Note to Readers: This is not the story of any given character, but the story of the phenomenon called high school.
“Remember you are just an extra in everyone else’s play.” –Franklin D. Roosevelt
Carl Moore’s Dream:
Skinny Golden Genius
So what else is new? I’m sitting here, English class, dead in the water, the question in front of me: “Name two symbols Barbara Kingsolver uses in her novel The Bean Trees. Write a paragraph discussing how each symbol functions within the story.” And that’s just the first question! There’s four more of them I’m supposed to answer about the frigging Bean Trees, and I don’t have a clue. Of course, I’d be better off if I’d read the book, but it was boring as hell--I couldn’t get past the first two pages.
Every time I look up, Ms. Warren makes this motion with her hand and mouths the word “Write.” No duh--that’s what I’m supposed to be doing? Writing what? “As far as I can tell, the main symbol Barbara Kingsolver uses in her book is a rock. It just sits there and doesn’t do anything. It’s a rock. This symbolizes the reader’s brain when he tries to read this lame book.” Why should I even bother?
Something rolls into my foot. I look down. It’s a pencil, a gold pencil. I look around to see who dropped it or who’s screwing with me, but everybody’s got their heads down, scratching away at their essays like good little dweebs. Or else they’re faking it. Even Jonny Boy Gunderman looks like he’s doing something productive, and he’s lucky if he can read a stop sign. I pick up the pencil. Shiny gold. Sharp. Really sharp. How’d somebody get a point on it like that? I make the mistake of brushing the business end of the thing. “Yeow!” I yell.
“Carl, if you can’t keep the noise down…,” Ms. Warren says.
“I just--whose pencil is this? This thing is frigging sharp!” The class laughs, but I’m serious. A tiny bit of blood has dropped off my finger and onto my test paper.
“This is my last warning, Carl!” Warren yells. “Instead of playing with the pencil, I suggest you put it against your paper and write. Now.”
Yeah, well, I can think of another use for this pencil, Ms. Witch, another good place it could go. Everybody goes back to working on their tests. I go back to wanting to burn mine. I twirl the mystery pencil in my fingers for a few seconds, looking at the needle sharp end of it. I tap it across the front page of my test, watch it make a line like a trail of black pepper, until the tip touches the drop of blood.
Suddenly, the pencil begins to write. It begins to write. I’m holding on to the thing, yes, and anybody watching me would think I was working away like every other dweeb in the class, but I’m not writing. It’s writing! I’m just holding it up and hanging on for the ride.
“Taylor is deathly afraid of tires, particularly since she saw one blow up and throw her friend’s father high up on a Standard Oil sign. Ironically, when Taylor leaves her native Kentucky home and travels to Arizona, she settles in with a woman named Mattie who owns Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. Desperate for money, Taylor even takes a job there, working with the very things she fears. The tires act as symbols of several key themes in the book. First, as means of transport, the tires…”
This is all on my paper. This pretty-damned-good crap is on my paper in about two minutes flat, and nobody but me could say I didn’t write it. I look around—nobody’s smirking like they’re playing some kind of trick on me. From her desk at the front of the room, Warren nods and gives me a little smile like I’m finally figuring things out and I should just keep going. But check this--the whole time I’m glancing around, the pencil is still going! I’m not even looking at the paper and it’s saying, “The symbiotic relationship between the rhizobia and the wisteria vines clearly symbolizes the relationship Taylor feels with other characters in the novel.”
The symbi-what? Rhizo-huh? This is not good. I can see just how this is going to go if I hand this thing in.
“Clearly, you did not write this test on your own, Carl.”
“You saw me.”
“Did you have your notes on your iPhone? Were you looking at them?”
“I don’t even have an iPhone.”
“All right, Carl, what is a rhizobia, then?”
What am I supposed to do, go home and read the stupid book so I can explain how I got an A on the test? And all the time I’m worrying about this, the pencil is still writing. It’s finished with the symbolism thing and moved on to writing some brilliant response to a question about LuAnne’s progression as a character. I wonder just how much this thing can do on its own. I take my fingers off the skinny gold genius, half expecting it to stay up and keep on keeping on. But it doesn’t. It drops to the desk like any average writing utensil.
I pick it up, look at it. What the hell am I going to do with you? Some story from when I was a kid comes into my brain, something about a duck...no, a goose. “The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg,” how it seemed to be this great thing but it turned out to be a curse. Here I am with the Golden Pencil that Laid the Perfect Test or something.
Ow. At least I don’t yell out this time, but as I’m trying to figure out what to do, I lean my forehead on my hand, the one holding the pencil, and it pricks me on the head. I touch the spot where it got me, then look at my finger. More blood--perfect. I’m bloody and stupid and holding a pencil that’s too sharp for my own….
A rhizobia is a microscopic bug. A wisteria is a vine. The bug lives on the roots of the wisteria vine and pulls nitrogen out of the soil, thus aiding the plant’s growth. They rely on each other, these two things.
I know this. Suddenly, I know this. Instantly, with a prick to my forehead, this crazy-ass pencil has transferred the knowledge from the paper to my brain! Go ahead, Warren--ask me about the symbols, ask me about LuAnne, ask me what I mean when I’ve written that “no single entity can comprise a community, and no single community can thrive without its constituent entities.” ‘Cause that’s what I just wrote, baby, and that’s what I know.
By the time I’m heading down the hall at the end of the day, I’ve aced three tests and written a 13-page rough draft (rough? Mr. Draper is going to pee himself when he sees how perfect it is) for History. My little genius is safely stowed in my backpack, and I’m walking out the door feeling like a king.
“What’re you so happy about?” says Tawny as I stroll up next to her on the way to catch the bus.
“Sun is shining, no homework, why shouldn’t I be happy?”
“Lucky you,” she says, but then she grabs my arm and stops walking. She’s staring at my face. “Hey, what happened?”
“It looks like a bunch of bees stung you on the forehead or something.”
I tap my temple, give her a little smile and say, “Price of learning, Baby. Just the price of learning.”
Dream 1: Reality Check
ü Grade on Carl Moore’s The Bean Trees test: F.
Teacher comment: “You’re reasonably intelligent and capable, Carl, but success will not come to you. Make some effort.”
ü Full Facebook P.M. correspondence between Carl Moore and Tawny Grover:
Carl: Wanna hang out some time?
Tawny Grover’s Dream:
Two minutes after she starts introducing the quiz on irregular verbs, Senora Backus stops talking because of a knock on her door. She opens it and says, “Hola.” A man strides into the room. He’s short, sturdy and extremely energetic. He moves as if he’s full of springs. Mainly, amazingly, he’s my dad.
“Hola! Que tal?” he says. “That’s about all the Spanish I know, so I better just collect my daughter and vamoose, what do you say?”
“Uh, I...wait a minute!” says Senora, but Dad’s already striding to my desk.
His face wears a huge smile and when he gets to me, he takes a little hop, lands with his feet planted wide, his arms outstretched, and loudly sings, “Tada!”
“Dad, what are you…?” I start to say.
“What am I? That’s an age-old question, Princess, and nobody’s come up with a satisfactory answer yet. For today, the answer is, ‘I am your ticket out of here.’ Vamanos, chica! Whoa, there’s two more Spanish words for you, Teach!”
“Mr. Grover, I’m afraid you can’t come in here and just...just…,” sputters Senora. Dad grabs my backpack.
“I’m not just, just anything, el teacher-o. Here’s your official proclamation from the office.” Dad hands Senora a slip as he slips by her. He sings as we leave the classroom, “Signed, sealed, delivered--she’s mine!”
I stop in the hallway and tell him, “Dad, you’re not supposed to be here. The restraining order says…”
“Restraining order my butt.” Dad stops and pulls some papers from his back pocket. “Here you go, Honey. It’s a sad day when a father has to give his daughter papers to prove he’s not kidnapping her, but that’s the state of our nation, God bless America!” I look at the documents, both from the court. One says the restraining order has been canceled; the other gives Dad permission to take me out of school for the day. Both have Mom’s signature on them, which seems totally impossible given what she’s been saying about Dad lately.
“So, do they pass muster, my dear?” Dad asks. “Shall we sashay out the old front door, or do you think the coppers are gonna get us?” Here he slips into one of his familiar old movie routines. “You’ll never take me alive, you coppers! I didn’t do it, see, and you’re never gonna take me back to the slammer!” Danielle Schaffer, just coming out of the library, glances nervously at him. I smile and give her a little wave. Just my nutso father. She shakes her head and walks away, but pretty soon teachers are going to be opening doors to find out who’s making all the noise. Dad’s against the wall, pantomiming holding a machine gun. “You hear me? You’ll never take me alive!”
“Cute, Dad. Let’s get out of here before you get arrested for being a nuisance.”
He grabs my hand. “Now you’re talking!”
It’s a beautiful day outside, sunny and warm, and I can’t help feeling like I’ve gone back in time as Dad and I cross the schoolyard to the parking lot. It’s like I’m eight years old and I’ve got everything in the world: a sunny day and Daddy holding my hand. The feeling intensifies when I see the car we’re headed towards: the old 1977 VW Bug, complete with its mismatched fenders.
“How did you…? I thought you had to sell this.”
“Bought it back, Babycakes. Are we ready to roll or what?”
The door handle sticks like it always did. I have to yank on it three times before it will open, and when I jump in, I’m almost entirely swallowed by nostalgia. I have to look in the side mirror to make sure that I haven’t actually reverted to my 2nd grade self. The view of me at 17 forces me back to reality.
Dad starts the engine (it whines just like it used to!) and reaches to crank up his music when I say, “Dad, seriously, how is this happening? Before we go anywhere, you have to tell me.”
He turns to me and sighs. “You do know that the words ‘Dad’ and ‘seriously’ don’t belong together, right?”
“Dad, seriously,” I say, giving him my sternest look.
He laughs a little, shakes his head and says, “I’ve changed.”
I wish, of all the words he could have said, Dad hadn’t said those. My body must show my disappointment because Dad quickly says, “I know, I know--but this time it’s true. This time, sweet child of mine, I have proof.” He reaches into the back seat and brings back a manila folder, crumpled and stained with coffee. Neatness has never been one of Dad’s strengths.
I open the folder to find pay stubs from a job Dad has had for the past three months, a letter from his AA sponsor saying Dad hasn’t had a drop of alcohol for 93 days and counting, a notice from the department of motor vehicles stating that his license is no longer revoked, and even a note from Mom: “Tawny, I’m letting your dad take you out of school for the day. I’m not saying he’s perfect, and please don’t get any ideas that we’re getting back together, but I trust him enough now to let him be with you, his daughter. He’s got plenty of faults, but I never doubted that he loves you. Have fun.”
“When did she…?” I ask, holding up the note.
“That is hot off the presses from just one hour ago.” Dad grins. “Satisfied?”
I look at him for a long moment. His eyes are clear, the dark circles gone from under them. His clothes are clean. The car is messy as always, but I don’t see any booze bottles or syringes. As hard as I’ve worked to build walls against hope so I won’t keep getting disappointed, I can’t deny these papers, the note, or Dad’s happy, sober grin.
I let the walls fall and hug my father for all I’m worth. My tears spill freely onto his shirt while both of us laugh. After a minute, Dad says, “Hey, you’re giving me a soggy shoulder. Let’s blow this pop stand, kiddo!”
He cranks up The Who and off we go. To where I don’t know, but Dad’s always got a plan and it’s sure to involve the ocean, greasy food, new clothes and at least one surprise I could never guess. With Dad at the wheel and me riding shotgun, both of us singing “Teenage Wasteland” at the top of our lungs; with the VW chugging out its maximum 50 miles per hour as we tool down the highway; with cars whizzing past us on both sides, I don’t care if I’m 8 or 12 or 17 or 82.
“Wahoo!” I yell. Dad laughs and joins in with his own joyful howl.
Dream 2: Reality Check
ü Police Report: “Received 911 call from the secretary of the high school. Officers arrested one Trey Grover for disorderly conduct, violating a restraining order, violating parole, resisting arrest. BAC: 0.115.”
ü Health class worksheet on Reducing Stress, question 6: “Briefly describe a peaceful mental image you have.” Tawny Grover’s response: “At the beach with my dad. My sober dad.” Last three words scratched out entirely.