One classroom had its lights on, and the people he had followed were sitting in the too-small desks, saying hello as if they all knew each other. Construction-paper signs and pictures covered the walls, and the cursive alphabet ran along the top of the chalkboard. Most of the people were about his parents age, though their faces were softer, and they dressed as though they lived in town, in thin shoes and clean bright jackets. He went to the back of the room and took a seat. He left his coat on, a big old sheepskin-lined denim, and he checked his boots to see what he might have dragged in, but they were clean from walking through snow.
We should have gotten a high school room, one of the men said.
A ladya girlstood at the teachers desk at the front of the room, taking papers from a briefcase. She had curly lightcolored hair and wore a gray wool skirt and a blue sweater, and glasses with wire rims. She was thin, and looked tired and nervous. Everyone grew quiet and waited for her to speak.
Ive never done this before, she said. Im not sure how to start. Do you want to introduce yourselves?
We all know each other, a gray-haired woman said.
Well, she doesnt, another woman protested.
You could tell me what you know about school law, the young teacher said.
The adults in the small desks looked at each other. I dont think we know anything, someone said.
Thats why were here.
The girl looked helpless for a second and then turned to the chalkboard. Her bottom was a smooth curve in the wool skirt. She wrote Adult Ed 302 and her name, Beth Travis, and the chalk squeaked on the h and the r. The men and women in the desks flinched.
If you hold it straight up, an older woman said, demonstrating with a pencil, with your thumb along the side, it wont do that.
Beth Travis blushed, and changed her grip, and began to talk about state and federal law as it applied to the public school system. Chet found a pencil in his desk and held it like the woman had said to hold the chalk. He wondered why no one had ever showed him that in his school days.
The class took notes, and he sat in the back and listened. Beth Travis was a lawyer, it seemed. Chets father told jokes about lawyers, but the lawyers were never girls. The class was full of teachers, who asked things hed never thought of, about students rights and parents rights. Hed never imagined a student had any rights. His mother had grown up in the mission school in St. Xavier, where the Indian kids were beaten for not speaking English, or for no reason. Hed been luckier. An English teacher had once struck him on the head with a dictionary, and a math teacher had splintered a yardstick on his desk. But in general they had been no trouble.
Once, Beth Travis seemed about to ask him something, but one of the teachers raised a hand, and he was saved.
At nine oclock the class was over, and the teachers thanked Miss Travis and said shed done well. They talked to each other about going someplace for a beer. He felt he should stay and explain himself, so he stayed in his desk. His hip was starting to stiffen from sitting so long.
Miss Travis packed up her briefcase and put on her puffy red coat, which made her look like a balloon. Are you staying? she asked.
No, maam. He levered himself out from behind the desk.
Are you registered for the class?
No, maam. I just saw people coming in.
Are you interested in school law?
He thought about how to answer that. I wasnt before tonight.
Excerpted from Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy Copyright © 2009 by Maile Meloy. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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