Prologue and Chapter 1 Summary
Ruprecht and Skippy, a pair of fourteen-year-olds, are in a doughnut shop one night for an impromptu doughnut-eating contest. They are classmates at a private school in Ireland named Seabrook, and Ruprecht is a sort of genius. Ruprecht is in the middle of scarfing down his doughnuts when he notices that Skippy is in distress; the boy is gasping and his face is turning red and purple. When Skippy falls to the floor, Ruprecht snaps out of his stupor and tries to figure out what’s wrong. A crowd of patrons begins to form around Ruprecht and Skippy. Ruprecht keeps asking Skippy what is wrong, but Skippy is unable to speak. Finally, Zhang, an employee of the doughnut shop, tries to manually clear Skippy’s throat and then begins the Heimlich maneuver. Ruprecht looks down at the table and notices that all of Skippy’s doughnuts are there and have not been touched; he announces that Skippy might not be choking. As he is fading, Skippy uses some strawberry syrup on the floor to spell out “Tell Lori” but is unable to finish it. A fellow patron assumes he means to tell the girl he loves her, but Skippy dies on the floor before anyone can confirm it. Ruprecht is emotional and shocked. He steps out into the fresh air as he waits for the ambulance to arrive.
Months earlier, Howard Fallon, a rather hapless Seabrook history teacher, is attempting to engage his class (which includes Skippy) in a discussion of World War I; however, it is clear that the boys have not read the material. Many of them are not paying attention now. Howard calls on virtually every boy, including those asleep or spacing out, but cannot get even the most basic information from them. Finally, the last bell of the day rings, and the students filter outside.
Howard also feels anxious to get out. He surreptitiously grabs his stuff and briefly greets the school’s much-feared French teacher, Father Green (who was a teacher back when Howard was a student at the school). On his way out, Howard is surprised to find a classroom that is still full of students even though the school day ended ten minutes before. His answer comes in the form of the shapely Miss McIntyre, a long-term substitute for Geography. The boys hang on her every word until she realizes they’ve run over and excuses them.
Howard lingers outside to attempt to talk to her and ends up running into her. As he helps her up, she asks him to carry her books to her car for her. The smitten Howard complies and repeatedly bungles all attempts at small talk on the way out. In the parking lot, they see students have covered Howard’s embarrassingly meager car with feathers. Miss McIntyre admits she has heard the boys’ nickname for him: Howard the Coward. She also tells him bluntly that he has no chance of sleeping with her.