STORIES FOR NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EDUCATION

I was one of four writers selected by the National Geographic Educational Testing Division to write for their launch project. I wrote 14 commissioned stories and essays for their high school reading comprehension tests. Here’s one of them.

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Sam

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 even 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 way that might be considered more approachable.

"What's up, man, how you doing?" 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 behind me. "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.

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