I CREPT UP ON my diary. Carefully, I undid the lock with the small key I kept on a string around my neck, then slowly opened it.
“Ughhhh,” I moaned. The pages were filled with squished spiders. I slammed it shut like a tiny coffin.
It wasn’t the spiders that scared me. I had pressed them into the book. It was all those blank pages. For three years I had been trying to fill them, but I could never think of anything interesting to write. It was as though my brain stopped working if I even thought of my diary.
This didn’t make sense. Usually, I was pretty good at imagining things. When I looked at the picture of the sailboat on my wall, in my mind I could see Dad racing the Flying Dutchman yacht of his dreams. When I read a good book, like The Feathered Serpent, the words filled my brain with people, smells, and sounds. But when I opened my diary, my mind went as blank as the paper. I felt like a moron.
It started the afternoon Mom came home from work and gave my older sister, Betsy, a diary. The year was stamped in gold on the flowery front cover. The hundreds of pages were made of thick, glossy paper. But what amazed me most was the lock. A strap from the back cover fit into a lock sewn onto the front cover, and there was a tiny key that only Betsy would be able to use.
“You can write anything that comes to your mind in this book,” Mom told her. “A diary is for keeping all your secrets, and nobody is allowed to read it but you.”
I looked up at my mother. “Where’s mine?” I asked.
“I’ll get you one when you’re old enough to have secrets,” she said.
“I do have secrets,” I shot back.
“Not grownup secrets,” she replied.
“I want a diary,” I shouted and stomped my foot as hard as I could.
Mom didn’t budge so I had to go all the way. I threw myself down on the floor and cried and bucked up and down.
“I want a diary! I want a diary!”
“Don’t be such an immature little brat,” Betsy said and walked off to her bedroom, probably to start filling her diary with secrets. I howled even louder and kicked the floor with my heels.
“Okay, cut the theatrics,” Mom said. “I’ll get you a diary, but you must promise to write in it every day.”
I promised. But I did not keep my promise.
At first, I just wrote down what day it was and the weather. Then I started listing everything I ate. But when it came to writing about what I was doing or what I was thinking and feeling, I couldn’t seem to get it down. I could lie in bed and remember everything I had seen and said during the day, but when I opened the diary my thoughts vanished.
Still, I fought back and began to fill my diary with stuff. Each day, I searched for interesting things. I captured all kinds of bugs and squished them between the pages. I stapled in my baseball cards. I kept my stamp collection neatly arranged in rows. I used the diary as a photo album and mounted all my pictures inside. When I taped in my fortune cookie fortunes, they looked like tiny telegrams from a foreign land. One of them read, “You Are Brave And Have Many Friends.” I didn’t believe it. I was covering over the empty white space of the pages in the same way I covered my eyes with my hands when I watched a monster movie.
It was no good. Even though the diary was filled with stuff, it was stuff someone else had thought up, someone else’s stuff.
This evening was no different. Without writing much of anything, I locked the diary, grabbed a deck of cards and fled my bedroom. Betsy was sitting at the dining-room table playing a hand of solitaire. I sat down across from her and began to lay out my cards.
“Stop that,” she said sharply.
“What?” I said.
“Stop copying me,” she said. “Mom, tell him to stop copying me. He’s driving me crazy.”
“Leave your sister alone,” Mom said, “and come help me work on this jigsaw puzzle. I’m having trouble.”
Betsy slapped her cards down on the table. “Don’t let him help you, Mom,” she said. “Make him think of something to do on his own. Everything I do, he wants to do. Everything you do, he wants to do. He doesn’t have a brain in his head. He’s like some kind of dumb animal. Monkey see, monkey do.”
“That’s enough,” Mom said. But we knew Betsy was right. I couldn’t come up with any great ideas of my own.
Nothing seemed interesting until I saw another person do it first. When Betsy started a shell collection, I started a shell collection. When she put PEACE posters on her bedroom wall, so did I. I wanted to be friends with all her friends. It seemed as if I could only do what she did first. I’ll never be the President, I thought, just the Vice President. I won’t be a gangster kingpin, just his stooge. I won’t be the sole survivor in any humongous disaster, just another victim along with all the other losers. Believe it or not, I hate feeling sorry for myself. It makes me feel like an idiot, which makes me feel even sorrier for myself.
“Why don’t you go fishing with your father,” Mom suggested.
Dad was in the back yard, fishing in the canal for mullet and reading his favorite magazine, Popular Mechanics. But a few days before, I had seen our left-side next-door neighbor, Mr. Velucci, feeding spoiled pork chops to the alligators in the canal and I didn’t want to go near that brown water. And I didn’t want to get into a dumb discussion with Dad on how to transform his truck into a cabin cruiser or the washing machine into a helicopter. Popular Mechanics gave him the strangest ideas.
“Dad and I have nothing in common,” I said, repeating a line I had heard Betsy say the previous week.
“Don’t you have any homework to do?” Mom asked.
I did. I was avoiding my math homework because I wasn’t sure of the assignment. My teacher terrorized me and I was afraid to ask her after school for an explanation. I didn’t know the other kids that well and I was afraid to ask them. They might call me stupid. And once you get that name you’re stuck with it for the rest of the year.
My teacher’s name was Mrs. Marshall and I thought she was more dense than I was. She certainly didn’t have an original thought in her head. Each day, after she took roll, she turned to us and announced, “All students take out your copybooks.” We reached under the seats of our desks for our black-and-white composition books. But we didn’t dare open them until she said so. She had threatened to mash our fingers between the pages if we disobeyed.
From a desk drawer she removed a pair of white cotton gloves and put them on. Next she got a fresh box of white chalk from her supply closet and loaded five new sticks into her wire chalk holder which drew five lines at a time. She pressed it against the chalkboard in front of the class and scratched a stack of lines from left to right. The screeching was so loud I thought my head would explode. Then she scratched more lines across the blackboards that ran along the entire right side of the room and across the back. Along the left side of the class, we had windows. But Mrs. Marshall wheeled two portable blackboards in front of the windows and our room became gloomy. She covered them with lines, too. I was surrounded by walls of blackboards, and from
where I sat the gray lines of chalk looked like miles of barbed wire.
She removed a textbook from her desk and opened it to the page where we had left off the day before. She held the book in her left hand and raised a piece of chalk with her right. “Students, prepare to copy,” she ordered. We opened our copybooks and twenty-five ballpoint pens clicked into position. “Go,” she shouted and began to write. She copied onto the board exactly what was written in the book. If I only had known what the title of the book was, or who wrote it, I would have bought it so I could copy it at home. But she kept the book wrapped in a brown-paper cover.
“Egyptian history begins with the reign of King Menes,” I scribbled.
She wrote like a sewing machine. Her handwriting looked even better than my mother’s. All the letters were perfectly formed and they all slanted to the right at exactly the same angle. My handwriting was a mess. I wrote mostly straight up and down. My letters were always squashed together or too large and loopy. But, worst of all, I was slow. Every day I tried to keep up with Mrs. Marshall, but when she finished filling up the front blackboard I was only halfway down. She made us keep our desks clustered together in the center of the room so she had space to use the boards. When she finished the front, she hollered, “Shift!” and we scooted our desks a quarter turn to the right and faced the long side blackboard. Because I hadn’t finished the front, I left a section of my copybook blank and began with the new board. I figured that maybe I could get caught up later. Shift!” she hollered when she finished the side board and moved to the back, and again we scooted our desks to the right. When I looked around, it seemed that all the other kids were keeping up with her. Then she began on the portable blackboards.
“Shift!” she commanded. We did, and once again I left extra space in my copybook as I leaped ahead of myself, trying to keep up. But I was still scribbling away when she finished the portable blackboards. She put down her book and chalk and quickly began to erase her writing as I desperately scrambled to fill the blank spots in my book. When all the boards were erased, she said, “Everyone put down your pens and stretch out your fingers and hands.” As the class stretched, a team of honor students jumped into action. They wet sponges in the back sink, then madly washed the chalkboards. The room was so hot the water evaporated in a flash, and once again we were ready to go.
“Okay,” she announced after drawing fresh lines. “Everyone pick up your pens and let’s begin.” She changed books and we began to copy a chapter on earth science.
All day long we copied chapters from her books, but I never remembered a thing I wrote. I was too frazzled with trying to keep up. At the end of the day she had overlapped me a dozen times. I felt even more tortured each Friday, when we turned in our copybooks. She passed them out to us on Monday and each time I read the same comments: “Write more neatly and quickly. Don’t daydream. Keep your mind on your work.” What mind, I asked myself. I didn’t have a thought of my own.
Betsy scooped up her playing cards. “You can play cards,” she said. “I’ll do some homework.” She got up and went to
I picked my cards up, too, and ran to my bedroom. I grabbed my book bag and dashed back to the dining-room table before Betsy had returned. I took out a clean sheet of paper and a book.
When Betsy returned she slapped her books down on the table. “Copycat,” she sneered. She spread her homework out while I copied a page from my history book. After a while I peeked up at her to see what she was doing. She was writing a letter to a friend. It occurred to me that I should be writing a letter to a friend. Then I noticed that she was writing differently than usual. Her handwriting slanted to the left instead of to the right. I thought it was a neat idea and so I started to do it, too. I was peeking up at her again to see if I was missing out on some new trick when she saw me.
“You’re copying my new handwriting,” she said. “I caught you.”
“I am not,” I cried. She snapped up my paper before I could grab her hand. “Give it back,” I hollered. “I’ll call Mom.”
“Call her,” Betsy said calmly, “so I can show her what a moron you are. Not only are you copying my handwriting but you are copying your homework word for word out of the book. A trained monkey could do what you do.”
“Leave me alone,” I said.
“Gladly.” She sighed and gathered up her books. “If you try to follow me into my room, I’ll knock you cold and sell you to a zoo.”
I didn’t care what she said. I was excited with the new handwriting style. It seemed to work really well for me. My letters were clear and I thought I was writing faster. I couldn’t wait to try it out in class.
The next morning I got up early and started to get dressed. Everyone at school was wearing blue jeans and T-shirts. But Mom had other ideas. At the beginning of the school year she took me to Sears and bought five new pairs of slacks, five matching shirts, five pairs of matching socks, and a pair of brown lace-up shoes. Then she organized my closet so that on Monday I wore the green slacks and green-and-yellow plaid shirt with green socks. On Tuesday, I wore the brown slacks with the brown-and-white stripes and brown socks. This was Friday, so I put on my blue slacks and the blue-and-white checkered shirt with dark blue socks. Getting dressed was like being on an assembly line. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to pick out my own clothes. Mom said it had nothing to do with being old enough. “When you can pay for them,” she said, “you can wear whatever you want. You can go to class dressed in a clown suit.”
Today I’m going to have an idea of my own, I promised myself as I rode my bike to school. I’m not going to copy Betsy. I’m going to do exactly what I want to do, no matter what anyone thinks of me. I can either be a copycat for the rest of my life or I can be a one-of-a-kind.
I passed the drive-in theater at the end of our street. They showed only old movies and The Sound of Music was still playing. It was playing when we moved into the neighborhood, and that was four months ago. On some nights when the wind was blowing just right, I could hear the music through my bedroom window. Because of that movie, I caught myself singing, “… The hills are alive . . .” about a million times a day. I heard it in my brain when I was sitting in class. I heard it when I was playing kickball. I heard it when I was eating breakfast. I hated that movie. Maybe that’s why I don’t have an original thought in my head, I guessed. I’m being brainwashed by that movie all night long.
I got to school early. The place looked as strange as ever. It was made out of eight separate rectangular wooden trailers. There was one trailer for each grade, first through sixth. One trailer was for the office and one trailer was split in half for the girls’ and boys’ bathrooms. All the trailers were fitted with wheels and the entire school could be pulled away in the middle of the night. I could imagine all of us arriving one morning to find nothing but the asphalt paths left behind in the sandy field which was hot and large as a desert.
When Mrs. Marshall gave us the order to “start copying,” I was ready for her. My new slant-to-the-left handwriting was faster. As she circled the room I was almost right behind her. And because I wasn’t so afraid of being overlapped by her all the time, I could think about what I was writing. The Egyptians were great. Maybe I’ll be an archaeologist when I grow up and study ancient Egypt, I thought. That was an original idea for me.
I went home for lunch and unlocked my diary with the key I kept around my neck. Yesterday I had scrawled above a line of flattened ants that I was “the stupidest kid on the planet.” Today I wrote: “There is hope for me after all.” The discovery of my new slant-left writing would change my life, like the discovery of electricity had changed the world, I decided. I closed the diary and heard the delicious crunching of a juicy palmetto bug that hadn’t yet dried out.
At the end of the week, Mrs. Marshall collected our copybooks. I was excited because I had almost kept up with her the last two days, now that I was using my new handwriting. I expected praise for doing better. Maybe she’d even make me an honor student.
On Monday morning Mrs. Marshall handed out the copybooks. I flipped through the pages, and when I reached my new writing, I saw a big red X across every page. “DO YOUR OWN WORK,” she had written. “SEE ME AFTER CLASS. My heart was pounding. I tried not to cry, but I could feel the tears filling my eyes. I put my head down on my desk as Mrs. Marshall began to draw lines around the room.
At lunchtime I waited until everyone left the classroom before I went up to her desk.
“I don’t respect cheaters,” she said to me.
“But I did write this,” I protested. “I changed my writing.”
“Don’t argue with me,” she replied, “I’ve already made up my mind. I don’t know who copied this into your book, but you can’t fool me.”
I didn’t know what else to say. I was being cheated by my teacher and there was nothing I could do about it. I turned and walked to my desk.
“I expect from now on you’ll do your own work,” she scolded. “Let this be a lesson to you.”
The rest of the afternoon I copied her as best I could in my old handwriting. She overlapped me five times. I imagined myself failing sixth grade because I was unable to write fast enough. Betsy was right. A trained monkey could do what I do, only better.
When I returned home I went straight to Betsy’s bedroom.
“You’ve got to help me,” I blurted out. “Look at this.” I opened the notebook and showed her Mrs. Marshall’s comments.
“Well, that’s what you get for being a copycat,” she said.
“But I did do the work,” I cried.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked.
“Write her a note and tell her I copied you,” I begged.
“She’ll believe you.”
“I’m not your mother,” said Betsy. “You copied me, now suffer the consequences.”
“But I promise never to copy you again. Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“Even your promises are copies of promises,” she said scornfully. “Beat it.”
I retreated to my bedroom. I thought I could take a book and copy it in my new handwriting and prove to Mrs. Marshall that it was my work. But she could say someone else had done it, and fail me. I knew what I had to do. I unlocked my diary and with my new handwriting began to write down anything that came into my mind. I wrote between the bugs and stamps and cards and fortunes. At first, my writing didn’t make sense. No two sentences had much in common. Then I suddenly began to write out all the lyrics to The Sound of Music. There were a lot of those songs stuck in my head. After I cleared them out, I settled down and started to write all about my lousy school year.
I woke up early and caught myself humming a few bars from The Sound of Music as I got dressed. It didn’t seem to bother me as much.
I rode my bike up to the classroom door. Mrs. Marshall was in the back of the classroom washing out her white cotton gloves, and hanging them across a line she had strung over the sink.
“You’re awfully early,” she said, turning to look at me as she dried her hands on a towel.
“I wanted to talk privately with you,” I said.
“I thought you might,” she replied.
“This is my diary,” I said and handed it to her. “I’m the only one with a key.” I removed the string with the key on it from around my neck and held it out for her. “Go ahead and open it,” I said. “You’ll see my handwriting is the same.”
She unlocked it. The pages fanned open and stopped at a gummy mouse skin I had peeled off the street. It still smelled fresh. “That’s disgusting!” she cried and dropped the book.
“But you can see my new handwriting,” I said, retrieving the book. I held it open for her. “See, it slants left.”
She glanced at it. “Yes,” she snapped. “It’s the same. Now go take your seat.”
I sat down and flipped open the diary. It would be fifteen minutes or so before kids started filing in. I turned to a page with a squished beetle. I drew curly hair on it like Mrs. Marshall’s. I added little white gloves on its arms and legs. I put a stick of chalk in each hand. I drew a blackboard covered with lines, and between the lines I wrote, in my new handwriting, “I won. I won. I won.”