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Cast of Thousands, chapter 9

 

Jessica pressed herself against the wall and attempted to squeeze her way out in the gap around the edge of the crowd. She nearly collided with a ninth-grade couple kissing sweatily in the corner of the hall, but she popped out through the doorway of the building just in time and managed to hurl her library books into her locker and run into English class just as the bell rang again.

Jess dropped into her chair, trying to catch her breath, and sat up to find the teacher looking right at her. "They don't give you kids enough time to get here," he said genially. "I mean, five minutes to run from class to class - what do you do if you have to use the bathroom? Or if you have to get all the way across the school?"

"Or if you have to run across school and then use the bathroom?" Jess said, surprised by her own daring.

"Oh, well, I guess that's when you need to get a hall pass," Mr. Bunting said, but he was interrupted by at least three voices chiming in with "Oh, no, Mr. Bunting, my other teachers won't let me have a hall pass."

"What? Who are these people? You kids ought to hold a bathroom strike and insist on just going in the corner until they loosen up a little," he growled ferociously. "All right. Does anyone need to go to the bathroom here? Not in the corner." Five or six hands went up, one waving rather desperately. "Okay, we'll go Christopher, Tovad, Marlys, Melissa, Joon, and Steffi. Remember that order. Here's your hall pass, make it quick in mercy for your waiting classmates." He waved Christopher out the door. "Never forget your essential rights. That's the whole message of this book, isn't it? Who can give me an example?"

The class passed in a blur of discussion and analysis after that, until she gathered herself up and submitted to the madding crowd once again, her stomach grumbling. Jess was thankful that there was only one class left before lunch.

In Social Studies, her margins were filled with detailed pictures of ice cream sodas and steaming baked potatoes smothered with lavish toppings. It didn't help that the majority of the lecture was focused on the staple diets of different cultures around the world. Finally, however, she was able to escape that too, lingering just long enough to avoid the hasty crush of students fleeing to the lunch line. She began devouring her apple right there and had nearly finished her sandwich off by the time she got to the underwater basketweaving club in one of the science classrooms.

Ms. Becker pulled a long reed, dyed light blue, out of the deep science lab sinks where it had been soaking. "Now, we're going to tie eight of these together to make a frame for our basket." She held up a finished frame. "I'll be showing you how to do that in a minute, but first I want to give you an overview of the whole process."

She shook the reed. Droplets of water flew across the students. "Essentially it's a simple over, under, over, under motion. Hold the end of the reed tightly until you've completed a few rows, or it will fly out and slap you." She deftly wove three rows, then held the half-formed basked up for their approval. "Later on we'll be learning how to change colors and use different patterns for really spectacular baskets." She put the basket down and smiled at the assembled students. "I'll come around and help each of you make your frame. It is possible to just place the reeds in the basket shape and then weave around them without tying them first, if you hold them carefully; some of you may want to try this while you're waiting, if you like a challenge."

Some older students were already weaving, clearly experienced in the art of underwater basketry. Jessie clutched her reed tightly, bending it back and forth between her hands, trying to decide what to do with it. Finally she cautiously put it down and pulled out eight plainer reeds to form her frame.

She managed to criss-cross them in an eight-spoked wheel without too much difficulty, but every time she attempted to begin weaving they would slip or twist out of her hands. Finally she smacked them back down on the counter in frustration and looked desperately at the teacher.

Ms. Becker saw her and headed over to her next. "Need some help tying that?"

Jessica nodded gratefully. "I was trying to do it the hard way, but it kept falling apart."

"Ah, just like life." Ms. Becker deftly put the basket back together and handed it back. "Let's see you start it off, now."

Through dint of much struggle and determination, Jessie managed to keep the loose end tucked under and wove a slightly crooked few lines.

"Good!" Ms. Becker applauded her. "As you keep weaving you'll want to think about what shape this basket will be and keep pressing the sides upward. But that's a great start."

"What do I do when I run out of reed?"

"Good question. Everyone, look over here at... what was your name?"

"Jessie."

"At Jessie's basket. I'm going to show you how to add a reed in." She picked up the basket. "When you come to the end of your first reed, tuck it in like this, so that it's not sticking out of the basket. Then take another reed and begin again with that, making sure that all the ends are tucked in on the finished basket." She held it up for all to see, turning it slowly, and then returned to Jessica. "You must be a freshman here, right? How is it treating you?"

"Oh, not bad," Jessica murmured, looking down.

"Well, welcome aboard," the teacher said, patting her on the shoulder and moving on.

The school bell still made Jessica leap nearly out of her skin every time it rang. This must be what an electric cattle prod feels like, she thought, filing out of the classroom with the rest of the herd.

Chapter 10?