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Prologue: School’s In

“This strange disease of modern life, with its sick hurry, its divided aims.”
-Matthew Arnold, The Scholar Gypsy

Fall has come again to North Carolina, with its leaves fiery red and muted golden, and ever-earlier twilight hours. Pulled – some more regretfully than others – from the carefree days of summer, the students of Fairview High School shuffle onto yellow buses bound for the steel and glass polished by off-season touch-ups. Soon, the bell rings, a shrill sound summoning the sleep-deprived through the tiled corridors, towards numbered doors where a teacher is already rasping chalk along the sheer, dark board.

Towards the end of the west annex, the door to room 412 opens hesitantly. A navy baseball cap, followed by a pair of green eyes and dirty blonde hair, poke inside, surveying the mostly empty desks. The instructor hasn’t arrived yet, and only three seats among twenty are occupied. Sitting beside the window, a thin boy wearing black and grey contemplates the athletic field outside – or perhaps stares through it. His shoe, rhythmically tapping against the inactive radiator, proclaims his absorption elsewhere. Unlike the two girls seated in the second row, he doesn’t turn at the entrance of the newcomer.

At first glance, they look like they could be sisters, twin pairs of hazel-brown shooting towards the door as the hinge creaks inward. Despite their equally curly locks, intuition denies any familial relation. One, dressed in green, loops a strand of hair around her index finger as she looks up from the calculator’s faintly glowing screen. The other, lacking her friend’s waist length cut, rests a red-clothed arm over the back of her chair, a pencil propped thoughtfully against one cheek. A passing car outside catches the sun, illuminating the slight variation in shade between the stares, a difference already confirmed by their posture and more subtle hints.

“Are you here for Biology 301?” asks Fallon, still standing in the doorway.

“Yeah,” answers Maxine, releasing the strand from her grip. “We were wondering who the last person was. Mrs. K hasn’t showed up yet.”

“She left a note on the board,” adds short-haired Angelica, “apparently the summer assignment isn’t due until next week.” Rolling her eyes, she turns, grumbling. “I’m so glad I spent last weekend doing my paper while my family was at the mall.”

Fallon steps inside, scanning the available desks. Normally, he would sit at the back, but that somehow seems inappropriate in a four-person group. There’s a gap of two rows between the two girls and the boy gazing out the window. Fallon’s memories of AP English with the quiet Lang suggest that the toe-tapping boy doesn’t think much of his soccer-playing classmate, and he quickly pulls a chair from the third row on the other side of Maxine and Angelica. An awkward silence settles over the room as the four wait for the arrival of their instructor.

* * *

It had happened during course sign-ups the previous spring – a special flyer in the syllabus, announcing an “experimental course” on disease biology. Starting in the upcoming year, the science department of Fairview would begin developing this advanced curriculum, part of larger educational initiative by nearby Pierpont Pharmaceuticals of Research Triangle Park. Because it was a trial-run, only four students would initially participate, with selection based on interest and teacher recommendations.

Initially, Fallon had been uneasy about signing up for such a class. His last experience with “experimental teaching” had been in AP Psychology, where the teacher had demonstrated hypnosis on him. Why he had volunteered he couldn’t remember, but it probably had something to do with making up for the quiz he had bombed the previous week through participation. Other students claimed he had performed several embarrassing acts during the demonstration, though he couldn’t remember the incident at all. Behind his back, his classmates suspected this had more to do with the number of times Fallon’s head collided with soccer balls during his team’s season than the intrinsic power of hypnosis. However, his psychology teacher had pulled him aside after class during course signup and almost forced him to put his name down for the new class. Unlike most of the student body at Fairview, Fallon’s standout performance on the statewide aptitude testing was not a secret to Mr. H. The wiry old man suspected that if the outgoing soccer player could achieve the school’s third highest score on the exam, Fallon was capable of more than was indicated by his test grades in class. The boy just needed to be pushed. So, deferring to his instructor’s wishes, Fallon had placed the course on his sheet, and dropped the sealed envelope containing Mr. H’s letter of recommendation at the guidance office.

A week before final exams, he received a letter at home notifying him that he was one of the four students chosen to participate in the new class, accompanied by a list of six books on which he had to write an essay over the summer. Despite his best efforts to procrastinate, he had actually finished the assignment, though the identity of his three future classmates remained mysterious.

* * *

Taking a pen from the front pocket of his faded yellow backpack, Fallon regarded the hastily scrawled message on the blackboard.

Summer assignment due next week on Tuesday. Welcome back!

“That was Mrs. K’s car that just went by,” says Lang, eyes turning towards his classmates. “She must be running late today.”

“How long do we technically have to wait before we can leave?” asks Maxine, looking at the minute hand of the featureless white clock above the door. “It’s been almost fifteen minutes.”

As Maxine turns toward him to study the clock face, Fallon leans over again quickly to fish for a notebook inside his cluttered bag, afraid that he’ll get nervous and blush under her gaze. Though he isn’t sure what the math whiz thought of him before the hypnosis incident, he’s fairly certain that it didn’t improve his image in her eyes. As far as he knows, she’s unaware of his attraction to her, and plans to keep it that way for now.

“Well since now we know she’s not absent, we don’t really have much choice I think,” says Angelica. “At least class will be short today.”

* * *

Maxine hadn’t been surprised when she received her acceptance letter for Biology 301. Mrs. K, her AP Biology instructor, had been asked her several times for help on a mathematical model of disease propagation, which Maxine guessed had something to do with the new course – why else would a biology teacher need to know so much about math? Not that it was unusual for her to be consulted on such problems; as the captain of the math team and the best student in every mathematics course she’d taken since kindergarten, many of the teachers at Fairview sought Maxine for help. Given that she had helped refine part of the curriculum, she suspected that there was a good chance there would be a place for her in the fall.

* * *

Lang, like Fallon, hadn’t initially considered even putting his name down for the new class. However, unlike his classmate, whose hypnosis session he vividly remembers from last year, it wasn’t because of the workload, but the subject matter. Though perfectly capable of plugging numbers into rate equations or reciting the components of a eukaryotic cell, Lang had always preferred literature and history to science and math. Now, seated across the room from the soccer player who had spoken only three times last year in AP English – each time to ask about the late homework policy – he wonders whether enrolling was wise.

Ironically, it was his writing that got him into this science course. As part of a poetry unit in AP English last year, Lang had written a long essay about the work of Tory Dent, a contemporary poet whose pieces often concern her life with AIDS. Expanding on the social and ethical context of the author’s disease in his composition, Lang’s essay had piqued the attention of his instructor, who had passed it along to Mrs. K, the biology teacher who would be undertaking the new class in the fall. He had received a note from Mrs. K, whom he hadn’t had as a teacher since his freshman year, requesting that he put his name down for her new course. She explained that she had read his essay, and thought he could contribute a lot to the humanist component of her class, since Pierpont’s curriculum was based on the social and ethical factors affecting disease along with the requisite biology. On a whim he had consented, but not thought much about his decision, even after being chosen for the class – until now.

Sitting in the empty room, with only a soccer player and two science-heads to keep him company, he starts to follow the minute hand of the clock, ticking away the hours and days until this course will be mercifully concluded. If he were every cheerful, his lack of enthusiasm might be apparent to his classmates. As it is, Lang’s reserved silence strikes none of them as out of the ordinary.

* * *

Angelica signed up for Mrs. K’s class out of necessity. Having already exhausted all the science courses offered at Fairview, including the pseudo-sciences like psychology, she needed something to take next year. Looking through the course catalog, she was initially excited about Biology 301, before discovering that it included non-scientific material such as ethics and history. She still put her name down, though not without cringing. Based on her experience with the theatrics of AP Psychology – the hypnosis incident remains prominent in her memory – she had hoped to avoid any further coursework beyond the simplicity of molecules and cells. At the microscopic level, everything made beautiful sense; add in anything more human, and it was messy, lacking the symmetry and logic of chemical reactions. That human element had produced the hypnosis incident, but also the books Angelica bought summaries for in english.

She had been accepted into the class – she didn’t see how she couldn’t, since there wasn’t anything left for her to take in the science department. But Fallon was here, so perhaps the Fairview faculty were less rational than she had thought.

* * *

Mrs. K finally sweeps through the door, seventeen minutes late.

“Sorry for the wait,” she says breathlessly, “I accidentally left your coursepacks at home, and a lane was blocked off on Griffon for repair work.” She stops for a moment, resting her hands on the desk long enough to steady her pulse. Once she has collected herself, she continues, turning to the scrawled message on the blackboard.

“As you can see, mercy smiles on you today – though I assume you all had your assignments complete anyway, didn’t you?” She looks over the class, receiving nods from everyone but Fallon, who is again digging in his backpack. Pulling out the eraser he had been looking for, he also places his essay on his desk, supposing that Mrs. K’s question is directed specifically at him.

“Any questions?” Receiving no responses, Mrs. K begins passing out the thick, stapled bulk of her coursepacks, emblazoned across the cover with the logo of Pierpont Pharmaceuticals. Afterwards, she distributes a brief syllabus to each student before returning to the blackboard to erase her note.

“Okay then … let’s begin.”