Rosey first heard about the fire after club announcements ended, as all the students filed out from the auditorium toward Chance Block. Some of the freshmen were talking about it, and flowing down the hallway with the vast tide of tired high-schoolers, she caught snippets of their conversation.
“In the cafeteria… someone said… fire—”
“UHNUH,” a senior boy grunted, drowning out the freshmen’s chatter.
Rosey put her fingers in her ears. She knew all too well after three weeks that grunts were contagious: first the other senior boys would grunt back, then all at once the hallways and classrooms would burst into a many-layered chorus of grunts, each louder than the next, as the younger boys struggled to prove that they, too, were masculine enough to bellow like angry cavemen.
Rosey walked halfway across campus before she took her fingers out of her ears, sure that Mozart’s Sixth Symphony in Grunt had subsided. Ugh , she thought, remembering the freshmen’s conversation. Probably another fire drill . At least it’ll be during Chance Block.
Nobody, least of all Rosey, understood Chance Block. Held after the final class every three days, the 45-minute period was one of those weird experiments to which private schools lik the Winthrop-Hall Institute for Technical Education (or WHITE, as all their sweaters read) occasionally subjected their students. Its official definition was completely incomprehensible, brimming with hallowed education buzzphrases such as “cooperative learning” and “21st century citizenship.” But as far as Rosey could tell, Chance Block boiled down to an awkward 45 minutes that athletes often missed for games. Since no administrator had the guts to send kids home early, they needed the time to be crucial—while also inconsequential. The only problem was, nobody had yet figured out how to make the period both vitally important and wholly unimportant. Instead, every few weeks the administrators opened up an old Monopoly set, picked a new Chance card—hence the name—and imposed whatever instructions they found on the students.
This week, the administrators pulled a blank card and decided the school would test its most revolutionary idea yet: assigning each teacher to babysit a random group of students who would figure out for themselves how to make the time educational.
Rosey couldn’t remember which of the middle-aged math teachers she had been assigned to (they were all just nerdy white guys in various stages of balding), but she did know that Courtney—the talkative girl from her AP Auctioneering class—was in the same group, so when the crowd thinned out, Rosey approached her.
“Hey, do you know where we’re going for Chance Block?” she asked, tapping Courtney on her shoulder.
“What’d you say?” Courtney said, whirling around to face Rosey. “Sorry. God, I’m so tired—I was up until five a.m. doing the Auctioneering paper. That book took, like, forevvvvver to read.” A five-page paper discussing the eight pound real estate book they’d read was due that day.
“You read it all last night?” Rosey couldn’t believe it. After all, they had been assigned little sections of the book each night for two weeks.
“Yes! I mean, okay, no, but like, Sparknotes takes a while to read, too.”
“Right,” Rosey laughed nervously. “Anyway, do you know where we’re going for Chance Block?”
Courtney giggled. “Of course, silly, I love Mr. Borkus. Follow me.”
As they walked, Rosey remembered that Courtney had announced a club.
“Hey, which club did you say you were starting?” Rosey asked. Everyone started clubs at WHITE, although only two or three of them ever got past the first meeting.
“The Diversity and Inclusivity club! It’s me and a bunch of my friends.”
“Oh,” replied Rosey, grimacing. An all-white diversity club. “Are you into, like, social justice and all that?”
Courtney shrugged. “I mean, enough. Whatever. Gotta get into college somehow.”
When they reached the math room, five or six other students were already there sitting around a large table with blank looks on their faces. There was Harry, the lacrosse player whose voice was usually hoarse from grunting; Samantha, the girl who was always doing homework; and some seniors Rosey didn’t know very well. Courtney sat across the table next to Harry, immediately opening her laptop—a rose gold Macbook—to the Brandy Melville website. Rosey, on the other hand, sat in the nearest empty seat.
While they waited for Mr. Borkus, Rosey watched Courtney’s fingers run absentmindedly through her hair. Maybe I should dye my hair blonde, too , Rosey thought, and straighten it. Her eyes traveled down to Courtney’s neck, where a golden letter C hung from a rose gold chain like an expensive name tag. I could be like her , thought Rosey. She imagined herself with the other girls taking pictures like the ones she always saw on Instagram, all of them in that pose that said “I’m not showing off my ass, but like, did I mention I have an ass?”
A clatter toward the front of the room yanked Rosey from her thoughts: Mr. Borkus had arrived.
“Hey guys, welcome to Chance Block.” Mr. Borkus began in a bored voice. “About half an hour ago a fire started in the cafeteria when a burnt-out teacher tried to panini press his computer. Unfortunately, all the fire extinguishers were crushed in that one experimental art project. Now, the principal said we’re supposed to let you all decide what to do about the fire, okay? He said it’ll be, like, a collaborative, 21st century, student-driven alternative assessment.”
Rosey looked around. Some of the students were on their computers; others were fast asleep. Rosey’s eyes began to feel heavy, too. Mr. Borkus was still talking. “—and so the only rule is you can’t be doing homework.” At this, Samantha’s eyes shot up from her work.
“Sorry, but can I do homework? There’s an Honors Puppetry assignment due tomorrow.” She motioned to two worn socks with frowny faces drawn on. “And did you say fire?”
“Yes!” Mr. Borkus seemed to be realizing how little anyone cared. “Guys! There’s a real fire—not a drill. It’s already spread to this building, so we need to figure out how to extinguish it.” Some students raised their heads, looked around groggily for a moment, then put them back down.
“We could use the water fountains—” offered a quiet boarding student named Tim.
“But can we please do homework?” Courtney interjected. A couple of students nodded in agreement.
“Yeah, why can’t we, like, work on our own stuff? Someone else will put out the fire,” agreed Harry, who, with his whirling mouse and laser-like focus on his computer, was clearly engaged in an epic round of Fortnite. Mr. Borkus looked to be at a loss for words, and an awkward silence fell over the room. Rosey tried to think of something to say, but the vast apathy of her classmates was paralyzing.
No one spoke. Harry was trying to conceal clouds of vapor as he puffed on his Juul. The room started to feel hot, smoke drifting in through the cracked door—or was that just another of Harry’s clouds? Mr. Borkus began to pace frantically, muttering to himself about student-driven death. Rosey was still deciding what to say when tongues of flame came under the door, ready to engulf the classroom.
Hewson Duffy is a 16 year old writer and photographer who attends St. Anne’s Belfield School in Charlottesville, VA. His work has been published in Aerie International and Polyphony Lit. When not writing, he is probably drinking chocolate milk.
Visual arts by Anastasia James.