A month later, Hugh sat on his bed reading about the Scotswall War in preparation for the final exam in World History later that week, his very last one before graduating from Riverford Academy.
Owen sat on the bed opposite in their small room, doodling a copy of an illustration in a novel he had smuggled in from home. The window was open, letting the gentlest of afternoon breezes cool their musty third-floor room.
The view through the window was filled with the upper boughs of one of the academy campus’s massive oak trees. Birds often lighted on the branches, warbling a quick tune before flittering off. Farther away, the shouts and grunts of a Health and Recreation class made their way into the room. It was everything Hugh could do to ignore the joyous cacophony of nature and play and focus on the words he was supposed to be reading.
A knock came at the door.
Hugh looked up, welcoming a more justifiable distraction.
“Come in, you twits!” shouted Owen, wadding his drawing into a ball.
As the door opened, Owen launched his paper projectile at the gap in the door just as their visitor stepped in to fill it.
The visitor was Headmaster Givens.
The ball of paper struck his chest but Givens nimbly caught it before it could fall to the floor.
Both boys shot out of bed and stood at attention. Hugh tucked in his shirt. Owen hid the novel behind his back.
“Mr. Beed,” the headmaster began, and Hugh could see Owen's body go stiff as a pole. “I’m glad to see Health and Rec is paying off.” The headmaster tossed the ball back to Owen. “Now would you kindly give Mr. Humphries and me a moment?”
Owen almost collapsed with relief, but on his way out he gave Hugh a look of concern on his behalf. Headmaster Givens turned to close the door behind him but stopped short of closing it all the way.
Taking the chair from Owen’s desk, the headmaster turned it to face Hugh and bent onto it.
“Please, Hugh, have a seat yourself.”
Hugh lowered himself slowly onto his bed, his face growing hot, his pulse thumping the side of his neck. Why did the headmaster want to speak with him?
The only other time he had been alone in the company of the head of their school was when he had informed Hugh that his parents had died.
He had sat quietly and patiently as Hugh cried, then had given him a referral to a local lawyer who could help him liquidate his parents’ remaining funds. As it turned out, unbeknownst to Hugh, his parents had been in debt and had been paying Hugh’s tuition instead of making payments to their creditor. After selling the farm, there was only enough left to pay for the rest of Hugh’s tuition and a little extra, which Hugh hoarded. After graduating, he would need the money to travel into Kingsmouth and pay for lodgings and food until he could find a job on campus that would exchange his living expenses and university tuition for labor.
That had been eight months ago at the beginning of the school year. It was a bleak start to his last year at Riverford Academy. All through the first semester, his usual academic curiosity was usurped by a deep numbness. His stomach would knot up inside him as his thoughts bounced back and forth between missing his parents and the knowledge that he was now all alone in the world.
Hugh appreciated the efforts of Owen and the others who could only offer comfort in the form of unhelpful but sincerely-given platitudes. But there were weeks on end when no living soul could pull him from the blinding stupor, the gnawing vacuum of grief.
More than a few times Hugh had thought about quitting school. But he knew that choice would lead nowhere good. His continued livelihood depended on him finishing school and scoring high enough on the exams to get into university. Moreover, he knew that his parents would want him to complete his schooling and achieve his childhood dream of becoming a scientist or engineer. So he stayed, doing his best to apply himself to his studies.
The first few months were a true struggle, his grief compounding his normal difficulties with focus. But slowly, though thoughts of his parents never left, they stepped back from center stage, and studying became more feasible. His test and paper scores, though never very high, improved as a result.
Now, the headmaster sat in his room, watching Hugh with an unreadable expression.
“Mr. Humphries, you’ve had something of a difficult year, haven’t you? Your parents’ passing, the resulting fiscal and legal loose ends, all while continuing your studies. It was a lot for anyone to bear. But, looking at your marks of late, you seem to have pulled through somewhat. An impressive feat, given your circumstances.”
Hugh waited for him to continue, unsure of where the headmaster was heading.
“You aren’t supposed to know this until tomorrow, but I wanted to tell you early, and personally, that you have not performed well enough at this academy to graduate.“
Hugh’s heart fell into his belly.
“But . . . but I haven’t even finished the semester. There’s still the final exam in History.”
“Even if you score a perfect grade on the final, it won’t be enough to offset your poor performance this year and, frankly, all previous years. The school board has discussed dismissing you in the past, but enough of your professors, namely Professor Norwich, believed you were simply a late bloomer and asked to give you more time. Then when your parents died, well . . . we’re not cruel, after all.”
Hugh’s mind swirled. His ears were thick with the muffling noise of blood rushing around in his head. He wasn’t going to graduate.
“The university qualifying exam. If I score high enough, perhaps a few schools will be willing to consider an application anyway.”
“Hugh, you didn’t pass the exam.”
Hugh stopped breathing. For a moment, his body lost the ability to move so stiff were his muscles. His eyes stared intensely and involuntarily at nothing, unable to focus on anything in the room, which suddenly took on the feeling of a gaping void from which he would, any moment now, be sucked out into the outer space of existence.
Regaining some semblance of logical thought, he asked, “Can I retake it?” He knew the answer.
“One must wait a year before retaking it. You know that.”
The headmaster sighed with some impatience.
“Mr. Humphries, you have a rare intelligence. Your professors report that you think and make connections that are leaps and bounds beyond your classmates. But brains are not all there is. Only intellect coupled with a rigorous work ethic will get you anywhere in life. But you, Mr. Humphries, you don’t read all of your assigned readings; your papers and projects, though exemplary, are handed in late; your examination scores evidence a lack of preparation. Universities have no place for such behavior. If you labored as hard as your classmates, you could achieve great things. But as it is, that doesn’t seem to be your focus.”
His focus. How could Hugh tell Givens that he wanted to focus on his school work, that he put in more study hours than anyone he knew, but it just didn’t yield the same output as everyone else? How could he tell him that he just couldn’t seem to focus very long before his mind jerked free of the reigns and ran off and, try as he might, he couldn’t get it back?
“You may, of course, apply for an extension at the Academy with the intention of improving your scores. Though, given your aptitude for work . . . well, I believe I’ve said what I have to say about that.”
Headmaster Givens stood. Hugh stayed seated on the bed, the part of his brain that signaled the need for decorum having momentarily gone silent. The headmaster cleared his throat, clearly annoyed at the lapse in decorum, and Hugh slowly raised himself from the bed, still staring fixedly at nothing in the direction of the wall.
Without another word, Headmaster Givens left the room.
Owen rushed in, an opened envelope in his hand, and closed the door. “You didn’t pass?”
In the presence of a friend, Hugh came somewhat back to his senses. He began to see the room again, the walls, the furniture, his own legs and hands, his bed, and Owen. What did he just say? It took a moment, but then his words registered, and he sighed and let himself fall onto the bed.
“So you were listening?”
“Not me,” Owen declared. “I went to get my mail. Jorgensen was in the hall telling everyone he could find. The twat. I told him to shut his face and that if he wanted to talk about my roommate like that he could do it with my fist in his mouth. He stopped after that.”
“Thanks,” Hugh said blankly.
“So? What’d Gibbons say?”
“That I didn’t pass.”
“But you’re the smartest of all of us. Ten times smarter than Jorgenfatmouth. And you positively work harder than we do.”
Hugh shook his head. “I’m just not good at the school part of school. And at the end of the day, the marks are all that matter.”
“I’m sorry, mate. That’s awful.” He tossed an envelope . . . “Well if it makes you feel any better, my mother wants you to come for dinner tomorrow night.”
It did make Hugh feel better. Hugh liked Owen’s mother. When his parents died, she had taken it upon herself to reduce the absence of his parents as much as she could. Dinner invitations became frequent, and whenever Owen returned from home with a treat or new pair of socks, there was an extra for him too.
“So what are you going to do?” Owen asked.
Hugh shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve never considered not going to university.” Owen seemed not to know that Hugh hadn’t even graduated, and he didn’t want to tell him. ”I’ve had inventing as my goal for so long, I don’t have any idea what else I could do with my life.”
“You can retake the exam in a year, can’t you?”
Since the headmaster had left, he felt in the back of his mind that retaking the exam was unlikely to happen, though it only now occurred to him why.
“My parents’ money is almost gone. I’ll need to find work, and there probably won’t be time to study. If I failed the exam during a school year, how can I expect to pass after not having studied for a year?”
He looked out the window at the Health and Rec class playing ball on the lawn. Tears pushed into his eyes, and he wiped them before they could fall down his cheeks. His whole life his parents had dreamed of him excelling in school beyond their own education. He, himself, had dreamed of becoming a scientist or technologist. He yearned to join the thriving world of invention and scientific discovery that seemed all about him in the books he partially read. Kingsmouth University, the hub of scientific discovery and technological innovation, where all the action was, where the electric light itself had been presented to the world, where every hopeful inventor flocked, where dozens of technology firms strived to create the next great thing, and it was only a day’s carriage ride way. Hugh had hoped to soon be apart of all that.
But to be accepted into one of those technology firms, one needed a university degree. And not just a degree, but the highest marks. The fervor of competition was such that only the best of the best were employed by the firms.
Even if Hugh had graduated and passed the entrance exam, he couldn’t hope to compete at that level. Even if he made it into a university, he now doubted if he could keep up. He was lucky not to have been thrown out of Riverford Academy. How would university professors react to his apparent sloth?
No, this was the end of that dream. A dull lump filled his chest; a gaping hole grew in his stomach—a poignant second helping of grief on top of the ever-present pain of losing his parents. He rolled over on his bed, facing the wall.
Owen had the decency to simply pat him on the shoulder and say, “I’ll be downstairs. Take your time, mate.”
The door closed quietly behind him.
Hugh let go. The grief poured out of him in heaving sobs. Like waves they surged out, unrelenting, increasing in intensity until his tears mixed with fluid from his nose and he coughed and his cries came out in high-pitched, percussive chirps.