The bell rings as students sprint to their favorite seats, hopping over mounds of backpacks and stacks of textbooks.
A skinny Tonu with curly brown hair, a bright smile, and warm eyes shuts the door. He prances to the blackboard holding a bucket of neon chalk. [i]Hospitality[/i] he scribes, choosing the brightest green stick in the container. Above the day's lesson, the teacher's name is enthroned in paper cutouts shaped liked columns: Mr. Gaudium.
Posters from previous year's classes hang on the walls and ceilings. An odd collection of student-made sculptures, latch hook designs, framed poetry, a hand-drawn cart made from a wheelbarrow, and a toga cover his desk, filing cabinets, and pretty much any open space that the room offered.
"[i]Salvete, omnes[/i]!" He says with a grin.
"[i]Salve, magister[/i]!" The class chimes in response. Even the backroom dwellers join in the chorus.
"Today, students," the teacher exclaims, "we'll be learning about the spirit of hospitality, a word derived from the Altadorian word [i]hospes[/i] or guest. And to do this, I will need a few volunteers to recount an epic tale of ancient skills, supernatural thrills, and the grand mystery that it instills."
Whenever Mr. Gaudium grew excited, the Tonu's mane swung about. This caused his electric-blue fur to stand on end. It was a wonder that his work suit stayed neat-and-tidy when the rest of him looked like a blow-dried Noil.
As if sitting on a thumbtack, a rainbow Shoyru named Emma bolts from her chair, arms extended into the air. Alongside of her, a patient group of students raise their hands and sigh.
"Can I wear the toga?" Asks Emma. "Can I? I must"—she makes a dramatic pose-"embrace my inner actress."
The Tonu laughs. "Of course, you can!" He motions towards a small area in the front of the room, one of the few places where there is ample space to perform. "And who will be our guest? Our [i]hospes[/i] of the ancient world?"
The paws, wings, and claws remain in the air. From the back row, A single red Hissi watches the scene, secretly hoping that she could disappear.
"Why so shy, Ruby?" asks the teacher. Meanwhile, the Hissi slithers further into her chair. "Don't you want to live in the past?"
A vigorous headshake is her reply. The teacher shrugs. A group of students still enthusiastically wave their hands, hoping to catch the giddy Tonu's glance. Upon a cursory scan, the teacher picks a Kiko who calls themself "The Shadow."
A black leather jacket covers The Shadow's frame leaving little more than a long, mysterious silhouette from afar. Their gothic makeup and body-length black hair further add to the air of intrigue. As if to expose the shadow, Mr. Gaudium places a bright wreath of gold laurels upon their head. The Kiko recoils at the gesture before accepting the adornment with a wry grin.
"This crown of laurel needs a makeover," The Shadow deadpans. "It should be black, like my soul."
Mr. Gaudium chuckles. "Perhaps next time, dear ancient traveler. But first, you are on a mission to find shelter!"
The Kiko puts their hands on their head as if guarding themselves from rain and slinks to the front of the room.
"Okay, students, that makes two! Who shall be my narrator?"
A Starry Uni named Samuel is picked and gleefully gallops up to the front. He is handed a toy megaphone.
With the actors in place, Mr. Gaudium turns towards his desk. He digs his hoofs through a mountain of paper, unearthing a large stack of pages tinted with a golden hue. "The Grateful Host" is written in green cursive font. Scuttling about, the teacher hands a pile to each row. The paper quickly fills each desk while curious eyes scan the contents.
The Shadow and Emma set up a few cardboard cutouts of Altadorian buildings and bustling city-goers before studying their lines. For a moment, the room was eerily quiet.
"Here's the deal," the teacher says with playful declaration. "When we run into lines preceded with [i]discipuli[/i], everyone will join in. Emma will play Julia, the owner of our fine Altadorian homestead. The Shadow will be our mysterious traveler seeking refuge from the rain. Samuel will be the omnipresent narrator proclaiming tales for our captivated classroom."
The teacher took five minutes to give his actors a chance to prepare their voices whilst the rest of the students read the script in its entirety.
With a pointed cue of the teacher's hoof, the narrator begins his epic tale.
"There once was a time when the Ancient Ones walked the land," Samuel recounts, speaking as if to a forum of his fellow Altadorians. "They predated even the mighty twelve and watched over the land with benevolence and grace. But rarely did they made their presence known. It was through acts of charity, dance, and offerings that one could sense their closeness. A select few would see them in their radiant splendor, but only those most pious and kind. One such Altadorian was an Skeith named Julia."
During the intermission, Emma put on bright red lipstick. Now that she had the spotlight, the rainbow Aisha spins her toga as she walks into center stage.
"Ah!" She cries, "Storm clouds are drifting ever closer to this humble abode. I shall prepare wisely and make this a shelter for my friends and family." She continues off-script, "come my children! Come my family! For I offer you a warm hearth and food."
Samuel clears his throat. "Ehem. So, Julia allows her relatives from near and far refuge upon her hill-top villa. The group is merry and spends time with dance and cheer. At that moment, the wind rushes—"
The class makes the sounds of a rustling wind. One back row Kougra adds in a thunderclap.
"—And apparently the storm is fast approaching," interjects Mr. Gaudium.
Samuel stifles a chuckle. "There came a knock at her villa door."
The Shadow knocks upon the classroom door, startling a passerby in the hallway.
Paula looks aghast. "Just who could that be? I have but invited my kin." Sweeping her paw across her waist, she feigns shock at the visitor to her abode.
"Alas," says Samuel. "A poor Neopian stood at the door. Scraps of their tattered toga drag at the ground."
"[i]Salve[/i], good homeowner." The Kiko bows, grabbing their jacket as if it was a blanket. "I come seeking refuge from the storm. May I ask for your hospitality?"
"At that," The Uni narrator's head hangs, "the villa breaks into the mutterings of judgement and distain."
"They'll stink up the place," one says.
"And steal our treasures," says another.
"How can we trust this stranger in our home?"
"Why don't they just go somewhere else?"
"They're a freak."
In response to this show of distrust, the Kiko visibly winces and turns to bounce away.
Off-script, the actor adds: "I see that I am not wanted here. Such is little surprise for a piteous fool like me."
"Aww," says Mr. Gaudium, accompanied by the classroom majority. "Be nice to our actors, guys."
"But, wait!" Paula lunges forth and takes the hand of her Kiko classmate. The Shadow is taken aback by their classmate's forwardness and jerks away. "You are seeking aid, and it would be wrong of me to deny your request. Come, eat of my food and find rest here, The Shadow. You are just as much a friend as any other member in this room."
Such a smile could not be compared. It was one of the first times anyone had seen the Kiko look genuinely happy.
Paul reaches back on the teacher's desk and finds a squishable apple. She places it in her classmate's hand and they pretend to eat.
Samuel gallops in between the two. "Suddenly, there came a bright glow from the poor beggar." Oohs and ahhs filter across the room. "What was tattered cloth transformed into a golden toga of unsurmountable beauty. Bountiful laurel leaves embraced their head like a crown."
The Shadow grabs the plastic laurel crown and waves it around their body. "Shing! Sparkle sparkle," they deadpan.
Chuckles erupt from the other students.
"To her knees Julia fell as she gasped in amazement, shocked at the glorious sight."
She does as the narrator commands.
Some students pretend to faint, others gasp and one wise-Kougra in the back says, "homina homina homina."
"That's an old reference," quips Mr. Gaudium.
Grabbing a step stool, The Shadow towers above Julia and says, "I was but a stranger, yet you offered me kindness and generosity. Your good deals will not go unnoticed." The Kiko waves their arm, releasing black glitter that had been stored in their sleeves. "Hospitality to those without is its own reward. Surely your crops will be nourished with the kindness that they sense in this place; those who open their hearts to others will see a similar wealth."
Mr. Gaudium watches as glitter covers his desk. "Although you're going to have to clean up all of that glitter, dear student."
The Shadow nods, rubbing his hands behind his head in embarrassment. Samuel attempts to look towards the class and away from the now glistening room.
"And so it was said: treat others with kindness." Raising his hoofs to the group and speaking into the toy megaphone, Samuel declares, "Give shelter to those who would seek it and good fortunes will follow."
Thunderous applause erupts from the class as the teacher walks to the front. All the students involved take a short bow. The Shadow hurriedly sweeps the floor while the other two actors return to their seats.
"Did everyone enjoy that?" Asks the teacher.
"It was alright."
"We should do this more often!"
"Great to hear, everyone." Clapping his hoofs together, the class quiets down and focuses their attention on him. Most of the students reach under their desks and grab a notebook and pencil. Until the cacophony of 20 backpack zippers stops, the teacher patiently pauses, taking the moment to sip some water. When the students gaze shifts back to the front of the room, he continues. "Alright, class, it's time for a discussion. What did this story mean and how does it relate to today?" Mr. Gaudium gives the students a few moments to think and calls upon the first paw to rise. "What do you think, Geoffrey?"
Known as the class clown, Geoffrey often inserts his own brand of comedy into class. This time he quips, "that you should get yourself a golden crown that shines [i]and[/i] sparkles."
Mr. Gaudium has a patience level that rivals the Faerie Queen, but even he knows when it is time to seek new input. "Okay, then. Any other thoughts?" He scans the crowd. "How about Ruby?"
Having recovered from her previous bout of shyness, the red Hissi sinks back into the chair. "I dunno. I guess that it's important to be a kind Neopian?"
"That's part of it, but what about how it relates to guests? To our [i]hospes[/i]? Charles?"
Charles, a Hissi, pushes his oversized glasses back with a checkered wing. "That the Altadorians valued a sense of community and offered shelter to those in need regardless of their outward appearance. And that when we do offer for others, we are entitled to reward and wealth in return."
"—You don't give [i]because[/i[ there's a reward." Paula rolls her eyes as she continues. "You give because it's the socially [i]moral[/i] thing to do. Opening up your heart to others is, no pun intended, 'hospitable.'"
At that, the teacher lifts the cardboard cutout of the house into the air.
"Hospitality in these times was often associated with a safe place to stay like our sturdy cardboard house here. Ancient Altadorians believed in sheltering those who traveled so they could get between their many towns and cities in one piece. Some towns were especially far away, and inns were not always available or affordable. While the host offered, the guest would offer something in return, or such was the tradition. It was in this way that a special sort of bond was created between host and guest. Words such as hospital derive from the ancient Altadorian bond and transcend a similar trust between patient and caregiver."
A hum of acknowledgement buzzed throughout the room.
"But Mr. G, kindness to others doesn't just extend to offering shelter," adds The Shadow.
"Very true! And a nice lead into your project." Unsurprisingly, a few groans echo in the room.
With multi-colored chalk, Mr. Gaudium writes his assignment on the board:
[b]Volunteering: What do you give and what do you receive?[/b]
"Your mission, should you choose to accept it (and yes, you must) is to volunteer at a local organization for three hours. This will be your way of giving back and writing about how our modern ways of helping our community members has changed over time. You have until the month's end to offer this time."
The bell rings loudly in the room, its monotone note beckoning the 4-minute break period.
Pencils, paper, and books are steadily packed into bags as the students hustle out of the room. All except for Ruby. Twirling her auburn hair, she slithers up to the teacher while he frantically erases the board and moves around the props.
"U-um. Mr. G."
He glances back towards the Hissi. She's visibly shaking.
"Woah there, everything okay?"
She shakes her head. "That's the thing. I'm s-scared of talking in front of people. I don't know what to do."
The kindly teacher bends down and places his left hoof on her shoulder. "Can you think of some way to give back that's less scary?"
"I-I-I don't know. I just… I don't know."
When deep in thought, the Tonu often curled a hoof into his mane. This time, his right hoof found its way until a mound of frizzy fur. He tugs it a few times before giving up.
"Huh. That's a new one," he declares, before shrugging. "I'll deal with that later. But here's my first thought. If you have a Petpet at home, could you share them with people who are lonely? Your buddy could be a good Neopian buffer, too."
"I mean, maybe… I do have Pebble…"
"Well," he glances at the clock before opening the door. "You have two weeks left in September. I'm sure you'll think of something. You're a smart cookie."
Ruby gulps as the door closes. "But what if I don't think of something?" she whispers.
[b]To be continued in a future short story…[/b]