This is part one of a four part story. To read the next parts, click a part link below.
"Okay, folks," Mrs. Cowart announced in a distinct Long Island accent. "It's time to quit yappin' yer faces and break into your writing groups! Let's go!"
The room was amutter with the sound of desks sliding around and sneakers squeaking on the hard tile of the classroom floor. Somewhere, a book and a three-ring binder dropped and hit the floor, followed by yet another apology by the ever-clumbsy Roderick Cole.
"Just pick them up, Rod," Mrs. Cowart barked. "I don't need to know how sorry you are."
"Yes, ma'am," Rod said, "I'm sorry, ma'am..."
She sighed. It was a heavy sigh, created from a bitter mixture of disdain and indifference. It was the sigh of a woman who'd been at this for "far too long," as she was known to say. She was tired. She'd become numb to the process of teaching uninterested teenagers about Chaucer and Wolfe and Hemmingway. Her sigh gave it all away -- she used to care... She just didn't anymore.
And that is precisely why I adored her English class. It's too bad she only taught Senior English... I would have killed a small woodland animal with my bare hands to have had her all four years.
Mike and I situated our desks next to one another, while Walter and our clumsy buddy Rod took up positions directly across from us. "So, gents," I said to the group, "Who's day is it to to come up with a poem full of 'sheer brilliance; combined with youthful sass' ?"
"Oh, come on," Walter said aloud. "How many times are you going to bring that up?"
"Well," I responded, "It's the first time a teacher's actually complimented me. Like... Ever."
"You mean complimented Morrissey," Mike interjected.
"Well, yeah..." I conceded. "But still... She thought it was me, so it counts."
"Man... I just can't believe we get away with this shit," Walter said, breaking out a pencil from a green zipper bag that was handed down to him from his father... Much like everything else Walter owned, wore or drove.
"It's great, ain't it?" I replied.
And it was.
Well, come on! What the hell do you expect out of a group of unmotivated male high school seniors with an incredible knowledge of independent music? You wanted us to come up with our OWN poetry and prose instead of using song lyrics from bands no one in that entire school -- especially the nearly-retired Senior English teacher -- could have possibly heard of, much less recognized?
And besides, we tried doing that at the beginning of the year. It turned out, however, that none of us had a single ounce of writing talent (the truth is, none of us do to this day... I've been lucky that no one's figured that out yet). After receiving our first group writing project grade that year, we all agreed that a C in English wasn't going to get Mike his final required credits for graduation, it wouldn't get Walter into the University of Georgia, and it wouldn't get Rod above the overall pass/fail line.
It would've, however, made no impact whatsoever on me. I could have turned in papers filled solely with the letter "Q" and still received the HOPE scholarship; sending me to any Georgia college I wished -- thanks both the Georgia Lottery and lagging standards across the board for minimum effort in the public school system. But seeing as how I liked getting praise for doing exactly as much work as was necessary to get the praise and no more...
Now, as much as I'd like to take the credit for it, it was Walter who had the brilliant idea during our next writing session to cleverly sneak in a few verses from a song we all loved very, very much.
"I broke you in the canyon," Walter started as he read our group piece aloud to the class the second week of school. I admit, I was nervous when he began - I thought for certain that "I drowned you in the lake" would have triggered Valencia Hurley's radar, given her affinity for wearing what had recently become highly fashionable Alice in Chains shirts. And certainly "You, a snake that I would trample" should have awakened Ray Travis's senses, since I've seen him actually pull out and listen to "Dirt" during classes that week. I mean, come on... Not one high school senior in 1995 picked up on "Only thing I'd not embrace"?
"Oh, you couldn't dam that river, and maybe I dont give a damn any way," Walter read loudly, a grin spreading across his face -- half for getting away with saying "damn " in class, and half for getting away with the easiest 'A' we were ever going to make. "So you couldn't dam that river, and it washed me so far away."
Our group actually got applause after that one. We'd just taken candy from a baby... And our stomachs growled in hungry anticipation of doing it once a week, every week, for the next year. And it's not like we were even slick about it. We routinely inserted notable lines from songs, like "It's tricky to rock a rhyme / to rock a rhyme that's right on time" and "I wanna be Anarchy." We even called our writing team "The Plagiarists."
I assure you, we did everything we possibly could to purposely get caught. And for some reason, we just didn't.
That is, until SHE showed up.
"Good God, FINALLY..." Mrs. Cowart tried to mutter under her breath as she lifted herself from her desk and crossed the room. She swung the door open and revealed a young, nervous female who had just knocked upon it.
"You were supposed to be here at nine!" Mrs. Cowart announced.
"I... uh..." the not a girl, not yet a woman stuttered.
"Well, get in here..." Mrs. Cowart acquiesced as she turned and marched back toward the center of the room. Behind her trailed what can only be described as a poor attempt at dressing professionally by a nervous student teacher on her first day in class who's only defense from exposure was the small cloth-covered notebook she clutched close to her chest.
"Folks," Mrs. Cowart stated in an effort to get our attention, oblivious to the fact that we couldn't possibly have been focused on anything other than the show that was being put on for us, "This is Miss... Uh..." She turned to face the young lady and asked, "What's your last name again?"
"Starling!" Mrs. Cowart audibly remembered. "That's it! Why the hell can't I ever remember that?" She turned back to face us. "Anyway, she's a student teacher, and she'll be working with me to try to pound some sorta sense into you this semester."
Miss Starling waved and smiled a bit.
"Okay, that's all. Get back to writing!" Mrs. Cowart said as she walked over to her desk and sat down, leaving the poor standing at the front of the room. Just after a moment of hesitation, Miss Starling walked over to Mrs. Cowart's desk, grabbed the chair next to it, and sat to watch us work.
Which we did. We worked. Hard.
Very, very hard.
Really. I'm not kidding. We sweated and toiled over our poem -- we even pulled out the Discman Mike kept in his bag so that we could perfectly transcribe the... Er, um... Get inspired.
So, thirty minutes later, it was time to show the product of our inspiration. And we were ready. We knew we had a winner in this 'poem' -- a funny little ditty that was "inspired" by our heroes, the Dead Milkmen. And because it was funny, it would be yours truly who stood to deliver it viva voce.
Cause I was funny then.
"Okay, 'Plagarists'," Mrs. Cowart said with a marked note of delight (she was always glad to get to our presentations because, unlike those of our classmates, ours were actually entertaining... A fact we knew, given their previous successes in the open market). "Let's hear what you have for us today."
I stood, wearing a pretty large grin. I could hear Mrs. Cowart whispering to Miss Starling that she always liked our poems, and that this was the highlight of the morning. Pretty big words... But I knew I could live up to them.
I cleared my throat. The class looked upon me. Mrs. Cowart coughed lightly. Miss Starling looked on with a marked note of interest.
Barfy was a fine pet
He fetched stick and played dead
Every day he'd get fed
And he'd bring home the paper for Dad-- "GOOD BOY!"
I took a quick survey of the room -- I held everyone's attention. Good.
All our neighbors liked Barfy
Cause he was good with the kids
But at night he'd make a racket
Knocking over trashcan lids
Another quick survey... The punchline was beginning to be set up. I had to make sure I held the audience. Ray Travis was looking my way. Valencia Hurley was smiling slightly. My group was ducking their head and smiling. Mrs. Cowart wore a smirk. Miss Starling...
Something wasn't right about Miss Starling. She wasn't smiling. Perhaps it's because she just didn't know me? She didn't know that I was about to bring the funny... That had to be it.
So I brought it.
Mother looked in the cupboard
Discovered that it was bare
She went to get the food stamps
But there were no food stamps there
Now butcher keeps a secret
That he will never tell
It's about our pet dog Barfy
Which he did chop to hell!
Oh, pass the refried beans
And pass the mashed rice cakes
And pass them buttered noodles
But don't forget the Barfy steaks!
Laughter. Honest, heartfelt laughter. Laughter from Ray. Laughter from Valencia. Laughter from Rod and Walter and Mike (although, for an entirely different reason). Laughter from Mrs. Cowart, and... Well... Not much from Miss Starling. A strange smile, but more crumpled brow than is usually allowed for a look of joy.
Some people just don't have a sense of humor.
I took my seat amid the applause of my students and at least one of my teachers. Walter patted my shoulder and Rod dropped his notebook again. Mike, however...
"Dude, check it out..." he said, pointing toward the teachers. Miss Starling was whispering something to Mrs. Cowart.
"Uh..." I creaked, just one second before Mrs. Cowart shot her head over toward our group. "Mr. Peacock!" She announced in a tone that wasn't quite happy and wasn't quite angry, "I'd love to talk to you a bit about that poem."
"Okay," I said with a bit of uncertainty.
"What was your group's inspiration for that particular piece?"
"For the poem? That I just read?" I asked.
"Well..." I began, my mind racing. Part of me wanted to just tell her that we were having a bit of fun and quoted Doomsday Dinner by the Dead Milkmen and get it over with. But another part of me... The part of me that -- no matter what my logical side wants, refuses to listen and instead just blurt out smart-assed shit -- took over.
"Why, it's a Dadaist tribute," I said. “We were honoring the masters.”
Mike, who's back was facing the teachers, looked at me like I'd just set the group on fire... And in a sense, I kinda did.
"A Dadaist... What the hell are you talking about?" She snapped. "See me after class… In my office."
The class “ooooh'ed.” Walter, Rod, Mike and I shat our pants.
A panic-filled ten minutes later, the charming digital tones that signaled the school system's insistence that we quit caring about English and instead focus on math for the next 50 minutes echoed through the hallways and in our class.
"Mr. Peacock," Mrs. Cowart said as she approached our group, "Who is your second period teacher?"
"Mr. Calhoon," I replied as Walter, Mike and Rod stood to leave.
"Okay... You have five minutes to go let him know you won't be making it to class." She turned and marched out of the room with a visibly nervous Miss Starling in tow.
"Ohmygod…” Rod whispered. “We are SO fucked…”
"I'm going to get my ass KICKED!" Walter stated, placing his palms to his face. “My dad… GOD, MY DAD…”
"No one's going to get fucked or kicked or anything," I answered. "Don't worry... I'll handle it."
"Right," Mike replied, "Just like you handled the crickets-in-the-library thing..."
I squinted my eyes. "You're not expelled, are you?!?" I asked rhetorically. "Just... Shut up, okay? I'll deal with it."
"Fuck... Fuck fuck fuck fuck!" Rod stammered. And then he dropped his backpack.
"Guys... Just... Go to class, okay?" I said. "I'll deal with it. Just… Go."
"Dude, I'm going with you," Mike stated.
"No... Look, she wants to see just me, right?"
"So?" Mike said. "We're all involved... We're all going to get nailed."
"No, you're not... Just... Go to class, huh? Tell Mr. Calhoon I won't be there?"
"He won't care," Mike replied, "You never go to that class anyway."
"Whatever... Just tell him?"
"Fine..." Mike said, storming out of the room. Rod followed right behind him. Walter waited just a second, then said "Joe..." then thought to himself for a second, then left the room anyway.
I made my exit and marched a short two-room distance up the hall to the English teacher's office. With my heart in my throat, I knocked.
"Come in," I heard from the small crack of space left from the mostly-closed door. It was a force of pure will to extend my hand and push that door open, but somehow I managed. The brushing sound of the door sweep suitably introduced the scene before me - a very angry and jaded English teacher rifling through a file cabinet, and a slightly nervous student teacher who, in her first day on the job, had somehow justified her existence inside the school system by blowing the door on our little scam wide open.
"Mr. Peacock," Mrs. Cowart said with one of her careful tonal mixtures. This one was equal parts 'authoritarian' and 'disappointed'.
"Yes, ma'am," I said, stepping forward into the incredibly small office.
"Take a seat," she said. She gestured toward an empty chair to her right, directly across from where Miss Starling was sitting.
I slid my backpack off of my shoulder and swung it around to the front of me as I stepped around the side of the chair. In one movement, I plopped my rear in the chair and the backpack into my lap. I immediately clinched the bag with both arms and held to it like it was the shield behind which I might be protected from the onslaught I was about to face.
"I'll make this simple," Mrs. Cowart snapped as she took a seat across from me. "Was it you?"
I gulped. "Ma'am?" I inquired; my voice creaking.
She handed a stack of papers to Miss Starling. "Was it you? Were you the one who wrote that thing you read aloud in class today? Or was it all of you?"
My throat creaked as I answered, "Me, ma'am. Just me."
"You mean to tell me that your group had nothing at all to do with it?"
"Yes... Yes, ma'am," I replied. "It was my idea."
"So if I gave the paper an 'A', you should get all the credit, and they all get zeroes? Is that what you’re telling me?"
"Uh... Wait... No?"
"So you all did it then!" She said, her eyes bright and her teeth showing.
"Uh... That depends?" I stammered.
"On if we get an 'A', i guess."
"Oh, you are SUCH a smartass," she said, sucking air through her teeth. "I really... I just..." She shook her head wildly and growled. "I just don't know what to DO with you!"
I said nothing.
She said nothing.
Miss Starling kept flipping through papers.
"Okay, enough B. S.," She coughed. "Did you steal that poem you read in class today?"
"Steal?" I answered. "Uh... No?"
Her eyes narrowed. "That wasn't the lyrics to a Dead Mail Man song?"
"No, ma'am, it wasn't," I said, hoping to slide by on a technicality.
"Milkmen," Miss Starling interjected as she lifted her head, "It's the Dead Milkmen... And so is this." She handed a piece of paper to Mrs. Cowart. I didn't even have to look at it to know that it contained, word for word, the lyrics to "Punk Rock Girl”.
“Really?” Mrs. Cowart said.
“Yeah,” replied Miss Starling. “In fact… I think they all are.”
Mrs. Cowart turned to face me. “You… YOU have been turning in songs by this ‘Dead Milkmen’ group all year?!?”
“Uh, no…” I said, just as Miss Stacket said nearly the same thing.
We looked at each other, neither one sure who had the right-of-way in that situation. “Uh…” I said.
“Shut up,” Mrs. Cowart said to me, then turned to face Miss Starling. “What do you mean?”
“Some of them are other… Other bands; groups…”
“Ah… So they’re not all the Dead Milkmen, but they’re still ripped off…” She looked back at me. “Well, that makes it okay then, huh?”
“It does?” I asked, not quite knowing when to stop digging my own grave.
"I am just... I can't..." Mrs. Cowart said, her face turning red. "Dammit, I'm getting some coffee... You want some, Miss Starling?"
"Uh... Yeah, sure," she chirped.
"I'll take some too," I chimed in. "If... You know... While you're up."
She stared holes through my face and directly into the back of my hollow skull. I simply smiled.
"You know, Joe," she said, turning to walk to the coffee pot, "I really saw you and your group as the shining spots in our class." She took a few Styrofoam cups from the stack beside the coffee pot. "You, especially... I think it's no secret that I really, really liked you."
"Yeah," I replied, "I like you too, Mrs. Cowart."
She froze. Then, she whipped around, and angry snarl adorning her face. "Then WHY did you take me for a Goddamned FOOL?!?"
"You... And your little group, you guys turned in song lyrics as original works, and you had the nerve to accept the 'A's' I gave you on them!"
"You played me for a fool!" She yelled. She was very nearly in tears. "I LOVED your work -- What I thought was your work, anyway!"
"NO!" She said, turning back around to grab the coffee pot. "No, I don't want to hear it! All of you… you’re in huge trouble for this!"
“No!” I cried. “You can’t…”
“Oh, I can.” She stated, pouring the first of two cups of coffee. “And I’m going to.”
“Wait,” I said, panicked. “You can’t… I mean…” I sighed. “It was me. It… They were all my idea.”
“Oh, come on,” She replied. “Even if that WERE true, all it would mean is that you just outed your group for not doing their work. I’d have to fail them anyway.”
“Wait…” I said in desperation, “There… There has to be some way—”
“What?” She interrupted. “You think you can talk your way out of this one? No, sir. You… You get away with a lot of stuff around here... You’re a charmer, and we all think the world of you. But this… No. You’re going down for this.”
“Well… You could…” Miss Starling interjected, quickly quieting up.
“What?” Mrs. Cowart said. “Hang them by their toenails?”
“Well… No,” She answered bashfully. “But you could… I dunno. Let them make it up or something?”
“Oh, no,” Mrs. Cowart answered. “This… I mean… If it were just ONE instance… Just this one time, I could see letting it slide…”
“No, wait,” I said, picking up Miss Starling’s lead, “Let us make it up, okay? Seriously… We’ll rewrite every single assignment you’ve given us. We’ll do it right this time, okay?”
She stared at me for a moment. I could tell she didn’t want to destroy my soaring academic career and make me lose my solid ‘B’ average, but she’d also been terribly taken advantage of… Abused in the worst way possible.
“No… I don’t think…”
“No, Mrs. Cowart, seriously… We will do each and every one of those over. Each of us… Individually.”
“What, you’re their agent now?” She replied.
“No… No, I just… I can’t see my friends punished for this. And I don’t want to be expelled.”
“And I don’t WANT you to be expelled!” She reposted. “What, you think I want to kick you guys out of school?”
“I just… Okay, fine, get out.”
“Get out. I’m going to think about this. You need to leave, now. I can’t stand to look at you.”
I looked at her. She looked away from me. So, I looked at Miss Starling, scowled a second, and stood to leave.
“I’ll find you at the end of the day… Don’t leave early.” Mrs. Cowart commanded.
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered, knowing that I’d just been sentenced to a fate worse than expulsion – I’d just been ordered to stick around for Mrs. Key’s government class.