STORIES FOR NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EDUCATION
National Geographic’s Educational Testing division selected me as one of the four writers for their launch project.
I wrote 14 commissioned stories and essays for their high school reading comprehension tests. Here’s one of them.
All my life I’ve been the guy who makes people laugh. Life of the party, that’s me. It’s a good gig. It works. It’s like a badge that tells people who you are. Like if you saunter into a rock concert with a backstage pass. Something that says you’re somebody.
They don't need to know anything else about you. They don't want to. They don't ask. And that's cool. I don't care. Mostly I don't care. I think a lot about life. But I don't want to really talk to anybody. Sure, I cut up with the guys when we’re hanging out at the lockers. I don't mind being alone most of the time, when I'm not making people laugh.
My older brother, Chris, says I'm as funny as comedians on shows. I don't know when I got branded Family Comic. I'd see Chris raising his voice at Dad at the table, probably about using the car. Dad's turning red in the face, place is about to blow sky high. I'm studying my dinner plate, trying not to look at either one of them.
Then it just rises from me, like smoke from a magic lamp. "When this chicken crossed the road, he should have done it in a four wheel drive." Chris and Dad stop cold, stare at me. They bust up laughing and everybody's relaxed now. Dad claps my shoulder and says, "Sam, you are a funny little kid. You ought to be on TV."
People at my high school are used to me. They know what to expect, and I'm comfortable with that. Or, at least I don't have to struggle to communicate with anyone in some more open way.
"What's up, man?" Rick says to me in the hall. "You want to come hang with Will and me after school, play some basketball?"
"Hey, I would, but I'm waiting for my talent agent to call. You think I look good enough in my clothes?" I give them my crowd-pleasing grin and point to the untied laces on my big sneakers. I almost add just kidding, yeah let's shoot some hoops later. What if they do want to know more about me than what a cool stand-up comic I am. But Rick gives Will this look that says I don't get him, do you? Will looks disgusted and says, "Always joking, huh, Sam? Yeah, you're a funny guy. See you around."
"So, is class clown the only note you play?" I hear a soft voice ask. "Or, do you want to get a coke before class starts? We've got time."
I know that voice even before I turn around. Jenna. I've seen her across the room in Math class since the start of junior year, never spoken to her. She looks nice. And she is talking to me right now. What am I supposed to do?
I swing around and answer before I can stop myself. "I can tap dance, too." And I break out into soft shoe right in the hallway. Jenna leans into one hip, hooks a thumb in her backpack strap, and stares at me with green eyes.
"Being serious for five minutes too much of a chore for you? Suit yourself," she says.
She turns to walk away.
"Wait," I say, and take a breath.
She turns back. "What?"
"Can we make it root beer?" I'm not dancing now. Just standing. Not taking my eyes from hers, I kneel and tie my shoelaces. There, that’s a little more dignified.
She nods her head toward the drink machine. "Let's go. I'm thirsty, feel like I've been crawling in the desert all day."
I know what she means. Drinking cold root beer with her, talking real talk. I feel like a thirst I've had all my life is finally being quenched.
STORIES FOR THE MCGRAW-HILL/CALIFORNIA TESTING BUREAU
I wrote dozens of commissioned stories and essays for McGraw-Hill/CTB reading comprehension tests. For each piece, I wove ten designated vocabulary words into the story, wrote within a specified word count range, and refined to an exact grade level.
My assignment for this one was to write an opinion piece related to entertainment, in the character and voice of a seventh grader, at a precise 7.4 grade level.
How to go to the Movies
When I pay my hard-earned yard work money to see an action or mystery flick on a Saturday afternoon, I want to actually enjoy the show. Unfortunately, not everyone sees it my way. Other kids from my middle school show up at the movie theater and disrupt the film.
Last weekend I couldn’t take it anymore. I slumped in my seat, with all the horsing around going on behind me, and scrawled on the back of a popcorn bag my list of major ways people mess up a movie experience for everyone else. I’m posting it at school. Maybe other kids will agree with me on ways to be more courteous at the movies.
First of all, people sit there and talk right in the middle of the movie. I mean, what do they have to talk about at the very moment the detective is figuring out whose footprints are all over the living room rug? They’re always sitting right behind me chattering on about what the character just did, or is about to do, or how the whole story is going to turn out.
Some people just can’t stand suspense. They always want to figure out what’s coming next. Some of us like to just let life unfold. I don’t want to know what’s going to happen onscreen until the instant it happens. When they start jabbering behind me, I plug up my ears.
Sometimes a group of kids starts making wise cracks at really serious moments in a story and it wrecks the mood. Often, someone sitting behind me is not even paying attention to the movie. He or she is only spreading school gossip. People should just turn it off when the movie begins, like you shut off the games or TV when it’s time to get something done.
Of course, there are other ways to be obnoxious in a movie besides talking. Some people munch their snacks so loudly, it’s like they’re eating into a microphone. Right when the action hero jumps out of the sky, saves the day, and says something cool I could repeat all over school for the next week, the guy behind me leans forward in his seat and crunches popcorn in my ear at full volume. The worst is somebody opening candy wrappers just as the lead character discovers her next-door neighbor is really a creature from another planet.
Do you want my opinion on the subject of what to eat in a theater? Make a delicious peanut butter and jam sandwich in your own kitchen at home, wrap it up in a nice quiet paper towel, and bring that for your movie food. Remember not to loudly slurp any drink you might get.
The third irritating thing people do in theaters is jump around while everyone else is trying to watch the movie. People in front of me always seem to decide to switch seats in the middle of an exciting scene. Or, someone in my row can’t live another two minutes without chocolate covered raisins and crawls over me to go buy a box. Or, the guy sitting behind me gets comfortable putting his feet up on my seat, and I’ve got sneakers as a headrest.
So, I hope everyone in school will take my advice. Go outside at lunchtime and talk about your favorite movies and actors, open the loudest candy wrappers possible, and drink through a straw in the noisiest way you can. Get it all out of your system outdoors. Then, come into movie theaters, quiet down, enjoy the show, and let everyone else enjoy it, too.