Welch, was offered a chance to work alongside some of the most celebrated minds of our time in his field of Paleontology, and he accepted their offer. Consequently, he has resigned his position here at Narthex Academy as headmaster, effective immediately. We are sad to see him leave, but we wish him well as he pursues this opportunity of a lifetime.”
She paused to take a breath.
“That brings me to my next announcement. Left with an open headmaster position just one week before school began; it looked as though we were going to start the school year without a headmaster for the first time in Narthex’s 256 year history. I am happy to say that is not the case. A man who has been a friend of Narthex Academy for a long time, and was up until very recently the Headmaster of Chalmers Academy in Connecticut, has accepted the position.”
Did she just say Chalmers Academy? My mind entered a thick haze of confusion. But how could he have been the Headmaster of Chalmers Academy? Unless…but, wait…there’s NO WAY…! I suddenly felt nauseous.
Mrs. Pearl had continued talking while I was breaking out in a cold sweat. “…but, enough about his accomplishments and qualifications. We are confident that once you get to know him, you’ll see that his dedication to students is what makes him a great asset to a school such as ours. It’s with pleasure that I introduce your new headmaster…”…but, enough about his accomplishments and qualifications. We are confident that once you get to know him, you’ll see that his dedication to students is what makes him a great asset to a school such as ours. It’s with pleasure that I introduce your new headmaster…”
NO. NO. NO! My mind was nearly shut down with panic. This can’t be happening.
“Please welcome Dr. Simon Wragg,” Mrs. Pearl said. The room broke out into polite applause.Wragg,” Mrs. Pearl said. The students applauded.
I froze. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I looked toward the doors of the gym. Could I run out of this room unnoticed? Doubtful.
During the applause, Dr. Simon Wragg walked through the doors into the gym and stood in the middle of the floor next to Mrs. Pearl. He took the microphone, shook her hand, and then turned to face the students. He held up his hand to quiet the applause.
Dr. Wragg was a tall man, nearly as tall as my dad, but he had a much stockier build. My dad had the long, lean body of a swimmer while Dr. Wragg looked much more like he lifted weights, although his suit and tie gave him a smooth look. He had thick dark hair, thick dark eyebrows, and even though he had to be pushing fifty, not a gray hair on his head. Just as menacing as I remember. Two girls behind me giggled and one whispered, “Wow, he looks like Taylor Lautner!”
I barely heard it. My mind was not on which celebrity he resembled. I was trying to figure out how I was going to explain to my parents that I was dropping out of high school. It wouldn’t be a fun conversation, but the alternative was infinitely worse: my junior year at Narthex Academy where Dr. Wragg was the new headmaster.
He now stood in the middle of the basketball court ready to address his new school. This was the first time I had seen him since I was kicked out of Chalmers Academy six weeks into my freshman year. After he kicked me out. I find it ironic that almost exactly two years ago I was watching him give his welcome speech as headmaster there. Now he’s here. At my school.
Dr. Wragg’s deep, bellowing baritone was the same as I remembered. “Hello,” he said. “I’m thrilled to be back in South Carolina, my native state, and to be here at Narthex Academy, a school steeped in tradition and held in such high regard.”
I groaned internally. The rest of his speech was filled with the usual stuff you would expect from a headmaster on the first day of school. It was meant to be inspiring and terrifying all at the same time. As if that ever worked. Either you were the kind of student that was always inspired and didn’t need to be terrified to be motivated, or, you were like me: the kind where the word “motivation” seemed to be an ill-fitting joke. It didn’t matter anyway, any optimism I’d had about my junior year walked out the door the minute Dr. Wragg walked in.
I don’t know if he ever actually picked me out of the crowd while he was speaking, but I know we never made eye contact. I never looked up. He finally wrapped it up with a joke about not being let back up on the stage again because he talks too long and then dismissed us to our first classes. Some of the students moved toward the doors of the gym, yet I sat frozen and watched in disbelief as a disturbingly large number of students gathered around Dr. Wragg, introducing themselves. He was laughing with them, shaking hands, and acting like an all-around nice guy.
Who had jerk-napped the real Dr. Wragg and sent this obvious imposter? The Dr. Wragg I knew was not the warm and fuzzy kind of headmaster.
I finally found the motivation to move. It mostly stemmed from the realization that if I didn’t move soon, I’d be left alone in the bleachers like a sitting duck waiting for Dr. Wragg to come talk to me.
I found myself walking in the crowd next to Jackson, the guy who had “introduced” himself to me before the assembly started. I leaned over toward him to keep my voice low.
“Wow. They seem to really like Dr. Wragg.” I looked at the crowd still gathered around Dr. Wragg in the middle of the court.
Jackson followed my gaze, lowered his voice and said, “I don’t know for sure, but a guy in my house told me he has some sort of healing powers. He said Dr. Wragg saved a girl’s life after she had some sort of head trauma. Who knows… probably just rumors.”
The horrified expression on my face must have made it seem as though I didn’t understand the words coming out of his mouth. “Really?” was all I could choke out. I felt like I had been teleported to an alternate reality. Who was this Dr. Wragg?
We had reached the hallway. “See you ‘round, Asher,” he said.
“Yeah, see you."
I turned one way down the hallway, and he turned the other. I was lost in the thoughts racing through my mind. If this turn of events wasn’t a surprise to Jackson and some of the guys in his residence hall, our parents must have already known about this. They didn’t feel the need to tell me?
I sent a text to Vicky. It read “Did u know?” I hit send. If I wanted any sort of honesty, she was the only option and had been since I was six.
It was really all I needed to know. Either she did, or she didn’t.
The text I got back simply said “Yes.” That’s just great. They knew and kept it from me. Why didn’t they tell me? I’m so tired of this crap! Tired of being treated like a child while they…ok, let’s be honest…my father… decides what’s best for me and I have to just shut up and accept it.
My mind was spinning. I was weaving my way through the halls to find my first class when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t need to look at the face attached to the hand. I knew who it was. The strong odor of drug store aftershave gave it away. “Hello, Dr. Wragg,” I said before I turned and looked into his steel colored eyes.
The pleasant smile on Dr. Wragg’s face looked off next to his narrowed, suspicious eyes. “Hello, Mr. Haynes. Good to see you again. It’s great to know someone in a new environment. I’m hoping to have a chance to sit down and talk at some point. I feel like we left things…badly,” he said with a concerned look on his face.
Could this guy be more fake? Several less-than-respectful responses went through my head. I settled on one that seemed diplomatic enough to, at least, escape his grip. “Uh, yes sir.” That was all I could muster. That response was automatic at this point in my life. General Haynes was my father, after all.
He seemed satisfied and kept the fake grin on his face while he released me from his grip. At that moment, a teacher pulled him aside with a question. I exhaled. I had survived my first encounter with Dr. Wragg. Next time, I’ll do better at avoiding him.
Lost in thought – or should I say lost in self-pity - I walked across the campus grounds to my first class. It was in Marion Hall. Once inside the building, I made no eye contact with anyone and quickly walked down the hall toward room 136, Mrs. Thompson’s Government class
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