Everyone Must Do Great Things

by Eric Rasmussen

 

e could all tell, right away on the first day of Hjalmar’s freshman year, that he would grow up to be either president, or a super villain genius. In the teachers’ lounge at lunch we compared notes on the new kids, and Hjalmar received the most analysis. We speculated about his full suit, with vest, and his strange, almost British speech pattern. In World History he shared that he had taught himself Italian over the summer. In Calculus II, surrounded by seniors, he discussed how he intended to test out of the class at semester and start taking math courses at the university.

In Health, I got the story of his name. During the first time through the attendance list, most of the kids told me what they wanted to be called, “Josh” instead of “Joshua,” that sort of thing. When I got to Hjalmar’s name, I chuckled.

“Hjalmar Vilgot Lindblad,” I said. “Not much you can do with that, is there?”

“It’s Hjalmar Vilgot Lindblad, the fourth,” he said. “My great-grandfather was an admiral in the Swedish Royal Navy.”

“Cool,” I said. “So, Vilgy then? H-Blad?” A few students laughed. “Hjalvil?”

“Hjalmar will suffice,” he said, face flat, like he was choosing what type of potato he wanted with dinner. “Thank you.”

Four years later Hjalmar stopped in my room one day after school and sat in the same desk he did as a freshman, with his back impossibly straight, the knot in his tie impeccable, his feet crossed at the ankle and his hands folded on the writing surface. But this time he wore an expression I had never seen from him before. He was confused. “I assume they did not do it on purpose.” He paused and stared up at the ceiling while his Rhodes Scholar brain ran through all the possible explanations for the insult. “But I am unable to imagine a situation in which it could have been an accident.”

I leaned on my podium, sighed and shook my head. “I don’t know, man. I’m lost, too. I hope it wasn’t on purpose, but, you never know.” I smoothed my own tie, which was wrinkled and threadbare and covered in old yogurt stains.  “Most people are jerks. Maybe they were trying to get back at you.”

“For what?”

“You’re going to be a wildly rich uber-genius, and most of them are going to struggle to get through community college.”

“Everyone has always been quite nice to me.”

“Graduation’s just around the corner. Maybe it just occurred to them.”

The yearbook lay open on the desk between us, and under his picture and his ridiculous name was the offense we were trying analyze. H-blad had submitted an appropriately brainy and intellectual quotation, which would stand out amongst his classmates’ nuggets of wisdom courtesy of Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter. “Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are,” by Soren Kirkegaard, translated from the original Dutch. Instead, what they printed, in all caps, was a little less profound. “MONEY, CASH, HOES – WHAT!” by the Kirkegaard of modern hip-hop, Jay-Z.

If Hjalmar felt offended, or embarrassed, or upset, I couldn’t tell. He looked lost. He could handle the sorts of high-level calculus problems that most of us mortals would never understand, but this problem stumped him, and not knowing the answer was a strange feeling for him.

“Do you know how it happened?” I asked.

“I spoke with Mrs. Gerhart, and she showed me the printed proofs with the correct quotation.” Hjalmar shifted in the desk. It was too small for him. It was too small for all of them. “That means someone must have altered the digital file after the final edits were entered.”

“Aren’t there thirty kids in the yearbook class? That’s a lot of suspects.”

“Students were locked out of the folder as soon as the revisions took place. Only staff members had access to it after that point.”

“Yikes.” Warm May afternoons always made my classroom too hot. I loosened my tie, wiped my forehead, and unstuck the shirt clinging to my back. “So a student must have used a teacher’s computer then.”

“That is the conclusion I came to. And there is nothing to be done. Almost two-thousand copies were printed.”

“I’m really sorry.”

“It is fine.”

High school stood for so many different things to so many different students. For some it’s the best four years of their lives, for others it’s the worst. A couple of them meet their future spouses in the brick hallways, and everyone finds a lifelong enemy or two. A lot of kids count graduation as a huge accomplishment. Not Hjalmar. For him, high school was a nuisance, a hoop, and maybe the other people in the school hated him for it.

I sat down in the desk next to him. “There’s something you should think about.”

“What’s that, Mr. Brunner?”

“How you want to get back at them. How you want to make them pay.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Hjalmar stopped back later that week, and he did everything I suggested, without question or objection. It’s what made so many people love him, and it’s what made so many people hate him.

“The first thing you need to do,” I told him, “is to show them that this little stunt didn’t harm you at all. You need to prove that you found it just as funny as they did.” Hjalmar sat in the desk in the front of my room and took notes, with perfect penmanship, perfect order, perfect lines. When I paused he looked up from his leather portfolio and hundred-dollar pen to smile, but not in a demeaning or conspiratorial way. The turn of his lip and his eye contact were simply courteous, a small act to let me know that he heard what I had to say and respected the communication. He used the same look freshmen year in Health class when I stood at the front of the room and explained the effects of illegal drugs, or the food pyramid. At first it made me nervous. Later I found myself preparing more for Hjalmar’s class period, practicing my lectures in my head over breakfast and on my drive to school. Not much after that I grew to hate Hjalmar’s stark, unflinching attention.

“I have a few ideas,” I said.

“Should we be talking about this?” asked Hjalmar. “Should you be worried about your job?”

I laughed. It was a mad scientist laugh, much louder than I meant. “No,” I said. “Absolutely not. No one pays attention to what I do. My job is totally safe.”

“I understand,” said Hjalmar. “I would love to hear your ideas, Mr. Brunner. Thank you.”

On the Tuesday after Memorial Day, six days before the end of the school year, Hjalmar finished his lunch of carrot sticks and a peanut butter sandwich, wiped out his plastic containers, and repacked them in his spotless insulated lunch bag.

“Excuse me,” he said to the people he ate lunch with, his chess club and Academic Decathlon teammates. Maybe they were friends, or maybe they all just served as resume window-dressing for each other. “I have a task to complete, so I shall speak with you all later.”

Hjalmar disposed of his empty milk carton and his napkin in the garbage can as he left the cafeteria. He nodded at the assistant principal who leaned against the wall. “Good afternoon, Mr. King,” he said.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Lindblad,” said Mr. King. “Good to see you.”

“You as well.” Hjalmar walked down the wide hallway to the main office. He straightened his tie and ran his hand through his hair before opening the heavy door.

“Hjalmar!” said one of the attendance ladies. No one in the school liked Hjalmar more than the attendance ladies. He brought them homemade fudge at Christmas and scented candles for Secretary’s Day.

Hjalmar placed his hand on the counter and looked the attendance lady in the eye. “Did your granddaughter’s ear infection clear up?”

“Yes it did, thanks for asking,” she said. She moved her computer keyboard to the side of her workspace and leaned towards Hjalmar. “And I have to say, I am absolutely flattered you invited me to your graduation party. I never get invitations to those things.”

“I would be honored if you could attend.”

“Of course I’ll be there. Can I bring anything? Your poor mother is going to be swamped trying to feed everyone.”

“That is very kind. But we will be fine.”

“You sure? I can put together a seven-layer salad.”

Hjalmar rested his hand on the attendance lady’s. “You have already done more than enough for me over the years. Please let me say thank you with the party.”

“Of course.” She straightened in her chair and shivered her shoulders.

“The reason for my visit,” he said, “is that Mr. Brunner believes he forgot some papers in the PA room. May I go in and check?”

“Absolutely.” The attendance lady handed Hjalmar the key on the long chain that hung next to her station.

“Thank you,” Hjalmar said. “Have a fantastic day.”

“You too, dear.”

Hjalmar passed the attendance desk and entered the short hallway back to the administrators’ offices. He unlocked the door to the room where the ancient announcement equipment sat stacked in the corner. He flipped every tiny knob that corresponded to every room’s speaker to “On.” From his Italian leather shoulder bag he removed an unlabeled compact disc and placed it in the old CD player they used for the school fight song and the pre-recorded messages from the superintendent. He pressed the gummy play button, then switched on the microphone. Silent as his smart kid math class during test time, he rested the microphone on the table in front of CD player speakers, grabbed his bag, and left the small room. On his way out, he mashed a ball of firm modeling clay into the lock on the door.

“Thank you very much,” he said with a nod as he handed the key back to the attendance lady and left the office with plenty of time to walk to his sixth hour class.

It was a brilliant plan. Thirty-five minutes of silence preceded the song, more than long enough to cause all the morons in the office to doubt Hjalmar’s guilt. They would figure out he was the last person in the room, but they would never believe that he would mastermind such a prank. Someone else must have snuck into the PA room. Some other hooligan must have found a way.

Halfway through sixth hour, while all the students slumped in their desks and fought to stay awake during the lectures and movies and small-group activities, while all the teachers stood at the fronts of their rooms and talked as if what they had to say mattered, as if whatever of value they had to offer the world hadn’t been co-opted years ago by Youtube, the song exploded into the school at full panic volume. Mr. Jay-Z sang about fucking all the haters, his good friend DMX joined in to discuss his willingness to shed blood for his niggaz, and the whole building awoke into a beautiful chaotic dance. The students smiled and straightened up and bounced in their desks. The teachers ran to their phones to alert administration to the crisis, or they ran to find something to cover the loudspeaker, or they ran back and forth across the fronts of their rooms, unsure of what to do but convinced they had to do something.

Down in administration, Mr. King burst out of his office. “Give the me the god-damned key,” he shouted at the attendance ladies, who rushed to bring it to him. He attempted to unlock the door, but the clay made that impossible.

“Someone jammed the lock,” he said.

“What should I do?” said the attendance lady.

“Hell if I know,” he said. “Get a paperclip so we can pick it out.”

They failed to unlock the door before the song ended. The whole time Hjalmar sat in his AP Chemistry class and continued to take notes. I didn’t have a sixth hour class, so no one got to see the look on my face.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Next, you have to make them all suffer a little,” I said, and this caused Hjalmar to look up from his portfolio.

“But I am certain this was the fault of only a few students,” said Hjalmar.

“A few students acting on behalf of your whole class.” I shook my head like this news was as painful for me to say as it was for him to hear. “This is super awkward, but you’re on a different level than all of them. Even if only a couple of them are responsible for switching the quotation, I guarantee every single one of them laughed when they saw it. They all thought you deserved it.”

“I am not willing to hurt anyone.”

“Of course,” I said. “No, for sure, we’re not talking anything illegal. It’s not like you need to shoot up the school!” I laughed, Hjalmar did not. “But you have to do something.”

Years before they hired me, the principal made a deal with the senior class. If they agreed to no senior pranks, no skip days, no big attendance or behavior problems, then the school would host an amazing all-night graduation party. And that party was incredible. Fully catered with live music from bands the kids actually listened to. Everyone who attended got a prize, hundred-dollar gift cards, electronics, all the way up to the grand prize, which was a car, a full, real, working used car, donated by one of the auto dealers out by the highway. The whole community came together to put on this unbelievable send-off for the graduates, and all they had to do was not make any trouble.

“You need to let them know that no matter how jealous they are, they can’t get away with treating people like they treated you.”

Thursday afternoon, four days before the last day of school, Hjalmar drove his spotless Range Rover two towns over to buy chickens. The farmer normally charged fifteen dollars apiece for the birds, but the old man was so impressed with Hjalmar’s polite demeanor and genuine interest in the intricacies of the corn-planting season that he sold the four hens and a rooster for only forty bucks. Hjalmar put the birds in an old dog kennel in the back of his truck and returned home.

At 2:45 in the morning, Hjalmar’s alarm went off. He dressed all in black. He drove to the school and parked back behind the auto shop, where the overhang above the service door was just low enough to climb on with the assistance of a stepladder. Before scurrying up to the roof, he tied one end of a rope to the top of the dog kennel, and clipped the other end to one of his belt loops. He pulled the kennel up slowly so he didn’t upset the birds. They clucked softly when the swinging of the cage found too big an arc, but Hjalmar’s world of lines and vectors, of forces and acceleration helped him calm the movement before each pull upward.

The center of school featured a courtyard that used to hold picnic tables, until the custodians got sick of picking lunch garbage out of the grass. One summer they landscaped the green space into a Zen garden, and locked the doors. Getting the chickens in the courtyard was easy. Hjalmar tossed them from the roof and they floated to the ground in a flurry of feathers and nearly vestigial wings. Hanging the sign in the garden where everyone would see it was quite a bit harder.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

No one noticed until first hour had nearly ended. Birds flew into the courtyard all the time, and the sign was so well done that it looked like it belonged there, like it had been there the whole time. But as soon as one student noticed the chickens pecking through the bushes, all the students in all the rooms that surrounded the yard rushed to the windows like a flock. That was when they all saw the sign, pleasant and inoffensive but more than clear enough to implicate the trespassers. “Good morning, Harrison High. Thanks for the ‘eggcellent’ four years! Love, the Seniors.”

The real show started in the middle of second hour, when both assistant principals, two maintenance guys, and the ag science teacher tried to catch the birds. They chased the animals, bent at the waist with arms out like toddlers chasing stray balls. One of the maintenance guys fell whenever he tried to turn a sharp corner, his fingers inches away from one of the bird’s necks. Some of the teachers in the surrounding rooms fought for their students’ attention, but they lost. For nearly an hour, all of second and well into third period, the spectators picked their favorites, man or beast, and cheered or booed at the close calls. The strictest disciplinarian teachers shut their shades, but there was nothing they could do to block out the noise of the crowd.

I didn’t have a courtyard room, so I gave my second hour class a worksheet and excused myself to the Spanish room to watch. Hjalmar had English second hour in a different part of the building, so he didn’t get to enjoy the show either. In person, at least. Dozens of videos of the circus made it online by lunchtime. But Hjalmar was back in his desk at the front of my room at the end of the day to hear the principal come on the loudspeaker.

“I hate to do this, but we have a tradition here at Harrison, and that’s something we need to take seriously. Due to the incident in the courtyard this morning, the senior post-graduation party has been cancelled. I repeat, the senior post-graduation party…”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“And most important, you have to show them that you’re not ashamed. You know who you are and you’re proud and you’re never going to let them bring you down.”

Hjalmar leaned back to think, and he came up with the exact right answer, like I knew he would.

“I could use my valedictory speech at graduation to deliver that message.”

“That’s a fantastic idea. Hjalvil for the win!” I leaned over to give him a high-five, and he hit my hand so hard it reverberated through my shoulder. Hjalmar apparently didn’t give many high-fives. “You need to let them know that you are the only one in that whole fucking auditorium who is going places. You are the only one who will succeed.” I wanted to take his pen and just write it for him. “Right? You need to let them know that whatever big plans and dreams they have aren’t going to come true. Yours will. Theirs won’t.”

“What if I title the speech ‘Everyone Must Do Great Things’? And then discuss how most of them will fall short?”

“That’s a great idea,” I said. “A really great idea.”

The graduation ceremony took place on Wednesday evening. The whole ridiculous pageant looked like it did every year. Pictures on the lawn, hollow thank-you hugs and handshakes for all the teachers. Girls in wobbly high heels and boys in too-tight ties. Mothers dabbing their eyes and younger siblings asking when they could leave. At 6:00, the crowd found their seats in the musty auditorium. The band played, the principal talked. Before the mind-numbing procession of diploma handouts, Hjalmar stood up from his seat amongst his classmates and walked to the stage. The crowd clapped for him, not long, not loud, but respectful. A more deserving valedictorian had never walked across that stage, and probably never would.

He stood tall and smiled. He didn’t bring any notes with him, because a person like Hjalmar doesn’t need notes. When his classmates were little kids imagining themselves hitting homeruns and winning beauty pageants, Hjalmar had been picturing this speech. He cleared his throat and began.

“In a few minutes, we will all graduate, and we will all embark on our journeys into this world. Some of us will travel far, others will settle closer to home. As we begin the incredible work it takes to build our lives, I would like to share something I have learned during my four years here at Harrison High, and especially over the past few weeks. Maybe happiness is not found in a resume full of accomplishments, in a long list of titles. Maybe happiness is something we find in people and in connections. Perhaps this is contrary to what we have been told, but my advice to all of us is this: Not everyone must do great things. Our greatness will be measured by the people we affect.”

I didn’t hear the rest of the speech.

The principal made all us teachers stand outside the auditorium after the ceremony in a big receiving line, and I found a place at the end. Hjalmar came out last. He shook my hand and gave me his politician smile.

“What happened in there?” I asked, lowering my voice so the English teacher standing next to us couldn’t hear. “That’s not what we talked about at all.”

“I wanted to let you know, Mr. Brunner,” Hjalmar said, still holding my hand tight, “that I used Mrs. Gerhart’s computer to determine who last accessed the yearbook file to change the quotation. I understand what happened.”

“Oh yeah?”

“The computer in your classroom was used to make the change. You made the change.” Hjalmar didn’t look confused any more. “Why did you do it?”

“Whoa. I didn’t do anything.” It was so fucking hot out, I wanted to loosen my tie, but I couldn’t. Hjalmar wouldn’t let go of my hand. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Most people are jerks, maybe? Is that why?”

I held eye contact with him, forcing myself to return his gaze. “You’ve got this all wrong.”

“I do not get things wrong, Mr. Brunner. I have known the whole time.”

Across the yard in front of the school, the graduates gathered into a group to throw their hats into the air, while all the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles made a big circle around them to take pictures. “Three… two… one!” shouted one of the students, and the mortarboards went up and everyone laughed like they had all done something so special. They laughed like they had accomplished anything at all. Hjalmar was the only one not in the group, but he was used to that.

“Does anyone else know?” I asked

“No,” said Hjalmar.

“What happens now?”

“That depends on who comes forward to confess to the chicken prank, and the song. That depends on whether or not we get our party.”

One week later, they got their party. The music from the gym reverberated around the building and pulsed through the walls. I wanted to stop down. Maybe some of them wanted say thanks, since I’m the reason it all worked out, but I was too busy cleaning out my desk.

___

Eric Rasmussen teaches high school English in Western Wisconsin. He is pursuing an MFA from Augsburg College, and his work is featured or upcoming in Sundog LitPithead ChapelBlack Fox LiteraryMulberry Fork ReviewChariton Review, and Volume One Magazine, among others. He serves as Assistant Fiction Editor at The Indianola Review and founded the regional literary journal Barstow & Grand.


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