At the end of tenth grade, the principal of Princeton High school kicked me out of his school because he didn’t like my political viewpoints. It was a bizarre thing for him to do, and drew the disapproval of a few members of the board of education, but since he was the principal he had the power to do it if he wanted to. I was a libertarian and he was a knee-jerk liberal, so he preferred not to have me polluting his school with my viewpoints.
The most obvious way this affected me was that I was no longer able to continue seeing my girlfriend who went still to his school, but anyone who knew my reaction to stress could see that its effects went far beyond this. Thanks to my having obsessive-compulsive disorder, I wasn’t able to go to sleep each night until my nails were exactly the way I wanted them to be. And after I got kicked out of Princeton high school, it took me seven hours every night for me to get them that way.
There’s one other thing that changed about me at the end of Tenth grade: it’s when I started dreaming about being a Deinonychus.
Deinonychus is a predatory dinosaur about the size of a human, although especially ferocious for its size. It’s related to Velociraptor, the dinosaur made famous by Jurassic Park, although like a lot of directors Steven Spielberg chose carefully how much he should let reality affect what he put in his movie. A real Velociraptor would have been only about waist-high to a human. Deinonychus was closer to the size of Spielberg’s Velociraptors, although it would have looked more like a giant bird than like a two-legged reptile. Preserved feathers in the fossils of related dinosaurs, such as Sinornithosaurus and Microraptor, suggest that Deinonychus was covered in a sort of primitive feathers and Velociraptor probably was too.
I was a Christian then, and since a lot of the opinions I had that Dr. Kazmark (the Princeton High principal) didn’t like were common among Christians, I thought I might fare better at a Christian school. I had been taking the most advanced math class offered at Princeton High, and the class I would be going into the following year was Calculus instead of Algebra 2, which was what people in my grade normally took. The closest Christian school that offered classes in calculus was Timothy Christian School, about an hour’s drive away. But it was worth it, I thought, in order for me go to a school where I didn’t to have to worry about getting into trouble for what I believed.
The people at admissions were unsurprisingly impressed with my academic history, especially some of the Christian-themed things I had written that had gotten Dr. Kazmark riled up. It seemed like a bit of a backwoods sort of place, converted from an old army barracks, and not the sort of place where people would likely care about the fact that I think Social Security should be disbanded. I had one question: would it be OK at this school that I accepted the theory of evolution? According to the school’s principal, some of the other students might disagree with me but he was sure it wouldn’t be a big deal.
* * *
Despite the principal’s reassurance, I kept it a secret that I accepted evolution for as long as possible, which was about two weeks. I didn’t feel like taking any more risks that I had to.
At the beginning of art class about two weeks into the school year, the teacher was letting us draw whatever we wanted on our art portfolios. I was working on an elaborate Pokemon torture scheme. (I really hated Pokemon back then, which had amused a lot of my friends at Princeton High.) I saw that the boy next to me was drawing something that looked like a dinosaur; someone named Matt Milano judging by the name on his folder. I needed to try and make some friends here.
“What’s that you’re drawing?” I asked him.
“A dinosaur… I guess a raptor”, He said.
“You mean Velociraptor?”
Matt was quiet for a minute. “I guess I hadn’t put that much thought into it. What does a Velociraptor look like?”
“It doesn’t actually look much like the raptors in Jurassic Park,” I answered. “The skull was a lot longer and narrower than in the movie, and it was small. It also pretty definitely had feathers.”
“I’ve never heard of dinosaurs with feathers,” Matt said. “What makes you think it had them?”
“Well, paleontologists like Greg Paul had been saying for a while that they might have had them, just based on their relationship to birds. And now, they’ve been found preserved in fossils of dinosaurs like Sinornithosaurus.”
I didn’t realize until then that the classroom had suddenly become very quiet. Finally someone a few seats down said, “Those are fake.”
“How do you know they’re fake?” I asked, dreading the reply.
Matt commented quietly, “You know, I think Jonathan probably knows more about dinosaurs than you,” but not loud enough for anyone other than me to hear.
The answer I got, loud enough for the whole classroom to hear, was “Because God says dinosaurs aren’t related to birds, and I trust God more than I trust some crackpot scientist.” I didn’t say anything else about dinosaurs for the rest of the day.
What bothered me wasn’t so much Greg Paul and Mark Norell getting called crackpots. It was that after successfully keeping this secret for two weeks, I had let my guard down. Rumors travel fast in high school, and I knew it was only a matter of days before everyone else at Timothy Christian School knew that I wasn’t a creationist.
It was comforting to dream about being a Deinonychus that night, and see the pack of Deinonychus that I dreamed I was part of, fully-feathered the way Greg Paul thought they were.
* * *
There weren’t any obvious signs the next day of what I had let slip in art class, but I wasn’t reassured. Almost every hallway and classroom had some sort of Christian-themed poster or mural on one of its walls, including a few pictures of humans and dinosaurs living together in the Garden of Eden as well as the more general proclamations about the power of Jesus’ love. It was unsetting enough to be presented with this in every room of the school, but it made me even more uneasy to see that all of the other students seemed to like it.
It was as though the students were citizens living under the propaganda of some corrupt totalitarian nation. No one else seemed willing to doubt what they were being taught or even to think about it, and I began to wonder whether critical thinking was even within most of the students’ intellectual capacity. The only place I could avoid this feeling was in the AP calculus class, with the 10 or so other students at the school who were taking math classes three years ahead of the rest of their grade.
One of the Calculus class’s first lessons was how to evaluate a function of the variable “X” as X approaches a value “C”. I was surprised to discover that the teacher, Mr. Myers, had no problem at all with the students referring to this as “taking X to C”. He even encouraged us to tell some of our other teachers that we had been “taking X-to-C” in his math class, which I found was good for a few funny looks. He was a tall black man with a shaved head. I liked him almost immediately.
If there was anyone at Timothy who had the intelligence to resist the school’s propaganda, it would be him. I wondered through his entire class that day whether it would be worth the risk for me to find out, and decided just as the bell rang that it was. After waiting for the other students to leave, I approached him at his desk where he was preparing a test for his next class. “Hello Jonathan”, he said. “Do you need help with something?”
“Sort of.” I responded. “It seems like a lot of the other students here don’t like that I believe in evolution. But it seems like you’re smarter than most of the other people here, so I was wondering if you think it’s OK.”
Mr. Myers paused for a moment, apparently surprised by my question. “Well, it seems to contradict what the Bible says, but there’s a lot of physical evidence for it too. I guess I don’t really have an opinion.” He paused again and then added, “That’s about the most I could get away with believing here, anyway.”
“I don’t understand something,” I said. “The principal said it would be OK for me to accept evolution here, but it really doesn’t seem that way to me. Do you know why he told me that?”
Mr. Myers looked around, as though to make sure no one was within earshot. Finally he responded, “I’m not sure the principal knows. This school doesn’t have an official position about this, so the opinion of the students doesn’t have anything to do to with what he does or says. The only reason I know what it’s OK to believe here is because I’ve seen how students get treated when they accept evolution here.”
“You mean I’m not the first one?” I asked.
“We get one every couple years.” Mr. Myers said.
“Why is this such a problem here, anyway? I though the Pope announced a few years ago that Christians should accept evolution from now on.”
“This isn’t a Catholic school.” Mr. Myers said. “Most of the students here are evangelical Protestants. So if the Bible says God created everything in six days, then that’s what they think he did.”
Creating everything in six days meant dinosaurs would have had to share their habitat with humans. I was glad that my dreams didn’t agree with what the Bible said.
* * *
The first sign of trouble came two days later. Someone I didn’t know—not in any of my classes—approached me in the hallway. “Are you Jonathan Kane?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “What do you want?”
“Benny Stockton says you’d better become a creationist if you want to keep your front teeth.”
I had to think about this for a minute to realize what it meant. “So he’s trying to convince people of his viewpoint by threatening to beat them up if they don’t agree with him?”
The kid shrugged. “It worked for Charlemagne.” My obsessive-compulsive disorder took up nine hours per day after that.
Time was in short supply, since with three hours of homework per day and another two spent driving to and from the school, I wasn’t usually done with all of my schoolwork until around seven in the evening. Nine hours of OCD kept me up until four in the morning, whittling at my nails trying to make them conform to the strange standards I was developing for them. I had to get up at six.
The classes at Timothy weren’t very difficult, so at first it wasn’t much of a problem that I was too tired to concentrate well. Even after about a week of sleeping only two hours per night, I was still able to keep up with the work of Mr. Myers’ AP calculus class. It especially annoyed my physics teacher that I was able to get a perfect score on most of his tests even after staring into space for his entire class. I didn’t tell him this, but whether or not I learned about physics actually had nothing to do with what he taught me: The teacher was a creationist with a bachelor’s degree in high-school education from a Christian college, while my father was a circuit designer with a Ph.D in electrical engineering from Princeton University.
Physics class was at 7:30 am, about three and a half hours after I went to bed. Staring at the teacher reviewing a basic physical principle I’d already learned from my father, I couldn’t help thinking of how much I’d rather be spending this time with the rest of my Deinonychus pack in the Cretaceous period. I put my head down on the desk. The teacher muttered something about my class participation grade, and ferns sprouted from the floor.
I was covered in feathers, looking into the distance at the gentle rise of hills near the horizon. I could see a group of small herbivorous dinosaurs a short distance away—Hypsilophodon, a potential prey for Deinonychus, although I wasn’t hungry right then. But even just the smell of them was refreshing after what the classroom smelled like.
I heard a voice beside me, and turned to see my physics teacher standing beside my desk. “It’s one thing if you aren’t going to pay attention, but sleeping through my class is where I draw the line.” I turned back to the front of the room, which had changed from a fern meadow back to a cinderblock wall.
To my surprise, the group of Hypsilophodons was still there, now standing by the left edge of the blackboard. “The dinosaurs are still here,” I said before I could stop myself.
“Of course dinosaurs are still here.” The physics teacher responded, walking back to the front of the room. “Noah took them with him on the Ark, and people only think they’re extinct because scientists have been hiding all the evidence.”
After leaving the room at the end of his class, it wasn’t so surprising for me to see the hallway transformed into a grove of cycads, or to be walking through a forest of conifers and ginkgoes as I crossed the gaps between the school’s buildings. Even during the rest of my classes, I didn’t care—I could spend just about any of them as a Deinonychus without it affecting my grade. And in the early Cretaceous period, creationists hadn’t evolved yet.
* * *
In the cafeteria, the tables were set up near the edge of a lake. A short distance away the other members of my pack were attacking a Tenontosaurus, a buffalo-sized herbivore that it usually took at least three Deinonychus to bring down. They were fairly tasty, but I had brought a bag lunch today.
As I approached the table where I usually sat, I noticed that someone else was sitting in my favorite spot there. Just as I was about to begin searching for a different place to eat, the kid sitting in my place noticed me. “Are you the guy who usually sits here?” He asked.
“Yeah”, I said, hoping that this meant he was willing to move somewhere else.
The kid sitting in my place turned to face me, but showed no intention of getting up. “So you’s the guy who believes in unh-unh?” he said. It was a hefty black boy with a crew cut.
“Believes in what?” I asked.
“I ain’t gonna dirty my mouth sayin’ the devil’s word.”
The Tenontosaurus was dead now, or at least close to it, and the five Deinonychus around it were starting to cut into its sides and belly with their long black claws. “An’ you think dinosaurs ate meat too, yeah?” he said.
I nodded. It would have been hard to answer “no” to that question right then.
“God says you’re wrong,” the kid said from my spot on the bench.
“Where?” I knew the Bible pretty well, and I didn’t remember anything in it about whether dinosaurs ate meat or not.
“Aw, you know God don’t want no bloody mess in his creation. An’ he says the lion’s gonna lay down with the lamb too.” Several of the Deinonychus were now sticking their faces into the herbivore’s body cavity, noisily gulping down chunks of its innards.
“So what do you think about dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus and Deinonychus?” I asked. “If they didn’t eat meat, what did they have their teeth and claws for?”
“Like, pulling down fruit from trees and stuff,” he said, although I wasn’t really listening to him. One of the Deinonychus had just pulled an especially long piece of intestine out of the Tenontosaurus, and I was watching it splatter its neck with blood as it tried to swing the thing into its mouth.
My attention was pulled away from the predators by the sensation of my lunch bag being snatched out of my hands. The kid rolled the top of the bag tighter in his thick fingers. “If you believe in unh-unh you ain’t gonna eat today.”
“Why does it matter to you so much what I believe about this?” I asked.
“Because people who don’t believe the Bible go to hell. I think that’s more important than yo’ lunch.”
I didn’t bother trying to get my lunch back from him. I was more in the mood for Tenontosaurus meat anyway, and the rest of the pack members didn’t care whether I believed in evolution or not.
As I left the cafeteria, I saw another student approaching me in the fern meadow outside it. It was Matt Milano, the boy who had been drawing the dinosaur in my art class. “I’m sorry I’ve caused so much trouble for you,” he said.
I looked around to see if there were any other students nearby who might overhear me, but the only other sign of life was the faint cries of pterosaurs overhead. I finally responded, “It’s not your fault. They were sure to find out what I believed one way or another, even if you hadn’t asked.”
Matt didn’t answer, but the look in his face told me enough.
Neither of us said anything for several seconds, but soon I could no longer keep back the question I was burning to ask him, even though I dreaded his answer. “Are you a creationist?”
“Yes,” Matt sighed. “But I also admit I don’t know everything, and that it’s possible the people here aren’t understanding the Bible properly. And even if they are, I don’t think God cares what you believe about this as much as they do.”
Matt was quiet for another moment, and then said, “I saw what happened in the cafeteria”.
“What did I eat?” I asked. I wanted to make sure that what I had thought of as Tenontosaurus meat wasn’t the actually contents of a trash can or something.
“You didn’t eat anything. You just lay down in the corner of the room and went to sleep.”
“Listen, Jonathan,” he said. There was real concern in his face. “I don’t want this to keep happening to you. I was thinking maybe you should pretend to agree with them, just so they’ll leave you alone. This isn’t worth getting your lunch stolen over.”
“But what would that do for the next kid like me who comes here? Mr. Myers has told me that this happens to a student here every few years. And if I make it look like they can intimidate people into agreeing with them, the next student who accepts evolution at this school will have it even worse.”
Matt didn’t say anything else, except another barely audible, “I’m sorry,” as he disappeared through the door of one of the buildings.
* * *
I avoided the other students as best I could for the rest of the day. Nobody else made much of an effort to talk to me until the end of my last class of the day, computer science. As I headed toward the door leading out of the building, I saw someone I didn’t recognize standing in front of the doorway.
He was tall and muscular, with longish blond hair. It appeared that I’d have to walk right past him to get out the door, so I decided I might as well find out what he wanted from me. “Are you Jonathan Kane?” He asked.
I stopped about five feet in front of him. “Yeah. Who are you?”
“My name’s Benny Stockton.” I knew I’d heard that name before somewhere, but I couldn’t remember where specifically. “You’re the kid who believes in evolution, aren’t you?”
I took a look around the hallway. There wasn’t anyone else within earshot, and at least this boy had the guts to pronounce the word for what I believed. “Yes,” I said.
The next thing I was aware of was a set of knuckles slamming into the top of my right cheekbone. Then I was sprawled on the floor, looking up to him as I felt a trickle of blood run down the side of my face. “We don’t let people believe that here,” Benny said.
Benny took a couple of steps over to me and rolled up his right sleeve. I had never been much of a fighter, but it seemed I would have to try to remember what my father had told me about the boxing techniques he had learned as a teenager. I made the best fists I was able to and looked down at my hands, only to see that my fingers had vanished. In their place was a set of shining black claws.
My hands were Deinonychus hands, and my agility was the agility of a Deinonychus as I leapt forward onto Benny and knocked him to the ground. He struggled the way a Hypsilophodon struggles, and as with a Hypsilophodon his struggles stopped when I drove my claws into his throat. The hallway and door had disappeared, as had all other sign of human habitation. It was only me, a Deinonychus, with a dead Hypsilophodon which I proceeded to eat.
* * *
The first sign of humanity was my mother’s voice, coming from around the edge of a rock. “You weren’t there when I came to pick you up, so I asked the teacher of your last class where you were. He’s the one who told me you were here at the nurse’s office.”
I looked around. I was lying on a cot, and Benny was on the one next to me with a bandage around his throat. “What did I do to him?” I asked.
“Don’t you remember?” My mother scowled. “All your nail-picking somehow made your nails so sharp that you were able to draw blood by digging them into his neck. He’s not really hurt, but you gave him and a few other people quite a scare.”
“What kind of trouble am I in? Am I going to get kicked out like I was at Princeton High?”
“The teacher of your computer class saw what happened,” she said. “I don’t think they’d kick you out for trying to defend yourself after he attacked you.”
I felt the area where he had punched me, swollen with what sure to be the beginning of a black eye. Then I looked at Benny again, struggling to move his head against the bandages on his neck. There was a certain satisfaction this brought me, perhaps because I was sure he wouldn’t be as eager to do the same thing again as he would have if I’d taken the easy way out that Matt had suggested. Or perhaps it was the satisfaction of a predator that has just made a kill—it was impossible for me to tell.