River 31 – Mark at School

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River

By Dawn Natelle, edited by Eric

Chapter 31 – Mark at School

So far: River had her first day at high school, and all goes well. Her Ojibwe teacher had a sly way of letting her teach the language and history to the other students, without them knowing that she was really in charge. The river cured a newcomer to the school, although not in the way one would expect. And finally we discovered what Chip’s secret was. Now we go back a few hours and go to Mark’s first day at school.

Mrs. Cutler looked about the room, and her eyes fixed at the big boy at the back, crammed into a desk too small for him. They had moved a larger desk in from the Grade 8 class, but it was still tight on him. Clearly the boy must have learning difficulties to still be in Grade Five at his age, she assumed. She decided to test his reading ability by letting him read the first passage in one of the books in the small classroom library. Traditionally she let the first student pick the book. Even his choice of book would be an indication of his ability. There were a few Grade Three and Four level books on the shelf, as well as a few at Grade Six or Seven levels.

She looked down at her seating plan. “Mark Waters,” she said. “We need a story. Your choice.”

Mark looked up sharply, a bit surprised to be called on so early in his first day in class. He paused for a second, and then started to speak.

Long ago, in the early years, a young warrior about the age of most of the boys in this class watched in futility as the six older warriors of his band headed out to hunt. “You are too small,” they had said, leaving him behind with the women and younger boys. It didn’t help that the men had taken the bulk of the remaining food, and left the women closely guarding the rest until they returned from their hunt with a bear, deer, or moose to feed the people. Roundstones, the boy, was hungry, angry, and sad that he was too small to hunt.

Mrs. Cutler wanted to stop Mark, who clearly thought she wanted him to make up a story, and tell him to choose a book. But she was enthralled at the power of the story he was telling. The First Nations students, especially the boys, were listening with rapt attention that she wished would carry over onto her lectures, and even the girls and non-natives were paying attention to the story. She decided to let him continue.

Mark continued. Roundstones decided in his shame to go hunting on his own. Perhaps he could shoot a rabbit or groundhog to add to the community pot. So he gathered his bow and arrows, the treasured knife that his grandfather had shaped from flint many years ago, and headed out in the opposite direction to the hunting party.

After about an hour, he heard a noise and dropped to the ground, preparing his bow with an arrow. He would probably only get a single shot if it was a fast small creature like a rabbit. He lay silently on the damp soil for a long few minutes, hoping that something tasty would come by.

Ma'iingan the wolf limped into the clearing, and Roundstones nearly loosed his arrow. Wolf was not the tastiest food, but it would feed the people tonight. But something stopped Roundstones from shooting, and he instead watched silently. He was proud of his stealth. Many of the men who had gone hunting would not be able to keep quiet enough not to be detected by a wolf.

The wolf was injured though. He walked into the clearing, and Roundstones saw a large stick poking into his side. They boy thought about it. It didn’t look like a spear, but a simple branch. Perhaps the wolf had fallen off a bank or cliff onto the stick, letting it pierce his hide. At any rate, it looked serious, and the wolf suddenly tottered and then fell onto his other side.

Roundstones stood quietly. The wolf heard him rise, and looked about frantically, but was unable to gain his feet again. “Don’t worry,” Roundstones said. “I will not hurt you.” The boy could almost kick himself in frustration. Here was a meal, ready to go, and he had just promised it sanctuary. He continued to approach the animal, which had bared its fangs until the boy had spoken.

Mrs. Cutler was amazed at Mark’s story. ‘Sanctuary’ was not in a normal 10-year-old vocabulary. She guessed Mark’s age as 15, but wondered why he was still in Grade Five. Clearly the boy was intelligent. He was either making up this story on the spot, or had memorized it perfectly. At any rate, the other children were still intently listening.

“Who are you?” the wolf said.

“I am Roundstones, but you can call me Round,” the boy said. “You are hurt?”

“Yes. The pack was chasing a deer. We have not fed for several days, and were a bit reckless. I tumbled off a cliff, and fell on a stick. The rest of the pack had to chase the deer, and I was left. I hoped to make it back to our dens, but I can’t.”

“Would you like me to pull it free?” Round asked.

“If you would. I will not bite you, even if it hurts.”

“I think it will hurt,” the boy said. He then reached out and pulled out the stick, and blood began to flow.

The wolf started to lick the wound, and slowly its saliva helped seal the wound. Round poured water from his canteen out into his hand, and the wolf gently lapped it up, giving him more saliva to heal himself. Soon the wolf fell back into sleep. Round listened to it breathing and sat quietly waiting for his new friend to waken.

About an hour later, a rabbit hopped into the clearing from upwind, not smelling or hearing the boy or the wolf. Round had his arrow at the ready, and quickly shot the rabbit, piercing it in the chest. The rabbit died immediately.

Here is food for the people tonight, Round thought. But he looked at the wolf, and thought that there would be enough for the people tonight, but Ma'iingan needed food to heal himself. He picked up the still warm rabbit and brought it to the sleeping wolf. He placed the arrow wound next to the animal’s mouth, and let the blood drip in. Suddenly the wolf’s great tongue lashed out, lapping up the blood. Then his jaws clamped down on the rabbit, and squeezed more blood out. The wolf never woke.

When the wolf stopped feeding on the blood, Round decided to take the rabbit back. He was hungry too. It took more than a little work to pry the animal out of Ma'iingan’s mouth, but eventually he was able to do so. He took his knife and skinned the beast. In spite of the wolf bites, his mother might be able to do something with the pelt.

Round then cleaned the animal, leaving the entrails on a rock for the wolf when it awakened. He started a small fire, and cooked rabbit meat on sticks, eating his fill, and leaving a smaller portion raw with the entrails. Round felt full for the first time in days, and laid back on a tree, guarding the wolf from harm. It was past noon when the wolf woke with a jerk, and quickly stood, looking about furtively.

“You are better?” Round asked.

“You are real?” the wolf said. “I thought I was dreaming. I dreamed that you pulled the stick, and gave me water. Then I remember feeding on rabbit’s blood.”

“You did,” Round said. “And there is the rest of the rabbit.” He pointed, and the wolf gobbled down the food. Round had also piled the bones there, and the wolf ended his lunch by crunching bones to extract the marrow inside.

“Thank you Mark,” Mrs. Cutler said. “That will be enough for now. Tell me, where did you first hear that story?” Almost every student booed her decision to pause the story, crying out to find out what happened next.

“Just now,” Mark said. “I have heard other stories like it, and Tall John George, my Ojibwe teacher, tells me stories like it, but I made it up when you said you wanted a story. I hope it was good enough.”

“It was, Mark. Do you think you could finish it? Do you have a computer? Can you type? I think the students would like to hear, or read, the rest of the story.” There were cheers of agreement in the room. “This class is about reading, not making up stories. You will do that in later years. But if you could get the rest of the story on paper, then other students could read it. It would help them with their reading, and everyone else will hear how the story turns out.”

“Yes ma’am. My father has a computer, but I don’t type very fast. Not as fast as I think, anyway. But my sister, River, is a very fast typist, and maybe she can type the story as I say it. It is a very long story though.”

“But an interesting one,” Mrs. Cutler said. “One we all want to hear. But reading time is over, and now we have to do math. Here is a worksheet for division, to see how good you all are with numbers. Do as many as you can, and then stop if you don’t understand.” She handed out a sheet of questions, and the students hunched over their desks as the teacher went from student to student to assess their grade level in arithmetic. Most had no problem with the first half page, dividing with single digit numbers. The bottom half of the page had division with double digit numbers, and most students could do that, although a few were struggling. On the back, the same two levels of work were involved, but now remainders were required.

When she got to the back of the room, she saw Mark’s paper neatly on his desk. He was talking to the boy next to him, and Mrs. Cutler was about to rebuke him for it when she realized that he was helping the other boy. Brian Johnson had been a borderline student in math last year, actually in all subjects, but Mark was showing him how deal with remainders in the problems. And the other boy seemed to understand, and was working out how to do it on his own. The teacher flipped Mark’s paper over, and scanned the answers. They all seemed correct, including the most difficult section.

“Very good,” she said. “Let’s take up the papers and see how you all did. Every student will give the answer he or she got, and if others got something else, put your hand up and we will find out what the right answer was.”

They went through the first nine questions quickly, and no one had different results. But on the tenth question, a student said 66 divided by 11 was 5. Mrs. Cutler waited for the others to put up their hands, but only Mark did. She asked him what he got, and he said 6. That led to more than half the class also raising their hand in agreement. The teacher had seen the correct answer on many of the papers, and realized that they didn’t want to say their answer was different in case it was wrong.

“Mark, can you come up to the board and show us how you got that answer,” Mrs. Cutler asked. Mark came up and took the chalk from the teacher, who realized that the boy was several inches taller than her, which she found unusual and unsettling.

Mark wrote out the problem on the board, and completed it, telling the class what he did in each step. The teacher then changed the question to 68 divided by 11 and Mark then added the remainder into his work.

After the worksheet, Mrs. Cutler had a good idea which students had been successful at a Grade Four level, and went into her first lesson, which dealt with decimal fractions. She continued that until the bell rang for recess, and she let the students out, with Mark following behind.

Mrs. Cutler took the break and went to the principal’s office to speak with Mrs. Karsen. “It’s about Mark Waters,” she started.

“Oh no, he’s already causing problems? I was worried about that,” the principal replied.

“No, it isn’t that. He’s a great student. Polite, helpful, and he is even helping other students that aren’t so far along. His English skills seem to be at a Grade 9 level or more, and he is well ahead in math. I’m wondering why someone his age has been held back to Grade 5.”

“He hasn’t been held back,” Mrs. Karsen said. “He is only 10, soon to be 11. I suggested a higher grade for him, but his mother insisted that he stay with his peer group, even though he is physically much bigger.”

“He is only 10?” Mrs. Cutler asked. “He looks like he should be in high school.”

“Just a growth spurt,” the principal said. “Although I don’t know of any other kids with that kind of spurt. I sent for his records from Toronto, and the picture shows Mark, although his height and weight are listed much lower than now. There was no record of any aggressive behavior. In fact, there was one notation where someone else was accused of bullying him.”

“Goodness,” Mrs. Cutler said. “I’ll have to get back to class before recess ends. I intend to keep an eye on the boy.”

“Please do, and let me know if there is anything I should know.”

The rest of the morning went normally, and Mark went down to the cafeteria carrying the paper bag containing the sandwich that River had made for him this morning. He stood in the doorway, and looked around, seeing his classmates primarily at two tables. He started to head that way, and then saw a boy sitting alone at a table, with no lunch in front of him. Mark headed that way.

“Can I sit here?” he asked. The boy looked up sharply, and then down again.

“You are too late,” he said. “They already took my lunch. First day too. I have nothing left to give you.”

“I wasn’t planning to take anything from you,” Mark said. “Who took your lunch?”

The boy looked up confused, and then apprehensively pointed to four boys laughing at a table in the corner.

“What is your name?”

“Chester Mims,” the boy said. “I’m in Grade 6.”

“Wait here Chester, I’m going to get your lunch back.” Mark then headed over to the table and stood in front of the boys, who immediately noticed, and stopped laughing. “What’s up, Tonto,” one of the boys said. Over the summer his time in the sun had darkened Mark’s complexion, and he really did look like a First Nations student especially with the native necklace he wore. To Mark that was a compliment, not a slur.

“You took Chester Mims’ lunch,” he accused the group in general. “I want it back.”

“Yeah?” What if I don’t want to give it up?” one of the bigger boys said menacingly.

Mark put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and started to squeeze. “I suggest you give it up quickly, or there might be trouble. Are you left-handed?”

“Nooo,” the boy said, grimacing at the pain.

“Well you will be for the next few months while your arm is in a sling, if you don’t give me that sandwich. Now!”

“Here,” the boy said, tossing him a brown paper bag. “Probably wasn’t anything good in it.”

“Did you take anything else that doesn’t belong to you from him?” Mark continued to keep the pressure on.

“Yeah, a twoonie,” the boy said. “It’s in my pocket. Let go of me and I will get it.”

Mark let go, and as the boy fished for the money, he spoke to the entire group: “Chester Mims is my friend, and if any of you do anything to him, you can count on me doing much worse to you. And the entire Grade 5 class is off limits to you as well. He turned and walked away. As he did, he heard one of the other bullies complaining to the first for giving up the food and money. “You didn’t feel what I felt,” the boy said. “He is stronger than my Dad.”

“I am so dead,” Chester said as Mark tossed his lunch and the two dollar coin in front of him. “They will kill me now.”

“No they won’t,” Mark said. “If they even look at you funny, you tell me. You are my friend, and I don’t let bullies bother my friends.”

“What?”

“I said I don’t let bullies bother my friends,” Mark repeated.

“No. The bit where you said you are my friend. Do you really mean that?”

“Yes, why?”

“I … I’ve never really had a friend before. And you are so big. Why do you want a little Grade 6 for a friend?”

“I’m only Grade 5,” Mark said. “Though I am pretty big. Don’t you want a friend?”

“Yes. Yes please. I … I just can’t believe it. My life has always sucked. I can’t remember when anything this good has ever happened to me.”

The two boys chatted over lunch, getting to know each other. Mark actually compared Chester to Paul, his old Toronto friend, who was into the same comics, computer games, and books. Chester was actually smiling as he headed off to class.

Meanwhile, over at the bullies’ table the four were plotting revenge.

“We can’t let that punk muscle into our action,” the tallest of the four, Josh Neil, said.

“I don’t think he is muscling in,” Aiden Roush, the boy who still had a bruised shoulder, added. “I saw him give the money to the little squirt.”

“Well we can’t let him cut off the entire fifth grade. We need to find punks in there with cash,” Tyler Tutt said.

“He’s strong,” Aiden said. “My shoulder still hurts, and I don’t think that is the worst he could have done.”

“But there are four of us,” a chubbier boy, Zak VanEssen said. “We can take him.”

“I don’t know,” Aiden hesitated.

“Listen, this is what we do,” Josh said, and kneeled over the table, ignoring the warning bell for the end of lunch.

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It was the following day when the bullies pulled their plan into action, Mark was among the last of the boys headed to the bus. Suddenly, four boys leapt out of the bushes near the entrance, holding a hockey stick, baseball bat, a large stick, and a knife.

“You’re going down, punk,” Aiden said, holding the knife.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” Mark said. “The last kids to jump me wound up in hospital. And they were a year older, and bigger than you guys. Drop the weapons and you won’t get hurt.”

“You’re the one getting hurt,” Aiden yelled. “Get him, guys.”

Tyler came in from the left and Josh from the right, both swinging their weapons, the hockey stick and the baseball bat. As they swung, Mark dropped to the ground, and their blows missed. Missed Mark, that is. The baseball bat collided with Tyler’s face, and Josh got the hockey stick full on his temple. Both boys dropped, even as Mark was rolling back into a defensive stance.

“Shit, he’s a ninja,” Zak shouted, dropping his stick. Aiden hesitated and then turned to run as well, but ran right into Steven Handel, the Grade 7 teacher, sticking his knife into the man accidently.

“Ow!” the man said, grasping his side but holding Aiden with one arm. The knife had barely scratched him but had ruined his suit jacket. “I saw it all.” He turned and Mrs. Karsen was there. “Those four punks from my class last year did it. They attacked this new boy, and hurt themselves. Are you okay?” he asked Mark.

“Fine. A little dusty. I tried to warn them,” he said.

“Somebody should call an ambulance for these two, and the police for this one. Carrying a knife will interest them,” Mr. Handel said.

“Are you sure that other boy had nothing to do with it?” Mrs. Karsen said. “Boys don’t just go around attacking other boys for no reason.”

“It was because of me,” It was Chester, speaking up tentatively. “They took my lunch yesterday and a twoonie. Mark got them back. I think that is why they went after him.”

“Had they ever taken money from you before?” Mrs. Karsen said.

“Nearly every day last year,” the boy said.

“And others?” she asked in amazement. The students had abandoned the buses when the fight had started, and now were clustered around them. More than a few students in the crowd nodded.

“I told you last term that those students were causing problems and bullying,” Mr. Handel accused the principal. “But you didn’t want to listen.”

“But they were such good boys,” she replied.

“Yes, in Grade 3 when you had them. Kids change. We need to get them straightened out now, or they will wind up as thugs.”

Mrs. Karsen paused for a second, and then shook herself into action. She clapped her hands to quiet the chattering crowd of students. “I want to see all of you on the buses immediately. Except for Chester and anyone else who these boys had taken money or possessions from.”

Just then the ambulance pulled up, and EMTs rushed out to tend to the fallen boys. Tyler was stirring groggily, but Zak was still out cold. “Who was the fourth boy?” Mrs. Karsen asked. “Josh Neil I expect.”

“Yes, he ran off when the others went down,” Mr. Handel said. Come on you lot. He took a rather large group of students into the Grade 7 classroom, just inside the door, and found that the 32 seats in the room were not enough for everyone to sit. Mark stood near the front, as well as several others who lined the back wall. The police arrived a few minutes later and Mr. Handel described what he had seen. He had come out of the door just as the boys surrounded Mark and started yelling at him.

Mark was taken into a separate room to talk to one officer, while the other took names and information from the others who had lost money to the boys last year. Apparently four others had been accosted that day. Chester was led off with the officer who had taken Mark, and was relieved to see his new friend was smiling as the officer brought him back. It made him less apprehensive about being questioned. “Just tell the truth,” Mark whispered as they crossed paths.

Alison arrived about a half hour after the end of classes, which meant she must have been speeding on the trip to Terrace Bay from St. Mary’s. She was relieved to find Mark unhurt, and then proceeded to take a strip off the principal, threatening to take Mark out of school if they couldn’t protect him.

Mark finally had to get her to calm down. He pointed out that the school had done nothing wrong, and that Mr. Handel had been at hand to see everything. As the adrenaline let up, Alison realized she may have overreacted, and apologized to the principal, who graciously accepted, and offered her apologies in kind, noting that the four boys would be suspended, with possible worse repercussions, depending on the police investigation. Mark would be held completely blameless.

Everything would have been fine at that point, but then Charles VanEssen stormed into the meeting as it was about to break up, screaming that he wanted to know which boy had put his son into the hospital.

“You should have asked at the hospital,” Mr. Handel said. “It was Tyler Tutt who hit your son. I saw it. They were attacking another boy, and missed, hitting each other.”

“I spoke to Tyler at the hospital. He said there was a high-school or college age boy in the school, and they were just protecting themselves.”

“I can assure you that there are no students in the school this year who are older than Grade 8,” Mrs. Karsen said.

Mr. VanEssen then noticed Mark. “What about that boy? He certainly looks older than Grade 8.”

Mark stood up, and moved within a few feet of the irate parent. “I am in Grade 5, sir.”

“Do you think I am a fool?” the man said, starting to lose his cool.

“What I think is not important,” Mark said calmly. The man was four inches taller, and 50 pounds heavier, but Mark was not intimidated. “What you say or do is what people judge you by.”

“Why you little …” The man took a swing, and Mark ducked it easily, dropping into his defensive stance. The older man had no chance to take another swing, as the two police officers grabbed him. But he tried, and struck the female officer on the side of the head with a glancing blow as they subdued him. He rode back to the police station in the back of a cruiser.

Mark drove home with Alison, and got to the campsite where an anxious River was preparing a dinner for the family. Dale, who had been called by Alison from Terrace Bay, was home early, and Mark had to recount his adventures for the family.

River wanted to know if Mark needed a trip to the river to cool down, and he declined. “The river gave me what I needed already,” he said. “I’m big enough, and quick enough, and I have a sense when someone is about to hit me. That lets me get away most of the time. There is something I would like you to do, though.”

“What is that?” River asked.

“I need someone to type some stuff up for my English class. Quite a bit, actually.” He recounted his telling of the story to his fellow students, and the teacher’s request that he get it on the computer.

“That sounds like a lot,” River said. “Do we have the computer at home?”

“Yes, I brought it to do a few things tonight,” Dale said. “But I don’t want you taking it into the river and ruining it.”

“I do want to take it into the river, and I can promise that it won’t be ruined, or hurt in any way. We really will need to get another one. I need some time with it for my homework too. Now that the house in Toronto is sold, we should be able to afford another one.”

“The house is sold,” Dale admitted, “but that doesn’t mean we have the money yet. When it comes through, we’ll talk about another computer.”

“Okay, but until we get one, can you make sure to bring the old one home each night? I can do my homework in the river in the morning.”

River then turned to her brother. “And it sounds like we have a couple hours of work if you want the whole story on a stick. You’ll have to get up early with me.”

“River,” Alison shouted. “You can’t wake him at two a.m. He’s only 10. He needs his sleep.”

“Why? I certainly hope it isn’t because he is a growing boy. He doesn’t need to do any growing for a couple more years. Relax. He will be refreshed and energized by his time in the river, just like I am. And you will even be able to save cooking him a breakfast in the morning.”

“Nooooo!” Mark said. “I still need my breakfast. I like bacon.”

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If I get more than a few requests, I will complete Mark’s story about the young native boy as a River standalone story. This will be a non-transgender story.



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