I roamed the hallway of Santana Road High School, relishing the momentary peace. I could imagine myself king of the halls only when all 2,000 students were sitting stationary in their desks inside the school’s many classrooms.
When the bell rang, the halls would flood, and I would have to start throwing elbows to make my way to the next class. I would be lost in a sea of unknown faces, experiencing my first moments of existential angst.
Did I really matter? With all these people, all jockeying for better position in the hierarchy of high school cliques, what difference did I make? A speck carried along in a river of cruel teenage humanity.
But for now, I had the halls to myself, and I could feel like a person again. I held sway over these corridors, but only in the few moments between a trip to the water fountain and my return to class.
When I walked in the door, my entrance caused barely a ripple to the droning lecture from my English teacher, Mr. Catawba.
“Every good story has to have tension,” he said to the classroom of sleepy eyes. “And, to follow the advice of Kurt Vonnegut, make sure you have at least one character the reader can root for. I know you kids are all into goth and Emo and all that stuff, but people want a character they like. Not some sad sack.” He looked up from his lecture notes and trailed off, probably noticing for the first time that only about a third of the students were listening. The rest were probably wondering whether he forgot to brush his hair in the mornings or if his porcupine hairdo was a stylistic choice. “Fiction isn’t just entertainment. It can enrich your life. It can enrich the readers lives.” He sighed. “Anyway. I hope you all got something out of the assignment.”
After he finished his diatribe on better-living-through-fiction, we handed in our assignments. I’d enjoyed this one, crafting a short story about a man at the end of world discovering the key to saving humanity. I spent more time on it than most assignments — especially the dreadful character analysis I wrote the week before on “The Scarlet Letter.” But next week it was back to Shakespeare, and if there was one thing I hated worse than Nathaniel Hawthorne, it was the Bard.
Mr. Catawba dismissed class just a few seconds before the bell rang. I tried to gather up my stuff and shoot out of the classroom before the students made like cattle and stampeded the hallways. I failed.
I pushed through the seemingly solid stack of bodies and made it to the bathroom. I checked my watch. Five minutes until the next class. The bathroom stunk of urine, but it was mostly covered by the thick cigarette smoke that threatened to spill into the hallways. I saw a couple of guys sharing a Newport in the corner. I’d noticed one of the two before, wandering the halls in his letter jacket. Other than the cigarette sticking out of his mouth, he looked like he belonged in a J. Crew commercial. The other guy’s face was pock-marked, and he wore an air of menace in addition to a faded Army surplus coat with the name “Newman” etched on the breast. I imagined the soldier who once owned it. I bet he never imagined that his legacy would be to have his name adorn a jacket worn as a teenage fashion statement. Outside of this bathroom, you would never see these two guys in the same crowd. But the illicit act of smoking brought strangers together.
I asked if I could get a few drags. They passed the smoke to me without comment, and I took three quick, deep puffs, trying to get as much nicotine into my lungs as possible before I had to go. Lunch was so much easier to face with a light buzz.
I was new to school, which meant I didn’t know anybody. I dreaded lunch. I could already see it in my mind. I would go down there, get my tater tots and congealed-cheese pizza, then look around for an empty table. I couldn’t stand the thought of inviting myself to sit with strangers, so I preferred to eat solo.
If all the tables were filled, I would try to find a quiet corner of the cafeteria where I could sit and read. I’d purloined a copy of “Catcher in the Rye,” from the English classroom and had been spending most of my lunches making my way through it
I passed the cigarette back and waited for another turn, but they burnt it down to the filter before it came back around. “Thanks,” I called to them as I left the bathroom and started navigating the crowd.
I went back by the English classroom on my way to the stairs and saw Mr. Catawba standing at the door. “John,” he called just as I was about to pass. “Could you come here for a minute?”
I was struck by two things at that moment. Fear: What did I do wrong? And surprise: I didn’t think he knew my name. He always had to consult his student roster before calling on me in class.
“Sure, Mr. Catawba,” I said.
I exited the crowd and strode past him into the classroom. He closed the hallway and pointed to a seat in the front row.
“The assignment you turned in today…” he walked to his desk and picked up a stapled sheaf of papers from the top. “Did you get any help writing it?”
What? Was he about to accuse me of plagiarism? I didn’t see that coming. I stared through his horn-rimmed glasses and wondered if I was reading suspicion in his eyes.
“No. I wrote it myself last night.”
“Your parents didn’t help?”
“No Mr. Catawba. They wouldn’t have even if I asked.”
My parents were science types — dad a doctor and my mom a chemistry professor at a local college. They found my interest in reading fiction annoying and were constantly trying to steer me into one of their professions. Unfortunately for them, I was terrible at science and math.
“John. This story was incredible,” Mr Catawba said.
I wondered if he meant “incredible,” like, “I can’t believe that you were able to write it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean that it’s fantastic. I’ve never had a ninth grade student write anything near this good.”
Well, this was unexpected. No teacher had ever singled me out for anything — at least not in a good way. I felt a strange sensation in my chest. It was warm, and it made me feel confident. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been confident about anything.
“Do you have any idea what you plan to do when you grow up?”
I could have spat out what my parents had been drilling into me. Doctor or chemistry teacher or something sciency. But the truth is that my future was as opaque to me as how to talk to girls. I just hoped I didn’t end up a garbageman. I shook my head.
“Well, have you ever given thought to being a writer? You have real talent. It’s something you might want to consider.”
I stared at him and tried on the idea to see how it fit. I really did enjoy writing the story. I liked making up stories, generally. This had just been the first time I’d actually written something down. I pictured myself as Hemingway, boozing it up, running with the bulls, maybe joining up in some foreign war, and then writing about all my adventures. The picture appealed to me.
“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “I really enjoyed writing this one.”
He leaned over and put a hand on my shoulder. I cringed, but resisted the urge to pull back. I wasn’t used to adults showing any kind of positive affection. My family didn’t even hug.
“I want you to do something for me,” he said. Will you go home and write a story. Just for me. Not for a grade. Anything you want.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Great. There’s no deadline. Just take your time and give it to me when you’re done.”
I stood up from my desk and slung my backpack over my shoulder. “Ok. I can do that.” I smiled. Something I tried not to do in school. I found a constant scowl was generally best when trying to avoid teasing from other students. “Thanks, Mr. C.”
I walked out of the classroom, already trying to imagine what characters I might fit into my next story. And for a moment, I allowed myself to think of what the future might be like if I could actually be a writer. I enjoyed the thought so much, I forgot to stop smiling.