When I rediscovered my love for books and reading back in early 2019, I was originally on the hunt for vintage horror paperbacks and kids’ chapter books that I missed out on in the late ’80s to mid ’90s. I didn’t care for today’s middle grade chapter books. Somewhere along the line though, my mind was opened to them and I’m so thankful that happened. As much as I adore the classics from long ago, a lot of them are very dated and not all too relevant today. Nowadays you have books featuring characters from all walks of life learning all kinds of different lessons in ways that are very relatable to present day issues. It wasn’t long before I discovered John David Anderson, who wrote Ms. Bixby’s Last Day and Posted, two highly touted middle grade books. I instantly fell in love with the cover of Finding Orion and did something I rarely do — I bought it brand new. Sometimes you see a cover, read a summary and you just know. You just know that the book will resonate with you and speak to you somehow. Now sometimes that doesn’t always happen and you end up being sorely disappointed, but I’m happy to say that was definitely not the case for Finding Orion. John David Anderson is a talented writer. This is a simple but beautiful story about family and the ties that bond us. It’s also about finding yourself as well as keeping an open mind. Because when you do, anything is possible. Such as forgiveness… and redemption.
I was already sold by the hauntingly atmospheric cover and the classic coming of age premise, but a blurb praised it for evoking The Wonder Years and Willy Wonka had me ready to plop down the full $8 asking price. The Wonder Years is my all-time favorite show and I always loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, so for me it was a no-brainer. Finding Orion is definitely more Wonder Years than Willy Wonka (80/20 I’d say), but the comparison is justifiable.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE CIRCUS
Rion is your typical 12 year old boy, but his family is anything but. Their last name is conveniently Kwirk (and oh how quirky they are). Ri’s dad concocts fried chicken jelly beans for a living. His oldest sister, Cass, is a dramatic fencing thespian. His youngest sister, Lyra, is a walking dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia and atlas all rolled up into one. Yes, these are tropes. And in lesser hands, it could easily be an eye roller. But John David Anderson somehow makes it work.
That line wasn’t meant to be creepy, but it’s way creepier than “There’s a family in our driveway.”
Turns out the clown is a friend, not a fiend. His name is Chuckles McLaughsalot. And he’s here to deliver a good old fashioned singing telegram from beyond the grave…
Papa Kwirk was definitely the quirkiest of Kwirks.
The story is told from Rion’s point of view; it’s in these poignant moments Finding Orion feels a LOT like The Wonder Years. It touches on some pretty deep topics, as many modern middle grade books tend to do. It’s one of the many reasons why I love middle grade fiction so much. They’re easy to read but can delve surprisingly deep.
Loss is a natural part of life, and everyone copes and grieves in their own unique way. Rion is very honest about his conflicted feelings. Life, as well as death, can often times be messy.
Dad’s relationship with Papa Kwirk was… strained… to say the very least. Finding Orion is as much about Rion’s dad and his relationship with Papa Kwirk as it is about Rion and his dad. I love the multigenerational aspect of this story.
It quickly became apparent that Papa Kwirk was huge in his community and touched many lives in different ways that the Kwirks were not fully aware of. It seemed as though everyone knew who Frank Kwirk was… except for his very own family.
But before the Kwirks can head home, Aunt Gertie drops a bombshell: per Papa Kwirk’s final wishes, his ashes have been hidden in various places and must be collected before he can be properly (and wholly) sent off. This leads to an outrageous scavenger hunt!
Rion’s reflections are the best part of the book. You can almost hear Daniel Stern’s voiceover.
Ri and his sisters are far from best friends, but they have their bonding moments throughout that just makes one go, “awww.” And may very well conjure a few childhood memories of hanging out with your siblings on a nice quiet summer evening…
Manny, Rion’s best friend and stand-in for Paul Pfeiffer, appears throughout the story in the form of phone call conversations.
I love how some of the chapter titles are far out there, but make perfect sense after reading them.
Lyra’s vast vocabulary leads to moments like such.
The unrealistically uber intelligent little kid trope is way overdone but as I said earlier, John David Anderson manages to pull it off with some charm. Besides, you do learn some cool random facts along the way!
There are some nostalgic ’80s callbacks sprinkled throughout the book. Dad is sometimes known as Optimus Prime, for example. One of the Kwirks’ pit stops on their quest to find Papa Kwirk’s remains leads them to an old timey ice cream parlor. And suddenly, the name of this chapter makes perfect sense.
I appreciated the various Garbage Pail Kids references in the book. Talk about nostalgic!
That’s one mighty tough challenge. Are the Kwirks up to it? Hopefully none of them are diabetic.
Humor can fall flat sometimes in a book. Like the author was trying too hard. Or the jokes simply miss. Finding Orion is humorous in all the right ways when it needs to be, and is more introspective when the occasion calls for it. It’s a solid balance that keeps the book light-hearted enough while tackling some pretty heavy topics with the sort of gravity that such issues deserve. I can picture a lot of the scenes, like the one above, as if it were a family movie trending on NetFlix.
It gets a bit silly at times, but that’s exactly how kids behave. And even though a lot of these moments have an air of “I’ve read or seen something like this 100 times before,” it still remains charming and somehow feels fresh, if that makes any sense. It speaks to John David Anderson’s ability to make the reader feel invested and above all else, entertained.
I won’t spoil the rest of the book, but I have to share this last one. I could just picture this in my head like a movie scene. It actually made me chuckle a bit, rather than just garner a smile. Good stuff.
Finding Orion starts out a little slow at first, but quickly kicks into gear. And from there, you have a quirky fun-filled family adventure. It’s got a bit of a road trip vibe to it, loads of scavenger hunt shenanigans and a ton of heart. Whether it was making me chuckle or ponder about my own relationship with my pops over the years, Finding Orion was a joy to read. It felt like a modern day Wonder Years episode in many ways. Family is a huge theme, as well as forgiveness and teamwork. As it is in real life, forgiveness often leads to redemption. If reading any of this made you feel like this book would be right up your alley, then I suggest strapping in with the Kwirks. And remember, when in doubt, follow the stars. They will always lead you back home.
The Wonder Years. Sometimes dramatic… sometimes hilarious… always able to strike just the right emotional chord. Growing up, I loved The Wonder Years. I still do in fact; it’s my favorite TV show of all time. Launched in January of 1988, the show took its audience on a magical tour of suburban life in America in the late 1960s, viewed through the lens of teenager Kevin Arnold (played by Fred Savage). The first person narrative (voiced by Daniel Stern) enabled us to see the world through the eyes of young Kevin Arnold, who was coming of age in an age of turbulence and perpetual change. Like so many who watched the show, I was able to easily identify with Kevin — he was the prototypical everyday teenager. On a personal side note, the best compliment I’ve ever received in regards to my writing is that it evokes nostalgic memories of the infamous voice-over but I digress.
Last month saw the 25th anniversary of the final Wonder Years episode, Independence Day, which aired on May 12, 1993. It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since The Wonder Years went off the air, so continuing in the tradition of A Very Cutlip Christmas, I figure now is the perfect time to share yet another one of my favorite episodes from this seminal series.
This is a story of roots.
A story of relationships.
And a story of knowing yourself.
It’s a story…
OF MASTODONS AND MEN
In a lot of ways, high school boys are a lot like primitive man.
In fact, about the only difference between my clan and neanderthal man was…
“Hey, you guys wanna shoot some hoops after school?”
“Oh yeah, count me in.”
“Hey Kev, you playing?”
The tribe. That year we were inseparable. We faced all the challenges.
Julie Aidem. We been going out for 2 weeks. And to put it mildly…
She appreciated the little things about me.
“You know, you have a really cute laugh.”
She liked my laugh.
“I thought about you today, Kevin.”
“Yeah, I was thinking about you too.”
She thought about me… lots.
“Yeah, but with the collar up. You know, it really suits you.”
That was Julie. She watched over me. Took care of me. Civilized me.
And if that wasn’t enough.
“Hey Julie! Hey Kevin!”
She had a great dad, too.
“How many times do I have to tell you to call me Ben?”
“Well, finally got that problem solved. Now she’s ready for a little spin.” I admired the guy. He had hobbies, he was funny. A real man’s man.
“Honey, did I hear you say you’re going to take the sports car out for a drive?”
“Thought so, yeah.”
“You remember our agreement: You ONLY drive the sports car on the weekends.”
“Heh, I don’t know what got into me!”
“He’d be off driving it DAY and NIGHT if I let him, wouldn’t you, Ben?”
Not that Julie’s mom wasn’t every bit as fun loving as her dad.
“Hey Kevin, why don’t you stay for dinner?”
“I’d love to, June!”
All in all, it was quite a household. Filled with doilies and laced curtains. And of course, Pupu.
“Quiet, Pupu! Quiet!”
“I don’t get it, Daddy. You’re the only one that Pupu barks at.”
“That’s because Pupu loves Daddy!”
The Aidem family was a model of decorum. There may have been a reason for that.
“So Kev, who do you like for the World Series?”
“I don’t know. I think I like the Tigers, or maybe the Cubs.”
“Oakland’s gonna knock everyone else on their butts.”
“Oh, sorry. NOT at the dinner table!”
A home where people actually said please, and used butter knives. As oppose to say…
Yeah, this was the life. Catered to. Coddled. Taken care of.
Still, at two and a half weeks into the relationship, it was beginning to occur to me that civilization was not without its discontents.
“Well that’s great, daddy….”
“… OH yeah, lemme get something outta my tool box and I’ll get out of your way.”
“Daddy! Look what you’re doing to Pupu! You’re hurting her feelings!”
“Oh, I don’t know what got into me!”
“I’ll go get her a biscuit.”
And suddenly, the thought struck me this guy might appreciate a little male bonding.
And there ya had it.
“Did you miss me?”
So much for guy talk.
“Yeah, of course I missed you.”
The next day the guys were giving me a hard time about Julie.
“Look, I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to ask anyone! I’m playing football today after school, and that’s that!”
“Yeah sure Kev, whatever you say.”
“I’ll be there!”
But there was one little problem. Leaving the bathroom, I heard it…
Maybe that’s when I began to realize… the undeniable truth.
“So Paul, you wanna play some football this afternoon?”
“You got it, Chuck.”
By the next day, one thing was clear.
“Hey guys, what time you playing?”
Still, I had one skill primitive man did not: I could whine.
“C’mon guys! I wanna play!”
“Look Kev, you bailed on us yesterday, and you didn’t even tell us.”
“I got tied up! It was an emergency!”
“It was JULIE, wasn’t it?”
“It was ONE time. I promise, it’ll never happen again. Please?”
A few hours with the guys and I remembered who I was.
Yep, by the time I came home I was a new man.
“Kevin, you have a visitor.”
“… H-Hi. I wasn’t expecting you. So Julie, what’s going on?”
“Oh nothing. I thought you were coming over today.”
OK, it was clear we reached a critical juncture. It was time to set ground rules, here and now.
“Every once in a while, guys gotta, you know, hang out with other guys.”
And there it was. Gentle but somehow, firm.
“I guess you forgot what today is!”
“It’s our 3 week anniversary!”
“I got you a gift!”
Made you wonder if they knew how to gift wrap crow.
“Do you like it?”
“Yeah! I- I love it, it’s great, it’s it’s…”
“You know Kevin, if you wanna be with the guys sometimes, I understand.”
“No, no, that’s not it. It’s just –“
And right about then, something went wrong.
“So maybe it’s time we made more of a commitment.”
“Oh Kevin! This is so exciting! I can’t wait to tell everyone we’re going steady! But first we have to tell mommy and daddy at dinner.”
Not that I’d actually agreed to anything, you understand. Not technically, anyway.
Still, that night outside Julie’s house, I knew I didn’t have the courage to turn back.
Great, the whole family knew. And not only that, now we were gonna have the talk.
The father-of-the-bride speech.
About the birds.
About the bees.
“Duke was a black lab. Eighty pounds. He was so full of fun, and so full of spirit. He was a real man’s best friend kind of dog, you know. And Duke wasn’t afraid of anything.”
“What happened to him?”
“Ran away the day I proposed to June. I still think about him you know. Every now and then, at night…
“Uhh… terrific mash potatoes, Mrs. Aidem.”
“Thank you, Kevin.”
But then, I suppose they don’t call it the inevitable for nothing.
“Kevin, don’t you have an announcement to make?”
At least not around the Aidem household.
“Uhhhh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. I do…”
“Kevin, I think you should stand up.”
And that’s when it happened.
It was horrible. It was amazing. Almost as if Pupu knew I was about to join the ranks of Aidem men.
“Julie, I can’t do this. I just CAN’T! I like my collar down! And I HATE wearing striped shirts! And I don’t like cookies! And another thing, I don’t want to spend every minute with you. I like hanging out with the guys! I’m a HUNTER! And a WARRIOR!!”
OK, maybe I got a little carried away about the mastodon thing, but I wasn’t just speaking for myself. I was speaking for all mankind. For Ben.
“I can’t do it, Julie. We can’t go steady.”
*Aidem girls run off crying*
Over the next few weeks I rejoined my tribe. And in a lot of ways, I was back where I belonged.
I guess I knew there was still some unfinished business.
Between Ben and me at least.
“Hey Kevin. I thought that was you. You look pretty good out there.”
“Thanks. So… how’s Julie?”
“Oh she found a new guy. They’re going steady.”
“Huh, no kidding!”
“Yeah, he looks great in stripes.”
“I bet… hey! You got the car out on a Thursday huh!”
And in a way, I couldn’t help thinking I had something to do with it.
But me, I was just a sixteen-year-old guy, and the way I saw it, there were still a lot of mastodons yet to be slayed.
JULIE AIDEM, MEET SARAH FRANKLIN
Some say high school are some of the most critical years of your life. You made friends, enemies and memories. Sometimes you even broke hearts.
Looking back at my high school yearbook I see a lot of faces that pass through the years. Some I wonder how they’re doing and what they’re up to. Others, I wonder if they ever wonder about me. And then… there’s Sarah Franklin.
I was a junior in high school. Coincidentally, much like Kevin Arnold, my tale happened when I too was 16.
It was a language arts class, and we were watching a great film called Smoke Signals.
It seemed like an ordinary day, a day just like any other. Little did I know, it was anything but.
So I’m sitting there enjoying the movie when I started to notice Sarah giving me funny looks. I didn’t know why exactly, but I knew something was brewing.
And surprise surprise, something was.
On my way out of class that day I felt a tap. When I turned around, Sarah Franklin shoved an envelope in my hands and dashed off. It happened so fast I almost couldn’t believe it. Not wanting to involve the guys with the matter, I kept silent about it throughout lunch. When I got home I ripped the envelope open.
Whatever was inside… I knew one thing… it was more than just a party invitation.
I found a 2-page letter, printed on yellow and green paper. Here’s the gist of what it said:
I know we only see each other in English and Study Hall, but what I’m about to tell and ask you is HUGE. You see, my sister met a wonderful guy 10 months ago. They shared such a wonderful relationship and I’d never seen her any happier before than in those 10 months. Regrettably, good things never last, and his family ended up moving 10 months later. They knew a long distance relationship would never work, so they reluctantly broke up. My sister, ever since, has not been the same and as her big sis I’m looking for a great guy who is looking for a meaningful and loyal relationship. As I said, we don’t really know each other, but from what I know of you, you seem like a really great guy! It’s hard to find a good guy in this day and age who doesn’t use foul language or the like.
So… what I’m getting at is… would you like to meet my sister over lunch? If you’re looking for a great girl who will love and be loyal to you, my sister is the one. Please call me later today between 4 and 9 PM. My number is 867-5309.
PS- If I seem weird tomorrow in English class it will be because you know why!
Wow. It’s not everyday you get a letter like that! But at the time I just wasn’t looking for a relationship. So much like Kevin Arnold did, I knew what I had to do.
To this day I can still vividly remember the enthusiasm and giddiness in her voice as she picked up the phone… but I’ll also never forget how I took the wind right out of her sail in the next few seconds. It was hard. I felt bad. But I knew I had to be honest.
“WHAT ABOUT THE MASTODONS?!?!”
I didn’t quite go berserk like how Kevin Arnold did. There was no talk about being a hunter, a warrior or slaying mastodons. Instead I opted for the classic American way: a quick courteous note followed by friendly rejection.
Like Kevin, I wasn’t ready. I too was sixteen-years-old, and the way I saw it, there too were mastodons yet to be slayed.
Looking back, am I sorry about what I did? In a way, a little bit. Maybe the least I could have done was have lunch with the poor girl. But you know, when you’re 16 you do “dumb” things. Sarah Franklin figured I was different from the other guys. After what happened, she probably hated my guts.
Senior Grad Night. All the seniors were living it up at Disneyland. On one ride, my eyes met Sarah Franklin’s. We exchanged a nod — an unspoken pact of forgiveness. A moment that signified her younger sister was doing dandy in the game of life and that bygones would be bygones.
At least, that’s what I’d like to tell you.
But no such Wonder Years ending.
I really don’t remember what happened to Sarah Franklin. In fact, I hardly recall seeing her around my senior year. We haven’t spoken to each other since that one fateful phone call. Then again, not like we ever did before, you understand.
We’ve all broken someone’s heart. We didn’t mean to… it just happens. Lord knows we’ve been on the other end as well.
Yup, in high school we made friends, enemies and memories. Good and bad. And every now and then there are people you wonder about, and people you wonder if they ever wonder about you. And then there are the Sarah Franklin’s of the world. You don’t really want to remember the memories of the Sarah Franklin’s…
But you do.
Sarah, wherever you are, I hope you and your sister are doing well. I hope both of you have found the right guy (or girl) to share life’s ups and downs with. Cheers.
My favorite TV show growing up was The Wonder Years. One of my favorite episodes from that show was “A Very Cutlip Christmas.” As I write this, it’s Christmas Eve 2016. I’m reminded of this excellent episode which I’m replicating below.
Following the episode recap, I’ll share a story of my former 8th grade language arts teacher, Ms. Haas. In a lot of ways, Ms. Haas and Coach Cutlip reminded me of each other. These are stories about peer pressure, standing up for what you believe in, and the indomitable human spirit.
I hope you enjoy.
A VERY CUTLIP CHRISTMAS
It’s a time of miracles. When reindeer can fly and Frosty never melts.
Then you get older. Somehow… things change. The magic begins to fade.
Until something happens that reminds you… at Christmas time, miracles still can be found. Sometimes in the most unexpected places.
Ed Cutlip. Better known as Coach Cutlip to his students at RFK. He was a robotic man who rarely showed any kind of emotion, and worked a relentless whistle. It was December of 1970. He was Scrooge in a baseball cap.
“In my grasp, I have a message from Richard Millhouse Nixon. Our chief executive has entrusted me, as a physical educator, to see that you men are AT or ABOVE the national average. Over the next several days, we will be doing chin-ups, pushups, situps, shuttle runs and more. You men will be ready for the President’s All-American National Athletic Test.”
After a grueling workout, the guys were talking in the locker room.
“Man, if only we had some dirt to take down Cutlip!” Tommy said.
A sweaty Doug croaked, “The man’s a monster!”
One thing’s for sure, Coach Cutlip was certainly lacking the holiday cheer.
Later that day my mom took me to the Brightland Mall. All around me I saw blatant cheap Christmas consumerism. What happened? Then, I heard it.
“HO HO HO!”
I looked over my shoulder and saw the mall Santa. There, a long line full of little kids awaited their turn patiently. In its own tacky way, it reminded me of what I had been missing.
But as I was sitting there, a funny feeling overcame me. Why did the mall Santa seem so familiar? And then it hit me…
It was CUTLIP!
Likewise, he spotted me. He jumped up, embarrassed, and ran to his shack for cover. It was horrible. It was BEYOND horrible. The first time I had seen a teacher outside school, he was stuffed with a pillow.
The next day at school I tried to block out the disturbing images. Luck be my lady, who bumped into me in the hallway?
“Ah, morning Arnold.”
I looked up at him, trying to read his expression. Had he really seen me at the mall, and did I really see him? I decided to engage in some small talk with the man.
“So, how are we?”
He wasn’t even looking at me. His eyes were trained on a clipboard as he jotted down some notes casually.
“Any, uh, adventures since I last saw you, Arnold?”
“Um, no, not really. Well, I did go shopping at the Brightland Mall…”
Cutlip shot up like a jack in the box. “Oh?”
“Never been there myself. I don’t get out that far.”
“See you in gym, Arnold.”
And with that, he walked away. Wow, maybe I imagined the whole thing at the mall. Was this just one big miscalculation? Feeling full of holiday cheer, I shouted “Merry Christmas sir!”
Then he turned around. And right then, it hit me.
There were moments in my life which I regretted. I knew this was one of those moments.
That day in gym, I knew it was D-Day. I KNEW TOO MUCH. He was going to lash out on me, make me his whipping boy.
In his typical firm manner, Coach Cutlip called me out during gym class.
I cautiously walked toward him, with all my classmates watching. “Yes sir?”
“Why don’t you keep time?” he handed me his stop watch, smiled and placed his hand on my shoulder like a father figure.
And then I realized… KNOWLEDGE IS POWER!
But my friends — that was another matter. While I had it made, they were sweating and suffering. After class, they called me a turncoat, a teacher’s pet, even worse — “Cutlip in training.”
I knew they were right. There was only one thing to do.
“I have to tell you something, Mr. Cutlip.”
“Please, call me Ed.”
But before I could go on, he offered me a piece of paper.
“It’s my personal permission slip, you don’t have to take the National Athletic test.”
“That’s the thing. I don’t want to be your time keeper. I don’t want to sit out. I –“
“Say no more,” he interrupted sternly. He came close to my face. “I see how it is, Arnold. I played a little ball in my life, too. I’ll see you in GYM.”
He ripped the note into pieces. And that was that.
Later that week, I was going off on Cutlip during lunch time with the guys.
“He’s making my life a mess, just because I saw him working at the Brightland Mall!”
Doug perked up. “Cutlip works at the Brightland Mall?”
Before I could say anything, a girl passed me a note.
I sat there at his mercy. I had no idea what kind of torture I was in store for. I saw him reaching in his desk. He was going to pull out a knife, a bat, or possibly a gun.
“20 percentage employee discount. You know, Arnold, to a man who’s devoted his entire life to public education, the opportunity to buy whole sale is nothing to laugh about. HAHAHAHA.”
“May I go now?”
“Wait, that’s not the only reason I’m working at the mall. My mother — Esther Cutlip. If it weren’t for my help there’s no telling what kind of catatonic state the woman might fall into.”
“… That’s nice, sir.”
I wanted the bell to ring, the fire alarm, an earthquake, anything…
“Tell me Kevin… have you ever been inside a Santa outfit?”
This was reaching critical mass!
“It’s hot, and it’s SWEATY.”
I couldn’t take it any longer. “STOP! I don’t want your fruitcake, or hear about your mother. It’s none of my business! I’m not gonna tell anyone you work at the mall so let’s just drop it, OK?”
I had enough. I was sick of this game. I headed for the door. And then…
And right then, for the first time, I saw the man as a human being. Not a great human being, maybe not even a good human being, but a very lonely human being.
“Don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me, Mr. Cutlip.”
Going home on the bus that day, I was feeling pretty good. Until I saw Doug, Tommy and Randy anyhow. I had already spilled the beans.
“C’mon Kevin, where does he work? Orange Julius?”
“Forget it, I’m not gonna say.”
“That’s cool… we’ll just go look for him. How hard can it be?”
Were these guys serious or what! I knew what I had to do…
“What are you doing here, Arnold? You’re not going to sit on my lap are you?”
“Good, because you know you’re too old, right?”
“Look, I’m sorry.”
“I kinda slipped and told some guys you work at the mall. They’re coming to look for you any minute now. I think you better just hide out in your shack until this whole thing blows over.”
“Let them come if they must. I AM WHO I AM.”
With that, he stood up tall and proud. I’ll always remember that look on his face.
He was at once heroic…
“Move along, Arnold.”
I made my way to the guys, helpless, outnumbered.
And then, it happened.
First, Doug stared directly into the eyes of the man who had taught him gym for three long years.
Then Randy and Tommy looked long and hard.
Those three skeptics gazed straight into the eyes of Coach Cutlip not thirty feet away.
But all they saw…. was Santa Claus.
It was a miracle. He stood there like some patron saint. And for that brief moment of Christmas magic, Ed Cutlip got to be all that he ever wanted.
STANDING UP FOR MS. HAAS
It was Spring of ’97. I was in the 8th grade. Our language arts teacher Mr. Simon was replaced by Ms. Haas mid-year. Family matters forced Mr. Simon to move out of state. Everyone loved him. In retrospect, I guess Ms. Haas never stood a shot.
She was the strict, serious type while Mr. Simon was more of a big brother — goofy, fun and graded pretty easy. Ms. Haas on the other hand was a tough grader. She was in her mid 30’s but already had a balding spot which my classmates often poked fun at (behind her back, of course).
So, pretty much everyone hated her guts. I kinda liked her, though. Though she was a hard grader, she was fair. And I respected that. I respected HER.
One day during SSR (Silent Sustained Reading, which we had for 20 minutes) there was a note being passed around. I noticed each one of my classmates writing something down on that piece of paper. I was the last one to receive it.
It was a petition. A petition to fire Ms. Haas.
IF YOU WANT MS. HAAS REMOVED, SIGN HERE
There were 25 plus signatures. The kid sitting closest to me — Andre — noticed my hesitation to sign.
“C’mon man. Sign it already.”
I looked over at Ms. Haas sitting in the corner, reading a book. Had she noticed this piece of paper going around that demanded her immediate removal? She had a stoic look on her face, so I couldn’t tell, yet… she ALWAYS had a stoic look on her face… as though someone sucked the life out of her many many years ago.
I looked back at the petition. I skimmed through the signatures. According to my count, everyone had signed it. EVERYONE.
Andre nudged me on the shoulder. “Yo man, you gonna sign it or what?”
I clearly recall to this day asking myself this question: “Does Ms. Haas deserve to be fired?”
To me, the answer was no, so… I put the pen down.
“Yo man, what are you doing?”
“I ain’t signing it.”
“What? Are you crazy? You actually like her?”
I glanced over to see if she had noticed this commotion. “She’s cool.”
“Man, you’re crazy,” he grimaced, snatching the petition away from me.
The rest of SSR I didn’t read. I kind of sat there with my eyes transfixed on the same paragraph, thinking about what just went down. I stood up for what I believed in. I wondered if Ms. Haas was aware at all that 97% of her students wanted her fired. I couldn’t tell from my vantage point, so I crumpled up a piece of paper as an excuse to get near her desk.
As I approached the wastebasket, I caught a glimpse of her face peeking right below her book. And what I saw that day I would never forget. Her eyes were red and watery. Ms. Haas was crying. She looked up to see me approaching and quickly wiped her eyes. I immediately looked away and hustled back to my seat, my crumpled paper still in hand.
After class (it was my last class of the day) my mom drove me home. I convinced her to drive me right back. I just had to pick up my boom box. At the time, Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” was a huge sensation, and I had the crazy notion that maybe, just maybe, it might cheer up Ms. Haas.
The campus was eerily quiet as I made a beeline toward Ms. Haas’ classroom around 3:30. As I entered, I saw her sitting at her desk in the corner. Her eyes were still red, and crumpled tissue paper could be seen strewn about her desk.
“Oh, hey Steve, what are you doing here?” she stammered. Ms. Haas was completely caught off guard.
And suddenly, so was I.
For a second there I didn’t know what to say! What was I doing back here? I figured then and there that I must have been a sight for sore eyes, boombox and all!
“I just wanted you to listen to this cool new song. I don’t know… I thought maybe you might like hearing it.” Wow, that came out smooth, Steve. Way to go.
By the way, looking back, I had no idea about the 1989 film Say Anything or the scene where John Cusack holds the boombox over his head to woo his crush. I guess from Ms. Haas’ perspective, she might have had an awkward flashback there… totally not my intent!
Ms. Haas gave me what could only be described as a perplexed half smile, completely unsure what to make of the situation. Plugging the cord into the socket, I pondered briefly about whether this whole thing was wise or not. Alas, there was simply no turning back now. I hit PLAY and stepped back, waiting for the track to begin. Needless to say, those 2-3 seconds felt like an eternity. I stared at the boombox on the ground, too shy to look up at Ms. Haas. She was probably doing the same. I’ll never know for sure, as I kept my eyes on that boombox for all dear life. At last the lyrics began filling Ms. Haas’ 8th grade classroom, wall to wall.
Seems like yesterday we used to rock the show
I laced the track, you locked the flow
So far from hangin’ on the block for dough
Notorious they got to know that
Life ain’t always what it seem to be
Words can’t express what you mean to me
Even though you’re gone we still a team
Thru your family I’ll fulfill your dreams
In the future can’t wait to see if you’ll
Open up the gates for me
Reminisce sometime the night they took my friend
Try to black it out, but it plays again
When it’s real feelings hard to conceal
Can’t imagine all the pain I feel
Give anything to hear half your breath
I know you still livin’ your life after death
At some point during the song I managed to muster the courage to look up and see Ms. Haas’ expression. She had a funny look on her face as the song continued on. The lyrics reverberated throughout the classroom.
Every step I take
Every move I make
Every single day
Every time I pray
I’ll be missing you
By the time the song ended, you would never guess that Ms. Haas had been crying earlier that day at all.
“Oh my God,” she started. “This song… it was originally the Police’s…”
I didn’t get it. “The police owns this song?” I imagined donut-eating cops.
Ms. Haas chuckled.
“Steve, I’m going to date myself here but the Police was a band a good number of years ago led by a guy named Sting. In 1983 they had a smash hit called EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE. The background music from that song, well, it’s exactly the same background as this new song!”
Ms. Haas went on tell me a story about how she grew up a HUGE fan of the Police. One time they came to her town and she and her best friend got tickets to the show. But a day before Ms. Haas got herself grounded. However, with the help of her best friend, a trusty rope and a two-story window, she managed to sneak out and make the show. It hit me right then and there that Ms. Haas was once vibrant, and full of life.
Ms. Haas was human, too. Very human, in fact. More than we knew.
And right before my very eyes, Ms. Haas became full of life again. Her eyes sparkled as she regaled me with the greatest tale from her youth. And for those few couple minutes, I saw a side of Ms. Haas that no other 8th grader had ever seen before. Ms. Haas was not only smiling, the woman was practically beaming.
“I know it’s hard to believe, Steve, but trust me, in MY day I was quite the little rascal.”
We both shared a good chuckle. I left school that day with a completely brand new perspective of my 8th grade language arts teacher. Ms. Haas was more than Mr. Simon’s fill-in replacement. Ms. Haas was more than a strict educator in her mid 30’s, victimized by a premature balding spot. Ms. Haas was a woman who had seen the ups and downs of life. And for that, I respected her all the more.
The following week, Ms. Haas announced to the class that she was leaving. In a weird way, the 8th grade students got their wish after all, but I knew that Ms. Haas went out swinging on her own. It was her call, and hers alone. At least, that’s the way I like to think of it, and I’m sticking to my story, no pun intended. Of course, we were all leaving as well. We had four years of high school to look forward to. Everyone was moving on to the next chapter in their lives. It only seemed fitting. I remember looking at Ms. Haas that day as she made her announcement. She looked right back at me. There was no cliché Hollywood wink or gesture exchanged, but I know in my heart of hearts that Ms. Haas was finally at peace. And I know that we both said to each other, in our own unique and silent way, “Thank you. Thank you for everything.”
I still think about Ms. Haas from time to time and that fateful day I re-entered her classroom armed with a boombox and Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You.” Sometimes I wonder where Ms. Haas is today. I like to think she’s off somewhere, in her own little corner of the world, at peace. Perhaps she and her best friend are living next door, with their Sting posters proudly draped over their bedroom walls. Perhaps Ms. Haas is married now with a family to call her very own. Wherever she may be, I just hope she’s happy.
Teachers come and go. But a select few you never forget. Life lessons can come in a wide variety of forms. Ms. Haas taught me indirectly the importance of standing up for what you believe in. Even when everyone else is going in the other direction. The popular choice isn’t always the right choice.