Saturday, January 10, 2009


Here is the first chapter of You're Never Too Old For Space Camp, my novel about the fascinating adventures of a veteran middle school special ed. teacher. Should be published by spring, if all goes well.



“Why’d they have to pick yellow?”
I wondered this to myself, half out loud, as the school buses rolled into the lot. A black girl with blue eye shadow and pink fingernails over by the door glanced at me with an absent look, and then went back to checking her cell phone. Over by the benches, three would-be studs were crowding around a lass who was obviously what one could call an “early-bloomer.” She was drinking up the attention, until one of the guys accidentally “broke wind”, as they say in polite circles. And loudly, at that. With a roll of her eyes, and an “Oh…My….Gawd”, she spun off, in search of girl friends to hug and squeal with. As for the three young men, they collapsed into puddles of laughter, beating each other on the back with calls of “what a dork’ and “you loser” and other less printable epithets.
Ah, yes, it was that time-honored moment, the exact end of summer, the beginning of who knows what will happen.
It was the first day of school at Cedar Grove Middle School .

“So, Joe. I can see that you haven’t gotten any brains over the summer,” said a voice to my right.
It was Eddie Railey.
Eddie and I had gotten to Cedar Grove within a few years of each other. We had played in a softball league together before that, and I told him about the job opening up in Social Studies. It was hard to believe that was over 15 years ago.
We no longer play softball, by the way.
“Mr. Railey, sir….Hey, I guess we both are dummies, since you’re standing here, too.”
It was standard practice for teachers to complain about how fast the first day of school comes, even though most of us still felt that tingle of coming attractions we had as a kid, like ”who will be in my class..will that pretty red-haired girl sit next to me?” And now, “will I be able to do this for yet another year?”
“How was your summer? Overall, I mean,” said Eddie.
“Good enough. Got a lot done around the house, to Julies’ delight. Played a ton of golf, some with you, if you recall. Drank some beer, also with you. All in all, successful,” I said, as row upon row of long yellow vehicles fouled the curbside with their diesel exhaust.
“Lucky you. Three weeks ago, I had to go down to Texas , to help my mom and dad move into an assisted living place. Pretty nice place, but they hated to leave their house. Then I get home for a week, and get a call in the middle of the night that dad died. Just sitting in his recliner one afternoon, watching “The Price is Right.” Mom thought he was nodding off, like he did all the time. An hour later, she goes to wake him to see what he wants for dinner. And that was that.” Railey choked up a bit, turned his head. “A peaceful way to go, I guess.”
“Oh man, why didn’t you call me? I had no idea.”
“Nobody did. That’s okay. Besides, it was in Texas, and they wanted to be buried there.
Been there almost 20 years. The funeral was small, since most of their friends were dead anyway. Dad had one brother, but he passed away a couple of years ago.”
Eddie Railey shrugged.
“Mom is here with us, till we can get things squared away.”
Over by the door, Miss Pink Fingernails was howling.
“Go ahead and bring it then. Bring it on.”
Railey saluted me, and strode slowly over to the scene.
“Now, children. First day jitters? Let’s see if we can at least get into the building before we get suspended, what d’ya say, huh?’
“Mr. Railey, we just playin, man,” said a smallish boy with a budding Afro.
“Yeah, just playin’, is all, Mr. Railey,” says the girl, now smiling at the big teacher.
I look over at Railey. He seems to have the situation well in hand. Literally. He leads the two off to see our beloved administrator in charge of discipline, Mr. Wilton X. Davis, III, in spite of the kids claims of a truce.
“Have a great year, Joey. Catch you at lunch,” Eddie yells back at me. He has a firm but benevolent grip on each kid’s arm.
I turn my attention to the scene before me.
The sidewalks were filled up by now, buses having disgorged their contents like big yellow hoses. It is a diverse gathering.
Black kids, white kids, mixed and Asian, a few girls with heads covered with white scarves going long down their backs, wearing designer jeans. Here is a boy who looks like he’s about 10 years old, there another who might have driven to school.
Young women wearing long jean skirts, their hair past their back pockets. A girl, I think, with black eye shadow, black jeans that could fit two people, and a spiked dog collar. A dog collar! Oh, Mr. Principal?
I say a short prayer for them all.
“Mr Akers. May I see you for a moment?”
My prayer is broken into by the venerable Joanna C. Sloan, Ph. D., assistant principal. We dropped the “vice-principal” moniker a few years ago. “Too negative”, said the School Board. Dr. Sloan, as she prefers, no, demands to be addressed, even by those who have known her for years, is already in a lather about something or other.
“Mr. Akers, I…..”
“Call me ‘Joe’.”
“What? Oh. Fine. …… Mr. Akers, you are supposed to be at Door 15. This is Door 17.”
She waits for my response, hands on hips.
I look at her, and flash my best fake smile.
“Oopsies,…. my bad, as the kids say. I guess I should have read the memo, huh?”
She fails to see the sarcasm, mild as it is. As I move dutifully to my correct post, Dr. Sloan is already off to make the sidewalks safe for democracy, barking orders into her walkie-talkie. She manages an exasperated glance my way, just to make sure, I am heading in the right direction.
“How long till the bell? You a teacher here?’
I turn to see a man-child blocking the sun, about 6’2”, 220 if he’s a pound. I instinctively feel the need to make a good impression on this creature.
“Well, good morning to you, too,” I smile.
He pauses, then grins widely. Thank God. I continue.
“First, I’m afraid I have no idea what time it is. Are you really in that big a hurry to get inside? And second, yes, I am a teacher here. Name is Mr. Joe Akers,” I say, extending my hand. This future All-State offensive lineman looks at my hand. He engulfs my fingers in a mitt the size of a baseball glove. But he doesn’t know how to properly shake hands, something I find more and more of in kids these days. All soft and awkward. A social ineptitude that needs correcting. But not right now.
“Davon Arnold,” he offers, in a deep husky voice. “And yeah, I gotta get my schedule for my classes. We just moved her and my momma registered me, but I got no schedule.”
“Nice to meet you, Davon. Here’s what you do. You’re at the wrong door” (we have something in common) “so go around to those front double doors, the blue ones, and when the bell rings, go to the guidance office. Can’t miss it, first door on the right. They have schedules for all new students.”
Davon gives me a look that I can’t quite figure out. Does he think I’m just another white guy teacher who is messing with him? Or is he unsure of what to do, new kid, no lay of the land yet? He continues to look at me. I begin to get uncomfortable. Then, he grins, gold tooth prominent in the front.
“Yeah. Thanks….guidance, right?”
“Sounds like a winner,” I say, breathing easily again. “Good luck, pal,” I offer, as he works his way through the crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea .
I hope he remembers me with kind thoughts.

The last busses trail each other off the lot, and the air quality improves measurably.
The morning sky is achingly blue, nearly cloudless. Light breeze, about 70 degrees. Last Monday about this time I was driving my Maxfli Noodle into the woods off the third tee at Eagle Cove. Ah, well. As the Beatles said decades ago (was it really that long?)…
“Oobla dee, oobla dah, life goes on…..”
I have made the mistake once again of standing directly under the outside loudspeaker.
As the bell (which is really not a bell, but a mechanical tone, except we still call it “The Bell”) rattles my teeth, I pull open the freshly-painted blue double doors and marvel at the kid’s Pavlovian response. Short of salivating, our little puppies herd themselves nicely, funneling through the doorway, then split into different directions in search of …..
“Let us discover the answer to this together,” I say out loud as Miss Pink Fingernails slides by, jamming that cell phone into her size XXL purse. She looks at me like I am goofy. And you know what?
She might just be right.