Scrawl

Mark Shulman

A Neal Porter Book

Wednesday, October 27

Think about a pair of glasses for a second. You see them every day but you really don’t think about them, I bet. They’re just glass and metal, or glass and plastic. Little pieces of glass stuck on your face that mean everything. Maybe they mean you’re smart. Maybe they mean you’re rich. But definitely they mean you can’t see without them. Grind the glass this way, put in a slight curve, and you can see far. Change that curve a hair, just a tiny, minuscule difference, and you can see near. Grab the two lenses between your big hands and twist your wrist—just snap the part over the nose—now you can’t see anything for the rest of the day. That’s how it went for fat Ricardo Manzana.

The bell rang for English class and I’d promised Mr. Harmon I wouldn’t be late again. I got up off Ricardo’s chubby back, peeled myself off that authentic, autographed blue hockey sweatshirt he wears every day with the stupid hole in it, and I wiped off my big old carpenter pants. Ricardo was pathetic sprawled on the hall floor, not crying this time but blinking a lot and not talking either, like he was in bed that morning and he didn’t want to get up and go to school for some reason.
That’s the bell, Ricardo. Time to get up. Kids were starting to walk around us and look, but they steered plenty clear of me. Mostly they looked at Ricardo facedown on the sick green dusty floor next to the overflowing trash can. That’s when I noticed the orange peel next to the bright blue can for the first time, close by Ricardo’s tangled hair, but I really had to go.

Reaching down and helping Ricardo up would be a good idea. Usually they aren’t so quick to narc if you do something nice, something unexpected just before you walk away. I reached down with my hand thoughtfully, and I smiled, and I pulled Ricardo onto his fat stupid feet. I kept that smile going while I fogged up both halves of his glasses with my breath and wiped away my thick thumbprints. Just before I sauntered down the empty hall to class, I pressed the parts straight into his trembly palm. (Mrs. W., is trembly a word or should I have used trembling?)

They’re not even really glass, you know, almost never. Glass is easier to break than plastic. But I think it would be mean to crack the lenses. I guess we’ll always call them glasses anyway.

Tuesday, October 19

Call me Tod.
Okay, no, I’m just kidding. That’s the first line from Moby Dick, all right? I always wanted to start a book like that. This is my first book, and I’m writing it for one reason only. Not for history and not for scientific research and definitely not to let out my inner demons. I’m doing it so I don’t have to pick up trash in the school courtyard like certain deviant so-called friends of mine who also got caught.
I am being reformed.

The story begins with me, your humble narrator, alone and stranded after school in a Study Hall the exact same color as puke. I’m a prisoner caught in the fluorescent searchlights, looking pale green while I smudge blue ink in a black-and-white marble composition book. The floor is the same sad green as my pants, but my pants are a lot cleaner. My white pad of paper looks a little green, too.

When I looked up and asked you, “What do you want me to write about?” you said, “About anything.”

About anything? Okay. Fine with me. You asked for it. I’ll write about this desk.

I hate this desk. It’s nothing but a slab of plastic connected to my chair by a flimsy metal rod. Did you know that if you’re strong enough, you can twist the desk part up and around until it looks like an arm shrugging? Somebody has been doing that all over school. You know, if you put a lefty desk and a righty desk next to each other the right way, the desks really seem like they’re saying “I don’t care.”

They look about as bored and uninterested as the rest of us.

[Tod, do you really believe your feelings apply to every student?]
[So you’re going to write in my notebook?]
[When I feel the need.]

There’s a small cage under the chair that’s not big enough to hold half of the huge textbooks they make us carry. How come we have to carry a year’s worth of math when we’re only working on three pages a week? Can’t they come up with smaller textbooks they could give us every month so We The People Who Do The Homework don’t have to lug eleven trees back and forth every day? Especially the kids who’d rather sell their monthly welfare bus pass than use it.

This is taking so long to write. I can hear the huge prison clock buzzing and clicking every sixty seconds when the minute hand shifts. I’m actually grateful that they wasted money last year on these cheap loud clocks instead of better ones or air-conditioning.

Each minute, another tick! interrupts the teacher and comforts me—I’m one tick closer to the end of the class, the end of the day, the end of school forever. The clocks have huge numbers so the blind kids can read them. I’m not kidding, either. They probably tick! so the blind kids can share the equal opportunity of knowing how long the class is going to drag out, like the way elevators beep for every floor they pass. I think it’s weird we have those blind inclusion kids. Isn’t there a special school they can go to?

What else is in the room? There’s a cracked brown flowerpot with a dead stick in it. The stick was probably a plant. It’s got a red ribbon hanging off it like you would find on the corner of a diploma or if you won the Spelling Bee. The ribbon says “Congratulations,” but who the hell knows why? Congratulations, you finally got a low-paying teaching job. Congratulations, you just got tenure in a school full of mouth-breathers who can’t spell “TV.” Congratulations, you retired and didn’t die of boredom teaching the same idiocy to idiots who care less about what’s in your mind than what’s in your car. Congratulations, you just put your new plant on a baking-hot radiator in a room that overlooks a brick wall in a crappy part of town. Congratulations, we’re entrusting you with the mascot of our school. It’s a dead stick.

I’m sitting next to a chalkboard powdered with layers of dust. It makes me sick to breathe. The board is framed with some kind of dark wood that was probably pretty nice in its day. You can tell somebody cared then. All over the school I see that kind of wood where it hasn’t been painted or fallen down or ripped out. It’s smooth and has a nice pattern in it, or what ever real wood pattern is called. Too bad it’s chipped and gouged and splintered and covered with graffiti from wannabe crime kingpins leaving their mark on the world. When you’re an adult, you express yourself with flowers, and they die on the radiator. When you’re a kid, you make your name with fat-tip markers and carving knives. And you live forever.

Grain. The wood pattern is called a grain.

And there’s you. You’re reading this, Mrs. W., so I’m sure not going to say anything about the only other person in this miserable field of seven hundred desks. Okay? I wrote enough words. I’m done for today.

Wednesday, October 20

Tod, you did well on your first day in your detention journal. Keep it up and we’ll make it smoothly through the month. Please take a look at yesterday’s writing. I’ll be adding a few notes to what you write, and I’d like you to read them. Feel free to respond to those notes or ask me any questions. But ask me in writing. And I’d like at least the same number of words today. —Mrs. Woodrow
At least the same number of words? You mean you actually want more?

[No, this is an acceptable amount.]

I don’t know—my arm might fall off. Then what would I be? A one-armed bandit. Are you sure this isn’t some kind of jail sentence? It must be one for you, too. I can’t believe you got stuck with the job of babysitting me in this rat hole every afternoon. What did you get caught doing?

Here we are tied to these desks after school, me with this cruddy notebook and you with your stack of papers and envelopes to go through. Come to think of it, I’m sure all the other kids are jealous that I have my very own guidance counselor. If those long talks in your office didn’t sink in… and the meetings with my mom didn’t shape me up … why do you think I’m going to be sitting here every single afternoon, pencil in hand, brain on hold, humming lullabies and staying out of trouble?

[I have my reasons.]

I know what you think. You think I’m fixable, don’t you? You want to fix the bad guy. You don’t know the half of it. You don’t even know why we got caught. Some people will say the streets are safer with me locked away from my fund-raising activities. But are they right? I actually have a calming effect on certain potential troublemakers, and I often stop them from going through with their half-baked plans.

And another thing. Sitting here with you spares me from all kinds of unpleasant interactions with the armed rental cops. You teachers call them “sentries.” We call them “the clowns in brown.” Being up here in Study Hall means I don’t have to deal with those uniformed ex-wrestlers or nasty neck less gym teachers ragging on me for not being the star quarterback or not doing the six-minute mile or not wearing a jockstrap or spitting in the locker room. And up here there are no sudden surprises from the janitors when they show up where they shouldn’t. No unfair security cameras either.

Actually, detention makes a handy place to steer clear of the lower class of the lower class after school. Every neighborhood downtown has its own violent Neanderthal troglodyte hell-raisers. One particular un-neighborly neighbor likes to keep me on my toes at home. You might remember him from the eight times he was held back in school. He has a long memory, longer arms, and an IQ like a school-zone speed limit.

[Tod, that was a good simile but no more cursing, please.]

[Hell isn’t a swear word. It’s a neighborhood. The Number 8 bus will take you there.]

Here’s another good reason to waste away in here. With lifetime penmanship detention, I don’t have to come home and give my mom’s husband new reasons why I still haven’t gotten an after-school job. It wouldn’t matter. It’s not like they’re suddenly going to cut off my supply of macaroni and cheese and instant mashed. Even if by some fluke of nature I ended up bagging groceries, on the first day of work I’d melt the assistant junior manager with my laser beam opinions. In the amount of time it took to read this sentence, I’d be out of a job and back on the street anyway. I’m just saving myself the effort.

Here is my last good reason to stay in detention until even the stubby little yellow after school buses have taken the rich kids home from practice. It’s cold outside, and our house has broken windows.
I don’t know where I want to be today. Not here, but not anywhere else either.

Thursday, October 21

Tod, please don’t crack your gum today while you write. It’s annoying. The echo is very loud in this empty room, and it always startles me. Thank you.

Hey, I’ll try to be quieter with the gum. Chewing and cracking gum stops me from sticking out my tongue when I write.

Gum cracking also gives me a feeling like I’m still alive. But my friends aren’t so sure. They think I’m being brainwashed. They have heard stories of guys like me who lose it all after a few weeks under these crappy fluorescent lights. They expect the system will sap the sheer willpower that keeps my kind of personality alive in this detergent box. My loyal garbage-picking droogs think I’m getting my sharp edges removed by you in some weird mind game that is being played on me. Maybe the gum is my only defense here in jail. It keeps my guard off guard.

On the other hand, there is definitely something to be said for freedom. You told me that delivering a certain number of words is the key to freedom. So, please let me explain here and now that today I am absolutely going to fill up the number of words I write upon these pages by using a lot of synonyms. That trick is exactly the same one that is used by rich people like lawyers and advertising people when they want to charge more for their advice. If I use a lot of short synonyms and adjectives and strings of similar words then I can be out of this delightful, beautiful, pleasant, joyful, garden-like room before the sun goes down on this lousy, gray, cold, depressing, crappy, terrible, ugly, meaningless, rotten, hurtful, lousy, miserable cold day. Also, I intend to fill and fill and fill these pages by using short words when I happen to know that it is a fact that you want me to be revving up my twelve-cylinder brain and not pushing it down the street like some homeless dude with an overloaded grocery cart looking like he raided a Salvation Army dumpster.

[That is an atrocious mixed metaphor, and I’m not even sure what you mean.]

Short words that don’t describe school: hard, tough, good, fun, smart, nice, kind, fair.
Short words that do describe school: cold, empty, wasted, lonely, rude, lost, unfair, weird, dumb, awful, awfuller, awfullest.

Some longer words: competitive, disadvantaged, confrontational, valueless, forgettable, Neanderthal, dysfunctional, incarceration.

Excerpted from Scrawl by Mark Shulman.
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Shulman.
Published in September 2010 by Roaring Brook Press.
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.