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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
When you spend all day, every day, as an able-bodied seaman on the formidable battleship of high school, a small gob swabbing the broad decks of public education, it is nice once in a while to get a promotion to the rank of ensign, even if it's only for one weekend. Which is why today may be one of the most enjoyable in Tilde Hyphen-Emdash's naval slash educational life to date.
As captain of the Algren-on-the-Beach Debate and Chowder Society and Traveling Marching Band, as it is officially known, Tilde's responsibilities over the next two days will be far-ranging. Like Kalima Milak at the Vaganza, Tilde will spend the lion's share of her time presiding over the ballot table. But she will also be the chief liaison between Nip Sazo in the tab room and everyone else in the high school. The last thing a tab director needs, during the holy ceremonies of running the tab computer, is distractions. Tilde will make sure that those distractions do not happen. She will also make sure that all the ballots that are handed into the tab room are filled out correctly; considering that these ballots are, for the most part, written up by the smartest university students and the most dedicated coaches and the wisest parents, carrying years of judging and debating experience, it is nice to know that only eighty or ninety percent of them, at most, are ever inaccurate.
Because of her special responsibilities on this special weekend, Tilde is finding it impossible to concentrate on her classes this morning. In the arena of regular school, she is still only an AB; she won't be able to sport her ensign's stripe until noon, when she will begin working with Sazo setting up for registration. But from that point on, she will be special. She will have access to every room in the building; in fact, the custodians will come to her to find out what to lock and what to unlock. She will be behind things and between things and above things and below things. She will not just be a senior with unlimited access, she will be Super Senior with Infinite Access.
In a word, she will rule.
Except that now, she is sitting in English class listening to Mr. McDermott rambling on about how Moby Dick is the best book ever written, even though he hasn't assigned it to the class because he doesn't believe that anyone would actually read it, since only three of them even read Billy Budd, which is about a hundredth as long.
And this is honors English, Tilde thinks. She can't imagine what intellectual barriers are being assembled in the non-honors class.
God bless Captain Vere. God bless Moby Dick. God bless us all, everyone.
Nowadays no one even says God bless you when you sneeze.
Whatever happened to class?
The 12:05 bell rings, and Mr. McDermott lets out his usual Friday sigh. "Please please please please please finish Billy Budd over the weekend, ladies and gentlemen. I want you to have some Melville under your belts before you graduate this year."
No one in the class appears to be paying much attention as they slam their desks shut and grab their pens and notebooks and rise in the exodus toward the next period. Not that they were paying that much attention before the bell rang.
Will high school English teachers never learn that Melville is a lost cause?
Tilde is among the first out of the door. She has to meet Nips in the library to prepare for registration. She is no longer a student. For the next two days, she is the ruling class.
Tilde Hyphen-Emdash. Super Senior. Or, as the lady would prefer to be known until sometime tomorrow evening, She Who Must Be Obeyed. (A la Haggard, not Mortimer, for those who are keeping notes.)
A tournament doesn't really begin until the first bus rolls into the parking lot. And this year, the first bus is from Toulouse-Lautrec High School.
As is to be expected with a big Policy school, unloading the bus is no easy business. Had Fleece is the first person to alight from the vehicle, and he hits the ground running, heading toward the rear to oversee the unloading through the back door, while keeping a clear captain's eye on the proceedings at the storage bins under the bus. Luggage is flying in one direction, evidence tubs and dollies are flying in another direction, and a small herd of debaters is on the edge of stampede, waiting for orders.
Coach Dan Ryan is the last to step down from within the belly of the yellow beast. He holds up his right hand, and the confusion immediately comes to a halt, and there is complete silence from his team.
Such is the power of a debate god. Try to get that many teenagers to shut up when you're lecturing to them about Melville.
Inside the large, modern Algren high school building, dozens of non-debate students are watching this process of debussing. Most of them have never seen it before. The sight of a dozen or so students arriving from the middle of nowhere near the end of the day on a Friday, half of them in business suits appropriate to their gender, all of them either carrying briefcases or lugging lifetime supplies of Rubbermaid tubs, is not the standard kickoff for the weekend.
"The nerds are here," one of the wits in sophomore biology announces, much to the chagrin of his teacher who is trying to prepare the class for their first dissection next Monday.
"If you would pay more attention to me than to what's going on outside that window, we would all be happier, Mr. Matsen."
"What's going on out there is a lot more interesting," the student replies arrogantly.
For the eight-thousandth time today, the biology teacher wonders why he didn't listen to his father and get his MBA. He would bet anything that the guys at Merrill-Lynch never have to put up with this nonsense.
He walks over to the window himself and takes a quick look at Matsen's so-called nerds. Debaters. For Nip Sazo's tournament. Some day these "nerds" will be arguing in congress whether or not to cut off Matsen's welfare check.
"Back to your seat, Matsen," he mumbles, turning back and returning to his desk.
"But Mr. Montero--"
"Sit. Now. Like a good dog."
Tilde barks out the command like an officer used to being listened to. A novice Polician immediately appears at the registration table.
"Take this to Nips. Tell him to change the names marked in red." She hands the novice a software printout of the Toulouse entry, which she has amended now that the team has actually arrived. There's many a slip between pre-registration and the trip: Few are the teams who sign up the same people who show up.
"Okay," the runner says, turning and slowly walking away from the table.
"RUN!" Tilde yells at his slowly receding back. "You're a runner, damn it. RRRRRUUUUUNNNNN!!!!"
The runner runs.
At least until he is out of Tilde's line of sight.
"That's it?" Dan Ryan asks.
Tilde looks up at him from behind the table. "That's it. Here's your packet with school maps and a welcome message. Marty will take care of your housing."
Ryan nods and moves down along the table, where the aforementioned Marty will check Toulouse's names against his housing list, and tell Ryan where his students will be sleeping tonight.
"Hello, Mr. Lo Pat."
Mr. Lo Pat's wheelchair has whirred up to the table. "Hello, Tilde."
She immediately dives into her pile of folders, and picks out the one for Manhattan Lodestone. "Good trip up?" she asks.
Mr. Lo Pat nods. "We made it in record time. We didn't stop for anything."
"That's a long trip."
"A few of the students requested rest stops, but they were warned this morning not to indulge in any diuretics for breakfast, so any problems were of their own making. But they are young, with young bladders."
Tilde pauses to consider the impact of that statement. "I guess they're like camels," she says. "The ships of the desert. Only sort of in reverse."
Mr. Lo Pat looks up from his registration sheet. "You could say that. But I wouldn't." The Lodestone coach makes a few changes and hands the sheet back to Tilde, who keeps whatever further comments she has to herself.
The registration table at Algren, like any good registration table, moves the entrants along from one station to the next in an assembly line. One person handles the tournament entry, or perhaps a series of persons handle entries in different divisions, the next person handles the housing arrangements, and the last person on the line usually handles the financial transactions. A lot of things can happen at any of these stations. First, the host school must verify that the students who are signed up and entered into the sacred computer are the students who actually showed up. There are always one or two from each school who came down with dengue fever or potato blight this morning and who have been replaced with teammates. Not only that, but judges usually change sex, age and division somewhere between the Wednesday night deadline for information and the Friday afternoon verification of that information. At the housing station, there is usually a parent behind the scenes who has matched the entrants and their sleeping bags to the perfect host family, girls here, boys there, cat allergies here, friends of so-and-so at so-and-so's, all of which is juggled ad hoc by the kid who crosses out the names of the no-shows and replaces them willy nilly with the go-shows. And no registration session would be complete without at least one school with no check, one school with the wrong check, one school with no intention of ever paying, one school with a burlap bag filled with pennies, and one school that has made special arrangements with Mr. Sazo and if you would only go talk to him neither of us would have to stand here arguing. It is probably important to point out that tournament directors as a rule are not at the registration tables, as they are at this point running around in the sub-basement trying to find out when the toilets are going to be turned back on, or, like Nip Sazo, doing the last minute massaging of the sacred computer as the new data arrives from the table. So it's usually coach vs. kid, take no prisoners, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, can I have another receipt for that for the vice principal's out-of-work brother-in-law? And always one cry, repeated over and over, whenever there's a problem or information that must be sent behind the scenes.
"Hi, Bob Cratch."
The Quilty Prep team has arrived.
Bob Cratch shrugs. "We ran out of cappuccino when we crossed the Massachusetts border, but otherwise we did fine."
Tilde hands him the Quilty registration sheets. Bob Cratch bends down over the table and begins making changes on what seems like everything.
"What happened?" Tilde asks. "Did your whole team get abducted by aliens on the way up here?"
"Just a couple of them. And we've got judge changes too."
Tilde furrows her brows. "You've made a lot of judge changes already."
"We've got to make more. We don't have any."
"You don't have any judges?"
"We thought we would, butů" Bob Cratch smiles in a big galoot way that he knows most people find endearing.
"They got abducted by aliens," Tom Abelard adds, poking his disheveled head from around Bob Cratch's back.
"You came without any judges?" Mr. Lo Pat asks, whirring back down the line.
"Hello, Mr. Lo Pat," Bob Cratch says. "Yeah. We had some problems, you know?"
"No, I don't know." He looks over at Tilde. "Does Mr. Sazo know about this?"
"He shouldn't accept any team that isn't chaperoned." The Lodestone coach looks back up at Bob Cratch, who is towering above him. "Nothing good can come of this. Mark my words. Nothing good, and an awful lot bad."
"We're willing to buy our judging," Bob Cratch says.
"You can't buy chaperoning!"
"Maybe we could do a thing like the Civil War, where you can buy someone to serve for you." He turns to Tilde. "Is there like a day laborer place in Algren, where all the immigrants hang out and the rich families come and hire them for a dollar a day to harvest their rutabagas or whatever? We could get one of them. Maybe a Guatemalan or something."
"This is not funny, young man." Mr. Lo Pat is fuming.
Bob Cratch says nothing. He knows that Mr. Lo Pat never judges, so what is the worst thing that can happen to him?
"Well?" Mr. Lo Pat turns to Tilde. "What are you going to do about this?"
At a tournament, in a situation like this, there is only one thing to do.
Will anyone at Algren ever read Moby Dick?
Will the Quilty team chastise the caterer who allowed them to run out of cappuccino?
Will Tilde get a runner?
Will Microsoft break up into a lot of little companies, so we can call them Minimicrosofts? Or maybe Microminisofts? Or just Micro Micros?
Should we at least be happy that it's Egregious Philbin and not Kathie Lee who's on both morning and night?
All this and bacon in our next episode: "Over the river and through the woods just to eat six different kinds of potatoes?"
Go to the next episode Dec 1, 1999.