We the Children

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We the Children Page 5

by Andrew Clements

  This little war wasn’t just about right and wrong, not by a long shot.

  Now it was personal.



  Ben had library during second-period reading. He was supposed to be working on an author study about Jack London, and his partner was Robert Gerritt. Which meant it wasn’t any fun. But that guy was determined to create the best author study in the history of the universe—so at least Ben was sure he’d get an A on the project, whether he did any work or not.

  By the time Ben got to the library, Robert was already busy comparing three different encyclopedia articles. When Ben sat down, he looked up and gave him a big grin.

  “Hey there, Pratt—had any good nightmares today? Why don’t you put your head down and take a little nap?”

  Ben ignored him. Ever since first grade Robert had acted like he was in this giant competition with everyone else, especially Ben. For the past week he had been completely obnoxious, and Ben knew why—they both belonged to the Bluewater Sailing Club, and they both sailed in the intermediate league. With the first race coming up, Robert was trying to psych him out.

  “So,” Robert went on, “you heard the weather report for tomorrow? Supposed to be blowing fifteen to twenty knots at race time, west to east—perfect conditions for me to do some serious butt kicking. How many times you been out this season?”

  “Just once,” Ben said. “It was freezing.”

  “Aw, did your mommy forget to send along hot chocolate for her little Benny? I’ve been out four times, Pratt. Real sailors don’t care about the cold—and I am pumped for this race!”

  He thumped a fist on the table so hard that the librarian looked over at him with a frown. Robert was built like a football player, a good three inches taller and wider than Ben. But weight wasn’t always an advantage out on the water.

  Ben said nothing and opened his notebook.

  A minute later Robert was busy taking notes again, and Ben slipped away from the table—to do some independent research.

  He waited until Mrs. Sinclair wasn’t surrounded by kids, then went over to her desk.

  “Do we have any books here about the history of the school?”

  “Yes, in fact, we do—just one.” The librarian got up and led Ben to a small collection of books in the reference area. He reached for a big leather-bound book, but she stopped him and pulled it off the shelf herself.

  “This book is quite old, so you’ll have to be very careful. And you must sit right here with it. All right?”

  “I’ll be careful,” he said. “I promise.”

  So she left him alone, and for the next half hour Ben was in another world.

  The title of the book was A Man of the Sea, A School for the Ages, and inside the front cover was a pen-and-ink illustration of the way the building and the grounds had looked back when Captain Oakes had his ships tied up out front. The building had been a warehouse then, so the picture showed teams of tough-looking men rolling barrels and carting bales of goods out the wide front doors and up wooden gangplanks onto the ships.

  Chapter 1 was mostly Oakes family history. It also explained how Captain Oakes had made a lot of money shipping goods between America and England. When the War of Independence began, he gave command of his ships to the new American navy. There was that great painting of Captain Oakes in full uniform on the deck of a ship, the one that was hanging in the third-floor hallway of the school. Another painting showed a British warship firing at the town of Edgeport. The front of the Oakes Building had been hit by three cannonballs, but the walls were so thick that the place had barely been damaged.

  After the war, and after he had been thanked by Congress and President George Washington himself, Captain Oakes got the idea of turning his huge warehouse into a school, a permanent contribution to the life of the town and the nation.

  Ben skipped around in the book a lot, mostly skimming. But the chapter he really got into was the one about the construction work. The whole inside of the warehouse building had been ripped out and then rebuilt to make classrooms, hallways, and offices. And in the center of the book, there was a page that unfolded twice into a huge sheet. It was covered with copies of the original drawings and plans for the school remodeling job.

  The person who had drawn up the plans and then supervised the school construction was a ship’s carpenter named John Vining. The name seemed familiar to Ben, but he didn’t stop to think about it—too much to look at. The man was a good artist, and Ben especially loved the small drawings around the edges of the plan. There were sketches showing how each fireplace should look, how the granite blocks for the front steps should be stacked, even drawings of the new doorknobs and hinges.

  One drawing showed how the staircase landings would look, and how the handrails would be shaped. And on paper, Ben noticed something he had never seen while hurrying up and down the actual staircases of the school each day—the balusters and handrails looked like they belonged on an old sailing ship, which made sense, of course. John Vining worked mostly on ships, not on buildings.

  Ben’s eye was drawn to the lower left corner of the large sheet. There was an especially clear drawing, and below it a carefully written note from the carpenter:

  Oak railing staircase looking down from the upper deck

  Ben almost jumped out of his chair, almost shouted, The words on the coin!

  Of course—the captain and his carpenter were sailors! They wouldn’t have talked about the first, second, or third floor—they would have said lower, middle, or upper deck—“If attacked, look nor’-nor’east from amidships on the upper deck”!

  The reference area was tucked away behind the librarian’s desk, so Ben got out his phone and lit up the camera. He zoomed in on the left corner of the large sheet, let the camera focus, and snapped an image. Then he sent the picture in a text to Jill.

  He carefully refolded the large page, closed the book, stood up, and slipped it back into its place on the shelf. Then he walked around the end of the tall bookcase—and his heart nearly stopped.

  It was Lyman. He was washing one of the large windows that surrounded the library workroom, a spray bottle in one hand and a rag in the other.

  Ben looked away quickly, his head spinning. Did Lyman have his class schedule? And that book—did he see Ben take that picture? Maybe he knew all about the coin, knew it was in his pocket right this minute!

  Ben made himself walk casually back to where Robert was slaving away. He made himself sit and open his notebook to his report, made himself put his pen on the paper and write some words, one after another. He even made himself breathe slowly.

  He looked calm, but inside he was churning. He couldn’t wait to get to math class next period. He’d be able to tell Jill about the book and explain that picture he’d sent.

  Unless Lyman followed him.

  And another reason he couldn’t wait to get to math class? It was up on the third floor—the upper deck!


  Rose on the Floor

  Ben didn’t believe in ghosts. At least, he didn’t think he did. But as he burst out of the library and headed for the south staircase, it felt like something was directing him, making him see things, making him think things. It was just his imagination . . . probably.

  He passed the framed parchment map of Edgeport on the wall outside the office just as he had a thousand times before—except this time he saw the town where Captain Oakes had grown up, lived a long life, and then died.

  As he waited with a bunch of other kids near the stairs, he imagined himself surrounded by boys in knee breeches and homespun shirts, and girls wearing long, plain dresses. He heard their feet on the floorboards—heavy hobnail boots and square-toed shoes with buckles. He imagined horses snorting at the hitching posts out back, and wooden ships creaking against the seawall out front.

  And as he went up the stairs, every landing looked like the afterdeck of a frigate. He noticed the curved oak posts rising up along the
side walls to support the floor joists, noticed how the floor planks were as thick as the deck of a ship, resting on chestnut beams that could have survived a direct hit from a cannonball—which they actually did.

  It was the sort of woodwork built to endure the ice storms and winds of the North Atlantic. And more than two hundred years later, after weathering the bumps and pulls and thumps of tens of thousands of kids, none of the railings wobbled, none of the floors creaked or sagged. This place had been built for rough weather, and it was still shipshape.

  When Ben got to the third floor, he spotted Jill near the math room. He did a quick scan for the janitor—all clear. So he walked over.

  “I got the picture you sent,” she said. “It’s too small. What is it?”

  Ben quickly explained what he’d discovered, expecting her to be impressed.

  With her head tilted to one side, she said, “Are you sure?”


  Ben pointed at the railing around the staircase. “That’s it right there—the woodwork from the drawing I sent. And the carpenter’s note said it was on the upper deck.”

  “Okay . . . so if this is the upper deck, then how do you find ‘amidships’?”

  Ben pulled out a sketch he had made during his last few minutes in the library.

  “Here’s the shoreline to the east, and this is the original school building, which is basically a rectangle. And anywhere along this east-west line through the center of the building would be ‘amidships.’ Plus anywhere along this north-south center line could also be called amidships. But true amidships would be right where those two lines cross. And if we find that spot, then we use a compass and strike a line north-northeast, and see what we find.”

  “I think there’s one over there. On the floor.”

  “What? What are you talking about?”

  “A compass,” Jill said. “Just outside the girls’ room. There’s a round thingie on the floor with an arrow and a capital N. So that’s a compass, right?”

  “Be right back.” Ben rushed straight for the girls’ room, but about six feet away he stopped. Four girls were standing there, and they quit talking and stared at him. He didn’t dare get closer.

  But he went to the wall opposite the doorway and looked north along the hall, then south toward the staircase where he’d left Jill. And he was pretty sure he was standing amidships.

  He hurried back to Jill, who had clearly enjoyed his embarrassment at the girls’ room door. He ignored her grin.

  “So, when you say this compass is ‘on the floor,’ what do you mean?”

  Jill got serious again. “It’s not really on the floor, it’s more like it’s in the floor, right in the wood. A metal circle about as big as a necklace. And the arrow sticking through it, and—”

  “That’s a compass rose! And the carpenter must have put it there as a clue, a marker. And now we just have to—”

  The school bell rang, the first of three clangs, and the kids still in the hall scrambled for their classrooms.

  Ben and Jill spent the next fifty-four minutes on opposite sides of the math lab. It was a review day for the big state test, so there were nonstop drills and timed problems. Ben spent a lot of time hunching down over his workbook or staring at the explanations on the chalkboard, and he asked Mrs. Burmeister at least ten questions. Math wasn’t his best subject.

  When class ended, Jill hurried up to Ben out in the hall and handed him a piece of paper.

  “It looks sort of like this, the compass rose.”

  He barely glanced at it. “Good. C’mon, we’ve got to go talk to Mrs. Hinman.”

  “Now? How come?”

  Ben was already headed for their social studies classroom. “You’ll see. Just nod and smile till you catch on.”

  The teacher was gathering her things to go to lunch, and Ben smiled when she looked up at him. “Hi, Mrs. Hinman. I know this is a bad time to talk, but this’ll only take a second. If Jill and I wanted to do a special project about the history of Oakes School, would you help us out? Because we’d need permission to be in the building before classes, and probably after school too. For research.”

  Jill nodded. And smiled.

  He went on, “And we’ll have to work on it at least a couple of weeks.”

  Jill smiled again. And nodded.

  Mrs. Hinman pursed her lips and eyed the two students suspiciously. “You want to start a special project? This close to the end of the year?”

  Jill nodded, then quickly said, “Really, it was my idea. Because my social studies grade isn’t so great. So if we could get some extra-credit points, that would be great, like, maybe if we gave a report to the class before the end of school?”

  From right behind them a voice said, “Yeah, a report. For extra credit.”

  Jill and Ben jerked their heads to look, and it was Robert Gerritt, a serious look on his face, all business.

  Turning quickly back to the teacher, Ben said, “Actually, Jill and I wanted to work on this by ourselves, and we—”

  “No fair,” said Robert, shaking his head. “If it’s an extra-credit project, I should be able to work on it too, right? And I want to do my own part, so I get a separate grade. Yeah—maybe I could make my part of the report like a documentary movie or something. So I’ll get graded for my own work.”

  Mrs. Hinman was already motioning them toward the door. “This all sounds fine. And Robert’s right—besides, it’s probably a bigger project than you and Jill think, so there’ll be plenty for everyone to do. I’ll help get you started, and I’ll also ask Mrs. Sinclair if you can use the library before and after school. She’s in early, and there’s always someone there after school.”

  Ben didn’t want to seem upset about Robert, so he said, “That’ll be great, but could we have a meeting about it today? ’Cause we really want to get started. Like, maybe after lunch?”

  The teacher shook her head. “Not today—I’ve got playground duty. I’ll mention it to Mrs. Sinclair after school, and then we can all talk again on Monday. Now off you go,” and she herded them into the hall, pulled her door shut, and then slipped past and hurried down the south stairwell.

  Robert said, “This is great, huh? Sorry to butt in and everything, but I really need the extra points. For my grade.”

  Ben nodded and tried to smile. Right, for his grade. He probably wanted to get an A++ in social studies, instead of just an A+. This guy was a royal pain. Plus, he was already stuck with Robert on that Jack London report. The idea of having to work with him on something else was almost more than Ben could bear.

  “So, talk to you losers later, okay? I’ve got to catch up with Mrs. Hinman and ask her a question.” And he dashed away down the stairs, his footsteps echoing in the empty hallway.

  Ben glared at Jill. “You had to get all clever and ask for extra credit. Now we’ve got to deal with him,” and he jerked his thumb toward the stairwell.

  Jill didn’t blink. “Mrs. Hinman thought you were nuts, and she was right. Nobody just walks up to a teacher and asks for some extra schoolwork. So my cleverness just saved your half-baked idea. And don’t worry about Robert—he could even be useful. As a distraction.”

  Ben knew Jill was right—about everything. But he gave her a disgusted look anyway and headed for the stairs.

  “Where are you going?” she said.


  “Not me.” Jill looked around, then turned and started walking north. “I’m going to the girls’ room—amidships.” She glanced back at Ben with a smile. “Coming?”



  The compass rose was just as Jill had described it, an arrow through a ring of brass, set into a wide oak floorboard. It was worn bright and shiny by the constant foot traffic at the girls’ room door.

  “How do you find north-northeast?” she whispered.

  “Think of this circle like it’s a clock. North is where twelve o’clock would be. East is where the three would be
, which is like fifteen minutes past twelve. Northeast is halfway between north and east, which would be like seven and a half minutes past twelve. And north-northeast is half of that—which would be like about four minutes after the twelve. Get it?”

  Jill nodded. “So we use this to aim with, and then we look for something, right?”

  “I think so,” said Ben. “But we’ll need . . .”

  Footsteps, coming up the south staircase—tap-tap-tap-tap . . . but they stayed on the second floor, and gradually faded away.

  “We’ll need what?” whispered Jill.

  “A long string to make a straight line. Or a laser pointer.”

  Jill’s eyes crinkled. “Promise not to laugh?”


  She was already digging in the outer pocket of her book bag. “I’ve got dental floss—just be glad your mom never worked for a dentist.”

  Ben grinned. “And it’s the minty kind—my favorite!”

  A minute later Ben held one end of the floss at the right spot on the compass rose, and Jill had unreeled the spool down the hallway.

  Ben motioned her to move right, and then to the left, and finally she was up against the wall about thirty feet away, north-northeast. The smell of mint filled the air.

  “Okay,” he whispered. “Stay right there.”

  He walked slowly along the path marked by the line of floss, not sure what he was looking for. A loose floorboard? There weren’t any. A special mark? Or a group of nails that made a pattern? Nothing jumped out at him.

  When he got to where Jill stood, he looked at the floor, examined the wall above the end of the line, and scanned the whole area for several feet on either side. Still nothing.

  “Here,” he whispered. “Just put the floss down. Help me look.”


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