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Read on. Pay attention to how the author describes Gary’s attempts to impress Mr. Smith with his writing. Analyze the words the author uses
Gary was studying Mr. Smith so intently that he didn’t hear Dr. Proctor call him up to the stage to receive an award from last term. Jim Baggs jabbed an elbow into his ribs and said, “Let’s get up there, Dude.”
Dr. Proctor shook Gary’s hand and gave him the County Medal for Best Composition. While Dr. Proctor was giving Jim Baggs the County Trophy for Best All-Bound Athlete, Gary glanced over his shoulder to see if Mr. Smith looked impressed. But he couldn’t find the new teacher. Gary wondered if Mr. Smith was so ordinary he was invisible when no one was talking about him.
On the way home, Dani Belzer, the prettiest poet in school, asked Gary, “What did you think of our new Mr. Wordsmith ?”
“If he was a color he’d be beige,” said Gary. “If he was a taste he’d be water. If he was a sound he’d be a low hum.”
“Fancy, empty words,” sneered Mike Chung, ace reporter on the school paper. “All you’ve told me is you’ve got nothing to tell me.”
Dani quickly stepped between them. “What did you think of the first assignment ?”
“Describe a Typical Day at School,” said Gary, trying unsuccessfully to mimic Mr. Smith’s bland voice. “That’s about as exciting as tofu.”
“A real artist,” said Dani, “accepts the commonplace as a challenge.”
That night, hunched over his humming electric typewriter, Gary wrote a description of a typical day at school from the viewpoint of a new teacher who was seeing everything for the very first time, who took nothing for granted. He described the shredded edges of the limp flag outside the dented front door, the worn flooring where generations of kids had nervously paced outside the principal’s office, the nauseatingly sweet pipe-smoke seeping out of the teachers’ lounge.
And then, in the last line, he gave the composition that extra twist, the little kicker on which his reputation rested. He wrote:
The new teacher’s beady little eyes missed nothing, for they were the optical recorders of an alien creature who had come to earth to gather information.
The next morning, when Mr. Smith asked for a volunteer to read aloud, Gary was on his feet and moving toward the front of the classroom before Mike Chung got his hand out of his pocket.
The class loved Gary’s composition. They laughed and stamped their feet. Chung shrugged, which meant he couldn’t think of any criticism, and Dani flashed thumbs up. Best of all, Jim Baggs shouldered Gary against the blackboard after class and said, “Awesome tale, Dude.”
Gary felt good until he got the composition back. Along one margin, in a perfect script, Mr. Smith had written:
You can do better.
“How would he know ?” Gary complained on the way home.
“You should be grateful,” said Dani. “He’s pushing you to the farthest limits of your talent.”
“Which may be nearer than you think,” snickered Mike.
Gary rewrote his composition, expanded it, complicated it, thickened it. Not only was this new teacher an alien, he was part of an extraterrestrial conspiracy to take over Earth. Gary’s final sentence was:
Every iota of information, fragment of fact, morsel of minutiae sucked up by those vacuuming eyes was beamed directly into a computer circling the planet. The data would eventually become a program that would control the mind of every school kid on earth.
Gary showed the new draft to Dani before class. He stood on tiptoes so he could read over her shoulder. Sometimes he wished she were shorter, but mostly he wished he were taller.
“What do you think ?”
“The assignment was to describe a typical day,” said Dani. “This is off the wall.”
He snatched the papers back.
“Creative writing means creating.”
He walked away hurt and angry. He thought: If she doesn’t like my compositions, how can I ever get her to like me ?
That morning, Mike Chung read his own composition aloud to the class. He described a typical day through the eyes of a student in a wheelchair. Everything most students take for granted was an obstacle: the bathroom door too heavy to open, the gym steps too steep to climb, the light switch too high on the wall. The class applauded and Mr. Smith nodded approvingly. Even Gary had to admit it was really good — if you considered plain-fact journalism as creative writing, that is.
Gary’s rewrite came back the next day marked:
Improving. Try again.
Saturday he locked himself in his room after breakfast and rewrote the rewrite. He carefully selected his nouns and verbs and adjectives. He polished and arranged them in sentences like a jeweler strings pearls. He felt good as he wrote, as the electric typewriter hummed and buzzed and sometimes coughed. He thought: Every champion knows that as hard as it is to get to the top, it’s even harder to stay up there.
His mother knocked on his door around noon. When he let her in, she said, “It’s a beautiful day.”
“Big project,” he mumbled. He wanted to avoid a distracting conversation.
She smiled. “If you spend too much time in your room, you’ll turn into a mushroom.”
He wasn’t listening. “Thanks. Anything’s okay. Don’t forget the mayonnaise.”
The alien’s probes trembled as he read the student’s composition. Could that skinny bespectacled earthling really suspect its extraterrestrial identity? Or was his composition merely the result of a creative thunderstorm in a brilliant young mind?
Before Gary turned in his composition on Monday morning, he showed it to Mike Chung. He should have known better.
“You’re trying too hard,” chortled Chung. “Truth is stronger than fiction.”
Gary flinched at that. It hurt. It might be true. But he couldn’t let his competition know he had scored. “You journalists are stuck in the present and the past,” growled Gary. “Imagination prepares us for what’s going to happen.”
Dani read her composition aloud to the class. It described a typical day from the perspective of a louse choosing a head of hair to nest in. The louse moved from the thicket of a varsity crew-cut to the matted jungle of a sagging perm to a straight, sleek blond cascade.
The class cheered and Mr. Smith smiled. Gary felt a twinge of jealousy. Dani and Mike were coming on. There wasn’t room for more than one at the top.
In the hallway, he said to Dani, “And you called my composition off the wall ?”
Mike jumped in. “There’s a big difference between poetical metaphor and hack science fiction.”
Gary felt choked by a lump in his throat. He hurried away.
Mr. Smith handed back Gary’s composition the next day marked:
See me after school.
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