Although he’d just turned twelve last November, Barney Banks already counted among the world’s greatest experts in Paper Throwing. A few months ago, this fact alone would’ve been enough to make him feel ready for any challenge. But that had been before he first saw the room at the end of this corridor.
The corridor was too dim and cold, too uniformly gray and far too empty for Barney’s liking. So empty, in fact, that the squeaks of his Nikes' seemed to boom down its entire length. And with each hesitant step he took, Barney drew ever closer to the single, blank door that loomed at the far end.
As he approached the closed door, he felt cold creepers of apprehension wriggle down his spine. The silence of the room beyond disturbed him most of all. He almost wished he could hear screams and shouts from inside rather than this inhuman quiet. At least that would be something a boy of twelve could understand. At least that would be normal.
Seized by a sudden desire to procrastinate, Barney came to a stop inches from the door. He fished in his jeans pocket for his cell phone and checked the time. He was just late enough to be cool. Unfortunately, that meant he’d have to come in without delay.
He pocketed the phone, gritted his teeth, and opened the door, only to be met by two dozen voices chanting his name in unison.
“Hello, Everyone,” he muttered back as he stepped inside the classroom.
The teachers sat at their desks in pairs, backs straight, hands in front, eyes alert and ready to learn, their crisp paper sheets still neatly stacked in front of them. Not one crumpled up paper anywhere, not in their hands and not on the floor.
This batch is even worse than the last, he thought.
“Who’s absent today, Mrs. Gibson?” Barney asked as he made his way to his desk.
“Everyone’s present, Barney,” said the grey-haired Geography teacher in the front row.
As usual, Barney thought. Hopeless.
Midway to his desk, he stopped and turned to face them with an expression of pained disappointment.
“Right, guys. I’m sorry, but the way things are going you’re all failing this class.”
“But Barney, please,” said Mrs. Gibson raising her hand. “We’ve been trying so hard, really.”
“That’s just it, Mrs. Gibson!” he said. “You’ve all been trying way too hard. You’re not enjoying yourselves. Paper Throwing is not some cram subject that you have to...”
A sharp gasp from somewhere in the back of the classroom cut him off mid-sentence. It was Miss Kowalski, a young English teacher.
“Barney,” she said, trying out her best impression of an indignant glare as she stared at the teacher seated next to her. “Mr. Brown is throwing paper at me.”
Mr. Brown indeed held a crumpled up ball of paper in his hand, but seemed clueless as to what it was doing there. He glanced nervously about, at Miss Kowalski, at Barney, and at the paper in his hand.
“I said, Mr. Brown is throwing paper at me,” Miss Kowalski hissed through her teeth.
Mr. Brown finally threw the ball at the young English teacher, but managed to miss her entirely. The ball landed on the floor and rolled to a stop in the far corner.
It all looked so fake to Barney his eyes started to water.
“Nice try, Mr. Brown,” he said, “but you’re gonna have to do much better than that.”
Producing a ball of paper from his pocket, Barney let it drop surreptitiously towards his feet and with a flick of his foot sent it rocketing across the classroom where it ricocheted of Mr. Brown’s ear and lodged itself in Miss Kowalski’s glasses. Barney allowed himself a small chuckle, but the teachers did not seem amused and his mirth was cut short.
“But there’s got to be something we can do?” said Mrs. Gibson.
“Well, you didn’t raise your hand this time and how cool is that? There may be some hope for you guys after all.”
Barney rested his hands on his hips and looked at the class with newfound resolution.
“Right, let’s do the exercise we tried on Tuesday. In pairs or groups, whatever, just put some feeling into it for a change.”
He settled in his chair, eager to see their performance.
Almost as one, the teachers reached for the sheets of paper in front of them. There was a loud crumpling noise and they started tossing balls of paper at the heads of their colleagues. As used paper balls sailed through the air, fresh ones were being made with quick efficiency. Their eyes focused and foreheads furrowed, the teachers carried the task out in wordless concentration. Their elbows worked like a well-oiled machine as they methodically reduced the number of sheets on their desks.
Barney’s face went red with exasperation. This was exactly what he had feared. They hadn’t been listening to a word he’d been saying. He might as well have been speaking to the walls the entire term.
“Stop!” shouted Barney and sprang to his feet. “This is all wrong.”
At once, arms frozen mid-throw, they abandoned the exercise and turned to look at him in puzzlement.
“Yeah, you’re throwing paper at each other, but it’s all too mechanical-like. You’re just going through the motions, but you don’t have a clue why. This is supposed to be fun, damn it.”
Barney almost screamed the last couple of words, stabbing the class with a furious stare.
“You’re supposed to be laughing,” he said and waved his hands in the air to emphasize his point, “You’re supposed to be running around the room doing all kinds of crazy stuff.”
Then he went speechless, his anger spent, a look of tired resignation in his eyes.
For a silent moment their only response was a collective blank stare and then a teacher inched up a shy hand.
“We can try laughing if we really have to, Barney.”
Barney slumped back down into his chair. A muscle on his face twitched involuntarily and he felt a sudden bout of headache coming on.
“Ok,” he said, massaging his sore temples, “Let’s start again. This time try laughing and moving around as you throw.”