It’s always seemed strange to me how a piece of writing can take off on its own. When I had the idea for this novel, it was very different than what I’ve put down on paper so far. The characters seem to be creating themselves through me, rather than me creating the characters. The excerpt below is subject to change… in fact, it mostly likely will change several times before I’m finished with it. Here’s the first chapter from a novel that may or may not be called The Self-Destruction of Joey Martin.
Joey Martin walked with a limp. At thirteen, he was already more confident than most of the adult men I know. The day Joey limped his way into my classroom would change my life forever.
Eighth graders in general are my favorite age group to teach, but along with the fun we can have in class come the mood swings and hormonal cyclones of the 13-14 year old multiplied by about twenty-five at a time. They can gang up on you in a heartbeat. And even if they like you – even if you are their favorite teacher, they can still be as unpredictable as an untrained puppy. And when they bite, it stings.
The group I have sixth period, however, are fantastic. They are energetic and have genuinely big hearts. They look after one another in a way that I have only witnessed a few times in my decade of teaching experience. See, this group has Benny, one of only two Down Syndrome students in the entire school. And these kids have grown up with him. Not a single student in this class bullies Benny. Any other students in the building who do… well, they have twenty-four angry peers to deal with if they try it. Suffice it to say that these kids who protect Benny are like a miniature gang, and if you value your kneecaps, you leave Benny alone.
So, the day that Joey Martin limped into my sixth period classroom, cock-sure and chin held high, and sat down next to Benny, twenty-four pairs of eyes narrowed to see how he would react.
When Benny’s slow gaze finally fell on the new face sitting beside him, his face lit up in recognition. He clambered out of his seat, leaned down and gathered Joey in a tight hug. The rest of us looked around as if to question whether we were being punked or if Benny had mistaken the new boy for someone else. When Joey chuckled and wrapped his arms around Benny, a collective breath escaped from us.
“That’s my neighbor!” Benny exclaimed, still gripping Joey tight.
Joey chuckled again, patting Benny on the back. “Okay, buddy, let go so I can breathe, huh?”
“Oh! Sorry, Joey. Sorry.” Benny let go, but pat Joey on the shoulder a few times before returning to his seat. “Guys,” Benny said in his drawn out syllables, “this is Joey. He’s my friend, so you be nice.” Benny tried to look stern, but it fell short on his always-smiling face.
I stifled a snicker and walked to the front of the room. I have the student desks arranged in a semi-circle around the stool where I sit when I teach. “Welcome, Joey. I’m Miss Graham, but feel free to call me Miss G.” I motioned to Joey, “Would you like to introduce yourself?”
Joey looked around to his new classmates before standing and wove his way through the desks toward me. His slight limp had the effect of a confident swagger, and he had the posture of an athlete. Most of the girls were already giggling and whispering, while the boys glowered at him. Should be interesting, I thought to myself, stepping aside so Joey had the floor.
“I’m Joey Martin,” he said smoothly, hands shoved deep into his pockets. “I moved here from Dallas last week with my dad. So far, it’s alright, but I’ll get back to you on that.” He looked at me questioningly, wanting to know if there’s anything else I wanted him to say.
“Do you have any hobbies, Joey?”
He reached up to rub the nape of his neck, considering this before answering. “Um, I used to play soccer at my old school…” He trailed off, as if there’s more he wanted to say, but chose not to. He looked back at me, his confidence wavering slightly.
“Thanks, Joey. You can sit down now.” As he heads to his seat, I add, “Let’s all make Joey feel welcome, yeah?” I pause, and they muttered that they will. Benny nodded vigorously and pat Joey on the shoulder a few more times. Poor kid’s going to have bruises from all the patting, I thought. “Okay, everyone, let’s take out our journals. The writing prompt for today is on the board. You have ten minutes.”
While they wrote, I walked around, making sure they weren’t doodling or repeating the same phrase over and over in their notebooks. When I got to Joey’s desk, I was surprised to see that he had taken out a worn Moleskine that looked to be already half-filled. Most students used a plain spiral notebook or sometimes the girls would buy a fancy journal from the bookstore, or use those awful collage books that are popular now, but this was the first Moleskine I’d had in class. He’d opened it to a fresh page and was busy writing.
Usually, students new to my class need a lot of prodding and persuading to get into journal writing. The prompts I pick are usually not anything that will delve too deep into personal issues, but are thought-provoking and seek opinions. They are designed to help them write quickly without worrying too much about grammar or style, something that many of these students still struggled with halfway through the year. Joey, however, seemed to be a natural. I found myself wondering if this was the other hobby he was hesitant to share with us. I was curious to see what he was writing, but I have a strict no-read rule. Student journals are to be private, unless they request that I read it.
An egg timer dinged, announcing that their journal time was up, so I headed back to the front of the room and grabbed an armful of books, passing them around the room. “How many of you know the story of Romeo and Juliet?” Most of their hands went up. I stifled an eye roll when someone mentioned the Leonardo DiCaprio/Claire Danes movie version. “Okay, great. How would you describe their story? What kind of story is it? Jonathan?”
Jonathan glanced around and blushed. “Uh… It’s a love story, I guess.”
“A love story, huh? Why do you say that?”
Poor Jonathan blushed even redder. I’d put him on the spot. It’s what I’m famous for. “Uh… W-well… I guess… because they fall in love? Right?”
I nodded slowly and turned to the SmartBoard, pulled up a new Notebook file, and wrote “LOVE” in capital letters at the top, using a heart for the O. The girls snickered, mimicking me in their own notebooks. The boys rolled their eyes and wrote nothing.
“So, does anybody disagree with Jonathan’s opinion that Romeo and Juliet is a love story?”
Twenty-four blank or confused faces stared back at me. (Benny was still smiling, as always.) I smiled at them, then turned back to the board and crossed out the word “LOVE,” writing “tragedy” beneath it.
“We’re going to read Romeo and Juliet over the next few weeks. And as we read it, I want you to read it not as a love story, like everyone tends to think of it, but as a tragedy, as Shakespeare intended it.”
For the rest of the class period, students chose parts, or I assigned them, and began reading the play aloud. As class comes to an end and the bell rings, I frown as my favorite class leaves and seventh period students trickle in.