Read “Teenage American Dream” Chapter 1

Note: The current state of Teenage American Dream is a work-in-progress. I’m posting Chapters 1-5 as a sample for things to come, but keep in mind that these are still in rough draft form and do not necessarily represent the final product. I will update this page with revised versions as they become relevant.

Teenage American Dream is currently in the drafting stage. It was previously scheduled for release on April 30, 2016, but due to other projects cutting into development time, this date has been changed to June 30, 2016. As of now, this, too, is tentative, as my life is a bit crazy at the moment.

Anyway, enjoy the preview:

Chapter 1

            Early last June, Eric Bachner sat at his school desk, sponging the sweat off his forehead, using the crease in his shirtsleeve. His homeroom teacher was pacing the aisles between desks, dropping off those ugly little paper squares that every student waited for with bated breath. It was report card time, the last one of the year, and Eric wasn’t ready for it. But he had no choice; it was coming whether he wanted it or not. His future was already written.

Mrs. Grasper was also his English teacher that year, so she had a major stake in the report that was coming to him. English was a course that students had to pass if they wanted to advance to the next grade, and Eric knew he wasn’t doing well in it this year. He hadn’t done well in English in any year, but he had that feeling that this year was even worse than usual. So, he tapped his fingers to his desk as he waited to find out just how badly he did. He wondered if his teacher’s weekly mantra of “You can do better, Eric,” had any effect on him.

He watched as many of his classmates nervously tore off the seals at their serrated edges and flapped open their report cards like paper bags. The occasional groan followed, but most of the students squealed with delight. “I passed!” he’d hear in a swelling chorus of cheerful whimsy. “I’m gonna be a senior!” often followed.

Eric had no premonition of his own fate to come. He would either pass on to twelfth grade, or he’d fail. The grade he got in English would most likely determine the end result.

The scent of lemons and ammonia wafted into his personal space, and he looked up to see Mrs. Grasper staring down at him. She had a weak smile under that purple lipstick, a warmer one than he was used to seeing.

“Good luck,” she told him, as she touched her fingertips to his shoulder.

She moved on to the student beside him, and then continued on toward the back row. The scent of lemons and ammonia faded. He was either taking the summer off from that scent until next year when he’d take her class again, or he was walking away from it forever.

He took a deep breath. Then he peeled off the report card’s seal.

Then he nearly burst a vein when he read the scores inside.

“Are you kidding me?” he said.

He felt his fingers clench into fists as the reality of what he was looking at began to seep into his brain. Even though he was lacking any real motor control, he could still feel himself kicking at his book bag by his feet.

Don’t react, he told himself. Play it cool.

But he couldn’t play it cool. His body was shaking from the anger he felt inside.

Finally, when the homeroom bell rang and it was time to move on to their first class of the day, the final one of the school year, Eric confronted Mrs. Grasper and slammed the report card down on her desk.

“Are you kidding me with this grade?” he said.

Mrs. Grasper flinched from his outburst. She put her hand on her chest.

“Pardon?”

Eric flipped the paper open and pointed at the row of grades. The card listed all of his grades for each class and each major exam, and offered the average for the year across all four quarters. As usual, they were all below average, except for math, which he excelled at. And he was okay with that low-par average—he expected it. But his grade in English was the one that mattered here. And he was furious with what she had given him.

“A D? You think I deserved a D?”

“Mister Bachner, I don’t understand what—”

“Have you forgotten my paper on that guy who hung from that bridge? Or the one about that mockingbird lawyer?”

His teacher raised her eyebrows at him.

“Definitely not. But I think—”

“And you think that all adds up to a D? Is math not your strong point?”

“Mister Bachner, I think some respect is in order here.”

Eric snatched up his report card and smirked.

“Right. Respect. Order. Got it.”

He took a step back. Mrs. Grasper’s eyes were searching him. Her spine was rigid. She was cautious. Eric understood that she was nervous about how he’d react next, so he took a deep breath. But it didn’t help. He still felt the frustration searing at the underside of his skin as he thought about that D. It was definitely not the grade he wanted, or thought he deserved. This teacher was an idiot for giving it to him.

“I’m very disappointed in you,” he said to her.

She finally relaxed, leaned forward, gave him a curious expression.

“Mister Bachner,” she said, “you do understand that you earn your grades, right?”

“But you issue them. You’re the one that decides the quality of my work, and I doubt my work deserves this garbage.”

“Okay, but that’s the grade you got.” She beckoned him closer. “Come here.”

“Why?”

“Come here, Mister Bachner.”

He took a step toward her desk. She took his hand.

“I understand you’re upset,” she said, “and I’m thrilled that you care about the quality of your work. Honestly, I’m surprised by that. But this is the grade you earned. I’m sorry if that upsets you.”

“It pisses me off is what it does.”

She released his hand.

“Look, just try harder next year. You’ll be fine.” She stood up and ushered him toward the door. “Go on, you don’t want to be late to class.”

Eric shook his head.

“I don’t believe this.”

Mrs. Grasper placed her fingers on the small of his back and pushed him toward the door. He fought his steps, but he moved forward anyway.

“Some of the most brilliant people in the world got D’s in school,” she said. “You’re in good company.”

They reached the door, and Mrs. Grasper opened it for him.

“The important thing is that you passed,” she said. “So, congratulations, and good luck in your senior year.”

She pushed him into the hall and closed the door behind him. He was left standing there amid a dwindling crowd of students passing through like fish in a river, and he felt like everything he had worked so hard for had fallen apart.

He shook his head at his bad luck. These teachers didn’t get him at all.

On his way to his first class, he passed a trash can and hurled the report card right into it.

***

            The question didn’t make sense to him: How many wrongs does it take to make something right? Eric sat at his bedroom desk as he stared at the question for at least an hour, turning ideas in his head, trying to add math to the equation. But he couldn’t make sense of the point. He kept thinking it was somehow a detention question disguised as a legit social studies question, even though he was never graded on the detention questions, and he was most certainly getting a grade on this. Was the grade determined by the answer or his journey to the answer? Was there a right way and a wrong way to answer it? Was there a math problem hiding under the question’s subtext, and would picking the wrong number somehow add up to him failing math, too? Oh, how he hated philosophy. His teacher’s attempt to integrate it into his psychology class was just a low blow.

According to the clock on the wall, it was now 7:32pm. His friends were going to the movies at 9:30. He had told them he would meet them at the corner by 9:00, which meant he would have to start getting ready for bed by 8:25, a risky maneuver for a seventeen-year-old to slip past his parents, but one he could probably manage if he spun his story the right way.

The problem came in the form of this “psychology” question. It had taken up so much of his brain power that he couldn’t give adequate time to form his cover story. Normally he’d just blow it off until the last minute, if he’d bother answering it at all. But this was the last minute, and his teacher didn’t respect the sacred convention of “senioritis.” The assignment was due in the morning. If he didn’t try to answer the question, there was a good chance he’d fail the class. And even if that were ultimately acceptable, he still had to make the effort to show that he was “trying.” The only way his plan could work was to maximize his skills of deception.

But that meant having a basic understanding of the assignment. Outright failure was the antithesis to “trying.” He had to do this just right.

How many wrongs does it take to make something right?

He considered throwing down a garbage answer. Doing so would give him just enough time to think of a reason he could sell to his parents for wanting to go to bed early. But he had been doing that all year. His grades were already sliding down a muddy hill, building a powerful momentum to that dirt pile at the bottom. He had to at least try to salvage a passing grade. He couldn’t let them on to his plan.

At 7:38, his bedroom door swung open. His dad, a tall, hard-working man who was chiseled like the rocks he cracked open for a living from head to toe, stepped in. He had a stern look in his eye.

“Hey, pal, commercial’s on,” he said. “I need a word with you.”

His dad gestured him to follow with a jerk of his head. Eric scooted out from his desk and followed his dad through the painted plywood halls into the musty living room. His dad took the recliner next to the floor lamp. He signaled Eric to take the couch. Eric did as he was told.

“Hold that thought,” his dad said.

On television, the sci-fi “cult classic” Star Meld was coming back from commercial. It was essentially a lower-budget Star Trek that had miraculously survived its critical destruction and terrible ratings because OBC, the television network that aired it, had literally nothing better to offer viewers and was probably itself on the verge of bankruptcy. Evidently, no one had sent them the message that reality television had gotten a lot more mileage out of the same fleeting dollar. Even Eric was smart enough to know how economics worked, and probably had enough skill to turn that network around, if he had a high school diploma, which he didn’t.

Again, Eric studied the clock, this time an aging grandfather clock that his grandfather had given his mom before he died. It was now 7:41.

His dad sat relaxed on the recliner, feet kicked out, eyes transfixed on the television. Eric, aware that the window of opportunity to hear this important message in a timely manner had passed sometime while they were passing through the hall, kicked his legs up and stretched out on the couch. Maybe now he could give some intelligent thought to his dual problem.

The commercials returned at 7:51, so Eric’s dad seized the moment to speak to his son honestly.

“Your principal called your mother and me in for a meeting Wednesday,” he said. “Any idea why?”

Eric sat up. His heart pounded instinctively, but his brain was disconnected from any connective memory. He shrugged.

“No,” he said.

“You been tossing cherry bombs in the toilets again?”

“Dad, I told you a hundred times, that wasn’t me.”

His dad smirked, as if nothing his son had ever said was true. Sometimes that was true, but not this time. Mack was the one who had actually flushed the last cherry bomb. Eric was merely the lookout. Two completely different crimes. His dad really needed to get his stories straight.

“Then what are you in trouble for?”

“I don’t know. How do you know I’m in trouble?”

His dad looked at the television. The current commercial was attempting to sell a rose-colored eye liner made from goat intestines. The onscreen models looked uncomfortable putting the stuff on them. The network’s ratings were undoubtedly tanking tonight.

“You egg your teacher’s car?”

Eric felt pressure building behind his eyes; he pressed his fingers to his temples to relieve it.

“Now you’re just making stuff up.”

“Don’t sass me. Come on, think. I want to know what we’re getting into. I have to take off from work for this, and you know how much I hate doing that.”

“I don’t know. I haven’t heard a thing about this. Maybe he wants to congratulate you on a job well done.”

“Your principal was very clear that this was not going to be a friendly visit—hold that thought.”

The commercials were over and the final minutes of tonight’s Star Meld episode had begun. This was his dad’s tensest moments, the minutes that explained what the hell was really going on in the first 52 minutes of the show. The few times Eric had tried watching it, he was lost, especially in the last segment. He thought it had something to do with watching each episode out of order, but his friends at school, who had watched the series in the proper order, were also clueless. “It’s just written badly,” one of them had told him. Eric was certain his dad watched it because he missed watching the good sci-fi shows that were on when he was a kid, and he just needed something to keep him nostalgic, so he watched this crap.

When the episode finally ended, his dad shrugged.

“I have no idea what the hell that was about,” he said. Then he looked back at Eric. “So, if you can give me anything that will help me prepare our visit with the principal Wednesday, I’d be grateful.”

Eric slid off the couch. He had already lost too much time on this witch hunt.

“I don’t know, Dad. It’s getting late. I’m gonna get ready for bed.”

His dad shook his head.

“Oh, no, don’t think so, pal. You finish your homework first. Even if it takes you ‘til midnight. I don’t know what your principal wants with us, but you’re going to school tomorrow with your best foot forward. No sleep for you until you’ve cleared your plate.”

Eric frowned. He felt his entire night flashing before his eyes. How was he supposed to sneak out of the house under those rules?

At 8:05, he figured out a solution.

“But my homework’s already done,” he said.

His dad shook his head. The smirk that had crossed his face changed direction on the fly. Now he was gritting his teeth.

“Took you too long to come up with that one. Look, you’re graduating in a couple of months, and I want you ready for the real world. It’s brutal out there, and you need all the prep you can get. Trust me.” He pointed toward the plywood hall. “So, go finish your homework. And you can forget about your movie plans tonight.”

Eric’s heart pounded. How did his dad know?
His dad must’ve recognized the look of surprise on Eric’s face. He shrugged.

“You need smarter friends,” he said.

 

The stuff that keeps me awake at night.

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