Read “Teenage American Dream” Chapter 2

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 2

            The next morning, Eric stood at the corner of his street, watching as the school bus approached. As soon as it dragged to a stop in front of him, the bus driver cranked the doors open. Eric waited in anticipation. He tapped his right foot and clenched his backpack straps with both hands, waiting for the bus driver to rotate in his seat and assess the cabin behind him. Once the driver finished his once-over of the bus’s population, he beckoned Eric onboard.

“I see a possible spot open in Seat Eight,” the driver said. “With that kid with the beaver teeth.”

“Thanks,” Eric said. He knew that kid; didn’t like him. “Nothing else?”

“Nope. Full house this morning.”

Eric nodded. Not his preferred condition, but at least he had a spot today. Wasn’t always the case. He climbed aboard and took the seat next to the kid with the beaver teeth.

***

            The night before, Eric had stayed up until 11:30 trying to figure out the answer to the philosophy question disguised as a psychology question. The thing that had pissed him off most was not so much that he couldn’t figure out the solution, but that it was the only homework he had. Once that question was answered, he was free to do whatever he wanted, including faking an early bedtime to sneak out and go to the movies with his friends, which his dad had allegedly already known about, even though he had never exactly explained how he knew, or even if he did know—his dad was a bit of a gambler. At the same time, Eric had felt a slight sense of pride that he was able to come up with something of an answer. It was such a loaded question that had so many different possible solutions: Even though he had figured out that no solution was exactly correct, he knew he could make something sound correct by using the right words, so he had decided to use his prison sentence to write a complete essay instead of simply dropping a number and calling it quits. Sticking it out long enough to craft an intelligent, thought-provoking discourse on human psychology offered a personal reward that offered greater satisfaction than what seeing the latest Fast and Furious movie, F’n Furious, would have given him.

Now, he still wasn’t certain what the teacher had expected from him. The right versus wrong debate was an open-ended one, and whether his answer had supported the teacher’s viewpoint or slapped it in the face was something he could not yet predict. But he had given it his all. So, when it came time for him to present his essay to the class at 9:20 on Tuesday morning, he was ready. To his surprise, he was the first person his teacher called on to give his answer.

Eric did not let the surprise register on his face, however. He played it as cool as a seventeen-year-old with hardly any world experience could do. He slid his essay out of his bag—he had no folders, so his papers were randomly shoved into a vertical pile independent of a filing system; this system had left them prone to serious wrinkling—and moseyed up to the front of the class, careful not to trip over anyone’s feet or possessions along the way. The teacher furrowed his brow when he reached the chalkboard at the front of the room.

“What are you doing?” the teacher asked.

“You asked me to read my answer to the class,” Eric said.

“I didn’t ask you to come to the front.”

Eric looked back at his empty seat at the back of the classroom. It seemed so far away amid the tight channels of floor space in that sea of bored teenagers, with their grounded book bags beside them.

“Can I just read it from here?” he asked.

The teacher rolled his eyes. It was rumored that teachers had also suffered from a case of senioritis near the end of the school year, and the first symptom was apathy for students’ psychological health.

“Fine.”

Eric cleared his throat. Then he read his essay aloud:

 

I don’t know how many wrongs it takes to make a right. If I answer that question honestly, then I might be accused of doing wrong. In my world, that’s called entrapment. I’m not going to fall for your dirty tricks.

 

But, if I were looking at this from a morally ambiguous angle, in that you can’t accuse me of anything you can’t prove, which is anything I may or may not have done, then I would say that three wrongs make a right because three is the magic number for most things.

 

Three is a perfect number. It’s a prime number, which means it can’t be divided. If you have unity, you have perfection, which is right. It’s why it takes three strikes to put someone out, or three times to get a charm.

 

But that’s not what you’re looking for, is it? You want me to confess to something. Well, here’s a shocker. I have nothing to confess to. I’m innocent of anything you might want to accuse me of doing. Nice try, pal. Nice try.

 

Eric gave his teacher an accusing stare when he lowered his paper at the delivery of his final line. Delivered like a professional defendant.

Half the class clapped, and did so half-heartedly. The teacher closed his eyes and nodded to the slow beat in his head. Eric straightened his back in his pride. Nailed it, he thought.

“Interesting perspective,” the teacher said. “Interesting, yet overly complicated. I think you misinterpreted the nature of the assignment, Eric. But, let’s see what your classmates have to say.” He gestured toward the back. “You may return to your seat.”

Eric wasn’t sure what to think of his teacher’s response. Overly complicated? He didn’t think it was complicated at all. As he tripped over the many sneakers that refused to move out of his way on his way back down the narrow aisle to his desk, his teacher called on another student.

“Mary,” he said. “What was your answer to the question?”

Mary, who was considered a star student in not only this class, but in most of the ones that Eric had shared with her this year, didn’t even bother to stand when answering the question.

“Five,” she said. Eric listened for more of her answer as he took his seat, but she offered nothing else.

When Eric situated himself and faced the front, he noticed his teacher cupping his hand over his mouth and contemplating the tiny pinholes in the tiled ceiling.

“Interesting perspective,” he said to her. “Five. Hmm. I like it. Henry, what did you come up with?”

Henry gave “four” as his answer; the teacher thought it was also an interesting perspective without ever explaining why, or if it was even valid as a perspective.

Eric, meanwhile, slinked down in his seat. He had missed his movie for this.

***

            In Miss Andrews’s English class, Eric was losing consciousness. He was still annoyed with his psychology teacher for essentially calling him an “overachiever.” That was not Eric’s plan at all. In fact, one of the reasons he had tried so little to achieve anything for the last four years was to stay under the radar, to avoid the possibility of getting called on regularly. Overachievers were always called on to answer dumb questions, not because they were glorified, but because they did half the teachers’ work for them. On more than one occasion, Eric had noticed a teacher focusing the remainder of a class discussion on a point that an overachieving student had brought up. Often this discussion would move away from the teacher’s original point, which none of the students, including the overachievers, was buying into. In a way, it allowed the teacher to save face in spite of a dying audience. It was part politics, part showmanship, and Eric was disinterested in either. He knew his grades depended on the attention he could offer these paid babysitters who infected these babies with their propaganda, but he didn’t care anymore. Well, he didn’t care in the first place, but he figured he would at least try, just to see what it felt like, in case it did offer him a thrill. But now he really didn’t care. Mr. Harley had ensured him of that with his “interesting perspective.” Overachievers were idiots who wasted their youths on ideas that didn’t matter. Eric wanted nothing to do with their poison. The true students, the ones who deserved to succeed in life, were the ones who could make their points clear in one word or less, like Mary could do, and have the confidence to sit back, fold their arms, and inform the teacher that they are more correct than he was, and that they didn’t have to explain themselves. Basically, the method that Eric had attempted to bring to the forefront since his freshman year, but for some reason the teachers were fickle about when to expect it and from whom. Mary, the star student, could probably snap her fingers in Morse code to give an answer and still generate an A for her work, even if the teacher didn’t know the first thing about Morse code. Eric could drop a twenty-dollar bill on the teacher’s desk for extra credit and still receive a C or worse. So, he didn’t care about staying awake. He was tired anyway.

Miss Andrews had finished her discussion on To Kill a Mockingbird last Friday, issued the multiple choice quiz yesterday, and was now teasing the class with an introduction to a new story today. Eric had stayed awake long enough to hear her say something about the American Dream. He took the word dream as a greenlight given to his current plan.

He wasn’t sure for how long he was out, if even a minute had passed, but as soon as he felt his head pitch forward, he heard his name called.

“Eric Bachner,” Miss Andrews said, “does the American Dream bore you?”

Eric corrected his forward trajectory, opened his eyes, looked upon his teacher in a daze. The rest of the class was looking back at him, now curious what she was fussing about.

“What?” he asked.

He had missed too much of the discussion—or she had shared too little of it while he was awake—to know exactly how to answer her question, and the truth was, for now at least, the American Dream, or her version of it, did bore him. Perhaps that was a problem on her end.

“Would you like to come to the front of the class and teach us all a little about the life and plights of Willy Loman?” she asked him.

Eric slid his elbows toward the edges of his desk, slinking a little closer to its surface. His eyes shifted focus toward the wall clock. Math was next, the one class he was good at. That was the time he could recharge his batteries. He shook his head.

“Who’s Willy Loman?” he asked.

Everyone in the class snickered at him. Miss Andrews frowned. She was a reasonably young woman, probably not more than thirty, and couldn’t have been too far removed from the shenanigans of teenage life herself; she should’ve understood Eric’s position. But something about taking the title of English teacher must have changed her viewpoint in life. Now the world was no longer her arena for a careless romp. Now everything had to be analyzed, interpreted, and regurgitated for the newest American youth to develop yet another adapted philosophy first sprung forth in the bowels of some budding professor’s PhD program. And, of course, her job was to spit it into the mouths of her students, including Eric’s.

“Your grades are a little too low to be asking me that question, Eric Bachner. Please pay better attention. And this goes for all of you. Our next quiz will require more thought than our To Kill a Mockingbird quiz. We will be focusing on more than just the color of our protagonist’s hair or what it means to the story, understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” said the class in unison, except for Eric, who muttered, “Yes, Master.”

Miss Andrews picked up her copy of the paperback she was about to make them study. Eric couldn’t see the title from where he was sitting, and he had tuned her out when she had mentioned the name of it to the class. He figured he would learn it later when she emptied the cardboard box next to her desk and passed out the loaner copies. She sat on the corner of her desk, crossed her legs under her lengthy flower-printed skirt, and opened the book to a random page. Eric deduced it was random because she stopped on the first page she had landed on.

“Cindy Masters,” she said, “would you like to share with the class your assessment of Willy Loman as a literary hero?”

Cindy, a redheaded girl who sat at the front and always dressed conservatively, was Miss Andrews’s go-to when she needed to spark a thoughtful discussion to sustain the remainder of class time. She was the literary equivalent to Mary, who didn’t have English with Eric, one of the few classes they didn’t share, but every bit as calm under pressure, and could probably share a headshot in the student dictionary with Mary under the definition of academic cool. They both also shared a spot under the definition for overachiever, which Eric, thankfully, couldn’t be classified under in this particular class, even if his brave attempt to sleep had earned him the same consequence of getting called on to answer a question.

“To be honest, Miss Andrews,” Cindy said, “I haven’t yet finished the book. I figured I’d wait until you distributed the copies before I reach the end.”

Miss Andrews looked down at the cardboard box by her feet. Her eyebrows, which were raised in anticipation of Cindy’s answer, fell in defeat. Now she would have to conduct the discussion on her own, past the vanilla questions regarding who these characters were, or how they were related, or what they did for a living—or just stick to answering those. She didn’t have Cindy’s wit or intelligence to fall back on this time.

“To be honest, Cindy Masters,” said Miss Andrews, “I’m a little disappointed in your answer. But you’re right. We really should all be on the same page here. So, let’s everyone go ahead and pick up a book. Anybody want to take a guess on how I should distribute these?”

Bobby Hammock, a pudgy kid known for having an answer to every question, though his answers generally skim the surface and rarely offer anything that furthers discussion, or even goes beyond the obvious, raised his hand. Miss Andrews called on him.

“You could pass the box around and we could all take one,” he said.

Miss Andrews tightened her lips and nodded in thought.

“Yes, that is one way. Could someone explain to the class how that method might make each of you into better students?”

Everyone, including Cindy, looked around with blank stares. This was treading dangerously close to philosophy, and Eric suddenly had a dark premonition that the teachers at Central Adams Donut High were all working together on the same thematic assignment, with a specific focus on merging English and social studies into one superclass. He shivered at the thought.

“Anyone?”

Eric felt his eyelids getting heavy again. If he knew Miss Andrews by now, he knew she would stay on this line of questioning for a while. He knew the answer to her first question was to make the class go up and collect the books themselves, preferably once the bell rang, but he kept his mouth shut, focused on how to fall asleep without drawing attention to himself. He knew that as soon as the class reached a collective answer on what to do and what it means as a human being to do it that way, the discussion would return, somehow, back to literature, and Eric was content to stay away from that for as long as possible. He hated reading, mainly because he hated analyzing stories that were written in a time that had since lost its relevance. If Miss Andrews had obeyed her age and named Marvel Comics as the classroom reading material, Eric would’ve been more into it.

***

            After class ended, Eric found himself back in the hallway, fighting the flow of human beings pushing against him. Math was next, and he had to travel to the other side of campus to get there. Even though he was gifted at numbers and performed soundly at equations, the one number he couldn’t get right was the one related to time management. Depending on how congested the halls were, he usually made it to class just in time, or just after the bell rang. It also depended on how quickly he could walk (a factor affected by the number of books he was carrying and the speed of the wind blowing through the courtyard outside), and whether or not he could stand the pressure building in his bladder for another hour. Fortunately, lunch followed math, and lunch had no destination or deadline to meet, and he could spend the entire half hour urinating on a houseplant if that’s what he wanted to do. But until then, math was rule, and Mr. Devins, his strict but fair instructor, was king.

Before Eric could reach the stairs leading down to the main courtyard, however, he felt a tug on his arm. He looked down to see five pink fingernails attached to a slender set of fingers digging into his sleeve. He turned to see Cindy standing there with an awkward smile.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” he said. He hoped she understood that she was now cutting into his precious time, and that whatever the hell she was stopping him for, it had better be good.

“Don’t let what happened back there discourage you,” she said, as she withdrew her hand and brought it to her long red hair that was draping over her shoulder.

He furrowed his brow. Didn’t know what she was talking about. She must’ve understood his confusion because she raised her eyebrows and smiled brightly at him in that strange “a-ha” kind of way.

“When Miss Andrews called out your Willy Loman faux pas. Of course you wouldn’t know who he is. She never gave out the books.”

Eric nodded.

“She knew what she was doing,” he said. “Even if I had read it, English isn’t exactly my subject.”

“You speak it fine.” Cindy’s focus was now darting around through space. She pulled her arms closer to her body.

“But I’m not the best reader or writer, so, you know.”

Cindy reached out for Eric’s arm again, touched it lightly, then once again withdrew it.

“Reading is simply the process of mining a text for the gold you seek while processing the coal you’re used to finding already,” she said. “And writing…that’s just the art of writing down what you already know how to say with your mouth.”

Eric nodded again. This girl was making him late for class.

“Thanks,” he said.

As he stepped away, he noticed the crack in the ceiling above him growing thicker. It had begun as a hairline fracture early in his freshman year, had traced the entire length of the building by Christmas vacation in his sophomore year, and was turning into spider webs throughout the course of his junior and senior years. In the last month alone, small chips of white plaster had begun to fall, turning the hallway into a poor man’s winter wonderland. This was the first time he had actually seen it crack in real time. He took Cindy by the arm and pulled her close. Her face flushed a little—perhaps she had noticed the crack in the ceiling, too. Though, just to be sure, Eric pointed it out to her.

“I think it’s time we started bringing an umbrella to school,” he said. “That thing’s ready to give birth to whatever’s hiding up there.”

Cindy laughed. He didn’t know why. He was just stating a fact.

The stuff that keeps me awake at night.

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