It was the bottom of the sixth and final inning. Our Massachusetts team was playing Japan in the championship game of the Little League World Series. Before stepping into the batter’s box, I looked over the field, making eye contact with each of the three base runners. There were two outs, and our team was down by three runs. I stepped into the box and pointed the bat at the pitcher.
I had watched this pitcher before. He had an outstanding fastball and a wicked curveball, as well as a change-up which he used to keep batters off balance.
He wound up and threw a fastball a little low and away. l let it pass, thinking it was a ball, but the umpire called it a strike. The second pitch was a curve ball which finished outside the strike zone. On the third pitch, another fastball zoomed towards my head. I pulled back just in time for it to miss me.
The count was now two balls and a strike. I stepped to the back of the batter’s box and looked around, savoring the moment. Everybody in the stands was standing and cheering. This is what baseball is all about, I thought. Then I stepped forward in the box again.
I was pretty sure this pitch would be a fastball low and away. It was. I let it pass and the umpire called strike two. Now came the challenge. What would the pitcher throw next? Would he try to fool me with a change-up? What about a curve or another fastball? I decided to gamble on a change-up. The ball came towards the plate, but so slowly I wondered if it would even get there. It did. It hit the plate and bounced into the catcher’s mitt.
So the count was three and two. What would he throw now? I guessed it would be a curve. After all, if he walked me, that would only score one run. If I hit the ball, the way the game was going it could be an out—the final out of the game. But I was determined not to let that happen. The pitch was a curve. I swung but was out in front of it and fouled the ball down the left field line.
What next? I guessed a fastball. The pitch came in, right in my wheelhouse. I swung smoothly but hard, just the way I’d been taught. After I hit it, I stood in the box and watched the ball fly straight and true. I knew it would get to the fence but was it high enough? The center fielder raced to the wall, timed his jump, and leaped. The ball hit the top of his outstretched glove, bounced off it, and landed over the fence. A grand slam home run! We had won the World Series by a run.
As I ran around the bases, I pumped my right fist in the air. I saw the boys from Japan walk disconsolately towards their dugout. My whole team was waiting for me at home plate. I jumped in the air and onto the plate with both feet. I was ecstatic! My heart was pounding!
“Gregory, come downstairs for supper this instant!”
The field disappeared. My team disappeared. And there I was in my bedroom, coming down off another daydream. Damn.
Getting up from where I lay on my bed, I slowly walked downstairs to the dining room. Everyone was there waiting for me. I sat, we joined hands, and Father said a blessing. Then Mother served herself and began to pass the food bowls around the table. They got to me last. They always got to me last. Before me they went to my three older brothers and my father. Sometimes when they got to me there was very little left. That night I got one small pork chop and a dab of mashed potatoes. The other vegetables were all gone.
We ate silently; the only sound was that of my family chewing. I thought of cows chewing their cuds and smiled a little, but I kept my head down so nobody could see the smile.
My father was big, very big. I never called him Dad; he was always Father. In addition to being big, he was strong and loud. Even when he wasn’t trying to be loud his voice boomed through the house. He was a sports fanatic and approved of my older brothers’ prowess. He didn’t particularly care about their grades, he just cared about their winning games. But he didn’t seem to approve of anything I did. I wasn’t an athlete. I was a good student. I loved reading and writing stories, but Father didn’t value those interests at all.
Mother was quite small—I think petite was the word. She was the opposite of Father. She was quiet, self-contained, and rarely spoke to any of us unless she was alone with me.
My older brothers’ ages descended by two years each. Carlton, the oldest, was 18 and would be a senior when school began in the fall. Malcolm was 16 and would be a sophomore there. Warren was 14 and would be in the eighth grade. The three of them seemed to be from a single mold, Father’s mold. They all enjoyed sports and were good at them. They were all mediocre students, but good enough to get by without exerting themselves.
I was 12 years old and would be entering sixth grade. I wasn’t big and strong like my brothers. To be honest, I was rather puny. I guess I came from Mother’s mold. Usually I was silent, at least with the family. I knew I didn’t belong. I knew I would never gain Father’s approval. If Father got on my case, Mother never spoke up for me. She just looked at the floor and waited for the storm to be over.
And Father did get on my case, frequently. “Why can’t you play sports like your brothers? Why can’t you stand up for yourself? Why do you waste your time writing? Why are you such a fucking mouse?”
Malcolm and Warren liked that last question, and whenever they were around me, they made squeaking noises and pretended to step on my tail. Carlton participated in the teasing as little as he could get away with, given our brothers and Father.
Was I miserable? Can a fish swim? Of course I was miserable. I did my best to hide it because, if I looked sad or cried, everyone but Mother laughed at me. Then Father would say something like, “Don’t be such a baby,” and I would flee to my bedroom, close the door quietly—I never dared slam it—and lie on my bed until I could stop crying.
Unlike my brothers, I was a dreamer. I had watched the Little League World Series in the summer, not because I liked baseball, but because I could pick out cute boys and crush on them. Of course, that was my secret. Nobody in my family knew. If they had found out, my life would have been over.
Father approved of my watching the games. He thought it might inspire me to try playing baseball again. I knew that would never happen.
Oh, I had tried. Following in my brothers’ footsteps, I signed up for T-ball when I was old enough. I proved to be uncoordinated and seldom hit the ball even as it sat on the tee. The more my father yelled from the bleachers, the more mistakes I made. But nobody fails T-ball, so in time I moved on to my first—and thankfully last—team. I couldn’t catch the ball. I was afraid it would hit me. I couldn’t throw the ball. My teammates said I threw “like a girl.” If, by some fluke, I managed to hit the ball, I couldn’t run fast enough to first base and was invariably out. The participation rules said I had to play in the field for at least two innings. I was put in right field, because the theory was that fewer balls were hit out there. One day, when I was daydreaming in the field, I bent over and picked a dandelion just as a ball landed at my feet. Even my teammates and coaches jeered. After that, I didn’t go back. Father tried to make me, but short of dragging me there to our mutual embarrassment, he couldn’t get me to go. I didn’t care how loudly he yelled. I didn’t care if I was sent to my room as punishment. In fact, being sent to my room wasn’t a punishment at all. It was where I wanted to be.
But I did have to watch my brothers’ games. Football. Ice Hockey. Baseball. Every game! I sat with Mother pretending to enjoy myself. Actually, of course, I was daydreaming about being good enough to star in the games. While the high school didn’t have a hockey team, there was a recreational program on Saturdays and Sundays. The rink was outdoors, so Mother and I watched, drank tepid cocoa, and shivered. God, how I hated hockey!
I don’t want you to think that Father was mean. He wasn’t, and he never, ever hit me. He just didn’t understand this scrawny, uncoordinated, day-dreaming son of his. I think, by the time I became a teenager, he simply gave up and ignored me.
When I was little, Mother read to me and we’d talk about the pictures in the books together. At the age of four, I surprised her by reading a book to her. It was one she had read several times and she assumed that I had memorized it. She got another book which I had never seen and put it in front of me. I opened the book, looked at the title and the first picture and then read the page. I continued to read until I got to the end of the book. Mother was astounded. I learned later that she’d had to drag my brothers, almost literally kicking and screaming, to read when they were in first and second grade.
That night at the dinner table, she told the family what I had done. Father grunted. Two of my brothers said something to the effect of, “Well whoopee.” Carlton, who at that point was ten, looked at me with surprise and a little smile on his face.
After that, I couldn’t get enough reading. Mother often took me to the library two or three times a week, and still I ran out of books.
Shortly thereafter, I began trying to write. When she saw me writing, Mother showed me how to form the letters, because a few of them, like ‘a,’ didn’t resemble the printed letter. By the time I was five, I was writing little stories which were actually daydreams I’d had and wanted to write down.
At age six, two things happened to me. First, I went to school. When the teacher gave me a book to look at, I told her it was too easy. She gave me a harder book, and again I said it was too easy. There were no books in our classroom that either challenged or interested me. Finally, she sent me to the school librarian. I returned with three chapter books in the Boxcar Children series, which had very few pictures. My teacher thought I wouldn’t be able to read them, but I did. When I told her the next day that I had finished them, she sat down and talked with me about them. I told her what I had read. When she asked questions about the books, I was able to answer them. From that point on, I had permission to visit the library any time I wanted to.
The other thing that happened that year was that I got to share a bedroom with Carlton. I had been sharing a room with Warren while Malcolm was in one with Carlton. Warren had been teasing me for some time. Of course, he was bigger and stronger than I was, and he enjoyed tormenting me. When he discovered he could reduce me to tears, his teasing became more and more vicious.
One day, when I was lying on my bed crying, Carlton came in and asked me what was wrong. I told him what Warren had said, and I told him that I hated Warren. Carlton comforted me as best he could and then went off to talk to Warren. I don’t know what happened after that or who was involved in the discussion, but it was decided Carlton would share a room with me while Warren and Malcolm would sleep in the other room.
Anyway, there we were, me and Carlton. Since he was six years older than I was, he of course got to stay up later than I could. Although he didn’t know it, I took to staying awake until he came to bed. I felt safe with him there. Yes, Carlton was a jock just like the other two, but he was the only one of the three who paid any attention to me or treated me kindly.
Once, when I was in our bedroom, I picked up a book which Carlton had been reading and which was lying on his desk. His bookmark was about halfway through the book, titled The Hobbit. I began to read it and was soon absorbed in the story. It was like no other book I had ever read. Soon, I began to daydream about being a hobbit, and then I began to write hobbit stories with me, of course, as a hobbit and the hero.
I have kept all the stories I’ve ever written. My hobbit stories were, of course, brief and could only have been the work of a six-year-old, but they weren’t bad. In fact, they showed the imagination which I’ve always had and which still feeds my daydreams.
I didn’t show the stories to Carlton. I was afraid he’d laugh at them. But I did manage to find the book often enough when I was alone that I was able to finish it. Then I had a problem. I didn’t have any other books of that genre. (Of course I didn’t know the word genre in those days.) I went to the school librarian and asked if she could suggest other books like The Hobbit. She frowned and told me that book was much too old for me and would give me nightmares. I guess in a way she was right. I did dream about the hobbits, not only daydreams but nightdreams as well. The dreams never scared me. Sometimes they excited me so much I woke up. That always disappointed me because I wasn’t finished with my dream.
Sixth grade was the oldest grade in our town’s three elementary schools. Warren was now in the one middle school and Malcolm and Carlton were in the high school.
I guess you could say that I had friends at school, but they weren’t close friends. We got along okay and occasionally worked together in class. On the playground, I preferred sitting and reading to playing games with the other boys. I knew they considered me odd, but that was okay with me. I considered myself odd.
Teachers in the school rotated recess duty. My teacher, Mr. Ammerman, often played basketball or soccer with the other fifth and sixth grade boys. He always invited me to play, but I simply shook my head and returned to my book.
Mr. Ammerman was not a big man like my father. He was not a loud one either. He was probably around 30 years old, certainly not an old man but old enough to be an experienced teacher. He enjoyed playing with the kids, but he wasn’t a great athlete. He was rather on the small side, perhaps about 5’8”, and he was slender, so I don’t suppose he weighed much over 130 or 140 pounds. He wasn’t particularly good looking, although he smiled and laughed a lot. He always seemed relaxed in the classroom, and I guess that made us relax too.
One day, instead of playing at recess, Mr. Ammerman sat on the bench beside me. I was reading the most recent of the Harry Potter books. “Are you a Potter fan?” he asked.
“Sort of,” I replied, “although I don’t think this one is quite as good as the first ones.”
He smiled and thought for a minute. Then he said, “Greg, I’ve noticed that often in class your mind seems to be somewhere else. I can usually tell by looking where your eyes are focused when you’re daydreaming. You seem to do that a lot. Am I right?”
Right away I thought I was in trouble. In prior years I’d occasionally been reprimanded by teachers when I wasn’t paying attention, and I was pretty sure that was what Mr. Ammerman was leading up to.
“Yes sir,” I replied quietly.
Instead of scolding me he asked, “Can you tell me what your daydreams are about?”
Nobody except Mother had ever asked that before, so I had to think about it before I answered.
“I’m not sure I can,” I said, “because every daydream is different.”
“What about this morning?” he asked.
“You really want to know?”
I was reluctant to go on as I was afraid he would laugh at me, but for some reason I felt safe with him, so I said, “Okay, this morning I was having one of my Harry Potter daydreams. I imagined myself as a wizard and a leader and we were having adventures together.” I looked at him shyly, hoping I had said enough.
“Okay, so what was happening in your daydream?”
“Well, a dragon was laying waste to our village and we were battling him. I didn’t get to the end of the story before the bell rang for recess.”
He was silent for quite a while and I could see he was thinking. Finally, he asked, “Do you ever write down your daydreams?”
That was another question I’d never been asked, although, when I was little, I used to share some of my stories with Mother. Now I was feeling quite embarrassed. In the first place, no teacher I had ever known had sat down just to chat with me. Was he simply making small talk or was he really interested? I didn’t know. I did know that I wasn’t comfortable talking about my stories. I always thought of them as private, just written for my own amusement.
He simply sat, waiting for me to answer. I knew I had to say something. I knew it would be rude if I didn’t answer, and I’m not usually rude. The reason I didn’t want to answer his question was that, if I did, I knew what his next question would be, and I didn’t really want to answer that one either.
At last, I said quietly, “Yes sir.”
“Would you let me read some of them?”
See? I was right. I knew that would be the next question and I didn’t want to answer it.
Finally, trying to be as polite as I could, I said, “I’d rather not.”
Again, I knew what the next question would be. “Why?” he asked.
Right again. Now what could I say? At last I mumbled, “Because they’re kinda private.”
He didn’t say anything for a moment, and I was afraid he’d be mad at me for telling him no. I looked up at him and he was just nodding his head, with a little smile on his lips.
“Okay,” he said. “What about just one story? Any one you pick. Or what about if you wrote a story which you knew you would share with me? Would that work?”
“I’ll have to think about that. How about if I tell you by the end of the week?” I had never bargained with a teacher before, and again I was afraid he’d be mad at me. But he wasn’t.
At that point, the bell rang to end recess. Saved by the bell, I thought. But Mr. Ammerman wasn’t quite finished. “It’s a deal,” he said, and offered his hand to shake on it. A little reluctantly, I shook it. In boy culture, an agreement sealed with a handshake was serious, but I didn’t know if he felt the same way.
Back in the classroom, we began a math lesson. I liked math but I really had to pay attention, so daydreaming was not possible.
At lunch, one of the boys, Harris, asked what I’d been talking about with Mr. Ammerman. I knew Harris was just curious. He wasn’t someone who would give me a hard time about it. But I didn’t want to tell him, so I said, “I can’t share that right now.”
He looked a little surprised but then said, “Okay.” After that we went on to other subjects.
At home late that afternoon, I realized I was in a pickle. I had no problem starting a daydream, but every time I did I wondered, if I make a story out of the dream, will I be willing to share it with a teacher? The answer was always no, and that in turn stopped my daydream. For three days, I couldn’t dream up a story without that question arising.
On Thursday night, I knew I would have to write something. I had made the agreement thinking that it would be easy for me to come up with a suitable story, but I couldn’t do it; I didn’t do it.
Friday morning, I thought about pretending to be sick and staying home from school, but I knew that would just delay the inevitable. Of course, I had only agreed to tell him by Friday if I would do it. But what would be the use? If I couldn’t come up with a story in four days, having the weekend or another week wouldn’t help.
As recess neared, I grew increasingly nervous. What would he say? Would he be upset with me when I told him I couldn’t do a story?
When Mr. Ammerman sat on the recess bench with me, I was embarrassed, and I was even shaking a little.
“Will you be able to write a story for me?” he asked.
I couldn’t look at him. I sat with my eyes focused on the ground and they began to tear up. Damn, I hated that! Finally, I shook my head. I knew what he was going to ask next.
“Can you tell me why?”
Right again! I shook my head.
Then he asked something I hadn’t expected. “Too private?”
Bang. He’d hit the nail on the head. I nodded.
We were silent for a few minutes before he asked, “Do you keep the stories you write?’
“Yes sir. All of them,” I replied reluctantly.
“Could you share one of those with me?”
I shook my head.
“Greg, I look at the books you like, I read your assignments, and I hear you talking with the other students. I know you’re smart and you write well, and I imagine that shows up in your stories. Let me assure you, I’m not trying to embarrass you. I’m not trying to pry into your private thoughts. What I’m trying to do is find out how you write, not when there’s a writing assignment, but when you’re on your own. Your assignments are fine, but I have a feeling that if you’re not trying to fill an assignment, you might write even better.”
What could I say? What could I do? At last I sighed and said, “I’ll try again.”
“Thank you. Just be yourself when you write. Don’t worry about my reading it. I’m not going to judge what you write. And I promise I won’t share it with anybody else.”
Again, I was saved by the bell.
Something he had asked triggered a thought. At home that afternoon, I began going through my old stories. I hadn’t done that the week before, and I thought maybe there was something in the collection which wouldn’t be too embarrassing to share. It took me hours, but I finally found one. I knew I would have to rework it because I had written it in the third grade, but I thought it was possible.
I spent a good part of the weekend on the story, and by Sunday night I had it ready.
Monday morning, I asked Mr. Ammerman if we could talk at recess and he agreed.
When we were sitting on the bench, which I had come to think of as my bench, I told him I had found a story which I didn’t think would be too embarrassing, but I’d had to revise it because it had been written three years ago. I told him it was about flying in formation with a flock of geese. I was in the fifth spot, so my name was Goose-5. I wrote about what we saw below us, and I made up how we communicated. The flight was from our town in Massachusetts to Louisiana, where we would winter, and we saw a lot on the way—highways, farm fields, woods, towns, and rivers, including, of course, the Mississippi. Although I had never flown, I had looked at many National Geographic magazines in the library, so I was able to describe in detail what Goose-5 saw, using a lot of color. I also wrote about flying through the clouds, something else I had never done. I just imagined the details as I wrote. When I finished talking, I handed him the story.
We sat silently as he read it through. Of course, even though he had said he wouldn’t judge what I had written, I didn’t see how he could help doing that.
At last he smiled, looked up, and said, “Greg, I told you I wouldn’t judge your story and I meant it at the time, but now I have to.”
He went on, “I have to tell you that this is the best writing I’ve ever seen from a sixth grader. It’s imaginative, clear, descriptive, and, above all, fun. Where did you learn to write like this?”
Once again I was embarrassed. I hadn’t expected his reaction and I didn’t know how to answer him. I just shrugged my shoulders.
“Did someone teach you to do this, perhaps in a writing class or club, or did you just learn on your own by reading other people’s writing?”
I mumbled, “Just learned on my own, I guess.”
“Well, I want to encourage you to keep writing, but I don’t know how I can help if you won’t share your writing with me. Let me show you what I mean.”
For the rest of the recess, Mr. Ammerman read parts of the story to me and made comments. He never criticized. Much of what he said was positive. He never said that the way I had written something wasn’t good enough. He just made suggestions as well as picking out phrases or sentences he especially liked.
Finally, he said, “Greg, I really want to encourage you. You’re a fine writer, but you won’t grow as much as a writer if you can’t listen to and learn from suggestions. Will you let me help you?”
I thought long and hard about that. Did I want suggestions? He certainly didn’t seem to criticize me. Did I want to grow as a writer? If not, why not? Could I trust him with my private thoughts?
At last, just as the bell rang, I said quietly, “I’ll try.” Again we shook hands before returning to the classroom.
I wasn’t accustomed to sharing my thoughts and feelings with men. Well, really the only man in my life had been Father, and I knew enough not to share with him. Mr. Ammerman was the first male teacher I’d had, except for gym. Of course, at first I was reluctant to share things with him, to trust him. But as the weeks went on and I hesitantly shared some writing with him, I found I could trust him, and I slowly became more willing to open up to him. I found that not only my trust but also my confidence was growing.
Of course, I didn’t share all my writing with him. Often, I wrote a piece and decided that it wasn’t very good, so I just stuck it in my collection and went on to the next story. It was during sixth grade that I began writing my stories on the computer instead of by hand. Until I learned where the letters were on the keyboard, that was slower for me, but on the computer, I could make changes and additions more easily.
In the late fall, when it became too cold to sit outdoors and talk, Mr. Ammerman asked if I would be willing to stay after school one day a week so that we could confer. When I told him he had to ask my mother, he called her and they had a long conversation. They agreed that Mother would talk with me after school and then decide.
At home that afternoon, Mother and I sat at the kitchen table. She had met Mr. Ammerman during a parent ̶-teacher conference but didn’t really know him.
“Tell me about Mr. Ammerman,” she said.
“Well, he’s kind, and sometimes he’s funny, and for some reason he likes my writing.”
“You haven’t shared your writing with me for a long time. Is there a reason for that?”
“Sometimes it’s kinda personal.”
“But you share with him?”
“Yeah. He talked me into that. I really didn’t want to at first, but he just kept gently urging me, so I took an old story I’d written in third grade, rewrote it, and showed it to him.” I then told her about the story and how nervous I was when I gave it to him.
“Mr. Ammerman liked it, I guess. He pointed out things he really liked about it and then he made a few suggestions about how to improve. He’s never really criticized me. At first, it was hard for me to listen to his suggestions, but eventually I realized that I was not only listening to them but trying to follow them. So we’ve been conferring once a week during recess. But now it’s too cold to sit outside and do that. So we do it inside when the class is still outside, running around, keeping warm.”
“You don’t go out on those days?” I shook my head. “I’m not sure I like that,” she said. “You should be out in the fresh air.”
“It’s only once a week and I do get fresh air walking to and from school”, I cajoled.
“Here’s an important question,” she said.
Uh-oh, I thought. What’s her problem?
“Does Mr. Ammerman ever touch you in ways you’re not comfortable with or does he ever talk suggestively to you?”
I was shocked. “Of course not, Mother. He never ever touches me except for an occasional pat on my shoulder. I know what you’re thinking, and he’s not like that at all. He acts like a professional and he helps me write. That’s as far as it goes.”
Mother looked steadily into my eyes for a long time. Perhaps she was trying to figure out if I was telling her the truth.
“And I thought of something else,” I said. “I just realized that, when we’re working together in the classroom, he always leaves his classroom door open. I never thought about that until now, but occasionally, when we’re talking, a teacher or the principal walks in. I’m safe, Mother. I know I am. And if he did any of those things you’re worried about, I’d leave immediately and tell you or the principal. So don’t worry about anything like that.”
Finally, Mother gave her permission, and she wrote a note for me to take to Mr. Ammerman the next day.
Through the winter, on Wednesday afternoons, Mr. Ammerman and I worked together. At home I would write, usually about my current daydreams, and he would read and comment on my writing. When we were together, I became increasingly relaxed. We talked and laughed, and I had a good time. He never indicated in class that I was any more special than any of his other students. In fact, I realized that every student was special to him, and he always supported and helped us.
In March, Mr. Ammerman told me about a competition held by the area newspaper every year. It was for middle-school students, but it included sixth graders because, although our sixth grades were part of the elementary schools, sixth grades in some nearby towns were part of the middle schools.
He told me that the competition included several categories. One was fiction. Another was non-fiction. There was a poetry prize, a photography prize and an art prize. The photography submissions had to be black and white, and the art ones had to be pencil, or pen, or charcoal, so the winning entries could be printed in the paper. He said that there was a luncheon in May where the first, second, and third place winners in each category ate together, not knowing which one had won first place. The winners were announced at the end of the luncheon and each first-place winner’s submission was printed in an insert in the newspaper the next day.
“Greg,” he said, “I think it would be good for you to enter the contest. I suspect it might be difficult for you, but I think it would give you a goal. In addition, you’d get to meet a couple of other kids with similar interests and skills. What do you think?”
“Do I have to?”
“Of course not. I wouldn’t force you to even if I could. This would have to be something you did on your own. You couldn’t have any help, so I wouldn’t be able to comment at all on what you wrote. Will you give it some thought?”
I reluctantly agreed, we shook hands as we always did at the ends of our meetings, and I walked home, thinking a lot about what he had said. If I did it, whatever I wrote couldn’t be personal. It wouldn’t have my feelings in it. I just couldn’t do that.
A few days later, as I sat daydreaming and idly looking around the classroom, an idea came to me. I jotted down some thoughts on a piece of paper and then went back to paying attention to the social studies lesson.
Over the next few days, I wrote a story. I had looked up the rules for the competition and there was a 2,000-word limit. I guessed that was because the story couldn’t take up more space than that if it won and was printed in the paper.
Each evening I typed away at my story. I didn’t rush because I knew that wouldn’t be good for my writing. I usually wrote less than an hour a day. By the end of the third day, I had a rough draft which I printed out. I had discovered it was easier for me to proofread and think about changes on a hard copy. I read the story, thinking about alterations for a couple of nights and writing additions and marking deletions in the margins. I used a blue pen because I hated red pens, something I had copied from Mr. Ammerman. Then I let the story sit for a bit while I worked on other writing. I decided that letting it sit was like steeping tea because you couldn’t rush it.
The next weekend I returned to the story and added the changes I wanted to make on the computer. When I finished, I printed another hard copy, let it sit for a few days, and went over it again, making further changes. After I let the story steep for another few days, I went back to the hard copy, looked again at the changes, and then made them on the computer.
My story was about little creatures I named scholis, their name coming from the root for scholastic or scholar. They lived in the backs of the cupboards in a second-grade classroom. After the children and the teacher had left for the day, the scholis came out of the cupboards and did tasks around the room. They read and made suggestions on kids’ stories. They corrected math workbooks. They cleaned the chalkboard and wrote up the schedule for the next day. They picked up fallen pens, papers, and pencils and returned them to children’s desks. Some of them searched the trash to find and hide away food that had been tossed into the trash. When they finished their work, they had a picnic supper from the food which had been tossed out, talking over all they had learned about the children. They kept an eye on the clock because they knew they had to be hidden by the time the janitor came to clean the room.
I was actually rather pleased with the story. Online, I filled out the entry form and sent my story to the judges. Then it was time to wait.
A week before the luncheon in May, I received an email inviting me to attend, so I knew I had placed first, second or third. The invitation said that I should bring my parents. Since Mother didn’t know I had entered a contest, I had to tell her about it. Fortunately, she had nothing scheduled that day, so she agreed to attend. I didn’t bother to ask Father; I knew he wouldn’t go. I replied to the email, saying that Mother and I would be there.
On the Saturday of the luncheon, I couldn’t believe how excited I was. Without telling the rest of the family where we were going, Mother and I drove to the headquarters of the newspaper, which was in a neighboring town. We checked in and were directed to a round table in the middle of the room.
We were the first ones at the table, but soon a girl and her mother and father arrived and sat with us. The girl introduced herself as Bethany and said she was in the eighth grade. I think probably when I told her I was in sixth, she thought she had a good chance of beating me. Then a boy and his parents arrived and sat at our table. The boy introduced himself as Tanner and told us he was also in the sixth grade. By then, Bethany was looking very confident.
The parents sat around half the table and we three kids sat around the other half. That gave us a chance to talk with each other during the luncheon. Well, the other two chatted and I listened. Typical me! I only spoke when I was asked a direct question. Bethany seemed a bit snooty, like she was above us, but Tanner chatted away like he’d known us for years. He told us he loved to write and always had a story or two going. He said that his teacher had been making suggestions on his writing but of course hadn’t on the story he’d submitted. He told us his story was about playing a tennis match and asked what ours were about. Bethany said she had written about a girl who was in high school and who wanted to be part of the in group. I told them very briefly what mine was about, thinking it sounded rather juvenile compared to theirs.
When the luncheon was over and the parents who wanted coffee had been served, a man stood in the front of the room with a microphone. He introduced himself as Roger Scott, saying that he was the chairman of the competition committee. Then he began to announce the winners in each category, beginning with photography. By the time he announced the final category, the fiction one, I was, as my mother would say, ‘on pins and needles.’ I glanced over at Tanner but couldn’t tell what he was thinking.
“In the fiction category, the third-place prize goes to Bethany Carter. She rose to polite applause and went to the front to receive her plaque. While she was gone, Tanner leaned towards me and said, “Good luck.”
I said the same to him, but I was also interested in Bethany, who looked very grumpy and upset. After all, she’d been beaten by two sixth graders.
Mr. Scott continued, “The choice between second and first places was difficult for us. The committee was actually split.” Looking towards the two of us, he said, “So you should both be pleased with your stories.” By then Tanner and I had stopped breathing. “The second-place winner is Gregory Browne.”
I think I slumped for a moment, but only a moment before I rose, trying to smile, and went to the front to receive my plaque, which was a little bigger than the third-place plaque.
Returning to my seat, I said quietly to Tanner, “Congratulations.”
Tanner was announced and went to the front to much applause. He shook Mr. Scott’s hand, and returned to the table, where he gave his plaque to his mother. He was beaming when he sat down.
As the luncheon ended, I did something which was very uncharacteristic of me. I turned to Tanner and said, “Wait till next year.” He wasn’t sure at first whether I was upset or not, but, then he offered his hand and said, “It’s a deal. I’ll meet you here a year from now.”
Leaving the luncheon, we were each given a copy of the newspaper insert which would be included in the Sunday paper. The insert had all the first-place entries in it. Of course, on the way home, I read Tanner’s story, and, despite myself, I had to agree that it was well-written.
Sunday afternoon I received an email from Mr. Ammerman congratulating me on my second-place finish and asking if he could read my story. I thanked him and sent the story to him.
When we met after school on Wednesday, Mr. Ammerman told me that he thought my story was really good and should perhaps be made into a children’s book.
“If it’s so good, why didn’t I win?” I asked.
“Greg,” he answered, “second place in this competition is nothing to be sneezed at. You should be proud of what you accomplished.”
“I guess I am,” I said, “but I still want to know why I didn’t win.”
He thought a moment and the said, “Okay, think about it. What do you think Tanner’s story had that yours didn’t?”
“I’ve been trying to figure that out, but I don’t know.”
“Think about the word passion.”
“Okay, so my story didn’t have passion. It would have ruined the story to put that in. I know that Tanner’s story was full of enthusiasm and joy for the game he described, but I can’t do that.”
“It’s only a guess, but I’m suggesting that the judges were looking for feelings, for expression. And I’m further guessing that you deliberately chose a story in which you didn’t have to express your feelings. Is that so?”
I lowered my eyes and nodded.
“Greg, I fully understand why you did that. I know that you’re not ready to share your feelings with other people. But if you want to be a good writer, that’s the next step you have to take.”
I thought about that, and I knew he was right, but I also realized I had a lot to overcome to be able to do that.
In seventh grade I found I liked having different teachers for different subjects and I liked their enthusiasm for the subjects they taught. Of course, I especially enjoyed my English class. I learned a lot from the literature we read, and it was usually easy for me to write about the stories. The only problem was my daydreaming. Habitually, I put myself in the stories and dreamed about interacting with the characters.
I continued to visit Mr. Ammerman every Wednesday after school. By then I had begun to call him Mr. A., which he enjoyed. One day, I apologized for taking his time. I knew that he had papers to grade and lesson plans to prepare, and I felt guilty.
He smiled, shook his head, and said, “No, Greg. Never worry about that. I find that, when the class leaves at the end of the day, I need time to unwind. I can’t just sit down and work right away. True, sometimes I take quite a bit of work home with me, but that’s my choice. I find working with you relaxing. I can focus on something and someone else and just converse for an hour. Really, it’s no burden at all.”
The book we were reading in English was The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. My mother thought it was too adult for seventh graders, but I thought it was a wonderful tale of warfare and the Civil War. I entered into the story as I read it and began writing a version with myself in the story. Sometimes, I experienced the fear that Henry Fleming, the protagonist, felt. It was a visceral feeling and rather new for me. As I wrote, I used a pseudonym for my character. I found that gave me just the little distance I needed to write about my feelings, my excitement, occasionally my joy, and—most of all, my anxiety.
I Googled Stephen Crane and learned he was born well after the war, in 1871, so he was writing totally from his imagination. I learned he had begun to write when he was 5 years old, just like me. Sadly, he died of TB at the age of 28. I hoped that was where the similarities would end.
When I finished my story, I emailed it to Mr. A. On Wednesday, he praised me both for the story and for the feeling I had in it. He said he thought I should show it to my seventh grade English teacher, but I wasn’t ready for that. She didn’t even know that I wrote stories.
Now that we were in the one middle school building, I saw Tanner from time to time. He was always surrounded by friends, and, to be honest, I was jealous. He and I talked briefly a few times, but we didn’t have any of the same classes except gym, so we had little to do with each other. But always in the back of my mind was the challenge and agreement we had made the previous May.
I had begun to enjoy reading survival stories, especially, those which involved boys. After reading Hatchet, I asked Mr. A. if he could suggest some. He did, and I read them avidly. One of the books he suggested was not well known at all. It was a true story called Lost on a Mountain in Maine by Don Fendler.
As a twelve-year-old, Don had become separated from his companions when he began to descend Mt. Katahdin alone. Fog came in and he lost the trail, which, above timberline, was only marked with occasional daubs of paint on the rocks. He wandered for nine days in the Maine wilderness with no food except a few berries. He lost his sneakers, which had become cut up by the rocks, and he lost his jeans. Along the way he followed some of the lessons he had learned in Boy Scouts. Those, and his faith that God would take care of him, saved him. Eventually, on the ninth day he found a fishing camp where the people took care of him and got him back to civilization. Soon after, he told his story to a man who wrote it down, as verbatim as possible, and the book was published. Since it was in Don’s words, the book was easy to read, and I enjoyed some of his quaint expressions. The only expletive he used was ‘Christmas,’ which I thought was funny.
At the time, people all over the country had followed the search for Don in their newspapers, and many had read the book. I learned through Google that students in many Maine elementary schools read the book and wrote to Don, who was by then an adult in the military, and he answered every one.
I was fascinated. Here was a book which had all the feeling anyone could want. I began daydreaming about being lost and on my own. The daydreams became the basis of my writing. I wrote several survival stories before I wrote the one I really liked. Mr. A. read them all except the last one. He praised them and commented on them. I didn’t show him the last one, because I thought I would enter it in the spring contest and knew I couldn’t have any help with it.
In April, Mr. A. asked if I was going to enter the contest again, and I told him I was. When I saw Tanner in the school hallway, I asked him if he was going to enter again. He smiled and said he was, and he thought he would beat me again. “We’ll see about that,” I said, smiling to myself.
In May, I received an invitation to the newspaper luncheon for me and my parents. I replied that my mother and I would attend. As the day approached, I once again grew increasingly nervous and excited. I knew that my story was better than the one I had submitted the previous year, but I assumed that Tanner’s was better too, and I had no idea if he was a winner, nor who the third entrant was.
On the day of the luncheon, Mother and I arrived and were directed to a table where a girl and her parents were seated. We all introduced ourselves. The girl was Margaret Payson. She was in the eighth grade but not in our school.
Tanner and his parents arrived, and soon we were all eating and the others were chatting. As Tanner talked nearly nonstop, I was, as usual, rather silent.
When the meal was over and the adults had been served coffee, Mr. Scott stepped to the front of the room, microphone in hand. After he welcomed everyone, he began to announce the awards in the same order he had used the year before.
As I listened, I could feel my anxiety rising. Little chills ran up my back and my palms were sweaty. Finally, Mr. Scott got to the fiction awards. He announced that third place had gone to Margaret Payson. Tanner and I looked at each other. I could see he was enjoying the anticipation as much as I was, and he gave me a beautiful smile. I returned the smile weakly.
When Margaret had returned, Mr. Scott said, “Once again this year, the competition between first and second place was very close, and again it involved the same two boys who placed first and second last year.”
Again, Tanner and I looked at each other.
“This year second place goes to Tanner Anderson.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. Tanner went to the front, received his plaque and gave it to his mother. When he sat, he said quietly to me, “Congratulations, Greg.”
Mr. Scott said, “This year’s winner of the fiction award is Greg Browne, for his story, ‘Lost and Alone.’” I went to the front, my heart pounding. After all, in a sense I had worked all year for this moment. He shook my hand warmly and handed me the plaque, which I took back to the table and handed to my mother.
As we exited the room, we were handed copies of the next morning’s insert. Sure enough, there was my story on the front page. Tanner was right behind me. He took his copy and then patted me on the back. I couldn’t understand it, but he seemed genuinely happy for me.
When I got home, I called Mr. A. Of course he was excited for me. He said he would read the story in the morning and we could talk about it on Wednesday.
Monday morning I was still walking on air as I entered the school. Some of the kids congratulated me, and my English teacher was very effusive. I saw Tanner later in the morning. He smiled and said, “Are we on for next year?”
I actually grinned, which was rare for me, and replied that we certainly were.
Wednesday afternoon I walked into Mr. A.’s room. He rose from his desk and shook my hand warmly. “Well, Greg,” he said, “you’ve come a long way in a year and your story certainly deserved the prize. Let’s talk about it.”
We sat down and he took his paper insert. As he routinely did with my stories, he commented on several sentences which he especially liked, then went through the story picking out all the adjectives and adverbs I had used to express my feelings.
“What a change!” he exclaimed. “Now tell me, are you more able to share your feelings when you talk with other people?”
“No sir,” I said. “You’re the only person except Mother I can do that with. I still embarrass very easily and that sometimes leads to tears, which I desperately try to control, but I’m not always successful.”
“How about friends? Do you have any in school now?”
I thought before replying, “Not really. Usually I still eat alone in the lunchroom and most kids don’t talk to me. It’s not that they don’t like me, it’s just that they kind of ignore me. There are a few kids, all boys, I feel comfortable with even though I don’t say much to them. Then there’s Tanner. I don’t know what to make of him. When I won the award this year, he seemed pleased for me, but we almost never talk in school. If we pass each other in the hallways, we just nod or say hi and move on. So no, I don’t feel like I have any real friends.”
“Maybe that’s something you could work on next year.”
“I guess I could try, but I’m not even sure I need friends. I’m just comfortable with myself the way I am.” I knew that wasn’t really true, but I didn’t want to say to him that I was actually longing for friends.
“Okay, we can talk about that more in the fall. Meanwhile, have a good summer.”
I thanked him and left. Over the summer I sometimes thought about Mr. A. and what he had said about friends. Was there anyone in the school I really wanted for a friend? Having a friend meant sharing thoughts and feelings with them as well as doing things with them. Did I want that? I didn’t really know, but I believed that, if there was any boy I would like for a friend, it would be Tanner. I also knew he had all the friends he needed so I didn’t have a chance.
In the fall, I was an eighth grader. It felt good that, for once, there weren’t older kids in the school. Of course, that would change in high school. It seemed like in school, you worked your way up from youngest to oldest and then went back to being the youngest again. I supposed the same would be true even when I went to college.
Tanner and I were in English and history classes together that year. He seemed so confident in class. He raised his hand often and had no problems sharing his ideas or asking questions. As I watched him, my old feelings of jealousy returned. Why couldn’t I be more like that? Why was I such a wimp?
Mr. A. and I talked about that from time to time. I still shared my writing with him, but he also wanted to talk about friends and being braver in class. Finally, one day I said, “The trouble is, you want me to be someone I’m not. I don’t think I’ll ever be at ease speaking in class. I’ve tried a few times and I was really nervous. I’ve tried talking with kids, and that never went well because I didn’t seem to have anything to say. Sure, I’d like to have friends. I envy people like Tanner who are so comfortable with other kids and teachers. But that’s just not me.”
I promised him I’d keep trying, but I didn’t hold out much hope. Privately, I knew I was beginning to have a crush on Tanner, a hopeless crush, but it was there, and it didn’t go away. I began watching him in class and in the lunchroom. I was jealous of the friends he had. Occasionally he would look at me and catch me looking at him. I would quickly drop my eyes, but I couldn’t help looking up at him again.
One day in English, the teacher, Mrs. Murphy, asked me my opinion of Fagin in Oliver Twist. Without even thinking I blurted out, “I think he’s a stereotype. He’s a man who doesn’t really care about the boys; he just uses them. I think the musical of the story sugar coats him too much. He’s totally bad and we never see a truly good side of him.” As I said that last part, I realized my voice was fading away so my final words were barely audible.
I became painfully aware that everyone in the room, including Mrs. Murphy, was staring at me. I was achingly embarrassed, and I felt my face burning. I looked down at my desk and tried to control my tears.
“Gregory,” Mrs. Murphy said, “I believe you have a good insight. Why are you embarrassed about it? I’ve seen your good thinking in your written work, but are you aware that this is the first time you’ve ever offered an opinion or idea in class?”
I kept my head down and just nodded.
“I’d like to see you at the end of class for a moment.” She didn’t say it unkindly, so I decided she wasn’t unhappy with me.
“Now, class,” she continued, “what do others think?”
At first the room was silent, but then Tanner said, “I think Greg is right. I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but Fagin is a bas…” He stopped and then said, “Sorry. He’s an evil man.”
The discussion continued as others supported my idea. When the class left the room at the end of class, I remained at my desk. Mrs. Murphy came and sat on the desk next to me. That was a bit surprising, because we weren’t permitted to sit on the desks. I guess the rules for teachers were different.
“Gregory,” she asked, “can you tell me why you are so reluctant to speak in class? Did you have bad experiences doing that? Did other kids laugh at you or did a teacher embarrass you?”
Without looking at her, I said, “No, ma’am, it’s just the way I am. I’m not comfortable with sharing my ideas. I don’t know why. I usually can’t do it.” I looked up. “Today was a surprise even for me.”
“Well, I’m very glad you did it. Did you see the expressions on the other students’ faces?”
“No, ma’am, I was looking down at my desk.”
“They were as surprised as I was. Did you hear the support you got for your thinking?”
Very quietly I murmured, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Okay. I hope that will encourage you to speak up more in class. In your writing you always have worthwhile things to say, and I’ve been wishing that your classmates could hear your ideas.”
I nodded and then looked up at her. “Thank you, ma’am. I don’t know if I can do that, but I’ll try.”
After that day, Mrs. Murphy often called on me in class, even when I hadn’t raised my hand. Sometimes she asked me to share an idea I had written. Sometimes she just blindsided me, but she was never unkind. I got so I could speak in that class, although I still couldn’t in any of my others.
The next time I saw Mr. A., I told him what had happened in English class. He nodded and then asked, “Greg, I’ve been thinking. Why do you think you’re so shy and nervous?”
“I have no idea. I wish I knew.”
“Well, you know there’s a basic question about human behavior that asks how much in a person is nature and how much is nurture. If we apply that to your situation, the question would be are you shy because you were born shy or are you shy because things have happened to you that make you cautious? What do you think?”
“I don’t know. Is a person born shy? I can’t answer that.”
“Personally, I don’t believe that people are born outgoing or shy or brave or timid. I believe things happen to them when they’re young, probably very young, which affect the way they see themselves and the way they react to others. Humor me for a minute and accept what I just said as a given. In that case, you weren’t born shy or timid. Some things happened to you which made you that way. What do you suppose those things might be?”
I just shrugged my shoulders. What could have happened to me that made me the way I am? I didn’t know.
After some silence he went on, “Think about that question for a while. Look at your relationships to the people around you, all the people around you. We’ll talk about it again next week.”
Then our attention turned to a fantasy story I was writing. At home that night, as I lay in bed, I wondered about his question. All the people around me he had said. So who was around me? I thought about when I was little and began school. I knew I was already shy and timid by then. Was I born that way or did something happen to me when I was little?
I thought about that every night until Saturday, when suddenly, at supper, a light bulb went off in my head like the ones you see in comics when a character has an idea. Of course, I thought, Father! He had never praised me. He had always belittled my efforts to play sports even though I hated them and was terrible at them. He had joked about me with my brothers. Was that what happened? Was that what made me the way I am? I never thought he was intentionally mean to me, but somehow I always cringed when he looked my way. And what about my brothers? Except for Carlton, they copied him.
What if I wasn’t born that way? Did that mean I could change? The more I thought about it the more I grew determined to try.
In the lunchroom on Monday, I hesitated and then went to a table which had several boys at it. Haltingly, I asked if I could sit there. They agreed and made room for me. As I sat and listened to their chatter, I began to feel more comfortable. I didn’t speak unless someone asked me a question, but I knew that I could speak if I wanted to and they would accept me.
I realized that most middle school boys weren’t mean. They weren’t bullies. They were willing to accept me if I would reach out. Of course, that was very difficult for me, but I resolved to keep trying.
We didn’t have assigned seats in English, so that afternoon, for the first time, I sat next to Tanner. We both said hi and that was all we could say before class began, but it felt like a comfortable hi.
Since I was in the eighth grade and turning 15, I wondered if my crush on Tanner meant that I was gay. I knew that sometimes younger boys had crushes on each other, but it seemed to me that, by the time they were my age, they had become interested in girls. I certainly wasn’t, but I really didn’t want to be gay. That would just add another problem to my list of worries.
The next time I saw Mr. A. I told him my thoughts about Father. I told him about the lunch and my trying to fit in more. Of course, I didn’t tell him about my crush on Tanner. That was just too private. He smiled and asked if I thought Father hated me.
“No, I don’t think so. I believe he just doesn’t understand me. He doesn’t understand someone who isn’t good at sports, who would rather sit in his room and daydream and write. I think he’s been trying to make me into his image of what I should be and it’s just not working.”
“Have you ever said anything to him about it?”
“Goodness, no!” I exclaimed. “I’d never have the courage to do that.”
“Maybe someday you should.” After that we went on with my story.
Tanner and I did not become friends. I never suggested it because I knew I couldn’t compete with the friends he already had. But I did keep watching him, and I became aware that he was watching me. I wondered what that meant.
In March I began a story for the newspaper competition. It was different from anything I had ever written before, and if the judges wanted feelings and emotions, they could certainly find them in the story.
When I finally thought the story was as good as I could make it, I submitted it to the newspaper. Tanner and I did not discuss our stories, but we knew that this would be our last year of the competition before we grew too old.
In May, I received the invitation to the luncheon, and I made reservations for me and Mother.
The luncheon followed the same pattern as the prior two. Tanner and I sat at a table with another boy, Walter, a seventh grader, and our parents sat on the other side of the table. Tanner sat between me and Walter and kept up a steady stream of conversation as we ate. As usual, I said little.
When Mr. Scott began to announce the awards, I felt the usual tension rising and I realized that I liked the feeling. It was expectation; it was anticipation; and it was physical. I looked at Tanner and caught him looking at me. We both smiled and looked away.
When the fiction awards were announced, Walter won third place and was congratulated by Mr. Scott, who said he hoped the boy would enter again the next year.
Tanner turned to me and said, “Here we go again.”
I nodded but didn’t say anything.
In the front of the room, Mr. Scott made much of the fact that the two of us were back for the third time. He said that the selection had again been very difficult. Then he said, “Winning the award for second place is Tanner Anderson.” I’m sure my heart actually did flips in my chest.
When Tanner returned with his award, he said to me, “Congratulations again,” and grinned.
Mr. Scott then said, “The winning entry this year is unlike any we’ve received before. It tells about a middle school boy who was shy and withdrawn but who wanted a friend. Unfortunately, the boy he chose for a friend seemed out of reach, as that boy was outgoing and had many friends. I won’t tell you how the story ends, but I encourage you to read it.
“The winner for this year is Gregory Browne.”
For once, I really grinned as I walked up to receive my plaque. Back at the table I gave the plaque to Mother, who embarrassed me by standing and giving me a hug, right there in public. Yes, I was embarrassed, but the hug felt really good. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d done that.
As we exited the room, Tanner smiled, patted my back, and said, “I’ll see you Monday.” I nodded and went with Mother.
At dinner that night, Mother embarrassed me again. After the usual talk about my brothers’ latest sports activities, Mother said, “Tanner won an award today and it’s the third time he’s won.” Then she passed the plaque around the table. My brothers didn’t say anything and Father, after reading it, only grunted.
Mother wouldn’t let it go. She looked at Father and asked, “Is that all you can say? He’s been the best writer in the area for the last two years.”
Father looked at me and grudgingly said, “Congratulations,” then returned to his meal.
That was one of the few times I’d heard Mother confront Father, but it wasn’t the last.
After supper I went to my room as usual and began my homework. About 10 o’clock, I heard angry voices coming from downstairs. Well, really it was only one voice—Mother’s. She was loud and she sounded irate. She continued for nearly half an hour. Occasionally, Father tried to say something, but she just overrode him. I couldn’t make out her words, and I had no idea why she was so upset. Was it about me or had something different set her off? At last she stopped and the house grew totally silent.
I stewed about Father’s reaction to Mother’s announcement at the supper table that night and all the following day. Finally, I decided I had to say something to him, even though I knew it would take all my courage. I asked to talk with him privately after supper that evening. He looked surprised and, I thought, a little rueful, but he agreed.
We met in his office. He sat behind his desk and asked what I wanted.
I had been going over and over what I wanted to say, but I was very nervous, so it was difficult to actually say it.
Finally, I said, “Father, why is it that you praise Malcolm and Warren when they achieve something, but you never praise me?”
He didn’t respond.
“Is it because you only value sports and don’t value learning?”
Still he said nothing.
“Father,” I persisted, “I worked darned hard on that story and on the others I wrote. I won first prize, but all you could do was grunt.”
I was quiet for a few moments, but then I continued in a quieter voice, “Father, I don’t think you hate me, I’ve never thought that, but I don’t think you understand me. I don’t think you know that I need praise just like my brothers. I don’t think you understand that I work hard in school, that I’m smart, and that I do very well. I don’t think you care about that or about me at all.” By then I was crying, almost sobbing.
At last he said, “Gregory, I should have seen this coming after your mother chewed me out last night. You’re right. I don’t hate you, but I don’t understand you. I never have. I don’t understand why a growing boy doesn’t like sports. And I certainly don’t understand a son of mine who reads and writes stories and who likes school. All that is just foreign to me.”
I was quiet. I wasn’t going to let him off the hook.
“Are you angry with me like your mother is?”
I hadn’t expected that, but through my tears I answered, “Yes. I think it’s your treatment of me that’s made me shy and timid and often afraid. I don’t think I was born that way; I believe it happened because of the way you treated me.”
He nodded. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I should read your story. Maybe I should be a better father to you, but I don’t know how.”
We were both quiet for what seemed like a long time. At last he said, “I’m sorry.”
Again we were silent. Then he asked, “What can I do to make it up to you?”
“You can start by showing some interest in me. Yes, read my story, and last year’s that also won first place. Try talking to me like you cared. Try taking an interest in my education. I guess it won’t be easy for you, but it hasn’t been easy for me for the last 15 years. All I ask is that you try.”
He sighed and replied very quietly, “I will.” Then he stood, came around his desk, and offered me his hand. I took it and he pulled me to him, hugging me hard. As he held me, he said, “Until last night, I had no idea. I will try.” As I dried my tears, we left office together.
At school on Monday, Tanner met me at the front door. “We need to talk,” he said. “Can you come to my house after school?”
I was surprised. I had no idea why he wanted to talk with me, but he looked very serious, more serious than I had ever seen him. I had never been to his house and I didn’t have any idea where he lived. I told him I’d check with Mother and let him know later. As usual, I sat next to him in English class, but we just said our usual hi to each other.
The school had a rule about not using cellphones anywhere but at lunch, so I couldn’t call Mother until then. All morning I wondered about Tanner’s invitation and what he wanted. Mother gave me permission and said that if I needed a ride home, she would pick me up. At the beginning of gym class, I told Tanner I could go to his house and he told me to meet him outside the school on the front steps.
After school, we met as arranged and went to his bus. We talked a little during the ride, but I could tell he had something on his mind that he didn’t want to discuss until we got to his house.
The bus dropped us off and we walked the block-and-a-half to his house. It was bigger than mine and quite impressive. When we went in, we both said hi to his mother and then Tanner directed me upstairs to his bedroom. He motioned me to sit on his desk chair while he sat on his bed. I looked at him quizzically.
“Greg,” he began very seriously, “I think you cheated on the newspaper contest.”
I froze. How could I have cheated? Did he think I had gotten some help writing my story?
He went on, “I don’t think that what you wrote was fiction. I think it was autobiographical.”
Ah. I understood him. I thought for a moment and then said, “It was partly that, but most of the events were fictional. After all, don’t authors use their own experiences when they write?”
He nodded, still looking very serious. But then he broke into gales of laughter. When he calmed down some, he said, “I couldn’t keep that up any longer. Of course it’s fiction, but it’s also about you isn’t it?”
I was relieved and I couldn’t deny what he had said.
Becoming more serious again, he went on, “Furthermore, I think the boy your character wanted as a friend is actually me.”
Busted! Did I want to tell him? At last I nodded.
“Why haven’t you said anything?” he asked.
“You know me well enough to know I was too shy to say anything.”
He smiled his beautiful smile before saying, “Let me tell you something. In your story you say I have lots of friends because you always see me with a bunch of boys. Greg, those aren’t friends, they’re acquaintances. A friend is someone you share things with. You do things together, like going to the movies, or working on homework together. You share your ideas and feelings together. I don’t do that with any of those boys. I’ve wanted to have a real friend for so long, and to be honest, I’ve wanted that friend to be you.
“Oh, I know. I think at first we were jealous of each other. Sometimes I wished I could be more private. I saw you being that way and I actually envied you. I think you were jealous of my being with the boys and maybe you were jealous of my winning the story prize in sixth grade. But I got over the jealousy, and I began to see that you were hurting. I was so happy when you won the prize last year. I hoped it would make a difference for you, but it didn’t seem to. I was happy for you when you finally spoke up in English class, and I was happy for you when you won the prize this year.
“I read your story and the one from last year, which I kept. I decided you’re really a better writer than I am, so I envy you that a bit, but I’m not jealous. I just want to be your friend.”
My heart was pounding, but I was puzzled, so I asked him, “You asked me why I didn’t say anything before, but why didn’t you?”
“Because I was afraid you wouldn’t want to be my friend. Oh, I saw you looking at me, but I had no idea what those looks meant.”
I blurted out, “God, I wish we’d said something a long time ago.”
He laughed and then turned serious again before saying, “Okay, I’m gonna be really brave here and I hope I don’t make you angry.”
What now? I wondered.
“Greg, I thought I saw just a couple of little clues in your story that you might…” He paused and took a deep breath. “That you might be gay.”
Shit! I thought. Was that in the story? I certainly didn’t mean it to be, and I hoped that other people hadn’t seen that as well.
He was looking at me for my reaction, and he looked very worried. I’ve had 15 years of experience hiding my reactions. For a long time I didn’t answer.
At last I said, “Yeah, I think maybe I am, although I’ve not really had a chance to test that out.”
Looking very relieved, he patted the bed beside him, saying, “Greg, come and sit beside me.”
By then I was in a cold sweat and my heart was jumping around like a frog inside me. Finally, I went and sat beside him.
“Greg,” he said, “I’m gay, and I guess that’s the reason I haven’t made any real friends at school. I enjoy them but I try to keep a distance between me and them. I’m tired of that distance. Greg, will you be my friend?”
He took my hand and then, completely surprising me, he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “Maybe we’ll just be friends,” he said, “and that’s okay with me. Maybe, as we get to know each other, we’ll be more than friends. I would certainly like that. But I think we need to go slow and learn about each other bit by bit.”
I nodded, but I couldn’t help what I did next. I leaned over and kissed him—on the lips.
When we broke the kiss, he held me close. Looking into my eyes, he asked, “Do you think you could sleep over here next weekend? You can see I have two beds, so we don’t need to do anything, but I want to spend time with you. Would you do that?”
Although I had never had a sleepover before, I agreed. Neither one of us had any idea what this friendship would lead to. Maybe nothing; maybe a lot. But we both felt ready to take the first steps.
Mother came and picked me up. I asked her about a sleepover. Since I had never been on one before, she looked surprised but then nodded and said, “Of course.”
For the rest of the week, I was again floating on air. I sat at Tanner’s lunch table and got to know his friends better, even though he had said they weren’t real friends. I guess ‘friends’ can mean more than one thing.
On Friday, I dug out Carlton’s old sports bag and packed pajamas, my toothpaste and toothbrush, spare clothing, and, of course, a book. At school, I put the bag in my locker to retrieve at the end of the day.
At the end of school, Tanner and I rode the bus to his house. Between us, hidden by our legs, we held hands.
And that’s the end of my story, most of which is very much like the story I had submitted to the newspaper.
The book, Lost on a Mountain in Maine, is, as I wrote, real. I encourage you to read it. Donn’s language is definitely dated, but his experiences, as he tells them, are real and full of his emotions.
Many, many thanks to my editors, who keep me toeing the line. They are a great help and support.