Reese giggled. Barrett made some notes in his little book, then turned to Gibbon. "I give him two terms," he said. "You?"
Gibbon, tallest of the three, peered at me closely. For a moment, I thought he might ask to see my teeth. He pulled two crisp pound notes out of an expensive calfskin wallet. "Three terms," he said.
I emptied all expression from my face, met and held his gecko eyes.
"Choose," said Barrett impatiently, pencil poised. He squinted out from under a school cap pulled low over his face, like a bookmaker's visor.
Barrett made a note in his book.
"I say four." Reese dug into a pocket and pulled out a handful of coins, mainly pennies. He was the least impressive of the three.
Barrett accepted the coins and looked up at me. "You in?"
Was I in on a bet predicting the demise of my own academic career? Well, it certainly offered a variation on the usual welcome. I pushed past them, unpacked my bag into a metal trunk, made up my narrow bed with regulation starched sheets, burrowed down under the covers, and went to sleep.
Rule number two: Keep something back.
I will tell you that I'm not one of those heroes who attracts admiration for the physical attributes. Picture a boy, small for his age, ears stuck at right angles to his head, hair the texture of straw and the color of mouse. Mouth: tight. Eyes: wary, alert.
You might say that superficial flaws were not uncommon in boys my age, but in my experience this was untrue. Stretching left, right, up, down, and diagonally in every St. Oswald's class picture were boys of a more usual typeboys with strong jaws, straight noses, and thick hair of definite color; boys with long, straight limbs and bold, confident expressions; boys with skills, inborn talents, a genetically determined genius for politics or Latin or the law.
In such pictures, my face (blurry and unformed) always looked shifty and somewhat imbecilic, as if the flesh itself realized that the impression I was making was a bad one, even as the shutter clicked.
Did I mention that St. Oswald's was my third school? The first two asked me (not entirely politely) to leave, owing to the deplorable nature of my behavior and grades. In my defense, I'd like to point out that my behavior was not deplorable if by deplorable you mean rude, belligerent, violent and antisocialsetting fire to the library, stabbing or raping a teacher. By deplorable they meant "less than dedicated to study," "less that competent at writing essays," "less than interesting to the head and the board of governors." Given my gentle failings, their assessment strikes me now as unnecessarily cruel, and makes me wonder how they labeled the student who opened fire with an AK-47 in the middle of chapel.
My lack of distinction was mainly restricted to photographs and schoolwork. When it came to opinions, I was (I am) like the sword of Zorro: swift, incisive, deadly. My opinions on the role of secondary education, for instance, are absolute. In my opinion, this school and its contemporaries were nothing more than cheap merchants of social status, selling an inflated sense of self-worth to middle-class boys of no particular merit.
I will, however, grant them something. Without the first, I would not have ended up at the second. Without the second, I would not have attended St. Oswald's. Without St. Oswald's, I would not have met Finn.
Without Finn, there would be no story.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from What I Was. Copyright © Meg Rosoff, 2007.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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