For some reason the projectionist in the Octoplex of my unconsciousness has been running triple features based on the theme of shirked responsibility. For example, last night – or probably more accurately this morning – Mrs. Waltrip, a woman I hadn’t thought about in a half-century, appeared in a dream I’ll entitle Maybe Waiting Until the Day Before the Final Exam to Come to Class for the First Time Was a Bad Idea.
Mrs. Waltrip was my 7th grade math teacher, and hers was the final class of the school day. I recall she had a verbal tic of punctuating sentences with “op-shoop” and a habit of pointing at equations with her middle finger, an unfortunate peccadillo given the immaturity of her charges. However, what I most remember about her class is how frequently I looked up at stubborn hands of the institutional clock being dragged like a mule to the designation of three o’clock. If it was a good day – a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday – I’d be headed home, but on Tuesdays or Thursdays I’d end up in the band room sitting in the last seat of the back row of the clarinet section pantomiming my way through “The Stars and Stripes Forever” or “Seventy-Six Trombones.”
Oh, how I wish that after I had failed the musical aptitude test for band in the fourth grade, Mr. Moody had said, “Sorry, Rusty, but I don’t thing band is a good fit for you.” Instead, I’d spend the next four years under his tutelage completely lost, pretending to play, marching in parades, miserably sitting as a 7th grader in buses with high school students headed to or coming back from Charlotte, Walterboro, or Hanahan. Mr. Moody was all too aware of my incompetence but possessed too kind a heart for both of our goods.
In the summer before my 8th grade year, he called my house one afternoon while I was on the sofa in the den watching reruns of Sea Hunt. He asked me if I was planning to take band next year, and I summoned the courage to say no. After hanging up, I felt at once guilty and relieved (I suspect that he himself was dancing a jig). Summer practice would start in a week, and I wouldn’t be with the band on the football field inhaling (what had become for me) the sad smell of freshly mown grass. I’d be watching old movies or hanging with non-band friends in the neighborhood. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Band came out that summer, a group more in tune with my musical tastes than “As the Caissons Go Rolling Along.”
But the thing is, I never dream about being an incompetent imposter fingering a clarinet. My bad dreams deal with academics, which, despite my disorganization, I was okay at. In this morning’s dream, Mrs. Waltrip is teaching a high school senior class I need for graduation, but when I show up for the very first time, she’s not angry but sympathetic, and is going to allow me to write a research paper to catch up. The equations on the board might as well be written in Farsi as well as I can reckon, but as the dream transfigures, I find myself at track practice running across a bridge with leaden feet, the research paper unwritten.
The question arises, why now that I’m retired with no real academic responsibilities at all – no essays to write, no essays to grade – do I so often dream that I have let my parents (both dead) and myself down? Why don’t I dream about winning essay or short fiction contests? Or sitting in Ted Savage’s living room with Paul Smith listening to “A Day in the Life?”
About ten years ago, when my father was dying of cancer, I wrote a comic novel that took place on one sunny October day in 1970. It’s called Today, Oh Boy. I copped the title from the Sgt. Peppers Beatles song “A Day in the Life.”
The novel chronicles one day at Summerville High School. It features a host of characters — teachers, students, administrators, parents, dropouts, derelicts, and a basset hound called Hambone/Mr. Peabody.
There’s a redheaded zit-faced protagonist named Rusty Boykin, a flat-chested National Honors Society officer named Jill Birdsong, and other characters also based very loosely on people I knew in high school.
It’s supposed to be funny.
What brings it to mind is that this morning my first true sweetheart sent me a photo from those days with this message: “Ha! Thought this might come in handy for one of your future blog posts.”
If you’re dying to know why I’m missing a tooth, click here.
Otherwise, I thought I’d offer you a taste. Here’s the opening.
Homeroom (8:00 – 8:05 A.M.
A classroom. Concrete block, pale lime green. A mango-hued, pockmarked bulletin board on the near wall, pencil stabbed and compass point gouged. Among the graffiti the names of star-crossed lovers: Wendy + Tripp, the tragic Tripp who dived off Bacons Bridge and broke his neck and was found tangled in blackberry bushes growing along the banks of the Ashley River. That very W-E-N-D-Y + T-R-I-P-P produced by either Tripp or Wendy’s own hand. Who else would have done it?
Rusty Boykin, a skinny freckled redhead who sits on the bulletin board row in Mrs. Laban’s homeroom right next to the artifact, thinks its Tripp’s work – the letters looking like fat-fingered boy letters. Wendy hasn’t been to school since it happened, four class days ago, and now it’s Monday, and she’s still not here. Right in front of Rusty she should be sitting, a girl with honey-colored hair hanging like a curtain to her waist.
Ollie Wyborn, who is unpacking his books, sensibly has compartmentalized Tripp’s accident into the “one of those foolish things” category, the accident reinforcing his cautious approach to life. Right after the dark news, Ollie overheard Alex Jensen call Tripp’s death “Natural Selection at Work,” and Ollie laughed in spite of himself, realizing immediately it was a sick joke, not rightfully funny, except that it does neatly correspond to Darwin’s theory as Ollie understands it. It really surprises Ollie, though, that AJ – as everybody calls Alex – knows enough science to make a witty crack like that. AJ never does his homework, and if he is ever reading anything, it‘s a magazine that has something shocking on the cover, like a man holding a gun to a dog’s head. Ollie has heard that AJ smokes marijuana, whose active ingredient THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) can conceivably cause birth defects. Smoking marijuana to Ollie is just as stupid as diving at night head first into a stump.
Well, maybe not quite as stupid.
Mrs. Laban is tidying in front of the room, a science lab/classroom with a black cabinet (with sink) standing as a barrier between her and the blackboard, which is actually green. On it color-coded chalk homework assignments rendered in businesslike cursive: economical loops, emphatic exclamation points. Others are milling in, Sallie Pushcart, the principal’s daughter; petite, blonde, glassy-eyed Margie Blackthorn; Mama-Cass-sized Althea Bovinni; Josh Silverstein, wired as usual, a manic metallic grin flashing beneath old-fashioned black framed glasses. Up-classroom, Mrs. Laban stands smiling her Jesus-loves-us smile, her posture dauntingly perfect, as if her spine has been nailed to a straightedge, her blue-tinged silvery hair carefully coiffed, a work of Pentecostal perfection.
Rusty, whose eyes have crusted sleep on their lashes, and a fresh sprinkling of zits competing with his freckles, dislikes and fears Mrs. Laban, because he senses, or thinks he senses, her disapproval of him, of his tangle of uncombed red hair, his scruffy blue jean jacket with Mr. Zig Zag silk-screened on the back.
Although he doesn’t smoke tobacco, Rusty’s parents light up like fiends so there’s always the stale scent of cigarette smoke about him. Unhappily, he didn’t do his homework last night, so today’s Biology II midterm will be a testament to his ability to make intelligent guesses based on esoteric bits and pieces of disjointed information about the digestive system. Information that somehow has penetrated the almost impermeable force field of his daydreams: the puffy cloud, golden light land of the Maxfield Parrish poster taped over his single bed in a room that he shares with two of his brothers.
Here comes AJ right before the bell, rushing to his seat, shirttail halfway untucked. He’s leaning forward Groucho-like, an old-fashioned leather briefcase in his left hand. He, too, hasn’t done his homework, having spent last night with Rusty and others at Will Waring’s, who has dropped out of school and taken residence in a carriage house behind his widowed mother’s crumbling estate. AJ ’s no athlete and pants as if he’s just competed in the 1970 Pan Am Games’ 400-meter dash. Chuckie Cooper, Sallie Pushcart’s boyfriend, starting linebacker of the Mighty Green Wave, sports closely cropped black hair and an eye-singeing red alpaca buttoned up cardigan. He’s muttering something about hippies under his breath, but AJ ignores the would-be witticism. As it happens, Chuckie is one of the characters AJ frequently impersonates in his impromptu mockery routines (Chuckie’s never quite closed mouth, the deep duh-ness of his inflections), but homeroom isn’t what you would call a friendly audience.
The sounding of the bell is excruciating, drawn out ridiculously long. Mrs. Laban now stands to the right of an anatomical dummy whose plastic flesh-colored chestplate has been removed so that his bright, color coded internal organs (also removable) are on display. The dummy stares blue and vacant eyed smiling like an oversized cousin of Barbie’s Ken.
“The Silent Majority,” AJ calls him.
As Mrs. Laban peers over her half moon reading glasses to open her roll book, star quarterback Danny Duncan sidles in and takes his conveniently located front right row desk, one seat in front of missing Wendy. Even Jill Birdsong, the tall, levelheaded, flat-chested, straight-A student, is aware that Mrs. Laban plays favorites with Danny. If that had been AJ or Rusty, a detention would have been “awarded,” but Mrs. Laban is literally looking the other way. And Danny is nothing if not quick. Jill is one of the few girls who aren’t enthralled by dashing Danny, who looks as if he could be Troy Donahue’s younger brother with that thick blondish wavy hair and strong jaw.
Mrs. Laban calls roll, glancing from name in book to supposed person sitting in his proper seat. Most students say “here” – with a couple of “presents” thrown in – but Danny barks “yo” when his name is called, followed by a friendly chorus of chuckles. Ollie notices that AJ is writing or drawing something in his notebook, grinning like a maniac, then hears his own name, the last one called, annunciated in Mrs. Laban’s careful Upstate drawl. Rusty has noted that Mrs. Laban skipped Wendy’s name and so probably has inside information on her mental condition. Sallie Pushcart snaps her mirrored compact open and surveys her plump rouged cheeks.
Once roll is completed, Mrs. Laban says, “AJ, I believe it’s your turn to read the devotion.” Although Summerville High is a public school, Mrs. Laban “provides an opportunity” for students to read from The Weekly Devotional, published by the Southern Baptist Convention. The testimonies the students read aloud aren’t prayers but first person accounts from missionaries, often rendered in gender inappropriate adolescent voices. It’s not mandatory that you read, but even Josh Silverstein obliges when the booklet passes from row to row down the line.
“Yes, ma’m,” AJ says, and as he starts to read, he alters his voice, making it more Southern, inflecting the words like a backwoods preacher.
“When Eye-ah was a Seminarian-uh, in the Nineteeeeeen For-ah-ties- uh.”
In a battle to stifle his giggles, Josh Silverstein succumbs.
She’s fuming. After what the school went through last week, here he is mocking the Lord. “Alex, hand the Devotional to Ollie, and you go, son, as fast as your little legs will carry you, straight to Mr. Pushcart’s Office.”
“What for?” AJ asks in mock incredulousness.
“You know, young man. Now get.”
“Cause I was just trying to bring the devotion to life?”
“You know what you were doing.”
“Yes, ma’am. Trying to dramatize the reading to make it more effective. Isn’t that better than reading it in a monotone?”
Mrs. Laban’s thin mouth is drawn tight, her glowering eyes twin-barrels.
She fairly screams, “I said, ‘Get out!”
Alex Jensen: rising with a Raskolniscowl.
Mrs. Laban: purpling.
Jill Birdsong: looking down embarrassedly at her Pre-Cal.
Rusty Boykin: musing about how wonderful it would be if Mrs. Laban would keel over with a massive stroke and/or coronary, maybe not die, but be rendered incapable of administering the impending midterm.
Now that the door has closed behind A.J, the silence is palatable. Mrs. Laban is inwardly struggling, trying to control her breathing. Josh has put his head on the desk, and from Althea Bovinni’s perspective from her backseat spot on the third row, it looks as if he could be violently weeping.
“Ollie,” Mrs. Laban manages, “please read.”
Ollie pushes his wire rims up on the bridge of his nose, and says, “When I was a seminarian in the late 1940’s, I met many men who had served –“
All alone in the main hall, AJ’s doing the Bataan Death March boogie, head lowered, feet shuffling, headed for the gallows.
As the last painful pitch of the bell dies, classroom doors fly open, and AJ is swallowed by the crowd, melting into the menagerie of chattering students headed for first period, jostling with a swarm of kids right past the glass-walled administrative offices. He glances forlornly at the glass wall, the bustling secretaries, and now he’s breaking off discretely and pushing open the double glass doors to freedom.
In bright sunshine, he quickens his pace, afraid to turn around. The blonde-bricked school behind him is only ten years old, designed to be functional – but it’s oh so, so, so soulless – the landscaping, like what AJ ‘d expect to see in some sub-Soviet housing project. The scrub beneath his white high top Chuck T’s can’t keep the sandy dirt from blowing away. A balled-up piece of paper torn from a spiral notebook tumbleweeds past. He sneaks a peek over his right shoulder to see the Stars and Stripes flapping in the stiff October breeze.
Bent over and groping, too afraid to look, Rusty has plopped into his desk in Mrs. Rimsky’s American History class, hoping against hope that he’ll feel the comforting bulk of his missing history text in the compartment beneath his desk. Rusty is a master of losing things, things like notebooks, wallets, birth certificates, report cards, shopping lists, discount coupons, his religion, only to name a few.
This is an honors class. Jill Birdsong is seated, ready to go. Others from different homerooms file in: Julie Robinson, class president in a plaid polyester pantsuit; Carl Whetsell, one of the few blacks in the entire school system; James Hopper, who takes little short steps, his clarinet and books pressed defensively to his chest.
Down past the left turn in the hall outside the math wing, Dana Richards, one of Wendy’s closest friends, is whispering something to Sallie Pushcart.