A Stranger in Lawndale
a multi-part story by Belle Book

Chapter Nine: New Opportunities

Timothy O'Neill arrived at Lawndale High, eager to see who the new principal of Lawndale High was. He had learned -- along with all the other teachers -- that the Superintendent had just hired a new principal. Although he'd never say it openly -- or even to himself -- Ms. Li had been a control freak and total bitch. Hopefully the new principal would be better.

When Mr. O'Neill entered the doors, he saw Janet Barch and history teacher Anthony DeMartino had already arrived. "Hello Anthony, Janet -- I mean, Miss Janet --" he began.

"Hi, Skinny!" said Ms. Barch. "I suppose you were invited here to meet our new principal as well."

"Yes, I was," Mr. O'Neill replied as the door opened and art teacher Claire Defoe arrived. "I wonder who he -- or she -- is."

"As long as she's NOTHING like Ms. Li, I'll be HAPPY," said Mr. DeMartino, his eye bulging out as usual when he exclaimed his words. "The SEWING CLASS, the Ultra-Cola TEACHING TOOLS (1) ... she was a total NIGHTMARE!"

"I have to admit, I wasn't too pleased with what she did to Daria & Jane's painting in the school art contest (2)," Ms. Defoe said. Mr. O'Neill wasn't too happy about that one either -- not so much his effort to "smooth the rough edges" but what Ms. Li did after Daria & Jane tried to fulfill their end of the bargain he made with them if they didn't approve of his effort.

That's when Diane Bennett, the economics teacher, entered the front doors. "So, I guess you're all here for the same reason I am," she said.

At that point, a door opened and closed somewhere. They all turned and saw a Chinese-American woman in her mid-thirties enter the hallway. She was attractive but not really beautiful, with shoulder-length black hair and dark brown eyes. She wore a white blouse, a slate blue jacket, and pants that were also slate blue.

"Hello everyone," the strange woman said. "I'm Melissa Cho, and I'm the new principal. I heard something about my predecessor from the superintendent. I suppose she was really ... challenging." Clearly she was understating what she most likely really thought about her predecessor.

"You have no IDEA!" Mr. DeMartino said. "Once we had to go on STRIKE just to get a RAISE (3)! If I'm to be stuck teaching IDIOTS and SLACKERS, I deserve proper COMPENSATION for it!"

"Ah, I suppose you're Mr. DeMartino," said Ms. Cho. "Superintendent Cartwright told me about you. And he also told me about a guy named Mr. O'Neill. I take it you're him," she added, turning to Mr. O'Neill.

"Yes, I'm Timothy O'Neill and that's Anthony DeMartino," Mr. O'Neill said. "He's the History teacher and I'm the English and Language Arts teacher. I'm also in charge of the Drama Club, also known as Drama Horizons, and I'm the male teacher for the Self-Esteem course. And I think we're all hoping that you're less challenging than Ms. Li was."

"I'm Janet Barch, the Science teacher," Ms. Barch said. "And I'm sure hoping you're less of a pain in the neck than Ms. Li was!"

"I'm Claire Defoe, the Art teacher," said Ms. Defoe. "I hope you don't try to censor works of art like your predecessor."

"That would be the time she wanted two students to change the message of one of their posters," Ms. Cho began.

"The message was too ... icky," Mr. O'Nell protested.

"Jane Lane did a painting of a beautiful girl and her friend, Daria Morgendoffer, added a poem which revealed that the girl suffered from an eating disorder," Ms. Defore explained. "I thought they were making fun of a girl who had an eating disorder, but they were just trying to shock the viewer into understanding that such beauty might come with a price -- an eating disorder, in this instance."

"Hmm, I heard the details of this from the superintendent when he explained why he fired Ms. Li. The message, if properly stated, might be a good thing," said Ms. Cho. "I don't see it as icky." This caused Mr. O'Neill to stare at her in surprise. He couldn't understand why she'd support such a negative message.

"And I'm Diane Bennett," said Mrs. Bennett. "I'm the Economics teacher. I got along okay with Ms. Li, although one time the library roof caved in and somehow the money got misplaced (4). As I was telling her about this, I noticed a polygraph, which she said she won at a raffle. Later, she was so desperate to get more money from Ultra Cola that she actually went on a caffiene-induced frenzy."

"Well, I have had experience as the principal of the elementary school in Cumberland and I did pretty well there, so I think I have enough experience to handle this school," Ms. Cho explained. "First things first. I learned that my predecessor not only got a polygraph machine -- which I suspect she actually bought using school money, she also tried to get a bulletproof glass skylight for the swimming pool by having a model agency do a class and try to recruit students here (5) and she had wacky DJs perform at Lawndale High because she had bomb-sniffing dogs and they needed to eat (6). And I also learned, among other things, of the wedding expo she had here (7). I hope to change all that during my tenure here."

At that point, the door opened yet again and Coach Gibson, the men's coach and Ms. Morris, the women's gym coach, arrived. Ms. Cho introduced herself to them, then continued. "I also looked at the stuff my predecessor left behind concerning the sports teams and I think it's time for changes there as well. First, there will only be byes for athletes that have to go out of town to take part in a game and thus can't actually take a test or complete a project."

"But our athletes need to focus on bringing honor and glory to our school without having to worry about such stuff like tests and projects," Ms. Morris protested.

"In that case, athletes must learn to budget their time so that they can juggle school and athletes," said Ms. Cho. "Competing in athletics is all well and good but most football, basketball, baseball or hockey players aren't going to get into the pros, and most other athletes won't become stars in their chosen sport, so doing well in classes should be important. And that means no grade-fixing for sports team members. If they need help, they should get tutors."

"I like this principal," Mr. O'Neill heard Mr. DeMartino whisper. Then the history teacher said, "And what about those STUDENTS who don't show that they've learned ANYTHING that I've taught them?"

"Well, if they're functionally illiterate or if they have some kind of learning disability that prevents them from being good in school, then they will need a special education setting," said Ms. Cho. "If they can learn in a regular school setting, they might need tutoring help if the problem's a lack of confidence in their brains. But if it's just laziness -- there's not much I can do about that. However, before school begins, I will hand out a test that should at least determine if a person is functionally literate or not."

"There's probably one person in the whole school whom I believe is functionally illiterate," said Mrs. Bennett. "Kevin Thompson. None of us teachers can teach him anything."

"You're telling ME!" said Mr. DeMartino, his eye really bulging out now. Mr. O'Neill wasn't surprised by Mr. DeMartino's reaction -- Kevin's stupidity probably irritated the history teacher most of all.

"Well, I'll find his address and I'll definitely send him a test," said Ms. Cho. "If he's really functionally illiterate, then he'll have to be in a special education setting, maybe even in a special education school. One last thing, I'll get rid of most of Ms. Li's security measures, such as the polygraph machine and the bomb-sniffing dogs. However, I'm sending the dogs to the police with the stipulation that they should be brought here in the event of an actual bomb scare. Also, I'll leave some security cameras in the halls and in the bathrooms, just in case, along with metal detectors at the entrances and exits. Any extraneous cameras and detectors are being dismantled."

"I like you even MORE!" said Mr. DeMartino. And with the exceptions of Coach Gibson and Ms. Morris, the other teachers agreed -- including Mr. O'Neill.

Five days later --

Derek arrived at Lawndale State University, ready for his first day in college. Since he wasn't going to be in college all that long, he had declared his major to be liberal arts -- a good catch-all major that for most people would mean they just hadn't decided on a major yet. In his case, of course, it meant that he wasn't going to be staying around long enough to get around to declaring a major. His first class was English 101, and he hoped the professor was a good one.

He'd learned a few things about Lawndale State University. Some of them were good and some of them weren't. For example, the art department wasn't a good place for an aspiring artist like Jane Lane apparently was. However, he wasn't really an artist, so he didn't care whether the art department sucked or not. On the bright side, they had a good theater department, and he planned to take an introductory theater course next semeter. He was also thinking of joining the university's Theater Club and taking part in plays -- much like Stacy at Lawndale High.

That turned his thoughts to his relationship with Stacy. Although they had still stopped short of sleeping together, they'd become more intimate, both physically and emotionally, since their trip to the Baltimore Aquarium. They still went out to Chez Pierre and more often, C'est la Veal, but they also went to other restaurants if they went to the movies. Derek got to see a lot of "chick flicks", but Stacy also got to see more literary movies. Of course, when they did, he'd have to tell her as much about the plot as he could before they saw the film, since Stacy wasn't an intellectual and Derek suspected she never would be. But as Derek wasn't really an intellectual either (though he was very well-educated since he was almost 400 years old), he didn't mind it much. He'd also gone to a nearby water park with Stacy, which he had enjoyed. But he'd also spent time walking in the park with her, or even taking Stacy to his apartment because he wanted to watch a rented movie with her but her house didn't have a family room. He'd had to promise her parents not to take advantage of Stacy, and he didn't. He didn't mind promising Stacy's dad that, but promising her mom annoyed him, largely because he didn't like her mom.

Although Derek wasn't fond of fashion, he still accompanied Stacy sometimes when she went shopping with her friends and he'd gotten to know them better. He liked Quinn most of all among her friends. He'd come to learn that Quinn was probably the smartest of the four and had also begun encouraging her to do well in her classes. Quinn was pretty willing, especially now that Daria was on her way to Raft College. She admitted to him and Stacy that she'd been thinking about how she started emphasizing her beauty and popularity at the expense of her natural intelligence, and now she suspected that she'd done so because like her mother, she wanted to be the best -- only Daria was somewhat more intelligent than Quinn herself was. Quinn didn't think she could compete with Daria in the brains department, but since Quinn was somewhat prettier and much more outgoing than Daria was she knew she could outshine Daria there. So she began focusing on popularity and then beauty as well once she got old enough to care about her appearance. But now that Daria was heading out the door to college and now that David Sorensen had showed her that she didn't have to be a dummy if she didn't really want to (8), she was focusing more on her grades.

Sandi was still rather disdainful of Quinn's efforts to improve her grades and of Stacy's efforts to branch into areas outside of fashion, and that had caused a few conflicts between her and Derek. But he'd also learned some things about Sandi and her family as well. Derek knew that Sandi's mother was the vice-president of marketing for some radio station, and her father was a CPA. He'd also learned that her brothers, Sam and Chris, were brats who fought with each other a lot and sometimes punched her as well. And from Sandi's complaints about her father, he got the impression that her father was rather weak and had a hard time standing up for himself. Also, he'd learned that Sandi had a phobia about volunteering ever since she once volunteered to head a dance committee in middle school and it went terribly wrong, with her mother mocking Sandi for apparently allowing herself to be used (9). Thus Derek suspected that Sandi's mother was partially to blame for Sandi's being such a bitch. But something he'd noticed now that he was spending more time in Sandi's presence whereas before he and Stacy had been doing the plays over the summer, was that Sandi didn't really seem physically attracted to him. Was her lack of physical attraction simply due to the fact that Quinn hadn't tried to steal him away from Stacy ever since the two had started going out, and Sandi didn't want to bother going after a guy if Quinn wasn't doing so? No, that didn't seem likely to him. It must be something else. Maybe Sandi was asexual. Or maybe she was even a lesbian. The problem was that Derek wasn't sure how to ask Sandi if she was asexual or a lesbian. If he asked her directly, Sandi might deny it -- if she was in denial about such a thing, that is.

As for Tiffany, Derek was more and more convinced that her speech was the result of drugs. The problem was whether Tiffany was on legitimate medication and was abusing it or if she was secretly taking drugs like marijuana or tranquilizers. Also, he wondered why Tiffany was taking the stuff ever since the summer between her freshman and sophmore year, since her voice had been relatively normal in her freshman year. Derek also wondered how to best approach Tiffany about his suspicions. The experience with Lindy had convinced him that if he directly confronted Tiffany about his suspicions she would probably deny it. Also, he didn't really have any physical proof that she was taking drugs.

Derek entered his class and sat down in a seat at the front of the room. As he saw other students file in, he noted that Andrea was also in the class. He briefly noted that Andrea chose to sit near the back of the room before turning to see who the professor was -- and if the professor would be a good educator.

That night --

Stacy got dressed for her usual date with Derek. He was going to take her to Pizza Place to have some pizza before they went to see an animated film. She was looking forward to it -- especially since four days before, she'd gotten a letter from the new principal at Lawndale High, introducing herself and giving a literacy quiz to see how literate the new students were. Stacy had done well on most of the questions, but there were a few that she had to ask Derek for help with. He simply clarified what the questions meant, and then she was able to answer them. And just today, she got a reply from Ms. Cho -- apparently she'd done very well on the test and didn't need to go into a Special Education class or school!

As his car pulled up, Stacy came downstairs and answered the door. There was Derek, looking as handsome as ever -- maybe even more handsome than ever. "Hey, Stacy!" he said.

"Hi!" she said as she hugged him. "How was your first day in college?"

"It was fine," said Derek as he looked down at her. "I had English, History and a Physics course. They were interesting, although I think the History course is one that I could've had in 6th grade if I had taken the form of a child and gone through 6th grade in this decade."

"Well, I think my senior year's going to go well," said Stacy. "I got the results from that test Ms. Cho gave me -- and all the other students."

"And?" asked Derek, curiously.

"I did well enough that I don't need to take any Special Education classes or go to a Special Ed. school!" she told him excitedly.

"That's great!" Derek said, smiling brilliantly. "Anyway, it's time to go to Pizza Place and then to the movie. I think you'll like it."

They get into his car and then head off to Pizza Place. Once they get there, they arrive and as Derek orders a pizza for them, Stacy spots Jane Lane in a nearby booth. She is alone, presumably because Daria has gone off to college (8).

"Derek, I see Jane Lane over there," Stacy notes, pointing over to Jane. "Daria's not with her, probably because she is away at college. Maybe we should join Jane, just to make sure she's not left out."

"Sure," he agreed. They headed over to Jane. Once they got to her booth, he said, "Jane, Stacy noticed you were here all by yourself. Would it be okay if we joined you?"

"Okay," said Jane. "Daria's away at Raft and I won't be going to Boston Fine Arts until the mid-term, so until I join Daria in Boston I'm on my own, with Trent."

Derek and Stacy sat down with Jane and began eating their pizza. Stacy began by saying, "Did you hear we got a new principal, Jane?"

"Yeah, some woman named Melissa Cho," said Jane. "I hope she's a lot better than Ms. Li. That woman was a total nightmare!"

"Well, she gave all the students a test to determine if we were functionally literate or not," said Stacy. "I don't know how all the others did, but I know I did just fine."

"And I had my first day of classes," said Derek. "It went pretty well. But it's probably a good idea that you didn't apply to Lawndale State. The History course is one that you might've had in 6th grade, Jane."

"Yeah, the Boston Fine Arts courses are probably stricter," Jane admitted. "But we're focused more on the fine arts than on stuff such as History, English and Math. Thank God -- I had a C- average in Math and that hurt my ability to get into Lawndale State or State University, which is only a few miles away. However, it's just as well -- I really wanted to get into BFAC. Lawndale State and State University were my safeties -- my back-up colleges, you might say."

"Ah," Stacy said. "Well, I'm going to have my final year at Lawndale High. I plan on joining the Drama Club and Quinn told Tiffany, Sandi & I that she's going to try out for the Pep Squad. I don't know if Sandi and Tiffany are going to do something else now that the Fashion Club's dissolved. Which reminds me, Derek -- when we both have homework, do you think you could help me with the stuff that's hard for me?"

"Sure," said Derek. "I don't think most of my college work will be terribly hard, so I'd be perfectly willing to help you."

"Maybe you're better in math than I am, Derek," said Jane. "Heaven knows the only people worse than me in that were Kevin & Brittany."

"Maybe almost everyone is better than Kevin," said Stacy.

"I'd have to agree," said Derek, chuckling slightly as they continued their meal.

Later that night --

Derek drove Stacy home after seeing the animated film. It had been an interesting film based on the Swan Lake ballet. He'd had to explain to Stacy what the ballet was about before they saw the film, but she loved it. The main difference between the ballet (most versions of the ballet, at least) and the film was that Odette and Siegfried survived at the end and only von Rothbart was destroyed. Stacy had liked it a lot, and so had he.

He also reflected on the time he and Stacy had spent with Jane, learning what had been going on with her and with Daria. Jane had said that Daria had gone on a special vacation as a reward for her getting the Dian Fossey Award (9, 10) but in early August, Upchuck had actually asked her out -- and this time, he had not been his former ultra-suave self! Apparently he'd been going to therapy for some time, and he'd come to understand that his "ultra-suave" role was just an act. His father was a confident lecher and Upchuck felt like he was supposed to be the same way, only he was too shy to actually be the lecher that his father was! So now he was trying to change. Daria had told him that if he made the dropping of the act permanent, she'd go out with him once before they went to different colleges. If the ultra-suave guy wasn't the real Upchuck, she wanted to get to know the real guy.

And Upchuck had apparently dropped it for good, because Daria did go out with him the weekend before they had to leave for their different colleges! Upchuck was actually decent to her, if still a little shy, and they got along a lot better than before. However, Daria had told Jane that they just didn't have enough in common for Upchuck to be a good romantic partner.

Now they were back at Stacy's house. Derek got out and walked her to her door. There, Stacy turned and told him, "Tomorrow is the first day of my senior year. Wish me luck, Derek."

"I will," Derek replied softly. He lifted one hand to stroke her cheek again, and felt her shiver beneath his touch. He slipped an arm around her waist, pulled her into his arms, then bent his head down so he could kiss her.

Everything else faded away, unimportant, as Derek pulled Stacy closer and deepened the kiss. He could feel her slide her arms around his neck, then felt one hand rest itself in his hair. In turn, he slid one hand against the back of her neck and felt her shiver even more. Time had frozen, just like that.

Derek didn't know how long it was until he lifted his head. But he had to, because if he didn't he might well have carried Stacy back to the car and gone farther than she might have wanted to go at this point.

"Good-night, my love," he whispered to her. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"You too, my darling," she said, smiling in such a way that it warmed his heart.

As Stacy went inside, Derek returned to his car, his heart soaring once again.

The next day --

Stacy was walking to school as usual. She was looking forward to her final year in school both because it was her final year and especially because they had a new and hopefully better principal. However, the fact that the new principal appeared to be more interested in having the students do better in scholastics meant that she couldn't slack off like she could in earlier years.

Then again, she slacked off largely because she lacked self-confidence in her abilities and because her mother inculcated in her that being attractive and popular was far more important than anything else. But thanks to her therapy, her two experiences with acting, and her romance with Derek, she's become more confident in herself. And even if she wasn't the smartest person in school -- even if Quinn was smarter than her -- she still might be able to get good grades if she really worked hard at her studies. And with a boyfriend who was smart enough, and who cared enough, to help her with her homework, she might be able to do so.

She also was going to join up for the Drama Club right after school and before Derek picked her up. But first she had to go to homeroom -- Mr. DeMartino's class. And since he was not the most patient guy in the world, she'd better pay extra attention in class to what he taught them.

Once she arrived at Lawndale High, she saw Quinn arriving as well. "Well, one more year and then we're graduating!" she told Quinn.

"Yeah," said Quinn. "I think I'll be going to a good college, but I think you, Sandi and Tiffany need all the help you can get."

"Derek's going to help me with my studies," said Stacy. "I agree that Sandi might need help, but I don't think she believes grades are all that important. As for Tiffany ... she will probably need a tutor. I think I should wish the tutor luck -- it's going to be needed."

They don't say another word until they get into class. They went towards the back of the class, where Sandi & Tiffany joined them just a couple of minutes before Mr. DeMartino arrived. He was surprisingly chipper.

"I have an ANNOUNCEMENT to make!" he said. "Not only is Brittany TAYLOR no longer in any of my CLASSES, but I won't be seeing Kevin THOMPSON in any of them either!"

The students were all surprised -- even Joey, Jeffy and Jaime, whom Stacy noticed were in class. Apparently, they were functionally literate. And that's when Stacy suspected she knew what had happened. Then, she heard Quinn whisper, "I'll bet Kevin failed Ms. Cho's literacy test."

"This morning, I just received WORD from Ms. Cho that Kevin had failed his LITERACY TEST!" Mr. DeMartino continued. "She had recommended an IQ TEST to make sure he wasn't MENTALLY RETARDED! I think Kevin's parents FLIPPED!"

Stacy could believe that. Kevin's parents thought the world of their son, all because he could play a freaking football. They would not be happy to find out that there was more to school or life than just football. Kind of how she'd learned through therapy, acting, and Derek that there was more to life than just attractiveness, fashion and popularity.

"I see that none of YOU have suffered the same FATE!" Mr. DeMartino continued. "However, I will NOT be tolerating SLACKERS, so let's begin with the first LESSON, which will be on the EVENTS leading up to and including the TRAIL OF TEARS!"

Stacy sat up instantly and began paying attention to the lecture. Unfortunately, she could hear Sandi chattering about how Jonathan was planning to take her out to Chez Pierre on Friday, so she needed to get a new outfit. Stacy tried to tune her out and focus on DeMartino talking about the Cherokee prior to the coming of European settlers, but it was really hard.

That's when she heard Mr. DeMartino say, "Ms. GRIFFIN!"

Sandi almost started out of her seat, but recovered long enough to say, "Yes, Mr. DeMartino?"

"Who was in CHARGE of the Spanish EXPLORERS when they first met the CHEROKEE?" he asked. Now who was in charge? Stacy wondered for several seconds as Sandi clearly struggled to answer. "Um ... Lafayette?" she finally asked.

No, I believe Lafayette was French, thought Stacy. And that's when she remembered who it was -- someone named De Soto!

"He came from a different COUNTRY!" DeMartino said. "And two HUNDRED years later! Let's see if one of your BRAIN-DEAD FRIENDS can answer that one! Ms. Rowe! Can YOU answer the question?"

"The guy's last name was De Soto, I think," said Stacy. "I don't remember his first name, however."

"Very GOOD, Ms. Rowe!" said DeMartino. "Maybe you might have some BRAINS after all!"

"Gee, Stacy, is your foray into acting now turning into a foray into anything beyond fashion?" asked Sandi. "Don't tell me you're turning into a brain as well!"

"I'm not that smart," Stacy said. "I'm still going to shop for fashion. It's just no longer going to dominate my life."

Quinn said, "Stacy's no pedagogue just because she asked a simple question (8)!"

Stacy didn't know exactly what "pedagogue" meant, but she figured it had something to do with being really smart. So she just smiled as Sandi fumed and tried to focus on the rest of Mr. DeMartino's lesson.

1. Reference to "Fizz Ed."
2. Reference to "Arts 'N Crass."
3. Reference to "Lucky Strike."
4. Reference to "Fair Enough."
5. Reference to "This Year's Model."
6. Reference to "Jake of Hearts."
7. Reference to "I Don't."
8. References to "Is It Fall Yet?"
9. Reference to "Daria's Dance Party."
10. Reference to my fanfic "Mole? Somebody Get Me a Dermatologist!"

To be continued,
Belle Book