We the Children, the first book in Andrew Clements’s Keepers of the School series, begins with Benjamin Pratt running toward his classroom. He is late for homeroom, and he knows from experience that he will get two afternoons of detention if he is not sitting at his desk when his teacher takes attendance. As he runs, he sees the janitor, Mr. Keane, leaning on his dust mop and limping toward the workroom in obvious pain. Ben stops to help.
Mr. Keane explains that he broke his ankle on the stairs and that he has already called 9-1-1. He makes Ben swear to keep a secret and then gives him a big gold coin inscribed with the following words:
If attacked, look nor’-nor’east from amidships on the upper deck.
On the other side it says:
First and always, my school belongs to the children. DEFEND IT. Duncan Oakes, 1783.
Mr. Keane explains that he has been carrying this coin for forty-three years and that the janitors before him all carried it too. He cannot give the coin to his assistant janitor, Lyman, because the man is “a snake.” Mr. Keane tells Ben to keep the coin and fight to protect the school. The old building is right on the ocean, on one of the best pieces of real estate for miles. The town council is planning to tear the school down in June and replace it with an amusement park.
Ben thinks this whole conversation is insane, but he does not feel that he can say no to an old man who is badly hurt. He tucks the coin into his pocket and watches as the paramedics take Mr. Keane away. At lunch, he asks his smartest friend, Jill Acton, what she knows about Duncan Oakes. Jill calls the school’s founder “a weirdo” because he had himself buried in the school playground. During this conversation, the principal makes an announcement over the intercom. He says that Mr. Keane died from health complications at the hospital.
Ben spends the rest of the afternoon worrying. He does not know how to go about defending his school, but he knows that two dead men—Mr. Keane and Duncan Oakes—have specifically asked him to do so. The town of Edgeport has already voted to replace the old building with an amusement park. Ben does not look forward to the changes such a park will bring to his town, but change happens whether he likes it or not. He does not have the power to stop the amusement park from being built, just as he did not have the power to stop his parents from separating several months ago.
That afternoon in social studies, Ben takes a test. He finishes before anyone else in the room, then he sits and worries until he falls asleep. He dreams that a wrecking ball is crashing through the window, sending kids and desks scattering. He screams in his sleep, and his teacher wakes him up.
After school, Ben serves detention with Ms. Wilton, his homeroom and art teacher, because he chose not to tell her why he was late in the morning. A sink in the classroom is clogged, so she sends him to get Mr. Lyman, the assistant janitor. Mr. Lyman is a creepy man with a “reptilian” appearance. He makes Ben empty a bucket of dirty mop water and seems to enjoy watching him gag at the smell. Somehow Mr. Lyman knows that Ben was the last person at school to speak with Mr. Keane. He asks whether the old janitor gave Ben anything, but Ben pretends not to know anything.
When his detention is over, Ben finds Jill waiting for him outside. He explains what happened with Mr. Keane before school and with Mr. Lyman after school. Jill asks why he is telling her about it after Mr. Keane swore him to secrecy, and Ben says:
Because if you had been the kid who helped Mr. Lyman this morning...he would have handed the coin to you. He would have trusted you.
Thoughtfully, Jill says she is looking forward to having a new school building and going to an amusement park in town. Ben complains about all the traffic and pollution it will cause, saying, “They’re going to ruin this entire town!” Jill gets angry and says Ben just wants to complain, not change anything. Afterward, Ben makes his decision: He will do what the coin and Mr. Keane have asked him to do. He will try to defend the school.
This week Ben is staying with his Dad on the family boat, Tempus Fugit. As soon as he arrives, he gets a call from Jill. She apologizes for yelling at him and asks him to e-mail her the text from the coin so she can study it. She says she wants to help him defend the school. Ben is confused by the sudden change in her attitude,...
(The entire section is 1884 words.)