School is easy
The morning workout helped dull the whining voice in my mind that reminds me what lies ahead today. Chemistry lab test, live reading of my short story in Literature, a quiz in US History, and a handful of daily assignments I haven't finished yet. Used to be that I would feel that tingle all over, especially the fluttery stomach and racing heart and that flushing in the face. These things used to mean something. They used to be a big deal. Not so much now. No more sweaty palms and pits, no more nervous fidgeting, no more jacked heart rate or racing mind. Now I feel a substantial annoyance, an almost audible dullness, and an overwhelming sense that none of this matters and high school kids are like monkeys stacking rocks in the forest. All the whooping and chest slapping makes it all seem so important. It all seems like life and death, future-altering business, and the consequences of failure are real and far-reaching. They're not, there are no consequences. Bill Gates and Stephen King and Sharon Stone aren't feeling the affects of their bad grades and detentions and parental disappointings from high school.
Well, maybe Sharon Stone does, I don't know.
But here, we are such bees in the hive, such meaningless worker ants stacking blocks that will be toppled tomorrow for a new batch of ants to stack. Being tested on material that will be forgotten within three months is worthless, but we're taught to treat it with all seriousness. Maybe there is some training going on in our brains and these meaningless tasks are adding us collectively up into the adults we will become. Maybe we are shaping the future of our lives and of the world itself by our little actions here. Or maybe not... that.
“Jason, are you on for short story readings today?”
Of course it's James Heller. He snuck up on me. Come on, Jason, how could you lose your focus like that? James Heller seems like a kid who walks around swallowing air rather than breathing it. His anxiety and manic need for acceptance makes him treat everything like an impossible puzzle that it is not. Nothing is simple for him. Just breathe, James Heller. Don't gulp the air in and belch it out awkwardly. Just breathe, in and out. It's easy.
Someone kill me.
“Yeah man, Roberts sent us on our way after Greg's wedding story and alphabetically I'm pretty sure I'm next.”
“And then me! Are you super nervous? I'm nervous, way more nervous than I thought I'd be. Are you ready? Do you feel ready? I don't feel ready, maybe with another month to revise it. Or a year, maybe, right?”
Am I ready to read a 2,000 word story I wrote up last night before my nightly dump?
“I am, I finished it last night. It's nothing special, but it's something. I'm not worried.”
He smiles, first surprised by but then inspired by my courage and calmness. If I'm reading his face right, he's thinking that he doesn't understand how I do it, that he wishes he could be calm and cool like me. The face almost reads, “man I wish I were you.” I try to hide my embarrassment for how awkward and sad he looks but I feel my face slipping into a pity grimace. Before he can fully register the pain I'm in at how needy and sad he is, I morph pity into sheepish humility. I even look to my feet to sell it. When I look back up at him, it is out of the tops of my eyes, briefly, and then back to my shoes.
He buys it. It's the persona I sell most often, false humility. Done poorly, it's evil and hated and drives enormous wedges between the liar and the masses. You can't say, “I hate to brag,” before bragging, unless you don't mind people seeing you as narcissistic. People don't like narcissistic. They don't like liars.
But false humility done well...
“Dude, I bet your story is awesome. I can't believe I have to go after you, why couldn't Mr. Roberts save you for last?”
“James, it's really not that good, I'm just glad I got it done in time. What is your story about?”
He is charged up and ready to tell me all about his story. He is so eager to explain it in great detail to me and see my initial reaction. He sees me as a writer in the way some people in the school see me as an athlete, like I'm on another level. Without trying very hard, I'm on his pedestal, and he feels like he has found, in me, a kindred spirit.
Let's see if we can make this quick.
“My story? Oh, uh... it's a science fiction lab experiment gone wrong. My character is a lone scientist running seemingly simple tests on the electrical field of a new planet on which astronauts have only recently established a base of operations. He is in early stages of planetary testing and exploration. When an energy storm moves in without warning his particle field generator is overloaded by something like electricity and the entire lab is lit up and fried like a death row inmate.”
Now a quick praise and deflection...
“Dude, that sounds awesome, what are you worried about?”
“I don't know, I guess the ideas always work in my head. I'm not sure anyone else will understand or care.”
This kid is smart. Too smart, the kind of smart that doesn't allow him to tap into the view others have of him because he is too busy thinking about the things he is thinking about: the very important things. He is doing what he wants and enjoys and doesn't adjust for the perception of others. He cares what other people think, but not enough to change his interests. This is of course, in high school, a huge mistake. You can love what you do, you just can't show it, not all of it, to anyone. You can obsess over things, but you have to know how to throw the dogs off the nerd scent when they come sniffing around the junkyard that is your mind. If they get a whiff of your pure, nerdy joy in minutia, if they smell that you truly care deeply and passionately about something that 98% of all high school students don't care about, and you can't cover up your passion in time, they will destroy you. They will seize your joy and hold it up for the rest of the dog pack to see. They will mock it. They will howl and sneer and tear it to pieces. They will devour your joy and lick its blood from their lips and announce their victory with rolling roars to the moon. They will revel without remorse. The last sound your intrepid spirit will hear is the piercing howl of your carnivorous peers.
Once the pack collectively chooses your joy for destruction, it is very hard to put the pieces back together.
“Jason, what if no one gets it?”
Considering the options I can lay before this poor soul, just selling him a mindless, easy answer is a bit cruel. Maybe this route will help him in the long run. Maybe opening up and getting torn apart by his peers is what he needs for some perspective.
“Don't worry about what anyone else thinks. It's your story. Read it proudly.”
I should have proofread his piece before fanning the flames of the cavalier. I should have given him some advice on delivery, or shown him how to preface it to the class to limit his emotional attachment to it, or at least convey the sense that he wrote it easily, without even trying, so if it's crap it was fast crap he didn't try on, and if it's good then well... he's just that good.
I should have shown him how to create a buffer.
Instead, being busy with my own problems, I wish him well. Little guy has to grow up someday.
“Thank you Mr. Gray, a well-written piece with some good thought behind it. You may return to your seat.”
That went well. Good response from the class, good response from the teacher, a solid A on the work, no doubt, and all without a lot of effort.
“Mr. Heller, you're up!”
Mr. Roberts says this with what seems to be actual anticipation. When calling on most of the students so far, he has failed to hide his obvious sadness at what he knows will be ridiculously poor writing. He teaches kids like us all day, every day, and has done for over twenty years now. How must he cope with the continued downward spiral of high school intellect, creativity, or the lack of a general grasp of English? How sad would it be to continue teaching an ever-sliding sinkhole of low ambition and even lower effort?
It makes me sad just to imagine myself in his shoes. How he actually feels must be nightmarish.
These creative stories have been primarily about subjects and characters pulled directly from current pop fiction, and most of that from TV.
A short story about vampires? Really? How do you find the savvy to investigate such interesting, new territory?
Oh what, a haunting in a rural farm house?
A story about a brilliant but cold and acerbic physician? You didn't.
On second thought, though, if the students are banking on the possibility, or probability, that Mr. Roberts would have no idea there were shows and movies out right now about vampires and werewolves and TV shows like House or Breaking Bad, then the students are a little bit brilliant. It is a good guess that these popular cultural phenomena would be lost on Mr. Roberts.
But if he checks, even with just a Google search of basic terms related to the stories, then I would guess over 80% of the class will fail this assignment.
That would be awesome.
Maybe Mr. Roberts needs a little help studying these incredible literary works more closely. Maybe if someone got him started on a little research to compare the stories of the class to the stories of nightly network and cable TV, he could start pulling at the plagiarism thread and see how much of this rat nest sweater he could unravel.
Do I have his email address?
James clears his throat before beginning. For a second, he looks like he might take the sheepish, cool, “I'm totally not invested in this story at all,” approach. But then he opens his mouth.
“I am still deciding between two titles for this story.”
His big, nerdy mouth.
“I was thinking, 'The Last Scientist,' or something more subtle and sensory like, 'The Photon Plane.' Maybe after I read it one of those two will seem more appropriate. Let me know what you think.”
Oh God, he is so eager. He is obviously in love with his story and has taken great pride in its writing. In fact, this may be the only story in the entire class that received any real revision. Even as he holds the pages it is like he is cradling a baby, his baby, and he is very proud.
This sort of eagerness for a job well done or love of one's work does not go over well here. I can hear the shifting in seats and the small hissing of sighs from an embarrassed body of peers. They slide lower into their desks like they're preemptively taking cover from the firestorm they know is coming. They duck their heads and try to avert their eyes.
Please don't make eye contact with me, they silently plead.
Please don't read this horrible story and make me listen to it and please don't be proud of it when it is obviously awful.
They are annoyed at his nerdiness. How dare he work hard on something, or care about something. How dare he show passion and effort. When he fails after working so hard it will be embarrassing for everyone and make us all feel uncomfortable. I can hear the room resenting him for it. How dare you put us in that position?
But what if he succeeds?
“A ripple of lightning cut into the thick black clouds above Dr. Elion's station. The plexiglass enclosure allowed him a nearly 200 degree field of view out onto the Morrah landscape, and the lightning lit the glass and took his shadow far across the lab floor and up the back wall. His slight frame cast a surprisingly large shadow. But even after the fourth flash of light and the first hard, low rumble of thunder, he didn't look up from his screen. There was no time.”
Immediately, a class of twenty-five high school students slow their murmuring. They start to get quiet. Very quiet. Minds are pulled from bored hazes and refocused on one kid's imagination. From the first paragraph, everyone in the room knows they are experiencing something different. A few of the stories presented this week have been decent, good enough to listen to and not openly mock. Decent enough to think that, with a little more skill and a rewrite or two, they could be polished into something readable, maybe even publishable. But this one, everyone knows, is different. I can hear the thoughts pass through the collective mind of the class. I can hear people, caught off guard, being suddenly pulled into the story against their wills. The thoughts ricochet back and forth between, Wow, this is actually good, and, no, no, it's nerdy. Space stations and lightning tests? Dumb.
But it is good, actually good. They can't deny it. They are being forced to confront their prejudice against the nerd, James Heller, and reconcile it with the power of this story, the power of his art form.
They want to - they need to - create distance from him. They want the story to falter. They are waiting for a flubbed line, a break in grammar, or a hacky twist in the story line. They desperately want emotional distance from him, from this nerdy creature they've always either ignored or ridiculed up to this point. They don't want to respect him. They don't want to like him.
An overwhelming class thought: Do I dare enjoy this story? It's coming from an outcast, I can't care about that, I can't support that.
Watching people try to not show joy is hilarious. Why would you try to keep a straight face when listening to something great? If even one relatively popular person loosened up and smiled and sat up straight and openly enjoyed the story, it would give the rest of the class permission. And it wouldn't be a big deal, because in the end, if the others didn't enjoy it or dare to admit that they thought it was good, it wouldn't be that hard to shrug and give the story a thumbs up. Since James is a bottom dweller in the school's social landscape, a lighthearted vote of approval could be spun as kindness and charity, and not a full emotional commitment to something weird and nerdy.
“In the end, the project had been a success. The smoldering lab crackled and stank with ruin, and the charred body of Dr. Elion lay splayed across the floor, an arm outstretched in pleading terror. The hiss of the airlock blew a plume of pressurized air across the poor doctor's face, and a few flakes of ashy flesh took flight. Three sets of boots strode to where he lay and paused briefly. They then walked directly to his computer station. Two of the men lifted the processor. The third man directed the others to take the system to Dr. Coral, and the men then left him alone in the blackened rubble. He sat quietly at the desk. When he was sure the two men were gone he reached behind what had been Dr. Elion's monitor. From the jumbled blackened mess, a small click opened up a hidden slot in the monitor, and a small gray cylinder slid into his hand. There had been a terrible accident on the station where a man lost his life. But accidents, true accidents, are very rare. The new lightning receivers were experimental, and it was reported that their storage potential was unknown. But that wasn't altogether true. There were a few who knew full well their capacity, and they knew what sort of surge protection modifications needed to be made to make a seemingly accidental power surge overload a system and cause this amount of destruction. These modifications would need to be made invisible so the follow up inquiry would find only randomness and bad luck at fault for the tragedy. Tragedies are valuable. Keeping powerful technologies a secret is valuable. The dark plans of scary men flow beneath the surface of the common class. This hidden touch of control, this dark current, has always been flowing, and would always flow, and great men like Dr. Elion would always be at risk for being pulled under and drowned beneath it.”
He did it. The crazy, nerdy, freckle-faced dork loser actually did it. He impressed the class. A truly good story had pulled them, in only the way great stories can, up from where the audience was to where they are now. James had managed to take us to a higher plane of understanding about our world. In 2,000 words he'd been able to create an interesting atmosphere, character, and story line. He weaved in a brief back story for the protagonist which made decisions within the story both believable and troubling. James had opened some eyes. He'd shown us what hard work and vision and focus and caring for your passions can get you.
The class is actually clapping. Legitimately clapping.
But with that realization, that someone else reached a higher plane, comes the realization that doing likewise is hard. And scary. You risk much when you reach so high. This realization brings an immediate resistance to such works. The insecure and jealous mind can quickly shift from “Wow” to “whatever, what a nerd, I could do that if I wanted to but I don't want to because I'm not a nerd.”
“How dare he try to reach beyond his place?”
“Who does he think he is, George Lucas? You're no Lucas, go back to your cave, nerd, go back to your comic books and computer programming. Go back to the seventh circle of high school where you belong, and don't you dare try and rise again.”
The class tide is shifting again. As quickly as they'd appreciated his skill, their respect is turning to disdain. I can feel the jealousy. When Mr. Roberts opens up the room for questions, the first comment comes from a girl in the front row named Taylor. She thinks the story is great, and rattles off the standard high school class literary criticisms like “very descriptive” and “good details.”
“I could see the lightning and feel Dr. Elion's heartbeat. I felt like I was on the station.”
The second comment comes from the seat behind her. Paul Beal, an intelligent sophomore, also gives praise for the story line and the management of details. But he opens up a crack in the dam when he says, “It sounds like something I've read before.”
It isn't an outright charge of plagiarism, but it doesn't need to be. All critics and hecklers and haters need is a sliver, a tiny crack through which they might blow their toxic fumes. To even bring up plagiarism allows anyone feeling uncomfortable about the superiority of James' abilities an easy relief. “Obviously he cheated, he stole that story, someone else wrote it, a real writer, so now I'm again safe to live in my mediocrity and insecurity.”
This is the shift. Slowly but surely the class begins to turn on him, and it only takes thirty seconds. The tide of public opinion is fickle, and all it would take is one admirer to give the others permission to go back to liking this work of art rather than feel threatened by it and feel compelled to bring it back down to their level. One champion to lead the way for the mundane and average. One voice to lead the mouth-breathers.
For me, there is no reason this story, as compared to the other stories of the week, should get anything but the highest praises from the class. If these same people who told miss hot cheerleader Miranda Long that her pitiful attempt at capturing a Jersey Shore-esque feel in her short story “Life in da club” was hilarious, awesome, and “so true” were going to drag down someone with real talent, I might have to bomb the school. Miranda's story was so bad it was maybe three lines from being a brilliant satire. She brilliantly lampooned her own existence. The fact that she was completely serious made it a personal satire just for me.
And maybe for James, too. His smile when she was done reading suggested he was on the same page I was on... this shit is hilarious, and this shit makes me want to burn down the school with myself in it.
The room is muttering. They are giving each other an excuse to hate this brilliant piece. James is not a cool kid and he dares show real talent?
How dare he? We hate it.
I am waiting for more praises to come but they aren't. The room has gone silent. It is too socially dangerous to support James Heller. The mediocre mob has spoken.
Well shit, if no one else will do it, I will do it. What the hell...
“Yes, Mr. Gray?”
You're welcome, James.
“Science fiction is extremely difficult to do well. Many writers focus on the science and leave out the character elements that propel the story. But James, in only 2,000 words, has managed to create Dr. Elion, thoroughly flesh him out personally and professionally, put him into an interesting location with a compelling story, and make him take actions that allowed us to see into his mind and watch him develop, even just slightly, as a human being. He was faced with choices throughout that I wouldn't want to have to make. And maybe I wouldn't have made the same decisions he made, but I understand why he made them.”
I see nods of agreement from my periphery. I hear audible agreements. I will pull them back to his side and give them permission to like him, just because of who I am. "Well, if Jason Gray thinks it's good, then I guess I do, too."
“And that opening paragraph with the rippling lightning across the barren hellscape? Forget it, totally awesome, it drew me right in.”
Time to distance myself from this love fest and give him the chance to explain himself and win back the hearts of the class without me.
“Mr. Roberts, I'm really not into sci-fi stuff, but this story was great. I was wondering if James could tell us where the idea for this story came from?”
I turn to James. “How do you come up with this stuff?”
The question is both mocking and impressed. I've stated that I don't like nerdy stuff, but I'm impressed by stuff that is done well. It gives the class permission to like it from a distance as well, and praises a very needy James with props he is not accustomed to receiving. And if he can explain where he got the idea for this story, he can squash the plagiarism charge and receive the praise he deserves.
Man, why can't people see how easy high school social politics are?
“Well, it's hard to say where any of my stories come from originally. They are usually fragments of thoughts, or single images that stick with me, and generally if I have an image or an idea that stays with me for more than a week, I try to start forming and shaping it into something more real. I remember waking up one night a few weeks ago to a wild lightning storm. It was that storm that caused the house fires in Deschutes River Woods. The brilliance of the lightning stayed with me. I can still remember how bright the sky was, and how I had never seen anything like it. From the lightning itself to the house fires it caused, I started thinking, What if that had been my house, or what if I'd been working on something important when the bolt struck? I imagined finishing up my last 10-page research paper for Dr. Hansen's Chemistry class just as the bolt hit. I imagined all of that hard work, all of those hours that could have been spent doing other things, wasted in an instant. From that idea, from the loss of something important, maybe even a life's work, the story sprouted. Once I had Dr. Elion in my head, the process of giving him a life and a family and motives and drive was actually really easy. The rest just sort of flowed from there.”
I'd sent the pitch and James had crushed it, far far out of the park. Of course, story ideas come from thought, from experience, from simple instances that other people might overlook as meaningless. Every student in the room witnessed that lightning storm, myself included, but none of us gave it a thought beyond, Wow, cool storm. Some people take things deeper than that, take them more seriously. James does that.
When faced with the simplicity of his creative process, the fact that he gets a little bit of inspiration and then works on it and molds it into something bigger, the class gives him credit. They have to, he took something we all witnessed and forged pure gold.
After he answers my questions, two more hands rise with questions. These questions further probe the idea of where the story came from, and then the questions shift into why James made the decisions the way he did, how long it took to write, how many times did he rewrite it, and finish with a question about what he is working on now.
“Now I have a number of stories in their early formation stages. I have this idea about a man who decides to try and track down the drug dealers in his town and steal from them, I guess sort of like a super hero. His wife recently filed for divorce after he lost his job in the recession, and two stories spur this notion of robbing dealers: he reads in the paper that federal authorities stopped a car with $200,000 worth of heroin and marijuana in the trunk, and then he witnesses a drug deal go down live in a rite aid parking lot. These two events, coupled with his crumbling life, convince him to attempt anti-drug vigilantism.”
The class is visibly excited about this story. I can see their minds circling. They think it's a cool idea, but they feel like it's familiar. Great stories usually feel familiar, they feel obvious, full of truths that are right out there in our faces every day.
There is also, I think, an underlying excitement at how James in particular would treat this story. Since he proved to them that he knows how to weave description and dialogue and character thought and action together in interesting ways, the rendition of an inexperienced average Joe taking on the town's drug dealers sounds amazing. Even I am a little excited about his potential on this story.
“I also have an idea for a graphic novel about a kid in a wheelchair with a wild imagination where he is a superhero. He slowly realizes the things he imagines are starting to become real.”
Okay, James, don't push it.
“Those are the main stories I'm working through right now. Otherwise, it's all fragments and possibilities.”
Miranda raises her hand. “Would you consider expanding the Dr. Elion story into something like a full-length novel, or even a series?”
The class likes this question. They instantly agree and echo the question with their nods and eager eye-contact.
Well played, Miranda, good for you.
“You know, I hadn't really thought about that until right now. That is actually a great idea.”
With that, Mr. Roberts agrees with Miranda's sentiments, thanks James for his reading and his honesty, and excuses him back to his seat. As he makes his way down the aisle, he gets to hear something very few high school nerds ever get to hear: genuine applause from an entire class. Everyone joins in, they have to, how could you not respect what this kid has just done? He walked a tight-rope over public humiliation, artistic criticism, and personal pride. He crossed over a fiery crocodile moat while axes were thrown and arrows zipped by and he barely faltered. I can't take full credit for his success, he did all of the hardest work. But still, I'm pretty proud, of him and of myself.
As I leave the classroom James grabs my arm. When I turn to him he doesn't speak. He can't really, he's being talked to by four or five students about his story. He simply squeezes my arm and smiles.
“I told you,” I say, smiling back, and watch him turn to his new adoring fans, ready to answer any and all of their questions. His life will never be the same. I hope he stays hard-working and humble. I hope he remembers the ways to quiet the haters and feed the hopes people have.
Do other people really not see how easy it is to do things like this?
Shit, time for Chemistry.