Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1884
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...
(The entire section contains 1884 words.)
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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, but he is glad to have a partner.
That afternoon, Ben talks to his mom on the phone, as he always does during the weeks he is not staying at her house. Later, he and his dad cook dinner and chat about Ben’s upcoming sailing race on Saturday. Ben tries to be cheerful with both of them, but secretly he hates their separation. He knows they are both planning to watch his race, and he hopes they will do so together.
The next day, Ben and Jill arrive at school to see workers spray painting Xs on all the trees they plan to cut down to make way for the amusement park. The two kids discuss some research Jill has done about the Glennley Entertainment Group, the company that bought the school from the town of Edgeport. Jill explains that Captain Oakes bequeathed the school to the town but made a provision that its ownership would pass to his heirs if the town ever stopped using the site as a school. The town got around this problem by paying five hundred thousand dollars to all of Captain Oakes’s heirs, then selling the land to the Glennley Group for even more money. Glennley has a reputation for being a ruthless company, and Jill has reason to believe that Mr. Lyman is their agent, placed in the school as a spy.
During the morning’s classes, Ben is supposed to work on a book report with a boy named Robert Gerritt. Robert is a straight-A student who considers Ben a rival in both academics and sailing. He tries to psych Ben out about Saturday’s race. Ben does not like this kind of conversation, so he slips away. The librarian lets him look at an ancient book about the history of the school, and Ben studies a chapter on the school’s construction. Duncan Oakes was a naval captain, and he and his head carpenter used parts from a boat for some of the school’s woodwork. When Ben sees a note referring to the school’s top floor as the “upper deck,” he knows he has found a clue. He snaps a picture of the page with his phone and returns the book to its shelf. As he does so, he sees Mr. Lyman watching him.
Ben finds Jill and tells her about his discovery. They go to see Mrs. Hinman, the social studies teacher, and ask permission to do a special extra credit project on the history of the school. Ben does not care about the extra credit; he just wants hall passes so he and Jill can investigate his clue. However, Robert Gerritt overhears and demands to be allowed to do extra work, too. Mrs. Hinman agrees.
At lunchtime, Ben and Jill go to the third floor and use a compass rose to find north-north-east. They use dental floss to draw a line in the correct direction, then they walk the line looking for clues. In the middle of the hallway, roughly at the spot that might be considered “amidships,” Ben notices an unusually short molding board along the wall. He pulls on it and discovers that it is hinged and hides a secret compartment. The kids find a key and a thick piece of wood that feels unusually heavy. Then they hear Mr. Lyman coming, pushing his noisy mop bucket. They take the key and the wood, close the secret compartment, and run to the lunchroom.
That afternoon at the Tempus Fugit, Ben and Jill examine the heavy piece of wood from the secret compartment. Ben soon realizes it can be pried apart into two pieces, and he opens it up to find an engraved copper plate. The message on the plate contains five clues to “safeguards” they can use to defend the school:
After five bells sound, time to sit down.
After four times four, tread up one more.
After three hooks pass, one will be brass.
After two tides spin, a man walks in.
After one still star, horizons afar.
The message cautions the reader to use these safeguards only if they are absolutely necessary. Ben and Jill cannot use any of them yet, however, because they have no idea what the clues mean.
Later, Ben walks Jill home. On their way out of the marina, the guard gives Ben a business card from a man who wants to buy the Tempus Fugit. At first Ben gets angry because he thinks his father has decided to sell the family boat without telling him. Jill does not think Ben’s father would do this, so she asks the guard to describe the visitor. It turns out it was Mr. Lyman, pretending to be interested in buying the boat so he could spy on Ben.
On Saturday, Ben goes to his sailing race. He and Robert are the two best sailors in his age group. This year Robert owns his own new sailboat, while Ben still has to use a boat that belongs to the club. Before the race begins, the two boys jockey for the best starting position. At the start, Robert gets slightly ahead, but Ben soon passes him. When Ben has a lead, he glances back and sees that Robert is doing some risky sailing to try to catch up. Ben quickly imitates, unwilling to lose his advantage. The next time he looks back, he sees that Robert’s boat has capsized. He sails back and sees that Robert is trapped beneath the boat and is unconscious.
Ben knows that adult help may not arrive in time, so he dives into the water and pulls Robert out from under the boat. When the rescue crew arrives, a woman performs CPR, and Robert survives. He is taken to the hospital, but Ben’s parents—agreeing on something, for once—convince the paramedics that Ben does not need to go, too. His mom and dad praise him for saving Robert.
Just before Ben leaves the marina, he sees Jill. She says she was impressed by Ben’s sailing and heroism. She also mentions the “social studies project” she and Ben are doing together. Ben’s mom asks about the project, clearly wondering about Ben’s relationship with Jill. Ben just smiles and says the project is “going to be pretty interesting.”