My daughter challenged me to write a fictional story detailing the reason for the invention of school. This is what I came up with.
The Invention of School
by Paul Liadis
My name is Gabby Gibson. I have medium length brown hair, a scar on my forehead underneath my bangs from when I had to get stitches in kindergarten, and nearly all my adult teeth. I like to draw, I love to read, and I’m not that fond of boys.
About boys, to be honest, I mean, I get why God invented them (Mom and I had that talk) but they don’t seem to serve much purpose at my age. I hear they get better as they get older, Dad is alright. But mostly, I don’t see what the fuss is all about.
Anyways, this is the story of how I discovered who invented school, and why they did it. And it is one hundred percent true, believe me. And don’t try to Google it because they don’t want you to know the real reason. And don’t ask your parents because, duh.
“Time to wake up sweetheart”
Dad’s voice crept into my ears like a brother crashing a sleepover, uninvited and unwanted, the morning of Monday, August 31st. The worst day of the year. The day of the year that would be the equal yet opposite to Christmas morning in Newton’s Third Law of Motion (for every action there is a blah blah blah). The first day of school. The most un-wonderful time of the year.
I pretended to be asleep. Now, pretending to be asleep has never actually worked for me, I knew Dad knew I was awake, and I knew he knew that I knew this, but it bought me a few seconds of not moving towards school. And that is a good thing because school is dumb.
I used to say school is evil, but I don’t say that anymore because Mom and Dad don’t like me to use the word “evil” and being in trouble is boring.
“Why do we have to go to school, Daddy?” I said, pulling the covers down just enough to uncover my eyes.
“It’s the law,” he answered, his eyebrows doing that thing that his eyebrows do. “And so our society as a whole is educated.”
“But who invented school?” I said, propping myself up on my forearms while holding my blanket in place with my chin to protect myself from school day cooties. “Probably somebody evi…, I mean, dumb.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Dad sighed. “You prove to me school was invented for evil, or something other than teaching you kids, and I won’t make you go back.”
Yeah, Dad, sure.
I pulled the covers back over my head for five more minutes.
“Take out your number two pencils,” said Mrs. Swift, right after lunch, the chicken sandwich, steamed green beans, and cinnamon applesauce settling in my belly, the entire morning foggy like a dream in my memory. I probably should have went to bed earlier the night before but I wasn’t sleepy and my book was too good.
We all groaned in response because isn’t there some unwritten law that says no tests on the first day of school? And has anything good ever followed the words “take out your number two pencil”?
Neil Hamingdon raised his hand. Nothing good ever happened when Neil Hamingdon raised his hand. “What number pencil do we need?” he asked with that Neil Hamingdon look on his face.
Don’t answer that, don’t answer that, don’t answer that, I thought but should have said aloud, because I had been in Neil’s class since first grade, and I knew his antics too well. Neil is what we in the field like to call a “trouble maker”. Or, just, you know, a boy.
“Number two,” Mrs. Swift answered. Funny, I didn’t think she was a first year teacher. If I could have climbed into my desk I would.
Most of the boys, and to my shock, a greater than zero number of the girls busted up laughing. Because poop is “number two”. So funny.
Mrs. Swift’s face turned a color I didn’t remember from my Crayola days (is rage a color?), and she slammed her hand on her desk.
“Take out your number two pencils and some paper and write the word ‘respect’ please,” she said in one of those overly nice-mean teacher voices. “I will tell you when to stop.”
I had never heard of a teacher making an entire class of students write the word respect repeatedly for the remainder of a school day before. Especially in the 4th grade and doubly especially on the first day. But I swear it happened.
“Thanks a lot dummy,” I whispered through gritted teeth, spinning around to face Neil. We had been writing for an hour, but it felt like a day and I was bored. Also my hand ached from writing so much, because I decided to write in cursive because it’s prettier and to not die of actual boredom.
“You’re the dummy,” Neil said, making a nanna-nanna face. “We didn’t have to take any test, though, did we?”
“It would’ve just been a pre-test, dummy,” I said. “And it would’ve been better than writing some dumb evil words like babies.”
Neil was about to strike back, I could tell by the hamster-running-extra-fast-on its wheel look in his eyes, when the lights flickered and then went off. They stayed off for what seemed like a million years and then turned back on. And everyone but Neil and I were gone.
“Ha ha, really funny,” Neil said, standing. “REALLY FUNNY!”
I had to admit I was wrong about Mrs. Swift. Making the entire class disappear was a pretty pro-level move on the first day of school. But I didn’t stand or get a baby look on my face like Neil. I just sat there quiet, counting to a hundred.
That’s when Neil started shoving my desk, nearly knocking me off, real aggressive like. “That’s enough,” he said. “Where are they?”
“I don’t know,” I said, unable not to smirk at how much of a baby he was being. “They’re probably all standing outside the classroom trying not to laugh. Why don’t you go check it out if you’re so scared?”
Neil glared at me, shoved off of my desk like my brother when he’s told he can’t have dessert yet, and walked to the classroom door. He peeked into the hall and then he was gone, the door closed behind him.
I waited for a really long time, and when he didn’t return, I went looking for him. Not because I was scared, but because I was bored.
Neil was not out in the hallway, at least not right outside the class.
I called, okay screamed, for Neil, but he didn’t answer. I ran through the school, peeking in doors at first, then just barging inside and looking around. The school entire school was empty so I ran to the front doors.
They wouldn’t budge. I was about to go full-on crazy when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I spun, ready to put that one dirt-mall karate class I took when I was five to use when I realized it was just Neil.
He stared at me and I stared at him, and for a moment I almost jujitsu-ed him for getting us in that mess but I changed my mind. Because there was no teacher there to save him from me.
“What?” I said, taking a step back, ducking his hand off my shoulder.
“What?” he answered.
“It’s locked,” I said, tugging on the door. “Like we’re in full lock-down mode or something. And everybody is gone and things are getting freaky.”
“Why did they invent school anyway?” I said, tugging again on the door without any luck. “It’s so stupid.”
“What are we gonna do?” Neil said, ignoring my rant. It looked like he was gonna cry, so I let it go and took charge.
“There’s other exits,” I said, “so let’s find one of those. Okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” he answered.
Then the lights flickered off and then back on again. I grabbed Neil by the shirt and prepared to run.
“Find the key,” said a voice, shaky and old, like the sound my Dad’s lawnmower makes when he tries to start it, from behind us right beside the front doors.
Now, I’d like to say the kindly old janitor that butted into our conversation was some dude that everybody knew by name, but I’d never seen him before in my life. But I somehow knew he was a janitor because he had a janitor-y look about him. Like he looked like he knew where the cleaning supplies were and had a belt that seemed capable of holding multiple keys.
“Find the key,” the janitor repeated, pointing a finger down the hallway towards the music classroom. Then he bowed his head, the lights flickered again, and he was gone, vanished back into the shadows. Or he just walked away. Something like that.
Neil and I never once discussed or even acknowledged that creepy moment then, or in the time since then, but instead and without a word we both ran as fast as we could away from that spot and towards the music room.
“What? Key?” I said, closing the door behind us, out of breath.
“Right. Key,” he answered, like it was something we had been planning all along, like it was part of our shared master plan and not ghost-janitor’s.
We looked in every nook and messy desk drawer. At first we took care not to disturb things too much, since we both liked the music teacher, Ms. Melody (I know, I know). But then Neil said he had to go to the bathroom and we were both starting to freak out a bit, and he was unable to open the music room door. And neither could I. It was at that point we started to turn the room inside OUT.
“This isn’t happening,” Neil said, slumping to the floor.
So I pinched him.
“Ouch,” he said, rubbing his side. I know most people would go for the arm, but I’ve found the side is more sensitive.
“Sorry,” I said. I thought maybe you were sleeping and that would wake you up. I saw it in a show or something?”
“But if I woke up but the dream was yours wouldn’t you still be asleep just dreaming about me waking up?”
It was a good point but I didn’t regret the pinch.
“Anyway,” I said. “What were we talking about when that guy said about finding the key? I feel like that’s important.”
“I don’t know, you were complaining about school or something?”
“Oh yeah, Why did they invent school?” I said, leaning on the dusty old piano in the corner of the music room, the piano I was certain came with the school when it was first built. Or maybe it had always been in that location and the school was built around it.
However old it was, the piano at that moment had one fewer key because the one I leaned on shattered like dust, leaving only a note in its place. A note. How ironic, if you really didn’t pay attention when we learned about irony.
“What’s it say?” Neil said, standing and moving closer but still, I noticed, an arm’s reach away.
“The basement contains the answer you seek,” I said, handing him the note. “Dumb. We can’t leave this stupid room, dummies!”
“Smart, make the school angry, why don’t you?” Neil said, tucking the note into his pocket.
“The school isn’t alive,” I said, laughing, but not as hard as I should have laughed. Because what he said didn’t sound as crazy as it should have sounded.
I stomped over to the door, grabbed the handle so tight my hand hurt, and pulled with all my strength. The door swung open and I fell right on my butt.
“Let’s go,” said Neil and I wasn’t sure if he meant let’s go find the basement or let’s go find him a bathroom. I got up and followed him out of the room and I realized it was number two, in both respects.
Neil stopped just outside the boy’s room door. “Um,” he said, looking at the ground. “Could you like wait inside for me?”
“No way in heck,” I said, shaking my head. But it made sense. What if the door locked itself again? “Okay, fine.” I held my breath and followed him inside.
I stopped just inside the door and turned my back to the disgusting, it makes me nauseated to even say the word, urinals. Neil, from what I could hear, closed a stall door behind him.
“Do you really think the origin of school is some secret hidden in our random school building?” I said, trying to kill the strange silence. “I mean, what’s so special about this place because…”
“Dude!” he replied. “I don’t know what you girls do, but us guys don’t talk in here when we’re trying to do…stuff.”
“Don’t worry, everybody poops,” I said, because it’s the truth, and because sick burn.
“Just shut up,” Neil answered. He flushed not long after that and we never spoke of that again either.
“So basement?” I said, as we ran back down the hall to the far set of stairs. The ones that seemed to never quite be fully lit. The stairs that the Kindergartners, every class of Kindergartners since the beginning of time, had independently and collectively agree upon led to some type of dungeon monster.
“Basement,” he replied, running up just ahead of me.
We slowed down a bit as we descended into darkness, the question of what force was trying to trap is inside the school and for what purpose remaining unspoken and unthought of.
I pushed my way through the steel doors into the basement boiler room first, and Neil followed.
“Prop it open,” I said as the door clicked shut behind us.
“No no no no no,” Neil said, punching the door. We both knew there was no point testing to see if it had locked itself. But I tested it anyhow. Yep, we were trapped again.
“Let’s look around,” I said, scanning the room. There was nothing there, really. It was just a dusty old room with a furnace and some old cleaning supplies. No clues. No nothing.
Neil slumped against the door. “What do you care?” he said. “You always get good grades.”
“What do you care why school was invented?” he said. “You should love this place. All the teachers love you too. You never get in trouble. Goody-goody.”
You ever get that feeling when you know you are gonna cry, when your face gets red, and your lungs sting? That’s what I felt right then and it made me want to punch something. But I didn’t.
“You’re wrong,” I said, those traitor tears running down my cheeks. “In school I have to deal with boys like you. Ones that don’t care about anything. Ones that don’t try and think everything is a joke. Ones that get us all in trouble.”
“Shut up!” Neil yelled, and he bumped me hard into the wall.
I gritted my teeth, ready to use his dumb head as a battering ram to get open the door. But he was staring at me. Well, he was staring behind me.
I turned to see what he was looking at: the outline of a handle-less door, covered up by years of furnace soot. It had to be what we were looking for. We both wiped rubbed at it until the entire frame was visible.
“Help me with this,” I said, jamming my fingers in the space between the door and the wall in the hope we could pry it open.
And we did, just enough to get a full hand inside and working together we forced it open to reveal…boxes. Neil let the door go as we walked inside but I grabbed it at the last moment. I took off my shoe and used it as a makeshift door stop.
A room full of so many boxes, stacked from floor to ceiling. More boxes even than the time we moved Aunt Mary out of her apartment and it took us an entire day to load the U Haul.
I grabbed for the nearest box and started to open it.
“Wait,” said Neal, holding out his hand. “Should we be messing with this stuff?”
“The school is literally trying to trap us here,” I said. “There are no rules.”
“Woah, good point,” he answered. “Keep opening.”
So I did. I opened the box only to find inside a box. A box of number 2 pencils. We opened the other boxes too, not all of them but many. And they all contained number 2 pencils. Hundreds and hundreds of them.
Neil scratched his head. “Wait, so the entire reason we were down here, the reason for the clues, the answer to the question of why school exists is…”
“To sell number 2 pencils,” I answered, nodding. “Think of all those tests we’ve taken over the years. The ones the teachers complain about because they are forced to give them to us. They always make sure we use a number 2 pencil, right?”
I look to Neil, but he must have already been out the door. With a shudder, feeling suddenly alone, I grab my shoe and run out the door. I test the door to the basement but already know it will open and it does. I continue on my way up the stairs retracing our steps, gaining speed as I near the front door.
And my eyes are closed and Dad is nudging me awake. “You really need to wake up now sweetie,” he says.
“Okay, Daddy,” I say, rubbing my eyes. “Hey Daddy?”
“I know why they invented school.”
“Oh really?” he answered, tousling my hair, which I would normally hate but somehow didn’t mind this morning. “Why?”
“To sell number 2 pencils,” I answered, as dead serious about it as I had been of anything in my life.
Dad looked like he was going to laugh, but he saw the look on my face and decided it was a bad idea. His eyebrows did the Dad eyebrow thing again.
“That’s not bad,” he said with a serious looking smile. “You still have to go to school today, but that’s not bad at all.”
“But you promised,” I said, falling back on my pillow.
“Well,” he said. “You look a little sick there kiddo. Not too sick, but like somebody who might just have a 24 hour flu next Monday and have to stay home with her Dad and watch movies all day. That sound fair?”
“That’ll work,” I answered.