Declan Lake is not a master, but he has pursued his art with doggedness and idealism that would suit one. Through sculpture, he is determined to heal himself and the world, though not necessarily in that order. This is his certainty. He does not look back at what’s behind him, no matter how badly it’s burning. He only looks forward, out and over the horde of children. It is the first day.
“Everyone, thank you.” He fans his massive hands with palms facing down, like he’s feeding oxygen to a fire. “I’m your new professor of sculpture, Dr. Lake.”
Depending on the day of the week, the arts elective period shifts place in the student’s schedules. Today, Monday, it’s a springboard to lunch, at least that’s how the students treat it, feeling the pangs of their empty stomachs after another dreary, overcast morning.
The children do not quiet. Lake tries again. “Everyone, please.”
The previous teacher was unconditionally loved but supposedly ineffective. Her last name was almost vowel-free and so mercilessly winding that she simply went by Ms. H, spending the riches of her attention on the students that demonstrated earnest interest or indicated natural ability. Under her reign, those who did not care for the art of ceramics were often granted the period to work on homework from other classes, throwing together something haphazard and often wry for their final projects—at least this is what the administration appraised and continuously impressed upon Lake during his interview. A lot of primitivist flowerpots as Ms. H had put it. “High art,” she winked, “you need an initiate’s eye to appreciate the nuance.” Viewed as a barnacle by the administration, they were darkly thankful when she fell in love and moved across the country, more than happy to close the door behind her.
Through Lake’s eyes, he sees the children as they could be: an attentive audience waiting to be whipped up into connoisseurs, but the majority of them are barely eleven years old, punctuating their mad chatter with sonic javelins of cartoon catchphrases and recognizable brand names. Most outbursts of cross-row horseplay die down quickly. Certain students shush others, recognizing that the period has started, but do little to contain the larger squall.
“Students, class has begun, please face forward,” Lake says.
Adam isn’t really paying attention either. He’s sitting at the end of one of the middle rows, playing with his ears, using that little nib of skin on the outer part, called the tragus, to stop up his ear canals and quiet the world around him. Earlier this morning he learned about the tragus from a poster in the science building. He hears the world go underwater when he depresses them, only to rise again into the air as he releases. Sometimes he does it slow, like opening and closing the front door on a really windy day, and other times he does it fast, like a wah-wah pedal during a guitar solo.
The veil in Lake’s head begins to crumble, then disintegrates all at once—there is suddenly frustration, anger. “Children, silence! Silence now!” Lake bellows and slams his fists into the vast, dark teacher’s desk, startling the whole class, except Adam.
When it happens, Adam is underwater with his fingers in his ears, staring out the window. He experiences the strange sensation of feeling everyone around him jump in their seats, everyone but him. Lake’s outburst is an afterthought to the sudden physical shift that seems to ripple through the room. Adam drops his hands and swivels his head, searching for an explanation, a burst of anxiety that begins to dissipate once he realizes the class is being addressed.
“I am Doctor Lake.” A vein stands out on his forehead. “And this trimester, I will be instructing you in the art of sculpture.”
The children are stunned, a little scared. They don’t know what to make of this man. He stands six foot five, has sharp Scandinavian features and fine blonde hair. He wears stiff, dark denim overalls. His shirt is crisp as well, a heavy chambray. His hair is very long, and every morning he twists it into a strangely geometric braid of his own design.
“What I bring to you, my pupils, is a totalizing understanding of the sculptural medium, of shape, of space, of weight,” he gestures to nothing, to the air above the students, whispering, “of body.” He pauses before continuing. “My promise to you? What I say and demonstrate in this room will vastly accelerate your development as human beings, and, if you are lucky, as artists. Though many of you will not pursue sculpture with any seriousness after this class, the lessons you learn in this room will impact you for the rest of your lives.”
Lake lifts a small, two-tone taupe and off-white teapot from a cluster of similarly sad, browbeaten objects—a graveyard of abandoned vessels from trimesters previous, left behind on an adjacent, dusty table. He raises it above his head so everyone can see.
“This? This is a perfect example of what we will not be doing. Some people think that sculpture is simply the act of making containers for other things. Containers! As if the thing does not contain itself!”
In the row before Adam, two sisters, Sasha and Sophie, share an uneasy glance.
“They say put water in there, maybe a plant, the change from my pockets when I come home from work, or,” Lake shudders, “wine corks, but I’m here to tell you that those people are fools! They are dead to the world, barely present in their own lives! They do not have your best interests at heart and will only hold you back from your true potential!”
The teapot has a tight, gnarled handle, barely allowing space for Lake’s index finger. His hands are covered in faded scars, but the children do not notice.
“Under my tutelage, the things you make in this room will not be dead, inert, or ugly.” He lets the teapot hang limply. “Unlike what my predecessor directed others toward, the things you make in this room will not be worthy of scorn and, ultimately, destruction.”
He shifts his wrist and the teapot falls to the floor, making a sharp, bright sound, shattering into little pieces, sending Adam’s hands back up to his ears, skittering under desks and sneakers as far as three rows back. The pieces are pointed like talons, like teeth punched from the mouth of a savage beast.
“What we create here will be suffused with life. It will spellbind its viewers. Every day that we meet, you will leave my classroom more awakened to the world, more capable of representing the thoughts and feelings that push against the very seams of your being, even in its unformed, adolescent state.”
Pieces of the teapot crack under his boots. He writes his name in big, ugly letters on the board: D R. L A K E
Two weeks later, Adam is headed home on the bus, his first finished sculpture resting in his lap. It is a fat, disproportionate, sickly-gray octopus with stubby, irregular tentacles and uneven eyes. It’s just a little too big to carry with one hand. It is not so suffused with life.
Lake is prone to flights of fancy and paranoid ideation. Adam and most of his classmates struggle to understand the things Lake says and are bewildered by his sudden outbursts of anger and grief. Still, the students mostly agree that he is cooler than their other teachers, though not very good at teaching, and also kind of mean.
Almost all of the students’ projects, or works, as Lake calls them, come out inert and ugly, like Lake said they wouldn’t. Adam just wanted to make a cool octopus, but other than an extended monologue about what to visualize in your mind’s eye when you initially knead your clay to infuse it with the most kinetic potential, Lake rarely offered Adam any instruction or advice. In fact, he openly laughed at Adam when his finished octopus had only seven tentacles, unhelpfully noting it for the first time as he carried the sculpture, still warm, from the kiln room.
“Octo!” Lake said loudly as he gingerly placed the sculpture before Adam. “It’s Latin! Octo, like eight! Not seven! Octo!” Lake then laughed like a robot for some reason, an affectation that Adam felt was meant to mock him. “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” It was awful. Blood in the water, the class jumped on him and more than a handful of kids greeted him as Octo afterward, some on the bus, some not even from Adam’s class.
Kyle, his so-called-friend, says his octopus looks like it ate too many Doritos, that it doesn’t even really look like an octopus, and that pottery is for dorks.
“First of all, it’s not pottery, it’s ceramics, and I’m not taking ceramics, I’m taking sculpture, you fucking idiot,” Adam lectures. “Pottery is what your dad buys your mom after he fucks your babysitter; besides, you shouldn’t be talking about Doritos, being a fat retard yourself.” Adam is surprised by his own intensity, amazed he’s able to get the whole thought out without tripping over himself.
“Fuck you, Adam! At least I have a dad.”
Adam scoffs, another fangless riposte from Kyle.
“At least I’m not a fat bitch,” Adam says.
“Suck my dick!”
Two rows behind them, a boy from a higher grade begins dangling a wad of spit from his mouth over the head of a French-braided girl who is sitting peacefully, staring out at the passing houses. The boy loses control and the mass of saliva plops down onto the crown of the girl’s head. Feeling her hair, the girl’s face slackens from a pleasant absence and reassembles itself into something less agreeable. The mucous sticks to her fingers. She rises and spins, punching the boy in the mouth. The screaming starts. Chaos takes hold. The bus driver makes rapid, unreasonable threats, but they seem to have less than no effect, emboldening the children closest to him. Adam’s stop arrives, and though he holds his unwieldy octopus high above his head, a vulnerable, errant limb breaks off and is swallowed by the fray as he exits the bus. Six tentacles remain.
He trudges home in the aftermath of another dreary, overcast day. Deflated, he counts his steps silently, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Octo. He climbs the porch and enters the first-floor apartment he shares with two cats, his mother, and Walton.
Walton, Adam’s brother, is developmentally delayed. He is diagnosed with a generalized lack of impulse control and a fairly severe expressive language disorder. He is two years younger than Adam but is closer to six years behind cognitively. Walton has been to many doctors who have only been able to offer a vague idea of what’s wrong—subtle deletions in his second chromosome, the effects of which they struggle to understand—so he goes to a special school that is partially staffed with students studying special education, part of the same big university where Adam’s mom takes night classes, accruing credits for a master’s degree. Mostly though, Adam’s mom just works.
Today, Walton has the good idea to crouch behind a clawed-upon overstuffed chair and wait for Adam’s arrival, hoping to catch him off-guard and strike him in the groin as hard as he can with a type of modified karate-chop, having learned the move from a recently viewed comedy about a close-knit family of crime-stopping vigilante ninjas—a big hit among the three of them.
Adam is caught off-guard and Walton times his strike quite well.
The unwieldy octopus flies out of Adam’s hands and lands on the long coffee table, blasting apart like a miniature bowling ball, exploding into cascading shrapnel, traveling what distance it can while scratching the surface deeply.
“Wally!” Adam crumples. A shadow passes over Walton, uncertain as to why this wasn’t as funny as it was in the movie. Adam rises, and in one motion, shoulder-checks Walton and slings his backpack off, using it to beat at Walton’s prone form, not unlike a pillow fight. Walton attempts to seize the backpack repeatedly when he isn’t shielding himself, at once kicking and shouting and smiling so wide that his cheeks hurt, full of crazy, unmanageable feelings. Adam is filled with a simple, thoughtless anger, undergirded with strange relief about the fate of the octopus, as well as a growing discomfort in his groin. From thin air their mother appears and yanks Adam away by the arm. Walton is rolling on his back and laughing, having decided the whole thing went quite well and was very fun, though his feelings can be unpredictable, a second longer and he could’ve become aggrieved and scared.
“Fuck you, Wally!” Adam yells.
Adam and Walton’s mother will take out the trash tomorrow, and the sharp, cracked edges of the broken sculpture will cause the garbage bag to rip, sending detritus and a terrible cocktail of trash juice everywhere, pooling at the edges of the grass, settling into the cracked asphalt that leads to the dumpster. “Goddamn it,” Adam and Walton’s mom will say. “Goddamn it.”
It is Friday. The arts elective period falls at the end of the day. The children are restless, unable to keep to task. Lake is in a particularly dark place, several times slumping back into his swivel chair, tenting his fingers and staring into nothing. He ignores raised hands. He blinks very rapidly, as if to suppress tears.
Near the end of class, an immense quantity of scarlet paint is spilled at the table next to Adam’s, arousing Lake’s interest. He crouches at the site of the accident, suddenly full of energy, bouncing on the balls of his feet. Mere inches from Adam, the severe, intricate braid swings back and forth like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. Adam doesn’t realize what he’s doing, much less why, as he takes hold of the braid. Something inexplicable and powerful in Adam’s mind wanted the movement to stop. Lake tenses and rises so quickly that his hair is yanked out of Adam’s hand.
Lake lets out a hard, airy sound like a bull clearing its nose before a charge. “Excuse me,” he says, turning to Adam. “What is wrong with you?”
The room is silent. Adam doesn’t know what to do. His head feels like it’s going to explode. “Um, have you ever thought about cutting your hair?”
Some kids giggle. Lake shoots them a putrefying glare.
Lake crouches down, moving at an unsettling fractional speed, knees cracking, until he is finally at eye level with Adam. Lake’s face changes when Adam looks into it. It opens up. There isn’t a face there anymore, but a ditch, an empty space that you could fall into if you were careless.
“No, I have not,” Lake says, placidly. “But if I ever did, it certainly wouldn’t be because I took the advice of a dull little kid like you, Octo.” The room explodes into laughter. “Fucking freak,” Lake says under his breath, so no one except Adam can hear, who hangs his head.
Lake goes into his robot voice again. “Octo, you are in trouble, you are taking a time out.” He points to the kiln room, and in his normal voice: “In there. Go.”
Adam’s eyes widen in comprehension.
The kiln room has always been a subject of concern, an item of curiosity for the children. Its door is set more than a foot into the wall, perhaps to appease some clause in the fire code, giving it a cave-like impression upon first glance. They have commented on it amongst themselves more than once, only getting glimpses of its interior when Lake begrudgingly dons the big gray oven mitts and carries out warm trays of their works.
Adam stands up very slowly, mind still blank with panic.
“GO!” Lake’s voice booms and Adam jumps, begins his walk, attempting to prolong the time he has, but of course it doesn’t work, of course it still happens too quickly.
Adam arrives at the door, hesitating, and Lake’s head, planetary and huge, appears over his shoulder. His strong, broad arm wraps around Adam’s other side, wracking the handle down, pushing the door open. Some students lean over, trying to get a better view, but the lights are off and they can’t make out much of anything.
Adam takes one step forward before he feels Lake’s humungous hands on his back. Not fast enough. He is shoved across the little room, bumping into the other wall as the door closes behind him and darkness covers everything.
Adam is very still. Sound resumes outside. He orients himself by finding the thin line of light that peeks out from under the door’s threshold. A part of him feels that he shouldn’t move at all, that stillness is a big part of time out, at least as he understands it, but another part of him—the part sensitive to the panic rising and warming in his chest—forces his hands out and begins feeling along the wall for a light switch. He finds nothing, only smoothness. He begins moving faster now, hands crossing wider measures until he becomes careless with his footing and trips over some hose-like thing dividing the room. Adam lets out a yelp as he tips over, imagining a snake, grown huge from eating students, left behind from when the ceramics room was still the science room, having made a life for itself in the walls. He tries to shield himself from whatever is upon him, gasping and rolling around on the hard floor until nothing happens for just long enough that he stops struggling and lies there panting. He listens—there’s no sound now, no rattle from the tail of whatever he’s trapped in the room with, no Lake intoning outside the door, not even idle chatter in the classroom. Realizing that he is almost certainly alone, he stands up and finds the light switch easily.
Illuminated, the kiln room isn’t much to look at, just unpainted dry wall over concrete, a few tall metal racks holding empty trays. The kiln itself is by far the most fascinating thing, though significantly smaller than Adam had imagined. It feels alien, like it has a presence, like it’s watching him through the eye of a portal to another place. It looks like a computer from the future, like something from a sci-fi movie he will find his mom watching late at night, when he can’t sleep. Adam doesn’t quite understand what fascinates his mother about these movies—the deeper moral inquiries that the stories pose, the intricate design languages and their attendant details, the imagination all of it takes—but he loves them just the same: the aliens, the strange shapes and colors, especially the music. One of his favorite things is when she lets him stay up to watch, which doesn’t happen enough.
The kiln is sturdy and dignified. He walks around it in a circle. He doesn’t dare touch its controls, but the sides are smooth and cool. Satisfied, he goes to the door, which springs open to reveal an empty classroom. At the last second, he makes it onto his bus, having to sit close to the front. No one says anything, no one even calls him Octo. He might wonder if it happened at all, if not for the dust collected on his sleeves and pants.
Shortly after this, Lake disappears. The administration takes the path of least resistance and decides to use the period as a study hall until they can hire a replacement. After all, it’s the arts elective period, so they are minimally worried about continuity, or really the class adding up to much of anything at all.
A young, fresh-faced substitute makes a heroic effort to keep them orderly and productive, to keep the study hall studying. Some days it goes well, other days he hides in the kiln room for the final ten minutes.
At home, Adam and Walton sit on the floor, watching an animated movie about a rat detective and his spitfire mouse girlfriend who are tasked with toppling a greedy racoon’s endangered animal trafficking organization. The implications of the operation are bleak—a newly-rescued bird cloaked in shadow delivers a powerful monologue about how close death is at all times, how it comes for us all eventually, before stepping into the light to reveal astonishing plumage at the speech’s climax. Mostly, Adam and Walton just love the songs. They know all of them by heart. Walton has no problem remembering the words and melodies, even if he’s a little late on some of the cues and his pronunciation is a little off. The movie is from long before either of them were born, a favorite of their mother’s. Adam makes faces, imitating characters when they appear onscreen. Walton never tires of this, laughing and laughing.
Then, their mother appears, pausing the movie as they protest.
“I just got a very interesting call from the school, Adam.”
“Cool.” Adam says, dishonestly.
“Did you take classes with this guy, Declan Lake? You were taking pottery as your arts elective, right?”
Adam is silent at first, unsure of what to say. “Well, actually, I was taking sculpture as my arts elective, pottery is just a small part of sculpture, which is really a way for us to form our own, uh, matrix of feeling to see more clearly the, um, clarity that, like—”
“Uh huh. They’re saying he faked his credentials, lied about his PhD, was potentially abusive to students and staff?”
Walton turns to Adam now, unsure of the temperature.
“Huh.” Adam ventures.
“As far they know, he didn’t do anything serious, but the police want to talk to him and now no one can get in touch with him. He just stopped showing up? Did you notice anything strange?”
Adam tries to hide his glee. Now Lake is the one in trouble.
“Talk to me. He didn’t touch you or anything, right?” Adam’s mother, whose name is Mary, looks into her son’s face, searching and serious. Adam tries to look like someone who makes hard things easier, like someone his mom would be proud of.
“No. He was a jerk though, I’m glad he’s gone.”
“Ok, honey.” She kisses his forehead. “I tell you though, for the amount of money I’m giving that school…”
Adam likes study hall so much more than sculpture. He can get most of his homework done during school, which means more time outside, imagining distant places, running around in the overgrown areas that connect the backyards of his neighborhood.
That night, in the room they share, Walton snores loudly, sleeps deeply. Adam can’t stop thinking about Lake, how he made Adam feel, how he wasn’t even real after all. Adam doesn’t precisely understand what faked his credentials means, but he knows well enough. And the police! Ha! Eventually, Adam falls asleep to the soft pulse of a house party somewhere nearby.
But the next day, there is no study hall. Sculpture has begun anew.
When the children arrive, they are greeted by Mr. Bertram, a smiling, pot-bellied man with thinning hair, thick glasses, and well-worn light-washed jeans dotted with paint. He is short, only a few inches taller than some of the girls who endured painful growth spurts over the summer, but there is a solid, centered quality about him that only some adults possess.
Mr. Bertram has moved the tables, clearing a big space in the middle of the room. He tells everyone to leave their things up front, directing them to stand in a circle as he produces a ball of yarn, thick and soft, a deep and satisfying carmine color. “Now, I know it’s a little strange starting in the middle of the semester like this…”
“Um, we actually do trimesters here,” Madison says.
“Right, I keep forgetting! And that means we have even less time than normal, so I want to dive right in, but in order to do that, I need to connect names to faces.” Some kids groan. “I know, I know. It’s boring, but if we get it out of the way now it’ll make everything else a lot easier. So, let’s play a quick game to help me remember.” Mr. Bertram turns to the girl standing next to him. “Ok, what’s your name?”
“Sophie,” Sophie says.
“Nice to meet you, Sophie.” Mr. Bertram hands the ball of yarn to Sophie. She squeezes it a couple times, testing its density, a beating heart. “Now, Sophie, the trick is to grab on to that loose end that’s sticking out right there and hold it tight.” Sophie pulls a short length of string away from the ball, making a pretend-angry face and shaking her fist, the string trapped inside. Some kids giggle.
“I want you to pick someone,” Mr. Bertram continues. “They can be across the room, they can be right next to you, or somewhere in between. You throw the ball, they catch it, but the trick is to hold on to that loose end, so there’s a line between you and the person who catches it. And please be gentle. That’s the important part.”
“Ok, here I go.” Sophie tosses the ball across the circle into Ahmed’s hands. The string peels off, lending a strange shaking quality to the ball as it sails through the air.
“Alright! Good catch!” Mr. Bertram says. “And what’s your name?”
“Ahmed.” Ahmed smiles.
“Nice to meet you, Ahmed,” Mr. Bertram says. “Sophie, Ahmed. Now, Ahmed, you hold on to your portion of the loose string, and you throw the ball to the person of your choosing, and they’ll say their name.”
The ball finds its way into Christopher’s hands.
“We got a couple major leaguers here, very good! So, we start again at Sophie, retracing the path, everyone saying their names, until we get to the last person, the person with the ball, in this case, Christopher. Christopher throws it to the next person, a person of his choosing, who says their name, and then we start again.”
“Cool!” says Christopher.
“I agree!” Mr. Bertram replies. “The ball of yarn gets smaller and smaller, the path of the string gets longer and more complicated, but at the same time, you guys get better and better at following the pattern, and eventually, I’ll know everyone’s names. Hopefully. If it sounds kind of confusing, don’t worry, it’s pretty simple once it gets going.”
“What if it runs out before we’re done?” Christopher worriedly eyes the yarn in his hands.
“It’ll be ok, I’ve done this before,” Mr. Bertram says. “Make sure you’re holding your string tightly before you toss it! Ok, let’s try it out.”
They begin in earnest.
They each shout and raise the sections of string when their turn comes back around. Certain students, ball in hand, hesitate at picking a classmate to throw to, briefly halting the momentum, eliciting jeers and laughter. More and more names are added.
Eventually, as Mr. Bertram expected, it turns into something like song, winding down the path as it’s being made, retracing each step from the start. They get faster and faster: Sophie, Ahmed, Christopher, Zack, June, Mariah, Adam, Sasha, Brendan, Madison, Emma, more and more, until all of them are holding the yarn, woven into something that might not make much sense out of context, that might more resemble the web of a drunken spider to the uninitiated, but to the students, it’s beautiful. Having built it, it’s obvious to them, so satisfying and intricate, so full of good sense.
“Ok, great job everyone, now lift up the yarn, hold it as high as you can! Excuse me.” Mr. Bertram ducks down and ambles into the center, standing in one of the empty spaces within the pattern. “Ok, let it back down to where it’s comfortable, but don’t tie me up. I’m trusting you!”
A few students laugh, pulling on their sections of the string. They are surprised by his behavior, most teachers at this school would never put themselves in a position like this.
“Ok, let me try.” He starts naming names, pausing sometimes, feigning uncertainty, the students growing rowdier, until he relents and gets another name right, eventually finishing without error to much fanfare. Brendan shows off his ability to clap with one hand while holding the string and everyone has to try, the room suddenly falling silent before Mr. Bertram breaks it with a sharp laugh.
“You guys are killing me, but let’s focus back in here. We played a fun game, we pulled the yarn apart, this way and that, we learned everyone’s names, or I learned everyone’s names—hopefully you all already knew each other’s names before I got here, but if you didn’t, I’m sure you do now.”
He tilts his head and nods. “But let’s look at the path of the yarn, let’s take a look at this thing we’re holding. Obviously, it’s not a ball of yarn anymore, but it’s not exactly a long string either.” He slowly turns as he speaks, trying to catch every eye. “It’s something that we made together. It’s a sculpture, if you can believe that.” The children look at the yarn in their hands, uncertain. “I’m telling you; art can be something just like that, simple as it is. That’s why sculpture is so important to me. You can take stuff that doesn’t look like much of anything at all, stuff you wouldn’t take a second look at if it was out by the trash, and then, through what you decide you want to say, what you do with those materials, you can take an idea or a feeling—something that’s only inside of you—and turn that into something physical, something that you can hold.”
He gestures to the string surrounding him. “Something like this, it plots a path to our friends; it reminds us that life is made up of lots of different connections that crisscross and overlap. We can make things that honor the people we care about, that remind us of them, or them of us.” He smiles. “It’s strange, I know, but after enough time, it’ll make sense. I hope.”
At that, Mr. Bertram has the students drop the yarn to the floor. Adam looks at it in his hands. There’s something hanging from the edges of all this, he can tell.
“Space cadet!” Mariah yells. “Drop your yarn!” Adam snaps out of it. Now the shape is more disorganized, wavier without the tension of the student’s grip, but they are fascinated still, staring at it on the floor.
“Okay, one last thing, just for fun,” Mr. Bertram says, still standing in the middle of the mess. He spins around and considers its shape. He begins rearranging it, pulling a string here and there, bunching some together. He steps carefully so as not to disturb any he doesn’t mean to. He focuses very hard at times, watching a distant section change shape as he carefully moves a connected part. The students are interested, speculating quietly amongst themselves.
He stands up and tiptoes out of the mess. “Okay, everyone back to the front, what did I do?”
Those who see it first start shouting, an excited visage reveals itself as more crowd the front and consider the string from that angle. A face, maybe smiling or laughing or yelling—they are not sure—but the students can see it plainly. Mr. Bertram has shaped and curved their drunken spiderweb into someone, woven over the floor with their thick red yarn. It is oriented so it appears to be rising toward them, peering up and out.
Since they are beginning so late in the trimester, they take a poll about how they want to use the class. Mr. Bertram gives them two options.
One: they can make a gift for someone in their family.
Walton immediately comes to mind, but Adam thinks better of how Walton would treat whatever he gave him, doubtful that he could make something that Walton would find useful. He thinks of his mother now, and many projects and possibilities come to mind. It is becoming less dim to Adam: how much his mother does, how strong she is, how nice it would be to make something for her.
Or, two: do one big project together as a class. The room tilts this way almost immediately.
Mr. Bertram manages a quick and effective brainstorming session. They decide to make a model village of their own town but fantastical, with a mystical cave, a castle that doubles as city hall, a forest with trees as high as office buildings, a café for ducks, and a dragon!
So, from now until the end of the trimester, they work in teams, at different stations. Mr. Bertram flits about, offering advice and help. Two of the bigger tables are set together—they start to fill with the different pieces they construct: a flowering of shiny glazed clay in soft angles and sharp points, pipe cleaners and beads, layers of thick paint and brightly colored paper folded endlessly.
One of the stations is just for little things. Students take turns there, making tiny structures that dot the landscape: houses and shacks, little figures walking and waving, ducks. This is Adam’s favorite part. He spends most of his time here, making lampposts with twisted sections of glittered pipe cleaner for light, squat newspaper boxes painted with strange shapes and gibberish, a bus stop where two black bears sit waiting with little briefcases. Eventually they make enough that the whole town starts to look vaguely biological, like it’s growing out of the table, too busy and irregular to have been made intentionally.
The students ask Mr. Bertram what it means—what they’re building—but he just says, “I don’t know. That’s up for you to decide and honor.”
“Hey, aren’t you supposed to be the teacher?” Sasha chides him.
But they sort of get what he’s saying. Sometimes he says things they don’t understand like Lake did, but Mr. Bertram is always happy to explain it in a different way. He is grateful to be there, so the students are too.
On Family Night, the sprawling, finished sculpture is laid out in the lunchroom where everyone goes to eat cookies and drink sparkling cider after parent-teacher meetings.
Going out with Walton can be tense and difficult—in addition to navigating whatever tasks are at hand, both Adam and his mom need to keep watch over him, quelling his impulses as they flare up, discouraging him from engaging with reluctant, unkind strangers or walking off with things that don’t belong to him.
As soon as Walton enters the room, he beelines away from them, toward the sculpture, forming a pit at the bottom of Adam’s stomach. Thankfully, Walton stops just short of the display’s lip, mouth agape. They catch up to him.
“See that, Wally? Adam and his class made this, isn’t it cool?” Their mother rests her hand on Walton’s shoulder.
Adam hadn’t really appraised it since it was moved. It took many trips, on many rolling carts, everything wrapped in newspapers and blankets, cradled gently. Standing before it now, he is surprised. The streets are busy. The duck café is bustling. The town feels populated, alive. The two bears sit, waiting in the shadow of a skyscraper. The dragon is ferocious.
Early on, Adam decided exactly where his family would live in the sculpture if they were sculpture-sized. There’s a building that abuts the park with a nice balcony that Mariah helped him make. It took a long time to get it to stay put and not tumble down to the streets below, but Mr. Bertram told them to be patient as they massaged the piece back to form each time. The view is wonderful, Adam thinks. It would be perfect.
Though he has thought of him less and less as time has gone on, Adam is surprised by a sudden surge of desire to know where Lake lived when he was teaching here, and where he lives now. It seems important, like it could make everything easier to understand, like the world would click into a finer alignment if he knew. He tries to picture it, wondering if he does a good enough job imagining that the need to know will dissipate into nothing. He wonders if Lake ever had a balcony, if there were lots of windows where he lived, or if the room Lake stayed in was dark and full of snakes, with something burning and bright at its center.
Walton stares at Adam. “Made this?” he says, eyes wide.
Adam understands him intuitively. “Well, I helped, but it was a lot of people that did it with me.”
“Lot of work.” Walton says. He hugs Adam.