For as long as anyone could remember, there had been a lion on the second floor of A. B. Calloway elementary school. It had always been school policy that if a student misbehaved, he or she’d be sent to see the lion and never be seen or heard from again. But even so, the lion was very highly respected. Sure, technically he was a disciplinary figure, but he was just doing his job; nobody held it against him. In fact, at some point (about thirty years ago? something like that) he had been voted the school mascot. Really, everybody loved the lion.
But one day, Ms. Dearborn opened her fifth grade homeroom with grim news: the lion was dying. A gasp went up from the class.
“But what about the big game against Englewood? How are we going to win without him?”
“I’m sure we’ll manage, Francesca. He’ll still be our mascot, after all. He’ll just be watching down from heaven.”
“You’re crazy,” said George, “the lion was here when my granddad went to school; there’s no way he’d die.”
“I’m sorry George,” said Ms. Dearborn gently, “but it’s true. The fact is, everyone has to die someday.”
“Wait a second,” said Harry, “Does this mean we can do whatever we want?”
“Harry, please,” said Ms. Dearborn.
“No, I’m serious—if the lion’s not around, that means that even if we break the rules—”
“Harold, that kind of talk is highly inappropriate, especially at a time like this. But for your information, the board has decided the lion is so essential to our school that they are conducting interviews for a replacement as we speak.”
This caused quite a reaction in the excitable young students. A new lion? What if he didn’t look the same? How could he ever be as good as the old lion? Wouldn’t he just die too? (Not to mention that, as Isaac pointed out, if the lion was indeed essential, it was hard to imagine how replacing him would be possible. Ms. Dearborn explained that what they meant was that his role is essential. He in his particularity merely fit the bill. Isaac remarked that that seemed rather cold; at this, his teacher merely shrugged.)
Amidst the clamor, only Jane remained silent. As Ms. Dearborn went about restoring order to the classroom, Jane sat with eyes closed, apparently in deep thought. Finally she raised her hand.
“When,” she asked, “are they holding the interviews?”
At this, everyone laughed.
“You can’t be the new lion, you idiot!” cried Kirk.
“And why not?” snapped Jane.
“You’re just a dumb girl, anyway!”
She turned bright red. “You should talk, six-toes!”
It was true: he did have six toes.
“You’re still an idiot!”
“At least I’m not a—”
“Simmer down this instant!” boomed Ms. Dearborn, and the class’s laughter shut off like a light. “Apologies, now! And there will be no more rabble-rousing in my classroom.”
Jane and Kirk each grumbled their respective sorries.
“Now, Jane,” she said, “not just anyone can be the lion. You’re still very young, and you don’t have any relevant experience or—”
“Ms. Dearborn, I don’t care about any of that! I think I can do it, and well, with all due respect, if the school board thinks I can’t, then let them say so!” She realized she was shouting and blushed. “You know, in my opinion.”
Ms. Dearborn smiled. “All right Jane. Well as it happens the school board has decided that the only one suited to pick from the candidates is the lion himself. The interviews are going on all day today, no appointment needed. Now, right now we have to do the spelling test. But when you’re done, you may walk up to the second floor and try your best.”
“But Ms. Dearborn!” whined Kirk.
“That’s enough, Kirk,” she said sternly. “I expect you to support your classmate and be proud of her, just like she would be of you if you did something so courageous.”
“Ha!” said Harry. “The only courageous thing Kirk’s ever done is pick his nose in the middle of class!” Everyone laughed; even Ms. Dearborn couldn’t help cracking a smile. Kirk just looked at the ground and took his finger out of his nose.
Ms. Dearborn handed out the spelling tests. Jane had memorized the whole list the night before, as usual. By the time Ms. Dearborn read out the third word, Jane had already finished. She raised her hand.
“Yes Jane,” said Ms. Dearborn, “you may go.”
She jumped out of her chair and practically ran to the door.
“Oh, and Jane?” said Ms. Dearborn. Jane looked back at her from the doorway. “Good luck!”
“Thanks, Ms. Dearborn!” she said, and started walking down the hallway.
Soon enough she found herself in the lion’s room. The lion was stretched out on the floor alongside a few stacks of papers. He was a fine beast with glittering eyes and a great golden mane. Jane looked around the room; she had never been there before. It looked much like Ms. Dearborn’s classroom downstairs: there was a blackboard and a few dozen desks, and the floor was spotlessly clean. Sitting at the desks were people of varying ages typing on typewriters. At the desk in the far corner was Leroy, an eighth grader who had been sent to the lion a few months ago for having three late homework assignments.
The lion cleared his throat and Jane snapped to attention. “Ah, I’m sorry, I—”
“Name,” he growled.
The lion pawed through some papers. “There’s no Jane on my list,” he said.
“Oh, no, I’m not here because I got in trouble. I’m here for the interview.”
The lion lowered his reading glasses. “You? Aren’t you a bit young?”
“Well, I don’t know, but frankly, I’d like to be the new lion. I think I’d be great for the job.”
The left side of the lion’s mouth turned up in a smile, showing off a line of sharp white teeth.
“Basically,” Jane continued, “I’m smart, I work hard, I care about the school, and overall, I think the whole setup suits me.”
“That’s all well and good, young lady,” said the lion. “But don’t you realize that there are many other candidates for this position? Some of them are very prestigious. What sets you apart from the crowd? What makes you the best?”
“Well,” said Jane, “like I said, I’m very smart and motivated. I have zero late homework assignments. Also, I can jump higher than any of the boys in the class, and all of the girls except Francesca. But Francesca’s dad is a basketball player, so when you think about it, it only makes sense.”
The lion nodded. “Fair enough. But how does that—”
“Well, maybe jumping doesn’t directly have to do with the job,” admitted Jane. “But you know, I think physical fitness is probably important for any post where you have to discipline people.”
“That’s true.” The lion closed his eyes. “Yes, that’s definitely true.”
There passed a moment wherein no one said a thing. The room was silent but for the clickety-clacking of typewriters.
“Now Jane,” said the lion, “there’s something I need to tell you about this job.” He sat up straighter, and Jane noticed for the first time how very old he looked. His watery blue eyes, although strong and clear, were filled with a deep sadness.
“Well, in the first place, sometimes it’s a really hard job. Sometimes you have to stay late and do work when you’d really just like to go home. Or sometimes, people expect you to solve a problem even though you don’t have any idea how to solve it. Sometimes people even yell at you.”
“Even if you try your best?”
“Even if you try your best. But that’s not all. Even when you do your job perfectly—actually, even if you do it better than perfectly—hardly anybody ever tells you ‘good job.’ In fact,” he added, “you’re lucky if anyone even says ‘thank you.’ ”
Jane looked at him, crushed. He had to be joking.
“I’m not joking,” he said, as though he were reading her mind. “I wish I were. Now, I’m not saying it’s altogether bad. Sometimes it’s actually pretty good. But sometimes, well, that’s what the job is actually like. In fact, sometimes, to a certain extent, that’s what all jobs are like.”
“Yeah,” agreed Leroy from the corner, “My dad says pretty much the same thing. Trust me, he’s telling the honest truth.”
All of the other typists turned to Leroy, horrified. Jane averted her eyes.
“NO TALKING!” thundered the lion.
The lion roared. In one fluid motion, he leapt across the room, threw Leroy on the ground, and ripped his throat out with his teeth.