During my fleeting tenure as a summer school English teacher in a Bay Area high school, one of my favorite jams was to tell the kids that “life is a story.” We had a lot of time to kill during those two months, and when we weren’t watching The Jerry Springer Show or CNN, we’d hold informal group conversations. Sort of like an “Ask Me Anything” type-deal. Many times I tried to work our reading assignments into the dialogue, but they generally were not interested in talking about Their Eyes Were Watching God.
At some point in the first semester, they were asking me all sorts of questions about my life, particularly my wayward youth. They were insatiably curious about how I wound up a summer school teacher—and a substitute teacher no less—when clearly I was the highest guy the room. There was no doubt about that. Anyway, I was telling them about the time I saved my friend from drowning in a quarry after jumping off a 50-foot cliff, and in order to clearly demonstrate the heroism and danger involved, I needed to diagram the location on the dry erase board. We spent the rest of the day developing this concept called “Story Time”, which basically involved me spending an entire hour telling a story, usually using the dry erase board to draw maps and diagrams, but also to spell out and define words they didn’t understand, like for instance, euphemism. Sometimes I asked for volunteers to act out certain scenes. As shoddy and lazy as my methods were, the kids loved it and I truly believe they learned something from me. Exactly what that was I’ll never know.
The following is a chapter of an extended short-story entitled “The Substitute”, which is part of an unpublished manuscript I’ve had sitting on ice for about a year. Though fictionalized and paraphrased, it is based entirely on a true story. Only the names and location has been changed.
June 26, 2003 – 8:32:06 – Terra Nova High School – Room 156
Nice little earthquake. Lasted about 30 seconds. The building is still shaking. I should have started class exactly 22 minutes ago but the kids are glued to CNN and I’m not in the mood to disturb the peace just yet. They’ve surprisingly—almost shockingly—opted for part two of a lecture on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and the Art of Storytelling versus a Current Events Roundtable or the ever-popular Quiet Reading Time. They’re going to make me earn it today, I can feel it. The big stories on CNN: Garfield is celebrating his 25th anniversary, or should I say birthday(?) and Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman may or may not been involved in the capture of that Max Factor pervert-fugitive in Mexico. It’s a slow Thursday. At 8:35:00, the little brown girl whose mother works in the attendance office, will knock, enter, and take the attendance report from the wire basket on my desk. Then we’ll begin. I see Arthur Tang actually has shoes on today. That’s a plus.
At 8:35:43, I walk to the middle of the room, press MUTE on the TV remote control, fist-bump Ethan Jaffe sitting in the front row as per our custom, and begin.
Good morning, people…. Well, today, we’re going to take an unscheduled little detour from Hemingway and The Old Man and the Sea…but I was thinking about it and…those of you reading the book should be up to page eighty-seven, I believe, if I’m not mistaken, the part where Santiago has just tied the marlin, “the great fish,” to the side of his boat…. And Hemingway writes, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated…”
Jaycee Blick looks relieved since she hasn’t read a word of the book. Alberto Hernandez and Hector Velarde are locked in a game of Roshambo while Raphael Hoya looks on. Liz Dickenson, Seraphina DeFiglio, Tammy Celinski aka The Predator, and Natalie Sun, esp. Natalie Sun, are all gazing at me with that look many heterosexual male HS teachers have to resist on a daily basis. Rest assured Natalie Sun, class of 2004, had it been another place, another time, your love would have been requited.
Hemingway once said that life is a series of stories. You tell stories every day, starting with something you do a hundred times a day, answering a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ question. It’s easy to start telling a story, it’s almost automatic. We do it without thinking about it. Excuses are stories, too…. Most stories are true. Sometimes people tell stories that aren’t true but that doesn’t make it any less of a story unless you’re a journalist and responsible for the veracity of your written work.
I was expecting Natalie Sun’s hand to shoot skyward and hear, “So what exactly does veracity mean?” but she was already deep in the process of writing me an embroidered love letter. Instead it was pudgy Liz D., who had no business in summer school, in fact, her work was consistently university-level, who spoke up, “Um, like, yeah, they [“they” meaning the majority of her knuckleheaded classmates who wound up in summer school because they can’t read or write at a sophomore level, unlike Liz here, who is merely doing time because she took seven too many free days in the Spring semester] don’t know what veracity means.” Miranda Ruiz seconded the motion.
Accuracy, truth, credibility, honesty….got it, Miranda? For instance, I never question the veracity of your excuses for not turning in assignments. Whether or not you are telling the apparent truth is the veracity of your story.
“Oh…OK,” Miranda says, nodding her head, smacking her lips. Seraphina DiFiglio sighs.
Simplicity was Hemingway’s trademark and he believed that who, what, where, when, how, and why are the six essential building blocks of any story. Please, listen very carefully to the next sentence.
I pause for effect and proceed to write the following on the dry-erase board and read it out loud:
It was hot on Sunday, so I rode my bicycle to the lake and went for a swim.
There’s a complete story in that one compound sentence, compound meaning it expresses more than one idea. Who? Me. What? I went swimming. Where? At the lake. When? Says here, Sunday. How did I get there? On my bicycle. Why?… Uh-huh, it was hot. Hemingway is also famous for what many of us consider the shortest story ever written. Have a look at this.
I return to the board and write:
For sale: used baby shoes.
They are not impressed. Alberto H., who I assumed wouldn’t be paying attention until I got to the part about my cousin going to jail, surprisingly pipes up, “That’s stupid.” I shoot him a look that says, “You’re one or two words from going home” and he pulls his hat down over his eyes and slumps in his chair.
Liz D. says, “What I want to know is if there’s ever a time when we are not telling stories, like, when I’m just talking to my friends?”
OK, Liz, when you’re talking with friends, you’re actually doing one of two things: exchanging little stories or creating them. They don’t have to consist of complex compound sentences. I’m telling you a story right now. It’s about how life is a story. Most people have two or three stories they tell all day. Either they were able to do something or they weren’t. They wanted something or they didn’t. They could do something or they couldn’t.
Arthur Tang’s head goes down on the desk with a solid BONK, jolting Nathan M. from his mild catatonia and eliciting snickers from Mike Trimble, Cody Allen, and several other seniors who I really shouldn’t let sit anywhere near each other but I’ve found it’s better to keep the trouble-makers in clustered locations. I couldn’t put the gargantuan Scott Kobelsky next to the criminally insane Juan Vargas. There’d be trouble. Alberto H. can only sit next to Hector V. and Raphael H., all three of whom sit in a haphazard triangle at the front of my desk, where I can keep a close watch on their activities. Otherwise there might be warfare, for real. And I wouldn’t dream of separating the bad-ass Latina contingent of Lita Cabrea, Miranda Ruiz, Felipa Sul, and perhaps the only person in the room I consciously fear, Reyna Sanchez.
Obviously, I’m not talking about literary fiction. I’m talking about every day life. When you go to college, and I sincerely hope all of you have that penciled in somewhere on your calendar, I believe you will find this lecture a bit more appropriate… But no matter where you are headed in life, you will be telling stories. In this class, you’re reading books and writing essays. Essays are formal stories with an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. You establish your thesis, hypothesis, or main idea in the introduction; go about proving it in the body with supporting evidence, and sum it all up in the conclusion…right?
For the most part, I let them sit wherever they want. Most of the human beings attached to the eighteen names I’ve already mentioned are the kids that demand semi-strict and occasionally-immediate attention, and represent 51.4% of the population. The rest of ‘em, the Winter Pattersons, Dylan Millers and Ashley Camerons, more or less fade into the background. It’s funny how they all arrange themselves in the room. Aside from the Mara 13 wanna-be set of Alberto, Hector, and Raphael, I didn’t have to tell anybody where to sit.
You all remember who-what-where-when-how- and sometimes-why, right? Someday, you’ll most likely go on a job interview. You’ll most likely be pulled over by the police for reasons only you know. You’ll most likely meet someone whom you’d like to marry. Everything you say from the moment those events take place will involve a story. They all want to know who you are, what you’re doing here, when did you get here, where are you going, how did you get here, and why? Your prospective employer may ask, “What skills do you have that will benefit or complement the company?” The police may ask for you license, registration, insurance card, and say, “Did you know you were going forty-five in a thirty zone?” Your future spouse will ask a lot of questions and you will be telling a lot of stories. Trust me on that one…. But…. Do you see the pattern?
Liz D., Scott Kobelsky, and Alberto H. (now back in the game) make affirmative eye contact while the rest of the class stares blankly at the TV. Seraphina D. is trying to be discrete about texting a message on her cell phone, which I appreciate in spades.
So…. if life is all about stories, then stories are all about how you tell them. My cousin Ricky always starts his stories with the Why? For instance, he had yet another run-in with the cops and here’s how he explained it to me, on the phone I might add, while asking me to bail him out.
‘This little prick wouldn’t give me a pack of matches,’ Ricky tells me, ‘so I punched him in the face.’
The class laughs out loud. Trimble and Allen high five. Arthur Tang lifts his head from the desktop for a moment. Even Nathan M. is clearly enjoying this part of the lecture. I continue.
That’s a solid Why? isn’t it? It satisfies the Why requirement of the story since I asked Ricky, why is he in jail, again? But it’s out of chronological order—not by design, either—and it doesn’t tell the whole story. The story goes like this.
Ricky and his friends were on their way to a party. It was well past midnight. They stopped at a 7-Eleven to buy beer and cigarettes. Ricky went in alone. During the transaction he asked the clerk for a pack of matches and the clerk said, ‘We ain’t got none.’
Ricky said, ‘What? That’s bullshit. I don’t believe you. I been gettin’ my matches at this here 7-Eleven since I started smoking. Lemme talk to your manager.’
The clerk said, ‘I’m the manager. You gotta problem, buddy?’
Ricky said, ‘I asked this n-word for a pack of matches and he won’t give ‘em to me.’
The clerk, who was white, said, ‘That’s because we don’t give away matches no more and I’m going to call the cops if you don’t leave, now.’
At which point, Ricky reached across the counter and punched the guy in the face. The clerk hit the PANIC button and ran in back. Ricky took the beer and the cigarettes and walked out of the 7-Eleven like Vincent Gallo in Brown Bunny, a terrible movie but sympathetic to my characterization nonetheless.
The cops were there ‘like Shazam!’ Ricky said. Ricky went to jail. He was charged with assault as well as petty theft because he walked out of the 7-Eleven without paying. He first called me, ironically I don’t know why, and then called my aunt at three in the morning to come and get him from the police station….
So, what does this have to do with the story Hemingway is trying to tell us in The Old Man and the Sea? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. But maybe the great fish Santiago has just finally reeled in represents anything and everything than man is searching for in life, regardless of whether or not he finds it, for better or worse. As those of us who are reading Siddhartha can tell you, the more you look, the less you find.
Now… Who can tell me what Ricky was looking for?
“He wanted a pack of matches,” says the Predator. “To light his smoke.”
And what did he find?
“The inside of a jail cell,” said Liz D. I look at the clock. 8:49:39. Five more hours to go. God willing, we just might learn something today.
 The word ‘nigger’ or any variation thereof was completely verboten in this class. On the third day, numb-skull Hector V. walked in to 156 at 7:57:21 and greeted Alberto H. with a hand-grip and, “S’up, my nigga?” I was sitting on the edge of my desk chatting with Ethan Jaffe. “Hector,” I said, “on what fucking planet do you think that’s appropriate?” Hector spread out his arms and said, “Sorry, Birch, but school ain’t even in session. Ain’t nothing you can do.” He turned to Alberto H. and said, “Shit, you believe this nigga?” Hector found very quickly that there was plenty I could do. Meanwhile, at 8:10:34, minus Hector V., the rest of the class was treated to a 20-minute lecture titled, “Words I Never Want to Hear Come Out of Your Fucking Mouths.”