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Chapter 3: General Education Diploma

The plan is to walk from the studio to a nearby place where you buy cooked food to eat, then travel in the vans to the county education building. Charlie's tail is lashing; nobody's is still.

Charlie: Mr. Chernik, I'm really feeling hyper. I wish I could run it off, and if we could only do one thing, I'd rather run and be hungry.

Tiger: I want to learn to use money to buy food, but I think we're all jumping inside. Could we just run to the food place, rather than walk?

Ms. Donegal: I don't like the idea of a troop of little lions charging down the sidewalk and making old ladies have heart attacks. Look, how fast do you kids think you could eat? Temple Square is two blocks up; we practically have to go there anyway. Someone was talking about marching through Temple Square with priests making warding signs. What do you think of this: walk past the temple; you really ought to see it if you're coming to Salt Lake; and run for ten minutes in the back area by the parking lot. It cuts let's say twenty minutes off eating time. Can you do it?

So that's what we do. We make a tight formation; Charlie calls it company in file, with Ms. Donegal at point, then a double line with two pairs from the other group each headed by a supervisor, and the same in our group. The human kids and Dr. Franck bring up the rear. The adults and the human children are wearing a uniform: dark blue pants and a shirt of thick cotton, kind of basic lion color, with ``Lion Foundation'' embroidered on the left front. They were ordered specially for today. We do look kind of like an army group.

The temple is smaller than I expected, but really interesting as a building. Of course I've only seen four or five buildings in my life. We cause quite a stir but nobody makes the sign of the Cross. We run in formation over the green lawn, grass tickling our bare feet (lions only), past a gaggle of Japanese tourists who snap pictures. I yell ``Run with us!'' (in English) and a pair of teenage males take off in pursuit, to yelps from their, I suppose, supervisors. White-haired Dr. Franck is right on my tail, almost literally. He is breathing heavily, but of course we all are. We politely circle back to drop off the Japanese, then head out the west gate. Compared to the area around the studio there is little foot traffic, and we can safely go at a jog. One or two zigzags and we come upon the logo we saw on the restaurant company's web site, yellow and red. It smells like they've been cooking on their famous grill all morning, and the frying is easy to hear out the kitchen door.

Mr. Lewis: OK, kids, here's a plastic bag with three dollars in it, for each of you. Get in the lines, get your food, first one out picks tables that will hold all of us. And wash your hands, OK? Urinate afterward, just before we leave for the test, unless you have to go right now.

More stir. Ambivalent human kids trying to decide if curiosity or fear would win out.

Charlie: I'm a lion person. Want to feel my fur? I eat French fries, not fingers. See, the outer fur is stiff and the inner fur is soft. My name is Charlie. Oops, it's my turn to buy food; I'll see you later.

Oozing charm from every pore; he can do it if he works hard. He's really putting out, letting the kid touch him. ``Fast food joint'' is accurate; it's my turn now. Yesterday we negotiated that I would order large fries and a small Coke, which I do. I hand over two pieces of paper and get back a large and two small discs, plus a very curious stare from the counter worker. Mental arithmetic: it's right. The money goes into the plastic bag and that into my pocket. It's not hard to use money.

We've split up by groups. We all sample what each person bought, except everyone has his own fries. Cathy has a cheeseburger, and two bites are plenty for me because it's rather greasy. The Coke threatens to go up my nose; Leo thinks it's neat. We exercised in the dark at 4:30 and had breakfast at 5, so we're definitely ready to finish off the fries and gooey catsup. We're done ahead of schedule. Mr. Chernik and Ms. Holbeck ate while walking to get the vans; they drive up and we pile in.

The building we arrive at is entitled the Salt Lake County Board of Education Headquarters; the state Education Office may be hassling us but another government category is responsible for the GED testing. In the gray surfaced parking lot Adam and Alice form up the groups in parallel lines; the human kids and Ms. Donegal fall in at the rear. There are signs pointing the way through a maze of twisty little corridors, whose turns I try hard to memorize. We're five minutes early, and evidently the testers are just opening up. A purse-mouthed individual in a mauve blouse guards the door. There's a stir as we join the line. The door monster looks yet more grim. The ambivalent people, particularly the one we queue up just behind, are not kids but young adults, and I remember Mr. Chernik's explanation of who usually takes the GED. Adam tries to be charming.

Adam: We're lion people. There's a problem with the law, and we're taking the GED to work around it. A video of us may be on the news tonight; are you going to watch?

Leather Jacket: I don't like cats.

Adam: Just trying to be friendly.

Purse Mouth: And just what are you?

Adam: I'm Adam 1-1542 Leones, a lion person and a citizen of the State of Utah. I'm here to take the General Education Diploma test.

Purse Mouth: We don't test animals.

Adam takes two folded papers from his pocket, unfolds them, and reads from them.

Adam: Education Code section 8.522c states that any person in the State of Utah who has not received a high school diploma may upon passing a test get a GED. This is my birth certificate which says that I am a person in the State of Utah. See the seal of Uintah County, and my pawprint. OK?

Purse Mouth: I don't care; if they registered an animal they can test you.

Adam: They're authoritative; see, here's the Civil Code citation. If you don't honor the birth certificate, that's the law section that you're breaking.

Purse Mouth: Shall I call a guard, who is just down the hall?

Adam: Perhaps a lawyer would be more useful. We have ours with us.

A communicator is at hand, but as Purse Mouth reaches for it one of the examiners inside whispers in her ear; I catch the word ``lawyers''. Someone in back calls out, ``C'mon, check their papers and let the little monsters in!'' Sure enough, in moments a person in a suit shows up. Adam repeats his story.

Lawyer: Anyone thinking of filing a lawsuit to challenge the validity of the birth certificate?

Purse Mouth: It's an animal!

Lawyer: Until you have gone down to the courthouse and gotten an injunction against that birth certificate, the, what did you say, lion person has the law on his or its side. Come on, it's not as if it costs you anything to give a few more tests.

Ms. Donegal, trying hard to suppress a smirk, moves to speak with the lawyer. We file in, showing our birth certificates to the outstandingly grim gatekeeper. She practically chokes when Willie imitates precisely my movements in unfolding his document and showing it to her. Clutching our yellow number two pencils, we sit under fluorescent lights in the marked wooden chairs in order of arrival. This puts Adam adjacent to...

Leather Jacket: I might make an exception for you cats. It made me feel good when that matron ate shit.

Adam: Thanks. Good luck on the test.

The test is difficult, as we knew it would be. It's a symbolic wasteland of green rectangles and bubbles, in groups of five, to be marked over with the pencil. I manage to stay focused through checking all the answers, but not without strain. There is a clock on the wall; I'm done about fifteen minutes ahead. I do a breathing exercise to stay steady through the waiting. My tail is cramped from wrapping around me, necessary to keep people in back from stepping on it. Charlie apparently finished before me and is doing the same exercise, not entirely effectively. He raises his hand, a move we have been told is customary in human schools. One of the examiners comes over to speak with him.

Charlie: I'm having trouble sitting still and waiting for the end. May I give my answer sheet to you and get out to the hall?

Examiner: Did you check all your answers?

Charlie: Yes, ma'am.

Examiner: OK, then, wait quietly for your group in the hall.

Several papers are handed over. Leo, Elsa and Kristin are still working.

Me: I'll stay so nobody has to be alone.

Kristin is the last, just a minute before the official ending time. I didn't see any of the regular participants leave early; the examiners complain loudly that the time is over and people must turn in the tests. Without chatter we form up with a grinning Ms. Donegal in the rear, and invert the maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Open sky and familiar, and friendly, faces are a relief.

Dr. Franck: So how did it go?

Ms. Donegal: Adam was awesome! He faced down this specimen they must have rented from the state prison, and not a hair out of place. Adam, you ought to become a lawyer.

Adam: It wasn't that big a deal; I just followed my training and showed her and their lawyer the law sections you printed up for us. The test was tough but I'm sure I did well.

Me: We didn't have a chance to talk in there. Was everyone successful?

Kristin: Thanks for staying; I was really scared. There were some questions I didn't know the answer to, but I did as well as on the last practice test. I think I passed.

Charlie: Let's get as far from here as possible! I nearly lost my nerve in there.

Mr. Chernik: There's a park about five minutes drive from here. Let's go there and you can run it off.

Me: Mr. Chernik, does Salt Lake have an art museum?

Mr. Chernik: I'm sure it does; do you want to see it?

Me: Yes, I was thinking about what that reporter said. It's probably going to be a long time before we're near an art museum again and I'd like to find out what she was talking about. We could do that after running in the park.

Ms. Holbeck: I just looked it up; the art museum is about ten minutes away and it's in some kind of park. Let's go direct.

Tiger: I'm curious about that too. Is that OK with the other group?

Charlie: I'm steady. I haven't had a chance to think straight, but the Seurat style, I think it's a symbol for something I'm going to have to deal with. Someday. Let's go there.

So we pile in to the vans. The museum grounds are nice grass with odd constructions of metal here and there. Four times around is plenty to get our minds working again, and to attract stares from the other visitors.

At the museum we cause a stir as we file in; we're causing lots of stir. Dr. Franck pays. I ask if there is any painting by Seurat, and a worker tells us to follow her.

Worker: I'm Susan Van Bergh; I'm a volunteer with the museum. You're not quite our usual visitor, are you?

Me: No, we're not. We're lion people, I mean the lions are lion people and the humans are human people, that didn't come out quite right. The kids are one group; the kids plus the adults are the Lion Foundation. This is our director, Dr. Franck. And my name is Simba.

Ms. Van Bergh: Well, Simba, what got you interested in Seurat?

Me: We gave a press conference this morning. A crew were making a video and it might be on the news. Someone asked if we could paint in the style of Seurat, which we can't, and I thought we should find out what the lady was talking about, and people say the real thing is better than looking at it on the net.

Ms. Van Bergh: It certainly is. Here we are; this painting is by Seurat. You're expert computer users, aren't you?

Me: Well, we know something, but Mr. Rothko is the expert. He isn't here.

Ms. Van Bergh: Do you know what pixels are?

Me: Sure, the dots of color on the screen. That painting is in dots too, not like the others.

Ms. Van Bergh: That's Seurat's special style. In his time scientists were just figuring out how color works in the eye, and he applied what they discovered to painting. He invented pixels.

Me: OK, I guess that answers my question. I like the light colors. Many paintings in this room are light, and we like open sky. In a room we came through a lot were dark, like covered.

Ms. Van Bergh: Yes, the French Impressionists felt as you do. This one, you can tell what its story is: it's a river scene in Paris. We have a painting on loan to us that's by an artist named Rothko, which is more of a puzzle. Would you like to see it?

Cathy: My dad says his grandfather was a famous artist. Maybe that's him; let's look!

Ms. Van Bergh: Here in the next room. Who can think of a story for it?

We look at it, then at each other. The title is ``Red Square''. Finally I decide to try.

Me: The big red square is squishing the thing it's sitting on.

Ms. Van Bergh: I think I agree, but that doesn't have to be the only interpretation. Now does anyone know another meaning for ``Red Square''?

Charlie: The May Day parade through Red Square! It's a place in Moskva, in Sovietskii Soyuz; that's Russia today.

Ms. Van Bergh: You seem to have studied some history. See the date; do you know what the Russians were doing back then?

Charlie: They were mean, with nuclear bombs. Of course we, I mean the old-time Americans, were mean back to them, and we've learned enough negotiating skills to know that you want to avoid being pushed into that strategy. I get it, the American painter says the Soviets are being mean by squishing that rectangle underneath. That's pretty neat!

Ms. Van Bergh: I like your explanation; you have a good imagination.

Alice: Ma'am, there's a statue in the next room; could we look at it? It looks kind of like a lion person.

Ms. Van Bergh: Certainly. Actually I'm afraid it's a werewolf. Have you read about those?

Alice: Yes. Now I see it's a human with dog teeth, sort of, and fur. What material is it?

Ms. Van Bergh: Bronze. Do you know what that is?

Charlie: I do: copper and tin, strong, but expensive due to the tin. I've read about it but never seen it. That's a strange color, sort of like copper wire gets when you handle it a lot.

Ms. Van Bergh: It's called patina. It's best not to touch the statues because sweat and skin oils make them turn green, which isn't as pretty.

Alice: If you wanted to draw better, how would you do it? I mean, do you know any good source of lessons?

Ms. Van Bergh: The museum offers art lessons for kids. They meet every Saturday.

Alice: Hmm, I think I didn't say it quite right. We're forest people; we've never been out of our forest until today and likely we wouldn't be able to come every Saturday. We get our lessons, I mean like written material, on the net. I'm looking for a URL or something, so with the help of my supervisor I can teach myself to draw better.

Ms. Van Bergh: The gift shop has I think just the thing you need: many books on drawing, at beginning and advanced levels.

Ms. Holbeck: It's getting around to closing time. Perhaps we should walk that way.

Ms. Van Bergh: Good idea. Now in this room, can you see what's similar about the paintings...

We end up in the gift shop, a light and airy space. There's a drawing book for beginners with lots of practice problems to do, and there are enough copies of it so each kid can get one. We discover that they have pictures for sale, printed copies.

Mr. Chernik: Dave, what do you think about getting the kids some art for their walls? About two hundred bucks.

Dr. Franck: Did that reporter get to you too? I think she's right; the kids need to get a life, and here's a good place to start. One print per kid. Human kids included.

Tiger: OK, let's go through the pictures quick, and mark down the ones you like. By number. Maybe give them a rank so you can quickly pick the one you like most.

I use my number two pencil on the back of the law sheet -- I'm not so stupid as to write on my birth certificate. Humans have to wear clothes to be able to keep useful things in a pocket. While the Seurat painting is in the collection, my favorite turns out to be a desert scene by a native American artist.

Leo: Charlie, you like the one by Kandinsky? It goes with your personality.

Adam: No, the one by Dali goes with his personality.

Charlie: Can it, guys; you don't have to look at it. I can see the bird symbol. Are you jealous because you can't?

Ms. Van Bergh smiles at this exchange. Dr. Frank doesn't pay with green paper; he gives a plastic card, which is fiddled with and returned. We are out, clutching our books and rolled up pictures, just as the museum is closing. Mr. Lewis has picked out a Chinese restaurant, and from our group Leo manages the ordering. The hot and sour soup is interesting, but I'm tired after a long day and not up for so many new flavors. I take more than my share of hong shao do fu and concentrate on that, over plenty of plain rice. As Mr. Chernik drives in the dark back to our territory, I put my head on Dr. Franck's arm and Charlie puts his head on my shoulder, and we doze.

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