Chapter Description: His allies gathered, Clark expands his campaign of toddlerized terror, leaving at least one therapist speechless.
The Adult Little League, aka ‘The A.L.L.’ sat in stunted wooden chairs, looking up at Chandra Skinner, Speech and Language Pathologist.
Giving my new group of friends and fellow inmates such a stupid, pretentious name practically out of a comic book didn’t help reinforce the idea that we weren’t kids, but it helped improve morale. Plenty of movements, organizations, street gangs, and secret societies had pretentious names when you thought about it: ‘Little Voices’ was a dumb name since it didn’t really listen to us. Littles invoking the name of ‘Mistuh Gwiffin’ as a way of reclaiming the slanderous movie about three Littles in a trenchcoat was equally stupid. So why not ‘The Adult Little League’? Also, yeah, the name was kind of growing on me.
Chandra Skinner’s Speech Therapy Room was, honestly, the most ‘adult’ classroom I’d been allowed to be in since my fall from grace. There were kiddie toys, like in Beouf’s room; a dollhouse that might have been older than me and some action figures she’d inherited from the Lost and Found. These were bits of incentives, bribes and half-assed rewards for children that merited them or needed a distraction for five minutes before transitioning back to class.
-‘Susie’s done but Johnny needs extra work so let Susie play with the dolls.’
-‘Johnny needs more work, but that practice isn’t going to come in the five minutes remaining so go ahead and fuck around with the action figures.’
-‘Susie and Johnny are being complete shits so I’ll try bribing them with the promise of playtime if they do this redundant activity with me.’
That kind of thing.
Other than those handful of trinkets, everything was fairly functional and academic. No cribs or gates or walkers or bouncers either. Even Janet had installed a gate in her closet and plopped a tiny playpen by her desk for after school.
Skinner’s workspace had two small rectangular tables, a dwarfish wooden one for the shorter ‘students’ from Beouf’s room through second grade and a raised one for the bigger third through fifth graders. White brick walls were sparsely decorated and hadn’t been given a new paint job that Summer. There were no alphabet borders or reminders about shapes and colors; just a few posters with exaggerated faces and close ups on the lips and teeth, demonstrating mouth formations to produce certain sounds. A cavernous walk-in closet housed boxes of educational board games and manipulatives that no one would ever play with if someone wasn’t forcing them to. Teaching a skill via a game makes neither the game nor the skill inherently fun; it just gives a start and end point as well as a victory condition for when the torturous learning will be over.
The light gray carpet was well vacuumed and rough, but if you squinted you could see the well worn path of the ancient T.V. cart when Skinner would slide it in and out for viewing videos. That was it as far as Skinner’s room went.
The fact that Skinner was the Speech and Language Pathologist for the entire school - several schools in Oakshire, actually- meant that aesthetics had to take a back seat to pragmatics. Couldn’t make anything too babyish or infantile, lest the delicate sensibilities of almost Middle Schoolers be offended. Skinner probably didn’t have the time or energy to further customize the room. Therapists, especially speech therapists, are overworked with massive caseloads and are responsible for working with every teacher on a given campus to try and schedule the least disruptive time to take a student away for therapy. Most every teacher sees them as second class educators taking their pupils away from valuable academic instruction just to get rid of that pesky lisp or practice language mechanics such as memory or using basic positional language and following multi-step directions.
A lifetime ago, or two weeks prior, I sympathized with Chandra Skinner. Not so much anymore.
The fact that I was starting my ‘Therapy’ sessions with Skinner first was another unexpected blessing. Sosa and Winters shared a room that was right next door to my old classroom and part of the adjacent pod of classrooms. Another Amazon was always within shouting distance or a handful of giant strides away. Skinner’s room, by coincidence, was all by its lonesome with no connecting doors whatsoever. She was technically back to back with the I.E.P. Meeting Room, but even an Amazon couldn’t plow straight through a brick wall.
Also, Skinner was generally the nicest of the therapists and had a habit of accidentally letting even my students try and walk all over her. She was a real pushover that meant well, but didn’t have a disciplinarian bone in her entire body. And by a cosmic blunder that I couldn’t have planned better myself, my new cadre of cohorts; my friends; my gang; my clique; my ‘League’ were all in the same session together. Chaz, Billy, Annie, and I were all there together. No one else. Ivy, being a perfect Little Angel, didn’t get any therapies.
We weren’t trapped in there with Skinner. She was trapped in here with us.
Skinner was the one who so ‘helpfully’ tried to silence me by shoving Lion into my arms. Ironic. Fitting. I wasn’t talking, and looking at her as if she were a dainty gazelle. She wanted my silence? Fine. She was getting it as her first course. That had been the game plan. Be quiet. Wait for an opening. Then take the ball and run as far as we could with it.
We made sure to sit on the edge of our seats so that our feet could be flat on the floor.No dangling. All except Chaz who had to sit all the way back with a harness, ‘just in case’ he lost his balance and fell over; no doubt the handiwork of another ‘therapy’. Chaz compensated by crossing his arms over his chest, trying to seem as attentive yet unimpressed as the rest of us.
The speech therapist was holding up flashcards; animal ones; something originally meant to teach kindergarteners and younger. “What does a cow say?” she asked.
I stared at her. Just stared. I might as well have been a castle guard; practically catatonic. Nervously, Annie and Billy glanced at me before continuing their own quiet game.
“Oh?” the Amazon said. “You don’t know?” That was bait that I refused to take. She brushed her curly gray brown hair off of her shoulders; a nervous tick, perhaps. “The cow says ‘mooooo’. You try!” I could see her blink, and her eyes twitch slightly; like she was counting; giving us time to process her command. We gave her nothing. “Mooooo…”
She pulled down on her bright yellow t-shirt. Another nervous tick. “That’s okay. We’ll try another one.” Nothing was worse to a speech therapist than people who wouldn’t talk. She picked up another card off the stack. “What does a horsey say, guys?” We just stared back with dead shark eyes. “Come on!” she almost begged. “Billy, Annie, you two got this one last week. What does the horsey say?”
Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of the two reaching under the table to hold hands. The desire, the almost conditioned response to ‘behave’ was already deeply ingrained in them. We were playing with fire and we knew it. Even a low flame like Skinner could burn us if we weren’t smart about it.
I had to fight the urge to ask a question; to try and force Skinner to justify her current treatment of us, and try to find a logic in there. That course of action would only stall at best; reinforce her Amazon crazy at worst. We couldn’t give her the chance to control the narrative; not even for a second. It was very likely she knew about Why Day, too. No reason to believe that Beouf hadn’t gabbed about it to give the other ‘Grown-Ups’ a warning that her class was becoming more prone to acting up.
“Neigh, neigh!” It was Skinner again, trying to ‘teach’ us to play along. “A horsey says ‘neigh’!” She wanted us to use dumb, childish words like ‘horsey’, and ‘doggy’ and ‘kitty cat’ and ‘birdy’.
That was it!
Right on cue, we got a laminated sketch of a robin. “What does a birdy say?” The others remained mute. They were waiting on me. They wouldn’t have to wait much longer.
I did my best to seem thoughtful, yet serious. I had to lure Skinner in without making it seem like a trap. “Annie?” she coaxed. “Chaz? Billy?” She caught my faux introspective expression. “Clark? Do you know?” She seemed genuinely curious; as if she’d wondered how far her former co-worker had fallen.
“Yes.” I kept my voice even and flat. I was going to start the attack, but it was going to be clear that I wasn’t taking this, or her, seriously. “Caw-caw.” Playing dumb wasn’t the maneuver here. It was time to play smart.
My friends let out a surprised bit of muted, nervous, laughter. Their lips stayed closed, laughing through their nose and then slammed on the brakes the second their own involuntary response registered to them. Their eyes were wide open and heads pointed directly at me.
My own eyelids lowered to half mast. I was a cat playing with my food.
“Awww,” Skinner said, now less nervous that someone was actually interacting with her. “Close, buddy. But it’s not ‘caw-caw’. The birdy goes ‘tweet-tweet’.”
Time to see if I could use my old skills for destruction instead of self-preservation. “Actually,” I said. “The crow is a bird. ‘Caw-caw’ is a valid response.” My voice was still even and perfectly flat; darn near contemptuous.
Skinner flipped the card around and arched an eyebrow, like she’d forgotten what picture we were being shown. I doubt she even had a crow picture. She tapped the illustration of the robin. “But that’s not what this birdy says.”
“Your exact phrasing was ‘What does a bird say?’.” I corrected her. “Not ‘the’. A crow is a bird.”
Chaz was the next to work up his nerve. He leaned forward in his seat harness and looked at me. “Actually, she said, ‘What does a birdy say?’,” he chimed in. “Not ‘bird’.”
I did a full on left pivot in my seat, looking directly at my younger buddy. “Good point. I appreciate the input. We are aiming for precision, after all.” My expression and tone immediately softened as if I were talking to an enlightened and welcomed colleague.
“Hey, Clark,” Billy tapped me on the shoulder. I immediately slid one-hundred eighty degrees around to look him in the eye. I even smiled as he asked, “Isn’t it weird that Miss Skinner is like, ‘What does the birdy say?’, and she expects a ‘tweet-tweet', but not like...like…’What does the mammal say?’?”
New life entered me. “Y’know, Billy, that’s a good point, sir. Miss Skinner doesn’t have that same standard for other broad categories of animal.”
Annie waved her hand for attention and I pointed over her prison beau’s shoulder. “Yes, Annie?”
We all turned as a row to look at her. “Maybe it’s because birds all look similar,” she offered. “Two wings, two feet, beaks, feathers, eggs. But you’re right. A chicken goes cluck and it’s a bird. Owls hoot and they’re birds.”
I piled on. “Yeah. How weird is it that Miss Skinner is ascribing a single universal behavior to a broad variety of animals based on some surface level similarities? It’s...it’s…” I snapped my fingers theatrically looking for the right word.
Chaz beat me to it. “TYPICAL!” He shouted. “IT’S TYPICAL!”
I jumped out of my steat and spun around just so I could give the son of a bitch the biggest hardest high five of my life. Yes! I had taught him well! Never before had I felt like such a good teacher and role model!
I turned around and high fived the other two who were openly cackling and slapping their bare thighs. “I love it!” Annie squealed. “I have no idea what you’re talking about but I love it!”
“Me too!” Billy stood up and slapped me in the palm.
“EXCUSE ME!” Miss Skinner boomed. Correction. She didn’t boom. She just raised her voice. Janet boomed. Beouf could boom if she wanted to. Zoge didn’t boom, but she had this quiet way of undercutting someone with a glance and a few quiet words so that a body could feel impossibly small and helpless.
When Skinner did it, it was less the command of an angry classroom goddess and more an exasperated if entitled plea. Maybe it was because she was shorter than Beouf and Janet that it had this effect. She was taller than a Tweener, but not by much. Zoge likely had some Tweener ancestry too, come to think of it. That might be why she wasn’t much of a shouter.
I’m getting off track, though.
Skinner’s shout demanded respect instead of commanding it. The worst she could do was give a bad report to head warden Beouf. Even that degree of separation was emboldening. We didn’t snap to attention. Billy and I didn’t immediately scramble back into our seats like frightened mice. We silenced ourselves and sat back down; even went so far as to fold our hands together: but there was such a deliberateness about it as to be challenging.
“Yes, ma’am?” I said, very calmly. “You were saying?”
“You were being very rude,” she scolded. Sure, when Amazons talked about me like I wasn’t there, it was them reporting to each other. When I did the same, it was ‘rude’. Turnabout is unfair play when you’re part of the upper class.
Unblinking, I stared the Amazon down and leaned forward, keeping my hands folded. “I was only conferring with my classmates about the nature of onomatopoeias as they relate to vertebrate taxonomy. I’m sorry we didn’t include you, ma’am.” I forced the muscles in my face to slacken and put on airs of innocence and contrition, but my eyes remained as fierce as ever.
“Onomatopoeias?” Chaz interrupted. “What’s that?”
I didn’t break eye contact with the SLP, but I did cock my head to the left. “Language used to describe sounds,” I said to Chaz. “‘Chirp’, ‘roar’, ‘neigh’, ‘moo’. That kind of thing. Not just for animals. Choo-choo for a train. A crack of thunder. That kind of thing.”
“Oh yeah,” Billy said. “I think that was mentioned in middle or high school.” Him and Chaz no longer sounded performative; just genuinely more interested in what I had to say than Skinner. That made it worse for her. “Annie’s raising her hand.”
“Yes Annie?” Skinner asked.
Annie waited for me to jerk my head in her direction. ”I just wanted to say that it’s kind of weird that Miss Skinner is using words like ‘say’ when it’d be more accurate to say things like ‘What sound does a bird make?’.”
“Good point, Ann-”
A collective sigh and we turned our focus back on the biggest woman in the room. She didn’t seem so big just then.
Skinner simmered for a moment, her nose wrinkling and her bottom lip pouting out. “Do I need to tell Mrs. Beouf that you’re acting up, Clark?”
I didn’t hesitate. “If you think that’s for the best, but I don’t understand what offense I’ve committed.”
“You know very well Clark Gib…!” A look of panic crossed her features as she censored herself. “Clark Grange!”
I knew it! On some level she looked at me and saw the adult she’d spent a decade teaching actual toddlers with. That meant the others did. That was something I could use in the here and now.
“Could you describe the undesirable behavior or antecedent that precipitated said behavior?” I’ve always been capable of breaking out the kind of fancy words that professionals like to differentiate themselves from lay people. It just rarely served my purposes to seem more ‘professional’ than ‘approachable’ where Amazons were concerned.
Rubbing salt in an insecure Amazon’s ego was decidedly in service to my purposes.
She tugged at her shirt some more and sat up straighter, as if being even taller than us was going to cow us by this point. “I’m trying to lead this exercise and you’re being very disrespectful. You’re not a teacher, anymore, Little Boy.”
If she expected me to be hurt, she was about to be disappointed. “I’m sorry,” I said, maintaining my veneer of sincerity. “Go ahead. What does the birdy say, Miss Skinner?”
“Thank you for the clarification as to your expectations, ma’am.” Naturally, smoothly, I reached across the tiny wooden table and picked the top flashcard off the stack as if it was my job to. At the school level, most infractions that get caught do so because the kid is acting like they’re doing something wrong; something about body language and tone gives away the fact that they know they’re doing wrong and it sends up unconscious signals to everyone else. “Now, what does the piggy piggy say?”
My comrades almost lost it. Billy and Annie were burying their heads in the arms on the wooden table, their shoulders bobbing up and down. Chaz held his stomach and unconsciously was pawing at a suddenly soaked diaper as more than laughter leaked out of him.
Skinner realized too late what I’d just done. “Clark…”
“I’m sorry,” I said, somehow managing to keep a straight face. “I believe the response you’re looking for is ‘oink-oink.” Boldly, I leaned over and reached for the top of the stack. “How about-?”
It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t even a full slap. I barely registered it, myself. My eyes noticed the lightning quick blur of her hand more than my skin picked up on the light nip at the very top of my knuckles. “Cut that out!” Skinner quickly scooped up her flash cards and piled them into her lap.
“Clark!” Annie picked her head up and gasped overdramatically. She hadn’t seen but she’d heard enough. “Did Miss Skinner just hit you?!”
Yes! Technically, she did!
“OW!” I clasped my right hand to my chest like I was nursing a broken arm. “YOU HIT ME?!” I yelled. “WHY DID YOU HIT ME?!” The walls of the school building were so thick that there was no way anyone in a neighboring room could hear me. At most, even if I screamed my loudest, the art teacher next door might hear my muted shrieks and be able to recognize my voice.
But Skinner’s domain was so sparse that my words echoed off the white brick walls as if they were a thousand tiny accusations all at once.
“BEATING STUDENTS ISN’T IN THE SCHOOL’S CODE OF CONDUCT! DEFINITELY NOT WITH THE EXPRESS WRITTEN PERMISSION OF THE PARENT OR LEGAL GUARDIAN!”
The Amazon’s hands spasmed as she wrestled with herself, wondering what to say or do to fix the situation I’d just put her in. She knew I was bullshitting. I knew I was bullshitting. I knew she knew. She had barely grazed me and I was out of line messing with her materials. No reasonable administrator or parent would give her so much as a metaphorical slap on the wrist for such an act.
How fortunate it was that Amazons weren’t always known for being reasonable even with each other. “I’M TELLING!”
“You’re not hurt,” Skinner tried to sound less concerned than she was and failed. She looked at the clock on the wall, chewing on her tongue and trying to keep calm. “I need to jot some notes down right quick,” she said. “Why don’t you kids play a little bit?”
Still cradling my hand as though it had been run through farming equipment, I stood up out of my chair. “My Individual Education Plan and the Plan of Care that you wrote up mandates that I’m supposed to receive thirty minutes a week of Language Therapy a week. There’s fifteen minutes left, Miss Skinner!” This was almost easier than Raine.
The Speech Language Pathologist got back up and walked over to the larger table where she kept her laptop. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
The four of us basked in our victory, quietly fist bumping each other. “We are so screwed,” Chaz whispered, “If she tells on us.”
“Nope,” I hissed back. “Not really. We’ll be chewed out. I’ve been chewed out before.”
With the adrenaline wearing off, Billy was feeling less brave. “Yeah, but you haven’t gotten time out. Not the heavy duty kind in your...you know.”
I leaned back and put my hands behind my head like I was relaxing. “One thing at a time, Billy boy,” I said. “One thing at a time. Enjoy the victories where we can.”
“Little victories,” my star pupil Chaz echoed.
The others, I knew, wouldn’t be so easy.
But oh it would be fun trying.