The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Mark Twain

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Shades of Gray - Chapter One


September 2002

            The bell rang, generating little discernable change in the hallways of Stockbridge High School.  Girlfriends kissed boyfriends as though they were leaving for the eastern front instead of chemistry class, and shouted conversations continued unabated.  After a few moments the packs of students found their way into their various classrooms, some members of the senior class into room 210 for US History.  The room was like most high school classrooms, dominated on the front wall by a long blackboard and filled with rows of desks.  There was a sequence of high windows on the back wall overlooking the football field, and the other two walls were covered with pictures of the American Presidents.  The pictures were not the familiar formal portraits, but rather grainy images of the men as young adults.  The nineteenth century presidents stared unsmilingly into grim daguerreotypes, while many of the later images captured smiling or laughing faces, at play or in candid moments.  Kennedy frolicked shirtless on a beach, Nixon grinned in a Whittier College football jersey, Clinton proudly posed in a high school band uniform.  Truman stared out from over high-necked white collars and through round spectacles, looking so eerily familiar that many students had mistaken him for Harry Potter. 
            As the students settled into their desks, Ted Gray entered the classroom, heavy book in hand.  He was tall, with thick black hair and a slightly crooked nose earned years ago in an ill-considered goal-line dive.  He was somewhat more solid than he’d been years before, but still not quite approaching fat.  He was comfortably rumpled in brown khakis and a white shirt, sleeves rolled up against the early autumn heat. 
            “Who can tell me,” he asked, “what a carpetbagger is?”  Several hands raised at once, and Ted was pleased to see at least some of them had done the reading last night.  He looked at his room, full of seventeen year old energy, a few eighteen, all white, as this was still seacoast New Hampshire.  Well, all white except for Bumpus, the Brazilian exchange student who lurked in the back and Ted swore was closer to his own age of twenty-eight than that of his students.  He was surprised to see that one of the hands belonged to Paul Green, his immense starting nose guard and self-appointed class comedian.
            “Coach, a carpetbagger is a dude from New Cove who moves to Stockbridge and takes over the starting gig at QB for the Wolves.”  Ted had to chuckle.  New Cove was the long-time rival of Stockbridge High, a team Ted had loved to hate as a player and now as head coach of the Stockbridge varsity football team.
            “Believe it or not, Paul has the right idea here.  Who can give me the definition in the context of Reconstruction?  Ashley.”  He pointed to a blonde ponytailed girl to his right in a white Stockbridge Swimming shirt.  She smiled and gave him the textbook response he knew she would. 
            “Mr. Gray, a carpetbagger was a Northerner who went to the South after the Civil War for political or financial advantage.”
            “Right, of course.  Thank you Ashley.  Now, from Paul’s response we can see that over time the definition has broadened to refer to anyone who goes somewhere else to seek success despite being seen as an outsider.”
            For the remainder of the class Ted and his students discussed the politics of Reconstruction in the American South, including a few clips of Gone With The Wind he showed to illustrate the lesson.  As was always the case when he was teaching, the bell rang sooner than he expected, and the room cleared quickly.  With a free period next, Ted wandered down the empty hallways to the staff lounge.  This was his fifth year on the faculty at his alma mater, yet he still had few friends among the staff.  Many of them had been his teachers, and the generation gap was a wide gulf between them.  They were friendly, but not friends.  His assistant football coaches were mostly older as well, holdovers from when Coach Stuart had retired two years before.  He had a beer once in a while with Mike Heather who taught biology and coached the baseball team, and was just a few years older than he, but by and large kept to himself during the day.
            Ted slipped into the cramped lounge, thinking about a Diet Coke in the fridge, not expecting anyone to be there.  He was surprised to see a young woman seated at the small table, intent on a stack of papers before her.  She was pretty and pale, with long red hair up in a sloppy bun secured by a pencil.  Her features were fine and delicate, though she was chewing on the end of a ballpoint pen like it was a candy cane. 
            “Careful,” Ted offered.  “That’s a good way to…”  As soon as he spoke, she jerked her head toward him, startled, and bit down into the end of the pen.  Red ink squirted from the rupture, spraying onto her chin and down across her light blue blouse.  The two looked at each other for a moment before she leapt up and dropped the ruined pen into the trash.  Ted hurried to the sink in the kitchenette corner of the lounge and wet some paper towels, handing them over sheepishly.  
            “Sorry,” he murmured.  “I didn’t mean to startle you.  I’m Ted Gray, History Department.”  She looked up from wiping her blouse and stared at him, her neck flushed crimson.  There was something vaguely familiar about her, but Ted couldn’t quite place it.  “You’ve still got some ink there,” he pointed at her chin, smiling, thinking he was being helpful.  She turned away from and rubbed the paper towel against her face for a few seconds. 
            “I – I know who you are,” she managed when she stopped.  “I’m Jill.  Jill…Ward.”  She looked at him skittishly over her shoulder.  “Math.” 
            “Jill Ward…” Ted searched his memory.  “Not Nat Ward’s little sister?”  Nat had been a tailback on the ’91 Wolves, the team that made the historic run that fell short in the state title game.  She nodded, tossed the waded paper towel into the trash, and scooped up her papers, which she clutched over her stained shirt.  Without a look back, she left the lounge, and Ted could hear the clicking of her shoes down the tiled hallway.  He thought about the encounter for a moment before he shrugged, retrieved his soda from the fridge and began to review his notes for his New Hampshire History class next period.


  1. I like your style. Excellent flow, and very readable. I can't wait for the next chapter...

  2. Thanks for checking it out. Keep reading!

  3. I agree, nice flow. I easily can picture the character in these locations. Favorite line: "Many of them had been his teachers, and the generation gap was a wide gulf between them. They were friendly, but not friends." Just a good description.