Snazzy (albeit smaller) Nostrum Graphic
Past episodes     Reader's Guide to the Nostrum Universe     Nostrum Correspondence Corner
Subscribe to Nostrum      Home

(New to Nostrum? We recommend starting at the beginning.
Totally lost? Find out who's who in the Reader's Guide or track the "Ref #" links to the previous scene with those characters.)

Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?

Episode 129

The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Bus Token

     There are stories told of students who rise hours before the sun, who do a few hours' worth of farm chores and then eat a healthy hot breakfast every morning before saddling up Old Paint for the trot down to the bus stop, followed by a lonely hundred-mile-ride to the county seat, all because there aren't enough children in Ennui Junction to support a local school of their own. Stories are told of these same students getting out of Ennui Junction at the first opportunity and never coming back, and their families wondering why exactly Johnny and Jimmy and Mary Sue wanted to leave home so dad-burned fast anyhow.

     The first reason is probably that they were named Johnny and Jimmy and Mary Sue, while everyone else their age is called Stack and Lashwitz and Brynndi-Ella. The second reason is that they were bored out of their gorges.

     But you don't have to live in the path of every tornado between San Bernardino and Williamsburg to have a long trip from home to school every day. Kalima Milak lives in Staten Island and goes to school in Manhattan, thus confining her trip to two boroughs of a single city. But every day is an adventure bordering on the infinite, beginning with the walk from her foster home to the bus stop, the ride to the ferry, the crossing of the harbor to the Battery, and finally the subway ride (switching trains once) to Manhattan Lodestone. When the weather is bad enough to make the prospect of a voyage on the ferry sound like an open invitation to Poseidon to pull a few more poor mortals down to join his brother Hades, Kalima will take the long way around across the Verrazano Bridge through Brooklyn, with a whole different skein of buses and subways, both over and under land and water, fire and air. The only bright side to this roughly four hours total of commuting every day is that it provides Kalima with an opportunity to get most of her homework done. You can do a lot of reading between the furthest reaches of the Isle of Staten and the center reach of the Isle of Manhattan. That is probably why Kalima has gotten straight As since her freshman year.

     Of course, like Johnny and Jimmy and Mary Sue, Kalima intends to leave home -- such as it is -- dad-burned fast, namely the minute she heads off for college. She has no direct family of her own, but she would be the last person to bore you with what she refers to as all the Oliver Twists and Turns of her mundane existence. None of the stories about her being married, with a few children of her own, are true, but there is no question that she looks older and definitely tougher than the average high school senior for no other reason than because she is a big girl, very soon to become a big woman. Nearly six foot tall and two hundred pounds is big for a girl, big for a woman, big for a boy, even big for a man. And on Kalima it is not mushy, random flab. It is solid… something. Not muscle, but not fat. It is essence of Kalima, built firm to last. And even those who might question her toughness if it were based only on bulk are suitably silenced by Kalima's perennial human-ear necklace. Even though it isn't a human ear, it is something very much like a human ear. Maybe it's essence of human ear. Whatever it is, it does the job. On buses, boats and subways, it gives Kalima the peace she needs to do her homework. And if Mike Tyson ever shows up some morning, it will be a good conversation starter for the two of them.

     This morning there is a bitter foretaste of winter blowing cold across the bay, but that has not deterred Kalima from making the voyage on the ferry; it is warm enough on the benches amidships. And today she is not doing her homework. When she reaches school she will make a quick turnaround and climb on the bus to Algren-on-the-Beach, which means that she will be spending quite a lot of time in transit. But the ultimate goal is worth it. She will get to debate for the first time since the Miami Messerschmitt, and she is especially looking forward to breaking in the new LD topic on physician-assisted suicide. As the ferry ploughs its way through the waters, its ponderous engines rumbling hungrily from down below somewhere in its great belly, Kalima reads over her cases, analyzing for the thousandth time every line of reasoning, wondering what the responses will be from her opponents, and writing down responses to those presumed responses on yellow PostIts (PostIts are to debaters what duct tape is to plumbers). She wants to be certain that for any argument that anyone comes up with, she is ready. The topic boils down to the value of life itself versus the quality of life, and on the affirmative side she argues that an individual ought to be able to control his or her own destiny, and that a life of unbearable and interminable pain cannot be forced upon an individual by society. On the negative, she posits that life is intrinsically valuable, and cannot be abridged either by society or an individual. She also has impressive evidence that physician-assisted suicide leads to a society where impartial bodies decide who should live and who should die, and where the sick feel an obligation to ring up Dr. Kevorkian on the horn and ask for the plunger set. She also has impressive philosophical evidence from Kant for the affirmative, on the value of autonomy. She has Mill on the Negative. She has implicit immorality on the aff with the third-party of the assisting physician. She has statistics from the Netherlands, where euthanasia is the biggest growth industry since the tulip craze.

     She is ready for this topic. She is ready for this tournament. She already has her first Combat of Conquerors limb, won at the Messerschmitt. A second limb at Algren would seal her bid at the earliest possible moment.

     Oh, yes. She is ready for this tournament.

     When the boat docks she joins the huddling masses as they march down to the subway to continue their trek. It is hard to imagine why anyone would live on Staten Island if they had to leave it every day to migrate to Manhattan, but that's what apparently the vast majority of them do. Only a few more months, Kalima thinks, as the cold of the water gives way to the warmer subterranean reaches of the underground railroad and she unbuttons her jacket, readjusting her heavy backpack as she does so. She has a couple of changes of clothes in there, and she is already wearing her black suit which, thanks to ample girth, makes her look about ten years older than her actual age. It was Lisa Torte who originally worked with Kalima to develop a commanding debate presence, and Mr. Lo Pat has been aggressive in his support of her continuing it. Looking grown up when your opponent looks like a nursery-school refugee sometimes makes all the difference in the impressionable mind of a debate judge. Especially a debate judge who hasn't got a clue what debate is all about, a breed that, unfortunately, is all to common, at least in LD.

     Through some amazing luck, Kalima finds a seat on the subway for the uptown journey. She can't count the dwindling number of future journeys on her fingers yet, but their finiteness is definitely impressing itself upon her. Only a few more months, she thinks again, tucking her cases into their folder and putting the folder back into her backpack. A few more months and she will be out of high school and on her way to college. She has submitted an early admission to Harvard, and she has every expectation of being accepted. According to her Lodestone counselor, Kalima has all the advantages: she's smart, she's poor, and she's a minority. Most likely she'll get a free ticket for everything. Worst-case scenario, Harvard will pass and she'll shoot for Princeton, Yale, Amherst and Chicago. One of them will pay all the freight. Students like Kalima are the reason the alumni send in the big bucks that transfer into student financial aid. Chatsworth Osborne, Jr., will get in as a legacy, and be able to pay the tuition out of his laundry money. He will also barely pass half his courses before graduating and getting hired by one of Chatsworth Osborne, Sr.'s, golf club buddies as a junior v.p. Kalima Milak, on the other hand, will get as many A's in college as she got in high school, and will upon graduating find some sort of employment that changes lives, and never make half as much as Chatty Junior. And she won't care in the least. Because at least she won't have to commute from Staten Island anymore.

     As she climbs the stairs up to the street, joining the endless crowd of midtown, Kalima figures she will be able to pull a few things out of her locker and even go to homeroom before the bus leaves for Massachusetts. She is arriving at normal school time, so she might as well pretend it's a normal school day for a little while. That is one of the joys of debate, to get out of school on an average of almost one day a week. Mini-vacations, so to speak, if debate tournaments can be considered a vacation.

     Any ideas of this being a normal day, however, are instantly forgotten as she turns the corner to walk down Lodestone's street. There is a line into the building stretching half a block.

     "So what's all this, then?" Kalima asks the kids at the end of the line.

     They shrug. "Nobody knows," one of them says.

     "At least nobody at this end of the line," another one adds.


      She turns at the whirring sound of the battery-powered wheelchair. "Good morning, Mr. Lo Pat."

     "What is going on here?" her coach asks, looking up at her angrily, as if somehow she might be to blame for the entryway holdup.

     "Nobody knows."

     "Come with me."

     She falls into step behind Mr. Lo Pat as he whirrs his vehicle toward the front of the line, up the ramp next to the stairs and toward the front door of the building. The Red Sea of students parts as he passes inside, with Kalima right on his tail. When he sees what is causing the line, he pulls to a halt.

     "Where did this come from?" he asks, his voice booming down the hallway.

     "Principal's orders," one of the uniformed guards replies.

     There are four of them -- uniformed guards -- standing on either side of a metal detector. A conveyor built is running backpacks through an X-ray machine. Students who set off the beep of the metal detector are first asked to empty their pockets, and if that doesn't satisfy the machine, one of the guards, of the same sex, carefully runs a handheld tool up and down the inside of the students legs, their sides, everywhere they could be concealing whatever it is that the guards think they might be concealing.

     "Do we have to show boarding passes?" Kalima asks.

     "This is outrageous," Mr. Lo Pat says.

     "This is for your own protection, sir," the first guard assures him. "Please show your id before entering the detector."

     "I'm in a wheelchair, my good man. A metal wheelchair."

     The guard looks down at him. "You're a teacher here?"

     "Either that or a teenager in very bad shape." He angrily thrusts his open wallet at the guard, showing his school I.D.

     "All right. We'll do you manually." He grabs the handheld device and starts running it around Mr. Lo Pat's seated person.

     "I assume that you're expecting teachers to enter the building armed and dangerous?"

     "We can't tell who's going to be armed and dangerous. That's the reason for the checkpoint."

     "What about the other entrances to the building?"

     "They're all locked, sir. This is it."

     Mr. Lo Pat passes the test, and the guard wheels him past. Kalima then shows her I.D., and after laying her backpack on the conveyor belt, successfully passes through the detector without setting off the alarm.

     "Come with me to the debate office, Kalima," Mr. Lo Pat says. "I want you to help me with the registration for Venerable Bede. You don't mind missing homeroom, do you?"

     But Kalima doesn't answer. When he looks up at her, he is shocked to see something that he has never seen from her before. She is doing her best to keep from crying.

     "Kalima. What's the matter?"

     "This is a school, not a prison." She turns around to look at the guards and the slow snake of students trying to get through them.

     "In a prison," Mr. Lo Pat says, "they keep bad people from getting out. Here, presumably they're trying to keep bad people from getting in."

     "This is a magnet school. The average intelligence is Mensa plus. The only weapon these kids know how to use is a Bic pen."

     "I don't disagree with you, Kalima. I think this is an outrage."

     "We should tell the principal to stop it!"

     Mr. Lo Pat looks up at her. She is now no longer able to contain her tears. "I don't know if that's a good idea."

     "Why not?"

     "He's obviously doing this to protect the students." He reaches up and takes her hand. "What if he's right?"

     "I don't like this world sometimes, Mr. Lo Pat." She has quickly gotten control of herself again. "I thought I was the toughest person in the school," she says. "Look at me."

     Mr. Lo Pat smiles. "I thought I was the toughest person in the school."

     She cannot help but return his smile. "Let's go over that Bede registration," she says.

     "Let's," he says, patting her hand once as he turns and whirrs away down the hall.

Is the world as sad as we sometimes think it is?

Is Mr. Lo Pat the toughest person at Manhattan Lodestone?

Will Kalima get her COC limb at Algren?

Will Bob get to use his Viagra now that Libby's out of the running?

Is there any way an Oprah/Trump ticket could lose in '00??

Find out nothing worth knowing in our next episode: "Dice: The Plural of Die, Which the Mie Did When the Cat Ate it."

Go to the next episode Nov 3, 1999.