Coming of Age Contemporary High School

Mark was on the way to history class when it happened. 

As the four notes of the fourth period bell sounded over the PA system, the halls of Pioneer Valley Public School came alive with the bustle of students migrating between classes; the squeak of sneakered feet on linoleum, frenzied chatter, the random prepubertal yell or feminine squeal. 

Mark sighed, and the low-grade anxiety began to flutter back into his chest. He hated crowds. To him, people were merely obstacles to get around, beings whose continued existence held only the prospect of his embarrassment. Avoiding bumping into other students was enough to keep his frenetic mind occupied. 

He was plain and skinny fat, with a wild thicket of dark brown hair and budding acne. He rarely looked into mirrors. However, he was distinctly unselfconscious in that he was oblivious to how he affected others. People–with their burdensome bundle of feelings and needs–came second to books, or the latest tirade running through his head. He prided himself on being right. All this left much to be desired in his relationships, especially with girls. 

Following an invisible line to history class, he made toward the bustling intersection of two hallways with eyes downcast and the strap of his worn black swissgear backpack clutched tightly in his hand. 

He heard them before he saw them, and busied himself by staring at the reflected glare of tube lights on the linoleum floor. In the next few seconds, he was caught in the middle of a gaggle of girls, and was forced to squeeze himself between a tall gazelle of a blonde and a thickset black girl, both of whom were engaged in a bubbly stream of incoherence which he supposed counted for conversation. 

As he made his exit, the blonde, a senior named Alice or Alexa or something, cast a contemptuous glance in his direction. 

“Why did you walk through us?” 

The comment, barely within earshot, stung him like a Roman whip. 

The very next second, the noise happened.


It was a bell shorn of its charm, a rolling metallic screech that split the air and obliterated any thought that may have come before it. The sound seemed to become reality itself; a dead-end, a fast-shrinking tunnel.

Mark recognized it. 

Through palpitations, he remembered a random gathering in the multi-purpose room down the hall earlier that week. A lot of it was lost to him now, clouded over by the memory of his burning resentment at the senior boys seated in front of him, the back of their heads bobbing in laughter or held erect in what he knew were expressions of bored disinterest. They knew the girls were watching, and the half-lidded who-cares attitude was all the rage. Still, he remembered something on the projector screen, a map of the school with emergency exits marked. A powerpoint slide entitled: Run, Hide, Fight. 

The thought was a mere blip in his consciousness, and he found that he was running--running fast--his legs moving seemingly of their own accord, and the running students around him seemed in sync with his movement, as if the hallway was in motion and not them, until his history teacher waved him and the other students into the classroom and jerked the door shut.

The sound still blasting holes in his ears, he watched numbly as his history teacher, a former hippie with shaggy gray hair and John Lennon spectacles, frantically taped black construction paper over the narrow window of the door. After locking the door, he ran over to the other side of the room and pulled down the shades, which fell with a clatter against the heater. 

A muffled chorus of questions simmered and bubbled as the sound roared on with no explanation. 

The teacher, Mr. Anselm, the armpits of his baby-blue button-up dark with sweat, hissed like a demon, “Everyone against the wall!” 

Students, now scared into silence, dropped their backpacks and crouched against the metal heater, opposite the door. All the red-faced yelling in the world was no match for heart-stopping terror. 

Outside the door, Mark heard frantic questions; feet pounding; doors slamming and opening and slamming again; authoritative yelling by adults–“In here!” “Lock the doors!” “Check the bathrooms!”

There was a furious pounding on the other side of the door. Mr. Anselm skirted the wall perpendicular to the door and crouched to peer under the construction paper. Stragglers: Tim and Jim, the two jokesters, their usual grins disturbingly absent. He whisked them inside and carefully relocked the door with his veiny, sun-damaged hands. He took up a position beside the door, whipped out his phone and, face shining with sweat, began thumbing the screen with all the speed he could muster.

Mark clutched his knees to his chest, as a feeling coursed through him that he had never felt before. The room seemed to become his universe, reality itself, and his soul was clutched by a fierce amnesia. He had been born in this room, knew nothing but this room, would die in this room. How strange, he thought, that just beyond the glass and concrete of the back wall lay miles and miles of open, traversable space—a land of suburban houses, parks, roads, hills and trees, lakes and rivers. He saw students huddled against the heater, students he had been afraid of, had tried to impress–the objects of his daily resentment and anxiety–all reduced to quiet, quivering forms in the gloomy darkness, some with pale faces illuminated by the light of their phones, some staring straight ahead. A girl in the corner began to cry.

Mr. Anselm, positively dripping now, marshaled all the comfort he could into his voice. 

“It’s aright kids,” he said in a Boston accent that was more haggard than usual, “We’re figuring it out. It’s probly a mistake.” 

Sam, a freshman with tourettes, was being convulsed by hiccups, and a few whimpers could be heard. But everything seemed like a whisper compared to the noise; each passing second, it became something of a physical force–the slow-tightening vice of fear–shattering nerves and squeezing airways until every thought was flattened before it could take shape, and all that was left was the awful, unstoppable ringing. 

“Kids, I’m gonna have to leave for two minutes!” Mr. Anselm bellowed. “There’s a kid stuck in the hall and they won’t move. Sit tight!” 

And then he was gone, leaving them alone with the ringing.

Mark imagined what would happen if someone made it through the door. He remembered reading about a Texas school shooting that was only a few days old; the police had delayed and the intruder had broken into a classroom full of fourth grade students and opened fire. The exact number of dead eluded him, but he knew it had been a massacre. The shooter just kept shooting, even after they were all bleeding out.

The sound droned on. Many of the students were now crowded behind the teacher's desk in the corner--a mass of warm bodies who now placed their hope of salvation in three panels of sheet metal topped by one inch of synthetic wood.

If a shooter truly was loose in the building and managed to find their classroom, Mark knew that he would die. So he picked up the frayed bits of his nerves–what some braggadocious types might call “courage”–and walked unsteadily toward the door to stand where Mr. Anselm had stood two minutes before, as his fellow students stared at him, spellbound. He didn’t understand what he was doing, just that it was the only thing left for him to do. 

Standing next to the door, an even stranger feeling came over him. He felt poised over a precipice, looking down into a chasm of deep darkness. He had sensed the germ of such a feeling when he dangled his legs over the edge of the Grand Canyon two summers ago when no none was looking. The difference was that he could decide how far to dangle his legs over the edge, and when to back away. Here, the bullets came, or they didn’t. 

Down the hall, they heard a scream. 

A wave of cries rolled through the classroom, and sobs broke out among the girls and the younger students. Older boys yelled obscenities to mask the wildfire of their terror, searched frantically for weapons that did not exist. Mark saw the light peeking out from under the construction paper and quickly looked away.

Footsteps were coming down the hall. Heavy footsteps. Mark, trembling all over, fished his pocket knife out of his bag which he had left lying on the floor and tried not to cut himself as he unfolded the blade. The ground beneath him was dissolving into empty air. A premonition of a stray bullet slicing through the wall made him sink to his knees, and he dropped the knife beside him and prayed. 

Just as he closed his eyes, the ringing stopped.

“Hey kids, what the heckaya doin'?”

The lights went on and the oxygen seemed to rush back into the classroom: it was Mr. Anselm, trailing a very scared-looking girl behind him, her cheeks wet with fresh tears. Mark immediately recognized her blonde hair and willowy frame.

Mr. Anselm went on: “She screamed bloody murdah when I found huh by the bubblah, musta scared the crap outta youse.”

The students could only stare in dumb shock. 

“Whatevuh,” Mr. Anselm said, wiping the sweat from his brow, “Everything's fine, maintenance just tripped the switch while they wuh workin’ awn the alahm.” He seemed unsure of what to say and for a few moments just stood there catching his breath.

 “Ahh…,” he clicked his tongue and waved his hand dismissively. “You guys can go to lunch, make shoa to call yuh parents, tell them y'aright.” 

He gave the usual spiel about “homework” and “class tomorrah” as students slowly began to get up, collect their things and file out. Soon, the halls were echoing with laughter, breathless conversations, bombast and exclamation over what a joke the whole thing was. 

Mark stood leaning against the door frame, listening to it all.

December 27, 2023 04:16

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Amanda Lieser
01:20 Jan 04, 2024

Hey Ben! Your recent comment absolutely tickled me pink and I wanted to come on over and read the pieces you requested. I thought that you did an amazing job of handling a particularly difficult conversation and the way that you decided to pick your point of view was poignant and heartbreaking in the best way possible, I loved that final line and I thought that it did an amazing job of driving home the theme of the power of listening, and the effect that this new modern fear has on so many children, I loved the Boston accent! You conveyed it...


Ben LeBlanc
02:54 Jan 04, 2024

Thanks for the reply Amanda! I'll be sure to be on the lookout.


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