Weekly Read 18

Weekly Read 18: This is an extract from the opening chapter of New Boy, a novel by Tracy Chevalier.   It is set in a 1970s American high-school and based on Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’.  The new boy of the title is 11 year old Osei Kokote, the Ghanaian son of a diplomat, who joins the sixth grade late in the school year. Chevalier tells the story of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal.

Dee noticed him before anyone else. She was glad of that, held on to it. It made her feel special to have him to herself for a few seconds, before the world around them skipped a beat and did not recover for the rest of the day.

The playground was busy before school. Enough children had arrived early that games of jacks and kickball and hopscotch had begun, to be abandoned when the bell rang. Dee herself had not been early—her mother had sent her upstairs to change her top for something looser, saying Dee had spilled egg on it, though Dee herself couldn’t see any yolk. She’d had to run part of the way to school, braids thumping against her back, until the stream of students heading the same direction reassured her she was not late. She had gotten to the playground with a minute to spare before the first bell rang.

There hadn’t been enough time to join her best friend Mimi jumping double dutch with the other girls, so instead Dee had headed to the playground entrance into the building, where Mr. Brabant was standing with other teachers, waiting for the class lines to form. Her teacher had a short, angled haircut that squared his head, and stood very straight. Someone told Dee he had fought in Vietnam. Dee was not the top student in class—that prize went to prim Patty—but she liked to please Mr. Brabant when she could, enough to make him notice her, though she knew she was sometimes called a teacher’s pet.

She took her place at the front of the line now, and looked around, her eyes on the double-dutch girls still jumping rope. Then she spotted him, a motionless presence by the merry go round. Four boys were spinning on it—Ian and Rod and two boys from fourth grade. They were going so fast that Dee was sure one of the teachers would stop them. Once a boy had been flung off and broken an arm. The two fourth graders looked scared, but could not control the merry go round, as Ian was expertly kicking the ground to keep up the speed.

The boy standing near the frenetic motion was not dressed like the other boys, casual in their jeans and T shirts and sneakers. Instead he wore grey flared pants, a white short-sleeve shirt, and black shoes, like a uniform a private school student would wear. But it was his skin that stood out, its colour reminding Dee of bears she’d seen at the zoo a few months before, on a school field trip. Though they were called black bears, their fur was actually deep brown, with a reddish tint at the tips. They had mostly slept, or sniffed at the pile of grubs the keeper had dumped in the pen for them. Only when Rod threw a stick at the animals to impress Dee did one of the bears react, baring its yellow teeth and growling so that the children shrieked and laughed. Dee had not joined in, though; she had frowned at Rod and turned away.

The new boy was not watching the merry go round, but studying the L shaped building. It was a typical suburban elementary school, built eight years before, and looked like two red-brick shoeboxes unimaginatively shoved together. When Dee had started kindergarten it still had a new building smell to it. Now, though, it was like a dress she had worn many times, with its tears and stains and marks where the hem had been let down. She knew every classroom, every staircase, every handrail, every bathroom cubicle. She knew every foot of the playground too, as well as the younger students’ playground on the other side of the building. Dee had fallen off the swings, torn her tights on the slide, gotten stuck at the top of the jungle gym when she became too scared to climb down. Once she had declared one half of the playground Girl Town, and she and Mimi and Blanca and Jennifer had chased away any boy who dared to cross the line. She had hidden with others around the corner near the gym entrance, where teachers on duty couldn’t see them and they could try on lipstick and read comics and play spin the bottle. She had lived her life on the playground, laughed and cried and had crushes and formed friendships and made few enemies. It was her world, so familiar she took it for granted. In a month she would be leaving it for junior high.

Now someone new and different had entered the territory, and this made Dee look at the space anew and suddenly find it shabby, and herself an alien in it. Like him.

True or false:

o Dee was the first person to see the boy.
o Dee arrived to school early.
o Dee’s teacher Mr Brabant used to be in the army.
o The new boy looks different to the other boys.

• In paragraph 4 (beginning ‘She took her place….’) find an adjective that the author uses to show how the new boy is different to the other boys.

• Read paragraph 5 (beginning ‘The boy standing near….’).  List four things you learn about the new boy.

• How might the description of Dee’s memory of the bear’s reaction to her classmate Rod throwing a stick at it suggest or foreshadow later events that may be described in the novel?

• In paragraph 6 (beginning ‘The new boy was not watching….’), find a simile that the author uses to describe how Dee feels about her school.

• Why do you think Dee describes herself as ‘an alien’ in her school in the final paragraph?

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