Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Focus School

"The Focus School" was written during that huge sprint of writing I had in late 2006/early 2007. I believe it was one of the first ones I wrote. The idea for it came from a dream I had the night before.


The Focus School

Neil was a special and privileged young man. His parents made enough money to send him to a very exclusive and reputable boarding school: The Academy of Concentration for the Creation of Well-Rounded Individuals. That was the name the brochures said, and it was the name many of the parents of students used when asked where their children were taught.

The students just called it the Focus School.

Neil found out very early why it “the Creation of Well-Rounded Individuals” was part of the Focus School’s name: at the Focus School, no one was special. Oh, everyone had their talents and their skills, their gifts and the abilities that set them apart, just like at any other school. But unlike any other school, the Focus School had the Repressors.

Almost immediately after he was dropped off his first day at the Focus School, Neil was fitted with a Repressor. It was a black band about two inches wide that strapped around his waist like a belt, but it was pulled tightly and in direct contact with his skin at all times. And it wasn’t quite around his waist. The Repressor was designed to be worn just below the ribcage.

It was uncomfortable, and Neil didn’t like it. Worse, it couldn’t be removed except by the Headmaster. He didn’t quite understand the purpose of the Repressor until he met the three boys he shared a dormroom with. Neil entered their room, which was small but comfortable enough for four boys, dragging the few things the school allowed students to bring from home. The room was narrow but high, since all four bunks were stacked one on top of the other. A single ladder went up the side of all four.

Charles, handsome but a little overweight with long, streaky light brown hair, lay on the bottommost of the four stacked bunks. Wil, was probably the skinniest person Neil had ever seen, and his dark red buzzed hair stuck straight up, giving him the illusion of height, as well. But his height was just an illusion. He peered down at Neil frm the very top bunk, well over Neil’s head, which almost made Neil dizzy thinking about it. Vaughn was also skinny, with greasy black hair that hung limply just past his ears. He sat in one of the four small padded chairs that were (thankfully) on the floor.

Vaughn grinned. “I didn’t know if you wanted the second or third bunk, so I haven’t picked yet.”

Neil scratched at the Repressor, which was digging uncomfortably into his midsection. “Thanks. I’d rather the lower one, though.”

Vaughn let out a cheerful little whoop and practically flew onto the second-highest bunk. Neil set his few things on his bunk and stretched out uncomfortably.

Charles leaned out and up, his head appearing just in Neil’s sight. “The Repressor bugging you?”

“Yeah. I don’t get what they’re for.”

“What do you know about this school?”

“It’s supposed to make us ‘well-rounded individuals’. That’s all anyone’s told me about it,” Neil replied.

“Charles is already well-rounded!” came Vaughn’s rather high voice from above them.

Charles shook his head. “Make us just like everyone else is all that means. You’re here. That means you’ve got something that makes you special. Really special. Is that right, Neil?”

Confused, Neil nodded. “I was the fastest runner at my old school.”

“Bet you broke a lot of track records, didn’t you?”

“Tons of them.”

Charles stepped out of his bunk and lifted his shirt to reveal a ridiculously muscular torso. He wasn’t overweight– not in a bad way, that is. The black band of the Repressor stood out against his muscles. “I didn’t do anything to earn these muscles. I can lift a bus full of people over my head and walk around with it like it’s a balloon. But now...” He picked up a discarded soda can and squeezed it with his hand. He strained for a moment before the can finally got a few finger-sized indentations. He dropped the can. “This thing makes me weak as water. I can’t stand it!”

“So these things... the Repressors... we have no talents? Is that what you’re saying?”

Vaughn nodded and jumped out of his bed. “I can shrink. Or... could. Now I’m stuck at this height, and it’s awful. I used to hide behind pieces of cereal in our pantry and ride cockroaches and mice.”

The look on Neil’s face was scary. “You mean... I can’t run anymore? This thing makes it so I can’t run?”

“You’ll be lucky if you can jog more than ten feet,” came Wil’s voice.

“What does this thing stop you from doing?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”


Wil was right; Neil could hardly jog anymore, or even manage a fast walk. Few of the other students at the Focus School were as willing to talk about their gifts as Charles and Vaughn were. They said it was pointless trying to keep the charade that they were special. They were freaks, which was why they were in this school in the first place. Better to accept their normality and get on with their lives than indulge in fantasies.

Neil was in his fourth week at the Focus School when the teachers began to force him to run. He ran races with other students and lost every time. Many times, he was lucky to finish the race before everyone else got sick of waiting for him.

“They’re trying to break you, Neil,” Vaughn told him while trying to catch his breath after one race. “They do it to us all. They’re trying to make you think you’re not special, that there’s nothing to you.”

“But why only to me? Why don’t they humiliate the other students like this?”

“They do. Weightlifting contests... for strong guys like Charles, trivia competitions for the smart kids, long jumps for... people who could jump.”

“What about you? How do they make you feel bad that you can’t go small anymore?”

Vaughn sighed and ran a hand through his greasy hair. “Limbo, Neil. Limbo.”

“This is just wrong.”

“You don’t have to tell me that. But you have to wonder if your parents knew what this place was really like before they decided to send you here. I know for a fact that you’re not the only fast kid here. Sable, that girl who... I eat lunch with a lot... used to run. Like the wind, she said, over hills, so fast her hair would stay pushed back all day after she ran.”

“But why are we here?”

Vaughn shrugged. “My guess is to have the specialness stamped out of us. I’ve heard of people who graduated this school. There aren’t many– this school’s only had three graduating classes so far– but I think that all the exposure to the Repressors kicks the ability out of you for good. Either that, or you don’t get it taken off even after you graduate.”

“Do we not get it taken off when we go home for the summer?”

“Go home for the summer? We don’t get to do that, Neil.”


Wil and Vaughn were asleep, and Charles was snoring loudly below him as Neil tugged at the Repressor. It was hard enough getting a single finger underneath the hideous black band, much less pull at it with enough strength to get it off. It was hopeless.


“So what is it that makes us special?”

Charles shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

“I mean, do you think it’s mutated genes, or extremely recessive traits, or what?”

“Like maybe we’re all products of some awful government experiment and now they’re trying to cover it up,” Charles laughed, but his face suddenly went serious, and he squinted at Neil. “What do your parents do for a living?”

“Mom teaches college French and Dad’s a surgeon.”

“They’re not secret government agents?”

Neil raised an eyebrow. “Are yours?”

After a moment of silence between them, Neil and Charles burst out laughing.


Neil had been at the Focus School for what seemed like most of his life now, but it had only been two years. He had finally and grudgingly accepted that he would never run again, or at least not as fast as he used to. But that didn’t mean he liked it. And it didn’t mean that the races against the other students stopped. He, Charles, and Vaughn almost never talked about the gifts they had had anymore, and Wil was as antisocial as ever.

At the “end” of every year (the first really hot day of July was considered the end, since no one went home for the summer anyway) the entire school participated in a mass spirit-breaking marathon of events designed to make every student feel horrible about himself or herself, including footraces, strength and endurance contests, mental tests– at least one event for every possible trait a student could have excelled in before. It was an agonizing day for all concerned. Every student failed miserably at something because of the unmentioned but always thought of Repressors. Many of the students who had any spirit left in them tried to act like there was no importance to the mass events, but they competed anyway, trying to win.

The end of the week would be Neil’s second End of Year Event Marathon, and he wasn’t looking forward to it.

“Ready to lose a bunch of meaningless contests again this year, Neil?” Wil remarked as he passed by at lunch one day.

“Shut up, Wil. You’re going to lose, too, you know.”

Wil was already gone, and he probably hadn’t heard Neil speak.

“Wait...” A glimmer of spark of a thought was forming in Neil’s head. He quickly sought out Vaughn.

“Hey, Speedy,” Vaughn said emotionlessly.

“Vaughn, why do we compete?”

“Because they make us,” he replied around a mouthful of some rather unidentifiable food.

“But why do we try?”

“I don’t know what you’re getting at.”

“Vaughn, we need to get a message out to all the other students. This could be the most important thing we ever do in our lives.”


End of Year Event Marathon morning dawned, and Neil woke feeling happier than he had in a long time. At breakfast, some of the other students were actually smiling, if rather glumly.

The first event was a trivia contest. The questions were always simple, but the students who had once prided themselves in having quick minds were always sluggish thinking and never managed to think of the answers before someone else answered. But this time...

“What is the square root of sixteen?”

The big room was silent. The ten teams of students, grouped together seemingly at random, all appeared to be thinking. In truth, they were grouped by former ability, and they knew it. It was just a matter of waiting now.

A buzzer finally went off. A girl named Tomo timidly answered, “Four?”

“That’s... right...” the teacher didn’t look too happy, knowing exactly which team Tomo belonged to.

Question after question went by, and after each one, there was a long silence while everyone thought. It was always the team of formerly intelligent students that answered.

The trivia-off ended, and the victorious team looked over to the formerly fast students. Neil shot Tomo a wink.

She mouthed a “thank you” back to him.


The second event was a weightlifting contest. One by one, the students went up to lift as much weight as they could, and nearly everyone pretended to strain just to lift two hardcover textbooks. Charles, a girl named Jelani, and a number of other formerly strong students lifted far more, even if it was only by lifting five hardcover textbooks.


Event by event passed, and the students who normally came in last won the games they should have been winning all the time.


The teachers were all eyeing the students skeptically as they lined up for the long footrace. The race began, and Neil began to jog, already feeling that stitch in his side that was the Repressor’s doing. Sable, another formerly fast student, was right next to him, huffing but still jogging. She smiled at Neil. “This was a wonderful idea.”

The finish line was still far ahead of him when Neil had to stop jogging and walk. Glancing behind him, he could see the other students advancing at snail’s pace. He smiled. Even at this rate, he would still be among the winners, as it should be.

The stitch in his side disappeared, and he managed to jog a little again. The wind came up behind him, making him feel like he was going faster.

Wait... he was going faster. His legs were covering ground at a fast jog– no... at a run.

He felt a loosening around his lower torso, and heard a loud snap. The black strip of the Repressor fell out of his shirt and landed on the grass beneath his feet.

It took him a moment to slow to a stop. Sable was right next to him, disbelief evident in her smile.

Behind them, the other students were standing in what seemed like a sea of black strips. They looked around at each other in disbelief, and a few students even picked up the fallen bands to inspect them.

Charles was at the forefront of the lagging students, and he picked up a Repressor and pulled on both ends. A tense moment passed, and a resounding snap filled everyone’s ears as it tore in half.

In a matter of seconds, the race field was in chaos. Students were dashing about, shouting complex scientific theories at the top of their lungs, pulling up huge clods of dirt with their bare hands, and dozens of other things, all at once.

In the chaos, Wil walked up to Neil. “I thought I’d never be able to do this again.” Without another word, he crouched at the knees and jumped straight into the air. He didn’t come down, but hovered over Neil’s head for a moment before shooting off across the sky.

“I’m glad I was able to help you do it,” Neil said as he took off across the field.

No comments:

Post a Comment