The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez (4 page)

BOOK: The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez
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Mr. Congo

t first, this morning seems free from drama, except for a couple of warnings from the principal, one about wearing baseball hats in school because they're associated with gangs. About the only gang you'll find in my middle-class neighborhood is a posse of paunchy new moms gathering every morning on the school track to chat and trot behind baby joggers.

After that announcement I'm off to Mr. Congo's (that's his real name) math class, where we've been playing Crunching Numbers for the last two weeks. It supposedly helps us to review concepts for the inane state exams given every fall. The kids hate them, the teachers hate them, and my father, who reads more about the demise of our public school system than the secretary of education, hates them, but obviously, some screwball in Washington decided they make us smarter. The Crunching Numbers period usually ends up being a battle between the boys and girls, a battle we actually win sometimes, much to the annoyance of Claudine and her gang.

This morning, Mr. Congo looks like he wrestled three pit bulls on the way to class. He's only in his twenties, but he's bald and has dark circles under his eyes. Add to the bald head and baggy eyes that he's thin and pale, and you could easily mistake him for a convict just released from solitary. To be fair, Mr. Congo's wife had a baby a month ago, and it's clear he's not sleeping much. If Claudine didn't water all the strange, cool plants his wife arranged in the classroom the first day of school, they wouldn't have lasted a week.

But Claudine's not too happy this morning. Five minutes left to go in class and the final Crunching Numbers question lights up the screen: (5x + 2x) = (4x − 3y) “Tick, tick, tick,” I say, realizing she and her gang don't have a clue. “Tick, tick, tick,” I say, rubbing it in before tapping the little bell on my desk and giving the correct answer.

“You the man,” Beanie yells, and before Mr. Congo can lecture us about being “gracious” (a favorite word of his), we're off to English class.

Claudine's ahead of me in the hall, so I slow down, not wanting to invade her unhappy space, but I know she feels my nearness because I swear she's slowing down on purpose. The more slowly she walks, the more I try to lag behind until we're crawling toward Ms. D's room.

Suddenly, I'm pushed from behind. “Get moving, Alvarez.” It's Big Joe. “What are you, crippled?”

Before I can respond, I find myself careening into Claudine.

She wheels around, obviously as uncomfortable with this encounter as I am, and Paige, who's walking beside her, glares at me like I'm a laboratory rat she's about to dissect on a black slab she has concealed in her basement.

I can feel the blood vessels swelling in my face, and I'm trying to calm down, but it's harder than getting rid of the hiccups.

“Big Joe pushed me,” I say, my victory in math class a distant memory.

“No, I didn't,” Big Joe lies.

“Yes, you did,” Beanie chimes in.

Claudine suddenly seems taller and older and speaks in that voice Irene uses when trying to convert me or Crash to her cult of positivity. She places one hand on her hip and says, “Your excuses don't matter much, Benny, but an apology does.”

think his excuse matters,” Beanie says.

“Forget it, Beanie,” I say, knowing it's too late. Claudine has turned the tables, my brief advantage destroyed by a simple push.

“Well?” she says, expressionless.

I don't know why I wimp out so easily, but I say, “Sorry.”

I'm waiting for her to accept or not accept it, or kick me in the shins, but she turns and strolls into Ms. D's class.

“What just happened?” I ask Beanie.

Big Joe laughs. “You got punked, dude.”

I look to Beanie for support, but he seems seriously disappointed. “When it comes to that girl, dude, you have to toughen up.”

The last thing I hear before walking into Ms. D's room is Big Joe's stupid laugh.

Caulfield Thomas Jones

s. D's room looks different today. There are twenty kids in class, and normally groups of four desks are arranged in five separate squares, so we're forced to face one another while Ms. D roams the room. Some guys don't like this setup. They're usually the ones who nod off, and that's hard to do when you're staring across at another student, who's always a girl. Ms. D makes sure of that. I sit with Beanie and Clare Davis and Bethany Briggs. I don't have a problem with those girls because they're what I call neutrals: girls who don't pile on when Claudine goes after me or one of the other guys.

But as I said, things are very different today. Actually, two things. First, the desks are rearranged, so two desks are side by side. Second, Caulfield Thomas Jones is sitting on Ms. D's desk with his feet on her chair, his arms crossed, like the classroom is a beach and he's the head lifeguard.

Ms. D is making everyone line up along the chalkboard. “We're doing something very different today,” she says.

No kidding.

“And we have a special guest,” she adds, pointing to Caulfield Thomas Jones (from here on known as Caulfield). “Mr. Jones has come to talk about poetry and challenge us to participate in a friendly competitive exercise.”

Caulfield's about six feet tall with short, curly brown hair and blue eyes, and he's more hyper than Crash after four Reese's Cups. It doesn't look like he's faking his love of literature, so you have to give him some credit, though Beanie's leery of him because he thinks Caulfield's English accent isn't real, and because, according to Beanie, “The only thing worse than having a last name for a first name is having a last name for a first name and two more to boot.”

But Ms. D loves this guy, and they tend to make private jokes, then look goofy at each other.

The last time he visited, he laid out all these different things on the floor—a world map, a page from the sports section, an empty coffee cup from McDonald's, some toy soldiers—and we were supposed to place them in a short story. That really threw Big Joe, but I liked it.

I can't say I feel the same way about poetry. In fact, I'd rather have Big Joe give me a wedgie than listen to Caulfield Thomas Jones recite Shakespeare or whatever he's planning today.

“This exercise,” Ms. D says, “will involve boys and girls working together in pairs.”

A collective groan goes up from the class, and Ms. D looks to Caulfield for support.

“It's not as if you're second or third graders,” he says, then addresses the boys, adding, “Girls are people too,” which makes Ms. D laugh louder than I've ever heard her laugh before.

Old Caulfield obviously has some weird ideas on how we feel about girls. We're not afraid of them, and I don't dislike Claudine or Paige because they're girls but because they're troublemakers. Which is why I'm nervous about being paired with one of them. I'm trying to decide which one would be my worst nightmare when Ms. D announces the first two victims.

“We'll start with Benny,” she says, scanning a list of names on her desk, turning toward Caulfield, and saying, “Benny is the wordsmith I mentioned to you.” I make a mental note to look up “wordsmith” in
, while she says, “And Benny will be working with . . . Sara Samuels.”

Man, did I luck out. Sara is a neutral, a shy, quiet girl. She's the smartest kid in English class and has always had a crush on me, so I'm thinking she'll go along with what I say.

Ms. D announces the rest of the names and we take our seats very quickly, so that Caulfield will have a half hour to do his thing. The only weird pairing is Big Joe and Paige, which gets a loud laugh from the class, since it's like putting Shrek and Selena Gomez together.

Caulfield begins with some exercises on metaphor, writing on the board, “My love is a red rose” and “My love is like a red rose,” asking which one is a metaphor, which a simile. That's easy and boring, but then things get interesting when he says, “How can your beloved, or love in general, be a red rose? Isn't a red rose a red rose?”

Claudine pounces on that one. “It's really a red rose,” she says, “but has things in common with love.”

“Can you explain that more clearly, young lady?” Caulfield says.

Claudine's thinking hard, but it's clear she doesn't have a quick answer. I'm waiting, actually hoping, for her to blush, but I guess it's not in her makeup.

Caulfield gives her a bit longer, then says, “Why don't we ask the wordsmith?” I'm looking around the classroom, wondering who he's talking about, until I remember it's me. He points to the sentences again, leaping off Ms. D's desk like he just sat on a wasp. “Let's start with the literal things we associate with a rose.”

I think about this, then say, “A rose grows, it's beautiful, it kind of glows in the sun.”

Caulfield's really worked up now, writing each of my responses on the board, then asking the class what they have to do with love, and everyone begins to see the connections. “Love grows too,” Paige says.

“And it's beautiful,” Sara adds, looking a little too longingly at me.

“And sometimes people blush when they're in love,” Beanie says, not knowing he'll take a pounding for that one later.

“But it also has thorns,” I say.

“Mr. Happiness to the rescue,” Claudine says, shaking her head disgustedly.

“But Benny's right,” Caulfield responds, and I'm thinking,
You go, Caulfield,
surprised to discover this unlikely ally.

“What does love have to do with a thorny rose, Benny?”

“It can hurt,” I say.

“And that's what makes this metaphor so powerful.”

I'm waiting for the class to lift me onto their shoulders and carry me to the cafeteria, where I'll be fed a giant banana split, but no one but Caulfield seems overly excited, so he offers a few more metaphors, then moves to what he calls object poems, one cool one called “Hanger”:



Protean instrument,

I bow curved-neck before you.

Yes, you are a child's toy:

a metal bow for straw arrows,

a back scratcher, a toothless smile,

you old extended question mark, you,

I offer you in amazement

the shirt off my back.


He explains that like Proteus, the shape-shifting Greek god, a hanger, too, resembles many different objects and has many different purposes, and that the poet thinks this is so cool that he bows “curved-neck” to the hanger. “It's a simple poem,” he says, “but after reading it, you'll never look at a hanger the same way again.”

Finally, Caulfield gets to our assignment. We're supposed to work with our partner to write a short object poem but not divulge the title, so he and the class can guess it at a later date. He also says he'll give out a few prizes for the best poems. “You don't have to write verse or rhymed poems,” he says. “You can write prose poems or even sentences,” and he gives us a few examples: “Snow that falls on a tree stump but doesn't melt” (gray hair), “A black string in one's path” (ants), and also a few poems written in short paragraphs.

Claudine isn't very happy about Caulfield's suggestions. “How can poetry be poetry if it doesn't rhyme or have line breaks?” she says.

Caulfield smiles. “Isn't poetry elevated language and interesting comparisons? Why can't you have that in a sentence or paragraph?” Then he reads a description of a rainstorm from a novel, and it certainly sounds like poetry.

not going to do that,” Paige says, staring down Big Joe, making it clear who's going to run that group.

Ms. D, sensing the period is about to end, wraps things up by saying, “With the time remaining today, why don't you brainstorm with your partner and choose an object you both feel is suitable. As Caulfield says, an object can be an animal or an emotion, or most anything.” Then she and Caulfield mosey off to a corner of the room and chat.

When Sara and I finally get down to business, she looks very concerned. “We're not going to write one of those prose poems, are we, Benny?” I actually had assumed we were, stupidly forgetting that Sara probably takes poetry very seriously, first of all because she's a girl, and second because, like Paige, she's always scribbling something down in a journal. With my luck, it's probably rhyming poetry.

“Why don't we deal with that later?” I say.

She doesn't seem too enthusiastic but agrees. After going through a number of possibilities, we decide on a worm, thinking if we can turn that into poetry, we'll knock their socks off. That choice was really Sara's, but then I suggest a night crawler, those worms my grandfather and I catch at night before we go fishing. When it's time to leave, Ms. D seems very pleased with the class, and at recess, Beanie and I tell Jocko about the assignment.

“Boy, I'm glad I'm not in her class,” Jocko says.

“It was actually pretty cool the way Caulfield described it,” I say.

“Caulfield? I thought you hated the guy.”

“I never said that.”

“You should listen to yourself sometimes.”

“Whatever, he was okay today.”

“He really was, Jocko,” Beanie adds.

Jocko starts laughing, then looks at me and says, “Incongruous.”


“Irene and Aldo are an ‘incongruous couple' because they don't fit. It's like a banana going out with an apple.”

“Very good, Jocko,” I say, thinking about Big Joe and Paige.

“Yeah,” Beanie says, “maybe
should write our poems, Jocko.”

“No thanks, I'm uptight enough about what to get Becky Walters for a birthday gift.”

“Birthday?” Beanie says.

“Yeah, her party's next Saturday afternoon. You mean you guys weren't invited?”

“Since when are girls inviting guys to their birthday parties?” I ask.

“Well, it's happening now. She's having a deejay and everything.”

“Like dancing?” I ask, my legs suddenly going numb.

“I guess, but I'm not going without you guys. I'll tell Becky that.”

“Don't worry about it,” I say, knowing this is a party I don't mind missing.

“Well, I'm going to check into it tomorrow.”

“When did you get your invitation?” Beanie asks.


“Let's hope ours got lost in the mail,” Beanie says to me.

“You guys are really weird when it comes to girls,” Jocko says.

I don't think that's true. To be “weird when it comes to girls,” you have to think about them a lot, and that's not something I do.

BOOK: The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez
13.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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