Mr. Hobart suspected the boys were cheating, but he couldn’t figure out how. For one thing, their desks were too far apart. “Little devils,” he thought.
Jesse and Charlie Ben both scored exactly the same on the history test. And not just that—their bonus credit answers were almost identical, and the questions covered topics he had not lectured on in class. He expected that Jesse would have read the extra credit materials, but no way in thunder Charlie Ben did. All that boy read about was baseball.
He decided to watch them another week, but then he found a folded note on the floor underneath Jesse’s desk. He studied it, but could find no meaning in the series of numbers and symbols strung across the paper, broadly printed in Charlie Ben’s strong hand.
He held them after school. “I think you boys are cheating, but I don’t know how,” said Mr. Hobart, studying their faces for clues. “What does this mean?” he asked, unfolding the note. Instead of looking scared or shamefaced, Charlie Ben was nearly bursting with excitement, though Jesse was solemn.
“It says … ‘Can you practice tonight?’” said Charlie Ben.
“Practice what, Jesse?” Mr. Hobart wanted to know.
“Catching. Charlie Ben is teaching me how to catch baseballs.”
This was not the answer Mr. Hobart expected, but he knew the boys were now neighbors in that new subdivision on the edge of town.
He turned to Charlie Ben, and said, “Name five economic factors that have contributed to the growth of our town and this county.” This was the bonus question on the next history test, the one he planned on giving the following day.
Charlie Ben looked at Jesse, who by the barest of nods, seemed to encourage Charlie Ben to answer the question. “The buffalo skinners established a camp here, because of the supply of buffalo and water. The railroad built a line through here, because of the existing habitation and the reliable water source. It was a good land to farm, so the settlers came and grew crops, which they could ship to market on the railroad. Then they drilled and found oil and gas.”
It was Jesse’s answer, and Jesse’s phrasing, coming straight out of Charlie Ben’s mouth. The teacher sat with his chin in his hand, his elbow on the desk and stared at the boys.
“Jesse, have you been tutoring Charlie Ben?”
“We study together. I catch for him one hour, and then we study for one hour. If he’s going to be a big league pitcher some day, he has to practice now.”
“You boys haven’t been cheating?”
“No Sir.” They both spoke instantly and in unison, and he knew it was true.
“Charlie Ben? How did you know the answer to my question?”
“Because after we read the extra credit stuff, Jesse thinks up what questions you will ask, and we figure out the answers.”
Mr. Hobart rubbed his face then covered it with his hands. “Then why are you passing notes written in code?”
“Oh, that’s just for fun. Jesse thought it up. It’s not his first, but he thought the others were too easy, so he came up with a harder one,” said Charlie Ben. Jesse shot him a warning glance, but it was too late.
Mr. Hobart wrote a short note on a piece of paper and handed it to Jesse. “Write that in your code and give it to Charlie Ben.” Jesse wrote carefully and handed the message to Charlie Ben. They waited while Charlie Ben transcribed it, which took a little longer than it had for Jesse to write it. “What’s the answer Charlie Ben?”
“Blue pants, plaid shirt.” That was correct, because the note asked “what is Mr. Hobart wearing?”
“What is the code?” he asked in a voice that was more curious than demanding.
“You won’t tell anyone?” Jesse asked.
“As long as you never use it to cheat, and you stop passing notes in class, I promise to never tell.”
“It’s the Periodic Table of the Elements,” said Jesse.
“Each set of numbers is the atomic number of an element, whose first letter is the letter we want to use. A is 33, for arsenic, which is easier to remember than 89 for actinium.”
Charlie Ben was fairly hopping by now, in excitement.
“You memorized the Periodic Table of the Elements?” stated Mr. Hobart.
“Not the whole thing, just twenty-six letters,” said Charlie Ben. “But Jesse knows ‘em all. He’s awful smart.”
“You converted the alphabet to the atomic number of corresponding elements,” said Mr. Hobart.
“Well,” said Jesse, some I had to make some up. No element starts with J, so I gave it the number 00, since hydrogen starts with 1. I put zeros on single numbers so they’d all have two digits. And there’s no Q, so we use 79—gold, because the Queen wears a gold crown. I picked 74 for W, the letter symbol for Tungsten. We put a dot between each set of numbers, and symbols at the end of sentences, to make a new sentence. We don’t use the numbers for real numbers, like phone numbers, since that would look suspicious. Everything is spelled out.”
Mr. Hobart looked at Jesse. “How did you get that big bruise on your arm?”
“Sometimes Crazy Ben throws wild,” he said, smiling for the first time, “that’s why he has to practice.”
“What else do you guys do?” he wanted to know.
“He gets me to run with him, and we chin on a pole my Dad put up in the back yard. Every time I take out the trash, I’m suppose to stop and do as many chin-ups as I can.”
“How many is that Jesse? asked Mr Hobart.
Eleven years old and he can do forty-five chin-ups, thought Mr. Hobart. He looked at Charlie Ben with raised eyebrows.
“Mr. Hobart, Jesse don’t weigh nothin’. Sure he can do more than me—twenty three, last time I did it.”
Mr. Hobart was stunned. What an extraordinary pair. Exuberant Charlie Ben—friendly as a puppy, big and handsome—good-natured. And Jesse—shorter, thirty pounds lighter, dark and intense, driven by an intelligence that Mr. Hobart thought he understood, but had still under-estimated. Actually, he had under-estimated Charlie Ben too.
Suddenly he was very grateful—relieved and filled with joy, that Jesse had made a friend in Charlie Ben, who would drag him from his shell and make him a whole person. And for Charlie Ben, whose new-found friendship and admiration for Jesse would take him into unimagined territory.
He sent the boys home, and sat for awhile at his desk, realizing he’d just seen into the future.