Third period was the longest period of the day because it included lunch. If you were a junior or senior, you could walk the halls without a pass. It was one of the rare instances when TLHS got humane. That meant I could go to lunch anytime I wanted and could stay as long as I liked. You weren’t supposed to stay in the lunchroom more than a half an hour, but nobody really cared. If you didn’t call attention to yourself and had a tray and looked like you were eating, you could hang around as long as you liked.
I sat with a few friends, all girls, who talked mostly about nothing. I was still trying to find story ideas, but nothing was happening there.
One by one, the girls around me finished, got up and went back to their classes leaving me to pick at my plate and ponder my problem. Without looking up, I heard voices I recognized get louder and then settle at the table in front of me.
“I don’t care what you think,” the female voice hissed. It was Bobbi Foster.
This could get interesting, I thought. I have no qualms about listening to other people’s conversations. I leaned forward a bit, directed my antennae toward the conversation and raised my head enough to see Billy B. slipping into the chair beside her. She was stiff, and he was leaning toward her.
“It’s just that . . . that’s not the way I play the game,” he said.
Basketball. They were talking about basketball, a subject of supreme indifference to me. I almost grabbed my tray and started to scoot my chair back. Something made me pause.
“If Coach Larson said that’s what you should do, that’s what you should do.” It was Bobbi’s voice. She was furious, but I couldn’t understand why. It was just basketball.
“I know, Bobbi, but missing shots on purpose,” he said, pleading, “I mean . . . what if some college scout sees that and then –“
At that point, they were interrupted by a gaggle of students who walked by to say hello. A couple of those students settled onto their table, and whatever argument they were having was over.
That’s when I left.
One good reason not to stay in the lunchroom longer than necessary was that you were likely to get trapped by Mr. Chapman, the principal. He was constantly wandering into the lunchroom during third period, laughing and joking and speaking to anyone he could find.
Mr. Chapman was a big, burly guy whose physical presence itself was intimidating. Most of the students liked him because he was so friendly. I could understand that, but I found something off-putting about the guy. There was, I thought, a phoniness about him that I didn’t like. Maybe I should cut him a little slack – that’s what Woody would say.
The one place I knew Mr. Chapman was least likely to be was the school office. He hardly ever seemed to be there.
So that’s where I headed. It was just across the main entrance hallway from the cafeteria. I entered and looked across the counter to one of the desks where I saw Tina Simpson, the principal’s secretary and a peach of a person. She was on the phone, but she smiled and pointed to one of the small inner offices just off the main one. She knew why I was there.
Inside that little space was Woodrow Lee Harper III, my best friend in the entire world.
Woody was the student office assistant for third period.
He was sitting at a small desk strewn with papers, squinting through a set of dark horn-rimmed glasses at a calculator. He punched the calculator and then wrote something down on the paper in front of him. Then he did it again.
“Hey, I just heard Bobbi and Billy in the lunchroom fight- . . . .What are you doing?” I interrupted myself.
“Figuring probabilities. What are you doing?”
Woody was a math genius. He did stuff with math nobody at TLHS had ever thought of. Math teachers hated to have Woody in their classes because he always showed them up. He didn’t mean to. Woody was about as unassuming, non-egotistical guy as you would ever want to meet.
“I’m watching you figure probabilities.”
Woody kept punching at the calculator and jotting figures down. I let a few seconds pass, but it was clear that, at that moment, Woody found his probabilities more interesting than me.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” I said. “What probabilities are you figuring?” I noticed that among the scattered papers on the desk were some charts and diagrams.
Woody punched the calculator some more, then stopped and looked at me.
“Well, I’ve been trying to figure out what spots on the court are the most likely places that Billy B. will hit his shots. Mr. Daniels and I are testing a new theory.”
Sports. Mother of Mary, will guys never give it a rest? It always has something to do with sports. But Woody was worth some indulgence, so I let him rattle on.
“I thought Billy B. never missed his shots from anywhere on the court.”
Billy Byers was this year’s high school basketball superstar in Nashville. He was known universally as Billy B. Headline writers loved that.
“Au contraire, Max. Billy B. is a great basketball player – ”
“And it takes a math genius like you to figure that out?”
Woody took my interruption and sarcasm in stride. “He’s a great basketball player until about the last five or ten minutes of the game. Then it’s like he becomes a rank rookie. He misses shots from everywhere on the court, he throws the ball away, he can’t defend against his opponent. We always end up winning, but something happens to him.”
“And you’re trying to explain this with your little numbers there?” I was trying not to be too sarcastic, but I was getting bored with this business.
“No, I’m not really interested in any of that. It’s just that the fact that he misses allows me to figure probabilities on different places on the court where he is most likely and least likely to score.” He picked up one of the sheets from the desk to show me. “See, I have charted the shots he has missed in the last ten minutes of the last seven games.”
Now I really was getting bored, but I looked at it just to be nice. It was a drawing of a basketball court with lots of x’s and numbers on it. I pretended to study it.
“Don’t you think it’s just because he gets tired,” I said, trying to be helpful, “or maybe it’s because he gets silly at the end of the game. He knows we’re going to win, and he just doesn’t care.” My words did not make much sense even to me. Woody just kept punching at his calculator.
Mr. Daniels – Joe Daniels, the assistant principal – was supposed to be some kind of math whiz himself and the only one in the building who might be able to teach Woody anything. That was one of the reasons why Woody was an office assistant for two or three periods a day.
Woody was still punching his calculator pretty hard. I tried to re-direct his attention.
“Listen, Woody, I need a couple of things, and I don’t have much time. I got to get to algebra class in a couple of minutes.”
Woody stopped punching and looked up at me. “Shoot.”
“Okay, look, I have to come up with a good story – a really good story – for the next issue of the Paw. Flowers says if I have a knock-‘em-dead story, I’ll be in the running for a big scholarship. So, what I need is to get your brilliant brain out of Probability Land and into thinking hard about what a good story would be for me.”
“You? The SDX scholarship? Not a chance.”
“And what makes you say that, Big Brain?” Sometimes Woody could be unnecessarily irritating.
“You’re a girl.”
“Blinding obvious, my numerical friend. But it’s 1967. The times, they are ‘achangin.”
“You want me to tell you what the probability of your getting that scholarship is?”
Now he really was annoying me. “No! I want you to come up with a story idea for me.” I turned to stalk out dramatically.
“Hey, you said there were two things.”
“You said you had a couple of things you wanted. That means two. What’s the other one?” As usual, Woody was being precise – and correct.
“Oh, yeah. I want you to poke around for me and find out something about Bobbi Foster.”
Woody knew what I meant. “Got it,” he said and grinned.
I turned to leave again and then thought of something else. ”Hey, I’m going over to see Grandpa Neely this afternoon. Want to come?”
“I can’t,” he said. “I’ve got chess club.”
Woody knew I did not approve of the chess club. It just encouraged his weirdness by being around other weirdoes. I started to say something, but I let it go.
Thirty seconds after the bell rang, I walked into Miss Wilson’s algebra II class. I walked across the front of the class to my assigned desk: third row, third desk. That simple act constituted a capital crime and made me eligible for execution: death by staring. Miss Wilson was a tough old bird and had reduced hundreds, if not thousands, of students to masses of blubbering jelly with her stare.
I once was as susceptible as anyone else to this form of humiliation but not anymore. I had already made a D+ in her class once, and this was my second time around. I was re-taking the course to wipe out the first grade and try to boost my grade point. Somewhere along the way, I had discovered that Miss Wilson’s stares were not fatal. The antidote to them was to stare back at her, not defiantly but calmly and reasonably. Once you do that, she stops the stares.
“I’m glad you were able to fit us into your busy schedule, Miss Wayman.”
Muffled giggles in the background, quickly silenced as she gazed around the room.
Sarcasm was her next weapon. She was inviting a response. I stayed silent. You hang around long enough, you learn a thing or two. When she realized I wasn’t going to challenge her, she moved on and started class.
The highest my star ever rose in the academic firmament was in the third grade when my report card had all S’s – S for satisfactory – for every subject. It was the grading period right before Christmas, and I was lobbying to get a typewriter. I didn’t get the typewriter, and I never did that well again. My father never pushed me. He had many other things on his mind, most of all my mother who was well on her way into a deep haze brought on by prescription drugs. The drugs had been prescribed by a variety of well-intentioned doctors for ailments both real and imagined. By the time I started the fourth grade she was living someplace “special” – that’s the word they used – and my father’s heart was obviously broken. I was on my own with lots of choices. Most of the ones I made were good ones, but trying to be a star student wasn’t one of them.
That was especially true of math, where I was hopeless. Fortunately, I had Woody, who carried me through every math class and into algebra. Woody did my homework and let me cheat off his math tests whenever he could. We knew that if we ever got busted, he would be sent to reform school, and I would have to go to a nunnery or something. That never happened. When we got to algebra I, we used the same system, and I barely scraped by. The conspiracy fell apart, however, when the school wouldn’t let Woody take algebra II – they considered him too advanced for it – and it was too late for me to get into another class.
My academic forte has been words, not numbers. I’ve always loved words – loved learning them and loved using them. I loved words, then I loved phrases, then I loved sentences. The summer after the third grade I finally got my typewriter. I found a used one in a dusty corner of the Dixie 5 & 10 not far from Grandpa Neely’s place. They wanted three dollars for it. I just had two and a half. But I was little and cute back then, so the lady let me have it. The rest I spent on typewriter ribbons. Grandpa Neely fixed a couple of keys and oiled it up, and my world has never been the same.
But today here I sat, once again, in Miss Wilson’s algebra II class, my very presence an insult to her ordered universe. Woody would still do my homework for me, and I would try my best to figure out what he had done. My attempts at hiding in class were thwarted by my third-row-third seat position. My one ray of hope was that Miss Wilson, I discovered, did not change her tests from term to term, and on the first one I remembered enough of the answers to come up with a C+.
On this particular day, after my mini-confrontation with Miss Wilson, my mind escaped the boredom of a discussion of the “greater than” and “less than” signs by drifting into considerations about my story for the Paw. Maybe I should just go with something I already knew about. Maybe the baseball stadium thing. I was not big on sports, but that would be pretty easy, and a lot of people would be interested. I could see it with a big headline on the front page of the Paw and, of course, my byline right at the top of . . .
“Miss Wayman!” Harsh reality intruded in the form of Miss Wilson’s voice.
“Come up to the board and show us how you solved problem number three on page thirty-eight of the book. It was part of last night’s homework.” Last night’s homework. The sounds of that phrase rebounded around in my brain.
Mother of Mary, deliver me.
Get a FREE copy of Kill the Quarterback
Get a free digital copy of Jim Stovall's mystery novel, Kill the Quarterback. You will also get Jim's newsletter and advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. Jim likes to stay in touch, so sign up today.