Twenty minutes into class, the intercom buzzes for Mr. Barker. Mr. Barker is the person who gets called whenever something happens (usually Bill Kingsley’s mishaps, like swallowing his pen lid or getting his head stuck between the stair railings). This time, Mr. Barker assigns the class a reading and exercises. He tells them to stay in their seats and be quiet—he’ll find them at lunch if their work isn’t good. With a final warning to Bill to be productive, Mr. Barker marches out of the room.
Ishmael adds more to his assessment of Bill here when he notes that Bill regularly does things like swallowing pen lids. This doesn’t make Bill seem particularly intelligent or with it. And Mr. Barker’s final warning to Bill suggests that even teachers think this way about him—which shows that teachers are making assumptions about their students just like students’ peers are.
Minutes later, a wad of paper bounces off of James Scobie’s desk. The second wad hits him in the head, and Barry asks if it’s time for E.T. to phone home. In his head, Ishmael tells James to ignore it—but James turns around and stares. Barry asks what James is looking at. Ishmael knows James shouldn’t answer. But James considers the question and says he must be looking at “some kind of rudimentary life form.” By now, everyone is staring. It’s starting to feel like a shootout from a Western. Barry threatens to beat James up if he doesn’t stop staring. James stares for another minute before turning back to his work.
Note that Barry has waited for Mr. Barker to leave the room to start tormenting James. This again shows that bullying is, perhaps, hard for adults to stop because they don’t see it happening. When Ishmael insists that Scobie is doing all the wrong things, and that this is turning into a shootout, he essentially implies that Scobie isn’t going to win this one. Barry, Ishmael believes, is all-powerful.
Barry throws a huge ball of paper at James, knocking James’s glasses askew. He asks if Le Sewer stinks, or if James “just shat in his pants.” James slowly puts his glasses on, and then gets up to stand in front of Barry. He calmly says that Barry could absolutely beat him up. But James promises to alert the adults, have his father consult a lawyer, and possibly talk to the media. Then, he asks if “shat” is really the appropriate past tense—though he knows what Barry meant, and he’s not at all afraid.
James makes the case that Barry might have the upper hand when it comes to physical strength. But unlike the other boys at school, James has no qualms about telling adults what Barry is doing and, if needed, escalating to lawyers and reporters. It is, of course, impossible to tell if James is serious about all of this. But still, James essentially suggests that he’s more powerful than Barry because he’s willing to speak up.
The class stares. This isn’t what happens when Barry threatens someone. Barry tells James to run along, but James says he’s not afraid of Barry. When Barry asks why and tries to make himself looks bigger, James says he isn’t afraid of anything.
Ishmael implies that he and his classmates have just accepted that when Barry wants something, he’s going to get his way. It never seems to have occurred to most of them that it is possible to stand up and tell Barry no.