Book 2: The Return Home

by Rick Beck

Chapter 8

Inherit the Wind

It was a week after Thanksgiving when the dress rehearsal of the senior play was presented to the student body. We'd then perform it for a paying audience Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon before the play was retired for a year or two.

Wednesday night we spent hours putting the scenery in place and anchored as well as getting all the props ready. We wore our costumes so they'd feel familiar and some last minute alterations were necessary.

The actors fed one another random lines so no matter where in the play it was, a proper response was the only response. Mr. Elliot employed this tactic to get us to relate to our dialogue front to back and inside out. Luckily the two stars were most often the victims and rarely stumped for something to say, even if it wasn't the exact line in the script. It surprised me that I knew all their lines almost as well as they did.

I got stumped a few times, because my mind worked on an organized track and once I got into the random query, I might not get the right answer. All my lines came in response to lines from the two stars and they knew the script frontwards or backwards. So, that didn't scare me, but being on the stage in front of eight hundred people scared the shit out of me.

I had this annoying little niggle in the back of my head all week that week. It was something like one of Poe's stories. I knew something was coming, but for the life of me I didn't have a clue what it was. It was likely just the fact that I had to stand up, or sit down, in front of all those people and remember my name and a lot more.

Mr. Elliot reminded me that I was simply a biology teacher caught up in a whirlwind. In the end I was still the simple man who believed he wasn't qualified to teach creationism because it didn't have anything to do with biology, which was what he'd studied to teach. It was a simple concept that became surrounded by the national media frenzy. It had become Creationism vs. Biology.

I could grasp the concept of having a simple mission in mind. I sat in on several biology classes, which Mr. Elliot cleared with the teacher. No one knew why I sat in the back of the room or that it was preparation for my role. It was all informative and helpful but the niggle didn't leave and was likely to last until Sunday night.

Thursday morning I wasn't able to eat breakfast. Simon and I walked to school and nearly froze our butts off. The Minnesota winter had been a long time coming, but it was making up for lost time. While walking was cold and took longer, riding our bikes became tricky in the gusty wind and I couldn't cover up enough body parts to get any warmth. Walking meant a less intense beating, but I'd have traded either for a nice warm bus ride.

Simon was cheerful and polite enough not to mention the play. I was nervous and my stomach got upset as soon as my mother made me breakfast. Now my stomach was somewhere between growling and vomiting up the breakfast I didn't eat. The cold simply took my attention away from the misery my body decided to visit upon me.

I had the most time on my hands with drama, lunch, and another drama class after lunch. When Mr. Elliot thought I looked a little green around the gills, he sent me to get a cup of tea and dry toast. It did take the growl out of my stomach, which helped but my newly acquired nervous condition wasn't going anywhere until Sunday night after the final curtain came down on he play.

The only nightmares I'd had that week were of me standing naked, center stage, and not remembering a damn thing. I couldn't go back to my regular nightmares, which I preferred. At least I was able to run in them. Now, faced with my first stage appearance, all I could do was to wait.

I was dressed an hour before the first students started to take their seats. There was a constant rustling after that and I forgot about the noise after a few minutes. My mind started going over my lines once I was ready to go onto the stage. I'd sit at the defense table long before I was called to the stand.

Once the curtain opened, I was able to calm down as I listened to the cadence of the other player's lines. It was comforting to know it was going well as they prepared the stage for the key witness, me. I knew every line and each response, which kept me from worrying about my own lines. I had no idea I knew the play as well as I did. This was more comforting to me than anything else. Even if I blew a line, I knew they wouldn't let me fall on my face. It was going to be okay.

I stood, taking a seat in the witness chair once I was called. I identified my character for the audience and was waiting for the first question to be fired at me, so I could get in the rhythm of the play.

"Billie Joe's a fag. He's got AIDS," came a cry from the back of the auditorium.

"Jesus Christ," I said, as the curtain came swishing across the stage in front of me and a major disturbance disrupted in the back of the auditorium. "Jesus Christ!"

Tears just started flowing from my eyes. I'd had to walk a fine line at school and had done so with only a minimum of disruption. The niggle was no longer in the back of my head; it struck me between the eyes.

I couldn't stop crying as people huddled around me. I was ruined. Nothing I did would make any difference from here on out. Voices all talked to me at once. I couldn't understand any of them. I sat stunned in the middle of what had been the senior play. I'd ruined everything for everyone by taking the part.

"Billie Joe, are you listening to me," Mr. Crockett said as he put his face in mine.

"Yes, sir," I sobbed and started crying harder.

"You owe me an impromptu speech. Do you remember the one I told you to give if you wanted to beat those knuckleheads?"

"Yes, sir," I said, smiling at the word he used.

"Do you want to save the play? You're the only one who can do it."

"Yes, sir," I said. My tears stopped as I listened to Mr. Crockett.

"Are you mad?"

"Yes, sir," I said bitterly.

"Are you mad enough to go out there and nail the speech I told you to give?"

"Yes, sir," I said firmly, taking a wet towel Mr. Elliot handed me to wipe my face.

"Do you know who you are?"

"Yes, sir."

"No, you aren't Billie Joe. You are John Scopes, biology teacher. I want you to give your speech as though you are John Scopes, biology teacher. Think about this. I want you to stay in character and step out in front of the curtain to address the issue those knuckleheads have tried to hurt you with. Can you do it? It's the only way we can go on with the play. If you can go out there and sell it, we'll b able to open the curtain on the trial where we left off," Mr. Crockett explained to me.

"He's right, Billie Joe. You can't go out there as anyone but John Scopes. If you stay in character, deliver your speech, you can save the play. Can you?" Mr. Elliot asked.

I thought for a moment as everyone from the play stood around me and the audience buzzed just beyond the curtain. I thought of all the work done to be able to present the play to the public.

"I can do it," I said, determined to do it.

"Remember, our speech class is out there somewhere. That's who you are talking to," Mr. Crockett reminded me. "Get me a piece of paper."

Someone ripped a piece of paper from a notebook and handed it to Mr. Crocket. He placed it on the defense table and wrote across it in big letters. He handed me the sheet of paper. I laughed.

"Fold it up and put it inside your coat pocket. You'll know when to look at it," he said, patting my back as I stood.

"Who are you?" Mr. Elliot asked, as the people parted to give me a path to the curtain.

"I'm John Scopes, biology teacher," I said, straightening my suit.

"Find the break in the curtain so this man can save our play," Mr. Elliot said. Happy smiling faces met me as I stepped to where the two stagehands pulled the curtain aside for me to come face to face with the audience.

There was an instant buzz that progressed from the front of the auditorium to the back. Teachers quieted the reaction to my appearance. The spotlight surprised me, lighting only my section of the stage. I reminded myself of who I was and prayed my voice didn't squeak when I spoke.

"I'm John Scopes," I said.

There was another buzz with the teachers' hushing the noise.

"I'm a biology teacher. My story is a simple one. I'm not a minister or a preacher and therefore I wouldn't know how to teach Creationism. I do know how to teach biology.

"The new law just passed by the state of Tennessee legislature says that I can't teach anything that denies the creation. I don't know that biology denies the creation. Biology is science and isn't meant to explain things that are based on faith.

"I have no proof of the creation, but I have faith my minister knows about it. How can a teacher do justice to God's creation with any understanding? I would never claim to understand God or explain his creation. That's way too big an assignment for a biology teacher.

"As a biology teacher, I can speak about… biology."

There was silence as I got to my point.

"I understand how things grow and multiply. When it comes to humans, we multiply by having intercourse. This would more commonly be referred to as having sex."

The buzz ran through the audience without the teachers quieting it.

"For humans there are certain precautions necessary to stay healthy and not overpopulate the planet. While abstinence is the only safe way to stay healthy sexually, some of us aren't able to abstain."

There was laughter and more buzzing. The audience reacted predictably as I steered my speech into the right direction.

"As your reaction indicates, many teens are said to be sexually active. If you aren't abstinent, there is only one way to be sure you are safe and aren't at risk of getting or spreading an STD. It only requires a simple blood test to make certain you and your partner are healthy.

"You might wonder what the test results might look like, once you've had the blood test. Well, I just happen to have my results with me. It might look like this," I said, reaching into my inside pocket and removing the piece of paper Mr. Crockett wrote on.

I shook it so it would unfold and reveal the word to the audience:

NEGATIVE.

The laughter started in the front row as they read the word and processed the message. As the laughter rolled toward the back of the auditorium, I was at a loss for how to get off the stage now that I'd delivered the punch line.

Someone started to clap near the door where George made his exit with substantial help. It was Mr. Lindsey. Other people started to clap and the laughter quieted. I took a bow just as an arm reached through the curtain to pull me out of sight. The audience howled with laughter at my unexpected disappearance.

I was met backstage with smiles and more laughter as Mr. Elliot instructed us to take our places from where we'd left off. Mr. Crockett hugged me tightly before sitting me down to get a makeup renewal.

I expected him to say, 'what a guy,' but he resisted any such impulse for which I was thankful.

Simon stood in front of me smiling his approval without saying anything.

Mr. Elliot slipped out in front of the curtain to apologize for the interruption and to set the scene for us to pickup where we'd left off.

I was questioned by one attorney and then the other before sitting back down at the defense table, once I'd finished my lines.

It was a relief to know all I had to do was keep from falling off my chair and I'd escape our dress rehearsal with no more than a headache and apprehension about what might confront me the next three times we performed the play.

The applause and closing curtain meant the hard part was over. There was a curtain call and then the lights came up as the students made their noisy exit. I was left feeling drained. I'd never expected our dress rehearsal would be a test of endurance. For the first time that day I wasn't nervous. When I sat down, the emotions caught up with me again. I couldn't stop the tears; I felt like a baby.

Simon stood next to me as some of the cast came over to say thanks as they got ready to leave. I knew it wasn't about my performance and it certainly wasn't about my crying. I didn't know what was wrong with me but I hoped it would pass soon.

Everyone treated me really nice, which bothered me. I'd gone from being hardly noticed, except for when I blew a line, to being someone everyone felt obligated to talk to. I was fine with being a bit player that got no attention. That was what made being in the play painless.

Simon got a jar of cold cream and smeared it on my face before using a towel to wipe it and my makeup off. I didn't feel much like going out in public in makeup, not that afternoon anyway.

"Thanks," I said, as Simon came back to stand next to me.

"We can leave any time you say," he said. "You aren't staying here until it's time for tomorrow's performance, are you?"

"No," I said, not sure I wasn't going to keep crying.

"You did fine," he said, not overselling his opinion.

"Yeah, just great. I was a regular shooting star."

"You saved the play. They couldn't have gone on with it if you hadn't gone out there."

"I should have known better than to take the part. I was too chicken shit to say no. I almost ruined it."

"No you didn't. George Phelps almost ruined it. You'll feel better tomorrow," Simon said.

"Sure I will. I'll forget about the entire school knowing my business. I should have never come back here," I said.

"Don't be silly. You'd never have become my friend if you hadn't come back. That must be worth something," he said, giving me a smirk when I looked at him.

"It shouldn't be this hard, Simon. I just want to go to school and be left alone. Why are people so fucking hateful? I never did anything to George Phelps or his idiot friends. Why do I have to put up with their shit?"

"Come on. Let's go. You need to get something to eat and a good night's sleep. You'll be fine tomorrow."

"You think so?"

"Yeah, you've done it once. It'll be a piece of cake in front of adults."

"Maybe."

By the time I got home I felt as if I hadn't slept in a week and I was frozen inside and out. Simon stayed with me until I opened the front door and went inside.

"How'd it go, dear," my mother sang, as she put dishes on the dinning room table for dinner.

"Fine," I said. "I'm tired. I think I'll go lie down. I didn't sleep last night. Don't wake me up for dinner."

"Oh, Billie Joe, you need to eat," she protested.

"I know," I said as I made my way upstairs.

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