Authors: Luke Loaghan
Tags: #Fiction & Literature
Sam definitely had the grades and the motivation to get into a top school. He planned on writing his college essay on his sister’s health crisis, and how it motivated him to become a doctor. Sometimes I believed him, sometimes I didn’t. Sam would say or write anything to get into Harvard. He was the quintessential Stanton student. He wanted to be a doctor to satisfy his parents, and to make lots of money.
Sam, Carlos, and John were already at lunch sitting at our usual table when I arrived at the cafeteria. There are only two times in life that people have a ‘usual table.’ The first is in the high school cafeteria. The second is when you’re rich enough that people who own restaurants remember who you are, where you sit, and what you like to drink. Most people only experience the first. The boys and I were discussing our classes and teachers when Delancey walked in, unseen by me.
“Wow,” said Sam, “Delancey really grew over the summer…in all the right places.” Carlos, amused, agreed with Sam and then went back to eating. This was typical of Carlos, always in agreement with Sam, and never really saying too much. Some people are leaders; Carlos was definitely a follower.
John, my closest friend, asked if any of us had classes with Delancey this year.
“I have English class with her,” I said with a sheepish grin. We kept eating, none of us saying another word on the subject. The wheels were turning in Sam’s head. I was friendly with Delancey, and found her very attractive, but never had asked her out, chased after her, or expressed my feelings. She was out of my league. I was a realist, pragmatic to the core. She was too much of a long shot, and too much of a dream. She was someone I could reach out towards, but never hold.
September was shaping up to be a busy month. I had to work on the paper after school and could not go with the guys to the park. I told them I’d see them tomorrow, and explained that I had to “work all night on the school newspaper.” They laughed, detecting my sarcasm and what I was alluding to. John had to work at his strict Korean parents’ fruit and vegetable store, which was usually the case.
After gym class, I was in the boys’ locker room changing out of the required Stanton gym t-shirt. The room smelled like jock straps and sweat, and that was with the windows open. The boys were talking about a street gang attack after school and the best ways to leave the school and head for the subways. This street gang, the Deceptors, was infamous.
The Deceptors always planned a secret attack on the first day of school. Everyone always knew about it, except the police and school officials. I was more than familiar with the gang’s well deserved reputation for terror. I wasn’t concerned. By the time I finished my sports articles, the gang would be long gone.
At six o’ clock, I exited the newspaper office. Bellicose voices roared in the background. They continued to argue about the lead story, sounding like a parliament meeting of a third world country. The only thing missing was fisticuffs. The editors smirked and made snide comments that I didn’t work as hard as they did and that sports was easier than the news or the entertainment section. This of course, wasn’t true, but probably was not false either. I never had the patience for office politics.
I walked my normal route to the subway on Dekalb Avenue. There was a clairvoyant’s store front I was accustomed to passing. I don’t call them fortune tellers because that would give them credibility. The psychic was a slightly chubby woman, probably in her late thirties. She wore black clothing, and often sat outside her storefront. She smiled a sexy smile and asked if there was anything she could help me with. I said no, thank you. She smiled back, and continued with her sales pitch.
“I could tell you your future. It’s very interesting.” Or, “Maybe I can help make your dreams come true.” Or, “I know what you’ll do after high school. I know the right path for you to study. I have the answers to your questions.”
I never paid her any attention. Her customers always looked desperate. Sometimes her clients were high school students. When this was the case, the girls always came out crying, and the boys always came out nervous. I may not have had all the answers to my future, but she didn’t have any. Her profession implied that the future is already written, and ready to be foretold. I made my own future and not a single person could convince me otherwise.
I rode the subway home that first day of school. One day down, three hundred to go. No sign of the Deceptors, just as I had predicted. The first day of school and the last day of school were always wonderful; the days in between were a problem. It’s not that I disliked school. I saw it as a means to an end, a necessary odyssey. School is penance for being young.
I had made a promise to myself that if I was going to have a successful career one day; I needed to get in the habit of never missing a day of work or school. After all, I would never have this opportunity again. Once high school was over, it would really be over. No one can go back in time and relive high school. No one can ever bring something back once it is gone. Too many people come to this realization when it’s too late. Like at their twenty year high school reunion.
After much reflection over the summer, I had made it a point to stop hanging out with the negative people in my life. This included those who did not share my ambitions or desire for a better future. This meant not hanging around some of the losers I knew the previous year. This also meant that I was running out of friends fast. John Donne wrote “No man is an island.” In other words, I still needed to sit with someone in the cafeteria during lunch, or risk appearing to be a total loser.
Sam could be construed or misconstrued as a really negative personality type. He was kind of apathetic and expected everyone else to be apathetic as well. At the same time, there were few students in all of Stanton who were better academically, or more driven to succeed. No one was more determined to go to Harvard. Sam was hard to explain. Rather, my friendship with Sam is hard to explain.
During sophomore year, whenever I tried to sign up for a club, or try out for a team, Sam showed up to talk me out of it. Sam knew exactly what to say and when to say it. During football tryouts, Sam walked by. I was already nervous about the tryouts because I was not as big and strong as some of the other guys. Sam shouted out, “Don’t waste your time…you are too small, too weak, and too slow. You’re just going to embarrass yourself.” Everyone laughed. I walked off the line and went home. It wasn’t always what he said; sometimes it was the way he said it.
Sam had the uncanny ability to be very convincing and spoke with conviction. He would bad mouth every student trying their best or striving for greater achievement.
Sam had a problem with anyone who achieved any form of success. When I had announced to Sam and John that I’d been named Sports Editor of the school paper, Sam threw a fit. He tossed my backpack across the hall, yelled obscenities, and stormed off. John, on the other hand, congratulated me and said I deserved it after all my hard work. John was a much better friend, and I liked him better than Sam. But for some reason, Sam was always around, and it was hard to cut the cord. My father always said, “Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are.” Well, that may be true, but looking back, I can take it a step further. Your friends in high school are a reflection of your insecurities, self doubts, and vulnerabilities. John believed that the prettiest girls always hung out with the not so pretty girls, in order to make themselves look prettier. I think the pretty girls sees themselves as the not so pretty girls, and birds of a feather flock together.
My father warned me about my friendships, and I heard his voice in my head often. I hope I’m not making him out to be Polonius, because he was, in fact, the opposite. My father was quiet, blue collared, and rarely offered advice. My father’s best friend had betrayed him in high school over a sports competition. His friend had tricked him to believe the competition was moved to the next day because of rain. Guess who won the competition? “Never trust your best friend,” my father would say.
Sam hated the fact that I participated in school activities. He spent all his spare time chasing girls and smoking. Sam was not a good looking kid, and was physically awkward and socially inept, more so than the rest of us. Sam tried his best to get any girl to like him and to be their friend. The truth was that people, often found him a little creepy. He was famous for emotional meltdowns in school, which often left him red-faced and in tears. At the end of last year, I had promised myself that I would never surround myself with people like Sam again. Already it had cost me a lot of wasted time…time that was now running out. But Sam just wouldn’t go away. He was like a leech.
I had to interview Michael Noah Torres this week. I had known him since freshman year, and like everyone else, I called him Mino. Mino was the star running back for our football team. Two things were consistent about him: he was always fast, and was always in the weight room. Mino took football very seriously. His mother was often at school for practices, games, and to talk to the guidance counselors and coaches. She was determined that her son would go to college and play football on scholarship.
When we were freshmen, Mino and I were almost the same height. He had a real running back’s build, like a bull about to break out of a stable. His legs were thick like trees, and he had a neck to match. I hadn’t seen him in a while – Stanton is a big school, and it was not uncommon to not see someone for an entire year.
My eyes almost popped out of their sockets when I walked into the weight room. Mino was lifting more weights than anyone I had ever seen. He was enormous; his wide back was shaped in a perfect V. I waited in awe for a half hour for him to finish his workout. Mino squatted more weight than two average football players could lift. He was clearly the strongest kid in the school, maybe even in all of Brooklyn. But he had not really grown and was six inches shorter than I was. I marveled at his bench presses, military presses, and bicep curls. His biceps were bigger than my thighs. I never felt so weak in my life.
My interview was not going well. Mino was pensive. Clearly distracted, he found my routine questions about school and college annoying. This was not like him. I asked how much he was lifting. The numbers were staggering. He had just completed a set of 400 lb bench presses. He was squatting more than 600 lbs. Mino’s arms were pulsating and trembling. I asked him about his speed. Mino could run the 100 yard dash in 11 seconds. I was amazed at the results of his hard work and training.
We talked about college. The tone in his voice seemed like he was about to blow a fuse. With intensity, he described how he had to get bigger and stronger; many scouts had told him so. If he did, it may guarantee him a full scholarship. Mino was working out 3 to 4 hours a day.
“If I were just a few inches taller, I’d get a scholarship anywhere,” he said.
As I exited the weight room, I looked back and saw him remove his tee shirt. On his back was a large constellation of acne. I wondered if Mino was completely natural.
I wrote an article stating that Mino was looking forward to a great season and that he was training harder than ever for a scholarship. I wrote about his enormous strength. In the weeks that would follow, Mino broke every school record for the Stanton Serpents.
The first week of school was over, and I was heading home on the F-Train. The ride home started over the Manhattan Bridge. There were spectacular view of the East River, lower Manhattan, the South Street Seaport, and the World Trade Center. It was breath taking. The graffiti-filled F-Train then crept slowly into a tunnel, and made stops in Manhattan.
More people and more police rode the F-Train. The shorter way home was the G-train through Brooklyn. This was more dangerous, as it traveled through tough neighborhoods with thugs, muggers, and drug dealers. They all took the G-train, and high school kids were easy targets for them, especially at the Brownsville stop. The G train was nicknamed the Gangster train, for good reason.
I was alone on the F-Train, with fifty other people, when I saw my neighbor’s son. He had just started Stanton.
“So I see you took my advice and took the F-Train,” I said to Theodore Carl Smith.
“Yeah, I definitely don’t want to get killed trying to get home from school,” said Carl. Looking at him reminded me of how much I had grown since I was a freshman. He had baby-faced good looks and an athletic build.
“Any more advice?” Carl asked.
“Well for starters, don’t carry that T-square everywhere. You don’t want everyone in New York City knowing that you’re a freshman. And try to get involved in as many clubs as you can. Join a team and play sports,” I said with a touch of regret.
“I am going to play baseball and football,” smiled Carl. “What about girls?”
“Carl, forget the girls at Stanton. They are only interested in guys with the highest grade point averages. The guys that do well on the SATs get all the girls here.” I looked at him, and he put his head down. The poor kid didn’t stand a chance.
“I’m so glad that I’m not going to Rikers,” said Carl. Rikers was the nickname for our neighborhood high school, named after the prison. It was a dangerous high school, packed with juvenile delinquents, gang wars, robberies, shootings, and stabbings. Rikers was about survival and Stanton was about education.
“Focus on Stanton. Although we don’t have to worry about getting jumped inside school, you still have the pressures of keeping up academically, and keeping your rank at the top.” I wondered if Carl would make it or if Mr. Mash would eventually pull him aside and “suggest” a different high school.