Symphony 33

Sean and Duarte were not Neil’s only problems.

Anthony Caraveli had announced himself by testing Neil on the first day of school. He learned at once that Neil had sharply defined and clearly stated limits, and set out to find out how real they were. The first day he was warned. The second day he was warned. The third day found him in detention. The fourth day found him in detention again. After that, he kept his head down around Neil and was content to terrorize Glen Ulrich.

Jesse Herrera was a different and much more difficult case. He was much more intelligent than Anthony. He was probably the most street-wise child at Kiernan, in any grade, and his overriding goal seemed to be to make life hell for everyone around him. This he did with the kind of subtlety and finesse one would have expected in someone much older.

It was the second week of school before Neil realized what a problem he had on his hands, and it would have taken him much longer to accept if he had not been warned by his fellow teachers. Jessie’s technique consisted of faking a wide eyed innocence that bordered on stupidity. As long as the teacher bought the pose, Jesse could get away with murder.

For example:

On Monday, September twentieth, Sean and Duarte spent the morning sniping at each other, keeping their remarks just within the limits of Neil’s patience. Then they went out at noon and got into the fight that got them suspended. Neil had had to take over Carmen’s noon duty so she could take the two of them to the office; that made him two minutes late to his afternoon core and when he got there Jesse had Mickey Kerr’s arm in a lock with his head forced down on the desk.

Neil growled and Jesse let go, but slowly, with a knowing look on his face that irritated Neil. In that moment his whole view of Jesse refocused and he realized for himself what the other teachers had already told him — that Jesse was completely aware of everything he was did. It was not only deliberate; it was coldly pre-planned. The patina of innocence fell away from the angelic face of Jesse Herrera and Neil thought, “That boy would pull the wings off butterflies, and smile while he was doing it.”

Neil sat down and explained why he was late. He wanted to remind the other children that fighting would get them suspended. Jesse said, “They were bad boys!” in his sickly sweet, little boy voice. Neil shot him a dirty look and realized that even his voice sounded different.

“I will have to be careful,” Neil thought. “I saw no fault in him yesterday, and today I am ready to see no good in him.”

They began the period with reading. While the students read, Neil kept half his attention on Jesse, and was amazed at what he saw. The boy was near the back of the room and behind the facade of an angelic face he was tormenting all the students around him. He poked Mickey Kerr in the back with a pencil. He said things to Lisa Cobb that Neil could not hear, but which made her face turn red and her teeth clench. He stole Randi Nguyen’s paper, crumpled it and tossed it toward the door. He kicked Rabindranath Kumar’s chair on his left and Stephanie Carter’s on his right. more tomorrow

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