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Head Over Heels
an SAT/ACT vocabulary novel

September 3: Uncle Sam’s Birthday

So, the first day of school is a good time to start a new diary, right? At least, I thought so last night when I bought this book—back when I actually thought things would be different this year. I was convinced that after my recent leap up the high school hierarchy to Junior with Popular Boyfriend status, not to mention my summer-long fitness/tanning campaign, I would no longer be Invisible Girl. And somehow I guess I thought that me being different would make everything else different, too.

Okay, yeah, so that was a little naïve. After one day back at Columbus High, I can say that nothing’s changed much at all. The preps stick with the preps, the hoods with the hoods. Doe-eyed freshmen rove around in packs, holding their books with both hands to avoid having them dumped. Haughty seniors pretend they’re having more fun than the rest of us. In classes, teachers make us say our names out loud and something about ourselves. The snippets of hallway conversation overheard are as banal as ever—“Yo, I’m bagging fifth period,” or “Did you see what Sara/Macy/Gina/whoever is actually wearing today?”

Only one thing’s different—Luke Barton. The new kid. He’s from California. I got press clippings about him all day. In homeroom, Jenny Cassell, a tireless socialite who has sat adjacent to me in homeroom since seventh grade, drew an audience with her description: “He’s this totally hot skateboarding, movie-star type with a reddish-blond afro and Salvation Army style, with expensive sneakers and jeans that are perfectly worn in. And he’s all aloof, like he’s in on some secret you’re not.”

By far the most ebullient description I heard was from my best friend. Nikki’s first words to me were straight out of Star Wars: “Luke will be mine.” She had already turned him into a savior. “See Fran, this is exactly what I was talking about! Remember when I said I needed a change? Well it’s arrived. He’s here. Luke Barton’s the thing that’s been missing for me in this town. He’s going to be a catalyst for change in my life—I can already see it.”

Nikki moved here from Carmel, an affluent enclave north of Indianapolis. This happened like five years ago, but Big City Nikki still scapegoats Columbus for some of her personal problems, most particularly her lack of a steady guy.

I hadn’t even seen the dude yet, but already I was tempted to abhor this whole Luke phenomenon. I was thinking how annoying it was that some stranger could penetrate the collective imagination of Columbus High more in one day than I had in the previous two years. And then, eight minutes into my last period class, AP English, in struts this tall, good-looking guy in paint-splattered jeans, a tight hipster T, and a shocking mass of curly reddish hair. Had to be him. More intriguing than hot, I thought. Of course, had I not been happily boyfriended to a legitimate hottie myself, I might have felt a little differently. There was something in his athletic gait that made you want to look. He had, like, star power. I made myself look away, determined not to fall victim to this unabashed “shock and awe” self-promotion campaign.

“You must be Lucas,” Ms. Cloisters said.

“Luke,” he said, apparently not the verbose type.

“Interesting,” Ms. Cloisters said. “Do you know how I knew who you were, Luke?”

He shrugged.

“Well, it’s not because your reputation precedes you, or that I received your dossier from the CIA. It’s not because I saw you in the hallway and, admiring your effulgent beauty, rushed down to the principal’s office to find out who you were.” The class let out a few hesitant laughs. Ms. Cloisters had a reputation for humiliating students who didn’t meet her lofty academic standards. “It was more along the lines that you were the last student to show. Why’s that?”

“I’m new.” Luke half-smiled in a way that said he’d played this game before. “I got lost.”

“But you made it. You persevered. Congratulations, neophyte, on finding room 203. For future reference, the room numbers go in descending order from the opposite end of the hall. It’s a logical scheme, and you’re in Advanced Placement English, so you should be cerebral enough to figure it out. Now find a seat.”

Luke turned his back on Ms. Cloisters, showing off his stolid expression to the rest of the class. I glanced up at him, prepared to avert my eyes at any moment. Didn’t even score a glance. He sat behind me, in the same row. My back and shoulders felt warm. An irrational thought hit me—was he emitting some sort of Luke ray? I slumped down in my seat to fend it off.

Ms. Cloisters introduced the class with a rant about the power of words. Of the four things we would focus on in her class, vocabulary would be foremost. “It drives me nuts when students ask how studying words will ever assist them in the real world. The most bankable skill you could have in our media-driven society is to be articulate. In fact, a study conducted at several major corporations found that one of the most salient disparities between employees at the bottom-, middle-, and top-paying rungs is their skill levels in vocabulary and syntax. Which is to say, those who express themselves the best get the best jobs.”

The final three things we would do in her class were read, read and read. We would read Austen, Dostoyevsky, Marquez, Plath, Hesse and Hurston. We would read short stories, novels, novellas, poetry, epics, even a play. “In fact, we’re going to start right now,” Ms. Cloisters said, handing out a short story by Hemingway for us to peruse.

It was called “Hills Like White Elephants,” and it was about a young couple drinking beer in a bar, somewhere near some hills in Spain. It didn’t seem like it had enough big words or concepts to be “good,” but there was something to it, a certain resonance. Ms. Cloisters asked us what we thought about it. In accordance with my resolution to get more involved in class discussions this year, I raised my hand.

“Yes,” Ms. Cloisters said. “Say your name, and then make your comment.”

“My name’s Francesca Castarelli. And I was just gonna say it seems like the couple in this story has some serious communication issues. They just talk in monosyllables about nothing in particular, and they can’t seem to agree on anything.”

“Okaaaay,” Ms. Cloisters said in a condescending way. “Anyone else want to get a little more specific?” She pointed behind me.

“I’m Luke Barton, and I think the ‘communication issues’ Francesca is referring to are related to the fact that the young woman is pregnant with the man’s child, and he is pressuring her to abort. That’s what they’re actually arguing about, even though they don’t come right out and say it.”

My ears got hot at the sound of my name. He was talking about me. Wait. Was he making fun of me? Was he calling me a dunce?

“That’s right,” Ms. Cloisters said. “Hemingway has a way of making a situation implicit without hitting the reader over the head with it. Nice close reading, Lucas.”

Great. Humiliated by The New Guy. Maybe he hadn’t meant to. I dropped my pencil and turned to steal a glance at him. Luke was looking back at me with a big ol’ smug grin on his face. Jerk.

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