Authors: Celeste Ng
Watching Mrs. Peters pick on Deja, in front of everyone, had been like watching someone drag a kitten into the street and club it with a brick, and something inside Izzy had snapped. Before she knew it, she had cracked Mrs. Peters's bow over her knee and flung the broken pieces at her. There had been a sudden squawk from Mrs. Peters as the jagged halves of the bowâstill joined by the horsehairâhad whipped across her face and a shrill squeal as the mug of steaming coffee in her hand tipped down her front. The practice room had erupted in a babble of laughter and shrieking and hooting, and Mrs. Peters, coffee dripping down the tendons of her neck, had grabbed Izzy by the elbow and dragged her from the room. In the principal's office, waiting for her mother to arrive, Izzy had wondered if Deja had been pleased or embarrassed, and she wished she'd had a chance to see Deja's face.
Although Izzy was sure, now, that Mia would understand all of this,
she did not know how to put everything she felt into words. She said only, “Mrs. Peters is a total bitch. She had no right to say that to Deja.”
“Well?” said Mia. “What are you going to do about it?”
It was not a question Izzy had been asked before. Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury. In the first week of school, after reading T. S. Eliot, she had tacked up signs on all the bulletin boards:
I HAVE MEASURED OUT MY LIFE WITH COFFEE SPOONS
DO I DARE TO EAT A PEACH?
DARE DISTURB THE UNIVERSE?
The poem made her think of her mother, doling out her creamer in a precise teaspoon, flipping out about pesticides if Izzy bit into an apple without washing it, rigidly drawing restrictions around her every moveâand made her think of her older siblings, too, of Lexie and Trip and everyone like them, which to Izzy felt like everyone. So concerned about wearing the right things, saying the right things, being friends with the right people. She had fantasies of students whispering in the hallsâ
Those signs? Who put them up? What did they mean?â
noticing them, thinking about them,
for God's sake. But in the rush before first period everyone funneled past them up and down the stairwells, too busy passing notes and cramming for quizzes to even glance up at the bulletin boards, and after second period she found that some dour security guard had torn the signs down, no doubt perplexed by these missives, leaving only flyers for Youth Ending Hunger, Model UN, and French Club. The second week of school, when Ms. Bellamy had asked them to memorize a poem and recite it in front of the class, Izzy had selected “This Be The Verse,” a poem she feltâbased on her fourteen and a half yearsâsummed up life quite accurately. She had gotten no further than “They fuck you up, your mum and dadâ” before Ms. Bellamy had peremptorily told her to sit down and given her a zero.
What was she going to do about it? The very idea that she
do something stunned her.
At that moment Lexie's car pulled into the driveway and Lexie came in, bookbag slung over one shoulder, smelling of cigarette smoke and ck one. “Thank God, there it is,” she said, plucking her wallet off the edge of the counter. Lexie, Mrs. Richardson liked to say, would leave her head at home if it weren't attached. “Having fun on your vacation day?” she said to Izzy, and Mia saw a light in Izzy switch off.
“Thanks for the sandwich,” she said, and slid down from her stool and went upstairs.
“Jesus,” Lexie said, rolling her eyes. “I will never understand that girl.” She looked at Mia, waiting for a sympathetic nod, but it didn't come. “Drive carefully” was all Mia said, and Lexie bounced out, wallet in hand, and in a moment her Explorer revved outside.
Izzy had the heart of a radical, but she had the experience of a fourteen-year-old living in the suburban Midwest. Which was to say: she cast about for ideas for exacting revengeâegged windows, flaming bags of dog shitâand chose the best thing in her limited repertoire.
Three afternoons later, Pearl and Moody were in the living room watching Ricki Lake when they saw Izzy stride calmly down the hallway, a six-pack of toilet paper under each arm. They exchanged a single, hasty glance and then, without discussion, chased after her.
“You are a freaking idiot,” Moody said, when they had intercepted Izzy in the foyer and safely barricaded her in the kitchen. Over the years he had saved Izzy from her own stupidityâas he thought of itâa number of times, but this, for him, was a new record. “TP-ing her house?”
“It's a bitch to clean up,” Izzy said. “It'll piss her off. And she deserves to be pissed off.”
“And she'll know it was you. The girl she just suspended.” Moody
kicked the toilet paper under the table. “If you don't get caught in the act. Which you probably would have.”
Izzy scowled. “You have a better idea?”
“You can't just target Mrs. Peters,” Mia said. All three children looked up in astonishment. They had forgotten, for a moment, that Mia was there, yet there she was, chopping a pepper for dinner and sounding like no parent they'd ever encountered. Pearl flushed and shot a glance at her mother. What was she thinking, butting in like this, let alone butting into
conversation, of all things? What Mia was thinking about, however, was her own teenage years, memories she'd packed away long ago for safekeeping but now unfolded and dusted clean.
“Someone I knew once glued the lock on the history teacher's door,” she said. “He'd been late and she'd given him detention and he missed playing in a big football game. The next day he squirted a whole tube of Krazy Glue into the lock. They had to break down the door.” A faraway smile crept over her mouth. “But he only did hers, so they knew it was him right away. He got grounded for a month.”
“Mom.” Pearl's entire face was aflame. “Thanks. We've got this.” Hastily, she nudged Izzy and Moody out of the kitchen and out of Mia's earshot. Now they would think her mother was a total nutcase, she thought, unable to even look at them. Had she glanced at their faces, though, she would have seen not derision but admiration. From the gleam in Mia's eye both Moody and Izzy could see she was far savvierâand far more interestingâthan they'd imagined. It was their first clue, they would realize later, that there was another side to her.
All evening Izzy turned over Mia's story, her question from before:
What are you going to do about it?
In those words she heard a permission to do what she'd always been told not to: to take matters into her own hands, to make trouble. By this point, Izzy's anger had ballooned to cover not
only Mrs. Peters but the principal who'd hired her, the vice principal who had handed out the suspension, every teacherâevery adultâwho'd ever cudgeled a student with arbitrary, unearned power. The next day, she cornered Moody and Pearl and outlined her plan.
“It's going to piss her off,” said Izzy. “It's going to piss everyone off.”
“You're going to get in trouble,” Moody protested, but Izzy shook her head.
“I'm doing this,” she said. “I'm only going to get in trouble if you
A toothpick, inserted into a standard keyhole and snapped off flush, is a marvelous thing. It causes no damage to the lock, yet it prevents the key from entering, so the door cannot be opened. It is not easily removed without a pair of needle-nosed tweezers, which are often not handy and take some time to procure. The more impatient the key wielder, the more firmly and insistently the key is jammed into the keyhole, the more tenaciously the toothpick will cling to the innards of the lock, and the longer it will take to extract it even with the right equipment. A reasonably adept teenager, working quickly, can insert a toothpick into a lock, snap it off, and walk away in approximately three seconds. Three teenagers, working in unison, can therefore immobilize an entire high school containing one hundred and twenty-six doors in less than ten minutes, quickly enough to avoid notice and settle into their usual spots in the hallway to watch what ensues.
By the time the first teachers noticed their doors were jammed, it was already 7:27. By 7:40, when most of the teachers arrived at their classrooms and found themselves stymied, Mr. Wrigley, the custodian, was upstairs in the science wing attempting to pry the first sliver of toothpick
out of the chemistry lab's lock with the tip of his penknife. By 7:45, when Mr. Wrigley returned to his office in search of his toolbox and the tweezers inside it, he found a large crowd of teachers clustered in his doorway, clamoring about the jammed locks. In the confusion someone dislodged the doorstop that had been holding Mr. Wrigley's door open and let it slam shut, and Mr. Wrigley finally discovered the toothpick that Izzy herself had carefully placed in his keyhole much earlier, when he had stepped out for a mug of coffee.
All this time students had been trickling in, first the early birds, who came at 7:15 to secure a parking spot on the oval that surrounded the school, then the students who got dropped off by parents or walked. By the time the late arrivals straggled in at 7:52 and the bell for first period was ringing, the hallways were crammed with gleeful students, bewildered secretaries, and furious teachers.
It would be another twenty minutes before Mr. Wrigley returned from his truck, having rummaged in the toolbox in the trunk and finally, to his immense relief, found a second pair of tweezers. It would be another ten minutes after that when he managed to extract the first toothpick from the first classroom door and the chemistry teacher could at last get to his desk. Morning announcements were postponed, replaced by stern instructions over the P.A. systemâthat all students were to line up outside their first-period classesâwhich no one heard. The atmosphere in every hallway was like that of a surprise party, with no host in evidence but everyone, somehow, as the surprised and delighted guest. From a locker someone produced a boom box, complete with batteries. Andre Williams, the kicker of the football team, extended the antenna, hoisted it onto his shoulder, and clicked the dial to WMMSâ“Buzzard Radio”âand an impromptu dance party to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones erupted before Mrs. Allerton, the U.S. history teacher, reached him and told him to shut
it off. Mr. Wrigley continued to work his way down the hallway, one door at a time, prying splinters of wood from the Yale locks and gathering them in his calloused palm.
Down in the arts wing, Mrs. Peters, nursing her extra-large thermos and a splitting headache, began to fidget. The orchestra room was far from the science wing, where Mr. Wrigley was slowly progressing. At this rate hers would be one of the last, if not the last, door to be unjammed. She had asked Mr. Wrigley several times if he couldn't go faster, if he couldn't take a moment and open her door first, and by the third time, he turned to her, brandishing a scrap of wood in his upturned tweezers. “I'm going as fast as I can, Mrs. Peters,” he'd said. “Going as fast as I can. Everybody's gotta wait their turn.” He turned back to the keyhole before him, where Mr. Desanti, the ninth-grade math teacher, had tried to force his key into the lock and splintered the toothpick deep into the cylinders. “Everybody gotta be first,” he muttered, loud enough to be sure Mrs. Peters would hear. “Everybody gotta be important. Well. The man with the tweezers says, everybody gotta wait their turn.” He thrust the tweezers into the lock again, and Mrs. Peters turned away.
That had been an hour and a half ago, and she suspected, accurately, that Mr. Wrigley was holding her room for last, to punish her. Fine, she thought. But couldn't he at least open up the faculty lounge? She had checked three times now, and the door was still locked. With every minute that passed, she became more aware of the full thermos of coffeeâalmost an entire potfulâshe'd emptied while waiting. The girls' bathrooms had swinging doors, unlockable. Surely she would not have to go in there with the students, she thought; surely he would open the faculty lounge soon and she could use the unisex restroom there, the one reserved for teachers. As each minute ticked by, her impatience with Mr. Wrigley grew
and spread to the principal, to the entire world. Couldn't anyone think ahead? Couldn't anyone prioritize? Couldn't anyone take basic human needs into account? She gave up her post by the orchestra room and took up a new waiting spot outside the faculty lounge, her handbag clutched across her abdomen like a shield. Five cups of coffee trickled their slow way through her innards. For a few moments she considered simply getting into her car and driving away. She could be home in twenty-five minutes. But the longer she stood, the longer twenty-five minutes seemed, and the more certain it seemed to her that sitting, in any context, would bring disaster.
“Dr. Schwab,” she said as the principal walked by. “Can't you ask Mr. Wrigley to open the faculty lounge, please?”
Dr. Schwab had had a difficult morning. It was 9:40 and half of the classrooms were still locked; although he'd asked teachers to bring their students into the classrooms and keep them there until all the doors had been opened, eight hundred students were still loose in the hallways. Some of them had spilled out onto the steps; groups of them had formed circles on the lawn, laughing and kicking hacky sacks and, in some cases, even smoking right there on school property. He rubbed his temple with one knuckle. Beneath his collar his neck began to chafe, and he wiggled a finger beneath his tie.