Monday, May 09, 2005

Jack of hearts

In the back row, behind the fake 'n' bake gigglers, behind the heavy-lidded soccer jocks, behind the cute freckle-faced kid whose favorite movie was Donnie Darko, sat Jack. At first glance, you'd peg Jack as a skater punk. He wore baggy shorts that hit mid-calf, flip-flops, old T-shirts and a gimme cap pulled so low over his brow you could just see nostrils and a crooked smirk.

The first two weeks of writing class, Jack said nary a word, except a low "Yo" when I called the roll. He slumped in his chair and frequently stared out the window at the pair of green dumpsters behind the student dining hall. Sometimes the cooks and busboys smoke out there between meals. Jack flew low on the classroom radar.

Then he turned in the first assignment. I'd asked them to write a "dramatic moment" from their lives. Didn't have to be earth-shattering. Just something interesting, a moment in time that they remembered and could describe in the active voice with lots of good details. It's really just a trial-run assignment to let me assess their basic skills. I don't expect much and that's what I usually get.

I read lots of sad stories about grandma's funeral, or about the time the cheerleading team was announced and Ashley's name wasn't on it (quel tragique!). One girl wrote about breaking her sandal on a big date. Another wrote about splitting her pants in class. I've read a few DWI arrests, a pregnancy scare, prom night disasters and car wrecks on the highway. When you're 19, not that many dramatic things have happened yet (if you're lucky). Many's the time a student has whined, "But I don't have anything to write about!"

Then came Jack's story. It began the way some good movies do -- right in the middle of a big action scene. It was the state basketball finals and Jack was in the grandstands watching his best friend since grade school play for their high school team. Already, wrote Jack, his friend Pete was a big star. Pete had a basketball scholarship waiting at a Big 10 school. And at the game that day, an ESPN crew hovered on the sidelines for a post-victory interview.

The first half of the game was all Pete's. Dominating from the freethrow line, he was high scorer and the team was ahead by a big margin. Sitting next to Jack in the stands was Pete's mom. "Like a second mom to me," wrote Jack. They thrilled at every play Pete made.

So I'm reading along, figuring this is a sports story about someone else's dramatic moment: Pete's. And I'm marking the misplaced modifiers and putting checkmarks in the margin to indicate misspelled words.

Then I turn the page and the story takes a turn. "Suddenly I see Pete stumble and look toward the bench," wrote Jack. "He takes a couple of steps and then he falls hard to the floor. The arena goes dead quiet."

Here, Jack jump-cuts to the waiting room in the hospital. Jack and Pete's mom have followed the ambulance and are waiting for the doctors to emerge from the ER. Out come two doctors in green scrubs. "I'm sorry," one says to Pete's mom. "It was his heart." Birth defect. Undetected. Sudden death.

Pete's mom can't hear what's being said. "Is it his knee?" she asks the doctor. "Does he need surgery?"

"I'm sorry, ma'am. Your son is dead.''

"She just starts screaming `No, no, no!''' wrote Jack. "She collapses in my arms and keeps saying, `My son! My son!'''

Jump-cut again. Now Jack is in the packed church where Pete's funeral is going on a few days later. He describes the scene of teen-agers, teachers, coaches, parents, reporters, Pete's devastated family. He describes the too-sweet smell of the flowers and the mournful moan of the organ music.

"And now it's my turn," writes Jack. "I'm supposed to get up there and deliver the eulogy for my best friend who's dead.

"I walk up the steps to the place where the minister stands. I turn and face everyone. I'm supposed to know what to say right now. Supposed to say just the right thing. But this was my best friend who was like a brother since we were 5 years old. And I have seen him die. So I think I'll just stand here for a minute and cry."

The end.

I've cried over student writing before. I'm kind of a weeper anyway, particularly with stories of kids dying young. But now I found myself choked up not just for Pete and his mom, but for Jack. For his loss and for his courage in writing this all down. I felt privileged to be the first to read it.

Besides being the best "dramatic moment" I'd ever read, this story did all the things real writers do. It was simple and conversational. It was unpretentious, honest and spare. There was that unexpected turn in the middle and then the jump-cuts from scene to wrenching scene. Jack maintained his POV in every sentence. And he led me right to the moment where he was standing silently, staring out at the hundreds of sad faces at Pete's funeral.

Stunning. Powerful. This is a writer, I thought as I flipped back through the 12-page story. This is the real thing.

I asked Jack to read his story to the class. He did. There were more tears (from me and them). And after that day, Jack talked more. The class regarded him with a kind of awe. He wrote other stories, good ones.

Jump-cut. Four years later. I've read Jack's story to every class since and it never fails to move them and to make them try to write better. I used to see Jack around campus, but some time ago I lost track of him. Someone told me he took a semester off and didn't come back to college. Another student told me he transferred to major in advertising.

Wherever you are, Jack, I haven't forgotten you. Keep writing, kid. Keep writing.

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