rcane Huang picked his first name out of a dictionary.
What will they call you? they asked. Who will you be?
So the not-yet-man-of-mystery thumbed through the possibilities, starting, quite logically, with A. He didn't get far.
Arcane, he mused. Mysterious. That's me.
And so that's the name they use on this winter night, the Chinese New Year, in a basketball gym half a world away in the Heart of the Adirondacks. The name they chant, the name they scream, the name girls paint on signs and wave in the rafters.
It seems the whole towns of Newcomb and Minerva have shoehorned into the bleachers, maybe leaving one behind to watch the counter at Murdie General Store, to see a basketball game between Minerva-Newcomb and the league champions from Indian Lake-Long Lake.
The game has long since been decided in favor of the visitors, but they howl in the final minute as if the championship was on the line.
Last August, Arcane, a junior, and five other foreign students came from around the globe to spend a year at Newcomb, a speck of a school in the High Peaks.
They came, in one way or another, for an experience that would shape their future. They found a school with an uncertain future of its own, caught in a dwindling numbers game, that saw its very survival depend on drawing students like them.
In return for keeping its doors open, the school could offer unparalleled individual attention, and a promise of delivering the American experience.
And what could be more American than Friday night basketball? On this night, the last game of the season, the crowd wants one thing, for this mop-topped, bespectacled boy from Beijing to do something he has never done before in a game: put the ball in the hoop.
Even the other team has warmed to the idea. Whispers have been exchanged, a play drawn up. If only Arcane can run away from his man, if only he can catch the ball, he just might get an open look. The crowd stands, anticipating it now.
Except Arcane never leaves his defender. With no space, the pass fails, bounding away under a pile of bodies.
The crowd sinks. It won't be that easy.
- - u
Like most of Newcomb Central School, the office of superintendent Clark "Skip" Hults has an easy, cozy feel.
It's past the middle of May, but the forecast for the night calls for snow. Outside, the wind whistles and it spits cold rain, but inside the warm, wood-paneled office you could almost fall asleep. A feeling helped by the fact that it's pajama day, and most everyone, including the superintendent, wanders the hallways in sweat pants and plaids.
The secure, homey atmosphere makes what Hults says all the more jarring:
"If the school would ever close, just take down the Welcome to Newcomb sign."
Dwindling numbers have made this a nervous time for the school's future, and Hults, in his second year as superintendent, makes no bones about it.
With 64 students in grades kindergarten through twelfth, Newcomb is the smallest school district in the state. Counting the international students, there are 24 in the high school. The graduating class is two.
"We have a couple of larger classes leaving. Right now, chances are we're going to be losing many more than we're bringing in," Hults says. "This is the time. We're being very proactive. We are at a critical point."
Hults knew this when he signed on after three years as an elementary school principal in Warrensburg. He's long owned a house in Minerva, about 30 minutes from Newcomb, and his family put down roots in the area generations ago.
He began making plans for international students almost immediately.
"We have so much to offer that it's a shame the classrooms are as empty as they are," Hults says. "We thought, 'What could we do about that?' So until we come to a long term-solution, which we are working on some very dynamic, out-of-the-box, long-term-solutions, we wanted to have bodies in the classroom."
One of Hults' out-of-the-box, long-term solutions is to build dorms at the school that could host an expanded international program as well as students from urban districts downstate.
But those dreams are a ways away, making the current exchange program all the more valuable.
Hults, who hosted Arcane and German student Timo Buchner, has four students and host families lined up for next school year, and eight for the following.
He's willing to fight because he believes what he has is worth saving, and because options for consolidation are grave given Newcomb's remote location.
"The school is phenomenal," says Ed LaCourse, a math teacher and baseball coach. "We can take a child average in aptitude and get every bit out of these kids. There's so few of them, there's no escape. When you've only got four or five in a class, you can do things no other school can."
In 1978, LaCourse graduated in a class of 18 from Newcomb. His brother, who graduated in 1972, was one of a class of 30. Hults and LaCourse estimate that the school peaked at nearly 400 students sometime in the late '60s.
LaCourse remembers a time when the former mining town was so prosperous that National Lead moved the entire village of Tahawus, houses and churches and all, into Newcomb so they could expand their mining operations.
During the boom times, as many as 2,000 people lived in Newcomb. According to the 2000 Census, that number has dipped below 500. The school took a hard hit.
"When the mines stopped things really started declining," Hults says. "From that point on I won't say its been a steady decline, but you lose one or two here and there and slowly you decline to the place where we are today."
But a peculiar thing happened. Despite a diminished student body, the school took on a heightened role in civic life.
Today, the district is the largest employer in town and a source of identity for the community, which flood its sporting events, its plays, and uses its facilities for recreation. The school, situated in the middle of the town, is part community center, town hall and gathering place.
Hence Hults' dire warning about the fate of the town and school being tied together.
LaCourse, for one, believes it will never come to that.
"Deep inside I don't believe that will ever happen," he says. "I look at Newcomb as untouched wilderness. No one has noticed the untouched beauty … Everything is as it was in the beginning. Sooner or later people will desire this sort of thing, and we'll be here."
- - u
Sara Fransson made it all the way to second base before she realized no one else on the field was moving. The Minerva-Newcomb softball team was in the middle of a big inning in a win over Wells, and she had her marching orders: steal on the first pitch.
Dutifully, she took off on first release, a graceful and speedy stride. Except, the pitch was only a warmup. Her steal came during a pitching change.
"I guess they know you're going now," coach Bruce McGinn said, laughing as he waved her back to first.
"That kind of stuff happens all the time," says his daughter Whitney, a star athlete who played all three sports with the girls, after a recent softball practice.
Bruce, who also coaches the boys basketball team, rattles off the phrases he had to explain after using, things like: box out, can of corn, and the surprisingly tricky give and go, which perplexed the foreign athletes for two seasons.
Luckily, in softball, you don't need to give and go, Whitney says, giggling.
Trying to protect a late-inning lead, Bruce once told Sara, who plays a good first base and may be the most natural athlete of any of the exchange students, to "lay down" to not let a ball go through.
"And I actually had to clarify myself," Bruce says, chuckling, "Because I wasn't sure, I thought she might really lay down."
"It made me a better coach because I had to step back for a minute and understand that they didn't understand," he said.
Sara, 18, grew up in Kungangen, Sweden, a city of about 7,500 people a half-hour outside of Stockholm.
Like the other exchange students, she had never played organized sports. Like the other students, she was thrown into the fire at soccer practice as soon as she arrived in Newcomb.
"I got there and they were like, 'Do this and do that.' And I was like, 'Do what?' " Sara remembers. "I said, 'I don't know what you're doing.' They were like, 'OK, let's go over here and start from the beginning.' I'm like, 'Yeah, that's better.' "
Each of the six, three boys and three girls, played a sport, and most played two.
"It was a conscious decision by all of us involved, because we realized it's such a part of our culture," Hults says. "It's a big part of who we are. What better way to get them involved in the culture of the community and the school then have them play a sport?"
There was also a need. Despite combining their athletic teams with Minerva, the girls soccer team often played with nine players this season, including the three foreign students. The softball team has 11, including Sara and Thais Torres, a student from Brazil.
Without them, the teams may have had to forfeit games or even the entire season. Practice would have been nearly impossible.
Everyone wants to win, of course, but here, fielding a team is a victory. None of the school's teams will win more than the six games the softball team has won heading into sectionals.
Not that they don't have their moments, and Sara played a major role in one. Late in the season, in a tie game at Johnsburg, Whitney dribbled across center court, time running out.
She was hot that night and had already scored 24 points. Whitney had two choices, take her defender off the dribble or pass to a cutting Sara, who had struggled with layups all season. She passed.
Early in the season, "I would have thought twice about that," Whitney says.
Sara kissed it off the glass with eight seconds left for the winning basket.
- - u
Arcane Huang picked his first name from a dictionary because his given, Chinese name, would not translate into English.
There is really nothing mysterious about him.
"I just picked it because it sounded cool," he says, laughing, his English strong.
And there seemed to be no mystery remaining that night. His basketball career would end without scoring a basket. The play designed for him had failed.
The whistle blows. Somewhere in the scrum, a Minerva-Newcomb player is fouled. He goes to the line.
A miss. And just like that, the ball, as if guided by magnets, drops off the glass and into Arcane's hands.
"Shoot!" the crowd bellows. And for once, he does, a two-handed heave that goes up and … in!
He pulled it off, the hard way, when the odds were dim. And a town that hopes to do the same rose to embrace him.