The week before school started Jane and Malena joined all the other students who’d been enrolled in the Polytechnic school in academic counseling. They were greeted by Virginia Casey who told Jane to call her Virginia and asked them to sit.
“Welcome to Polytechnic, Jane. We hope you’ll be very happy here. Now, take a look at this. Your mother and I made up a tentative schedule for your first year here. Today we’ll finalize it. Take your time and study it.”
Jane glanced at it and handed it back.
The counselor frowned. “Take a little longer and be sure it would suit you.”
This time Jane took a full minute before handing it back. She saw the woman still frowning and spoke to her.
“For me that IS a long time, Virginia. I can quote back the entire form and discuss it with you if you have doubts. But I’m sure. This will work for me.”
The counselor laughed. “I see your mother was correct. You ARE a quick study.”
“I do have a question. Human Development. That’s serious stuff, right? Drugs, sex, bullying, stuff like that.”
Jane had read Polytech’s entire website and knew the answer, but she guessed the woman would feel better if she felt she knew more than an upstart kid.
“Yes, it is. It includes less traumatic but just as important areas such as relationships and taking personal responsibility.
“Now here are all the sports you might participate in organized by season and sex. What would your preferences be?”
This time Jane made sure she took more than a few seconds and pretended to frown over the choices.
“I think…volleyball in the fall, soccer in the winter, and softball in the spring. Yes, I’m sure of it.” She nodded her head emphatically.
The woman would feel better if Jane opened up about her preferences. So Jane did.
“Solitary sports like tennis and fencing and track can be fun. But I like team sports, working together, having friends, and–to be practical, I heard a Ted Talk about it–learning to network.”
“Very wise. Now about art, we have a very large selection of choices. Here is a list. I’d like you to look at it and think about what you’d like to do this semester. You can mark it up if you like. It’s yours.”
Jane took several minutes over the list, marking it up as suggested. At one point she glanced at Malena. Her mother was amused though only someone close to her could tell. Her mom knew the game Jane was playing. She went back to her form with her lips curved ever so slightly in a smile.
Virginia, noticing the byplay, was more amused than anything else. “Dear God, the kid is playing me!”
She had been around exceptional kids all her professional career and recognized players. This one had a kind heart, so she didn’t call her on it the way she might some of the mean bitches and mean bastards she met.
The last Wednesday in August was the first day of the fall semester for the Polytechnic School. Jane was ready with supplies she’d need in a back pack when she came downstairs from her bedroom. Malena and Alex were waiting for her in the kitchen to make sure she got a good breakfast and a cheery sendoff along with a sack lunch if she was not happy with cafeteria food.
Having been to the school Jane was ready for the trip on her bike. It was a mile: two blocks west to the major thoroughfare Hill Street, a zig to the south, a zag more west, then a zig to the south again on a street which curved around to the west. There she locked her bike in one of several racks and bounced inside.
She was twenty minutes early though far from the only early bird. She went immediately to her first class: World History I.
There was one bird even earlier than she: a small boy with very red hair. He was seated in the front row two seats in from the window.
“Hi!” she said. “This seat taken?” She pointed to the farthest seat.
He shook his head. He seemed scared. She settled into the seat right next to the window. From here it was easy to see whoever came in the door, most notably any teacher.
“I see you’ve got one of the latest VR/AR headsets. Do they let you use it in class?”
He relaxed a bit. “This must be your first year here. Yes. They even issue you a headset if you don’t have one. I see you do.”
She like him had a light open-work cap with a curved clear plastic visor which could be flipped up or down. The curve was not a vision problem because the smarts inside the cap compensated for the distance, direction, and spacing of the wearer’s eyes from the viewing surface.
“Yes. My father and I just got it at Fry’s. That’s a gonzo tech warehouse that’s super fun for techies like him and me. My mother doesn’t like it. Girls, hunh?”
“You’re a girl.”
“I’m a tomboy girl. I like tech. I like pretty things, too, don’t get me wrong. But I like tech too.”
“I wish I was a tomboy boy. I’m terrible at sports. It’s a drag.”
“Well, I’m super good at sports. A lot of it is knowing how and practice. Why don’t we practice together some time? I’m taking volleyball.”
“I’m taking fencing.”
“See. You teach me fencing and I’ll teach you to be a super athlete like me.”
The room was filling up. A big boy and a girl who might be his sister came over to Jane and her new friend. He looked down at them.
“Get up. Those are our seats.”
Her friend moved to get up. Jane put a hand on his closest arm.
“I don’t think so. We got here first.”
“Get up! Or else!”
Jane uncoiled from her chair like a cobra uncoiling from its nest. Her eyes were perfectly expressionless.
She stood, perfectly relaxed. But no one watching could doubt she could move into action in an instant.
“Well, keep the seats, then. Freak.”
From across the room came a cat-call. “Jon-Joe got scared by a gur-uhl.”
Jane moved around the big boy and put an arm on his shoulder.
“Hey, Jon-Joe is OUR friend. Keep your stupid opinions to yourself.”
The surprised boy and a couple of his friends turned quickly away.
Jon-Joe said, very low, “Did you mean it? We’re friends?”
“Yes. It stands to reason. You’re a J-name, I’m a J-name. Jane. Jon. What’s your sister’s name?”
The girl beside him said, “Cousin. I’m Jennifer.”
“See. Three J-names. What’s yours?” she said to the red-haired boy.
He looked miserable. “I’m Billy.”
“Not from now on. You’re a J-name too. Here, move over one beside Jennifer. Jon, you sit by me. Now, we all have to come up with a J-name for Billy. What would be a good one?”
They were still debating names when the teacher arrived and they quickly made a date to sit together in the cafeteria at lunch and come up with a good J-name for Billy.
Jane’s next class was English III. She found it very interesting, with its discussion of the techniques of rhetoric, which were also poetic techniques. They helped one to express oneself compactly and clearly and memorably. They were also assigned to read the first three chapters of a book and identify rhetorical techniques in it.
The class before lunch was Human Development I. The teacher explained that it was about some of the most serious areas people could engage in, including sex and violence and drugs. But it was about even more important topics, such as being true to oneself and to one’s friends.
At lunch after much discussion Billy became George, which qualified as a J-name because of the sound. Jennifer said she liked it because it was Saint George who slew dragons. They all laughed at the idea of Billy/George as a dragon slayer.
At the end of lunch they made tentative dates to meet after Phys Ed, which for all of them meant participation in a sport. Billy asked Jane what other classes she had. She answered Mandarin Chinese and Art, but said she had to go across the street to CalTech for a Math class. That was not a surprise to any of her three friends. A goodly number of Poly students had Advanced Placement subjects, some of them off-campus.
Jane didn’t tell them she was teaching the class, a seminar which each week dealt with one of the “dark cobwebby edges” of mathematics.
Returning from math she went to art class. For this semester she’d chosen musical theory and sight reading of musical notation. This took up a half hour. The final half of the hour was practice on the piano or, in her case, practice on an electronic keyboard set to mimic a piano.
The last class of the day was sports, in Jane’s case volleyball. It quickly became obvious that she was outstanding in action and understood tactics so well that she was selected team captain.
After showers the four Js met on the athletic playing field between the two campuses: the north (lower six grades) and the south (highest six grades).
“How did football go for you, Jon?” she asked the big boy.
“Pretty good. They want me to be a defensive guard.”
“Not so good. I dropped my racquet on the first try at an overhand shot.”
“Well, practice will fix that.”
“You’re right. I just need to practice more. My mom is a tennis player and she’ll help me.”
“Terrible. I’ll never be a fencer.”
Jon said, “Sure you will. Like Jane says, a lot of being good is practice. We’ll all help you. That will build up your arm muscles and strengthen your wrist.
“And you, Jane?”
“Pretty good. It looks like volleyball will be fun.”
They spent fifteen minutes with George/Billy holding rapiers while he bashed at them and they bashed back, bad technique but good for building arm strength. Then they parted to go to their homes.
Jane said Hello to her mother–she’d weeks ago begun thinking of her as her mother and addressing her that way–on the way up to her room. She studied for a while and came back downstairs for a family meal.
Malena asked her how school went.
“Well. I made three new friends. Ah, are you still having your last block-party pool-party this weekend?”
Alex answered. “As always. It’s the last party of the summer.”
“Could I invite my new friends?”
“Of course. The more the merrier.”
Malena said dryly, “I think merrier tops out at around a million, Dear.”
She emailed an invite to Jon-Joe and Jennifer. George/Billy lived only a mile away to the east. She rode to his home on her bike. She got it up to 30 miles per hour, being extra vigilant not to run into anyone who stepped out from behind a car or a hedge.
George lived in a nice one-story ranch-style house on a street full of trees. She rang the doorbell. A pleasant faced red-haired woman answered the door. She had freckles just like Billy.
“Hi. Could I speak to George? I mean Billy?”
“Who are you, luv?”
“I’m a friend from school. Jane.”
“Oh, he mentioned you. He’s in his room. I’ll check to see he’s not sleeping.”
He wasn’t. He came out to lead Jane to his room.
It was near the back of the house, fairly big, with a big window showing a green back yard with a patio and a picnic table. The room contained a big bed, made up but sketchily, a desk with a computer on it, a closet, and a bathroom visible through an open door.
But Jane only saw that dimly. What got almost all her awareness was the entire wall opposite the door and beside the bed. It was a huge mural of black space filled with colorful nebulae. She froze, staring at it.
Billy let her stare for several long moments before speaking. “Awesome, isn’t it?”
Still half very far away she spoke softly to no one. “I was there. In the nebulae. For millennia. Many of them.”
She realized how silly that was and said, “Or it seems that way. I must have seen it in a movie and it was so good it seemed real. I sometimes dream of it.”
Billy said, “If you like that check this out.”
He pointed at the ceiling over the bed. It had a similar motif but with a planet like Saturn but not Saturn looming orange and banded.
“And check this out.” He went to his desk and punched a random key. The screen saver lit and showed a planet landscape like Mars but with twisted leafless trees like skinny Joshua trees with purple fur on its limbs.
“I’m going to be an astronaut someday. Well, not a pilot or crew because I’m so skinny and clumsy. But a mission specialist or research scientist.”
She swatted his nearest shoulder gently. “Quit that. You can get strong and agile. It just takes exercise and practice. Come on, we’ll start your exercise program right now.”
Billy was dubious but willing. A conversation with his mother garnered them two flat air mattresses which could be tied together side by side to make a square exercise floor on the lush lawn. She went back inside and came out with a glass of wine. Pulling over a white plastic lawn chair she sat and watched.
First they took off their shoes. Then Jane positioned him beside her far enough apart that their outstretched fingers not quite touched.
“Here’s the first exercise.”
Jane let herself fall over backward onto her back and back side. She quickly got up.
“Easy, right? Always start easy and work up.” She’d heard that from several sources and it made sense to her.
“When you hit push down on your arms. They will ease your fall. OK, now, together. FALL.”
They did that a dozen times. Then she said, “See? Those last few times you did it better. And look–” She gently punched his nearest bicep. “–you’re already stronger. Not much, but a little. You always get better little by little. Never big by big. Now let’s do something else.”
They worked through several simple exercises up to falling flat, arching one’s back and rocking forward to almost standing.
A little over a half hour later Billy’s father came out of the house with a beer and pulled over a lawn chair. He said very quietly as he sat in it, “What are they doing?”
“I don’t really know.”
Jane heard them and turned toward them. “We’re building Billy up so he can become an astronaut someday. You have to build up to stuff like that really slowly. Eventually you can do something like this.”
She did a backward fall onto a rounded back, tucked into a ball then uncoiled so quickly that she flipped up into the air to make one complete rotation ending with her landing to stand tall. She flung her arms out to the sides and said, “TA DA!”
She turned to Billy and said sternly. “It takes years to be able to do that. But you can. Just take it slow and don’t get discouraged. Some day you CAN be an astronaut.”
Then Jane had to be introduced. They asked if she could stay to dinner. A phone call blessed the occasion.
After they’d stowed away the mattresses for further use and washed up, they ate. The Farrells asked Jane a lot of questions.
Near the end of the meal Jane had a sudden thought.
“Billy, how old are you?”
He was fifteen. He’d skipped two grades over the years.
“Ah, hah! No wonder you think you’re weak. You’re two years younger than the rest of us. Naturally you’re smaller. You ARE weaker because you’re younger. You won’t always stay that way. Look at your parents. They’re average size and average strong, maybe even stronger than average.
“Remember what I said. Start small and work up by small steps. You’ll get there. And we Js will help.”
And they would, she determined, helping each other to get better, all four of them.
Then the Js had to be explained, including that Billy’s adopted name of George stood for St. George the Dragon Killer.
That night as Billy’s parents got into bed his father shook his head. “Who is that little girl? The next Admiral? The next President? The next rich lifestyle guru?”
“She’s the adopted daughter of the Kuznetsovs. You know, the famous physicist? We met them at one of their Saturday pool parties.”
He shook his head. “Wonder what her real parents were like?”
By the time of the Saturday pool party Jane’s Js had expanded to two more.
One was a tall skinny Latino named John (“not Hwan” he insisted). He was a tech-nerd. Which, Malena told Alex later Saturday night, was just one category in the phylum of nerds. They included art-nerds, drama-nerds, and others. Even sports-nerds.
He shook his head as he got into bed. “What a difference from when we were kids and there were just nerds and jocks. Who would have ever thought back then that nerds would become the popular kids and the jocks would be included with them.”
The other was a curvy Jewish girl indistinguishable from an East Indian beauty, with her big dark eyes, oval face, light brown skin, and sensual red lips. She even dressed herself Bollywood style with colorful gold-embroidered saris. Her name was Zosia, which she insisted was henceforth to be pronounced JO-see-ah, not ZO-see-ah.
“My God, Alex. Jane’s a cultural wrecking ball. What’s next, blacks insisting they are white like Jane?!”
He chuckled as he turned out his bedside light. “Well, JAHF-ur-ee is a J-name.”
“What? Did I miss yet another J-club member?”
“Yes. Just tonight Jane’s fan club claimed another member.”
The J-club continued to grow, past 30 from what the Kuznetsovs could tell, though some members of the club were more committed than others and passed in and out of the group. The two went from amusement through amazement and trended toward alarm. Alex was more concerned than Malena. She’d seen this phenomenon before though less extreme.
“When they start wearing uniforms and walking in lockstep then I’ll become alarmed.”
Jane knew what was happening; she was too smart and alert to the tides of social behavior not to. But she’d read about the downside of celebrity and consciously avoided standing out. This wisdom came from several sources, especially her Human Development class, which addressed the promises and perils of fame.
Still, she occasionally forgot herself. For instance, in a volleyball game she could get control of the ball, squat down, leap very high, and drive it across the net. It would fly so fast it was impossible to intercept. If by accident someone did it was moving too fast to aim back. It caromed off in random directions.
Much more usually, however, she set the ball up for one of her team mates to make the over-net shot. That was more fun for her, anyway: seeing her friends happy. And was one of the many examples of why the J-club grew. People loved her because she made them greater.
In English class Jane soon mastered all the forty-some rhetorical/poetic devices, not just their definitions but their use, to the extent that she used them intuitively. She gained a rep as a punster and a wit.
In the online English class she’d studied to pass the state’s High School English Equivalency Exam (Lower Class) the material had covered the historical literary works. English III had the class members read about and read examples of all forms of modern works, including the popular genres and contemporary and so-called literary fiction.
She enjoyed them all but especially science fiction. Her favorite kind of story took place in space or on alien planets. She came across the Superman plot line: alien child sent from disaster who finds a home on Earth. She wondered briefly if that was her own situation, but soon dropped the idea because it seemed so silly. Superpowers gotten because Superman was exposed to the yellow rays of the sun! Such nonsense.
Chinese class was a lot of fun. It was tough for non-Chinese, with its four tones which could give MAH four different meanings. But she loved the fact that it had only one instead of a jillion verb forms. Well, only one if you didn’t count the neutral NE suffix.
She organized trips to China Town near downtown LA, suitably chaperoned. But she preferred China Land, as she called the strip of east LA that ran for many miles to the east which maps labeled Monterey Park. You could find more variety and more authentic cuisines and celebrations there.
Thanksgiving and Christmas came with all their joyous celebrations. The Kuznetsovs introduced her to her three older “siblings” and they liked or at least tolerated her. She liked them back but did feel rare-to-her bad feelings. They were Malena’s and Alex’s REAL children.
For a time she felt less loved, but then shook off her feelings. The Human Development class helped; its textbook and teacher talked sensibly about relationships, self esteem, and depression.
With Polytechnic’s Winter Season (such as it was in sunny LA) came soccer. It was more fun for her than volleyball. Again she was chosen team captain. Again her team had a good deal of success partly because of her. She avoided her trademark upside-down kick shot but occasionally forgot herself and made goals that way.
But the most fun she had was in her Art subject. She’d chosen the music stream, which was actually several related streams. Hers included music theory and sight reading. This was so easy it was ridiculous. The theory was at base just another kind of math, scores just another kind of math notation.
It took her just a month to inhale what would normally take several years to master. She did so to such extent she sometimes had to refrain from correcting the teachers. Composition of advanced orchestral pieces was easy. They had forms. She simply fit notes and sequences and combinations of simultaneous notes together to create them.
That’s when she discovered that the theory and practice she’d learned was not enough. When she listened to her compositions they were boring. Too regular, too precise, too predictable. Why was this bad? In engineering it was good.
She found part of the answer in her English class. In discussing poetry the book said “Art always walks a tightrope between the boring and the bizarre.” Both too little and too much variety did not engage humans’ minds.
To make matters worse, every single viewer or listener had a different tightrope path they liked.
By February Jane began to have her computer add small random differences to the pitches and sequences and combinations of notes in her works. That produced works that were more fun to listen to. When she conducted an orchestra of humans those random differences came because her human players were unable to be perfectly precise no matter how talented and skilled and experienced they were.
At a Spring recital for parents and friends of Polytechnic her “Requiem for a Fawn” sinfonietta or “little symphony” was highly praised by visiting critics, including one distinguished Japanese critic who heard it via Polytechnic’s recording studio who’d put it on the net.
She was hailed as the New Mozart but on camera she laughed at the term. “There was only one Mozart. I’m someone else, and a beginner. If you want real Mozart equivalents there are plenty of places to look for them. Just not here.” She touched her chest.
Still it was fun to get dressed up in a slinky black gown and subtle makeup and perform with her friends in the orchestra before a live and televised audience.
Months later, after school let out, she signed up her school auditorium for an hour. There she listened to her “Requiem” with the volume at the level of a live performance. The sound would not be the same. The air was cooler and there were no human bodies to absorb different pitches. Still it would be closer to authentic than listening on her earphones at home. And she discovered the missing ingredient of her musical works. It was emotion.
She’d told a story. The fawn began new and enthusiastic and the music reflected those bright and bouncy emotions. There were ups and downs but only ones suggesting daytime and nighttime activities.
In the second movement something darker and scarier came into the little creature’s life. Maybe hunters, maybe forest fires, maybe rutting stags raping her. This mid-section had its ups and downs too, suggesting several close escapes and then captures.
The last movement had two parts.
The first long part suggested her toughening up and exerting herself. Maybe setting out for new grazing grounds and encountering and overcoming obstacles on the way.
The second short part suggested her finding her new pastures, perhaps standing on the brink of a hill looking down into a valley. A short passage expressed solid but quiet satisfaction. The very last passage was brighter and louder, suggesting a sudden onset of happiness, even ecstasy.
She felt an echo of that. And wept.
As she dried her eyes the solution came clear to her. Intuitively rather than intellectually she’d suggested, hinted at emotions. Then the audience had supplied the emotions. Or not. The composer could not add the emotion, only the listeners.
She clicked her chair’s built-in remote that controlled the auditorium sound system which had downloaded the recorded version of “Requiem” and played it. She stood up to leave. That’s when she saw just inside the double doors controlling traffic into and out of the room a figure.
It was the white-haired head of the Polytech music department. The woman began to clap slowly and silently, not ironically but in solemn acknowledgement.
Jane watched a moment. Then slowly she placed a hand over her heart and bowed slowly as if in front of a crowd. She held the bow a moment then stood upright and left the room by a side door.