Chapter II – Tam
When I walked into the Riverside Prison for Financially Gifted Ninnies, the cell doors were closed, and the wardens were already “teaching.”
Before walking into my classroom, I looked at my reflection in a window. My dark hair was still spiky, the way I liked it. All the rich girls wore theirs long and down—so I had chopped mine off into a pixie cut. It was so short that I could pass for a boy if I wanted to. I undid the first button on my collared shirt. I was dressed all in black—it scared the other kids.
I jiggled the door handle to my classroom, but it was locked. Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out a bobby pin that I kept for this very purpose, and picked it. I opened the door and strutted in, not bothering to be sneaky. Flashing a smile at my warden, Mr. Simmons, I sat down and got out my notebook.
“Nice of you to join us, Tam,” Mr. Simmons said coldly. “Take out your history textbook and turn to page 493.”
I got out my book so that he’d stop bugging me, but wrote in my notebook under my desk. I had an article due to the National Tribune in a few days, and besides, I was on a roll with my rant about the private schools.
I half-listened to Simmons while I wrote. He had a habit of calling on tardy prisoners, and I couldn’t be caught napping. I’d already gotten a detention last week. Any more, and I’d have to pay an exorbitant fine.
Fines! I made a mental note to mention them in my article.
“…Roosevelt’s New Deal, of course,” Mr. Simmons was saying, “caused one of the worst financial crisises in history…”
I tilted my head quizzically at him. That was a flat-out contradiction to what Mrs. Harder had said. Were the rich ninnies being taught lies? Was that even legal?
Knowing Thrasher, it probably was.
“Do you have a question, Tam?” Mr. Simmons asked, noticing my staring.
“First of all, the word is ‘crises,’” I said, correcting his grammatical mistake. “And second, that’s not true. The New Deal stabilized the economy and improved living quality for everyone.”
Mr. Simmons’s face turned beet red. He hated being contradicted by students, especially by lowly tuber kids. “I assure you,” he said condescendingly, “I am teaching only the truth. These textbooks come from the finest publishing company in West Texas—”
“Yeah, ‘cause stuff from Texas is so reliable,” I said sarcastically. “Texas should go be its own country. West, East and South.”
“You are in school, Tam,” Mr. Simmons snapped. “We keep our opinions to ourselves.”
“I thought school was about learning,” I muttered, loudly enough for him to hear. He ignored me.
I attacked my article with newfound fury. I’ll show Simmons, I thought. He’ll be sorry when he gets the Tribune next week.
Here in Provincia, our own teachers don’t understand what they’re teaching, while across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, students are actually encouraged to think for themselves…
Mr. Simmons turned around to write something on the chalkboard (Yeah, we had chalkboards. How cheap is that?!) and I reached into my bag to get my old iSymphony player. I needed some loud, angry music to distract me, or I might lose it, and run up and punch Simmons. I scrolled to the playlist with Harry’s political rock songs from before World War Three, and turned up the volume until Simmons’s voice was just a murmur in the background.
Thrasher’s ridiculous budget cuts have only been hurting the country. Provincian ACT scores have gone from low to horrible, to pitiful, even. Our students can’t compete with students from other countries anymore. And even scarier—this lapse in education was deliberate.
Mr. Simmons’s voice broke through my music. I pulled an earbud out and scowled at him. “Is there a problem?” I asked.
“Music players are not permitted in school,” Mr. Simmons said, waving a hand at my iSymphony. I scowled at him and took one earbud out, popping it back in as he walked to the front of the classroom.
I went back to my article, scribbling little edits in the margins. Switch the clauses here, add a participial phrase there. I turned my music up, blocking out Mr. Simmons entirely. I tapped my foot to the offbeats, nodding as I wrote. This was a great song. I hummed along to the tune as I finished up my article.
I felt someone tap my arm, and looked over. The nerdy girl next to me was glaring at me and pointing at Simmons, as if to say, Listen! I stuck my tongue out at her and looked down at my notebook. She tapped me again, and I pushed her arm away. I leaned over my notebook, trying to block her out of my field of vision. But she grabbed at my pencil, and I, showing a rare bit of emotion in school, chucked my eraser at her. I could hear her squeal through my music, and she shoved me out of my chair. I sprawled on the ground, the pages of my article scattering into the aisle.
Mr. Simmons leaned down and gathered up my article. “Care to read this in front of the class?” he said, convinced that he’d finally won.
“Yes please,” I said, getting up and brushing off my pants. I snatched my article and walked up to the front of the classroom. These riverside ninnies were about to get schooled.
“Ahem,” I began, making a show of clearing my throat.
“It has only been two years since the most recent presidential election, but Provincia has already changed dramatically. To an ‘elite’ few (those with the highest income) these changes have been useful, pleasant. But for the majority of the population, these changes spell disaster.
“Over the past two years, the government’s budget has been cut by more than one third. We’ve lost agencies like NASA, the EPA, and the FDA—all ‘unnecessary,’ according to President Mars Thrasher. Space, the environment, and agriculture have all been turned over to the private sector. For many, this is bad in and of itself. But it gets worse—education has gone private as well.
“Private education—this means no rules, no regulations, and no way to know if your children are learning the truth.
“Thrasher’s ridiculous budget cuts have only been hurting the country. Here in Provincia, our own teachers don’t understand what they’re teaching, while across the Atlantic Ocean, students are actually encouraged to think for themselves. Provincian ACT scores have gone from low to horrible, to pitiful, even. The average ACT score of a Provincian student is 17.65. The average ACT score of a student from the Global Alliance is 34.48. Our students can’t compete with students from other countries anymore. And even scarier—this lapse in education was deliberate.”
Mr. Simmons put a hand up. “That’s quite enough, Tam.”
But I wasn’t done. The rich kids needed to hear this last part. I kept reading.
“This misleading and inadequate education system was designed specifically to keep children ignorant. Realistic enough to fool parents, it feeds kids lies in order to control them, to use them to benefit the real leaders of Provincia—the two Mr. Stocks.
“Yes—the system plays right into their hands. The tuition money (not to mention money collected by fining incompliant students) eventually feeds up to them. And after students graduate, they continue to support the Stock brothers through consumerism, and, of course, through their votes for puppets like Thrasher. Why? Because they don’t know any better. Because that’s what they were taught.”
“Thank you,” I finished, giving a mock bow to the class. I gave Mr. Simmons a smug, cocky smile, and strutted back to my desk, a feeling of immense satisfaction welling up inside me. It would take Simmons a month to think up a comeback for that. I had proved, once again, that money has nothing on brains.
“Tam,” Mr. Simmons said, aghast. “Have you not been listening to what I’m teaching?”
“No, of course not,” I said. “It’s like I said—this is all a set-up, designed ta make a profit for the Stock brothers. I’m not goin’ ta listen ta your plutocratic propaganda. Provincia is messed up enough as it is. I ‘ave a real teacher, not some corporate pawn.”
Think up a comeback for that one, Simmons.
Simmons stood and stared at me, his mouth open, his piece of chalk rolling across the classroom floor. He blinked once, twice. The bell rang, and he twitched, but still didn’t say anything. I jumped up, grabbed my bag, and brushed past him into the hallway.
My best friend Bryce Forster met me in the hall, along with the rest of the Monday Crew. Bryce peeked into my classroom. “Whoa,” she said. “What’d ya do ta turn Simmons into a zombie?”
“I read my article,” I replied. No explanation needed.
“Shock of his life, huh?” Bryce asked.
“Yup,” I said. “He certainly didn’t see that coming. Tam the Super Genius strikes again.” Bryce laughed.
Kevin Westerly trotted up between me and Bryce. “What’re we doing in gym?” he asked.
“Tube-ball,” Bryce said. Kevin pumped his fist, and fell into step behind us. “I’m on Tam’s team!” he shouted.
Not only was I a super genius, but I was a fierce tube-ball player as well. Violent and energetic, tube-ball is a cross between soccer, football and mixed martial arts. It’s traditionally played in a lava tube, but since this was gym class, we’d play in one of those giant collapsible nylon tunnels. It would be tubers versus riversiders, as usual. No spoiled rich kid would ever play with a tuber. All the better for us—spoiled rich kids were horrible at tube-ball. It wouldn’t take a sports analyst to predict the outcome of a game.
We got to the gym and quickly divided into teams. There were three tubes set up, and 18 kids in the Monday Crew. Perfect—tube-ball was played with teams of six. Bryce, Kevin and I went to the middle tube, along with Emmy and Mick Shepard, and Addy Barlow. I loosened another shirt button. We made for a scary team—Bryce and Kevin were practically professional soccer players, Emmy and Mick looked like fraternal vampire twins, and Addy was a gothic princess. And me? I was the ninja assassin—the one who could (and had) put holes through the walls of the tunnel, the one whose stare made the body-builder gym teacher run away in fear. The one who’d break your heart—or maybe your arms. Those riverside ninnies were in trouble.
The riversiders were given the honor of tossing the ball to start the game. They always were. We tubers were scum to them. A snobby-looking boy tossed the ball up toward the ceiling, and both teams ran to the center of the tube. Mick jumped up and tapped the ball to Bryce, who dribbled it down the tube. I sprinted to the riversiders’ goal, shoving snob boy out of the way with a well-placed elbow strike. Bryce passed the ball to Emmy, who kicked it high into the air, over the heads of the riversiders. I jumped up and did a spinning kick, smashing the ball into the goal. The goalie, that nerdy girl who had pushed me in class, ducked out of the way, not even trying to block it. Smart move—that ball would have smashed her face in.
Nerd girl picked up the ball gingerly and tossed it to snob boy. He kicked it ahead of himself and sprinted down the tube toward our goal, evidently wanting all the glory for himself. I ran straight at him and hit him shoulder-first, sending both of us tumbling down the tube. Mick stole the ball and kicked it to Kevin, who scored another goal.
Nerd girl took the ball again and threw it halfway across the tube. I dived in front of it, knocking it down for Emmy. Another riversider ran at her, and Mick and I tackled him, bashing his head on the tube floor to stun him. As I scrambled to my feet, I saw Emmy pass the ball to Bryce, who did a trick shot over nerd girl’s head.
Snob boy got the ball again. I ran at him, pulling a fist back, but a riversider grabbed my ankle, and I tripped. Snob boy dribbled past Mick and Emmy and took a shot, but Addy, our goalie, was ready. She jumped up and kicked the ball with both feet, coming down on top of snob boy with a sickening crunch. Addy picked herself up and passed the ball to me, while snob boy limped to the side of the tube, whimpering and dragging his left foot behind him.
I dribbled the ball down the tube and passed it to Kevin. He took a shot, but nerd girl, trying to save her reputation, jumped up and blocked it, sending it arcing toward the tube ceiling. A riversider ran to get it, but I clocked him with an uppercut, jumped up, and kicked the ball in midair. Nerd girl screamed and dove out of the way.
The gym teacher blew his whistle, and Bryce grabbed the ball from the riversiders’ goal. Whenever we played tube-ball, the gym teacher would spend the last ten minutes of class treating the inevitable injuries. A good 75% of the riversiders, including snob boy, nerd girl, and that boy Mick and I had creamed, stumbled over to the first-aid area. The Monday Crew and I found our own corner. The gym teacher wouldn’t treat us because we didn’t have health insurance, so we all carried reusable bandages in our bookbags. Emmy put a splint on Mick’s wrist, and I helped Addy wrap her knee, as Bryce bandaged my ankle. Today had been relatively safe—there was usually at least one broken bone per tube. I looked over at the riversiders’ corner. Snob boy was walking away on crutches. What a wimp. Addy wasn’t that much bigger than him.
The lunch bell rang, and the Monday Crew and I ran to the cafeteria. We had to get there first if we wanted our own table. The riversiders had a habit of taking all the tables before we got there. They were under the impression that a large cafeteria table was only big enough for three people. And God forbid any of them have to eat with a tuber.
Stupid, stupid riversiders.