Wednesday, May 10, 2017

New Short Story: Brain Freeze

This story is dedicated to my AP students, and AP students all over the country, and many parts of the world, who have been taking their high school Advanced Placement exams this month. 

Brain Freeze by Philip Hoy

Amanda moved up the ramp along with the rest of the AP United States History students, shuffled through the open door, and slid into the seat of the first available desk. She’d never been in this classroom before and with the bulletin boards covered over with butcher paper it was hard to tell what subject was taught in here. The man at the front of the classroom calling names she recognized: Mr. Delano. He had been her sophomore English Honors teacher. She saw the look of recognition on his face when he got to her name on the roster, and she smiled back at him when he handed her an answer sheet.

After listening to the necessary warnings and instructions and bubbling this and signing that, the plastic wrap on the exam booklets was removed and the test began. The first reading was from the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Amanda breathed a sigh of relief. She knew this one. She had studied it religiously. She read the first question carefully: This decision most directly reflected a growing belief after the Second World War that the power of the federal government should be used to, A: promote greater racial justice, B: defend traditional visions of morality, C: foster—

And then it happened. The air conditioner turned on.

Amanda tore her eyes away from her test and turned her face toward the ceiling and the air vent directly above her.

When the rooms weren’t too hot they were too cold, and despite the fact that the covers on these vents were meant to disperse the air in four separate directions, a single column of icy wind blew down upon the heads of whomever had the misfortune of sitting directly beneath them.

Some people didn’t mind. They found the blanket of frost comforting. Amanda hated it. It gave her brain freeze. Not the sudden immobilizing pain that came from swallowing too much ice cream too quickly, but a slow, steady, chill induced, coma. First her neck would begin to ache, then her temples would pound, and finally, she would pillow her head in her arms, lay it on the desktop, and fall asleep.

Sonia Sotomayor herself could be standing before her and it wouldn’t matter. Her brain would be useless. It just wouldn’t work.

Whenever she found herself beneath one of these cold zones she had to ask the teacher to please move her. Most teachers did so the very next day, if not immediately. While others, like her AP U.S. History teacher Ms. Foster for example (the kind of teacher who struggled to comprehend a classroom with even one student not sitting in alphabetized order), needed a phone call from Amanda’s parents to the principal to force the seating change.

Maybe that’s why Ms. Foster hated Amanda, why she sat her in a lone desk pushed up against the far wall near the back of the room, why she never called on her in class, why she at least once a week marked her absent by mistake, why she never scored any of her essays higher than a B, and why she either dismissed or failed to acknowledge any observation Amanda attempted to contribute during class discussions.

If multiple-choice tests weren’t worth sixty percent of Ms. Foster’s overall grade, Amanda could never have earned the A she had in the class now. Ms. Foster might want to deny her existence, but she couldn’t ignore Amanda’s near perfect test scores.

Except that yesterday when Ms. Foster had announced she had baked the class cupcakes in honor of their big AP exam the next morning, and she had walked up and down the aisles placing a cupcake on the corner of each student’s desk, she had somehow forgotten to give one to Amanda.

When someone in the class had pointed this out, Ms. Foster frowned in Amanda’s general direction, peered down into the foil-lined cardboard box still in her hands, and said, “Well, lucky for Amanda, I thought to bring an extra one, just in case.”

Mr. Delano must have noticed her staring at the ceiling because he walked over and asked quietly, “Are you okay, Amanda? Is the air bothering you? Do you need to sit somewhere else?”

She looked down at her test. A dull ache had already begun to spread across her forehead and the words on the page were beginning to blur. She turned to Mr. Delano. She liked him. He had always been respectful and fair with her. “No,” she said. “I’m good right here.”