In a writing group the name of Bruce Coville, the acclaimed children’s author, came up. I briefly attended elementary school with Bruce. That connection led to this work-in-progress. And no, aliens won’t eat Theo’s homework. Instead this is a story about how three kids, strangers, band together to upset the status quo at Cherry Street School.
Theo Dubois pulled on the handle of the big white door to the Cherry Street School, but the door didn’t open.
He dropped the paper bag with his supplies and tried again, this time with both hands, and the door still didn’t open.
He knocked on it with his knuckles, peered through a square window, then knocked again harder with the side of his fist.
He jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and stared at the ground.
I’m already in trouble, he thought. First day.
“Don’t need to break it down, son.”
The man was walking toward the school.
“I’m supposed to go here but I can’t get in,” Theo said.
The man smiled. “You need to push this button on the speaker. It rings in the main office. The secretary will ask who you are and then unlock the door. Like this.”
The man pushed the button and a voice squawked from the wall speaker.
“State your name and business, please.”
“Hello, Sally, This is Mr. Younger. I believe I have a new student with me.”
“Thank you, Mr. Younger.”
A buzzer sounded and Mr. Younger opened the door. He pulled open the door and swept his arm toward the opening. “After you.”e pulled ipen the door an swept
Theo offered a twisted, closed lip smile. “Thanks.”
He took the three wide steps up to a long hallway with doors on both sides that seemed to run forever. The floor shined with a polished glow.
“I don’t…” Theo began.
“I’m Mr. Younger,” the man said. “The principal. And your name is?”
“Theo. Um, Theo Dubois. We just moved here.”
“Well, welcome to Cherry Street School, Theo Dubois. The office is this way. I’ll introduce you to Mrs. Sternman, the secretary who will get you settled.”
Theo glanced back at the door.
“Why’s the door locked? Do kids run away?”
Mr. Younger paused, then smiled softly. “Oh, no, Theo. The door are locked for your safety. There has been some trouble. Did your old school not lock doors?”
“Sheesh, no. It had four rooms, about thirty kids. It was a really little town. My friend Kevin said his dad said they were gonna close it up and move the kids to a bigger school next year.”
Mr. Younger motioned up the hallways. “We should walk. How small was your town?”
Theo shrugged. “Couple hundred.”
“Theo, Cherry Street School has 473 students.”
“Wow. You could put all of Laketown in here.”
“Where is Laketown?”
Theo brightened. “On the lake. It was an old place. Looked old all the time.”
Mr. Younger chuckled. “I meant, what state?”
“Oh, In Maine, in the woods. Lake was called Minnehonk. We think it means lotta geese, ya know, many honks.”
“That’s wonderful, Theo.” Mr. Younger turned to a grey-haired woman at the front counter. “Mrs. Sternman, I’d like you to meet Theo, was it Du-boiz?”
Theo nodded, suddenly uncomfortable. “Yeah, right. Du-boiz.”
Mrs. Sternman peered over the rims of her glasses at Theo, whose head bobbed above the shoulder-high counter as he looked up to at Mrs. Sternman. She’s really tall, he thought.
Behind her two other women sat at wide metal desks and shuffled papers or spoke on a telephone. Two doors divided the rear wall. Mr. Younger sat at the desk in the room to the right. The door to the other room was closed.
A wall length, paper banner on the right wall said ‘CHERRY STREET SCHOOL” in red block letters. On the other wall a big calendar with a picture of a mountain filled the space between two other closed doors.
Theo thought the office was very quiet even though it had a lot of people. He felt small.
“Hello, Theo,” Mrs. Sternman said with a dry, cold voice. “It that your real name? Theo?”
Theo wrinkled his face. “It’s Theophile, T-off-o-lee. My grandfather’s name.”
“Ah,” she said. “Spell it please. And then your surname.”
“Last name. You said it was Du-boiz. So that would be D-U-B-O-I-S, correct? French. Isn’t that pronounced ‘Du-boi,’”
“Grampa Theo said it was Du-boiz. He said he got beat up as a kid if he said it the French way. That’s why I use Theo, not Ta-O. Kids don’t ask.”
Mrs. Sternman stopped writing and frowned. “And you believed him?”
Theo found his voice. “He was my grampa. He was from the south. Said it happened all the time.”
“Ah, the South, “ Mrs. Sternman said. “Well, Theophile, this is the New York State. We are different. Please spell you’re first name. We can not have nicknames in the official records.”
Theo spelled “Theophile” and waited for more instructions,
“What is your address?” Mrs. Sternman asked, pen poised to record it
Theo stared at the floor, hands jammed in his pockets. “I don’t know.” He looked up at Mrs. Sternman. “We got here Saturday. My dad unloaded our stuff and left a note on the kitchen table and took off.”
“Where does he live? What is his phone number?”
Theo felt the coldness of her voice settle in his chest. “I don’t know. We just got here. Heck, I don’t even know the name of this town.”
“Is your mother with you?” she asked, her voice deepening with official frowning concern.
“She went early to look for a job.”
“Oh, dear. Where?”
“Syracuse,” Theo muttered. It was the one place name he knew because his father said that was where he worked for an electric company.
Mrs. Sternman tapped her pen on the counter, frowning.
“So you prepared yourself for school?”
“Yeah, Me and my younger brother and sister. We always used to do it.”
“Two siblings? Where are they?”
“At school I guess. The note said for them to stand on the corner and a bus was gonna come.”
Mrs. Sternman said, frowning, “Please take a seat, Theophile. I must speak with Mr. Younger.”
Theo’s shoes thumped on the wooden base of the bench as he sat head down and wondered what he had done. He peeked up and watched as Mrs. Sternman wave a finger at the principal. She turned to face Theo a couple of times and tapped the papers in her hand a couple more. Theo heard her say, “very concerned,” once and “very, very concerned” twice. Mr. Younger’s face was wrinkled in worry. Then Theo heard Mrs. Sternman say, “Broken home” and “social services.” And Mr. Younger asked, “You’re absolutely sure?” and Mrs. Sternman replied, “Absolutely. This is very troubling.” She frowned again at Theo.