The junior honors English class was broken into groups of four, each preparing a chapter lesson from ‘Ordinary People’ by Judith Guest. The teacher, at his desk reading ‘A Fan’s Notes’ by Frederick Exely, knew discussion groups were the best method for acquainting students with a book since he was aware that barely a quarter of the kids read more than the topic sentence of random paragraphs, if any sentences at all.
An Exely line made him laugh. He roughly cleared his throat to mask the outburst. His most talented student, one of three who had read all the assigned books, approached his desk. “Good book Mr. Minter?” Mr. Minter nodded and set the cracked book face down. “Maybe if we read funnier stuff like that more kids would read.” “Maybe,” the teacher said. “But this material is not appropriate.” The student glanced at the cover – pages flying up off a desk and floating out a window – and repeated the author’s name to himself. “I’ve been trying to start a short story,” the student said. “Like we talked about and, well so far, I do a lot of shooting hoops or laying on the couch, wracking my brain, waiting. I know once I get it started… but getting started is the current obstacle.” The teacher, a short story writer himself with a handful of minor online publications, sniffled a fake laugh and gazed out the window (fogged mountains) to scratch at a memory of himself at the student’s stage. He found two relevant memories of himself struggling to start stories. In one he was a freshman in college and the other was from three days ago. The teacher’s sunken face sunk and paled, his green eyes faded grayish. The student started to talk then stopped. The teacher blinked. Returning his attention to the student helped restore his eye color.
“If I just had a start. I could connect the next sentence and the next and get that consistency and tension we discussed… This magician stuff making something appear out of thin air… It’s like I’m staring down at the sea from a two hundred foot cliff and I’m wearing a speedo. But then I’m like ‘Yo, I’m not a cliff diver, what is this?’
The teacher coughed another soft fake laugh. “There’s your first sentence.”
Mr. Minter saw that the skeptical student felt patronized. He sat up in his chair, tapped a pencil, eraser to lead tip, fast, like a propeller, against his empty calendar mat. He spun the pencil. “How about…” The student turned and faced the five groups so that the teacher could think. Several kids were texting or gaming on their cell phones. A girl folded her arms and stared up at the flickering track light while the three guys in her group argued about the latest college football poll. A girl who had already read the book was preaching to dead ears. One group was on task. The teacher cleared his throat hoarsely and slid a scrap of paper with a sentence written on it. The student snatched it and read, “He compared his enduring malaise to curdled mayonnaise and summoned the strength to stand up, travel downstairs and wash the stink-heap of dishes.” The student read the sentence again. It sounded even better. “Yeah?” he said, brushing the slip of paper back and forth against his knuckles, like it was a hot ticket. The gesture made the teacher think for a second that what was written on the slip was of great value to the student, like it was a hot girl’s phone number, or the answers to a pop quiz, but he quickly rejected the notion. “No. It’s cheesy thievery,” The teacher said. “It stinks. Rip it up.”
The teacher stared out the window until the student settled into his seat. Then hoping to gain any kid’s attention, he sighed loudly. None of them looked up. He picked up the book and was soon lost in its sanctuary of distraction.
When the student got home he ordered “A Fan’s Notes,” and Exely’s two other fictional memoir novels off the internet and then looked up the word ‘malaise.’ He had a sense it meant something like its definition by the context of the teacher’s sentence. Didn’t that make it a good sentence? the student thought. He went outside and shot hoops. He got going on a story line involving a guy like his English teacher and a lady like his mousey-cute Spanish teacher. He made a double pump reverse lay-up, called glass before he banked one from the elbow, and swished a hanging fall-away J. Clutching the ball too tight as if he held in his hands the very story he was bringing to light, he released several arc-less shots with no backspin. All bricks. He rushed inside to write down the line he had composed (his first sentence, the story’s second) and stayed in the seat until the story was done at three am. Whenever the couch beckoned out of the corner of his eye he would curse it and imagine tearing it to shreds. At the end of his story a soiled couch gets torn to shreds.
by Sean Ulman