There are rare times when school isn't such a bad place to be, and chief among these are the times when you're sitting on a couch with a girl's butt pressed into each of your arms.
Granted, this isn't the sort of thing that happens every day, but it was known to happen to me on Fridays during the gifted-pool meetings. At the first meeting of the second semester of my eighth-grade year, all twelve of us were piled onto the old green couch in the room above the gym, as was our usual fashion, while Mr. Streich, our fearless leader, took attendance.
I was trying to pay attention to what was going on. Or, anyway, I was trying to look like I was--but I had Anna Brandenburg's butt pressing into the lower part of my right arm and Jenny Kurosawa's butt near my left shoulder, which was somewhat distracting. It's hard to imagine a situation more preferable to math class, where I spent sixth period the other four days of the week.
Mr. Streich was at the front of the room, running his fingers across his mustache--he did that quite a lot, as though he was trying to make sure it was still there or something--and pointing his pen at odd spots on the couch, trying to figure out if we were all present. It was no small task, considering that a couple of people were buried so deep that all he could see of them was their shoes. But he took it in stride.
"Well then," he said, when he had decided we were all there, "are you guys ready to hear what the first gifted-pool project of the semester is going to be?"
The noise that came out of the couch probably just sounded like a low rumble, but most of us were saying "Sure," "Yeah," or something like that.
"Your first project . . . ," Mr. Streich said, pausing to let the suspense build, as though we were all on the edge of our seats, "will be to build . . . a monument!"
For a second, no one said a word. This wasn't the kind of announcement that would get people cheering or anything, but from the look on his face, Mr. Streich had clearly expected some kind of reaction. I figured I ought to say something before he started to feel bad. We liked Mr. Streich just about enough to try not to hurt his feelings.
"A monument?" I asked. "What kind of monument are we talking about here?"
"Well," he said, "it can be anything. You'll each pick someone or something that you think deserves a monument, and build the monument yourself. Then you'll present it at an assembly, as usual."
This didn't sound much different than the project from the previous semester where we had to dress up like some notable person from history and give a speech about their life--most of the projects were something along this line. The school was careful not to give us projects that might lead us to blow anything up or incite any riots; even the "dressing up as a notable person from history" assignment had led to a veritable spree of cross-dressing. Dustin Eddle-beck had only been stopped from dressing as Sally Rand, a notable stripper who used to dance wearing nothing but a large fan, at the last second by some chumps from the school board.
I'm not exactly sure how they came to decide that those of us in the pool were "gifted." You normally think of the gifted kids as the ones who tuck their shirts into their underwear and spend their free time talking to their plants about algebra. At my school, it was mostly a bunch of miscreants--commies, perverts, and pyros who happened to score well on standardized tests.
"How about a gravestone?" asked James Cole, who spoke fluent French and was the first kid in school to smoke pot. "Would that be considered a monument?"
"Well," said Mr. Streich, "maybe you could make a gravestone for someone who didn't have one, and try to have it actually put up where they're buried! I've heard of people doing that for old blues singers who were just dumped under a plywood marker someplace."
"Actually," said James, "I was thinking about one for Coach Hunter."
Coach Hunter was the gym teacher, and James Cole's natural enemy. If anyone ever makes one of those public television nature documentaries about potheads, it'll probably have a scene of them pricking up their ears and getting scared when they hear a whistle blowing in the distance.
"Coach Hunter isn't dead," Mr. Streich pointed out, as if we didn't already know that.
"I know," said James. "I was thinking we would have to kill him as part of the project."
We all laughed, and Mr. Streich tried to calm us down, though I could see that he was trying not to smile. "I don't think he'd be very keen on that, James."
"Well," I said, "you're supposed to be challenging us to use our gifted intellects, right? Why not challenge us to spend the semester convincing Coach Hunter that life isn't worth living anymore? That way, we wouldn't have to kill him ourselves."
"Heck," said James. "It probably won't even take that long. I start thinking life isn't worth living after about five minutes in his class."
"We could learn a lot about psychology," said Edie Scaduto, the school communist.
"You guys, be serious for a minute," said Mr. Streich. "You know I can't let you kill anybody, and I certainly can't let you try to convince anybody to kill themselves, because if I could, I would have assigned you to take out my mother-in-law by now." He paused for us to laugh, which we did, a little. It might have been funnier if he were married in the first place. "If you want to make a monument like the Tomb of the Unknown Gym Coach, that might be okay. Just be careful."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Pirates of the Retail Wasteland by Adam Selzer. Copyright © 2008 by Adam Selzer. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.