Tag Archives: St. Ed’s High School

Birds on the Wing

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“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

I would trade any day in the real world, reheated meatballs with the folks at home the drumbeat of the future at St. Mel’s hanging with my boys doing nothing at Crocker Park Mall, for five minutes at summer camp. After the next two summers have come and gone, when I’m older, after my last year at camp, when I’m not allowed to be a camper anymore, I’m going back as a counselor. That’s a sure thing.

I’ll be a senior by then and I’ll know a thing or two. I’ll be bigger and wiser. I’ll know how to handle the kids both right and off-track.

Summer camp is different than being at home. There are fewer grown-ups, which is a good thing, and nobody’s parents are there, even better. The counselors are almost like you. They let you run amok and hope no one dies. All your friends are together again and there are more of them than at home. Nobody yells at you for two weeks. The counselors scream at you if you do something dumb, but you don’t get yelled at for doing something wrong just by mistake, like at home.

Even when you do, it’s all over in a few minutes, not like at home, where it never ends. No sir, it never ends, it just goes on and on. You’re on the bottom and you’ve got to keep your trap shut.

The summer sky at summer camp is big and fresh and windy. There are birds on the wing. There are swallows thrushes woodcocks buffleheads. We’re way up in Canada, on the Georgian Bay, at Wasaga Beach. It’s spic and span, too. Some kids don’t shower when they’re at camp and that’s disgusting, although nobody cares too much about it. But one time somebody’s parents wouldn’t let him in the car when his two weeks were over and he hadn’t showered even once.

“No, go back, go hose yourself off, and brush your teeth! What is wrong with you?“ his mother said through her nose.

Last year we had bedbugs. We caught them with scotch tape and kept them in a glass jar. I tried to kill some of them with poison spray, because when they sucked your blood they left itchy clusters on your skin, but the bugs didn’t seem to care. When the camp commander found out about it he hired a bedbug sniffing dog.

It was a Beagle, just a little bigger than Scar, my Beagle at home. He was lean, brown black white with floppy ears and a loopy smile. He knew what was up, though, coming into our cabin with an all business look in his eyes.

He was a scent dog. Scar is a detection dog. He searches out BS wherever it is, like up in Jack’s room. Jack is my older half-brother who thinks he knows everything and talks down to me. Scar finds it and growls. We live on a better street in Lakewood, wide tree lawns and a concrete roadway, but Scar sits on the front lawn looking both ways, ready to growl. He knows the future isn’t what it used to be.

Our Beagle was so good he sniffed out a sneaky bedbug hiding behind the plastic cover of an electric outlet. The next day everyone whose cabins had the bug plague piled their stuff into big black plastic garbage bags and threw them inside the cars at camp, in the hot sun, with the windows closed. All the bedbugs died.

My friends and I are in the smallest of the nine boy’s cabins, which is cabin 6. The only space we have on the floorboards is for us to slide back and forth to our beds. Matias is my best friend and number one. He’s shorter than me shiny blue eyes like buttons and stick slender. We like to run around, not get too uptight, and soft chill at the end of the day. We’ve been rooming together in the same cabin for seven years and know each other better than anything.

Lukas is my second-best friend. He’s a little taller than me, funny, and chunky. He chews green frog gummies and spits them out on the cabin floor, where we squash them flat like pancakes. He likes to play paintball. He’s strong, too, but not loud or belligerent. He has in-grown toenails. Don’t step on him! One night he punched someone who stomped on his bad toe.

He was, like, “Dude!” and stood up and pushed the guy and then got punched in the stomach for it. Logan punched him back in the face, but without being mean about it. We were at the Night of the Super Starz in the mess hall. We were just sitting there watching the show when the stomper started it, and then he suddenly started crying. He had a bruise on his cheek and a black eye.

There was a midnight mass after the show, but Lukas wasn’t allowed to go. He had to go back to our cabin early, although all that happened the next day was the counselors made him sweep the mess hall. He just helped, but not too much, since that’s somebody else’s job, anyway.

Lukas is in cahoots with ghetto folk. He’s not poor, but he likes being hip hop rundown. He’s from Toronto and lives uptown, although I don’t know where that is. He said he lives in a neighborhood of chinksters, like in Chinatown. He smokes weed sometimes, although he’s not good at it. He and one of his friends went to a creek on the far side of camp and smoked some. He got funky paranoid and dreamed up disasters.

“I thought I was going to die,” he said.

Story time with Lukas at the head of class is always for grins fun gut-busting. When he spits out a gummy, and goes loosey-goosey, man, oh, man. He knows a lot of dirty jokes, too.

In our cabin at night we talk about movies, TV shows, and our favorites on YouTube. We talk about girls, some of them more than others, and we talk about video games a lot, even though we don’t have any at camp. They’re not allowed. The one of us in our cabin who doesn’t talk much is Titus, who we call Tits, unless we are calling him the Titmouse. He just sits in his corner all secluded. He does play some video games, so I talk to him about that, sometimes, but not much.

Call of Duty is my game, except I don’t play it on my xBox anymore, only on my computer. I love it when they say, “In war there is no prize for the runner-up.” I’m not sure what games Titus plays, although he’s mentioned some of them.

Nobody knows what’s wrong with Titus. We love Tits, but he’s quiet. He doesn’t do anything, which is the problem. At night when we’re all laying around in our cabin he’ll start crying. The Titmouse’s bulgy black eyes get soggy and his hair tuft goes limp. He will just sit teary-eyed on his bed, looking at the floor. When we ask him what’s wrong, he says, “I don’t know. My stomach hurts.”

We don’t ignore him, and we never do anything to him. We punch him every once in awhile, but not hard, on the arms. Mostly when he’s looking, but sometimes when he’s not looking.

He gets pinkeye every summer. We don’t make fun of him, though. But then he got double pink eye. That was too much. We were all, like, “God damn it, Titus!” Everybody made fun of him as a joke, and then he cried and got mad. but not because of that, just because he’s Titus.

The girl cabins are on the other side of the flagpoles, up a sandy hill. Amelia, who is part of Natalie’s tootsie posse, but who is actually nicer and even pretty, has a reddish birthmark on her face, like a spotted dog. I think she’s self-conscious about it because she always turns to her left whenever anyone takes her picture, away from the birthmark.

We never say anything about the birthmark to her. We talk about it in our cabin, but nothing bad, really, although sometimes we’ll say, “What’s that thing crawling on her face?” One night, Titus was laid out on his bunk in the corner while we were talking home stories when out of nowherare he said, “Did somebody have their period and rub it on Amelia’s face?”

We all sat there quiet for a minute. Like, who says that? Then we just burst out laughing, although Matias looked embarrassed. I think he has the hots for Amelia. It was a brutal thing to say, especially coming from Titus. We call him Tits because he has them. He’s always been flabby and lately he’s been getting heavier. He doesn’t play any sports, at all.

Kajus sleeps in the corner opposite Titus. He’s a big-time flea bag. He thinks he can play guitar, but all he does is play the same part of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ over and over. Who needs that? We are always yelling, “Shut up!” We finally broke his guitar, but it was a piece of junk, anyway.

We broke the new fan his parents got him, too. Lukas was angry that day, his toes hurt, and he started taking it out on the fan with a comb. We hauled it out behind the cabin and beat it with a hockey stick. It was hanging on rags when we were done. The spiny part was smashed, giant chunks were missing, but we just kept beating it. We threw bottles of water at it, finally.

We did everything to it. Kajus wasn’t too happy when he found out.

When his parents came mid-week from Toronto, they asked him what happened. He told them we did it, but not surprising to us, they didn’t believe him. After that he tipped a Mountain Dew on my bed. I poured the rest of it on his bed, and he pushed me, so I punched him, and he punched me back, and I finally punched him harder but not crazy hard, and he stopped.

We have a food-eating contest every summer after the Counselor Staff Show. The little kids have to go to bed, but we stay up late to play the game. Whoever volunteers are blindfolded and have to eat whatever the counselors make. Everyone has to keep their hands behind their backs and lap it up like a dog. Sometimes the other guys puke, but I never throw up.

The counselors made bowls of Rice Krispies with ketchup mustard strawberry jelly lots of salt and all mashed together like potatoes. It was horrible. It was like eating last place on one of my stepmom’s cooking shows she watches all the time on TV. Everybody cheers you on and you have to eat it as fast as you can if you want to win.

Some nights if we have stayed up late the night before, we try to go to sleep a little earlier than usual, no later than two or three in the morning. We don’t keep track, but we have to get some sleep because the counselors shake us up at seven-thirty for calisthenics. They march us to the sports field and make us do a butt load of jumping jacks, push-ups and crunches, and we have to run the track, even though the sun has barely come up.

If they see you are tired and slacking, they will make you do more. We jump on the used tire jungle jim and mess around. They make us do pull-ups on it, but it’s small price to pay.

We wake up every morning to music. It’s always Katy Perry or Duck Sauce, or whatever the counselors want, played from loudspeakers hidden in the trees. Even though I try, sometimes I don’t hear it because I’m flat out asleep. The counselors carry water shooters. If they say you have twenty seconds to wake up, and you don’t jump right out of bed, they start squirting you. They shake your bed and jump on you, and scream, but mostly they’re going on to the next bed, so it doesn’t last long.

After we’re done exercising, we go back to our cabins, clean up, and raise the flags before breakfast. There are three flags: American, Canadian, and Lithuanian. But, sometimes we’re too tired to clean up and instead fall right back asleep in our cabins and are late for the flag raising.

When that happens it’s time to swallow the pill. Whoever is late has to step out into the middle of everybody on the parade ground and do the chicken dance. All the boys on their side of the parade ground do the chop, swiveling their arms like tomahawks and chanting. Nobody knows what it means, but they all do it, and the girls stand there watching. Then they do their own dance, like cheerleaders, except they aren’t cheering for you.

Everybody gets their fair share.

All the cabins have to keep a diary for the two weeks of camp. We get graded on it every day. If you write something stupid, like “ugi ugi ugi” or anything that doesn’t make sense, you get a bad grade. The counselors tell us to be sincere.

“What does that mean?” Lukas asked, but they just laughed.

Matias always writes our diary because everyone else in our cabin is retarded. Titus once wrote something dumb in our diary, even though he said it was sincere, and at the flag lowering that night we all had to do the Rambo, running down the slope to the flagpoles with no shirts on and singing “cha cha cha” while everyone did the chop.

We wrestle in the old older oldest boy’s cabin. It’s the biggest cabin, so it’s got space for fighting. We move the beds and duct tape a sleeping bag onto the wood floor. There is no punching allowed, no hammer blows, or anything like that, but you can kick and throw each other on the ground.

We aren’t supposed to fight, because the camp commander doesn’t like it, but everybody wrestles and gets bruised up.

One night at wrestlemania Chase and Arunas were locked up when Chase grabbed Arnie’s head and flipped him over. Arnie slammed hard into a bedpost and got knocked out. We let him lay there, but when he didn’t wake up for twenty seconds, we threw dirt on him. He jumped up and was fine after that.

The next day we were walking to New Wasaga Beach, which is where the whole camp goes every afternoon for a swim, and Arnie jumped on Chase’s back for no reason and almost cracked it. But they didn’t punch each other. They’re not haters. Besides, the counselors were watching, and that would have been trouble. They say only they can get physical.

Every year another year goes by and when I’m back at summer camp it’s like I never left. As soon as I get there, I unload everything I’ve brought, my clothes sleeping bag snacks. All my stuff has my initials written on it with a Sharpie. We find our cabins and claim our beds, and then your parents are gone before you know it. Sometimes I don’t even realize they’ve left.

You see your friends again, everybody in your cabin, and everyone you’ve ever camped with. There are high-fives knuckle-touches bro-hugs all around. “What’s up dude.” We all punch each other and laugh it around.

We reunite with the girls and get overdue hugs from them. When all the moms and dads are finally gone, all the parents that nobody in his right mind thinks about from that moment on, we have sandwiches in the mess hall. Father Elliott says a prayer and the camp commander makes a speech. He writes the camp rules in big block letters on a chalkboard.

The best night of summer camp is every night, but the best night is the Saturday night we play our manhunt game. Sometimes it’s called Fugitive or Stealing Sticks. It’s always the same, although it’s always different. This year Lukas called it Nazis and Jews. He said he saw a movie about Polish Jews fighting against the Nazis, shoot-outs and torture, but nobody could understand what he was talking about. We all said, OK, that’s what it is. The little kids had to go to bed. The older campers were the Jews and the counselors were the Nazis. We started running as soon as it got completely dark, so we had a chance, and then the counselors came after us.

It was like Capture the Flag with no holds barred. It was as much fun as ever. We banded together and surprise caught a counselor and he had to sit in the shower for an hour. It served him right!

The Titmouse never plays, and he didn’t play this summer, either. He said it was wrong and started talking about Lithuania, where all of our grandparents parents uncles aunts are from, and how terrible things happened there. He said it was a holocaust, not a stupid summer camp run around, but we just told him to shut up, and he got sulky. Nobody knows what’s wrong with Titus. I know what’s wrong with him. He knows he’s low man on the totem pole and nobody cares what he says.

The next day rumors started spreading about our game. “It was probably grown-ups complaining,” the counselors said, old folks complaining about our horseplay. Take a breather, folks. We’re not planning on killing 50 million people like grown-ups did in WW2. We talked and paced around about it. In the end, though, the game will go on, although everybody is thinking we better call it something else next year.

It doesn’t matter what the powers that be think they can do about it. They think they know everything, but what they don’t know is what goes on when they aren’t around. It’s a legend at camp, boss, not like an old man with his crazy stories, always telling you the way it was, what he used to do, how we should do it his way. What we do at camp is our own tradition. You can’t stop what we do just dead on a dime, kicking our legends to the curb.

It wouldn’t be right.

Only Crazy People Take Themselves Seriously

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Mad Hatter: “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

“No, I give up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.

We have show-and-tell at St Mel’s once in a while, but nobody ever brings anything anybody whatever. Some guy brought his grandfather once, who brought broken bits and pieces from World War Two, but none of it made any sense. When my turn came, I brought my Uncle Gray. He wore a black top hat, a black cape, and brought a bag full of boomerangs.

Uncle Gray told our science class he came to the show-and-tell because it was the birthday of the boomerang, the day it was invented. “What do you say about that?” he asked.

When nobody said anything, he said, “Many happy returns!”

All my uncles on my dad’s side of the family went to St. Joe’s High School on the east side, before it became St. Joe’s-Villa Angela, a coed school. They are all Lithuanians, even though they were born here, because grandma and grandpa came from there. They ran away when the commies took over. The had to run for their lives. It wasn’t a joke, like Mexicans walking into Texas and picking cotton. Our name used to be Grabaitis, but now it’s Gray. The old neighborhood went ghetto and the boy’s school and girl’s school both got so squeezed and small and broke they had to paste them together.

All my other uncles on my stepmom’s side went to St. Mel’s. My stepmom’s family is all German, from some place called East Prussia, that doesn’t even exist anymore. Some of them are bigwigs at the school now, although it doesn’t make any difference to me. Most of my friends know my Uncle Ted is on the Board of Trustees, but no one ever says anything about it. Sometimes I say something, if I have to.

Uncle Gray went to St. Mel’s. He’s one of my favorite adults. He’s not totally crazy, although he’s totally funny, and thankfully never pulls me aside to give me advice, which is unusual for an adult. Adults always have advice up their butts. Only crazy people take themselves seriously, but that’s adults for you. They think they know everything. Uncle Gray’s the boomerang man. He holds the record for the world’s biggest boomerang collection. He makes them, sells them, and lives them. He knows everything about them. He beds down with them, too.

He sleeps with a boomerang in his bed.

Uncle Gray is over fifty years old, but he doesn’t suck, which is remarkable. Most adults are unreasonable because they don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to any of us right now. They’re outdated out-of-touch obsolete. They’re over the hill. They can be unreasonable Little League dictators.

It definitely sucks to be forty years old. Why? Because you’re old, that’s why. You get up in the morning feeling just plain terrible. Thirty-years-old? It still kind of sucks. Most of the time you probably get up in the morning feeling terrible, too. It’s off to work you go. You’re not young anymore. When you’re old you don’t have fun most of the time. YOU WON’T! YOU CAN’T!

You could have fun, maybe, but only in ways that wouldn’t be all that great. When you’re a kid you can play with GI Joe’s for hours on end. You never think anything of it. Two years later you’re older and you don’t play with them anymore. When you find them again later on you’re, like, oh, MY GOD! I used to have so much fun with them. IT’S ALL GONE!

Old people can’t have that kind of fun, the kind of fun that’s just all in. For them, whatever they’re doing isn’t fun, it’s important. Important to them! They just want to get it done, whatever it is, like getting it done is life insurance. It’s not, but you can’t tell adults anything. They NEVER listen.

It’s the same with video games. Most grown-ups have never played video games. They’re still stuck in their old stuff, like reading newspapers and watching TV. That’s all done. It’s been destroyed by video games and online.

Adults don’t know how great video games are. They have no idea. They’re always saying we need to get up and do something. “Go outside, get some fresh air.” They think video games are stupid. If they are, then life is stupid. It’s not that video games are life itself, but they are definitely a good part of the good life. You can be the lamest kid stumbling down the hallways of St. Mel’s, but when you go home and get on a video game and are storming Brothers in Arms, like you purely own it, you can totally forget about regular life.

When you make friends online through video games, they’re exactly like real friendships. The only thing separating you from them is a computer screen. You can talk to people you don’t even know, and they can be your homeboys. You never meet them in real life, but you are still real friends. I can be playing somebody who lives in Montana and be close buddies with them. For real.

You can talk to them on Skype. You hear what they sound like and see what they look like. You just don’t know each other in real life, that’s all, even though it’s still the same. I like it that you can be friends with people you’ve never been in the same room with. For me it’s easy. For grown-ups, they can’t, they’re so suspicious. They’re always looking over their shoulders. They always think something bad is going to happen any minute.

There’s a barrier in the computer, which is the BARRIER, but it’s the doorway, too. Your video game friends don’t really know you. You can be nobody to everybody and still be friends with somebody, somebody who in the daytime life might not give you the time of day. You can be somebody on the computer screen, not just a ghost, but a Ghostbuster. You become more than just a nobody.

Video games aren’t an easy thing to get into when you’re older. Old people don’t understand them, at all. They grew up fishing in the creek. They’re still thinking the jump kick is the trickiest combo to master. But sometimes they’ll bite into the Jill sandwich. My Uncle Bruce bought an Xbox 360 last year. It was surprising, since the only game he ever had before that was Forza Motorsport 4. That’s it, that was it.

Uncle Bruce, Uncle Seth, and my grandfather are all deadset into cars. They work on old cars and grandpa sells them. Forza Motorsport is the only game grandpa’s actually good at. It’s the only game my uncles are good at, too. Anyone would think Uncle Seth might be better since he’s still a paperboy, even though he’s forty-years-old, so his brain hasn’t gone totally adult. It’s something they can relate to, and it’s simple, so they have a lot of fun with it.

When you’re fifty, you’re old. You’re a geezer, too bad. It gets worse the older you get. God, yeah, it truly DOES! If you’re sixty-years-old I feel bad for you. You can’t have fun. There is no more fun, for sure. When old people are old, they think anything new has got to be bad news.

They watch a truckload of TV, but watching TV isn’t necessarily a good thing. I watch TV to see the playoffs, football, basketball, but other than that, no TV. You sit there and don’t do anything. It’s all millionaires running around and throwing a ball to each other, or kicking it, or dropping it. I get a kick out of watching adults cheering screaming crying their eyes out about millionaires winning and losing their ballgame. It’s just a sweet wad of Chinese chewing gum for your eyes. Other than that, ESPN is dead-brain time.

The older you get the less fun you’re going to have. It’s a fact. When you’re seventy you’re just watching life, like it’s a fake-a-billy reality show, getting through it day by day. You’re there, breathing, but you’re not a part of it. YOUR DAY IS DONE. When you’re eighty you’re beyond old, of course, but I don’t think you can even possibly care anymore.

Some adults are happy, but not many. It’s less than half, I would imagine. It might even be less than that. When you’re young everyone’s mostly happier than not because you get over things easier. You just roll with the punches. Some can’t, of course, but most can. When you’re old you’re used to one thing, and when something else happens, well, then you’re stuck and sad.

When I get older, if that ever happens, I’m going to stay the same, which is on the go, on the spot, and as easy on the eyes as I am. I’m going to try to get old as slowly as possible. When I’m thirty-years-old I’m going to have kids and play video games with them. When I’m forty-years-old I’ll be a parent, driving my kids to school, but I’ll still have fun. I’ll play games with them and let them do what they want.

I’ll have some ground rules, of course. They’ll have to play sports. They’ll have to listen to what I say.

When I’m fifty and my kids are gone, I’ll have a butt load of house parties in my giant bathroom, on the patio, and spilling into the backyard. I’ll still be married, I think, and my wife will like the parties as much as I do. I don’t know what will happen when I’m sixty-years-old. Either I’ll keep going, have grandchildren, or die on the spot. It’s going to be a shock, for sure.

Making plans for the future is a wagon load of wasting time. A year ago, I didn’t know I was going to St. Mel’s. I knew I was going to Lakewood High School, at least I thought so. You shouldn’t make plans because they can change at a moment’s notice. It’s just like Blackie, my shifty-eyed black in it for himself cat. He might be in the kitchen and thinks he’s going to take a plate of snacks when no one’s looking, but then I sneak attack him. He had his plans until I snatched the snacks away.

But Blackie’s a wily smart freeloader. He’s free of pains and plans most of the time, free of cares. He sleeps and eats and runs around and sleeps some more. It’s the Life of Riley.

My whole day is always planned out, from the minute I wake up, Monday through Friday. My Riley is gone. We have our agenda for the day every day at St. Mel’s. I know everything I’m going to do and when I’m going to be doing it. I know everything I’m going to be doing, because Monday through Friday there are a blackboard of rules in my face.

I stop at my locker at the same time every day after the same period. I just do the stuff I have to do, the same thing every day, because that’s what people who are smart do. It’s like the killers who want to kill people. They are some of the dumbest people, but they are smart, too. They have a plan and execute it. Some people walk into a store and rob it. They go in and start shooting, but they don’t have any idea of what’s going to happen.

Most of the time they get screwed over. They get the crappiest lawyers, for sure. But other people have a plan for what they are doing. Those are the smart ones, especially those who want to kill other people for a reason. At St. Mel’s it’s all about having a reason. We have plans, and we execute them, but nobody notices anything. We have a set thing, our school periods, and we execute that because we have to.

Mr. Rote, my religion teacher, says if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Maybe he’s right about that. All the old people in the world made a crap load of plans when they were young and look what happened to them.

Uncle Gray is funny and smart, ridiculously smart, in fact. He’s smart in physics, which is why he’s good at throwing and catching boomerangs. He tosses boomerangs like nobody’s business. He has four world’s records in boomeranging and he owns thirty thousand boomerangs. He’s the BOOMERANG MAN!

Last year during Earth Day at Lakewood Park the first fifty kids who lined up at his booth got a free boomerang. Uncle Gray makes them in China and sells them. He makes a bucket of money. He gave away the paperback backyard kind. They’re the kind that don’t go far and always ricochet back.

Uncle Gray was married, and re-married, and re-married some more. He was married to Morky, who was Korean and had a small head, and they had five kids. Two of them were twins, Lizzie and Ali. I called Lizzie the larger because her head was bigger than her mom’s and I called Ali whatever else there was to call her. When Morky left and never came back, all of their five kids were under the age of five. Uncle Gray married somebody else right away, but they got divorced in no time. He tried again, but no luck for him. Now he goes from girlfriend to girlfriend. He’s a great guy.

They all stay around for a couple of years and then leave.

When I brought Uncle Gray to show-and-tell my science teacher Mr. Strappas showed us slides about how boomerangs work. We all went out to the football practice field and threw them around into the sky. Uncle Gray put on his old-fashioned black top hat. He threw his black cape over his shoulder.

Everybody loved him, except for Mr. Rote.

“Why do you think Jesus isn’t coming back?” Uncle Gray, smiling and smirking, asked Mr. Rote, who had wandered outside with his guitar. Mr. Rote shrugged his shoulders.

“He wasn’t nailed to a boomerang!” I think everybody wanted to laugh, but nobody did. I don’t know why Uncle Gray asked Mr. Rote that. It was like he wanted to get under his skin. Mr. Rote tried to laugh it off, but he grunted instead.

Before we went back to class Uncle Gray took something out of his duffel bag and threw it over the bleachers. We all waited, but nothing happened. It didn’t fly back.

“What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back?” he asked.

“A stick,” said Mr. Strappas, walking like a champ toward us from the far side of the bleachers with a stick in his hand.

 

 

Turning Your Colors

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“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t know exactly what they are!”

I don’t remember much of anything about my life, it’s all a blur, like a dream, before the ruckus I got into at pre-school. It happened because of my sister Sandy’s hairspray, which I can still see as clear as day. I barely remember pre-school but going one on one that day is the thing that stands out.

We were all sitting at a table eating lunch and next to me was a kid named Bobby. He had his head down, munching and crunching. I leaned over and pretended to hairspray him. I knew about hairspray because Sandy had started using it at home. She would stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom waving a can around, spraying her head. Later in life she used it all the time. Otherwise she looked like a porcupine.

I had never seen anything like hairspray before. After I saw it I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I did it to Bobby, pretend hairsprayed him, and he got SPITTING MAD. I don’t know why I did it or why he got mad. We suddenly started hitting each other. It was a long time ago, but I remember the sound of our slapping hands.

We were only four years old.

When I was five years old, I went to kindergarten. Looking back, I can’t recall much of what we did there, either. I do remember we spent most of the time on a carpet, which was brightly colored, and we got prizes at the end of the day if we had been good.

Mrs. Papp was our teacher. She had a round pudgy face and brown hair past her shoulders. It fell forward when she leaned over and gave us our goodies. I liked the way her hair smelled. It smelled clean and fresh.

The next year Mrs. Kreese was our teacher. She was on the old side and looked like a witch, but she wasn’t mean. That didn’t matter to everybody. Some kids said among themselves that she was totally a witch. Every day of every week she wore mismatching socks. She always wore a dress, but never nylons, just ratty socks. She walked in clunky black shoes with thick heels, not flat shoes like other old grown-ups.

I think she knew what we said about her, because I heard her say to a kid who was being bad one day, “Your mother wants you to be good, and if you don’t be good, since I’m a witch, I’m going to come to your house in the middle of the night, to your bedroom when you’re asleep, and haunt you.”

I hit my teacher with a pencil in 2nd grade, although I didn’t mean to do it. Mrs. Lemons was tall, with gray hair, and liked ice cream. My dad and I saw her all the time at the East Coast Custard stand in Fairview Park across the bridge from the hospital. It happened when we were sitting on a rug at the back of the classroom and I was tossing a pencil up and down. It suddenly flew out of control and hit her on the arm. I HAD TO TURN MY CARD!

Everybody in class had their own special number and a card at the front of the room. If you were bad you had to turn your card. We called it turning your colors. It was like turning over a new leaf, although sometimes it was an old leaf. There were different colors, which were green, yellow, and red. Green was good and red was bad. If you were always good you never had to turn a color. But if you were bad, you had to flip it, showing every kid in class you had been bad.

After a certain number of days, if you were being good and your card wasn’t staying solid red, you got a prize, like candy or a little toy. Sometimes we made our own little toys. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we did it anyway.

One day in between time a friend of mine and I we were in the bathroom when we saw one of the first graders come in. He always pulled his pants and underwear down all the way when he went to pee. He pulled them down to his knees. Sometimes they fell to his ankles.

While he was concentrating, we snuck up behind him, spun him around, and slid him into one of the stalls, closing it and holding the door shut. He was stuck in there. But the lunch lady came in when she heard all the noise he made, and we got in trouble. We had to go see the principal and listen to his lecture. That was the highlight of the day, at least until I got to go home.

By then, by the time I was in 2nd grade, it was just dad, me, and Sandy my older sister at home. My mom was gone. I didn’t know what had happened, other than the butt load of yelling and fighting between her and dad had stopped, and she was just gone. Just like that she wasn’t there anymore.

I had the time of my life after that. It was my dad and me and my dad on our own. If I did something bad, he wasn’t happy about it, but he wasn’t too fussy. He just dumped stuff. He brushed it off. He knew how to roll with the punches. I had all my friends over in the summer and we played outside until eleven o’clock at night. We ran around the house with nerf guns and had a ball busting out.

Dad didn’t care. He was very loose.

“You’re so annoying,“ Sandy started saying, who wasn’t always my best only older sister. She could be the worst. She had a serious streak to her. One night she told me she was going places.

She would complain all the time, but I didn’t listen, unless she was making dinner. I listened to her at least once a day since she made dinner every night.

It was awesome to not have a mom in the house. If I had it to do over again, same thing, sure, I definitely would. I didn’t miss my mom, not really. I loved her when she was there, but that was a long time ago. It was fine back then, but I was small, and needed her more. When my mom was gone,, she was gone and that was all there was to it. She never came back, although we still saw her sometimes, although none of us ever wanted to, not my dad, and not even Sandy, who loved our mom the most.

Once she was gone, I got my first air soft gun. I could never have one when she was around. She always said NO. But then when I got it my Uncle Valdas sat on it and broke it in half. I knew he did it on purpose, because he didn’t want me to have a gun, even though he had been in the Russian Army for three years.

“I’ll give you forty dollars for it,” he said, holding the two broken halves in his hands in his lap. He thought money was the way to go, the way to get things done. He lived for gold. He had a gold watch and a gold chain around his neck.

I have one now that’s really expensive, a really great gun, the second one my dad has gotten me. It’s fully automatic and shoots little plastic pellets that sting. I shoot things with it. I go to air soft wars with my friends. We pile into military outfits and have actual battles. Everyone has to wear eye protection so we don’t shoot our eyes out.

When I was in 3rd grade my teacher called me a fathead. That was pretty HORRIBLE. She called me other names, too, but the worst thing she called me was that. Mrs. Trollan was a prim and proper ex-nun. She wasn’t tall and wore her hair short and rippled around her face. She looked like an ugly holy roller, but maybe a little prettier than a roller.

She sat at her desk in a proper way and stood in a proper way. That’s just how she was. I was never sure if I was on her bad side, or not, but she started called me fathead all the time. She did it in front of everybody. I DIDN’T LIKE THAT.

I sat in the middle of class, so it’s not like she had her watch on me. Besides, I never really did anything bad. It was just a boat load of a bad year.

The next year our 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Coconea, went a little crazy toward the end of the year. The troublemakers in class called her Mrs. Cocaine, making fun of her name, even though she was a nice lady, and probably didn’t do any drugs. She had a son in the Air Force and two boys in high school. But there were too many bad kids in the class for her to cope with it all. They disobeyed and lied all the time, even though no matter how much 4th graders think they can outsmart teachers, they really can’t.

I never knew if Mrs. Coco knew that, or not.

It wasn’t about being smart, though. They were always getting in trouble, but Mrs. Coconea couldn’t put a stop to it. She wasn’t strong enough. Her days were a nervous breakdown divided by before lunch and after lunch. She couldn’t even eat a sandwich in peace. She was always trying to go home.

No one ever called her Mrs. Cocaine to her face, but everybody knew about the dub. I was never sure if she knew, although I think she did. Sometimes she just looked sad.

The next year I almost got into trouble but didn’t because I told the truth about what happened in the playground, which was a good thing because they had it on video, anyway. None of the other kids told the truth and they had to pay the price. Some of them couldn’t tell the truth without lying, anyway.

We were messing around in the playground pantsing each other. When you pants somebody you run up to them and pull their pants down. Unless you go to a private school nobody wears belts in 5th grade. No belts. Pants are loose. But you only pull the pants down, not the underwear.

The idea is to shine a light on the tighty-whities.

There was a kid lurking nearby. He wasn’t one of us, not in our in group. He was one of the all-of-the-time annoying kids. We were messing around and he was watching us. Someone pantsed one of us, and we were all pushing each other, running around, laughing it up. All of a sudden, the lurker came running from behind and pantsed one of our group.

It was his own private ambush! He started cracking up. He thought it was so funny, at least until I whirled on him and pantsed him back. Then he didn’t think being pantsed himself was funny. NOT AT ALL!

He got sad and weepy and crawled away. We were, like, whatever, and walked off. Somebody told the rest of the class about it, and one of the kids told his mom, and then the school found out. Everybody else lied about it and said they hadn’t done anything, but I owned up to it. The others all got an in-school suspension, but I didn’t get into any trouble, at all.

We didn’t know then that they had video cameras outside, watching us in the playground. We all knew they were in the hallways, but we hadn’t seen them outside. But after that we could see them and knew where they were, and we did our business out of sight.

They have cameras so they can see whatever goes on and know about it. THEY KNOW! When Billy pushes Josh down in the hall and kicks him in the face, they know, and the hammer comes down. What I think is only God should be on the surveillance camera team. Or maybe bounty hunters, too, so they can collect the reward.

Cameras are stupid. It’s usually just the public schools that have lots of cameras. St. Mel’s has only two of them. One of them is a phony. We spy on ourselves, anyway. We don’t need peepers on us.

One of the cameras is in front of Mr. Krazakios’s office and nobody knows where the other one is. We’re always trying to find it. Everybody knows Mr. K.’s camera isn’t a real one. It’s a replica. Mr. Krazakios is one of the Latin teachers. We think he’s on crack, although not really on crack, but like uncommon nonsense. He’s a wild man who during assemblies will run up and down the bleachers pushing guys out of the way and sitting them down.

Sometimes Mr. K. says the Morning Prayer on the P. A. at St. Mel’s and it’s the creepiest thing. He sounds like Orphan Esther. It’s just MESSED UP.

He’s on the older side, skinny, and really quick on his feet. He has short scratchy gray hair and wears checked suits. He knows thirteen different languages, even Lithuanian, and he’s learning Chinese. Last year he broke his leg trying to skateboard and made his own cast for it. He healed up with no problem.

I started skateboarding in the 3rd grade. I have a lot of memories of that, of skateboarding outside and learning tricks. I rode everywhere and it was so much fun. I was on my own. No one could tell me what to do when I was on my skateboard. I loved going fast. Some kids would attach a leaf blower to their board to go faster. I never did that. But I got bruised and hurt all the time. Any flick of your foot or a blast of wind could send your board whipping the wrong way. Every time I tried to kick flip down some stairs it was anybody’s game out there.

But I don’t skateboard anymore.

I stopped when I was in 5th grade because too many bad kids skateboarded. They were yardbirds riding a toy. I wasn’t friends with the bad kids, although I was at first, skating together with them. I was always hanging out with them, even though I’m a nice guy. I’m not a bad guy, at all. I figured out it wasn’t a good thing, though. They weren’t good people to be with, so I stopped skating altogether.

A lot more bad kids skateboarded than good kids. It’s a stereotype, or close-to-the-bone, whatever, but that’s the way it is. The kids who don’t have anything to do, or who don’t have a good home life, they skateboard. That’s definitely not me.

When I was in 6th grade I totally stopped hanging out with most of those kids. By then I was in advanced placement classes and was with the same thirty good kids the whole day. They became my real friends. None of them were bad kids.

A bad kid is someone who’s a JERK in class and gets in TROUBLE all the time. They talk back, don’t show up, and do drugs. There were a crap load of kids in middle school who did drugs. They would wear bell-bottoms from the 70s and tight-roll them. They didn’t do PCP or cocaine, not really, not that anybody knew, or wanted to know. Most of them just smoked weed. They would talk smack to the teachers and bully other kids.

They would make fun of the special kids, loud laughing at them, and pushing them. My friends and I would say, step off of it, leave them alone, although they never listened to me. But they always listened whenever we brought Nate over, who was big and strong and jacked out of his mind, even though he didn’t do drugs.

“Hit the biggest one first and hard in the face,” he always said, grinning and clapping.

It was horrible the way they treated the weak kids. It was one of the biggest things that ticked me off in middle school. I understood right away, those kids are jerks, and the kids in my advanced classes aren’t. I started hanging out with the good kids all the time. Most of the bad kids were underachievers. They were in all the slippery eel classes. They could barely read.

By the time I was in 8th grade those kids flat amazed me, like it was a freak show, the circus out of focus. They were so stupid the teachers had to read the tests to them. Some of them were just naturally morons. The rest of them didn’t try. They were just in it for the fun.

I learned you have to try when I was in 3rd grade. It happened when I got my first actual project. The project was for a book we had to read, about what it was about, about what we thought of it. Once I had to do it I started understanding that you actually have to put time and thought and effort into things.

I knew all about it by 8th grade. Bad kids simply choose not to care. Tney get on the road of retards, going nowhere.

I care because I want a good job and a good house, a nice pretty wife who’s pretty, and good kids who go to a nice school. I started looking towards the future at the end of 8th grade, which was when I knew I would be going to St. Mel’s. By then I knew what color looked BEST on me. I was going to make sure the worm didn’t turn on me, either.

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Stairway to Heaven

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“O Tiger-lily,” said Alice. “I wish you could talk!”

“We can talk,” said the Tiger-lily: “when there’s anybody worth talking to.”

No one wants to be late for Mr. Rote’s first period Roman Catholic class because then you would have to go to his office the next day a half-hour before school and be pestered by him. That’s why I NEVER linger over my Bagel Bacon Bagel Specials.

He used to be a campus minister, who is the person who plans masses and retreats. “It’s an important job,” he said. “At least, it used to be an important job.” He was demoted after he spent too much time in his office laying around on his couch, listening to music, and drinking his special coffee.

“It’s not an important job anymore.”

He says his coffee is the best in the world. “You’ve got to get the right stuff. Don’t even go to the grocery store. All they have is goddamned sticks and twigs there.” He swears ten or fifteen times a day, which is surprising for a religion teacher. He said the new campus minister is impotent.

He talks about his special coffee every day. If you are UNLUCKY and end up in his office, he spends half the time asking when you are going to start drinking it, rather than all the time about why you’re in his office in the first place.

Mr. Rote is an Irishman. That’s what he told us, at least, although I don’t know how he can be with a name like Rote. It sounds like he should be German, like my stepmom’s mom, or something else. He has a thick brown-red beard and red-like hair. He talks in a weird, squeaky sort of voice.

Maybe he is Irish, after all.

From the moment I saw him I thought his beard was disgusting. I’m so happy that Dr. Gutman, the principal emperor, or whatever he says he is, is making him shave it off next year. I hate the beard. I used to think I might grow one when I got older, but I don’t think so anymore, especially when I see Mr. Rote rubbing his crap load of a hairy chin.

His beard is down to his Adam’s apple. It’s not even smooth. It’s all shaggy and straggly, like the Bride of Frankenstein. It’s totally gross. Instead of sticking pencils behind his ear, he sticks them into his beard.

He keeps his hair short, so he’s not totally bad. He washes his hair all the time, too. He even washes it at St. Mel’s between classes. It’s never greasy. He’s youngish, not too tall or too short, and he’s got a pair of little ears. We heard he used to be fat, but in the last couple of years he’s gotten skinnier, although nobody knows how he did it. He’s still a hefty heifer.

Maybe it’s his special coffee. He’s two hundred pounds, at least, although it’s not muscle weight, not at all.

He looks like a giant thumb with a beard. I think he knows it because he said the brain is a muscle, just like muscles are muscles, and he’s a brain builder. He’s probably not married because he doesn’t wear a ring and never talks about having a wife.

“When you’re twenty-eight you create your own hipness,” he told us. “It’s a cool age.”

He’s not a cool 28-year-old, at all. He’s more like a jerk. He’s full of himself. He always thinks he’s funny and smart. But, he never is. He likes to ask, “Oh, what are you going to be when you grow up?” Nobody ever laughs at that. Nobody knows why he thinks that might be funny.

None of the guys actually like him and that’s speaking for everybody. He drives an old 1990s sports motorcycle to school. It’s not even cool, when it should be, which is weird. He thinks he’s very with it, and very funny, and thinks he’s super good at playing guitar. He’s not any of those things.

There was a day when he wasn’t at school for some personal reason, which nobody understood because there’s nothing personal about him, and Mr. McKinnon came to class. He’s another teacher at school, but nobody knows what he does, exactly. We took the freshman survey that day, which St. Mel’s does, and when we got to the teacher’s part the only two teachers we raged on were Mr. Rote and Mr. Krister.

Everybody who’s ever had them hates them, although Coach Krister not so much, at least not when he’s coaching. All you can do then is go with the flow.

The first part of the year Mr. Rote was a nice man, but he didn’t teach us anything, and we didn’t accomplish anything. He just rambled on at random about the Bible. He said knowing the Bible and the Bible times and all the Bible bigwigs inside and out were worth more than a college education.

“Would you rather be smart or saved?”

He said his class showed the way to get to Heaven, not the way the heavens work, which he said in the long run doesn’t matter. It was crazy talk. I whispered NASA.

St. Mel’s is a science and engineering and computer school more than it is anything else. It’s a Roman Catholic school full of ROMANS and hardly any CATHOLICS.

We started on the Exitus and Reditus Model during the third quarter, which is something he found on his computer last year, and which doesn’t have anything to do with what we were supposed to learn in our freshman year religion class. Our class was supposed to be about Jesus in scripture, but Mr. Rote has different ideas about what matters.

I don’t know what it was supposed to be about, nor did anyone else. It was just more of the same from him. CRAZY TALK!

Mr. Rote paced up and down and talked all about the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. He said it’s about seven things, which are wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and Fear of the Lord. The first four things directed the mind, while the rest directed the will, and all of it was directed toward God.

“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” said Mr. Rote, pointing up at the ceiling. “It’s the straight path to Heaven.” I don’t know much about Heaven, but Mr. Rote says one day it will suddenly be looking you right in the eye.

Mr. Rote’s lesson was about someone on the bottom and at the top there was a triangle. There was someone in the triangle. You don’t know what it is when you first look at it, but it’s supposed to be God. It has an arrow going from God to the person at the bottom, and it’s got a line down the middle, and inside there are three numbers.

“One is the exit and the other one is the return,” he explained.

It was dead quiet in class. Everybody was waiting for the explanation. Nobody knew what the hell he was talking about.

“There are three different parts to it,” said Mr. Rote “That’s the Exitus side. The first is relational, because we are all relational beings. The second is reason and intellect and the third is free will. Those are the three things we are freely given when we are born.”

We all stayed quiet and kept waiting waiting waiting.

“The Reditus side has two aspects to it. The first one is God’s grace and the other one is cooperation with God’s grace. God’s grace is similar to when you go to turn on the car and it turns on.”

That’s the only example he gave us. But that’s not God’s grace. That’s a man-made thing, I thought. It’s supposed to turn on.

He said our lives were like a maze with only one way to find the center. “Just like you’ve been created by the Son and Holy Spirit, in the same way you’re united back with them at your ultimate end. It’s all about going out from God and returning to Him.”

He was always talking about the end, even though we were still at the beginning. We were created at the end of the week, according to the Bible. Maybe he meant it was about that.

We had to do quick writes every day the rest of the year and the two things we had to use for the quick writes were the ER model and the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. It was a mess, although his mess was our place.

“One hundred percent depends on the Holy Spirit in the pursuit of holiness,” said Mr. Rote. It’s the Stairway to Heaven.

I knew enough about the Holy Spirit, and the Seven Gifts was something I could work with, but Mr. Rote’s ER Model drove me nuts. It drove everybody nuts. He wasn’t supposed to be teaching us that. That wasn’t what we signed up for. It was like a circular driveway you couldn’t get out of.

Unfortunately, I had Mr. Rote all four quarters of the year .I wish I had gotten one of the other religion teachers, but I didn’t. It was the way the cookie crumbled.

The first two quarters he didn’t teach us much. He would talk about random stuff like life, some other stupid things, and play his guitar. He talked about music every day. He talked about it all the time, about going to open mikes and music venues, and how he played at those on weekends. He told us about every concert he went to during the summer, except he never went to anything good.

He talked about music constantly. We hated him talking about it all the time. There were twenty of us in the class. We were PRISONERS OF HIS NOTHING. We all talked about how much we hated it. Everything Mr. Rote did was annoying.

When we did the quick writes Mr. Rote would say, “OK, you have five minutes for the quick write.” Then he would yell at somebody about nothing. Once it was something. Everybody was stunned.

“I saw you talking,” was his favorite smack down, waving a HEFTY finger.

He yelled at Birdman all the time. Birdman is Mark Biddle, but we all call him Birdman. He thinks his nickname is funny. So does everybody else, just like everybody else likes the Birdman. Mark has to sit in the back corner with nobody around him because Mr. Rote accused him of always talking. He moved him away from everybody else.

But the truth is, the Birdman doesn’t even ever talk. He’s quiet as a mouse.

We all hate it because Mr. Rote will just yell at you constantly, for no reason. He told Jacob, one of my friends, that he was talking out of turn. Jacob said he was sorry and Mr. Rote got in his face about it.

“You’re still talking.”

“I’m saying I’m sorry,” Jacob said, and Mr. Rote said, “You don’t mean it, and you’re still talking, too, at the same time.”

“Talk to the fist ‘cause the face ain’t listening,” said Jacob behind Mr. Rote’s back when he walked away, making a fist.

Mr. Rote is just the biggest jerk. If you’re over ten percent jerk you’re in trouble. And he’s over one hundred percent. Sometimes he tells us it’s tough love, but what’s the difference? BLAH!

He yells at us and argues with us all the time, and no one knows why. If anyone ever tries to say anything back to him, he says, “Do you need to stand in the hall, or should I just send you to the Dean’s Office?” If we try to tell him he’s yelling at us for something we didn’t do, that he’s accusing us for nothing, he puts us outside, or sends us to Mr. Streck in the Dean’s Office.

That’s never a good thing, because then Mr. Streck has a reason to yell at you.

Or, even worse, we have to go to Mr. Rote’s office before school and listen to him strum his guitar and sip his special coffee. It’s just wrong.

In the middle of the second quarter he started piling a butt load of work on us. There was just tons and tons of it. We didn’t know why because we hadn’t done anything wrong. But then we heard all the religion teachers had a big meeting about what they had taught that year up to that time, and apparently, because he hadn’t taught us anything, he started slamming us with tons of work, like some kind of backwards revenge.

It was so annoying.

We had to read a Bible passage from the Gospels, a whole passage from Mark or Luke, and then write about it. He never gave us short little passages we could read once. He made us read huge passages that we had to read twice to make sense of. We had to find differences and similarities and how it all related to the ER Model, which nobody understood.

If you didn’t do it exactly how he wanted it done he gave you a bad grade. If you put your own opinion into the quick write, he would write something crappy in the margin saying he didn’t care about your opinion. He would give you a bad grade on top of it.

When we evaluated our teachers, it was just a general survey, but when we started talking about them with Mr. McKinnon, we spent a little time talking about Mr. Krister and most of our time talking about Mr. Rote. Mr. Krister isn’t the greatest, but he’s more like an uncle who pulls out his camera in the middle of dinner, so he’s not totally terrible.

I don’t know what Mr. McKinnon’s exact job is, but we all know he’s an important man, so we told him everything. Everybody said how much we hated Mr. Rote, how he didn’t teach us anything, and just wasted our time with homework. We told him how he yelled at us for no reason, about his bad music, and special coffee. But nothing changed, even though we expected it to.

Jacob was especially mad about it. He was angry because Mr. Rote always yells at him, even more than he yells at Birdman. Jacob sits right in front of Mr. Rote’s desk, even though Mr. Rote hardly ever uses his desk, so it seems like he would be safe and sound. Mr. Rote paces back and forth and pushes a little cart up and down the rows and yelling at Jacob from the back of the class.

It’s a cart on wheels that he carries his laptop on. He drinks water out of a Mason jar that he carries on the cart. He’s never spilled any water, ever, like it would be a nuclear disaster if he ever did spill any. Maybe it’s holy water.

Mr. Rote wears weird khaki’s and cowboy boots every day. He’s worn the same crappy tie the whole school year. “It’s a fair trade tie,” he said. He told us people in Africa made it from scratch. It’s multi-colored and has little diagonal stripes all down it. He hasn’t washed it once. It has stains all over it and it’s nasty. No one knows why he’s worn the same tie all year or why he never cleans it.

One week he spent the whole week talking about Nike and Adidas, how they aren’t fair trade companies, and how people in other countries work in sweatshops to make their shoes. We all wear Nike stuff at home. He spends half his time talking about dumb stuff or answering questions about his beard.

Every day he tells us at the beginning of class that if the top button of our shirts isn’t buttoned it means we will get a detention. But your top button can break by accident, or something else can go wrong. Everybody knows that. One morning Grant’s button broke when somebody collared him in the hallway, but when he explained it to Mr. Rote, he told Grant he should carry a sewing kit and gave him a detention, anyway

There’s a chair in the detention hall reserved for anybody Mr. Rote sends there, since it happens almost every day. Jacob accidentally set it on fire one day, but Mr. Rote replaced it with a new chair. It was shiny purple plastic.

“That way it won’t burn, just melt,” he laughed.

He’s just a whacked crazy giant red beard Tom Thumb.

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8th Grade is the Hardest Year

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“So she sat on with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality.”

When I was still a kid and in grade school, Harrison Elementary School was BAD. Later on McKinley Middle School was HORRIBLE. Everything was WRONG about those schools. Everybody always says tell kids what’s right and wrong. Don’t tell a kid what’s right and wrong. He already knows all about it.

But that’s where I found myself. It was where I found out you don’t have to be bad because bad things are going on around you. As terrible as it was there were some first-rate kids who were doing their time there.

The day I got to McKinley, in 6th grade, we had a young vice-principal. We got along. But the next year he got a principal’s job somewhere else. A newer older man got his job. He was on the mean side of things. On top of that, I don’t know why, but he didn’t like me.

With him and me it was better never than late. He personally had something against me. I don’t know what I ever did to him. I’m sure it was nothing. I always showed up on time. I wasn’t a troublemaker, like a lot of the four hundred kids in the school. I didn’t come to blows. I got good grades, rather than not. I didn’t riot whenever I wanted more time in the library.

I didn’t get any detentions, although I did get some once in awhile. I mean, everyone’s going to get a detention sometime. You’ve got to do it all, hit the books, go to pep rallies, get detentions.

At an assembly one afternoon I asked Mr. Kakis, the new vice-principal, what would happen if someone brought a gun to school. “Would they get expelled?” I asked.

It was the same question I heard at an assembly at Lakewood High School that I went to with my dad and Sadie. My older sister was a freshman there then, before she went to her BW college, living the Life of Riley. Everyone calls her Sandy, except the idiots who call her Sadie Masochist.

My mother named her Sadie because it means princess.

Asking that question got me in a buttload of trouble with Mr. Kakis. You would have thought I was going to use a gun to break kids out of detention. He just didn’t like me that much, even before that. I got called into his office about that question.

His office was like a waiting room at a police station.

In public schools all the stuff is the same. The rooms all have to have the same desks and cupboards. You walk into a class and there are desks on each side of the room, there’s an aisle, and in front there’s a teaching table. There’s a big white board across the whole front of the room and a Promethean in the middle. A projector shoots images on to it. It’s all very smart, all computerized, and stuff. There’s a PC on the teacher’s table and they have shelves and bookcases for their things.

The teachers always have something on their desks or office walls that’s about them. Mr. Kakis had crappy hunting duck decoys on his bookcase and duck posters. He had won a fishing contest twenty years ago and there was a dusty plaque on the wall about it, which was his trophy for hooking the fish. He also won a rib cook-off once and there was a smaller plaque for that, too.

He probably wasn’t married. There weren’t any pictures of any wives or kids or dogs anywhere. He just had his crappy trophies.

“Winning takes talent,” he said. “No almost about it.”

He was a smaller man than most of the teachers, under five-foot-seven for sure, and mostly bald. He wore a little mustache, gray and scraggly. He was probably in his 50s, but I always thought of him as in his 60s. He usually looked worn out used up.

He was missing a finger. The pointer finger on his left hand, the whole finger, was missing. It just had a little bit of a nub left over. I never asked him what happened. He would point his missing finger at me whenever I was in his office, jabbing what wasn’t there at my chest, pointing out my shortcomings.

He was an awkward man. Sometimes he would stumble around for no reason, losing his balance. He always wore a faded dress shirt and dark pants. He kept a jar of lubricant on his desk. His hands were chapped. They were stubby fat hands with blotchy marks on the backs of them.

One day at lunch he pushed a kid, which he wasn’t supposed to do. Teachers weren’t allowed to manhandle us. He tried to manhandle Billy, who was my friend, against a wall, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. Someone had told Mr. Kakis that Billy had stolen his Chicken McNuggets. They weren’t really nuggets, anyway, just nasty chicken school food, bits and pieces disgusting.

The cafeteria gave us milk that was four years old.

“It’s frozen,” they said. “It’s OK because we thawed it out.”

Mr. Kakis stormed into the lunchroom fast for his age and picked Billy up by his underarms, pinning him against the wall. But Billy was taller and bigger than Mr. Kakis, even though he was only thirteen years old. He shrugged Mr. Kakis off of him and just walked away. He didn’t look back and didn’t even get into any trouble about it because he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Billy walked out of the lunchroom leaving the old man behind in the dust. We all just watched. It was literally power outage dead quiet. There were more than fifty of us watching. Mr. Kakis gave us the stink eye. After he walked out nobody said anything for a minute, but then everybody started talking at once.

He was mostly a mean grumpy man, overall. Nobody knew nobody cared what his problem was.

At Harrison it seemed, at least, like the teachers cared about you. At McKinley they didn’t even pretend to care. If you wanted to do better and needed help, most of them truly didn’t care. In the 6th grade some of them helped. In 7th grade a few helped a little bit. But in the 8th grade, not so ever. NOT AT ALL!

Eighth grade is the hardest year, too.

“We are willing to help you,” they would say. But they didn’t care. It was how they acted that was the tip-off. If you needed it, they acted like you were a nuisance. They didn’t give it to you.

Mrs. Hack was one of the worst. She more-or-less cared about you in the sense that she sort of wanted you to learn. But she would pile so much stuff on us that it was hard to learn anything.

“You’re going too fast,” we would tell her.

”We have to move on,” she’d say. “We have to get through the units.” She was obsessed with the Civil Revolution, which is what she called the Civil War.

It was toward the middle of the year when she started on it. She wanted to get to it so bad that we rushed through everything else, and then we stayed on it for most of the rest of the year. Whenever we told her she was going too fast and asked her to review something, she wouldn’t do it.

“You should know this because you’re an advanced class,” she said.

“Just because we’re an advanced class doesn’t mean we know it all,” I told her.

But she waved me off. She was a tall skinny dull-skinned woman with bony hands. She kept her hands balled up in fists.

I wasn’t getting bad grades in her class, but I wasn’t getting good grades, either. I got good grades in most of my classes, but her class was too hard. She expected us to know everything that ever happened to Johnny Reb and the Yanks, even though it all happened a thousand years ago.

“I’m having trouble,” I told her. “Can I do something for extra credit to catch up?”

“No,” she said. She didn’t care. Even though I was putting out the effort and still not getting a good grade, she wouldn’t help me.

Mrs. Hack had no eyebrows and always put on a ton of make-up. She wasn’t old, just older, probably in her 50s. She was married, but nobody knew anything about her family. She had wacko hair, short, and messy. Her clothes were no-style funky and she hunched over a little when she walked because she was so tall. She wore flats and weird dresses with stockings.

She had an accent, like she was English, but she wasn’t even from England.

She taught history in first period. We started school at 8:30 and there were eight periods. My other classes were math, computer, science, health, and consumer studies, which is all about cooking and etiquette. My fifth period was lunch and home base, which wasn’t like a study hall because you could run around and go crazy.

I had a Spanish class, too. There were twenty-five of us in it. Our teacher was a Spanish lady with a Ph.D. Her name was Mrs. Puga. She had been to every Spanish country in the world.

“Ola, chicos, how are you all?” was the first thing she said on the first day of school.

She told us about herself and the class and then DROPPED HER BOMB.

“After today and for the rest of the year there will be no English speaking in class,” she said. We all thought it was a joke.

But that was just about the last English we heard in class. None of us had ever taken Spanish before, but for the rest of the year we weren’t allowed to speak English. She would yell at us about it. Everybody hated the no-English rule. Nobody was OK with the all-Spanish la regla. Some kids did all right, probably because they were better learners, but most of us suffered.

Mrs. Puga was short, dark, and blonde. Her hair had sweet highlights. She wore glasses, dressed nicely, but hobbled because she had had her hip replaced, but it still didn’t work too good. Whenever she got mad, she would stare at you, make faces, and her features started twitching. Whenever she was down pressing and her face was twitching, I would lean forward and look at her. I would just stare at her, dead serious.

Sometimes we would stare and stare at each other. She would eventually go on to something else. I would say, watching her walk away, “Not at the table, Baby Carlos.”

Everyone in class got to pick a Spanish name for themselves. It was like a nickname. I picked Carlito, or Baby Carlos. It’s from a movie about some guys who find a baby in their closet. They’re sitting at the breakfast table and one of the guys picks up the baby’s hand and starts smacking a lady’s butt with it. While he does he says, “Not at the table, Baby Carlos.”

Sometimes when Mrs. Puga talked my friend Noah and I cracked up, but then she would yell at us. She hated us pretty fast, even if we were good most of the time.

She was married and had six kids and more than twenty nieces and nephews. She kept pictures of them in the classroom, some on her desk, and showed us slides of herself on vacation with her family. Everybody always looked happy.

Mrs. Cash, our consumer science teacher, was a nitpicker. She yammered at us about not using the right font on a mini-project that counted for a millionth of our grade. That drove everybody crazy. She was a nut, for sure.

Science was my favorite subject.

Mr. Maxinhimer was our science teacher. He looked like an angry elf. He was short, only a little taller than me, and chunky. He was a dead-on little Oompa Loompa. His goatee fell off his face down his neck and over his collar. Noah and I played a game every day of who could touch it the most.

We would get up from our desks and try to finger it whenever we could, which was basically whenever he wasn’t looking. When we saw him in the lunchroom we always tried to walk up behind him and touch his goatee from the back.

The teachers didn’t eat with us, but they had to be in the lunchroom while we ate. We would start talking to Mr. Maxinhimer, touch his goatee, and scoot away. It was only Noah and me, at first. But after a while, we started a trend, and everyone started trying to touch his beard. We were the fastest, though. Other kids tried to do what we did, but they just didn’t get it. They didn’t have the right technique, no way.

The funniest thing was how mad Mr. Maxinhimer got. He threatened to send us to Mr. Kakis’s office. But he never did. We never grabbed or pulled his face hair, anyway, just touched it.

He showed us pictures of his family and their two little girls. He was a solid dresser and dead serious most of the time, too. He would try to be funny, but he never was. He talked loud in a weird, scratchy voice. Sometimes he would sit at his desk and stare off into space.

Mr. Maxinhimer was only thirty years old, but he was already losing his hair. He was sick 24/7, like he had the flu. His nose always ran and he sneezed more often than not. We liked him the best.

We got shuffled from class to class at McKinley Middle School. Everybody had to do the same things all day long. We weren’t even allowed to carry bags and backpacks, for some safety reason nobody understood, like it was national security, so we had to trudge from classroom to locker to classroom between every period.

But the worst thing about McKinley was that everything smelled bad most of the time, even though we were a top state-ranked school, with computer labs and all that. Somebody was always spraying Axe in the hallways.

It smelled horrible, anyway.

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Hail the Cross

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“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be, and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”

I didn’t in however many million years ever think I was going to be a Mel’s man. I always thought I would go to Lakewood High School, because I lived in Lakewood, and because everybody I knew was going there. So, I didn’t think too much about it.

I didn’t think about it, at all. St. Mel’s was Mel’s and Lakewood was Lakewood. No problem there.

I was in seventh grade when my grandfather and grandmother began talking about it. It came out of the blue, although it shouldn’t have. Knowing them, I should have known. They wanted me to go to St. Mel’s because it was a private school, and a Catholic school, and a good school. All of their kids had gone to Catholic schools, except my Aunt Lizzie, who had to finish her high school at a public high school when St. Peter’s downtown closed for good.

They probably ran out of money since they were almost in the ghetto.

I didn’t really know anything about going to St. Mel’s. I had never given it a glance. But I mostly didn’t want to go there. I wanted to stay with my friends. You can be stupid with your friends, never having to explain anything. I didn’t believe many of them were going to be going to St. Mel’s.

Grandpa and Grandma and my parents wouldn’t stop talking about it. They wore me down. It was like Chinese torture. Finally, I thought, whatever, they want me to go, and I should be grateful, everybody says it’s a really good school. There’s probably no getting around this, anyway.

“OK, whatever you say, I’ll go,” I said.

I had never paid much attention to St. Mel’s, although it’s only a few miles from where we live. It’s next door to City Hall and the Police Station. My dad and I had driven past it many times, but I had not genuflected to it. I hadn’t given it an eyeball. I had definitely never been inside. My friend Allan’s older brother went there. He told us about it. He told us it was boss. We believed him. Allan and I are both there now.

But I still didn’t want to go.

The school is in the shape of an M, at least if you see it from treetop, or see a picture of it taken from a drone. The legs of the M face the lake, which is on the other side of the practice field, across Clifton Boulevard. The boulevard is the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, although it’s really just a wide street with big houses, and then north of that is Lake Road, and after that all that’s left is big old flat Lake Erie.

There used to be Indians living on the lakeshore back in the wilderness days and they wore bobcat tails on their heads. Erie means long-tailed in their language, even though bobcats have short tails. The Indians had their own way of doing things. The explorers who came exploring trapping hunting didn’t call it Lake Erie. They called it Cat Lake.

The first freshman class didn’t go to St. Mel’s because there wasn’t a St. Mel’s, yet. All one hundred of the guys had to take classes at the Lakewood Catholic Academy down the street for two years until work on the building and the first schoolrooms was finished.

When my uncles went there, enrollment was almost two thousand guys and it cost three hundred dollars a year. It was a comprehensive school back in the day. dad says that meant they taught everything. Now there are less than half as many students as back then, half of them are in the pre-engineering program, and it costs forty times as much to go there, more than thirteen thousand dollars a year.

That’s why most of my friends don’t go there. Sometimes I wonder where dad gets the body. I’ll bet it’s coming from my grandfather. He’s a bean counter, which is a good thing when you need money.

It’s not a comprehensive school anymore, either. It’s a college prep kind of school. We all go there so we can go somewhere else. If you look at it from the front it’s a small campus. It doesn’t have as many guys as most public schools, maybe eight hundred. They are all guys. NO GIRLS!

It started with the Holy Cross Brothers from Notre Dame, who were the Fighting Irish, although they came from France. The French Revolution was their archenemy. Their motto is “Hail the Cross, Our Only Hope.” There used to be plenty of Brothers at St. Mel’s, but there are hardly any of them left. Most of our teachers are lay teachers now.

The school used to be for working class guys, but that’s changed, too, which is funny because St. Mel was a blue-collar guy.

His mother is called the Mother of Saints because she had seventeen sons and two daughters and they all became saints. Mel worked in Ireland with his uncle St. Patrick. They built churches and monasteries. Mel supported himself by manual labor. He worked with his hands. He was like a plumber, a roofer, or a car mechanic would be these days. Whenever he had money or good stuff he gave most of it away to the poor.

Nobody smart does that anymore, especially not at St. Mel’s. NO CHARITY is the rule, or at least as little as possible. It’s the 20th century now, the USA, not the middle of nowhere a thousand years ago.

Mel is a saint because he could perform miracles, like plowing up live fish in the middle of farm fields. He had the gift of telling fortunes, too. Me, I can never predict anything. It’s probably better that I can’t, anyway. What would be the point of trying anything then?

St. Mel’s feast day is a holiday for single people. It’s supposed to be all about the good things of being single. You send yourself St. Mel’s Day cards and have parties. He’s a great patron saint to have if you’re fourteen-years-old.

There’s a big sign at the entrance to our parking lot that says EDUCATING THE HEARTS AND MINDS OF YOUNG MEN. We’ve had 400 National Merit Scholars and 34 State Champions, we’ve won 28 wrestling state championships and 11 hockey state titles and more football than we can even count anymore, and now we’ve got basketball, baseball, rugby, volleyball, and track and field state championships, too.

You don’t want to ride the bench at St. Mel’s.

We win a boat load of championships. That’s why they keep score at our school. It’s not a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that. At St. Mel’s we say go bigger or go home.

Most of the school is on the older side, but it’s all updated, with new computers, new smart boards, and new high-tech stuff like that. We have the Dahl Leadership Center, which is more-or-less new. Then there’s the Howe Center, which is even newer. It’s the engineering part of the school. The computer classes are there, too.

It’s very cool. NEW is what WORKS. It’s what makes the world work.

We have a small football field at the back where the JV team plays and the varsity team practices. St. Mel’s is small because it’s on such a small campus. There isn’t any room around the school to buy any extra space. We’re on the edge of the street and then there’s just a bunch of large apartment buildings all around. They would probably be too expensive to buy and tear down, although the school obviously has plenty of money.

I’m sure they have a little cash left over after paying everybody. WE ALL KNOW THAT! That’s why we’re at Mel’s, to always remember that.

A couple of years ago a new chapel was built at the side of the school. It has a gold dome, just like Notre Dame. St. Mel used to build chapels back in his day, although I don’t think any of them had gold domes. They were probably made of stones they found laying around. Inside the chapel is a life-size bronze sculpture of Jesus on the cross. The same man who makes all the head busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame made the Jesus statue. It’s like our gold dome Jesus is an ALL-PRO. Go Jesus!

My dad and his parents and all their family wanted me to go to St. Mel’s. I was worried I was going to be away from my friends, who were all going to Lakewood High School. But, once I applied, and the more I thought about it, the more I got into it.

I started thinking it might be a good thing. It’s not that public schools aren’t good, but St. Mel’s would definitely be a better school. Actually, public schools suck.

I liked public school less and less the more and more I was there, especially later, the older I got. The lessons were always getting less smart more dumb going on retarded year after year. I’m glad I got out. I feel like I escaped what I was, or was becoming, or I escaped someone else’s choice for me, like I found an open door to a new world.

After my dad applied to the school we started getting mail. We got a butt load of it, which means they must spend lots of money on us who are going to be the new freshmen. I got mail every day when I was in 8th grade. After being accepted I got even more, most of it about so much crap. I got bushels of forms, too, and I had to fill all of them out. My dad said he was too busy, and it was my responsibility now.

Not everybody gets in. NO WAY! A boat load of guys apply to St Mel’s, way more than a thousand, maybe even thousands. I don’t even know how many. At the public schools everybody in their own city goes to their own school. But at St. Mel’s they drive in from all over, from Parma, Maple Heights, even Twinsburg. One guy lives an hour and fifteen minutes away. He’s a freshman, like me, except it only takes me five minutes.

St. Mel’s is a small school, but it has international programs, so even more guys try to get in these days. I had to take many mucho tests. Some of them were easy, but some were hard. Most of them were just the standardized ones, the ones everybody has to take, like math, science, and English. There wasn’t anything stupid, like history.

I didn’t know I was going to make it at first. And I still wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I was all along almost wishing I wouldn’t get in. But when I kept thinking about it, I thought I would still have all my old friends, because we all live in the same city. We live really close to one another and we would still see each other.

So, I kept thinking about it, and I finally knew since I would still have all my friends, St. Mel’s might be a good place for me to be. It’s a good education. Everybody talked it up and not anybody didn’t say there was anything bad about it.  I thought to myself, I’m going to make a bunch of new friends, too. I started to get excited about it.

It’s a great school, after all. I found that out. At St. Mel’s they always say, if you believe in us, we’ll believe in you. I’m glad I made it. I made a bunch of new friends, too.

Many of my friends from the Lakewood middle schools applied to St. Mel’s, but only three of them made it. It’s competitive getting in, but that’s good because it makes you stronger and better. It makes you more determined. You have to watch out for the CHOPPING BLOCK. That’s the thing that matters the most. Don’t get chopped. That’s what everybody does at St. Mel’s. They chop the other guy. That’s why we win all the state championships.

I met new guys in all my classes, and we started talking. We’re all friends now. I still see some of the guys that went to our Lakewood schools, although I see them less. I talk to them, text them, and stay in touch. We meet up sometimes and have lunch.

We have lunch at Panera Bread. I have an allowance, so I get money to go places. It’s the bare minimum, $40.00 a month, which is $1.50 a day. It’s nothing, really. I can’t make lunch on $1.50 a day, but my grandmother gives me some money, and my dad slips me cash on the side. A couple of times a month he gives me pre-paid credit cards for $50.00, or more.

Sometimes he gives me a hundred in cash. It’s for wherever I want to go and whatever I want to do. I work around the house for him. I fold clothes, wash dishes, and clean the cat crap. I do a butt load of stuff. I vacuum while they’re all sitting around living it up, all of them except my dad. The rest of them don’t do much, especially not Jack. He does nothing and my stepmom stands up for him no matter what he doesn’t do. I get grief no matter what I do.

Sadie’s lucky. She knows it and I know it. She goes to the school at Baldwin Wallace College and has lots of friends and lives in an apartment with her friends. She doesn’t come home for weeks, even though it’s less than twenty miles away.

My dad does everything, fixes and cleans everything, and runs around all the time. He works all the time. He doesn’t get any downtime. Sometimes he relaxes and sleeps. Whenever he has a day off, he makes my bed, even though I usually do it, for Scar our Beagle, so he can lie on it and be comfortable.

Blackie doesn’t like that and will stare him down. Scar doesn’t care. He just lays there.

St. Mel’s was totally brand new to all of us in our freshman class. We were all from different places, from all around Ohio, from everywhere. One of my friends is from Hinckley, wherever that is. It’s weird in the beginning because you don’t talk to anybody, not at first. Then one day you notice you’ve become friends with people you just met. The talk just happens after that.

I made friends on the first day of school, actually.

The first friend I made was Hunter. He was getting in and out of the locker next to me. He’s the kicker on one of the football teams, a really good guy, and smart, too. Since our lockers were right next to each other we started talking immediately. A friend is somebody you like to talk to. They don’t always have to say nice things to you, but, more-or-less, they do most of the time.

But you can’t be friends with everybody, no sir! The guy in the locker on the other side of me is Ethan, who’s a big fat black guy. He’s really big, more than six foot, maybe more. He’s not mean to me, not exactly, although he is. Ethan is just not that nice.

Nice is when you are kind to other people, in general, not just your only friend, in particular. Mean is when you are a jerk bag. Ethan needs to learn to be a nice person. Nice people are kind, modest, and caring. They are all those things. There are a lots of people like that, but there are a butt load of people who aren’t.

Oh, YEAH! There are more people who aren’t kind. That’s the way things are. You have to be careful about being nice. You don’t want to be cut down. Ethan, it’s just the way he is, and the way he talks and acts towards other students. He cuts you down whenever he gets the chance.

We all go to our lockers at St. Mel’s at the same time, after the fourth period. We leave the books we had with us and take our other books. You go to your next class, sit down, talk to your friends, and get through the class. You don’t notice it, but you actually have your day.

St. Mel’s wasn’t the school I wanted to go to, but now I call it my school. Some people call it the facility, but most guys call it St. Mel’s. Cooper calls it THE ORGANIZATION, but that’s Cooper, always slapping his nuts. Nobody calls it our Catholic School or High School anything.

When we’re on the loose, my friends and I just call it Mel’s.

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Breakfast of Champions

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“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end, then stop.”

I wake up at 6:30 on school days stare at the ceiling and mess with Blackie. He’s my black cat that sleeps at my feet. Sometimes he curls up under my arm with his nose face head pressed into my armpit. I wonder how he even breathes. When it’s time to rise and shine I throw on a sweatshirt. I like going outside first thing, so I always do that right after I get out of bed.

Otherwise, somebody would tell me to do something else.

Most mornings I walk Scar, our Beagle, although he won’t go out in the rain. He’s like a hound with short legs and long ears. He has a bad habit of biting strangers. I never interfere with that. Scar’s got a chase reflex, too, especially if they’re cats, squirrels, or any dog bigger than him.

We jog down Riverside to Hogsback into the Metropark sometimes, but I have to be careful, because if he sees a badger it’s all over. He doesn’t think it’s an obsession, but he’s mistaken. He doesn’t know his own mind. Whenever he sees one, he’s determined to catch it and it becomes all that matters.

He got his scar when he was still a puppy. There was a badger with cubs in our backyard, behind the garage, and Scar got too close to them. There was an explosion of yelps screeches barking when it happened. His face was ripped open and we had to rush him to the Animal Clinic.

I used to eat breakfast with my parents, my dad and my stepmom, but it was always a boat load of something. “Take your elbows off the table and pass the ketchup. Did you do your homework? Is that a clean shirt?“

There would be a quiz about what I did yesterday and what I was going to be doing today. They hardly eat together anymore. Both of them are always in a hurry to get to work, even though my dad hates his job because of the horny toad family whose business it is. My stepmom teaches at the new middle school down the street.

The first thing I do after I’ve showered and gotten dressed for school is call the Red Door Deli and order two Bagel Bacon Bagel Specials. There’s a skinny guy who works there and when he answers the phone it’s always wacky. He has a thick chinkster accent.

“HALLO!”

I’m, like, “Hi.”

“YES?”

“I want to order two Bagel Bacon Bagel Specials.”

When he repeats my order, I can barely understand him. “That’s right,” I always say. Everybody there knows me, but the Chinese guy pretends it’s the first time he’s ever talked to me, even though he answers the phone every morning. He’s the one who hands over the bagel specials at the counter, too.

The Red Door is across Detroit Avenue from St. Mel’s High School, in a pint-sized strip shopping center, squeezed between Bubbles, a laundry and dry cleaning, and Sassy Beauty, a hair salon. I go there every morning and since they know me the counterman just hands me my bag and I fork over four dollars.

What time I get to there for my bagels depends, although it’s never later than eight o’clock. It depends on Story’s father, who drives both of us to school. Story lives next door. His dad works at a garden center, even though their yard isn’t any better than ours, which is surprising. Story calls my cell phone when they’re ready to go and I run over.

“Pick it up, pick it up,” his dad says, shrugging his way into their SUV.

He drops us off at the Red Door, I get my breakfast sandwiches, and Story and I walk across the street to school.

The cafeteria is at the back of the building, which is the new part of the school. We cross the street, squeeze through between the chapel and main classroom, and go in through a side door. Our chapel is topped with a gold dome, just like Notre Dame. It glows in the sun. You can see it from blocks away.

Every morning there are a butt load of guys in the cafeteria. The TV’s are all on and everyone is watching whatever, which is mostly the news. The flat screens are on every wall except the far wall with the windows.  There’s DISASTER AND DESTRUCTION every morning on the FOX Morning Show, major scariness everywhere, but it doesn’t interfere with anybody’s breakfast.

I don’t listen too closely to anything, not especially. It’s all just a lot of crap, a splash of eye candy, a crazy lollipop without the handle. But sometimes I pay attention, especially if the news is about a helicopter crash, since I’m involved in those when I play video games.

I wouldn’t want it to happen to me. It’s an instant mess, blood and gore. It only takes a second, but sometimes forever happens in just one second. Everyone’s so burned up and broken to pieces that dentists have to be brought to find out who they are.

One day there was major towelhead news about terrorists that caught my eye, except it wasn’t on the news. It was online. It was too gruesome for the news.

The towelheads caught some innocent people and wouldn’t let them escape. When they tried to escape, they caught them again, tied them to posts, and blindfolded them. They shot them one at a time, although they don’t shoot to kill them. They shot them in their stomachs. Then they went back and shot them again. They just did it randomly. It was weird.

They filmed it while they were doing it, too. They are sick butt turds. The army, our army, is totally rad and could take them out, but nobody is going to win that war. It’s an epic fail over there. It’s been going on forever. I hope they come here and we can just ramble on their butts.

It’s AMMO, CAMO, and RAMBO!

Our family has plenty of guns, in the attic, and we have ammunition, too. I’m not sure about everything we have, though. Jack is the only one who knows.

“I have two 12-gauge’s, a semi-automatic pistol, a .22 Sig Sauer, a big bore 14-gauge, and an AK-47 semi-automatic,” said Jack. “I have more, but the rest of it isn’t any of your business.”

Jack is like that. He’s my half-brother. He lives on the third floor and doesn’t let anyone in. It’s all under lock-and-key, including the door to his room. My stepmom is good with it. It wouldn’t be so good if I tried it. He wears camouflage gear and goes to Cleveland State University. He wants to be a policeman. He’ll be gone in two or three years. I can’t wait for that.

Jack’s arsenal is technically my dad’s, because he bought them, but they’re totally Jack’s. Dad got most of them for him, but now he buys guns himself since he’s nineteen and an adult. Before that he wasn’t allowed.

We go shooting sometimes, at the Scooterz-N-Shooterz in Uniontown, and on my grandfather’s farm in Michigan. The whole family goes there every summer. It’s great and it’s awesome. My grandfather says that whenever anybody says you don’t need a gun you’d better make sure you have one that works.

“They always want to take guns away from the people who didn’t do it,” he says, cackling like he just ate something spicy.

Last summer I shot so many rounds off at the farm, at targets, at trees, at nothing, I got a blister on my hand and it was nasty.

I have my own gun, although it’s not a real one. It’s a G & G Carbine air soft gun. It’s not real, but it looks feels acts like the real deal. It shoots BB’s instead of bullets. Ted Nugent said the BB gun is the most important gun in the history of American weaponry. He should know. He has his own Ted Nugent-brand ammo. Air soft BB’s are plastic, not metal, but they leave a welt when they smack into skin.

My dad bought it for me. It’s not from Target or anyplace like that. It cost almost four hundred dollars. My friends Nick and Jake and I use Grudge Tactical pellets when we’re out and shooting each other. They’re coated with a powder, so they leave a mark on your clothes. It isn’t just some stupid toy. It’s fully automatic and fully mechanical, too.

Or I could knock on Jack’s door upstairs and get the real thing and shoot that. I could go GUN CRAZY! Just kidding. We’re not allowed to just shoot anybody randomly.

Nobody likes to talk about guns at St. Mel’s, not us, and not our teachers. Even though everybody talks guns down, when they say anything at all, Mr. Rote, our religion teacher, gave us the news that the church says self-defense is all right, and told us all about St. Aquinas. He said it’s best to shoot first. He said the Dalai Lama said the same thing. Nobody asked him who that was.

“It’s your responsibility to defend your faith, your family, and your country,” he said.

It’s a duty to whale on bad men and terrorists. He didn’t say much more than that. He doesn’t like talking about guns. He’s probably never had one in his hands. We don’t have metal detectors at St. Mel’s like they do at public schools, but if anyone ever brought a gun to our school that would be the end.

They would never be allowed back.

You can wear pajamas to public school, but at St. Mel’s we have to wear a dress shirt and tie, dressy pants, and shoes. You can’t even have too much style in your hair. When you’re in a Catholic school there’s more expected of you. If you’re a Mel’s man, or if you go to St. Ignatius, or any Catholic whatever school, everyone expects you to be a good person.

What you do in public school is up to you, which isn’t always a good thing. Not everybody is a good kid.

When I was in middle school the bigger kids would make fun of smaller kids with learning disabilities. It was all about WHEN BULLIES WANT TO ABUSE YOU! They always picked on the smaller ones. They would walk right up to them, start being all mean, and push them around. They would go after the ones with ADHD or Tourette’s, edge on them, and make fun of them.

From sixth grade on it was all about abusing kids who were shy or different, especially in gym class. There was a whole group of them, Tristan, Justin, and the other Noah. They were their own little posse. I hated those kids. They were complete jerks. I would try to help, as long as the monsters weren’t there, the ones who say they don’t punch you in the back, they punch you in the face.

“You shouldn’t act like that,” I told them whenever I could.

“Shut up.”

“Leave them alone, make fun of somebody else.”

But they just wouldn’t stop. It wasn’t like they were in a classroom, so they could keep doing it and doing it. They thought they were so cool. That’s how they got the stupid kids to like them.

That’s the thing about public schools and Catholic schools. Guys don’t do that at Catholic schools. I’m sure some do, but truly, not like that. So many public school kids are jerks. They learn English by watching cartoons. They can be God-awful.

If a teacher at a Catholic school got wind of anything like that there would be no problem seeing the trouble you were in. All hell would break loose. When you’re in a Catholic school there’s a lot more expected of you. You’re expected to be responsible and be a better person. You have to take charge of yourself and carry the cat by the tail. It’s a big change when you leave public school for good.

It was a big change for me. I didn’t go to a parochial grade school. I didn’t have eight years of dress rehearsal.

The food is better at St. Mel’s than it is at public schools, where it’s mostly grown in boxes and cans. The cooks carry X-Acto knives instead of spatulas. At St. Mel’s we have real cooks and we’re served whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and no sugar drinks are allowed. The milk is low fat. It doesn’t pay to be fat at St. Mel’s.

It’s the Breakfast of Champions, but I still bring my Bagel Bacon Bagel Specials most mornings, because we don’t get enough food.

There are rules about everything, even about how many calories we’re allowed. I don’t get enough for cross-country and the football players bellyache about the portions every day. Football is the most important thing at St. Mel’s. It’s so important it’s totally important. Everybody knows where the goalposts are. We won states last year, so this year we are the defending state champions.

When school started in the fall the St. Mel’s Warriors were 5th in the USA Today poll and 6th in the ESPN poll. That’s in the whole country, not just Ohio. That’s how good we are. At St. Mel’s it’s either football season or it’s waiting for football season. We say it’s faith, family, and football. Sometimes it almost seems like it means more than Heaven and Hell at St. Mel’s.

It puts pep in everybody’s step when we win. I tried football in grade school, but it didn’t work out. I was too under-sized and then I broke my collarbone. Now I love running.

The football players boycotted lunch one day. It was a big stir fry. My friend Rick, who is a 6-foot-3-inch 220-pound linebacker, said he burns more than 3,000 calories during three hours of weight training and practice after school.

“A lot of us are starting to get hungry even before the practice starts,” he complained to one of the vice-principals. “Our metabolisms are all sped up.”

“I could not be more passionate about this,” the food service supervisor said, making a speech the next day before lunch. Adults always make speeches.

“I want to solve this problem.”

She had everybody fill out cards about what they did and didn’t like about our meals. We all laughed about it. Everybody knew nothing was going to change.

Our cafeteria is the nicest one I’ve ever seen. There are skylights over the center atrium, polished wood floors, oblong folding tables for eight, and ergonomic chairs. Everything is super modern. Somebody’s dad died and they gave St. Mel’s a ton of money, millions of it. The whole school is modern, even though it was built in 1949, on land that used to be a feeding stop for cattle trains.

Back then if you got a detention you had to help dig out the new basement with a shovel.

Whenever I check my cell phone and it’s 8:25 I wolf down what’s left of my Bagel Bacon Bagel Specials and get going because my first class is at 8:30. Being late for Roman Catholic class would be the worst thing I could do to start my day.

When we hit the hallway it’s every freshman for himself and God against all.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus