Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Most Likely to Succeed
It was the very first day of high school. When I finally found the second-floor study hall, I slid into an empty seat and pulled out my omnipresent paperback, but was distracted by a group of kids in the aisle, shooting wads of paper into the trash can with rubber bands. A short kid with a loud laugh seemed to be the ringleader. At one point I heard him brag that he planned to grow a mustache, adding, “My mom said I could.” I rolled my eyes.
A few minutes later the room monitor ordered the kids into their seats. The short boy sat down right across the aisle from me and immediately leaned forward to talk to the kids sitting in front of him. At one point I heard him say that he planned to be a writer someday. That stunned me so much I put down my book. What were the chances -- a thousand to one, a million to one? -- that on the very first day at this new school I’d meet someone else who also wanted to be a writer?
I waited till he finished talking with the kids in front of him, then waited a little more to conquer my shyness and force myself to speak. Finally I leaned over and asked, “Did you say you wanted to be a writer?”
And that began a conversation which continued pretty much nonstop from the first day of high school till the day we graduated.
In some ways we were unlikely friends. He was gregarious and popular; I was the opposite. He excelled at math, science, and foreign languages; everything came hard to me. He was president of the National Honor Society; I flunked geometry. He had a cool after-school job in a tall office building; I delivered newspapers.
But in other ways, we couldn’t have been more alike -- especially in our shared dream of someday becoming writers. I wonder now if I ever could have sustained that dream throughout high school all by myself. Would I have stayed motivated? Focused? Maybe. ...But it certainly made things easier to have a friend with the exact same goal. And he definitely kept me on my toes. Every time I read one of his brilliant English reports or an article he wrote for the school newspaper, I was determined to write something even better. It was the best kind of friendship and the best kind of rivalry. Yeah, he beat me out for the job of Cody Star editor, but I won a journalism contest sponsored by a national magazine. When I got another prize for writing a short story, he turned around and wrote an even better story about a schoolyard fight and it also had the best title ever -- “About a Bout.” We talked incessantly about the future when we’d be...novelists. Not just novelists, but...Famous Novelists.
During our senior year, we took an advanced English class that culminated in a major term paper. With our friend Karen we drove to several local libraries to track down research materials. One cloudy afternoon we staggered out of Detroit’s Main Library, each carrying a tall stack of books. We’d almost made it to the car when I realized one of the books in my pile was missing. We retraced our steps for three or four blocks, looking on the sidewalk for the volume I’d somehow dropped. Suddenly the sun broke through the clouds and my friend pointed to a waist-high hedge running beside the sidewalk. There, resting on top of the hedge, was my library book -- laying wide open as if waiting to be read -- with the bright sunlight reflecting off the pages.
To this aspiring "Famous Novelist," it seemed like a metaphor for the future that lay before us like an open book.
I wasn’t surprised when my friend was named “Most Likely to Succeed” in our graduating class. I knew he was going to succeed -- big time. I just hoped I could somehow keep up with him. At graduation we wrote extravagant, egotistical notes in each other’s yearbooks. I can’t quite recall what I wrote in his, but I do remember including footnotes. His message to me contained this comment: “Perhaps someday I’ll write a critique of one of your books or vice versa or both.”
It seemed possible at the time. EVERYTHING seemed possible at the time.
A few months later, I wrote him a letter saying I was trying to write a novel for young readers (yeah, even then) and he sent back a long letter brimming with his usual enthusiasm and encouragement (“Don’t let yourself believe that because you write ‘kids books’ that you can’t make them intelligent pieces of literature. YOU can.”) as well as several of his own story ideas (he’d just written a time-travel story called “Do the Hustle” and a tale about a ping-pong game that came to an unresolved ending like “The Lady or the Tiger.”) He also had another story that he was saving for me to read.
He concluded, “Well, Pete, I’ll see you around this summer."
But I never saw him again.
Later that year we heard he’d gotten married. We heard there was a baby on the way. Someone said he'd dropped out of college. Someone else said he was now working at K-Mart.
Years later, our mutual friend Karen told me she’d run into him at K-Mart. He was wearing a manager’s uniform. “Oh my gosh,” I said. “What did he say?”
“He just said hi and kept walking,” she reported.
“What? You haven’t seen him in eight years and all he said was hi?”
“He acted like he didn’t want to talk,” she said.
I remembered how determined he was to be a writer. In fact, he was once quoted in our school paper saying, “I want to be a writer so bad, I know I couldn’t be happy doing anything else!” K-Mart manager or not, I refused to believe that he’d give up on that dream.
I hadn’t given up on mine. I wasn’t a Famous Novelist -- not even close. But I kept dreaming and I kept writing -- and my high school friend was never far from my thoughts. When a play I wrote was reviewed in the newspaper's theater column, I wondered if he’d seen that day's paper. When a few of my short stories were published in school-books, I wondered if he’d recognize my name in his kids’ language arts texts. And I never stopped looking for HIS name -- expecting it to turn up in a magazine’s table of contents...on the cover of book in the library...in a bookstore window display.
And I finally did see his name in print. Not on a dustjacket or magazine cover...but in the newspaper death notices. The obituary didn’t tell us much, though we did learn he was no longer married. Karen asked if I wanted to go to the funeral home with her, but I wanted to remember our friend the way he was -- when he was young and noisy and full of dreams. Karen later told me she was sorry she went. She didn’t recognize the body in the casket. Nobody in the family acknowledged her.
Even today we still don’t know how he died.
Just from little things I’ve picked up and pieced together, I think something went wrong for him along the way. I hope his dream of being a writer never died. I wish he knew that I never quit believing in him.
He’s been gone for over a year and even now I sometimes find myself looking for his name in print. Maybe I always will. You see, we were both supposed to become Famous Novelists and someday he was going to write a critique of one of my books. Or vice versa. Or both.