Back to school! Time to start the year with a good attitude cautionary tale wacky scheme!
Background: Canadian writer Gordon Korman retains a cultish appeal among a certain segment of Middle Readers (the market category that falls between Juvenile and YA), in part because (as stated in the Scholastic Book Services biographical blurbs) “he wrote his first book, This Can’t Be Happening at McDonald Hall!, when he was twelve years old”.
Korman had published a half-dozen books by the time he graduated from high school, and he made his first foray into YA while an undergraduate at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
(Ugh, that cover: it looks like it is advertising a movie in one of Times Square’s less-reputable theaters of the day.)
The Plot: Paul Abrams experiences more than his fair share of culture shock when his family moves from the wilds of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and into a 33rd floor high-rise in New York City.
Paul enters the 10th grade at Don Carey High School, a decrepit structure on Manhattan’s west side, named after a Robert Moses-like Public Works Commissioner, who in true Moses-fashion immediately built a ramp for the Henry Hudson Parkway through the school’s athletic field. That action seemed to permanently sap all School Spirit from both the student body and the faculty, and Paul is taken aback by the level of apathy that has earned the school its nickname.
Despite the zombielike nature of his 2600 fellow students, Paul becomes fast friends with scheming Sheldon Pryor, a transfer student who admits that after a semester at Don’t Care High, he still manages to care a little bit, and involves Paul in his plot to have the first student body president elected in over 30 years.
“You know, at my old school, they told us we were the citizens of tomorrow.”
“They’d never do that here,” said Sheldon. “It’d be too depressing.”
The object of Sheldon’s king-making is a taciturn student noted for his greasy hair, trench coat and safety pin-decorated jeans; unfortunately nobody knows what his name is, one student commenting “Must be one conceptual dude.”
(At this point the reader is also introduced to cheerfully oblivious metalhead Wayne-o Stitisky, one of my all-time favorite supporting characters, who unhelpfully supplies “he’s a senior and he’s weird. But I don’t know his name. It’s not Wayne-o, though. That’s me.”)
Finally, Paul and Sheldon pay a visit to Feldstein, the school Locker Baron, and Paul learns what was going on with the school principal’s cryptic first-day PA announcement:
It has been brought to my attention that, while some students do without, some of you have as many as eight or nine lockers. This seems excessive.
From Feldstein, Sheldon and Paul learn that the immobile object they seek to elect is named Mike Otis. Impressively Bartleby-like in demeanor, Mike answers all entreaties with an “I’d rather not.”
Sheldon is impressed that he’s found the one Don’t Care High student that really seems to care the least and places his name in nomination for the presidency anyway. Since he runs unopposed, Mike is elected, a fact that doesn’t seem to bother him all that much.
“It’s a joke,” Mr. Gamble insisted. “there’s no way that Otis boy would take the time and effort to run.”
“At this school,” called another secretary, “there’s no way anyone would take the time to play a joke.”
Sheldon seizes the opportunity to take the joke to the next level when the roof of the neglected school collapses during a storm, forcing the city to finally make some repairs; Sheldon puts up signage asking students to pardon the inconvenience and signs Mike’s name to them.
Paul welcomes the distraction from the difficulties of city life (which include a garbage strike and Rear Window-like dramas playing out in the building across the street), and joins Sheldon in giving Mike credit for all changes and improvements to the school.
Mike remains a complete mystery, however. When Paul and Sheldon steal his permanent record from the office, they find that he claims to have transferred from a school that doesn’t exist, his listed phone number is disconnected and his home address is the 11th floor of a 10-story building.
In desperation, they follow him home from school, and at his actual address they dangle from the fire escape and observe his bafflingly normal family and home life. Sheldon and Paul also learn that he’s in danger of failing physics unless he completes a special project.
Seeing the opportunity to repay Mike for the welcome distraction his presidency has provided them with, Sheldon and Paul convince a group of students to “help” Mike create his project, producing a working scale model of the New York City sewer system; Wayne-o contributes an illustrated booklet entitled Whither Sewage about the future of the sewer system, including proposals to shoot it into space and incinerate it in a volcano.
Sheldon and Paul proudly present the collective’s efforts to Mike:
“This is my project.” It was not a question, but not quite a statement of fact either.
“Right,” said Sheldon.
“But I’m not doing a project.”
“Exactly. You don’t have to, because we’re helping you with this one.”
“I get a project and I don’t have to do anything?”
Mike paused a long time. Finally, he said, “This seems strange.”
Unfortunately, this is the moment when the administration decides things have gone far enough and unceremoniously remove Mike from office. It is bad timing on their part, as it only inflames the passions of 2600 students to return to office the president that nobody elected and who had not actually done anything. This results in several Mike Otis rallies turning into general riots (including a science fair and a girls basketball game), although to be fair, the rioting is usually caused by guidance counselor Mr. Morrison, who is overly eager to take credit for the students sudden bout of caring about things.
The administration is forced to return Mike to office, but the man himself shows up at Paul’s door one morning to inform him that his family is moving:
“I seem to feel that someone might want to know this.”
And he fled the apartment just as abruptly as he had arrived.
The school plans a massive going-away party, facilitated through the sale of long-forgotten raffle tickets (like most of the school’s projects, the raffle seems to have been abandoned during the LaGuardia administration), and Mike is finally convinced to address his adoring crowd:
“There are a lot of things at this school I don’t understand.”
The gym went wild in appreciation of this tension-breaking, witty comment.
“I didn’t do anything,” Mike continued.
This was the president’s famous modesty, and it was met with great applause.
“Thanks for inviting me to the party. Bye.”
The party is followed by mass celebratory rioting throughout the city, including a defaced Calvin Klein billboard in Times Square and a bonfire in Washington Square Park. Paul awakens the following afternoon to news reports on the hijinks, but also a sense of resolve that he’s going to like living in New York after all.
Sign It Was Written in 1985 Department: “He’s not creepy, he’s just avant-garde, that’s all. He’s, let’s say, the symbol for the nineties, so how can we, as eighties people, expect to judge him?”