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The vault of dreamers, p.9
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.9

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  We all scooted our swivel chairs toward the tables, like swarming racer bugs. I ended up with Janice on my right, and Burnham next to her. Mr. DeCoster pulled his chair up across from me and slid a shallow cardboard box onto the table. Inside was a jumble of seashells, twigs, and stones. Today Mr. DeCoster wore a silver and turquoise bolo tie over a black shirt, and he looked a lot cooler than usual.

  “First of all, let me congratulate you all on making the fifty cuts,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier you’re still here. We’ve combined a couple sections to adjust for the cuts, and you’ll notice a few other changes, too.” He gave the box a little shake. “Take one and please introduce yourself, with your art.”

  Paige, on his right, selected a dainty, pearly shell shaped like a spiral, and told us she was from Houston and danced. Henrik, it turned out, was a percussionist from Berlin, Germany. The group also included a playwright, a painter, a singer, and half a dozen others. The singer, Mae, asked if Mr. DeCoster knew anything about Ellen, and he reported that Ellen was home with her family. I glanced at Janice, who gave me a sad little smile. On my turn, I chose a small, black stone and kept it short: Doli, Arizona. Filmmaker.

  When Burnham introduced himself—Atlanta, Interactive Media and Game Development—he smiled at everyone else except me, and I got an uneasy feeling that something was wrong.

  After introductions, Mr. DeCoster spoke up in a louder voice. “Up until now, we’ve focused on learning specific, hands-on editing skills,” he said. “They had value for everyone, whether they were staying on the show or getting cut. Now it’s time for a different focus. Your next assignment is to create something that’s bigger than you are. Something at which you’ll fail.”

  I waited for him to elaborate, but he reached for his coffee and said nothing more. Students started looking around the table.

  “Like save the world?” Henrik said, laughing.

  “That would work,” Mr. DeCoster said.

  Paige fiddled with her shell. “Dance can save the world.”

  “You could fail at that,” Henrik said.

  “Or not, you sad little drummer,” Paige said.

  Burnham pointed his finger at Henrik and smiled. “Burn.”

  “The answer is yes, your project can be dance,” Mr. DeCoster said.

  “How about a computer game?” Burnham said.

  “Fine,” Mr. DeCoster said.

  “Are you serious? He gets to play a game?” Henrik asked.

  “Burnham designs games,” Mr. DeCoster said. “It’s not the same as playing them.”

  “I fail at it a lot, too,” Burnham said. “In fact, most of the time.”

  Mr. DeCoster swept his attention around the table. “This is a good time for experiments that don’t work. For fun. For the things you used to dream up when you were a kid on a playground or in a fort under a chair. Imagine anything and try to make it happen.”

  I’d never had an assignment like this before. Not even close.

  “What materials can we use?” Janice asked.

  “Anything you can find or borrow,” Mr. DeCoster said. “The shop is full of gear: swords, black lights, costumes, explosives, paints, paper, cameras, you name it.”

  “Explosives? Seriously?” Paige said.

  “You hear your voice there?” Mr. DeCoster said. “That’s a good starting point.”

  The others laughed again. I was starting to like Mr. DeCoster.

  “Can we work in teams?” Henrik asked.

  “You can do whatever you want, as long as you fail,” Mr. DeCoster said. “The more spectacularly, the better.”

  “Do we have any deadlines?” the painter Harry asked.

  “Your failure is due at the end of the marking period, on October thirty-first,” Mr. DeCoster said. “I want to see a portfolio of progress every Friday, and by portfolio, I mean whatever pieces of work or disasters you have to show at that point.”

  I looked down at the smooth, black stone I’d chosen, and rubbed its cool surface with my thumb. I didn’t even know how to start thinking about this assignment.

  “How about you, Rosie? Any questions?” Mr. DeCoster asked.

  I glanced up. “Do we keep these?” I asked.

  “You can. Why did you choose yours?” Mr. DeCoster replied.

  “It’s pretty,” I said. “It makes me think of the sea.”

  He smiled. “Have you been there?”

  “No,” I said. “Not yet. I want to someday.”

  “How about the rest of you?” Mr. DeCoster asked. “Why’d you pick your objects?”

  “My parents have a summer place on Nantucket,” Janice said. “We go there every year.” She’d chosen a speckled shell, I noticed.

  The others talked on. Burnham had another black stone, much like my own, though the hue of it seemed different against his dark fingers. I glanced up to find him regarding me steadily through his glasses, and an odd, slow trickle ran through me, like I was taking a long swallow of cool water. He couldn’t be mad at me, I reasoned. Something else was going on. He tapped his stone once lightly on the table and sat back, unsmiling, still watching me. What? I thought, but his gaze shifted to his stone, and he turned it over on the table.

  “This box may not seem related to your project, but it is,” Mr. DeCoster said. “We’re always choosing things, every minute—how we spend our time, what we think about, what object we pick out of a box. Forge students are incredibly focused, driven people. Each time we choose, however, we’re also choosing to reject or neglect something else.”

  “Like viewers choosing who to watch,” Henrik said, and the others laughed.

  “Take the next leap with me, please,” Mr. DeCoster said. “Making choices is natural. It’s human. Over a lifetime of choosing, we train our minds to select and focus, and we think of that as a strength. But what happens when you try to think differently? To dream?” He gave the box a little shake and I saw half a dozen items had been left inside. “Your customary thinking patterns can become a trap. Creativity isn’t rigid.”

  “You want us to think outside the box, obviously,” Paige said.

  “That phrase itself is a box,” Mr. DeCoster said. “Think how tidy it is, how cliché. I want you to see where the edges of your box are, or redefine the box itself. What if instead I said think outside the room? Think outside the school?”

  Think outside the solar system, I thought. Closing my eyes, I began to see stars, to feel the cool pull of the purple sky that floated between them. The air began to thin, the molecules to separate, and I expanded my lungs to fill them while I still could. This could work for me.

  “This assignment is a test, isn’t it?” Burnham said.

  I opened my eyes, surprised.

  “How do you mean?” Mr. DeCoster said.

  “You’re testing us to see who’s most creative,” Burnham said.

  Mr. DeCoster smiled. “So? This is an art school, after all. Creativity’s part of the curriculum.”

  “It’s a reality show, too,” Burnham said. “We’re competing with each other for our blip ranks and banner ads. What’s your payoff? If our blip ranks go higher than the ranks for some other class, do you get some kind of kickback?”

  “Easy, man,” Henrik said.

  I’d only known Burnham a day, but cynicism from him just seemed wrong.

  Mr. DeCoster’s face was impassive. “It’s my job to push you however I see fit. And yes, a percentage of your banner ad monies come to me. I doubt it’s ever been put that baldly, but it’s no secret. Does that make my teaching methods any less valid?”

  Burnham spread his hand on the table. “No. It’s just nice to know where we stand.” And he looked at me.

  I stared back at him while my mind flew. He was competing with me. Or he was saying I competed. Either way, he didn’t mean it nicely. I felt a flare of resentment.

  “Where we stand,” Mr. DeCoster echoed slowly. “Let me explain something for you. Twenty-three years ago, the Forge School was nothi
ng but an obscure prep school with an outdated campus at the edge of civilization. But it had a film teacher, an inspired film teacher, and she kept turning out one famous director after another.”

  “Yes, sir,” Burnham said, as if he’d just recalled his manners. “We know this story.”

  “You don’t know the story,” Mr. DeCoster said. “You haven’t really listened to it, or you wouldn’t have asked about my payoff.”

  “Go on,” I said, crossing my arms. “I want to hear.”

  “Thank you, Rosie,” Mr. DeCoster said. “One of the famous director alums decided to do a documentary on the teacher who had inspired her, and that teacher, Miss Lavinia, refused. She said to spotlight her students instead. So the director made a film about the students at Forge.” Mr. DeCoster took another sip of his coffee. “Then what, Burnham?”

  “I guess it expanded from there,” Burnham said.

  “You would be right,” Mr. DeCoster said. “First, Miss Lavinia noticed something unexpected. The students who were being filmed began to work much harder. They took bigger risks. They began to excel. The camera eye, itself, was influencing their performance.”

  “Oh, right,” Janice said. “I remember this. Wasn’t she the one who asked to have cameras installed in her classroom?”

  “She did, and she sold the feed to the local cable network, with even more striking results,” Mr. DeCoster said. “Half of the other teachers wanted to kill Miss Lavinia, but the other half wanted in, and then the school ran a pilot program following a batch of the students everywhere, twenty-four seven.”

  “That’s how The Forge Show was born?” Henrik said. “I never knew that.”

  “What too many people fail to remember is that this place exists for you. For the students,” Mr. DeCoster said. “At its purest level, the show serves the school, not the other way around. We’ve been under pressure countless times to spice up the show with hot tubs and guest stars and cheap what have you, but we’ve held to Miss Lavinia’s principles, always putting you first. You and your art. Why do you think people watch this show?”

  It was wildly popular, but I’d never tried to put my finger on why people watched. Burnham stubbornly refused to reply.

  “They’re bored,” Paige said.

  “They’re bored,” Mr. DeCoster repeated. He closed his eyes as if in pain. When he opened them, he tweaked his earphone. “Sandy? Are you there? Can you come on the speaker, please?”

  I scanned the ceiling, and then a speaker near the doorway came to life.

  “What can I do for you, Robert?” said Dean Berg.

  “Could we have a sampling of some fan clips, please? On the overhead?”

  “Sure. One minute. Let me patch in Xing Lao. Xing Lao?”

  A second voice came from the speaker. “I heard,” he said. “I’ll pick a few that came in last night after the cuts. Will that do?”

  “That should be fine,” Mr. DeCoster said.

  He reached for a remote. Blinds in the windows swiveled to dim the room, and the screen at the front of the classroom flickered on. Up came a menu of icons, presumably controlled by Xing Lao, who flew through layers of options to pull up a video of a young black woman, maybe twenty years old, with wet eyes and a gleaming smile. She was hugging a gray kitten and looking straight into the camera.

  “Hi,” she said in a scratchy voice. “I just watched the fifty cuts, and I just have to say, I’m so happy Paige made it. She’s exactly like my sister. Exactly. Only my sister died last year from leukemia, and I miss her so much. When I watch Paige dance, it’s like I get Megan back for a minute. I mean, of course, I know she’s not really Megan, but she’s just like Megan would be if she was here to keep dancing.” She kissed her fingers and touched them to her heart.

  Paige’s mouth went agape in surprise. Before I had time to react, another face came up on the screen. Two faces, really. A couple of old guys in plaid flannel shirts. They hadn’t shaved lately, and a mangy caribou head was mounted on the wall behind them.

  “Howdy. This here’s Jim and Joey Johansen from Nome,” said the man on the left. “We wish to offer our congratulations to all the kids who passed the fifty cuts. We’ve been following your progress most days—”

  “Every day but Sunday,” said the second man.

  The first one nodded. “Every day but Sunday, that is. Our friend Rhonda—”

  “She works over at the diner here in town,” said the second man.

  “Our friend Rhonda told us to try your show. She said we’d like it for the art, and she was right. We’d like to say we appreciate the energy of you young people. I don’t think it’s too much to say you give us hope. For the future.”

  “For humankind,” said the second man.

  “That’s right. For humankind. So best of luck to you now.”

  The two men nodded solemnly.

  I glanced over at Janice, who was watching the screen, spellbound. Nobody snickered, and I was glad.

  The next clip showed a boy of twelve or thirteen, sitting in a hospital bed with an oxygen tube running under his nose and back around his ears.

  “I got it, Mom,” he said, and then smiled straight at the camera, which jiggled once. “Hi! This is Billy!” He breathed in thickly. “I’m so excited! I’ve been watching your show three years now, and this year is the best year ever, with the best people ever. My favorite students are Burnham Fister and Henrik Plashcka and Rosie Sinclair.” He took another deep, thick breath. “If you ever see this and just give me one quick wave or thumbs up or whatever, that’d be great.”

  The frame froze on him giving a thumbs up, and I stared at him, unblinking. On instinct, I gave him a wave, and looking around the table, I saw others doing it, too.

  The voice of Xing Lao came over the speaker again. “Want a few more?”

  “Thanks. I think that will do,” Mr. DeCoster said.

  “My pleasure. Anytime,” Xing Lao said.

  “All good, Robert?” Dean Berg asked.

  “Yes, thank you,” Mr. DeCoster said, touching his earphone again.

  A soft crackle came from the speaker, and then it went quiet. The window shades hummed as they tilted to let the light back in.

  I stared around at the other students, who sat humbled and silent in their seats. Not one of us spoke.

  Mr. DeCoster set down his remote and opened a hand upon the table. “Questions?”

  Henrik cleared his throat. “How many of those clips do you get?”

  “Hundreds,” Mr. DeCoster said.

  “Why don’t you pass them on to us?” Janice asked.

  “Because of the pressure it would put on you, and the distractions it would create when you felt you had to reply,” Mr. DeCoster said.

  “That last little guy was cute,” Henrik said.

  “It’s terrifying,” Paige said. “Who can live up to that?”

  Some of the others were muttering to one another. Burnham was quietly turning over his stone in his fingers.

  Mr. DeCoster took his box of shells and put a lid on it. His gaze shifted toward Burnham, and then to me, and then he pushed back his chair. “I have one other thing. I’m moving our class to the basement of the library. There’s a den down there with a couple of old couches and a Ping-Pong table. I find it more conducive to thinking, plus it’s closer to the shop. Meet me there tomorrow. A little help with the chairs, please.”

  We rolled our chairs back toward the computer desks, and Mr. DeCoster took his coffee cup. A couple of students lingered to ask him a few questions. Janice said she was heading over to the drama building. As if he planned to stay a while, Burnham turned on a computer at the back of the room. I slid my stone into my skirt pocket, and then I walked over and took the swivel chair next to his.

  “Hey,” I said. “What was that about?”

  “Nothing.”

  “You sure?”

  “Yes. I get it.”

  “Get what?” I asked.

  Burnham skimmed a finger over his touch s
creen, and a black world with purple, winged guys shifted onto his larger computer screen.

  “Right. Ignore me. That’s real subtle,” I said.

  “I’m trying to work on my game here, if you don’t mind.”

  “Okay, wait a second,” I said slowly. “I could be wrong, but yesterday I thought we were friends.”

  “I thought so, too.”

  “So why aren’t you talking to me?”

  “I am.”

  He was too smart for stupid games.

  “Is this because I kissed Linus?” I asked.

  He let out a brief laugh. “That is a totally girl thing to say.”

  “I am a girl, in case you haven’t noticed,” I said. “You’re acting incredibly weird. Yesterday you weren’t like this.”

  “Why would I care if you kissed anybody?” he asked.

  “That’s what I want to know.” I pulled his touch screen out from under his hand.

  “Seriously? I am not going to fight you for my touch screen,” he said.

  “Just tell me, Burnham,” I said, leaning over him and holding the touch screen tight. “Yesterday, you were nice to me. Was that some kind of stunt? Is this the real you now?”

  “I was not doing a stunt. You were the strategy queen,” Burnham said. He turned to face me and folded his arms. Behind his glasses, his eyes were hard. “Make friends with someone who has a high blip rank. Use your special talent, like make a film of losers to get everyone’s sympathy. Have a personal drama. Sound familiar?”

  Guilty alarm rose in me. “You know what Linus told me to do to stay on the show?” I said.

  “That’s right,” Burnham said, nodding. “My brother watched your scene with him from yesterday morning and told me about it. He thought I’d be interested.”

  I quietly set down the touch screen. “I did everything Linus said,” I said, half-amazed. “But I wasn’t following his advice. It wasn’t like that.”

  “Ellen’s tragedy must have been pure luck,” Burnham said. “Then again, you had to be laughing your head off when I got everybody at lunch to do our spike experiment.”

 
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