Fifteen Words or Less
It was in the just-after-the-holiday-break part of fourth grade when Mr. Kelly, our English teacher, told us to write our philosophy of life in fifteen words or less. I thought for a minute and then wrote, "Some things in life are all right and some things are not all right." After that, I sat curling and uncurling the edge of my paper and wondering what I should have done with the extra word.
When everyone was finished, Mr. K. folded his arms, harrumphed a bit, the way he always does, and said, "Now elaborate on what you’ve written."
This led me to add, "What actually happens a lot is that the all-right stuff slides into the not-all-right stuff and what you end up with is a hodgepodge glop. And that’s life."
By this time Mr. K. was walking up and down the aisle, looking over our shoulders, and when he got to me he said, "Pretty basic, Ben. Wouldn’t you say?" Only I could tell right off that it was one of those questions that wasn’t really a question and didn’t need an answer. Then he snorted and moved on.
I always figured that that whole philosophy-of-life thing wasn’t so much a real assignment as it was a way for Mr. Kelly to kill some dead time on a winter Friday afternoon. I mean, even though he collected our papers, we never got marks or comments, never had to turn them into essays or projects of any kind. If you ask me, it was a good fifteen words or less, plus elaboration, down the drain.
Oddly enough, though, those fourteen words attached themselves to the inside of my head like a refrigerator magnet, and from then on I set out to check everything that happened to me to see if it belonged in the all-right column or not-all-right column. The trouble was, I didn’t exactly keep up with the sorting—all right, not all right— mostly, I guess, because during the next year and a half a lot went on in my life.
My name is Benjamin David Mitchell. My father is Mitch, making him Mitch Mitchell, except to people who don’t know him well and then he’s Bradley J. Mitchell. I’m told that when I was born (ten years before Mr. Kelly’s down-the-drain assignment) my mother, Sara Jane, announced that there would be no shortcuts and I would forever be Benjamin David.
Then she died, in a car crash, when I was just over a year old, and left me with lots of pictures but no real memory of a mother. In fact, as far as I can remember, it’s always just been me and my dad—Ben and Mitch— which, to my way of thinking, and maybe because I didn’t know anything else, made for a pretty cool arrangement. So cool that in my entire life, ten years and counting, the all-right stuff had always been miles out in front of the not-all-right.
The first thing to know about my father is that he has taught history at MacCauley, a private boys’ school in Baltimore, for absolute ages. Because of that, I get to go there for free, as a sort of perk or something. The only drawback is that I can never just go home and hang out after school. Instead I have to stick around—in the library or the locker room, or outside playing sports or watching the high school kids at football or lacrosse practice—till my father’s ready to leave. After that, we head home together, fix supper, do homework, watch TV, play video games or read (Mitch way more than me), and go to bed. Weekends are pretty much the same, especially since MacCauley is the kind of school where a lot of stuff happens then. Like games and meets, fall fairs and spring fairs, shows and debates, and even car washes. And the dreaded Science Competition.
I guess I’d have to say that good old MacCauley has always been the center of our universe, which isn’t nearly as lame as it sounds. I mean, we have a lot of neighbors, too, and get together with them for cookouts and crab feasts and New Year’s celebrations. We lend them ladders and snow shovels, and we borrow rakes and duct tape from them, so it all works really well.
And in the family department we have Aunt Jo and Uncle Charlie and their two sons. Scott and Stan are eighteen and nineteen, so not exactly the kind of cousins I can hang out with, but through the years they’ve been really okay, plus they’ve given me a bunch of outgrown stuff—like bikes and sleds and skateboards. Besides, their house was where we went for all the heavy-duty celebrating, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, Mitch’s birthday, and mine, too. Aunt Jo is Mitch’s older (and only) sister and she has this mother-hen thing, always checking to see if we eat enough broccoli and go to the dentist twice a year.
She was also the one who, ages back, introduced my father to my mother and, if you ask me, I think Aunt Jo had thoughts about doing something like that again. For a while now she’s been on a mission to "find someone for Mitch" and there’s been a steady parade of lawyers, paralegals, librarians, teachers, and even a poet. There’ve been blondes, brunettes, and three redheads. Sometimes Mitch would ask them out a time or two. Sometimes not. But he was never really interested.
Until the day, not long after Mr. Kelly’s assignment, that we stopped at the Bread Basket.
Excerpted from Ben And The Sudden Too-Big Family by Colby Rodowsky.
Copyright 2007 by Colby Rodowsky.
Published in 2007 by Farrar Straua Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.