“Class, we have a new student today,” Miss Maplewhite, the fifth grade teacher, said in honeyed tones. “His family just moved here from Poland. That’s a long way from here; later on, we’ll see who can find it on the map. But for now, let’s all make our new friend feel welcome, okay? So let’s have a hand for George Zero!”
“Um, that’s Szerro, ma’am,” the timid boy standing in front of the teacher said in a tiny, accented voice. He pronounced it SARE-oh.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the teacher corrected. “George Szerro, everybody!”
But the damage had been done.
“Hey, Zero!” a gruff voice called from the hallway. George shut his locker quickly and tried to walk away without being noticed. “Zero! I’m talkin’ to you!”
George turned around slowly and swallowed his fear. He hated the nickname Zero, had hated it for years, but he knew better than to correct the captain of the football team and the most popular boy in high school. “W-what is it, Jerry?”
“Old man Carter says I’m flunkin’ chemistry,” the huge, muscular boy said. “Says I need at least an 85 on the test next week, or I’m off the football team. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?”
“N-no, Jerry, of course not.” George, a quiet, studious young man with thinning hair, actually couldn’t care less if his high school team won football games or not; he had never attended one, preferring to stay home with his books. “I’ll be glad to tutor you, help you pass–”
“Uh-uh,” Jerry said, shaking his head. “You take the test for me.”
“W-what?” George said, goggling.
“I said, you take the test for me. You sign my name to the test paper. Easy, right? You always get top grades. That way, I’ll stay on the football team. You’ll do that, won’t you?”
George hesitated. Jerry grabbed a handful of his shirt, roughly hauling him forward. “Won’t you?”
“S-sure! Sure, Jerry! Sure!”
“Fine,” Jerry said, shoving George away so that the frail boy stumbled against the lockers. The football hero stormed away down the hall, leaving George cowering in fear.
“Y-you wanted to see me, Mr. Walker?” George asked, entering the principal’s office.
“Sit down, please, Mr. Zero,” the principal said.
“Szerro, sir,” George corrected.
“I’m sorry, Szerro,” the principal amended. “You know Jerry Case, don’t you?”
“I-I think he’s in one or two of my classes,” George stammered.
“He’s on the football team,” the principal pointed out. “Star player, actually. Surely you’ve seen him lead the team to victory.”
“I-I’ve never made it to a game, sir,” George said. “Busy studying, you know.”
The principal raised an eyebrow. “Really? Well, Jerry’s grades haven’t been so great. Pretty bad, in fact. Of course, Jerry is a special case, and I’ve asked his teachers to consider that when grading his papers.”
“Y-you have?” George asked.
“Certainly. He’s going to be a big man someday, Jerry is. He’s got the skills to carry him to the top of professional football. Once that happens, who cares if he knew the capital of Arkansas? Anyway, most of his teachers saw it my way. Except one.”
“Mr. Carter,” George blurted out, before he could stop himself.
“Carter, yes,” Walker said. “The chemistry teacher. Such a stickler for the rules. Anyway, he demanded that Jerry get an 85 or better on his chemistry exam, or he would fail the class. That, of course, would mean his expulsion from the team. Tragic, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” George agreed, not knowing what to think. Mr. Walker was the principal, the educational leader of the whole school. How could he feel this way? It just wasn’t logical.
“Luckily,” Walker said slyly, “Jerry managed to pull it off. Got a 97 on the test.”
“Ninety-eight,” George blurted and clapped a hand over his own mouth.
Walker smiled broadly. “Ninety-eight, yes, that’s right. Mr. Carter suspected him of cheating and came to me with his accusation. Fascinating, what a man’s imagination will lead him to believe, isn’t it?”
“I-I guess so,” George said, confused at what was happening.
“Indeed. I’m sure Jerry earned his grade through hard work. Of course, a little bit of luck probably figured into it to, eh?”
“Probably,” George repeated, dazed.
“And,” Walker went on, “if he should happen to run into any more obstinate teachers, a little more of that luck would be appreciated.” Walker leaned forward in his chair. “Do we understand each other?”
“I-I think we do, sir,” George said.
“Very good. That’s all, Mr. Zero.”
“Of course, Szerro.”
“Working late again, George?” the department head said over George’s shoulder.
“Oh! Dr. Glassman!” said George, who looked older than his years thanks to his prematurely balding hair and wrinkled brow. “Yes, I’ve been putting the finishing touches on this chemical equation. I’ve been working on it for almost a year, now.”
“Bannerman Pharmaceuticals encourages our bright young minds to work on their own projects,” Glassman said, quoting the company public relations release. “Mind telling me what you’re working on?”
“It’s a new cholesterol medication,” George said. “This nutritional supplement will actually help the body to eliminate cholesterol with the other bodily wastes. Regular ingestion could lower the body’s cholesterol level by forty points or more, in just a few weeks.”
“Wow!” Glassman said, impressed. “That is something, George! If it works, you’ll be the fair-haired boy here at Bannerman!” Glancing at George’s receding hairline, he quickly added, “Er, so to speak!”
“Oh, it’ll work, Dr. Glassman!” George insisted. “I finally got the protein chain right! All I need to do is–” George stifled a large yawn. “Excuse me. All I have to do is double-check my findings on the big computer mainframe downstairs. Shouldn’t take more than two hours.”
“It’s after ten already, George,” Glassman said. “And you’ve been here since, what, six this morning? Tell you what. You go home, get some sleep. I’ll run your calcs through the comp for you, and in the morning you’ll be all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to present your findings to Bannerman.”
“You’d do that for me, Dr. Glassman?” George asked. “That’d be great — thanks!”
“My pleasure,” Glassman said.
“I suppose you’re all wondering why I called this special meeting,” Bannerman said to the workers assembled in the auditorium the next morning. “It’s to announce the development of a new breakthrough drug! Working on his own, one of our technicians has come up with a drug that will revolutionize cholesterol treatments and make a mint for Bannerman Pharmaceuticals in the bargain! Naturally, Bannerman will show its gratitude to this innovative young man! I give you the hero of the hour: Dr. Arnold Glassman!”
The whole auditorium thundered with applause. In the back row, one young man with thin, balding hair ground his teeth in frustrated rage.