John Paul hated school. His Mother did her best, but how could she possibly teach anything to him when she had eight other children—six of them to teach, two of them to tend because they were mere babies?
What John Paul hated most was the way she kept teaching him things he already knew. She would assign him to make his letters, practicing them over and over while she taught interesting things to the older kids. So John Paul did his best to make sense of the jumble of information he caught from her conversations with them. Smatterings of geography—he learned the names of dozens of nations and their capitals but wasn’t quite sure what a nation was. Bits of mathematics—she taught polynomials over and over to Anna because she didn’t even seem to try to understand, but it enabled John Paul to learn the operation. But he learned it like a machine, having no notion what it actually meant.
Nor could he ask. When he tried, Mother would get impatient and tell him that he would learn these things in due time, but he should concentrate on his own lessons now.
His own lessons? He wasn’t getting any lessons, just boring tasks that almost made him crazy with impatience. Didn’t she realize that he could already read and write as well as any of his older siblings? She made him recite from a primer, when he was perfectly capable of reading any book in the house. He tried to tell her, “I can read that one, Mother.” But she only answered, “John Paul, that’s playing. I want you to learn real reading.”
Maybe if he didn’t turn the pages of the grown-up books so quickly, she would realize that he was actually reading. But when he was interested in a book, he couldn’t bear to slow down just to impress Mother. What did his reading have to do with her? It was his own. The only part of school that he enjoyed.
“You’re never going to stay up with your lessons,” she said more than once, “if you keep spending your reading time with these big books. Look, they don’t even have pictures, why do you insist on playing with them?”
“He’s not playing,” said Andrew, who was twelve. “He’s reading.”
“Yes, yes, I should be more patient and play along,” said Mother, “but I don’t have time to…” And then one of the babies cried and the conversation was over.
Outside on the street, other children walked to school wearing school uniforms, laughing and jostling each other. Andrew explained it to him. “They go to school in a big building. Hundreds of them in the same school.”
John Paul was aghast. “Why don’t their own mothers teach them? How can they learn anything with hundreds?”
“There’s more than one teacher, silly. A teacher for every ten or fifteen of them. But they’re all the same age, all learning the same thing in each class. So the teacher spends the whole day on their lessons instead of having to go from age to age.”
John Paul thought a moment. “And every age has its own teacher?”
“And the teachers don’t have to feed babies and change their diapers. They have time to really teach.”
But what good would that have done for John Paul? They would have put him in a class with other five-year-olds and made him read stupid primers all day—and he wouldn’t be able to listen to the teacher giving lessons to the ten- and twelve- and fourteen-year-olds, so he really would lose his mind.
“It’s like heaven,” said Andrew bitterly. “And if Father and Mother had had only two children, they could have gone there. But the minute Anna was born, we were cited for noncompliance.”
John Paul was tired of hearing that word without understanding it. “What is noncompliance?”
“There’s this great big war out in space,” said Andrew. “Way above the sky.”
“I know what space is,” said John Paul impatiently.
“OK, well, big war and all, so all the countries of the world have to work together and pay to build hundreds and hundreds of starships, so they put somebody called the Hegemon in charge of the whole world. And the Hegemon says we can’t afford the problems caused by overpopulation, so any marriage that has more than two children is noncompliant.”
Andrew stopped as if he thought that made everything clear.
“But lots of families have more than two kids,” said John Paul. Half their neighbors did.
“Because this is Poland,” said Andrew, “and we’re Catholic.”
“What, does the priest give people extra babies?” John Paul couldn’t see the connection.
“Catholics believe you should have as many children as God sends you. And no government has the right to tell you to reject God’s gifts.”
“What gifts?” said John Paul.
“You, dummy,” said Andrew. “You’re God’s gift number seven in this house. And the babies are gift eight and gift nine.”
“But what does it have to do with going to school?”
Andrew rolled his eyes. “You really are dumb,” he said. “Schools are run by the government. The government has to enforce sanctions against noncompliance. And one of the sanctions is, only the first two children in a family have a right to go to school.”
“But Peter and Catherine don’t go to school,” said John Paul.
“Because Father and Mother don’t want them to learn all the anti-Catholic things the schools teach.”
John Paul wanted to ask what “anti-Catholic” meant, but then he realized it must mean something like against-the-Catholics so it wasn’t worth asking and having Andrew call him a dummy again.
Instead he thought and thought about it. How a war made it so all the nations gave power to one man, and that one man then told everybody how many children they could have, and all the extra children were kept out of school. That was actually a benefit, wasn’t it? Not to go to school? How would John Paul have learned anything, if he hadn’t been in the same room with Anna and Andrew and Peter and Catherine and Nicholas and Thomas, overhearing their lessons?
The most puzzling thing was the idea that the schools could teach anti-Catholic stuff. “Everybody’s Catholic, aren’t they?” he asked Father once.
“In Poland, yes. Or they say they are. And it used to be true.” Father’s eyes were closed. His eyes were almost always closed, whenever he sat down. Even when he was eating, he always looked as though he were about to fall over and sleep. That was because he worked two jobs, the legal one during the day and the illegal one at night. John Paul almost never saw him except in the morning, and then Father was too tired to talk and Mother would shush him.
She shushed him now, even though Father had already answered him. “Don’t pester your father with questions, he has important things on his mind.”
“I have nothing on my mind,” said Father wearily. “I have no mind.”
“Anyway,” said Mother.
But John Paul had another question, and he had to ask it. “If everybody’s Catholic, why do the schools teach anti-Catholic?”
Father looked at him like he was crazy. “How old are you?”
He must not have understood what John Paul was asking, since it had nothing to do with ages. “I’m five, Father, don’t you remember? But why do the schools teach anti-Catholic?”
Father turned to Mother. “He’s only five, why are you teaching him this?”
“You taught him,” said Mother. “Always ranting about the government.”
“It’s not our government, it’s a military occupation. Just one more attempt to extinguish Poland.”
“Yes, keep talking, that’s how you’ll get cited again and you’ll lose your job and then what will we do?”
It was obvious John Paul wasn’t going to get any answer and he gave up, saving the question for later, when he got more information and could connect it together.
That was how life went on, the year John Paul was five: Mother working constantly, cooking meals and tending the babies even while she tried to run a school in the parlor, Father going away to work so early in the morning that the sun wasn’t even up, and all of the children awake so they could see their father at least once a day.
Until the day Father stayed home from work.
Mother and Father were both very quiet and tense at breakfast, and when Anna asked them why Father wasn’t dressed for work, Mother only snapped, “He’s not going today,” in a tone that said, “Ask no more questions.”
With two teachers, lessons should have gone better that day. But Father was an impatient teacher, and he made Anna and Catherine so upset they fled to their rooms, and he ended up going out into the garden to weed.
So when the knock came on the door, Mother had to send Andrew running out back to get Father. Moments later, Father came in, still brushing dirt from his hands. The knock had come twice more while he was coming, each time more insistent.
Father opened the door and stood in the frame, his large strong body filling the space. “What do you want?” he demanded. He said it in Common rather than Polish, so they knew it was a foreigner at the door.
The answer was quiet, but John Paul heard it clearly. It was a woman’s voice, and she said, “I’m from the International Fleet’s testing program. I understand you have three boys between the ages of six and twelve.”
“Our children are none of your business.”
“Actually, Mr. Wieczorek, the mandatory testing initiative is the law, and I’m here to fulfill my responsibilities under that law. If you prefer, I can have the military police come and explain it to you.” She said it so mildly that John Paul almost missed the fact that it wasn’t an offer she was making, it was a threat.
Father stepped back, his face grim. “What would you do, put me in jail? You’ve passed laws that forbid my wife from working, we have to teach our children at home, and now you’d deprive my family of any food at all.”
“I don’t make government policy,” said the woman as she surveyed the room full of children. “All I care about is testing children.”
Andrew spoke up. “Peter and Catherine already passed the government tests,” he said. “Only a month ago. They’re up to grade.”
“This isn’t about being up to grade,” said the woman. “I’m not from the schools or the Polish government—”
“There is no Polish government,” said Father. “Only an occupying army to enforce the dictatorship of the Hegemony.”
“I’m from the fleet,” said the woman. “By law we’re forbidden even to express opinions of Hegemony policy while we’re in uniform. The sooner I begin the testing, the sooner you can go back to your regular routines. They all speak Common?”
“Of course,” said Mother, a little pridefully. “At least as well as they speak Polish.”
“I watch the test,” said Father.
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the woman, “but you do not watch. You provide me with a room where I can be alone with each child, and if you have only one room in your dwelling, you take everyone outside or to a neighbor’s house. I will conduct these tests.”
Father tried to face her down, but he had no weapons for this battle, and he looked away. “It doesn’t matter if you test or not. Even if they pass, I’m not letting you take them.”
“Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,” said the woman. She looked sad. And John Paul suddenly understood why: Because she knew that Father would have no choice about anything, but she didn’t want to embarrass him by pointing it out. She just wanted to do her job and go.
John Paul didn’t know how he knew these things, but sometimes they just came to him. It wasn’t like history facts or geography or mathematics, where you had to learn things before you knew them. He could just look at people and listen to them and suddenly he’d know things about them. About what they wanted or why they were doing the things they were doing. When his brothers and sisters quarreled, for instance. He usually got a clear idea of just what was causing the quarrel, and most of the time he knew, without even trying to think of it, just the right thing to say to make the quarreling stop. Sometimes he didn’t say it, because he didn’t mind if they quarreled. But when one of them was getting really angry—angry enough to hit—then John Paul would say the thing he needed to say, and the fight would stop, just like that.
With Peter, it was often something like, “Just do what he says, Peter’s the boss of everybody,” and then Peters face would turn red and he’d leave the room and the argument would stop, just like that. Because Peter hated having people say he thought he was boss. But that didn’t work with Anna, with her it took something like, “Your face is getting all red,” and then John Paul would laugh, and she would go outside and screech and then come back inside and storm around the house, but the quarrel itself was over. Because Anna hated to think she ever, ever looked funny or silly.
And even now, he knew that if he just said, “Papa, I’m scared,” Father would push the woman out of the house and then he would be in so much trouble. But if John Paul said, “Papa, can I take the test, too?” Father would laugh and he wouldn’t look so ashamed and unhappy and angry.
So he said it.
Father laughed. “That’s John Paul, always wants to do more than he’s able.”
The woman looked at John Paul. “How old is he?”
“Not six yet,” said Mother sharply.
“Oh,” said the woman. “Well, then, I assume this is Nicholas, this is Thomas, and this is Andrew?”
“Why aren’t you testing me?” demanded Peter.
“I’m afraid you’re already too old,” she answered. “By the time the Fleet was able to gain access to noncompliant nations…” Her voice trailed off.
Peter got up and mournfully left the room.
“Why not girls?” said Catherine.
“Because girls don’t want to be soldiers,” said Anna.
And suddenly John Paul realized that this wasn’t like the regular government tests. This was a test that Peter wanted to take, and Catherine was jealous that it couldn’t be given to girls.
If this test was about becoming a soldier, it was dumb that Peter would be considered too old. He was the only one who had his man-height. What, did they think Andrew or Nicholas could carry a gun and kill people? Maybe Thomas could, but he was also kind of fat besides being tall and he didn’t look like any soldier John Paul had seen.
“Whom do you want first?” asked Mother. “And can you do it in a bedroom so I can keep their lessons going?”
“Regulations require that I do it in a room with street access, with the door open,” said the woman.
“Oh, for the love of—we aren’t going to hurt you,” said Father.
The woman only looked at him briefly, and then looked at Mother, and both of John Paul’s parents seemed to give in. John Paul realized: Somebody must have been hurt giving this test. Somebody must have been taken into a back room and somebody hurt them. Or killed them. This was a dangerous business. Some people must be even angrier about the testing than Father and Mother.
Why would Father and Mother hate and fear something that Peter and Catherine wished they could have?
* * *
It proved impossible to have a regular school day in the girls’ bedroom, even though it had the fewest beds, and soon Mother resorted to having a free-reading time while she nursed one of the babies.
And when John Paul asked if he could go read in the other room, she gave consent.
Of course, she assumed he meant the other bedroom, because whenever somebody in the family said “the other room” they meant the other bedroom. But John Paul had no intention of going in there. Instead he headed for the kitchen.
Father and Mother had forbidden the children to enter the parlor while the testing was going on, but that didn’t prevent John Paul from sitting on the floor just outside the parlor, reading a book while he listened to the test.
Every now and then he was aware that the woman giving the test was glancing at him, but she never said anything to him and so he just kept reading. It was a book about the life of St. John Paul II, the great Polish pope that he had been named for, and John Paul was fascinated because he was finally getting answers to some of his questions about why Catholics were different and the Hegemon didn’t like them.
Even as he read, he also listened to all of the testing. But it wasn’t like the government tests, with questions about facts and seeing if they could figure out math answers or name parts of speech. Instead she asked each boy questions that didn’t really have answers. About what he liked and didn’t like, about why people did the things they did. Only after about fifteen minutes of those questions did she start the written test with more regular problems.
In fact, the first time, John Paul didn’t think those questions were part of the test. Only when she asked each boy the exact same questions and then followed up on the differences in their answers did he realize this was definitely one of the main things she was here to do. And from the way she got so involved and tense asking those questions, John Paul gathered that she thought these questions were actually more important than the written part of the test.
John Paul wanted to answer the questions. He wanted to take the test. He liked to take tests. He always answered silently when the older children were taking tests, to see if he could answer as many questions as they did.
So when she was finishing up with Andrew, John Paul was just about to ask if he could take the test when the woman spoke to Mother. “How old is this one?”
“We told you,” said Mother. “He’s only five.”
“Look what he’s reading.”
“He just turns the pages. It’s a game. He’s imitating the way he sees the older children read.”
“He’s reading,” said the woman.
“Oh, you’re here for a few hours and you know more about my children than I do, even though I teach them for hours every day?”
The woman did not argue. “What is his name?”
Mother didn’t want to answer.
“John Paul,” said John Paul.
Copyright © 2003 by Orson Scott Card “The Polish Boy” copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card first appeared in First Meetings: Three Stories from the Enderverse.