James is an over-weight seventh grader studying the Catechism to make his Confirmation, but when James confesses that he isn’t sorry for one on his ‘sins’, Father Bogdan postpones the sacrament and punishes him with a penance of one hundred Acts of Contrition. Why would James disappoint his family so badly?
Months ago, James and his best pal, Steve, visit the school to which they have been registered, Maple Grove, an ancient, forbidding-looking three story brick fortress. They are met by Piggy, the school bully, a brute, nearly sixteen, who already wears a goatee. It’s 1957, and Piggy has grown to manhood at Maple Grove in the days before Social Promotion. Unable to pass his classes, Piggy has learned how to work the system, and he has become the pet of Maple Grove’s Principal, Dr. Justine Tzapp, who defends Piggy at all costs, never questioning whether he is wrong or right.
Piggy corners James after school, body shames him and beats him mercilessly, intimidating James into silence and pushing him to fail in the science class they share. Soon, James’ friends begin to avoid him. The whole school enjoys watching Piggy usurp the Monkey Bars at lunchtime, swinging hand-over-hand continually to the delight of the seventh grade girls who squeal at Piggy’s tricks and giggle whenever Piggy mocks James about his weight. Piggy steals James’ beloved bicycle and intensifies the frequent beatings. The new science teacher, Mr. DeVries, a Navy Veteran, senses what is happening and offers to train James to defend himself. Piggy is a seasoned fighter and he traps James into a vicious battle before James can master the new skills. James winds up in the hospital where his mother is Director of Nursing. James is bewildered and he begins to question everything that he held true and sacred.
The only Maple Grove girl who is unimpressed with Piggy is a Hungarian refugee, Gizi Szabo, who commutes daily from Camp Kilmer in a military van with two other refugees, Lazlo and Andras.
Mr. DeVries assigns Gizi and James to work together on a Science Fair project. They become friends. James’ parents contact the Camp Kilmer Director and arrange for Gizi to visit their home so James and Gizi can concentrate and complete their science project. That evening Gizi explains how she survived the 1956 Hungarian Revolt, how she saw her father murdered by the AVO, how they dragged her mother away and how the Pastor of her Reform Church hid her from the Soviets in the church coal bin. This is why she adopted the name ‘Gizi’, which means ‘Pledge’ in Hungarian. She inspires James and helps him realize that he can never combat Piggy at Piggy’s own game with fists; James must find a different way. James does, but it costs him his Confirmation.
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