A Conversation With Carlton

by Rick Beck

Part 13

"I'd never considered the idea I could be a writer before I wrote the novella length story, and I dropped it on Tommy's desk."

"Do you know how amazing that is?" Carlton asked.

"Shh!" I said.

"Sorry," he said.

"Maybe I wasn't stupid. I wasn't so stupid that I couldn't learn to read, but learning to write was never a consideration, until that day, while walking across the Census Bureau parking lot, on my way home. I'll write a story and make Tommy and me the heroes ."

"I couldn't have written a story before my ordeal with reading. My understanding of words was minimal, and I couldn't spell, but I could write, and I did write, and the story I wrote was in the composition book in my hand, as I stood in front of the class."

" Hello, it's me again , I thought to myself. I will now read to you ."

" Oh, no. Not again, I heard inside my head."

Carlton laughed.

I smiled.

"My feeling of accomplishment was doubled by the way the day had gone. While I read, Tommy sat enraptured. The entire class heard me telling Tommy how much his friendship meant to me, and any future writing I did, would be for Tommy. My friend inspired me.

At the end of the 2nd quarter, Mr. Warnock gave me an A, to join the A in gym class. I looked at that report card for a long time. The second A told me something I didn't realize before. I could fool people into thinking I wasn't stupid. I'd always been stupid, and one or two things wouldn't undo that.

I'd been the class clown in 7th grade. It was easier to be laughed with, than laughed at. When I started 8th grade, I was the class clown, except Mr. Warnock wasn't having it.

The A didn't mean what everyone else thought it meant. My parents were thrilled. They'd thought the A in gym, was something, when the rest of my report card was the pits, confirming what I knew.

There wasn't that big an impact for me, because I knew the A was a one time deal, because I wrote a story. I didn't know if I had enough words inside me to write another one.

Before Christmas, Mr. Warnock made an announcement to his 8th grade CORE class.

"Starting at the beginning of the new year, I am going to name one student, who will do a special project for me. It will become part of the class each Friday. I'll name the student I select, after the holidays. Have a nice Christmas."

It was the day before Christmas Eve, and I walked Tommy home, and we threw the football around in Tommy's backyard. When we went back into the house, because our hands were frozen, Tommy made a prediction. I hadn't given Mr. Warnock's comment a second thought.

"It's going to be you," Tommy said.

"What's going to be me?" I asked.

"You're the one he'll pick," Tommy predicted.

"Don't be silly. I'm dumb as a rock. He doesn't want me to do his special project," I said.

"It's going to be you," Tommy said, and he said no more about it.

We didn't see each other over the holidays, so I forgot about his prediction. I felt good that Tommy believed in me that much, but I knew more about myself than anyone else did.

On the first day back in school, I couldn't wait to get off the bus and see Tommy. We met in the hall and we walked and talked, as usual, making it to CORE class just before the late bell rang. I didn't even mind being back in CORE class.

"The first order of business this morning, I'm going to name a student who will be in charge of giving current events to the class each Friday, during the second period. I'll expect that student to read the papers, listen to newscasts, and gather the facts about what is happening in the world that week," Mr. Warnock said.

"It will be entirely up to the student what he thinks is important enough to report on, and how much time he gives each story. There will be a broadcast booth in the back of the room, and that week's current events will be broadcast to the class. Charles, I decided that this is a job you will do well. Starting this Friday, you'll be giving your newscast, so you need to get busy reading the newspapers, selecting which stories you want to report on."

I was a bit stunned. It's not what I expected.

Tommy turned around to say, "I told you so."

Yes, he did, but how was I going to do, what Mr. Warnock told me I would do. I was among the illiterate a short time before, and now I was to monitor newspapers, magazines, and news reports.

"You'll figure it out," Mr. Warnock told me. "I trust you'll do a good job. Do it your own way. That will be fine."

Vegging out in front of the television, once I gobbled dinner and was excused was out. Now I perused the Washington Post & Times Harold, Evening Star, and the News, newspapers. Each evening I sat in front of the news reports, becoming a news junky.

Once I'd gathered the material I needed, I retired to my bedroom and wrote my script, using the stories I thought contained original, as well as, unique information. The day of my first broadcast was approaching, Thursday night, I gathered together the pieces of my script, and I read through it.

On Friday, after first period, Mr. Warnock came back to introduce me to the broadcast booth he'd constructed behind my desk. That's why he picked me. I had to go the least distance to get to where I'd give my first, once weekly, broadcast.

Mr. Warnock showed me how to turn the microphone on. He showed me the settings on the amp, and said to keep it between 3 and 4, which would eliminate feedback.

There might be feedback?

As I got into my broadcast booth, I put my script in front of me, and I looked out at the new seating arrangement. All the desks were turned toward me, not to mention the kids in the desks.

Once I got involved in my script, which I remembered for the most part, once I read through it once, I gave that week's news to my 8th grade CORE Class. It turned out that my broadcast ended just before the bell rang, ending second period.

I'd been reading to those students since the year began. Reading the news was no big deal. It was actually fun. The search for news was like a treasure hunt. I learned things about countries on the other side of the world. I became aware of our government, the politicians, the bills being considered, and the bills the president signed, and made into laws.

By February, I'd settled into my new role as current events specialist. I found obscure facts, connected to the most important stories. By the end of February, I found time to write, Army Buddies.

If I hadn't been a writer when I wrote The Martian Disaster , I'd become one by the time I wrote Army Buddies , my second novella, since December. I spent much of my free time reading and writing, which I believe was Mr. Warnock's plan.

When I showed up on Monday morning with another composition book full of words, Mr. Warnock, proving to be a man of his word, set aside the day's lesson, while I read Army Buddies to his class.

While I believed I was taking advantage of Mr. Warnock, I was quite the hit with the other students in my CORE class. Anyone that could get them out of an hour's work in CORE, was OK by them. I was thanked for the diversion, and complimented on my story telling ability. I'd become a celebrity in Mr. Warnock's early CORE class.

It was different. It didn't make me feel special. If someone stopped me to talk about a story, or my current events broadcast, I talked to them as long as they wanted to talk. Tommy, always at my side in such situations, stood by patiently waiting for us to resume our morning walk. He never said a word about other kids stopping me.

Each day, after school, I walked with Tommy to his house. That made me feel special. We were staying inside during February. It was cold as ice, and walking home was no picnic, but the exposure to brutal weather was worth it.

I felt like I belonged somewhere, and my best friend made me feel at home at his house. I didn't feel at home at my house.

As the third quarter of school was about to end, Tommy met me at the school house door one morning. He was excited, and said that I should come with him.

This wasn't like Tommy. He usually told me what was going on, and what he had in mind, but this time, he set out like a bloodhound was on his trail. I stayed close behind him.

We turned down the hallway that went past the office. It wasn't a turn we usually made. The best thing to do, if you knew what was good for you, was avoid the office.

Tommy stopped right next to the office door. He paid particular attention to some sheets of paper that were tacked together on the bulletin board beside the office door.

Flipping up the first page, Tommy pointed to my name.

"You made the Honor Roll," he said.

"It's a mistake. I am too stupid to make the Honor Roll. It's a joke."

"Standing his ground, Tommy said, "You're on the Honor Roll."

There was no mistake. I did make the Honor Roll. I didn't know how. Once again, I thought I was somehow fooling my teachers. I'd always been stupid, and this made my life even more confusing."

"You had to know you had been doing better," Carlton said.

"I knew that I didn't know what was going on in class about half the time. I wasn't connected to what was being taught. A few things got my interest, but not enough to make a big difference in my mind."

At that time, instead of arguing the point, I decided I'd wait to see what my report card said.

In the mean time, a copy of the list of Honor Roll students was sent home to the parents of those students. Once I got my report card, my grades backed up the Honor Roll list. I had 3 A(s), 2 B(s), and my ever present C in art.

My A in CORE and gym, was joined by an A in math. I expected to get a good grade in math, because I liked numbers, and it was easy for me to get them to do what the teacher wanted them to do.

I guess teachers knew what they were doing, but it was hard for me to understand how I got from the kid who didn't pay attention in class, to the Honor Roll.

I was confused by this. I suppose they know what they were doing, because I had no idea I'd earned those grades.

There was one thing for sure. That was my name, and it was on the Honor Roll. Everything else was speculation.

On a bright warm March day, dismissed early for a teacher's meeting, Tommy and I decided to do something outside, on the first spring like day of the year.

By early afternoon, we'd worked our way up to Coral Hills. Once we walked past the Coral Hills Theater, and the WM&A Bus Company's offices, we went into an alley that ran behind the theater. There was a garage with three open bay doors, to let the sun shine in.

I followed Tommy into one of the open bays, and he walked up to a man in the back of the shop.

"Hey, Pop. This is Dickie," Tommy said, and his father turned to look my way.

"So, you're Dickie. I've been hearing about you for some time."

"This is my father, Dickie," Tommy said.

The man wiped his hand on a rag in his back pocket, and we shook on it. Tommy's father had a twinkle in his eye and a small smile on his face.

"Anything I can do for you, Pop?" Tommy asked.

"Yes, there is. I've been wrestling with this transmission since this morning. I told the man I'd have it for him today. There's a rear end over there," he indicated another bench next to the wall." The parts are under the oil wash. I told the man I'd have his car today, too. If you could put that rear together for me, it won't take long for me to put it in. That way, I'll make it home for dinner."

"Sure thing, Pop," Tommy said, heading for the work bench.

I followed Tommy over to another work bench. There was a housing sitting on the counter. Oil was squirting on parts sitting on a screen under the nozzle dispensing the oil,

Tommy noticed the curiosity on my face.

"This won't take long," he said. "These are the spider gears."

He held up small circular gizmos with teeth surrounding them. Pulling the housing closer, he began putting the parts in.

"When I put all these parts into place, it will be ready to go back in the car, and the man's rear end will be working properly again."

"If you say so," I said.

Tommy turned the housing into the proper position, and began putting one piece at a time into place. He held one piece, connected another piece, adding more pieces as he turned the housing. His fingers adroitly snapped one piece after another into place.

In about fifteen minutes, Tommy had the rear end assembled.

Grabbing a rag from a pile of rags, he wiped his hands.

"Told you it wouldn't take long," he said.

I looked at Tommy, and then I looked at the fully assembled rear end housing. It was the first time I'd come face to face with a rear end housing, and my friend had assembled the workings that made the rear end a rear end. I was flabbergasted.

"Yes, you did," I said, not knowing what to say.

"Your rear end is ready, Pop. Anything else I can do for you?" Tommy asked, as we walked back over to where his father was working on a much larger housing.

"No, that's a big help, Tommy. Thanks. You boys go have fun. I should be home for dinner," he said, leaning over with his arms halfway into the housing.

As we walked out into the afternoon sun, I took a good look at my friend. Tommy was a freaking mechanical genius. He knew exactly where all those little pieces went, and he got it assembled.

"How do you know how to do stuff like that?" I asked.

"I've helped Pop for as far back as I can remember. I watch him work on things, and then I try it, when I get a chance. I like mechanics. It's something I'm good at. It's not hard," he said.

"It's not hard for you, because you're smart, until fifteen minutes ago, I couldn't tell you the difference between a rear end and a transmission," I said.

"You know a lot more than you think you know," he said, giving me a big smile.

I'd never been more impressed by something another kid did, as I was the day Tommy put that rear end together for his father. My father never asked me to do anything for him," I said.

"Tommy knew you pretty well by then," Carlton said. "You don't have a lot of self confidence. He knew you were smart."

"Anyone in my CORE class, who sat through those months I was reading every day, knew how dumb I was," I said.

"They also saw you write those stories and become an Honor Roll student. They saw a completed picture by the time you left that class," Carlton said. "They watched you growing, Rick. We all grow in our own time. I'm almost certain, no one thought you were stupid."

I'd raised the stakes in 8th grade CORE, after learning to read. I raised Mr. Warnock one story, The Martian Disaster . He raised me one assignment, to monitor current events. I'd present the stories I deemed most important to my CORE class each Friday morning.

With these escalations, it was necessary for me to increase my effort. As a reward, my C in CORE became an A in the grading period.

My vigilance in reporting on each week's current events, didn't stop me from taking a timeout one weekend to write Army Buddies,

which Mr. Warnock asked me to read to the class.

Mr. Warnock pushed all his chips into the center of the table long ago. He'd decided to take a chance on me, assigning me work far beyond the ability of the boy who entered his class in September. He'd taught me to read, let me read stories I wrote to the class, and assigned me work that required a lot of extra time.

I took the challenge he gave me, and I parlayed it into work that I enjoyed. While doing the extra work, I ended up on the Honor Roll, after writing a second novella that took up a period of CORE to read.

Six months before, I was a basket case, illiterate, and without hope of improving my lot in life. By the end of the third grading period, I was writing high with no limitations on what I could do.

Mr. Warnock made me the center of attention in his early CORE class. What he knew or sensed about me, was as big a mystery as what Mr. Q knew and sensed about me, but each man had raised the stakes, and bet I'd rise to the occasion.

"What I knew, I owed two teachers more than I could put into words. I'd been dealing with teachers forever, and none of them thought I was worth their time and effort. How I got here from there, I couldn't say," I said.

"Each of those teachers started you off with a simple task. They treated you like they'd treat any student. Seeing you perform far beyond expectations, they increased the difficulty of what they asked you to do, looking to find your limitations. You responded by doing far more than most students would do. No one had asked you to do anything before," Carlton said. "You were never dumb, Rick. You'd never been give a chance before 7th grade. I'm sure that taking on physical challenges first, and succeeding, laid the groundwork for you to learn to read, and then, there was no stopping you."

"I suppose," I said, hearing his words but not being as sure as he was about the path I took.

"I'd set out to impress Tommy, and having accomplished that, I was satisfied. Everything else that happened, came as a result of Mr. Warnock wanting to see how far he could get me to go," I said.

"While doing the things he asked you to do, other forces took over. You were able to imagine your role in his current events broadcast. He told you to do it your way, and he loved the results. Writing another story proved the first novella wasn't a fluke."

"And I wrote it for Tommy."

"You are extraordinary. You still don't know how smart you are," Carlton said, shaking his head. "Rick, you can do anything you set your mind to do."

"I'd like to be a child for a few minutes. I'd like not to be on guard, all the time. I want to trust people. I want to help people."

"If you set out to do something it's in possible to do, you will fail. Set out to do things that are within reason, and you will do it."

"I suppose," I said.

"I interrupted you again. I can't help it. I want to shake you, so you know how smart you are. You're a clever boy," Carlton said.

, "Tommy was far more protective of the things that I was doing, than I was. When someone stopped me to talk about my stories, Tommy jumped right in offering his view. He predicted that I'd be the one Mr. Warnock picked for his current events assignment. He found my name on the Honor Roll. I'd never have gone to look at a list tacked on the bulletin board at the office entrance. Maybe he was looking for his own name. I don't know. I don't know what grades Tommy got. That wasn't what our friendship was about. Not for me."

"He was truly your friend. He saw what was inside of you. I never had a friend that I was that close to. Where is Tommy now?"

"He's married. He has a wife and a daughter. I'm trying to figure out what it means to be gay. We don't see each other very often. It's almost time for me to get out of his life," I said.

"He sounds like a friend that you want to hold onto," Carlton said.

"If there was any way to remain friends, and keep what I am from having an impact on his family, I'd go for it. Tommy has been the closest person to me in my entire life. I won't risk doing him harm. I'll slowly disappear, and he'll have some good memories, I hope, and one day, he'll think, I wonder where he wen t."

"He might see your disappearance as a betrayal of your friendship," Carlton said.

"I know that. I can only do what I think is best. Because he was the closest person to me, I can't risk that closeness coming back to bite him," I said. "This is a cruel harsh world, Carlton. I will not do anything to bring any of it to Tommy's door. He has a new best friend now. He doesn't need me in his life any longer."

"Friendship isn't about need, but I understand what you're saying," Carlton said. "I wish there was another way."

"There isn't," I said, certain of my facts.

The arrival of notification that their youngest son was on the Honor Roll, caught my parents off guard. They'd watched me gather all the papers together after dinner, and digging into each one. When the newscasts came on, I never missed Walter Cronkite, 'The most trusted man in America.' He ended his news cast, 'And that's the way it is.' And that was the way it was. You knew he knew the truth, and he told us what that truth was," I said.

"Nothing was said about me sitting, pen in hand, writing down facts I found most interesting. My parents rarely had anything to say once their tirades ended. They ended once I left the dinner table, anyway. I sat with the newspapers in front of me and the nightly newscasts on the television, until I'd had enough to begin my weekly script. Then, I took refuge in my room to write out what I would say.

Once I was an Honor Roll student, their behavior toward me changed. My mother was immediately certain I'd be going to college. I wouldn't be going to college. My father, not sure of what to make of my rise from obscurity to being a good student meant, but if it pleased my mother, he was pleased too," I said.

"As far as my future was concerned, they saw me having one. It wasn't as easy for me to let bygones be bygones as it was for them. I still watched my step, asked for nothing, and I kept my head down. Disagreeableness was all I knew, a short period of being agreeable, didn't make me want to spend time with my parents," I said.

"I didn't do what I did so my parents would like me. I didn't like them, but I was stuck with them. Treating me differently wasn't my idea. The fact they did it meant absolutely nothing to me. My mother expected me to go to college," I said. "I didn't intend to extend my school days a minute longer than was required. She'd be disappointed, and I'd be on her shit list again, and it would all change back to the way it was before junior high school."

"It's difficult to see things any differently than they've always been," Carlton said.

"Ain't that the truth. It was nice not to be yelled at every night. I liked that part of it. If they'd tried it a little sooner, maybe when I was 7 or 8, maybe we I would have healed enough for it to matter, but that isn't the way it happened. As you said, it's difficult seeing things differently than they are. Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear," I said.

"You have a very quick mind," Carlton said.

"Except for when it suddenly shifts into reverse," I said. "I'm damaged goods, Carlton, and I can't change that."

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