This Blog

This is the Blog of Peter C. Conrad, an author, with experience in writing short stories, articles, non-fiction books, the novel, on-line course content, instructional design, journalism, and encyclopaedia articles. Never accepting limitations, he has had successes in diverse writing approaches. He is a storyteller, teacher, and artist.

The posts in the list of categories at the right chronicles the diverse areas he has worked with commentary about when and why the works were created.

Use the list of categories at the right for the best navigation through the blog.

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Naïveté Power

by Peter C. Conrad

A significant factor in all I have achieved was naiveté: I simply did not know any better when I left the farm and traveled to Edmonton, where I would be free to graduate high school, living on my own or with my brother. It followed that I would go to university and attain several degrees, which would allow me to choose any carer I wanted. There would be prosperity, as simple hard work would bring me the pleasures of success. I dreamed of easily attaining a bachelor degree and a Master of Arts with a thesis that would automatically be accepted by a publisher leading to wealth and offers to continue publishing. Offers to teach at universities and colleges would present themselves. There would be more publications, non-fiction histories, social commentary, short stories and collections of personal essays, novels, film scripts produced, radio plays, stage plays, and of course collections of poetry.

I knew this would happen as I finished my chores every night and listened to soft lowing of the cattle around me, they nodded their heads, satisfied with the hay I had thrown over the fence, the grain in the troughs, nodding in agreement with my thoughts. There would be a place where I would wake up in the morning and the sun would be bright, warm, inviting, filling the room in an amber hue. There would not be any animals calling for morning milking, feeding, watering, or grooming. There would be a neat set of letters from editors on my desk in a den, not far away outlining what they liked about the manuscripts they were reviewing, encouraging, supportive comments about the work. Other letters were from my agent gently suggesting more great books I may write next. There would be another manuscript nearly complete, paper stacked by the manual typewriter. To one side there would be another envelope that had been ripped open days before: another royalty cheque to deposit. There was no pressing need to take it to the bank, but perhaps a trip downtown may be fun I would think. Another letter requesting me to consider a position at a university lays on the side table unanswered as I would have not need to take the position, as the earning from my books would be so great such a position would be a unwanted burden on my time.

My wife wakes up and smiles. She stretches and enjoys the warm sunlight, just home from a book tour for her latest best selling book …

The cityscape in front of me was loud and disorienting when I got off the Greyhound bus in Edmonton: a slanted city, I thought. Everything was new, the streetlights were bright, the number of cars, strange. Everything was just going to get better from here.

There had been a sudden change as my mother caught me packing up items in my bedroom on the farm days before, sealing them and putting my brother’s address on them so they could be sent out once I was gone. She did not bother to pack much herself before running out the house and disappearing into the night. She met me as I left the bus station. She had an apartment and said she had a place for me. Shortly after I settled into the bedroom of the apartment, she said I could have my fun and finish Grade 9, but that would be it. She had arranged a job for me at the car dealership where she worked as a desk clerk. They knew all about me and would be happy to hire me in the parts department where all I needed to know was my ABCs, and they would teach me that.

My brother and I rented an apartment in the summer before Grade 10; I had money from working in landscaping and money I received from the sale of the cattle I had left behind on the farm. My dreams dictated that I take a full set of honours courses in the sciences, social sciences, English, and Mathematics. I had the additional incentive to do well, if I did well, no one at the school would ask questions about my family or living arrangements. As a muscular farm boy I had no trouble making the school’s football team, which was fun, except I had no idea what football was. With the isolation of farm life, a lack of a television, I had only heard cryptic descriptions of football and had a vague idea what hockey was.

Grade 10 was a continuous effort, filling in gaps created by the years of limbo, classified as learning disabled, making my own rules about how I would learn with the illicit help of many teachers. I thought I could do everything in school, be on the football team, yearbook, newspaper, student council, track team, swimming team, but there was not enough time with the homework that needed to be done. I would arrive at school an hour before classes started, went to the library, went to classes, went to football practice, then travelled to the University of Alberta to find a place in one of the libraries where I would stay until everything was done.

My brother was involved in his own struggles, and paid little attention to what I did in those years. He would ask now and then if I had given up on graduating, as he had. I assured him I was only going to school for the fun of it. He became vigilant about picking up the mail from the front doors of the apartment building, always opening my mail first. At the end of Grade 11, he discovered my high marks and reported them to my mother. There was only one thing that I could do: sciences. Those who received high marks, must study science in their natural order of things.

In Grade 12, I continued with calculus, sciences, English, and social studies, but never forgot that I was going to be a writer. Perhaps, I could be a lab technician and write on the side until my best selling books allowed me to work full time as a writer. The problem was that I had no interest in continuing with sciences at university.

I as a volunteer at the Book Fair at Strathcona High School in my final year of high school, I met authors and listened to them speak. It became clear to me that the dream I had of being a writer was not fantasy. After listening to a presentation by Ted Barris about his knew book Fire Canoe, we talked. I told him about how my family wanted me to pursue sciences, but I wanted to be a writer. He paused for a moment and told me that if I wanted to be happy I should follow my passions. The final decision was made I would be a writer.

As I prepared to go to university, my family was aware I was going to go into arts, so they agreed to provide some assistance if I went to the University of Saskatchewan, rather than the University of Alberta. They hoped I would enter the seminary once I was in Saskatoon, and abandon writing, as being a minister would be a way to save me and keep me in the natural order of things. I agreed, as Saskatoon was far from their influences.

I was delighted to find a strong and supportive community of writers, and a university with a well-known History faculty. There was no doubt that I would live my dreams, as naïve as they appeared to others. All I had done was called foolish, childish, unattainable, but they had been attained. Before I left the farm, years earlier I had the silly idea that I could write an article that the local newspaper, South Peace News would publish: it would be about the organization of the Stony Creek 4-H Club, and it worked with the short piece appearing in 1975. I never forgot the feeling and continued through with the same power of the naïve, leaving the farm and graduating high school on my own, entering university, and completing my Bachelor of Arts degree in History and English.

With the completion of my BA the label of naïveté became firmly associated with me as I insisted that I would find a perfect subject for my Master of Arts thesis, which would be accepted by a book publisher, proving that there were no obstacles to publishing the right thesis. That was so naïve and it rang in my ear constantly through the year and half it took to complete the degree.

Many of my peers at university just shook their heads, patted me on the shoulder and said I must be prepared for disappointment when I told them, I would have some of my short stories produced on CBC radio. They had little to say to me when “Shut Out the Rain” and “Two Streams” were broadcast in the 1980s.

Success was achieve on a warm August day in 1989, when I arrived at my publisher’s office in Saskatoon to pick up a box of my book, Training for Victory: the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. It was an expanded version of my MA these about the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Saskatchewan.

Needing an income during those early years, and with the encouragement of some faculty members of the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan I completed my Bachelor of Education in 1992, declaring I would soon be in a contract. This was considered naïve, as only those with connections in a school district would get a contract. In less than a year I had my temporary contract.

I continued with a new goal to work as an Instructional Designer, which was also mocked, but quickly led to opportunities with institution like the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology, EMBANET in Toronto, The Education Management Corporation in Pittsburgh, TrainingScape in Seattle, and the Heritage Community Foundation in Edmonton.

All I pursue now is the naïve goals, but are they really naïve? Only those achievements that are beyond one’s reach, is by definition naïve. As I define another set of goals I remember all the looks of pity, disgust, disbelief of those who told me I was naïve, but by definition, every statement that these nay Sayers was naïve. My statements were proved to be attainable goals—attainable if I rejected their naïve views.

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Seeking Evidence

by Peter C. Conrad

My father insisted that there was no reason to strive for any goal that was beyond careers that one’s parents had, as there were systemic barriers to do anything else. This fit well within his world view, created by the conditions of his Aspergers Syndrome, highly functional autism. His world was defined by set rules and systems that never changed. One would find happiness in following rules, routines, and order. He made his views clear; that the Establishment had closed all doors. This was not a conspiracy that would take too much agreement and intelligence, which my father did not believe anyone really had.

I had learned that my father’s views were to be accepted, as to argue, discuss, ask pointed questions was to suggest that you did not accept his natural order of things; this onto itself was offensive and invited loud condemnation. Harmless agreement was the only reply to my father’s statements about the natural state of the world.

Yet, as time passed the warning signs of where this would lead appeared as I entered junior high school. The conversation turned to what was possible in the system where the Establishment maintained control over the life paths of us all: my path was determined, as my father was a welder who had struggled from structural work to the higher paid pressure welder, working on pipelines, my highest hope was to be a pressure welder, or to stay on the farm taking care of things. Achievement in school was not based on testing, proven abilities, assignments; no, they already had decided for me that I would be a drop-out. I would be forced out at the end of Grade 10 at the very best. He reasoned with me in Grade 7 that I could demonstrate that I had some degree of control in my life by leaving before the year was over.

My mother had already been active, refusing the school request to test me for autism, IQ, or Mastery testing. I had been placed in a special needs class as she requested, but always had the years work complete by the last week of September. She insisted I was no different than my brothers who had been tested and were known to have low IQ and Aspergers Syndrome.

One evening, my father caught me on our old manual typewriter completing an English assignment I had arranged to do outside of my Special Needs class so I could soon proceed in normal classes, once I had the required testing. My father did not lose his temper; he just stood in the door of my room watching as I finished typing the sentence.

He shook his head and said, “You’re very sick, crazy.”

I listened quietly as he told me anyone like me, typing school work, and handing in completed assignments, was crazy. It showed that I was also very stupid, as all effort in school was a waste. He finished telling me that to save me, the next school day would have to be my last, as he would not allow me to attend.

I said that he was correct in everything he said. There was no way I would consider working hard in a school system that was set up for my failure. He stared with his usual blank expression. This work had nothing to do with passing classes, getting good marks, or even passing junior high, it was in fact to get the evidence that he had always been right.

“What?” He asked. ”I want you to quit now.”

“That would not prove anything,” I said. I explained that I had to have real evidence: that assignments had to really be my best effort, which meant I had to truly work hard on them. If I simply produced assignment after assignment everyone knew was substandard and I got a poor mark, nothing has been proved, except that I received the mark I deserved. That would not prove that the Establishment had a predetermined path for me and that no other option exists.

My father stared, confused. He shook his head and walked out of the room. Although I had not been tested, and remained in the Special Needs room, I was receiving C+ and B marks for assignments and tests that I was allowed to complete for regular classes. A new uncommon issue arose: I had to hide my report cards from my parents, forge their signatures on them and return them to school, as the reports included a few A- marks, completely unacceptable as it was not within the natural order of things in my parents’ world view.

The day did come, in Grade 9, when they heard about the tests in Mastery, IQ, and for autism were given to me, resulting in a new school nickname: Precocious. My father declared the next school day would be my last.

That last day unfolded as planned: after arriving I said nothing to anyone about what was happening. At the lunch break, I announced at the office I had to help my father load supplies at the Coop for the farm, and I may be a little late getting back, but if I did not make it back for the afternoon, that would be because my father wanted to take me back to the farm for the afternoon. They said that was fine. I hurried to the bank and withdrew my savings from selling my cattle. Shortly after 1:00 o’clock in the afternoon the Greyhound bus I was on pulled out on its way to the city.

My older brother and I lived together while I put myself through high school. There was a lot to catch up on, but the rule remained the same: I was always seeking evidence about what was possible. My effort had to be its best, and the results constantly reflected the final work I produced.

As I progressed through my degrees in university, published books, articles, and had short stories produced on CBC radio, the evidence showed few obstacles.

In the months before I entered grad school to complete my Master of Arts degree every other student and faculty member I spoke to laughed, scoffed, and denigrated my plans to find a thesis subject that would lead to a book publication. This was unheard of, as no one has ever completed a Master of Arts thesis that would be accepted by a publisher. Maybe, if I was very good, an article could be published based on a MA thesis, nothing more. I listened to their tired explanations about how the MA was a limited effort that could be seen as only a stepping-stone to the PhD. It was in fact another opportunity to seek evidence.

The first months after completing my MA, it was a struggle placing the thesis with a traditional publisher and even the articles I had produced were not being accepted. The editors of the magazines explained in their letters that they did not accept works from those who had only completed their MA. As the summer of 1987 turned to fall a publisher accepted the thesis for publication, but I asked if the scope of the thesis be expanded from the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Saskatchewan to include the provinces of Manitoba and Alberta. They accepted the changes. The contract was suddenly cancelled as they realized that this was abnormal. In a telephone call with the editor, I said my research would continue and I would be in Ottawa at the National Archives and the book would be offered to another publisher. After returning from Ottawa, the publisher was waiting with a new contract. Training for Victory: the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in the West was published in 1989. All of my detractors gave me grudging congratulations for the publication.

More people than I had expected shared my father’s views. One of many jobs I had during my years at university was lifeguard at the swimming pools. I was also an instructor and competitive swimming coach. A had an ongoing conversation with several parents, in most cases, unaware of what they did at the university. One, who kept coming back, was very interested in where I came from, what my family was like. The story of my father and my guiding search for evidence intrigued him. His friendly manner continued until he asked me if I would mind allowing him to share the search for evidence I had always used with his patients.

What patients? He was a clinical psychologist who had many clients that had the same view: all of their problems were a result of a system that worked to keep them from achieving their goals. The task the psychiatrist assigned his patients that they would have to bring to their next appointment ways in which true evidence to support the belief was very effective. The effort they made would have to in fact be real: they had to complete every job or assignment at optimum levels. If this brought failure or set back, they had the beginning of real proof that they were in unfair system that was stopping their progress. Several years passed and the psychiatrists remarked that the reality therapy of seeking evidence had proceeded with surprising results. I the few cases where blocks were identified, the solutions were also quickly apparent as well.

The search for evidence continues to be my guiding philosophy that removes the vast majority of obstacles. It would be too naïve to suggest that hard focussed work would remove all obstacles, but it plays a critical role in defining what the blocks are and alternative routes to goals. Sometimes one has to reconsider the goals they have for themselves. It is never a good idea to think you know where the blocks are or give up on a goal you have set before seeking the evidence that a perceived obstacle exists.

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The Ironic Teacher

By Peter C. Conrad

Many elements play roles in the creation of a teacher: what kind of teacher one is and how well they do, whether they are well liked or dreaded by the students. My journey to becoming a teacher is as varied as my arrival as a published author.

Like all teachers, I attended university; starting with a Bachelor of Arts in history, English, studio art and art history. A Master of Arts degree in history followed, graduating with a thesis a traditional publisher wanted. After revisions and gathering photographs, Training for Victory: the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in the West was published in 1989, the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Second World War and the establishment of the air training plan in Canada.

To pay my way through all those years at university I was an Olympic style weight lifting coach, competitive swimming coach, learn to dive instructor, canoe instructor, swimming and life saving instructor. I had instructing jobs that dated back to before I left high school. I enjoyed of these jobs, but was told continuously that there were few opportunities in teaching, so find another line of work.

As I coached and instructed at the university, a group of parents consistently commented about how I was a natural teacher; soon asking me why I was not in the College of Education. I repeated the same accepted comments that there were no teaching positions available, as the Baby Boom generation filled those positions. These parents insisted that there would be an opportunity for me if I attained my Bachelor of Education. I shrugged until the day came when several approached me on deck and told me they were professors in the College of Education and they were sure that I would find a position.

I entered the Education with high hopes and attained my degree in 1992, and to my surprise attained a position in a town not far from the city in January 1993. The position was available as the regular teacher left on stress leave. It took minutes to understand why. With optimism, I completed the contract, expecting another from the same district that I had taught, but the dreaded interviewed ended that: all position were filled and they foresaw no opportunities until the Boomers retired around 2010. I remained a supply teacher for the years that followed and continued to publish.

The university I went to had a particularly good program in preparing teaching material and distance education: Instructional Design. My writing background prepared me to write content for lessons, and editing. I quickly picked up contract work doing just these things for institutions in Canada and then the United States. Tele-commuting mixed with matrix management: the practice of working for several project managers at the same time, each expecting nearly full time work took its toll. By 2001, my wife graduated law at the university and I was ready to go home: Edmonton, Alberta, where I graduated high school.

In Edmonton, I worked for the Heritage Community Foundation, producing Edukits and content for the Alberta Online Encyclopaedia. Completing this contract, I immediately was engaged by Folklore Publishing to write Canadian Wartime Prison Escapes: Courage and Daring Behind Enemy Lines, published in 2007.

I accepted a position as a supply teacher with Edmonton Public Schools, and again found myself in a contract position coving for a bereavement leave. But, like all stress leave contracts, it came to an end. I was a supply teacher again, which led to the ironic twist. With my background, it should have followed an academic path, in fact those who knew me would ask me to take their Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) students and conduct discussions about the Napoleonic Code or the causes of World War One to mention a few topics. Another, more poignant observation was made as I traveled from one program to the next: I excelled working with those who had autism, learning disabilities, was comfortable working with students in treatment for mental health issues. Instead of being invited to participate in the professional development for AP or IB teachers, I attended training in Non-Violent Crisis Intervention.

My past had caught up with me. I was the only member of my family that does not have autism, but to avoid questions and continue with the general rule of denial in the family, my mother insisted that I should not be tested, although I was clearly very different from my siblings. The result was that I was placed with the learning disabled students. After the family moved to a remote farm in the South Peace region of Alberta, I attended school in High Prairie and was placed in the DISTAR program. Every year I asked to be tested, but was stopped by the demands of my mother. The program was defined by a series of workbooks and work sheets that were carefully allotted to each student for the year. According to policy we were to be self-paced. Every year, I completed all assignments including all enrichment activities without having to re-do any. The process was always complete by the beginning of the last week of September.

The school policy was to have all the students remain in the Special Needs program room, except for test days when we would be sent to our classes to write regular tests, without having attended any of the classes, to allow on going evaluations that demonstrated that we all should be in Special Needs. I frustrated the teachers by always passing the tests. I spent every opportunity I could to attain the regular class worksheets and materials to prepare on my own for the tests. When other students were unhelpful, I would wait for the teachers to leave the classrooms at lunch and sort through their materials to find what I needed.

In the DISTAR room the teachers asked me to go to the other students and help them with their work, which I did. I was in effect in an assistant teacher’s role from Grade 4, until I was removed from the program in Grade 8, when I had refused to go the Special Class, demanding to be tested. The tests were completed and I was declared free of any indicators for autism and received a new nickname from the teachers: Precocious, the classification given for the result on an IQ test.

As a youth I was very aware of what teachers did and had developed some of the skills of an elementary school teacher. I started to think how I would teach everything I saw. I developed naïve ideas that even the most needy in the Special Needs class could develop high levels of functionality with the right approach, materials and books. This influenced too many of the book projects I completed to face rejection and disconnection with traditional editors.

As I worked in a wide variety of teaching environments I received high praise as an elementary teacher, Special Needs teacher and work in rehabilitation programs for students on probation: teachers and principals discuss long term teaching opportunities only to be shocked to find out that my training was in Secondary English, Social Studies and History. These contradictions between abilities and training has placed me in an ironic position of being highly valuable in a variety of situations, where too few can work, leaving me to travel from program and school to school, rarely on term contracts, but always busy.

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Tap Shoes

By Peter C. Conrad

My mother decided that things around the house especially when she was away was too uncertain for me as I was the smallest, being nearly three years younger than Eric and each sibling roughly two years older than the other. She was sure that each would be able to defend themselves, but if anything happened to me, there were be more visits from the ladies in blue dresses, Social Workers. She told me that when she would go to the hospital in Edmonton to have her back fused I would be spending days with my baby sitters.

My baby sitters, the Luftwaffe family were always kind and spoke German, which at the time I understood easily. They had a cuckoo clock, made in Bavaria, like we did at home and beer steins that were much more decorative than ours, with hinged lids, and pictures of small parties at picnic tables, ivy leaves, and mountains in the background.

The sisters wore purple and blue print dresses with lace collars, and 1940s vintage shoes with straps and buckles.

The baby sitters had a pair of tap shoes that fit me just right, that I could use when I came to their house. They each took turns teaching how to tap, slide, shuffle, shuffle ball change, flap, flap heel, cramp roll, scissor step, buffalo, and shuffle slap. They would laugh and clap and say make music. There was a free impromptus atmosphere, where anything I wanted to do that sounds good and was nice to watch was wonderful. The sound of the metal tips and heels were sharp and clear. I liked the percussive sound; maybe because I have natural ear for the snare drum, which I was often asked to play during Sunday school performances. I would dance until I would collapse. This was what it was like as the days drew into weeks and we looked forward to every moment together. The days passed as if hours were minutes and their was nothing else in world.

There was a knock at the door and when we opened it Kate was standing there looking annoyed and angry. She looked at my beaming face and the tap shoes on. I did a quick trill with the taps. Her expression did not change.

“You are supposed to be at home for supper,” she said.

“I’m so sorry,” said the lady as her expression turned from happy to apologetic.

“It’s all right,” said Kate. “We just have to get home. Mom is coming back today.”

“How is she?” asked the sister.

“They say everything turned out good,” said Kate.

“I’m so glad to hear that,” said the lady. Kate nodded.

“I’ll take these off,” I said. I changed my shoes as I noticed Kate looked scared. “I had so much fun here,” I continued as I stepped pout the back door. “Thank you,” I said as I waved at the smiling lady. We walked down the narrow alley that would take us directly to our house, less than a block away. “Is Mom home right now?” I asked, but felt the sharp pain in the back of my head; Kate hit me as hard as she could. I stopped and stared at her the pain continued with a surprising intensity. I looked at her angry face.

“Speak English,” she demanded. “If Mom or Dad find out that you can speak German, they are going to spank you until you bleed.”

“English?” I said, confused. I had no idea that there was any difference between what I had been speaking at the baby sitter’s house and what we spoke at home, until that moment.

“You know that only Mom, Dad, and Janelle are allowed to know German,” said Kate. I, in fact had no idea that these rules existed. It was another set of rules for the order of things. Each person in our house had a place, a role, and how much he or she was to have in life. I was just learning what these rules were.

After my mother returned she had a back brace and we all worked to help her out; carrying her meals and what ever she needed, as she recovered. I rarely spoke German, only the few times I returned to the baby sitters. I understood it was better to never challenge any member of the family, in ways that suggested that I was stepping out of my designated place. I would learn what had to be hidden and what had to be abandoned. Speaking German was at the top of the list to avid and forget, if I wanted to remain out of any fray.

* * *

When I told my mother what fun I was having, she would turn cold and had a look with that distant stare at me and asked if I knew whom the shoes belong to. How could I know such a thing?

“The shoes are from their son,” she said gravely.

“What son?” I asked.

“He’s the same age as you; born the same day, the one they took away,” said my mother. “Those poor ladies, he was such a handful, screaming and hitting, that never stopped. When he got older they could not take care of him by themselves any more and they had to put him away,” she shook her head. “They never had anyone in their family like that before, so they had no idea how to handle him.”

“What was wrong with him?” I asked.

“He had autism,” she replied.

“Is that like Artism?” I asked.

“I just don’t want you wear those shoes anymore,” she said, as if I could catch the autism from wearing them. Or maybe, the influence of the shoes would take over.

It was the ghost of the tap dancing boy that haunted us for the years to come; he had the same diagnoses as Joseph and Eric, he looked like them, perhaps it was the expressionless aloof appearance, and he was taken away. My mother was determined that this would never happen to us. She knew that I was different, but she never wanted any one to know what she knew, because if I was normal, then other may think my brothers were too. This would change over the years that followed, as she changed her view, but I was an example of how benign autism was.

Things changes as she realized how much more I could do, than Joseph or Eric. As I became taller and my physic became heavily muscular and the other two remained much the same proportionately, she would agree with my father, who said we need a boy with a good strong back and who doesn’t know when to stop working. He’ll take care of the rest of us.

It was not long before I was not going to the Luftwaffe family for baby-sitting any more. I was discouraged from tap dancing or talking about how much I liked them.

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An Evaluation

by Peter C. Conrad

This was supposed to be an easier credit for my degree: there would be no final exam; how could you have a final exam in an advanced creative writing class? Instead there would be a final critique, which is now. I feel nervous and uncomfortable as I step into Professor Homes office and he looks up at me; his white hair flattened on one side: he was having a nap again on the small sofa in his office. He looks frustrated, tired, clearly pained at seeing me. Homes glances at the chair facing his desk that I am standing behind inviting me to sit down, but I want to just take his comments and manuscripts and hurry away. I sit down.

He smiles, trying to make me relax: we had enough of these meetings that I knew that that he had carefully written in his comments was a diplomatic note about what he really wanted to say. I didn’t want to hear what he wanted to say.

“Where do you get your ideas?” asks Homes in a cautious strained whisper. I consider fleeing. I could claim I am sick, feeling ill.

“The stories just come to me,” I say. Professor Homes frowns again. “Sometimes I see something and other times, when it’s late at night, I’ll start writing with a character in my head.”

“I know I told everyone in class to prepare everything they have written that I had not seen during the course, but as soon as I saw your package …” Homes stared at several hundred pages I provided and shook his head. “Well, I regret making the invitation.”

“Didn’t everyone have that much …”

“No.” Professor Homes leaned back in his chair and draws a long exasperated breath.

“Writers write,” I said.

The professor stares at me, exhausted, agitated. “I wrote my comments about larger issues in what I read. I don’t always know who is speaking in you dialogue. I get lost in some of your descriptions. Everything needs more re-writing to improve the flow of these stories.”

I have my clipboard out and start wring notes. Professor Homes looks up, discussed.

“I have everything written here, just listen. There are many qualities in your writing: above all, your work isn’t literary. Stop writing for the one percent literary magazine market and concentrate on the nine-nine percent of readers out there who are very literate.”

“I’ll make a note,” I say.

“There are just some things that I don’t know what to do with, like your story ‘The Silent Circle.’” Homes slides his glasses down his nose as he flips through the pile of manuscripts. He pulls the story out and looks at it for a moment. “I think it starts fine. I’ll read this so you can understand better.”

I feel nervous, unsure how it will sound; a story being read is like a painting that is framed, it can look professional and masterful if the matting and frame are chosen well. If there is a mismatch of mat, frame and picture it can appear, or sound amateurish.

Professor Homes clears his throat and starts reading in an animated voice;

“The doctor paces the room quietly as if I would not know he was there–that he was having difficulty with what he had to tell me. He speaks, yet it is the meaning of what he is saying that I could not hear. The bandages will be removed from my eyes. The light will not return–that was what the doctor is trying to say.

“The blackness will be a whole new world for me. The darkness is a form of freedom. I can go far back in time and forward. Blindness as a freedom…

“Open or closed, it’s all the same. It’s so dark in my room at night–I will open my eyes and there is nothing. I turn my head this way and that and see nothing–not even a slight blur of light from some forgotten lamp on in the hall, or maybe light that slips up the long stair case from the sitting room, where my father and mother sit silently reading or knitting. I close my eyes and pull the warm sheets tight.”

Homes looks up from the manuscript and appears pleased. “But, then things are a bit confused as we read on.” His voice is flat and tired as he reads:

“Silence–I hear nothing. I now strain my ears (if you can) and there is nothing to be heard–nothing. Hear, how much, how little do you hear? Listen–do you hear it? It comes into this total darkness from out there. Where? The tracks that run along the road–it must be a mile, a mile and a half from here. It gives me a feeling–I don’t know what I feel. I hug my sheets tighter. The whistle seems to penetrate the walls, penetrate me. I like it; I hate it…

“Do you hear it? Listen, do you hear? Have you ever heard it? I do. The air is brisk–cold. It is Sunday morning. November. I hear; I hear it all. Those bells. They are bells–which I learned from my years of being in this town–raised here. But they’re not bells today. Two miles away down some street, which I don’t know. I can’t see. But, I hear–they’re bells, but at two miles (at least I think it is two miles, I can’t see) they sound like – that same train whistle–that hollow distant penetrating– “

“There is a narrative of the blind, and then, there is the deaf,” says Homes.

“Without the visual fill of spaces one hears the silence,” I say hopefully.

“That’s I conceit, to hear the silence.”

Irrigation stings my face, gives me a dull ach in my chest. I want to say that some may disagree, but I stop my self; I have no interest in having this meeting last any longer than it has too. I shrug.

“I see you are coming to finally understand what I have been saying about your work all year,” says Homes with eagerness. I want to look at my cell phone to check the time or see if there is a text, but I resist. “You’ll understand as we cover more of your story.” The professor continues reading in the same monotones:

“When I was young I would be in that church… Ding, dong, ding, dong–silence. Rise–sit. Black robed, he walked to the front. The one made us rise–sit. Sing; listen–quietly.

“No blurs of colour–or even a sudden blast of black and white–no. I open my eyes–I know they’re open. I turn my head left, then right. I’m in that room of the blind–a place of my youth. Where are the warm sheets? The sheets I can hug tightly. That hollow howl is with me. Why must they ring so long? I want to run from them. There is nowhere to go.


Professor Homes grins as he stares at me. “Short machine gun sentences, is that good writing?”

“Well, I like it.”

“I don’t think anyone else would,” Homes says irritated. “Where does this narrative come from? Did you have an experience like this?”

“No. It was late at night and the words were in my head. My majors in my BFA is painting and drawing, I think about my senses a lot.”

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t write late at night. I’ll continue,” says Homes as he looks at the paper in front of him:

“Early Sunday morning on a street somewhere… Listen.

“Tap–tap, tap–tap. Listen. I’m doing it. The white rod (if they are still the same colour as they were then) announces my presence to the silent streets. I am announced. Stretched out in front of me feeling the pavement. Do you feel it? The vibrations telling me what I do not see. I’m not seeing.

“Broken legs, broken arms, broken bodies, broken eyes? I will be better–only a knock–only a knock. Only on the head… Light will come through again. Again. Not this, no not to me–no! So I’ll walk out of this? Where? Look and see…

“She who helps me and talks to me, touches… The voice that tucks in the sheets around me–tight and warm… I’ll look at her that day and she’ll look at me, and I’ll say, of course you look as I thought you would. I’m better all better.

“I’m still in the dark room. I open my eyes and look around. There is nothing. Not even a blur of dimness from the hall. They must shut off all the light in this wing of the hospital at night. It is like —“

“These are sentence fragments, grammar that leaves me cold,” says Homes impatiently, angry. “Can’t you see the problems here?”

“The writing has a lyrical quality. I like the way it sounds and the feeling I captured.”

Homes grins again, “Maybe it’s a limerick, maybe that’s what you should be writing, limericks.”

“I guess I can give limerick writing a try,” I say as I become aware of a sensation of being a part of some strange stage production, a farce, black comedy, satire?

“It just keeps coming,” says Homes sardonically. He continues reading:

“It is snowing. There are pinpoints of ice on my face. Slowly, silently they fall. And soon, like a fog, the street will be a misty silent, anonymous place. Will the morning sunburn it off? The flakes will fall on the surface of my sun glasses. They will melt into small beads of water. But I won’t take off my glasses and clean them. Does it matter? They’re black–

“Starting over again. Children put down your pencils – will I go through that again? Again. To read in the dark–a new skill… Write in the dark– a new skill. Seeing in the dark– Painting, drawing, sculpting in the dark—

“Twenty-two steps down turn right. Forty-three steps straight, turn right–stop. Turn left forty-three steps straight turns left, twenty-two steps up: a day.

“Twenty-two steps down turn right. Forty-three steps straight, turn right–stop. Place–carefully–carrying bag on the ground… One foot on one side, the other on the opposite side… Squeeze together. Feel it. Don’t let anyone take it. Don’t forget it. Wait–bus comes. Pick up bag and march boldly toward the sound of the bus with rod out. Be prepared for a miss–try, and try until the bus leaves, or someone else helps–

“Tap–tap, tap–tap, step, step, turn, step, turn, up, down, up down, all around. Count, observe; remember–know. Go–stop.

“Conversation–stop. Ten, eleven, twelve–tap-tap. She says, he says, she says–no stop. We pass–silence. Dark room where my eyes are open… Look left, right–all black. No gray enters.

“What are you doing with all these dashes? The bullets from the machine gun are coming faster now,” says Homes.

“It helps with the cadence of the piece.”

“It’s a poem now?”

“Fiction can have a cadence.”

“I know,” explodes Homes. “But, this isn’t fiction, it’s something else.”

“It is a stream of consciousness.”

“If you stop making any sense, you call it a stream of consciousness.”

“I don’t thing that would wash with anyone,” I say without a thought. Homes stops and stares at me. He slowly begins to grin again.

“You tell me what it wrong with this ending.” Home continues to read with a triumphant tone.

“No. No, there isn’t silence there is a bark–a dog. A laugh and short cry–a child… Tap-tap, tap-tap… It’s cold here it’s not that place. She says, he says–their voices fade.

“Forty-three steps straight, turn right–stop. He says, she says. He said, she said. Silence now. I stand among the group. They are always silent when I’m near.

“It’s that dark room. My eyes are open, but–it’s not the room. It’s cold. I hear in the distance–

“I am here now. In that place… This place. Where? A dark–no…

“A circle.


“A prison of dark…”

Professor Homes watches me as he places the last page on the stack on his desk. I don’t want to answer, but I do: “I really like it; there’s nothing wrong with that piece.”

Homes smiles and leans back in his chair. “Maybe you should just quit well you’re still ahead.”

“Stop taking English classes from this Department?”

Homes smiles more widely. “That would be a good start.”

I feel bored and tired. The tension is dropping as I wait for his last comments, and whatever mark he is going to give me. Homes draws a breath as he leans back in his chair, his eyes on the ceiling.

Professor Homes speaks calmly as if nothing had happened. “I don’t like what you do; I don’t like how you do it, but you do it very well.”

“Thank you,” I say, uncertain.

Professor Homes slides the stack of manuscripts toward me. His had written comments are on top. I take the stack and lift the top page to see the mark for the course. It has Honors with Distinction written on it. Homes smiles as I stand up to leave.

Good luck,” says Professor Homes.

Posted in Story Teller, Thursday's Child | Leave a comment

2. Faking All the Way

by Peter C. Conrad

Maggie sits at the front of the room in her desk and looks out the window, feeling a sharp regret as she and notices how many leaves have been blown away; the trees are looking so skeletal and the field beyond has an empty cold feeling. Maggie stops and looks around the room and realizes that this is how it always starts: she would look outside and her mind would wander, creating her own stories about what was out there, what could happen, not paying attention to where she was, who was around, and what is happening. A fake would have to know all of those things, realizes Maggie. You have to be ready to appear completely involved and interested.

Maggie thinks about how strange her morning has already been; her Dad offered to drive her to school on his way to work. That was strange, but the conversation was just weird, they had barely got into the car when he started. …

“You’re in Grade seven, no eight,” said her father.

“Yeah,” said Maggie.

“That was my worse year in school, I think it’s that way for everyone,” he said slowly turning his head from side to side.

“It just feels the same to me,” said Maggie. “It’s the same Special Needs class, with the same teacher, same kid, same old things.”

“I really don’t care what they say about you, I know that the truth is something else,” said Maggie’s father.

“You think I’m shouldn’t even be in Special Needs?” asked Maggie.

“It’s the opposite of that,” said her father. “I’ve seen you do things, take care of other kids in the park, make things, no I think they got you wrong,” said her father.

“Thanks,” said Maggie.

“I hope they figure it out and make some changes,” said her father.

“I do too,” said Maggie, feeling strange by her father’s confidence.

“Grade eight is the worse year in school, and everything gets better each year after that,” said Maggie’s father. Maggie thought it was very strange how her father had any opinion about school at all.

“I’m sure looking forward to that,” said Maggie.

“You know, I’ve seen a lot of people go through those years and at the time it sure didn’t look good for them, but life is really forgiving. No matter how awful things are, especially in Middle School, life won’t be that bad,” said her father.

“That’s good to know,” said Maggie.

“Here we are,” said Maggie’s Dad as he pulled into the student drop off lane.

“Thanks for the ride,” said Maggie.

“Have a really good day,” said her Dad.

In a moment he was gone and Maggie was walking into the school …

Maggie looked around the classroom and Stephen is already sitting in his seat with his book reading, which wasn’t a put-on, Maggie thinks, because he is obviously working too hard at each word. Eunice is dabbing, who-knows-what on her face, and Sammie walks in. Sammie sits down beside Maggie and looks at her with a smile. She’s wearing that cute purple-pink jump suit again, thinks Maggie.

“What are you doing?” asks Sammie.

“What do you mean?” asks Maggie.

“You are almost always staring outside, but you aren’t now,” replies Sammie.

Maggie leans close to Sammie, who leans toward her to hear the secret. “I’m going to try the fake thing for fun,” says Maggie.

“Why?” asks Sammie, feeling alarm by the news.

“I’m bored,” says Maggie.

“I couldn’t do that,” says Sammie.

“Why not?”

“That would be too hard,” replies Sammie.

“I don’t think it will be,” says Maggie.

Sammie looks at her with her usual tired and sorrowful look that is so well practiced. Maggie feels irritated at Sammie again; why couldn’t she just say, sure, let’s try something different? But there she is with the same old expression of poor me, thinks Maggie.

“What are you talking about over there?” says Eunice. “You know Ms Ulrich doesn’t let us whisper to each other in class.”

“I bet Maggie is going to go fake,” says Mufasta.

“She can’t do anything,” says Stephen. “She can’t fake either.”

“Why?” asks Eunice, “You think you’re the only one that can pretend to be smart?”

“I don’t have to pretend,” says Stephen triumphantly.

“That’s why you’re sitting in here with us?” asks Eunice.

“I won’t be here in a few days,” says Stephen

“Right,” says Eunice.

“I’ll remind you that you said that when I’ve moved out of here,” says Stephen.

“I can’t wait,” says Eunice.

“You can’t wait to be told who’s better?” asks Stephen.

“I can’t wait to see your desk empty, and not hearing your voice every day,” replies Eunice.

“Enough,” says Ms Ulrich as she walks into the room. “I don’t want to hear you two going at it all day long.”

The two stop talking and Maggie watches Ms Ulrich: she has straight black hair, olive skin, black blouse, and black slacks; it’s like her clothes are colour coordinated with her hair colour, thinks Maggie. She’s pretty, thinks Maggie; she’s a teacher who’s pretty. Maggie realizes that she has been so out of it that she didn’t even really see what Ms Ulrich looks like.

“How did you do with Mr. Edwards?” she asks.

“He just told stupid stories again,” says Eunice.

“It was a weird story about smart kids,” says Stephen.

Ms. Ulrich looks at the two silently for a moment. “What was the story about?”

“I think he believes we can all be smart too, if we listen to his stories about smart kids,” says Eunice.

“Mr Edwards just waists our time with stories,” says Stephen.

“So he stopped you from working all morning?” asks Ms Ulrich.

“I like his stories and they didn’t take much time,” says Sammie.

“How did you do with the Focus Question?” asks Ms Ulrich. “Why should we care about Holden Caulfield’s phonies?”

Maggie’s classmates stare expressionless at Ms Ulrich; that’s not abnormal, thought Maggie as she looked around. She looked down at her response and the fake questions she wrote.

“That’s because, it’s the main part of the book,” says Maggie. Ms Ulrich glances at Maggie, surprised, as Maggie always sat silently wanting to avoid conflict with the rest.

“Oh, here she goes,” says Eunice.

“I want to hear this,” says Stephen.

“Yes, that would be nice,” says Ms Ulrich looking at Maggie with anticipation. Maggie looks at Ms Ulrich and feels a strange surprise herself; she has the same slight build as Maggie, the defined eyes that made them look bigger, that Maggie has. That’s not ugly, its kind of good looking, thinks Maggie.

“It is like Holden Caulfield is the only guy in the book, from what I’ve read so far who is real. The phonies are all those other people who are pretening to be something else. That’s why we have to know what a phonie is and why Holden is kind of comparing himself to them. That guy, the football play, Stradlater, is a jerk, and dumb, and he gets Holdens old girl friend Jane, but doesn’t care enough to relize that is her name and calls her Jean,” says Maggie.

“Who’s pretending to be someone they aren’t now?” asks Stephen.

Maggie feels a sharp stabbing, like the tip of a knife is cutting into her right side between the ribs. She has had that feeling so many times before. I hate that, thinks Maggie, that’s why I don’t talk in class.

“That was really good,” says Ms Ulrich.

“I wrote down a question while I was reading,” says Maggie.

“Well, if you’re going to be a pretender, than why not go all the way,” says Eunice.

Ms Ulrich turns and looks at Eunice angrily. Eunice puts both her hands up and shacks her head, “Just saying …”

“What’s the question?” asks Ms Ulrich.

“It’s maybe too much,” says Maggie. “I wrote, Doesn’t it really seem like its all too much, too one sided”

“Girl, you said it,” says Eunice.

“You mean it’s all Holden’s point of view?” asks Ms Ulrich ignoring Eunice.

“I get that part, it’s his story, he’s writing it from a hospital bed, but …” says Maggie.

“What? I didn’t get that part,” says Stephen.

“That’s very good, but what’s the question?” asks Ms. Ulrich.

“It’s just that everyone else is a phonie, or a creep, or a jerk. Isn’t there anyone who is just okay for this guy?” asks Maggie.

“Wow, that’s an amazing observation,” says Ms Ulrich.

“Yep, she’s going all the way on this one,” says Eunice.

Ms Ulrich’s expression turns to disgust as she looks at Eunice. “But is that entirely true?” asks Ms Ulrich.

Maggie looks as Ms Ulrich and shakes her head, “No, but even when he tells Sally Hayes that she’s a pain in the butt, he is the only one that seems real in the novel.” Maggie’s heart jumped, she wasn’t supposed to read that far ahead. She watches, as Ms Ulrich looks at her with an expression that was a mixture of surprise something like glee.

“You’re ahead of the class,” says Ms Ulrich.

“It just happened,” says Maggie.

“That’s fine,” says Ms Ulrich. “We’ve covered everything for today. Could everyone catch up to where Maggie is?” says Ms Ulrich. “Does anyone have anymore questions?”

There were a few shaking heads. Maggie looks at Sammie expecting that same old boring helpless expression, but instead there is genuine fear. Maggie felt sorry for Sammie for the first time in eons. She thinks I going to be out of this class, thinks Maggie. She’s going to alone in here, and that’s not good, Maggie concludes.

“Put your reading books away,” says Ms Ulrich. “We have to move onto Social Studies. The Current Affairs booklets are on the back table, so get one and complete sections B and D for tomorrow,” says Ms Ulrich. There is a groan from several in the back roll. Ms Ulrich quickly walked out of the room.

“That Sally girl in the novel isn’t the only pain in the butt,” says Eunice as she stands up to go get her copy of the Current Affairs booklet. “Just how far along is it in the book to read about Sally?”

Maggie looks at Eunice and shrugs, and looks at Sammie who is looking pale and tired.

“Sammie, if they are yapping at me, they’ll leave you alone,” says Maggie. Sammie looked at her annoyed; gets up and walks to the back table.

Maggie sits in her desk looking at her response and questions thinking that is so easy to fake out Ms Ulrich. It feel, like the best days in elementary school before anyone was taking notice and she could say what she wanted in class. It was strange how seriously Ms Ulrich took her, maybe she should back off, but Maggie already knows how boring that is. This game is better than that feeling of being asleep all day.

Maggie snaps back to where she is as Sammie throws a copy of the Current Affairs booklet down in front of her.

“Oh, thank you,” says Maggie as Sammie sits down and looks at the booklet in front of her.

“That whole thing was frightening,” says Sammie to Maggie. “I thought either Eunice or Steve would jump up run over here right in front Ms Ulrich and whack you.”

Maggie looks across the room and sees Eunice and Stephen leaning towards each other whispering. If they do that, they would be suspended and it would be a lot better in here, thinks Maggie.

“Oh,” says Maggie to Sammie.

“Don’t you care about that?” asks Sammie.

“No, I really don’t,” says Maggie.

“It’s like you changed over night,” says Sammie shaking her head.

Maggie shrugs and looks at the booklet, flipping through the pages and noticing that the articles that have to read are one page each, and the questions are so simple, they can’t be anything, but boring. What would a fake do with this? she thinks. Fakes would do everything in the booklet and they would something extra off the Internet.

“No way,” says Eunice loudly so everyone in the class can hear. “Maggie is the ugliest in class,” she says turning to Stephen and gesturing with a wide sweep of her hand toward Maggie.

“Sammie has to wear those weird clothes to cover how ugly she is,” replies Stephen.

“Man, look at Maggie, no matter what she wears, it looks like skinny jean gone all wrong,” replies Eunice.

Maggie looks at Sammie who is starting to shrink into her, poor me look. Maggie feels an intense irritation like a stinging pain in her stomach toward Sammie. Why can’t she just straight out look right at them and smile, look angry, insulted, something, just anything except that annoying poor me look?

“Oh, look at that, Maggie is actually looking mad,” says Eunice.

“It would sure be nice if you tried to fake being decent,” says Maggie, “We all know you’re incapable of the real thing.”

Eunice turned pale and stared in disbelief at Maggie.

“What?” screeches Eunice as she stands up facing Maggie. Maggie feels sudden exhilaration at the reaction and more amusement than fear.

“Enough,” says Ms Ulrich as she steps into the classroom and looks at Eunice. “Take your Social Studies booklet to the Study Hall now,” continues Ms Ulrich looking at Eunice. “Steve, move to the study carol at the back.”

“I didn’t do anything,” protests Stephen.

“Now,” says Ms Ulrich.

Eunice picks her pack up off the floor beside her desk and slams it onto the seat of her desk. She picks up her binder and books one at a time dramatically sweeping them in wide arc’s into her pack. Eunice walks to the door, stops, turns and looks at Maggie angrily. Maggie smiles back to the horror of Eunice.

“Just another day in Special Needs,” says Maggie.

Maggie looks at Sammie who is now leaning back in her desk, arms folding, with a childish pout. How in the world did I ever get in here? thinks Maggie as she looks at the booklet in front of her. She begins reading the article in the A section. Sammie looks at what Maggie is doing and shakes her head.

There is an unusual silence in the room with Stephen in the carol at the back of the room and Eunice gone. Maggie pays no attention to Sammie beside her who is obviously shuffling her paper too much. Maggie concentrates on the readings and is finishing section C as the bell rings for lunch. Maggie looks at her work thinking that it is so lame, so easy, it made her feel stupid, as it is only a small part of what other students did. She feel embarrassed that this is all others thought she could do. She quickly closes her book and looks around to see everyone gone, except Ms Ulrich.

“I have my lunch in my pack here; can I just stay here and finish this booklet?” asks Maggie.

Ms Ulrich looks at Maggie and the embarrassed look on her face. She’s struggling with it, thinks Ms Ulrich.

“Sure,” Ms Ulrich says. “I’m on supervision in the hallway, so if you have any questions about the work, just ask.”

Maggie’s cheeks burned hot as she listens to the offer of help. “Thank you,” replies Maggie. “Can I use the computer if I need extra information?”

“As long as that is what you’re doing on it.”

“Okay,” replies Maggie.

Maggie opens her pack and pulls her lunch bag out and looks inside; the same old sandwich her mother made her, juice box, cookies. She lays them out in front of her on the desk and looks at it all: nothing has changed since Grade four. Maggie eats the sandwich and thinks about what it looks like to everyone else: boring, tired, just gross. Maggie decides she is making her own lunch and it will be different. Glancing up at the white board she notices that there is a math test tomorrow. She quickly pulls out her agenda and as she flips the pages, Maggie realizes that ever page is empty. She’s never bothered to write a thing down, a top student would never do that. Maggie writes down the math test and Social Studies, Current Affairs booklet, and Novel Study. She looks at what she has written and places check marks by the Social and English assignments. Maggie thinks for a minute and decides that the empty white pages will not fit with the image a top student would have; she is going to spend as much time as possible writing the assignments she has completed already during the year with extra notes and check marks. It would be the perfect stage play-like prop to leave open on her desk like she has seen other students do; they’re making a statement, thinks Maggie.

Maggie reads the article for section D and completes the questions and then moves to the computer. She finishes her cookies as the computer boots up; these school computers are so slow, thinks Maggie. She notices Ms Ulrich glancing into the room with concern as she walks by. In a moment Maggie is looking at the search engine and types in World Health Organization and finds a definition of epidemic that looks good so she copies it into the booklet in quotation marks, and copies the URL, web location in beside it. Soon, there are several entries for each page. This is such a good fake, thinks Maggie as she glances through the work she has completed. This has to be a big part of the picture, thinks Maggie, top student do spend a lot of time having their assignment look just right. I have to make all my binders look like this, she thinks. Tanya spends hours after school putting those tags on each section in her binder and labelling them. She made cover pages and would add special notes for other assignment that were in red ink, or highlighted in pink, neon hot pink that may even glow in the dark, so anyone walking by her desk would notice; no, anyone on the other side of the room would notice, thinks Maggie.

“Are you all right?” asks Ms Ulrich as she walks in and Maggie hasn’t noticed. Maggie feels shocked; as if she has been caught doing something she would rather keep a secret. This is all too obvious and Ms Ulrich has already seen her Current Events booklet.

What would a total fake say? Thinks Maggie.

“There just wasn’t enough in these short articles,” says Maggie.

“What?” asks Ms Ulrich. Maggie feels her cheeks burn, she had been caught, she is going to be called out already, and I haven’t had a chance to complete the whole deception, thinks Maggie. “Most in class can’t get that much read and finish the questions.”

Ms. Ulrich takes the booklet from Maggie and flips to the front. “You were suppose to only do sections B and D,” says Ms Ulrich shaking her head.

Maggie knew that is true, but thought she could make some kind of story up by tomorrow when it would have to be handed in, like her mom insisted she try them all.

“I have to look at this more carefully,” Ms Ulrich says as she flips forward and back noticing the additions from the Internet.

Stephen walks into the classroom and looks at Maggie with Ms Ulrich standing beside her holding the Social Studies booklet.

“Did you hand that in already?” he asks.

“Yes, she did,” say Ms Ulrich.

“It’s all fake, you know,” says Stephen.

“What?” asks Ms Ulrich.

“Maggie is just a fake; she’s pretending to be into her school work,” says Stephen.

“I watched her do this,” says Ms Ulrich, irritated.

Stephen sits in his seat shaking his head. “Maggie is up to something, and we all know it.”

“It’s called school work,” says Ms Ulrich. “Make sure you two have your math books, because we are reviewing for the test tomorrow. Did you write that down in your agendas?”

Maggie flips her agenda open and points to it as Ms Ulrich looked down. Stephen sighs and shakes his head. Soon all the rest of the students arrive in class.

* * *

Maggie squints in the bright sun shine as she steps out of the school doors; she would have known exactly what to expect a day ago when she would watch out the window in class until the final bell rang, but today she had been concentrating on he work and didn’t see the clouds clearing in the afternoon. She feels irritated as she sees Alicia hurrying to catch up with her. Maggie wouldn’t have cared a couple of days ago, but right now she doesn’t want to hear whatever Alicia is about to share.

“How’s it going in Special Needs?” Alicia asks with the final “s” held a bit too long, thinks Maggie.

“The same as every day,” replies Maggie. She wants to look at Alicia and frown, but stops herself, because she wants to find out if Alicia is faking it.

“It’s never the same thing in my class. Science is really interesting this year,” says Alicia.

“Oh,” says Maggie, deciding she should say exactly what Alicia would expect her to say.

“We do labs every week and I write them up.” Alicia watches carefully, maybe to see a dull look from me, thinks Maggie.

“That’s cool, I guess,” says Maggie.

“Of course I know your group can’t do things like that.”

“No, the Special Needs students get hand outs that describe the labs you’re doing.”

“That’s what I thought,” replies Alicia. She grins and a glances to the side as if she is trying to hide it, thinks Maggie.

“Of course I was asked to record the data and write the lab up for our group, because I’m just that good at it,” says Alicia.

“I bet you are,” says Maggie.

Alicia glances quickly at Maggie, uncertain; she is expecting something like, Really? Or, I wish I could do stuff like that, but there is something different, and Alicia is uncomfortable, a little nervous. She sees an expression of indifference and slight irritation on Maggie’s face.

“Well, I really have to hurry and get to work, I have a lot of home work,” says Alicia as she turns right, one street too soon to go home.

Maggie watches as Alicia hurries along the wrong street, not looking back, but continuing as if she was going exactly where she wanted to. Maggie remembers the conversations since the year began, and realizes that have all been like this one; Alicia is putting on such a show. Maybe there is something else going on, thinks Maggie, she may not be all that great.

* * *

Maggie doesn’t want to play video games or watch television; she goes to her room, because the list of fake things she has to complete is going to take time. She closes her door and looks at her books and decides she is going to review her math. She opens her binder and looks at the last math tests that lay on the top of all the other papers. The last has a 73% written on it, then the one before was 69%, and the first test for the year was 58%. No wonder they think I should be in Special Needs, thinks Maggie. She hasn’t done any assignments, except those she half slept through in class, but there were her marks, which are not that bad considering she did nearly nothing in math. The problem is that math is too boring, too easy; she remembers not even reading some of the questions before just circling an answer.

Maggie opens her binder of handouts to the first page on the unit they were having the test tomorrow and looks at it. Finding the outcome for basic exponents and the square roots, using a calculator? That is so lame, thinks Maggie, but this is perfect, as they had reviewed these functions so many times she could do every questions easily. It is in fact irritating, because she would finish her work, help Sammie, and still wait for the rest to finish the introductory section. That’s when it gets really annoying, remembers Maggie as she looks at the work in front of her, because that is the moment Ms. Ulrich calls everyone’s attention to the whiteboard to review the basics, one, more, time.

“You’re doing home work?” asks Tanya standing in the door of Maggie’s room. “It must be getting hard, and it’s only the first months of the year. Well, don’t work too hard, it’ll give you a head ache.”

Maggie feels more surprised than irritated; how had she gotten away with saying things like that so long? Maggie had never said anything, but with Tanya still standing there grinning Maggie says, “Don’t worry, I’m not like you.”

“Your such a brat,” blurts out Tanya. It’s Tanya’s turn to be irritated, thinks Maggie, as she watches her sister turn and walk away shaking her head.

I’m going to really put it on during the test, thinks Maggie. I’ll read, maybe reread every equation and answer carefully and correctly each question. This is one test that is going to be easy, thinks Maggie. I am going to take 100% on this one, thinks Maggie as she reads through the last example on her review page.

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1. Be A Fake

by Peter C. Conrad

As Maggie sits in her seat in the special needs classroom and stares out the window, she thinks about how much she hates school, really, really hates this place. It is going to be another one of those years, she thinks as she notices the yellowing leaves of the straight line of trees that angles away from the building at about forty-five degree, estimates Maggie. It feels like junior high will never end, but if I just keep my head down, my mouth closed and watch, the year will be over quickly, Maggie thinks. I wish I could just wander off to the trees in the park near my house and read another book, or just watch what everyone else is doing. Maggie likes to read and watch what was happening: I like to be invisible, free to do whatever I want, think whatever I like. Maggie’s mind wonders off to places in her books, or places that she imagines that are much, much better than this place. Maggie could forget that she didn’t look all that great: I’m too thin, I have no shape, I’m too pale, and too tired looking, she thinks. Maggie remembers this morning in the bathroom looking in the mirror: even my eyes look too well defined, kind of sunken in.

It’s my older sister, Tanya who has the right shape for a girl, thinks Maggie. She carries herself the right way, and she always knows the right thing to say. It’s Tanya who has a lighter shade of brunette hair that looks just about blond in summer. Tanya is a little over two years older than Maggie and knew everything, including that Maggie was supposed to be smarter: it’s embarrassing to Tanya, thought Maggie, that I’m still here in the special class. But, I don’t have to worry about Mom and Dad; they always look pained when they hear Tanya talking—they always politely remind her that some people, like me, might have to work a little harder in school, remembers Maggie.

Maggie leans back in her chair and watches as Stephen, “just Steve,” according to everyone else, walks into class with a stiff gait, and touches Eunice’s desk. “Steve!” she yells. Steven steps wide, trying to avoid “another problem,” which is what he calls Eunice when she isn’t around. Maggie smiles as she watches Eunice open her compact and look into the mirror to check, who knows what. Maggie can’t remember the last time Eunice didn’t use an opportunity to start one of her tirades.

As Samantha, or Sammie Bilson walks in, Maggie feels a mixture of comfort at her old friend and uneasiness, not sure what kind of help she’ll ask for next. Sammie looks like a Sammie, thinks Maggie: short cut straight blond hair, a cute outfit with the vest and some kind of floppy artsy cap she gets away with wearing in school, when everyone else is told to take their hats off. All her different caps were coordinates that are perfect for her outfit. Oh man, thought Maggie, she’s got that tired, eyes cast downward, I’m just trying so hard, look.

“Do you have any idea about this math?” says Sammie. Typical Sammie, Maggie thinks; …and a good morning to you. Gosh how are you doing? Maggie muses.

“Adding fractions?” asks Maggie with a sinking feeling.

“Yeah,” says Sammie, tiredly.

“You just have to get the part about making the denominator the same for the fractions you are adding.”


“We can do it later,” says Maggie quickly as Mr. Edwards, the regular substitute teacher, steps into the room. There were some days that Mr. Edwards was just irritating: he would tell stories, and make up these lame comments trying to make us laugh, thinks Maggie. She really hated it when he would use sarcasm to make them stop yapping, or whatever it was they were doing. Everyone knows you could take things along a bit before you’re sent to the office so some push it. Maybe he will have a new story from teaching at other schools that’s all right. Everything is so boring, a good story will help, she thinks.

“You’re not going to bug us with a story,” says Eunice as she looks up from her mirror.

“Put that away,” says Mr. Edwards. He’s a bit over weight and looks way too friendly, Maggie thinks. How can that guy survive as a sub-teacher when he’s always so nice? You would think they would eat him alive in most schools, but here he is. He’s very fast when things happen by going through his quick steps of giving trouble makers second chances, a fast sarcastic comment with a warning, and out the door. But it’s the expectation that he will tell a story that keeps everything under control.

“Mr. Edwards, can you tell the one about the boy with a stick?” asks Mufasta, grinning and quickly looking around to see if anyone else wants to hear the same story.

“We have to get the attendance done and then get some work done first.”

“It’s the one about the boy who had a stick in class and whacked that stick and broke it?”

Eunice looks at the roof, with her annoying over exaggerated gesture. I don’t want to hear that old story again, thinks Maggie, but it sure will annoy Eunice.

“Stephen,” says Mr. Edwards as he starts taking the attendance.

“It’s Steve,” says Eunice.

“I want to be called Stephen,” he replies.

“You’re so full of …”

“Enough,” interjects Mr. Edwards.

“I’m just so sick of this,” continues Eunice as she twists around in her seat to look at Stephen. “Steve thinks he is going to get into the regular class, because he’s too smart to stay here.”

“That’s great,” says Mr. Edwards. Eunice stares in disbelief at Mr. Edward; she hits the top of her desk and shakes her head. She stares at the ceiling wrenching her head back far enough to look at the space above her. She’s got a lot of energy, Maggie thinks. I wonder if she’s still in that drama class? Mr. Edwards calls her name. Maggie looks at Mr. Edwards with a slight smile. He looks at her and nods. Maggie turns and watches as a latecomer hurries across the field outside to the school. It is getting cold and she hasn’t closed her coat, but now the figure pulls her coat together as best she can. Maybe the zipper is broken and she is late because she has another coat with buttons that she was looking for, imagines Maggie.

“He always let Eunice take the attendance sheet to the office,” complained Sammie quietly. Maggie looks up in time to see Eunice step out of the room with a swagger that made Maggie want to laugh: how special.

“Can you tell the story about the boy with a stick?” asks Mufasta again. “Eunice is gone, so she doesn’t need to know.”

“That’s an old one,” Mr. Edwards says, as he quickly writes the Focus Question on the white board. Why should we care about Holden Caulfield’s phonies?

Maggie quietly starts writing the Focus Question in her notebook when Sammie leans close and asks, “What’s a ‘phoney’?” Maggie doesn’t say anything, shrugs, but wonders if Sammie is being one, pretending to be so clueless.

“Make some notes that will help you answer the question,” says Mr. Edwards as he reads the lesson plan. “You know the routine, copy the Focus Question, read, make notes and write a short paragraph to share in class tomorrow.”

“Boring,” says Eunice as she sits down in her desk.

“Maybe to you,” says Stephen.

“Would you just shut up,” says Eunice. “Did you get your little story when I was at the office?”

“There wasn’t enough time,” says Mufasta. “But, that is a good idea. What about the one where the kid jumped on the table and started to dance?”
“Those are all old stories,” says Mr. Edwards.
“You’re going to just leave us to waist time pretending to read our books?” asks Mufasta.

“Is that what you’re doing?”

Here it comes, thinks Maggie. The next step will be a warning and then …

“There is something that happened right here at this school,” starts Mr. Edwards.

“Who was it?” asks Stephen.

“I’m not going to name anyone,” says Mr. Edwards.

“When did it happen?” Sammie asks.

“It’s one of those things that happened over a couple days.”

Maggie feels better as everyone stops talking and listens. She likes the way Mr. Edwards’ stories settled things down; it is a lot better listening to Mr. Edwards than Eunice and Steve going at it all class, especially when Mufasta joins in. They can take things over the top, yelling at each other until one or the others has to go to the office—it is always the other’s fault. Who ever stays in class will take something from whoever was in the office and dump it in a trashcan on the other side of the school after class. Just as often, your pencil case disappears if you go to the bathroom. It is predictable and truly boring, Maggie thinks. All she wants is to stay out of anything that happens. That was why Eunice hates her so much. It is amazing how angry Eunice and Stephen get if she doesn’t react to anything they say or do. By now, she has learned to have at least three pencil cases so when it goes missing she has a replacement waiting in her locker.

“Okay, so what happened?” asks Mufasta.

“It happened in one of those classes when I had to show a DVD, it was Planet Earth, I think.”

“That’s some story,” says Eunice.

“That’s exactly the kind of attitude some of the kids had; not just sitting here watching some video about the earth.”

“What classes was this in?” asks Stephen.

“It was Outdoor Ed.”

“I know whom you’re talking about,” says Eddie, who was watching from his desk in the back of the class.

“Maybe,” says Mr. Edward. “But, I didn’t mention what year this happened.”

“Wasn’t it this year?” asks Eunice.

“No,” Mr. Edwards says. “As I was saying, there was a certain group who would rather be outside on a hike, than sitting in a class watching a DVD. There was a small group that couldn’t settle down, so I went over and stood by them.”

“It didn’t do much, did it,” says Eunice.

“No, it didn’t. I talked to them and gave them the usual warnings, but they continued to talk, but stopped throwing things. Finally, the leader, a girl, asked me why I always came to their group, like the other teachers. I said it was a straight forward process that when I hear and see a problem I come over to the place where there are issues and try to fix it. Its called proximity control, roving, intervention.”

“Yeah, that kind of thing really bugs me,” says Eunice. “If you were looking away in this class, you wouldn’t notice hardly anything I do.”

“I guess that’s true,” said Mr. Edwards.

“This is turning into a really lame story,” says Mufasta.

“I was interrupted a lot, so I haven’t even got into the interesting part of the story yet.”

“Go ahead,” says Eunice. “We’re all listening.”

“So the leader pointed over to a group of students that I knew were honours students and asked why I never used proximity control with them. I looked and asked, ‘do you really think they need that kind of attention?’ She looked at the other group and said I should just try it out; it might be really good for me to find out what’s going on.”

“You know Mr. Edwards, this story really isn’t going anywhere,” says Stephen.

“It’s about to,” continues Mr. Edwards. “So, I decided that was a good idea, I’ll just spend some time watching, and roving around the other group. The first thing I noticed in that class and those that followed was that they were so bored, and uninterested that they didn’t even know where I was in the classroom. More than once, one of them actually appeared to nod off.”

“That’s because they know everything,” says Stephen. I feeling of disgust swept over Maggie. Stephen wanted to be in the regular classes as he’s certain he knew everything. Maggie had a feeling that Stephen wasn’t going to like where this story is going.

“No, I was really watching them, and I must say that when I started this I watched the same kind of students at other schools and found that they were doing the same thing. Most of them were very talented in appearing to be engaged with their eyes on me while I talked, or the screen for the videos, the whiteboard, or just whatever demonstrations were being presented.”

“So,” says Mufasta.

“I said they appeared to be engaged, but you all know what happens when you appear to be interested or confident, you will rarely be asked to repeat something back, explain what is going on, or provide an answer.”
“Yeah, like me,” says Eunice. “I’m always asked to answer questions.”

“And you never know anything,” says Stephen.

“Hey!” shouts Eunice as she turns around to glare at him.

“Let’s not start anything,” says Mr. Edwards. “I always do that too, if someone is loud, causing trouble, they get the questions because they have my attention.”

“That happens all the time,” says Sammie.

“So what’s the point?” asks Eunice, annoyed.

“I turned things around,” says Mr. Edwards. “I watched those who were presented the right behaviours and noticed that when I asked them the same questions I would ask the loud trouble makers, they wouldn’t have any idea. They were much more polite when they answered, saying excuse me, or could you repeat that? Many would quiz, me about what I asked, which sometimes worked to get the very answer from me that I was looking for.”

“So, what’s the point?” asks Mufasta again.

Smiling, Mr. Edwards says, “Many of the best students have learned to fake it very, very well.”

“Do you mean they’re coming in to school just like me? They don’t have anything done, and couldn’t care less?” asks Eunice.

“It is the opposite of that; they’re bored out of their minds, but they do have their work done. Most of them, at one time or another worked on their homework and realized that if you just sit down and do it, everything is done sooner and much easier than they first thought.”

“That just sounds crazy to me,” says Eunice.

“What do you mean, they’re faking?” asks Sammie.

“It’s amazing that the best students have a way of looking interested and attentive even when they’re nearly dozing off. I wouldn’t have ever known that unless I was watching.”

“So if we want to do better, we should fake it?” asks Mufasta.

“I have no idea if it will work for you, but think about it, who will the teacher like better, give a break to, and maybe help more: the loud rude ones or those who are apparently paying attention?”

“I guess I get it,” says Mufasta.

“That simply won’t work for me,” declares Eunice.

“It won’t work for anyone who doesn’t believe in it. I think you would have to go all out: fake that you’re really interested all the time in class, fake the homework: doing it no matter how good you think you are, maybe even fake interest in some school activities, like student council, or the newspaper and show up at all the meetings.”

“That sounds like too much work,” says Mufasta.

“Well, I think it would cut the boredom for some of you. You have to come to school anyway, so why not try faking interest to see what happens.”

“This is just really stupid,” says Stephen. “Either you’re good enough to get better marks or you’re not. Ms. Ulrich has told us to get down to the real thing and stop making things up. It sounds like you’re telling us the opposite of our real teacher.”

“You’re right Stephen, you should do what you have been—keep getting at your homework, and trying. This was just a story that I thought it was interesting.”

“I know I sure am not going to do any of that,” says Eunice.

The whole idea sounds better, and better, to Maggie as she listens to it. It might be just what she’s been wanting. She can have a lot of fun pretending that she was like Alicia, her old friend from elementary school who changed when they got to Junior High. She suddenly started to say she wasn’t like Maggie anymore and they just stopped talking to each other when Maggie went into the special class. Maybe that is what Alicia figured out: how to fake it. It was Maggie who would tell Alicia what they were doing and sometimes how to do it when they sat beside each other in elementary school. Alicia is on the honours role, she is on the student council, and she is always in the cafeteria with those girls that knew how to dress, and are on the school teams.

Maggie watches Alicia with confused feelings, because their mothers were friends during elementary school, they lived only two houses apart, and they agreed that their girls were the kind that always need a little more help in school. It is as if Alicia just forgot that in grade six. Maggie couldn’t forget that her Mom and Dad always knew how Maggie was going to always be behind her sister Tanya.

* * *

Maggie watches Tanya as she picks up the desert bowels from the supper table before she is finished. It is their job to clean up after dinner.

“Why do you always have to be so slow?” asks Tanya.

Maggie is suddenly irritated; she is enjoying the last of her fruit salad. She is surprised by the intensity of her feeling of irritation: it hadn’t ever bothered her before—nothing really bothered her. Something must have been switched off a long time ago, thinks Maggie. Tanya has been saying things like that for a long time, and it just didn’t matter. It’s probably a fake comment, like everything else, Maggie thinks. She has that familiar feeling of confusion; it is just that story Mr. Edwards told today, Maggie thinks.

“Didn’t you hear me?” says Tanya.

Maggie feels a flash of anger as she stands up with her bowl and stands there staring at Tanya.

“What’s with you?”

Maggie feels an intense anger toward Tanya who stops and stares at her. She hasn’t seen Maggie with the look before; she has always been indifferent.

“It is already embarrassing having you in that special needs program because you’re slow, but if you start acting like them I’ll really hate you.”

Maggie walks to the sink and places her bowl in it and walks out of the kitchen without a word. How could Tanya get away with saying that? What else has she been getting away with? She may be a fake too, but one thing is for sure, Maggie is going to be as fake as any one of those honour students. She will act exactly like them, she is going to do all her homework, be interested in class, and show up at all of the student council meetings. One thing she knows is that the students that put their hands up and ask questions or make a comment about the schoolwork are fakes, and completely weird. It’s going to be so easy to take a few minutes every time she finishes her homework and make a list of weird things to say on topic in class for the next day. That’s one thing she can do right now to see how fast a fake can rise in class.

* * *

Maggie opens her books in her bedroom and starts to work when she hears a faint knock at the door: Tanya must have forgotten another one of her put-downs, which she would share now, thinks Maggie. Her mother opens the door and looks concerned.

“Is everything all right?” she asks.

“I just have some homework to finish.”

“Is it too hard again?”

Maggie feels a sharp cut of anger. “I just want to try this by myself.”

“That’s great honey, but if you need help, I’m here and you can always ask Tanya.”

“I know,” says Maggie, as calmly as she can.

“Don’t hesitate to ask for help.”

“Okay, Mom.”

Maggie watches as her mother pats her shoulder. She feels relieved as her mother leaves the room and closes the door quietly.

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by Peter C. Conrad

In my young adult novel Fake, a teacher suggests to Maggie, a middle school student who was labelled special needs, that she could help herself by pretending to be interested in her school work and her social life, her life starts to charge in surprising ways. She never knew that getting out of the special class and into regular classes would be so easy. Maggie didn’t know that she could make the honours list. In time, she knew she would have to reveal her secret, but she was in for more surprises than anyone else.

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2. First Plan

 by Peter C. Conrad

Mark stared out of the frost-edged window of the school bus and remembered that he took control of the situation when he did well in accounting the year before. Mark volunteered to do the books for the farm. His father hated doing it and his mother couldn’t keep track of the numbers. It was a solution for his father, but it was Mark’s idea from the start. He had already shown his father he was more capable than he had always said.

The bookkeeping included the records of pedigrees on their purebred Hereford cattle. Mark also did the registration papers for the cattle that had to be sent to the Hereford Association.

Yet, Mark had a secret —it was what he intended to do when he first thought of asking to do the books for the farm. Once he was in the small room downstairs, he would quickly finish the paper work and then do his homework. As far back as Mark could remember, when Matthew and Kat were around, every time they were found in their rooms doing their homework, their father would find another chore for them to do. It was as if reading books or writing was wasting time to him. Their father never said a word about not wanting them to do well in school, but it was obvious.

Later, school became a threat to his father. Matthew had left home to finish high school in the city. Matthew should have graduated a year before, but he was still trying to finish when he agreed to pay for half the gas to get to the city with a friend. He phoned home two days later to say he was in the city and that he was staying to finish his grade twelve.

The bus pulled into its parking stall at the school.

Mark stood up, picked up his backpack of books, and made his way to the front door of the school bus. He hurried to his locker feeling uncomfortable: his first class was English and he would be getting his essay back. English was the one class Mark had to work the hardest in and it was the class he had chosen to make his next improvement in.

* * *

He sat down in his seat and looked at the novel he would be reading in that class.

“Morning class,” said Mr. Tran, his English teacher, as he entered the room. The students looked at him and continued to talk to each other. Mark watched as Mr. Tran put his briefcase on his desk and opened it. Mark hoped for a moment that the essays wouldn’t be marked and he could relax. His stomach jumped as he saw that Mr. Tran pulled out the stack of papers.

“Remember these?” he said as he lifted the pile of paper high for everyone to see. There was a groan.

“As usual, we had the good, the bad, and down right ugly,” said Mr. Tran. There was another groan. “And a few real surprises.”

“You’re not going to read us another piece written by Jen, are you?” asked Melissa.

“No,” said Mr. Tran. “Not Jen. Someone new.” Jennifer looked at Mr. Tran, surprised.

Mark felt uncomfortable as Mr. Tran read the first paragraphs of his paper. His classmates listen intently.

“Who is she?” asked Melissa again as she looked at the other girls in class.

“Not a she,” said Mr. Tran as he stepped toward Mark. He smiled and dropped it on Mark’s desk.

“Who wrote it for you?” asked Clarence.

“No one,” said Mark. Clarence glared at Mark.

“Yeah, right,” said Clarence again, his face turned red. He was muscular like Mark and had black straight hair.

“Why don’t you think Mark wrote it?” asked Mr. Tran.

“He isn’t any different than me,” said Clarence. “If I can’t do something like that neither can he.”

“Maybe that assumption is your problem,” said Mr. Tran.

“What?” said Clarence.

“You’re assuming that you can’t write well, but have you really tried to?”

“What’s the point?” said Clarence. “I’ll get my grade twelve and take over the farm. I don’t have to be able to write.”

“You really don’t know if you can write like this,” said Mr. Tran.

“Oh, I know. I don’t have to try,” said Clarence confidently.

“By not trying, you really never will know if you can do it.”

“Well if I tried, and let’s say I did, what difference would it make?” said Clarence.

“Probably a big difference, because it obviously matters to you,” said Mr. Tran.

“That’s my point, it doesn’t matter to me,” said Clarence louder.

“You wouldn’t have been upset when you found out that Mark wrote a good paper if it really didn’t matter to you,” said Mr. Tran.

“I was just pointing out that he must have cheated,” said Clarence.

“You know he couldn’t have cheated. This book had just arrived in the school when he chose it for his paper,” said Mr. Tran.

“His sister could have done it for him,” said Clarence.

“Kat’s been gone for a year,” said Mark.

“Just because I don’t know how he did it doesn’t mean he didn’t do it,” said Clarence.

“I know he did the writing,” said Mr. Tran.

“How?” asked Melissa.

“Mark has a distinctive style that I have noticed in his assignments. He’s been improving for some time. It was just a matter of time before he would write an exceptional paper like this,” said Mr. Tran.

“Well goody for Mark,” said Clarence.

“You really are taking this personally,” said Mr. Tran with interest.

Clarence folded his arms and leaned back in his seat. He shook his head.

* * *

Allen walked to the hockey rink after school; he had taken all his equipment. Mark made his way onto the bus for the ride home. He put his pack on the seat beside him and looked out of the window, thinking about how good it would be to make it to the city and leave everything behind.

He remembered three years before when he was showing his first heifer at the local fair, on a warm summer day. Things were changing then, he thought. None of them thought seriously about leaving. They would be partners in the farm and run things the right way.

His father didn’t come on the last day when Matthew, Allen, and Mark got their trophies for showing their cattle. Their mother stayed at home too. Kat must have been with her friend Anne in town, because she wasn’t around either.

Matthew got first place for cow calf, Allen for reserve steer, and Mark had a trophy for grooming.

Allen’s steer had done very well in the sale that followed the show and judging.

The boys had loaded their cattle into the truck and headed home. They talked about what they wanted to do with the farm. They would change the corrals so that automatic feeders could be put in for the grain. They would get proper feeders for the hay, then they would have more time to build a better barn.

As the truck pulled into the yard, they saw their father with a bottle, walking unsteadily. Their father hadn’t been around the farm that much. He worked as a welder on the pipelines. Whenever he came home unexpectedly in the past, he always said that the work was done early and that they had all been laid-off, but the last two times he said he had been fired again. He didn’t tell them why.

Each time he came back, he would be drinking more.

Matthew drove to the loading ramp, turned the truck around, and then backed into position.

“Allen, get out and direct me into place,” said Matthew.

“Sure,” said Allen as he opened the door and jumped out. Mark quickly followed. Allen positioned himself on the driver’s side of the truck and gave Matthew directions. He slowly reversed until the back of the truck touched the ramp. Allen and Mark jumped up onto the ramp and pulled the pins that secured the gate. It swung open and the cattle looked back.

“Come on Sally,” Allen talked to Matthew’s cow. The animal turned and walked to the ramp. Mark jumped into the back of the truck, patted his heifer and gave her a push. She followed the other cow down the ramp.

With the cow, calf, and heifer unloaded, the three boys went to the cab of the truck to get their trophies. Their father was now walking up to them.

“Here are my good sons,” he slurred.

None of them said anything. His father stepped up to Matthew and grabbed the large trophy and looked at it. “A real big winner,” he said with a sour smile on his face. He looked at the trophy another time and threw it as hard as he could toward the manure pile. It fell on the ground a few feet ahead of him. The bronze cow on top broke off.

“That’s all it is, dung,” said his father. “We have some work to do.” He continued to walk toward the fenced pasture. Matthew picked up the peaces of his trophy and turned around.

“Well, let’s go get something to eat,” he said.

“Sure,” said Allen. They all went to the house.

“You boys did real well,” said their mother as they stepped into the house. She was a dark haired, muscular woman. She had come from a farming family and didn’t expect anything else from life.

“Thanks,” said Matthew.

“We’re proud of you,” she said. She frowned as she saw the broken pieces of Matthew’s trophy.

“Oh,” said Matthew as he noticed her expression. “It got broken on the way home. I’ll fix it.”

“I sure hope so,” she said.

* * *

Mark watched as Allen opened his books in his room up stairs. Their father was watching television. Mark went to his room and laid on his bed. He didn’t have any homework; he did it at noon in the library at school. He closed his door to muffle the sound from the television. Mark heard the distant sound of the train passing. The tracks were only about a mile from their house. Some day, he thought, I will be on one of those trains going somewhere else, to a place where I can work inside all winter. There would be no cattle to feed or a cow to milk by hand each morning. He could sleep late on weekends because there would be no chores.

Mark sat up in his bed as he heard the muffle steps on the stairs. Then, he made out the sound of his father’s voice talking to Allen. There was work to do, thought Mark. Even though they should all be going to bed there would be some job.

Mark hurried to the door of his bedroom when it swung open. His father stood on weak legs, breathing the sour smell of alcohol.

“Are you on strike too?” his father asked.

“Should I be?” he asked as he pushed past his father and went down the stairs to where Matthew was.

“What has to be done?” asked Mark.

“The fence on the east corral,” said Allen.

“Of course,” said Mark. “That board has had a crack for a week.”

Both boys hurried to get their boots and coats on. Their father stumbled to the stairs by the door and sat down. He reached clumsily for his boots. They were soon on their way into the cold and dark to get the work done.

* * *

Their father watched as Allen began his work of pulling out the old nails. He placed the hammer and pulled the nails out. Something about the action bothered his father. The motion of Allen’s body was angry and defiant.

Mark arrived at the fence dragging the board for the repair.

“We better do a good job here. We’ll have to keep it in good condition for when you boys run the place,” said their father.

“Give me that two-by-four Mark,” said Allen.

“You better have a good farm here,” continued their father slurring his words. “Nice place to stay; a place better than the city, where I worked once.”

“Maybe,” said Allen as he worked with determination.

“Maybe? You are getting your own place are you? Or you’re going to the city? You’re dirt there. No one gives a damn about you,” said their father.

“Sure, whatever you say,” said Allen.

“You listen to me, I’ve been there and I know what I’m talking about,” said their father.

Allen didn’t answer. Mark held the board in place and Allen quickly set the nails and hammered them home. They both didn’t want an argument from their father. They were tired and wanted to go to bed.

“I’ll see if there is anything else to do,” said their father.

“Tomorrow,” said Allen.

“What?” said their father.

“It is time to go to bed,” said Allen. “Look, even the cattle are settled for the night.”

Their father looked and smiled. The last nail was driven home. Without another word, they finished their work and walked into the house.

* * *

Mark felt comfortable and warm as he slipped into his bed. He rolled over and looked at his pack on the floor. His paper was in it with the A written on the front page in red ink. He got up and pulled it out. He looked at it one more time, then looked around his room for a hiding place. He stepped to his closet and looked at the highest shelf. That would be the most typical place to hide something, he thought so he opened a box from a balsa wood airplane kit and slipped the paper in it. He slipped the top closed.

Mark switched off the lights and returned to his bed. He remembered a trip they had taken a few years before to his aunt’s home. He had been exploring the old house his aunt lived in and found out that in the attic there was a place where he could sit and listen to the conversation in the kitchen through the ductwork. He sat still and listened to his mother and his aunt talk.

“You have changed,” Mark heard his aunt say.

“Oh? I don’t know,” said his mother.

“I remember what you were like before you met Carl. You had hopes.”

“After you have children, things are put on hold.”

“You changed before you had any children,” said Mark’s aunt.


“You used to write all the time. You used to say that you were going to be a writer. Everyone else thought so too.”

“That’s not really true.”

“It is. I remember you used to say that writing was the mathematics of life.”

“What?” said Mark’s mother with disinterest in her voice.

“It was perfect. You used to say that if there was a problem you had to figure out in life, like a mathematics problem, you could sit down and write it out. Only after you had let the words come, would you know what the solution was.”

“That’s true,” Mark heard his mother say more thoughtfully.

“What problems do you have now that needs working out?”

“I don’t…”

“If you sat down and wrote you would find the solutions.”

“I told you that wasn’t realistic,” said Mark’s mother.

“I don’t like the change in you. You used to have so much optimism. Why did it all just disappear?”

“You’re still just as naive as you always were.”

“That’s a lot better than having given up hope,” said Mark’s aunt.

“Aren’t the pies done?” asked Mark’s mother.

Mark wondered if he was going to ever be able to write that way. He thought about working out problems as he wrote. He never forgot it, because he believed that it was possible.

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