Copyright 2013 Allen J. Woppert

All rights reserved.

Cover Art: Copyright Marco Marella | Lilla Rogers Studio

Cover Design: lynn whittemore | curiouslynn design

Also available in paperback.

ISBN: 9781483510057

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank all early readers and reviewers, too many to name, thanks to whom this is a better book.

Barbara Derkow Disselbeck and Hannah Disselbeck provided invaluable pointers for tightening up the story. Science writer Richard P. Emanuel made a number of helpful suggestions, Richard Schluckebier gave me the encouragement I needed to go on, and Oscar Callupe kept my life in order so that I was free to write.

A special word of thanks goes out to my old friend and favorite paleontologist, Dr. Julie Dumoulin, for checking the scientific accuracy of the relevant contents. Any errors that may remain are, alas, my own.

A final shout-out goes to Eugenie Scott, Jerry Coyne, and others who, although they had nothing directly to do with this book, have been an inspiration through their tireless efforts to keep American science education mythology-free.

Chapter 1

A Batshit Family

My name is Timothy Thompson. I am 14 years old, and I come from Batshit, Illinois.

Batshit is a small place, and it doesn’t appear on most maps. I suspect it is because cartographers assume it is a joke, but I can assure you, it is not. To the contrary, Batshit is a proud community with just shy of 21,000 inhabitants, 24,000 if you’re talking “Metropolitan Batshit,” which includes farms and tiny little clumps of houses within a 20-mile radius of “downtown.” Batshit was founded in 1879 by a gentleman with the somewhat improbable name of Omar Batshit.

Omar was born in Persia, now known as Iran. He left the old country in 1866, working on a ship to earn his passage to the New World. When he arrived in New York, he dutifully gave his details as Omar al-Baht-Shi’it, single, age 19, occupation baker, but the immigration officer—either out of laziness or malevolence—transcribed his name as Omar L. Batshit.

There is much to tell about Omar, how he made his way to southern Illinois and founded a baking empire on baklava and Turkish delight. (Indeed, for those who want to know more, there is a whole museum dedicated to our founder, located in the huge, mosque-like structure that once housed Batshit Baked Goods.) When Omar died, he left his vast fortune to the town, which gratefully took his name along with millions in cash.

So you see, the town of Batshit has nothing to do with the excrement of a flying mammal. The name is pronounced baht-SHEET and, to the best of my knowledge and despite rumors to the contrary, there is no evidence whatsoever that the town’s name has anything to do with the word batshit taking on its new meaning of “crazy.” (If you want to learn more about the town of Batshit, I understand the town council is working on a website: www.batshit.com.) In the case of my family, however, take your pick on how to pronounce it when I say we are a Batshit family.

In describing my family, I’d like to start with myself, not because I’m so self-centered, but because I think you ought to know who you’re dealing with. As I said above, my name is Timothy Thompson. One cannot help but wonder what my parents were smoking when they decided to name their son Timothy. I mean, really: Timothy Thompson? They might just as well have stamped “Tim-Tom” on my forehead at birth because that’s been my nickname all my life, wherever I go. It’s just too freaking obvious! Then again, there are advantages to having an obvious nickname. Nobody ever looks any further, and you don’t end up with a moniker like Spike (although that one’s kind of cool), or Zitface (definitely not cool), or Stumpy (just plain cruel), as some of my classmates are called.

But who am I?

For the sake of argument, let us assume for a moment that I am of above-average intelligence and take advanced courses in several of my subjects (where available). Let us also assume that I am a superb athlete, drop-dead good-looking and have a way with girls. Lastly, let us assume that only one of the above statements contains what could be classified as “the Truth.”

As to the rest of my family, suffice it to say that the word dysfunctional was coined to describe it. Individually, we may just about be “OK.”

My mother is what a magazine feature on her described as a “high-powered attorney, one of the Midwest’s best.” She is indeed, as the feature writer claimed, “strong-headed,” “tough as nails” and “a formidable opponent.” He was talking about her professional abilities, but I can vouch for those traits in her personal life as well. Fortunately, one further description from that article also holds true: “When she whiffs injustice toward any one of her clients, prominent or not, Veronica Langley-Thompson is as ferocious as a lioness protecting her cubs.”

Now one might expect the lioness’s husband to be, well, a lion. A paragon of fortitude. An alpha male. One would be wrong. Instead my dad is what one might call, for lack of a better word—and believe me, I’ve looked!—ineffectual. It’s not that he isn’t a good father—don’t get me wrong. And I love him. He just doesn’t know how to assert himself. In fact, he is—pardon my use of the vernacular—a wuss.

Now I would agree that there are times when a tactical retreat is called for. Self-preservation is always a good excuse for turning tail and running. As a frequent victim of bullying, I am an expert in this area. But I am fairly certain that standing up to my mother once in a while would not result in death or disfiguring injury. And I know for a fact that pointing out that a cashier at the grocery store has short-changed you also does not put one’s life in peril, yet Dad is incapable of such bravery. Rather sad, really.

Our merry little band is completed by Goth Girl, my big sister. And I do mean big. If you were to see her from behind and were able to survey her massive shoulders, you would probably come to the conclusion that this wholesome lass has just come from pitching baled hay into a loft somewhere. Until she turned around, that is, revealing the full glory of her troubled existence.

It is hard for me to say what a stranger would find most disturbing about Goth Girl. Would it be the large safety pin in her right cheek, or perhaps the nail laced through her left eyebrow? Or would it be the pallor, which used to be the result of lovingly applied pancake makeup, but which somehow has become her natural skin tone? The black lipstick? The line of scars running up her left arm, where she likes to cut herself when she is nervous or bored? To me the emptiness in her eyes is what is most unsettling. The way she will turn her head to have her eyes pointing in your direction when you talk to her, never allowing them to focus or even move within their sockets.

I have tried to duplicate this effect, as I thought I could use it to frighten some of the brutes who prey on me at school. I have found it impossible to avoid focusing my eyes on something, and when I turned my head, my eyes always fixed on some point in my field of vision and failed to turn with my head. I have to assume that Goth Girl spent many hours perfecting the technique, and I truly admire her for both the perseverance and the effect, as disconcerting as I find it. So in a rather peculiar way, I look up to my sister.

[Aside: Perhaps I should point out that Goth Girl is not my sister’s real name. We used to call her Mandy. My mother still does, but she no longer scolds me for referring to her as Goth Girl. My dad doesn’t talk about her at all, and when addressing her he tends to use pet names such as Kitten or Princess, which I find even more ironic than Mandy.]

The four of us are rarely together. The exception is Wednesday evening, when attendance is mandatory. My mother decreed this after a visit to our family shrink, whom I will call Dr. Feelgood, with Goth Girl. Apparently the good doctor had diagnosed our problem as a family unit and prescribed more quality time. My ever-practical mother promptly called her secretary and ordered her to clear all late Wednesday appointments and demanded that all of us do the same. This involved considerable hardship for me. As president of the Chess Club at school, I had to reschedule our weekly meets, which had vast repercussions for the Math Club, the Debate Team and the Foreign Language Society. The girls’ lacrosse team was forced to find a new water boy.

Goth Girl’s hardship consisted of having to forego lying on her bed listening to satanic music one evening a week. This seemed trivial to me at the time, but admittedly it did send her into an even darker brand of depression, which was not lost on me or Dad, but which Mother was oblivious to. “Don’t worry, Kitten,” my dad encouraged GG, “it won’t last. Your mom will soon start finding reasons not to keep this up, and everything will go back to normal.” Her dispassionate “Whatever” was taken by Dad as a sign that there was still life behind the mask and that my sister might just “pull out of it.”

Anyway, the Wednesday dinner event has been going on for nearly eight months now, and my mother is showing no signs of giving up. In fact, she comments repeatedly on how effective Dr. Feelgood’s methods are and how much improvement she is seeing in the way we all communicate. To wit, here is a true and complete transcript of this Wednesday’s fiasco:

MOTHER

Well, I’m glad you could all make it.

DAD

Of course, dear, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

GG

ME

Sure, Mom.

MOTHER

How long has it been since we all sat down for a meal together? A week?

DAD

Yes, I believe it’s been a week, dear.

GG

ME

Yes, Mom.

MOTHER

And has anyone had any experiences they’d like to share with the rest of us? Mandy, how about you?

GG

[accompanied by a loud, blank look in Mother’s general direction]

MOTHER

And how about you, Timothy?

ME

Well, I got an A on my research paper on the effect of radiation bombardment on cellular thermodynamics.

DAD

Hey, Timmy, that’s great. I didn’t even understand the title, but I’m sure it was brilliant as usual. Isn’t that great, Pumpkin?

GG

MOTHER

Well done, Timothy. Then again, we’ve grown to expect nothing but top marks from our son.

GG

[Time passes.]

MOTHER

The roast was very good, dear.

DAD

Thanks, Ronnie.

ME

Yeah, Dad. Good one.

DAD

Thanks, Buddy. You haven’t touched yours, Princess. Didn’t you like it?

GG

DAD

Anyone for dessert?

GG

ME

I’m pretty full, Dad. Maybe later, before bed.

MOTHER

I’m with Timothy on this one, Paul. I couldn’t get down another morsel. Let me help you with the dishes. The two of you can run along. I’m sure you have homework to do. Your dad and I can handle the cleanup.

GG

ME

OK, Mom. Thanks.

[GG and I exit. As my parents disappear into the kitchen with the first of the plates, I overhear the following before the door swings shut.]

MOTHER

I thought that went very well. Didn’t you, Paul?

DAD

Oh, yes. We’re definitely making progress as a family.

I would like to offer a few observations on certain aspects of the 55-minute conversation you have just been privy to. First of all, my mother is delusional.

Secondly, it should also be noted that I have never written an essay on cellular thermodynamics. I am not even certain that such a thing exists, and I do not know why I said it. Perhaps I will take that up with Dr. Feelgood the next time I see him.

[Aside: I have since Googled “cellular thermodynamics” and determined that such a thing does indeed exist. I scare myself sometimes.]

Lastly, the Wednesday night cleanup routine is always the same. My mother offers to do it alone with my dad for a number of reasons. Mostly it spares her having to prolong the sweet torture that is our dinner conversation. But it also allows them to be alone together. I often hear them cooing at each other in the kitchen like two turtle doves before disappearing to their bedroom to do things no son should have to overhear. (My room is right next to theirs.) I am not one for telling tales out of school, but suffice it to say that these sessions involve high-volume role-playing in which my mother is the submissive party. This I will definitely take up with Dr. Feelgood once we have dealt with the remainder of my early childhood traumas, probably in about six months’ time.

Rounding out the cast of characters in this, my story, is an assortment of teachers, staff, school administrators and fellow students, although the word “fellow” implies some sort of, well, fellowship which does not in fact exist. Geneticists tell us that we share between 95% and 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, which is a full 95% to 98% more than I feel akin to most of the other students at Batshit High School.

Chapter 2

Welcome to Batshit High

The excitement and the hormones were palpable as I entered the gymnasium for the eight o’clock “Welcome Rally” on my first day of high school. We freshmen had to report early—the sophomores, juniors and seniors were given till nine o’clock to go to their homerooms. This was the Real Thing™, the big H, “High School” with no demeaning “Junior” ahead of it, and my friends and I were a part of it.

The bleachers were packed, with 372 eager teenagers shouting out to old friends, bevies of girls screaming as they related tales of summer romance, and nervous jocks grunting about why they ought to make varsity in their first year. The volume was nearly unbearable, and I sincerely doubt whether any basketball game played on the polished hardwood planks before us had ever produced this much excitement.

I quickly found my best friends front-row center, where all good geeks belong at an event of this sort, pens and paper or tablet computers at the ready. Josh Curtin, my best school friend, bumped fists with me as I sat down next to him and admired his new tablet. It was not really anything special, about two generations old, but I knew that he had probably had to cut a lot of lawns over the summer to buy it. His family was not so well-off, I knew, and he appreciated the comment. He was just about to show me his extensive games collection when someone started blowing into a microphone, ostensibly to test it, but actually more to signal to all but the denser jocks that this party was about to get started. A hush descended over the room like a pall. (I offer this simile as a gesture to Ms. Pewney, my English teacher.)

Another puff into the microphone, after which the puffer identified himself as Jonathan R. Powers, principal of Batshit High School. Several of my friends started the recording software on their computers. Since I have total recall, I had no need to do anything but listen.

Mr. Powers began: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Batshit High School, the premier educational facility in Jefferson County. This is an exciting time for all of us here,” he said, pointing to the assembled faculty members on the carpet which had been laid down to protect the center court. “For we are about to embark on another new adventure with all of you, our incoming class of freshmen. It is with the utmost confidence that we set out on this journey, and we look forward to another stellar year here at Batshit High.”

I took an immediate liking to this man. With his words he made me feel special. For the first time in my life, I had been addressed as part of a crowd of “ladies and gentlemen,” not as one of a bunch of “boys and girls.” Mr. Powers had flattered us. He did not try to tell us what a privilege was being bestowed upon us in that the grand institution that was Batshit High School had deigned to receive us. No. He informed us that he and his staff felt privileged to have us! Yes, I knew, this was indeed going to be a stellar year.

Mr. Powers went on to introduce the department heads. I was most interested in Mr. Raymond Grass, the head of the science department and faculty advisor to the Science Club at Batshit, science being my best and favorite subject. My immediate impression? Totally batshit—with a small “b.”

First of all, the man was, although the school year hadn’t yet begun, already covered in chalk dust. Secondly, Mr. Grass’s sartorial selection for the day consisted of, starting from the top, a rust-colored shirt that he had obviously slept in, misbuttoned and adorned with a pocket protector from Batshit Office Supplies (“Keeping Batshit organized since 1999”); corduroy pants in a greenish/tannish color, which, owing to the fact that Mr. Grass was obviously preparing for the flooding that will inevitably result from global warming and wore his pants several inches above his well-worn Hush Puppies®, revealed his Homer Simpson socks.

Thirdly, and perhaps most damningly batshitty, Mr. Grass wore an inflatable pool toy around his waist. I kid you not. The man had a clear plastic inner tube around his belly, from which protruded the long yellow neck of a smiling rubber duckie. This struck me as bizarre even for Batshit, but no one dared laugh. (I later learned that Mr. Grass regularly wears props to his science classes. The theme for that day was, of course, buoyancy.)

The last staff member to be introduced was Mr. Braun (pronounce it “brawn”, as opposed to “brain”), who took the mic.

“My name is Mr. Braun, and as you can see,” he said, pointing, palms up, all the way down his unnaturally muscular physique like a model in an auto ad, “I’m the head of boys’ sports here at Batshit. Everybody knows me plain and simple as ‘Coach.’ Now my job here is to turn you boys into men, and to win games—but that’s a whole ’nother story. So I’m hopin’ that a whole bunch o’ yous is gonna try out for football, basketball or baseball. And if you can’t make the cut, there’s always the more sissy sports like soccer and track. So come on out to the gym—that’s this place right here—after school today for more info on the sports program.”

Pardon me if I feel the need to make a few observations about Mr. Braun’s speech. Firstly, while we could in fact see that Mr. Braun had an athletic build (to put it mildly), and could have guessed that he was somehow associated with the athletic department (the shorts, sneakers and whistle were definite clues, but the real clincher was the T-shirt that said “Batshit Athletic Department”), there was no way we could see that he was the head of the department. Secondly, and call me a prig if you will, I have fairly strong feelings about a) the use of English grammar, including things like adverbs and subject-predicate agreement, and b) the duty of a teacher, even one of physical education, to serve as a model for his or her students in matters of language. Mr. Braun’s speech suggested that he had no regard for—or perhaps even knowledge of—the rudiments of correct speech. “Yous”?! That’s Hicksville, not high school!

And thirdly, what to think of an athletic director who would describe such noble activities as soccer or track and field as “sissy sports”? But the main thought that was going through my head and those of my friends was, “If this person considers soccer players and marathon runners sissies, what will he think of us, people with no athletic prowess whatsoever?” I would find out soon enough.

The Welcome Rally, which no longer felt terribly welcoming, was winding down. We received instructions to line up at tables according to the first letters of our last names, where we would be given our class schedules and homeroom assignments. Except for a few of the more dim-witted, who were unable to cope with the concept of a first letter in a last name, we all did this and quickly and efficiently received the promised materials and, helpfully, a map of the school and instructions to report to our homerooms.

I am a good reader of maps; in fact, I have a Boy Scout merit badge in orienteering, earned over the better part of an afternoon spent traipsing around a field only to end up in precisely the same spot I had left three hours before. Maps appeal to my left brain, which is far and away the better developed half of my cerebrum. That said, let me tell you that the map of the “plant” (one of Mr. Powers’ favorite words) of Batshit High School was—how shall I put this?—catastrophically confusing. Had I not been in a complete state of panic myself, I would no doubt have found it comical to observe hundreds of freshmen wandering the halls of the massive “Tudor-style” building, turning the pieces of paper every which way as they walked up and down halls, in and out of unmarked doorways and through archaic arches that looked like someone’s rendition of the gates to hell.

When I found my appointed homeroom, the aptly named Miss Gaunt, who was to be my homeroom teacher for the next three weeks until what I can only assume was a long-delayed retirement, was the only other person in the room with me. This tiny creature had somehow managed to seat herself on a window sill approximately four feet above the ground, where she perched most elegantly, one leg crossed over the other. The smile on her face reminded me of the Cheshire Cat, for the rest of her, tiny as it was, seemed almost invisible. (If you don’t know about the Cheshire Cat, I highly recommend reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. “I’ve often seen a cat without a grin; but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life.”) I was ready to excuse myself for having entered what I assumed was the wrong room when Miss Gaunt beamed at me and uttered a heart-felt “Congratulations!”

“Erm, for what, ma’am?”

“For being the first, of course,” she said cheerily. “And I do believe that’s record time. What’s your name, young man?”

“Timothy. Timothy Thompson, ma’am,” I answered somewhat warily. Why was this enigmatic woman being so nice to me? I was, after all, several minutes late for homeroom.

“Pleased to meet you, Timothy,” Miss Gaunt said and lowered herself deftly to her feet. “I’m Miss Gaunt, and I’m your homeroom teacher—at least until Mr. Powers can find someone to replace me. There aren’t many teachers these days who can teach Latin and mechanical drafting.”

I was unsure how to respond to this, but Miss Gaunt filled the ensuing gap before it could get awkward. “Now I wonder where the others have got off to... Ah, here they are,” she said with genuine pleasure and wonderment, looking over my shoulder.

I turned to see two other freshies sheepishly entering the classroom, noting their relief as they registered that they weren’t the last ones to find Room 421. I surveyed the small crowd as it assembled. Only one girl I knew semi-well, three boys and a girl I recognized from the halls at my junior high, and otherwise nothing but unfamiliar faces. Then, to my relief, in wandered my friend Josh, whom I’d been separated from when we had to split up by last names, him being a “C” and me being a “T.” I had just started to smile at Josh when I noticed the pained expression on his face—not the kind of pain you show when you are embarrassed about being the last one to show up at a meeting place, but genuine, physical pain.

Before I could change my expression from “Hey, Josh, great to see you” to “What’s wrong, Josh?” I saw the reason for the twisted look on my best friend’s face. Attached to Josh’s ear was a hand, to which was attached the arm of Robert “Bad Bob” Berg, the bane of Josh’s and my junior high existence.

“It took you long enough, you little ...,” Bob was saying when he saw Miss Gaunt. “... genius,” he finished, releasing Josh’s ear.

Miss Gaunt pretended not to notice, but you didn’t have to be an expert in micro-expressions to see the way her lips pursed in displeasure as she made a mental note about the tall, wiry brute who had just entered her realm. “Well, if I counted correctly, we’re all here. Please take a seat, everyone.”

As fate would have it, it was impossible for Josh and me to get seats together, and somehow I ended up sitting next to Bad Bob. No biggie, I thought. That can be corrected next time.

Miss Gaunt unwittingly put the kibosh on any such optimism. “Now, ladies and gentlemen”—there it was again!—“I trust you have chosen your seats wisely, as they will remain your seats throughout the year. I’m going to call the roll, and when I say your name, please identify yourself by raising your hand so I can enter your name in my seating chart. Now, first on my list is Gwendolyn Marie Albain. Thank you—do you prefer Gwendolyn or Gwen?”

I suffered through the better part of the alphabet trying to come up with ways I might subvert Miss Gaunt’s plan to bind me to my current seat, far away from Josh and right next to Bob Berg. But I was so much in the middle, slightly toward the front, that a faked near-sightedness, far-sightedness, or deafness in one ear would be less than convincing. So when Miss Gaunt called my name, I knew all I could do was raise my hand.

“Timothy Thompson,” Miss Gaunt said, already looking in my direction.

As I raised my hand, I heard from my left the voice of Bad Bob. “That’s Tim Thompson, ma’am. He goes by ‘Tim-Tom’.”

I cast my eyes to Miss Gaunt’s sweet, pruny face, which, in another micro-expression, briefly lost its pleasant smile in favor of a slight pursing of the lips. But she again chose to ignore Bad Bob and looked at me. “Do you prefer Timothy or Tim?”

“Timothy, Miss Gaunt.” She and I were bonding.

After homeroom, Josh and I had a moment to compare schedules. I had been concentrating so hard on finding my homeroom that I had not so much as glanced at the rest of the schedule.

“Hey, we’ve got biology together third period,” Josh said excitedly.

But I hardly even registered his presence, for my eye had frozen on the teacher’s name listed under second period: Mr. Braun. Surely there were other physical education teachers at such a large high school—why did I have to get the Incredible Hulk?

Chapter 3

Alarm Bells

The shortened first period was social studies, which Mr. Leitner, a small, friendly man with a bad hairpiece, told us would “combine history, geography, politics, civics and”—get this!—“psychology to help you develop a more thorough understanding of this great country of ours.” Except for my skepticism about psychology, born of years with Dr. Feelgood, the class sounded as if it just might be OK.

Then came the class I had been dreading since the end of homeroom: phy ed. Because of the shortened morning schedule on the first day, I was spared the humiliation of having to suit up for gym. (I am developmentally a year or so behind the other boys. Please don’t make me go into details here.) Instead, we all sat on the gym floor cross-legged and in stocking feet—the stench!—and listened to Mr. Braun opine on the state of physical fitness in our nation today. As you might have guessed, he did not hold our generation in particularly high regard; in fact, the words sissy and wuss came up a number of times. While I do not preclude the possibility that it might have been due to paranoia, I felt sure that Mr. Braun was looking at me every time he intoned one of these words. The feeling was no doubt reinforced by Bad Bob Berg, who had sat himself directly behind me, prodding me in the spine with his big toe every time Mr. Braun said sissy (eight times) or wuss (five times).

The most extraordinary part of Mr. Braun’s diatribe came at the end. I had just started to allow my mind to drift when Mr. Braun suddenly dropped his gym shorts to the floor and stepped out of them. He was now pacing in front of us in nothing but a jockstrap and T-shirt and talking about the importance of wearing “support for the family jewels.” His family had apparently been quite wealthy, as his family jewels clearly needed a great deal of support. I found this whole display exceedingly embarrassing and began to stare at some point behind Mr. Braun but took note that he would “personally” do spot checks that we were wearing our athletic supporters. While I quickly added buying a jockstrap to my mental “To do” list, I shuddered inwardly as I considered what that “personal” inspection might involve. (To my knowledge, Mr. Braun never conducted a single spot check during my first months at Batshit High. Apparently he considered the threat enough to scare us all into compliance. It certainly worked with me.)

As we left the gym at the end of the period, we were all unusually quiet: what we had just witnessed could potentially scar us for life. Bad Bob broke the silence.

“I saw you watching Mr. Braun’s ass, Tim-Tom,” he taunted.

I knew myself well enough to realize that no clever retort was forthcoming, at least not in the next several minutes, so I didn’t react to Bob’s taunt.

“And how about them balls, huh?” my tormentor continued. “Pretty big, huh?”

“I didn’t actually notice, Bob, but they seem to have made quite an impression on you,” was my reply. I hadn’t even thought about it, or I wouldn’t have said it because I don’t believe in any kind of teasing related to sexual orientation, however absurd or well-deserved. It did, however, serve the purpose of shutting Berg’s horrid trap, and drew chuckles from the kind of boy I do not normally have on my side. I was well pleased, at least for the moment, even though the look on Berg’s face was a warning of more—and worse—to come.

When I got to third period biology, Josh was already waiting for me at the door. “I heard about you and Berg,” he said, beaming. Word traveled even faster here than at junior high.

“Which part?” I asked.

“Something about Mr. Braun’s balls. What was that about?”

“Later, Josh,” I said, for the teacher had just arrived, and I didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot with her. Science was, after all, my best subject, which was why I was in AP biology rather than regular old general science, thus putting me and Josh in a class with mostly juniors and seniors.

“Biology,” Mrs. Barker began, “is probably the most fascinating subject you will study all year. Why? Because it deals with the miracle of life! We will be looking at both the plant and animal kingdoms, and we will be discussing the different theories of how so many different life forms came into being.”

Mrs. Barker’s opening sentences were already setting off alarm bells inside my head. “The miracle of life”? “Different theories of how ... different life forms came into being”? Admittedly, a word like miracle could be used in non-religious contexts, but how could there be different theories of species development—in a science classroom? I glanced around furtively. Josh was listening intently to Mrs. Barker’s remarks, with no sign of apprehension. I noticed nothing on the faces of my other fellow students to indicate that they had heard anything untoward from our new teacher, so I concluded that I, as the son of Veronica Langley-Thompson, who had been described in the afore-mentioned magazine feature as “the Midwest’s preeminent First Amendment attorney,” was being overly sensitive.

Mrs. Barker continued. “In only a few weeks, we will start dissecting animals, at first simple organisms, followed by more and more complex creatures.”

Two hands went up. One of them belonged to Megan Chow, a pretty Chinese girl I’ve had sort of a crush on since the middle of seventh grade. Megan was the only other freshman (freshwoman?) in the class besides me and Josh.

“Yes, young lady?” Mrs. Barker asked graciously. If she was annoyed that someone had interrupted her flow, she didn’t show it.

“Do we have to dissect animals?” Megan asked. “If possible, I’d like to be excused from that.”

“Well,” Mrs. Barker smiled generously, “while I understand that some people might object to cutting into one of God’s creatures, ...”

The alarm bells were now drowning out anything else Mrs. Barker might have said. “God”? In a public school? In a science classroom? I was outraged by the obvious illegality of this apparently casual name-dropping.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. I believe in God. I even go to church fairly regularly, three out of four Sundays—more often, in fact, than either of my parents. (We have a very cool pastor who tells great stories. And he would be the first to admit that those stories are just that: stories.) But I also believe in the separation of church and state, and so should anyone who calls him- or herself an American.

So what did I do? Nothing. Call me a coward if you will, but I would like to think that my decision not to create a scene had more to do with tactics. At any rate, I chose not to say anything and quickly ruled out giving Mrs. Barker a heads-up after class that someone who cared about the First Amendment was listening. Instead I returned my thoughts to the classroom and registered that Mrs. Barker was not about to let Megan Chow or anyone else, vegetarian or otherwise, pass biology without desecrating a few animal carcasses, a decision which I, by the way, backed completely.

The rest of our first session with Mrs. Barker was uneventful, with lists passed out of equipment we would need to purchase throughout the semester, including approximate dates when each item would be required. This latter point was, in my view, extremely considerate toward those who might find it difficult to buy everything at once, but it also demonstrated a degree of advance planning I had yet to experience. Maybe this woman wouldn’t be so bad after all, I thought, and determined to file away her religious references as minor indiscretions.

Josh and I had a minute at the end of the period to chat. “So, what did you think of our new science teacher?” I asked, trying not to betray my doubts.

“Nice,” he said casually. “Ought to be good.”

“Yeah,” I replied. “Ought to be.”

The rest of my first day at school was fairly routine and uneventful. Introductions were made, rules established, books handed out—the usual first-day-of-school stuff. That evening I went shopping with my dad to pick up some more things for school, including the jockstrap that was to protect me from a “personal inspection” by Coach Braun.

I’d have preferred the anonymous shopping mall that had recently been built just outside town, but Dad wanted to support the local merchants. Had we been going for a baseball mitt or similar implement, I’d have agreed with his show of civic support, but for something as intimate as a jockstrap, I really didn’t want to go to Batshit Bob’s Sporting Goods, where we were likely to run into various friends and acquaintances I’d rather not have imagining my scrawny frame in an athletic supporter.

As we entered Batshit Bob’s (“We Put the Bat in Batshit”), it was Bob himself who greeted us.

“Hi, Paul. Long time, no see. Aren’t you playing squash any more?”

“No, not since I pulled a hamstring a few years back.”

“Yeah, none of us are gettin’ any younger.—What can I do for you folks today?”

I started to say that we just wanted to look around, but my dad obviously didn’t share my reservations about mention of my nether regions.

“Timothy here is starting high school, and he needs a jock.”

I looked around. There wasn’t anybody within earshot. My relief was short-lived, however. Instead of pointing us in the direction of men’s intimate apparel, Bob accompanied us there.

“Well, son,” he began, “you got any special needs down there?”

My inquiring glances were directed first at my dad, but he seemed to find the question normal. I looked back to Bob and croaked out an “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Well, first of all, is this just for gym class, or do you need a cup?”

I had no idea what he was talking about, so I answered that I merely wanted a standard athletic supporter for phy ed.

“And what kinda volume we talkin’ here?”

“Volume?”

“You know: are you hung like a horse, or more like a toy poodle?”

I was already hatching an escape plan when Bob let out a laugh that I’d describe as a guffaw. Smiling from ear to ear, he said, “Don’t worry, kid. I’m just joshin’ ya. It’s one-size-fits-all—just grab one in your waist size.”

Only then did I realize that we were already standing in front of the item in question, and I picked one up.