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Name or Date
Max slumped over a worksheet in his first reading and writing class of the academic year. The 5th grade class room was lit with florescent lights that spread a dull, green gloom across the room. Vibrant posters, painting pictures of other cultures and times, clung to the walls. A poster of a Spartan warrior stared down at him. The launch of Apollo 11 was taped behind him. No one spoke; everyone was writing, but Max. He still felt like a small, anxious fourth grader in this fifth grade room. He hoped fifth grade would not be a repeat of fourth. He did not want to be the angry, uncontrollable, problem child anymore.
All Max could hear were pencils scratching at paper. Max’s pencil hovered over the top, left corner of the paper. Did that say ‘name’ or ‘date’? All Max saw was: TJKE.
Max glanced quickly around the room. His teacher, Ms. Keegan, was slowly pacing, circling tables, and leaning over students. Her motion reminded Max of a hungry egret hunting for minnows in a shallow pool of murky water. Max hoped she wouldn’t come over toward him—he could already feel her dry breath, tainted by cigarettes, creep over his face and neck. If Ms. Keegan saw his blank sheet, she would lecture him on being distracted.
Oh god, I will not start fifth grade being trouble. I can, I will, behave. Max’s face was burning with concentration; his head ached from trying to decipher a simple word. His stomached knotted with frustration and impatience.
Why can’t I read?! He turned his head from side to side, trying to get a different angle on the word. Suppressed anger bubbled inside of Max. Don’t snap. His face was as still as a statue, but his toes squirmed in his clean socks under the table out of sight—a quiet release of mounting tension.
This must be what an ant, burned by a magnifying glass, feels like. He caught the ferocious eyes of the still warrior on the poster eyeing him. His imagination lifted him away from Ms. Keegan and the florescent lights, and dropped him on another battlefield.
It was war. The enemy, the instructions on the page, faced off against Max, the Spartan, in his imagination. Max stood clad in armor and spears. A dusty red plain stretched out before him; the burning sun crackled in the west. Herds of strange, foreign beasts galloped through fields of tall, swaying grass. Max’s 11-year-old mind buzzed from exhaustion, but he still wanted to fight the word. Max sprang at the word, spear ready. His armor glinted in the last of the sun’s rays. Max struck the word with his spear, but the word still stood; Max punched and kicked the unreadable word, rung its vowel neck; Max stabbed the word in its long vowel syllable; Max drove his spear through its silent e.
Once the billowing cloud of red dust settled, Max stood sweating, victorious over the word—it was only ‘name’. He positioned his pen over the paper, ready to try to write Max Csikszentmihalyi— Wait? Does that start with a K? A Ch?. In his reverie, Max grabbed his spear and shield, preparing to battle his last name.
“Ok, let’s grab our books and open them up to page 5. It’s time for some in-class reading,” Ms. Keegan announced. Half of Max’s mind still lingered in his imagination as he pushed his worksheet aside.
Recovering from his daydream, Max was excited to begin The Lightning Thief, because his favorite book-on-tape was D’Aualaires’ Book of Greek Myths. He opened his copy of The Lightning Thief, (he had to count five pages in) and studied the words before him. The words running across the page swirled and danced in color, but he could derive no meaning from the letters. Max widened his eyes, searching for meaning among the moving clusters of syllables. The words taunted him, dangling their meaning just out of reach. He felt blood rush to his face, and warm tears stung his eyes. Max struggled to keep his face straight. He wanted to show no weakness like a brave Spartan warrior. Did warriors every cry before war?
Ms. Keegan’s voice, calling on students to read out loud, trickled into one of Max’s ears, but then dripped out the other. His brain absorbed none of her words. He was too occupied trying to find the place where the class was reading. His eyes skimmed over meaningless symbols:
Oyafn tuhnat kanuufnsd waf urglshfosldg. Habgsdhoue ufidns lokdhsudg shhsd.
Max’s heart raced. He thought that reading class was synonymous with being dropped into the middle of a forest and having to find his way home. His gaze darted from paragraph to paragraph, looking for clues; the movement of his eyes was as desperate as a fly trying to escape from behind a window.
“Max, why don’t you continue? ” Ms. Keegan’s voice fell over Max like a wool blanket. I can’t read this.
“I…I…” Max, as if possessed, grabbed his work sheet and crumpled it, ashamed. His hand squeezed the paper so hard that his knuckles turned white. As if his chair were slippery soap, Max slipped from it, but his feet caught him. He ran through the green doorway of the class room, not noticing his two hands twisting to open the heavy green door. His small, pink hands had a life of their own. His feet pummeled the ground in front of him. He ran through the empty hallway—his pounding footsteps drowned the sound of his heaving breath. Red shoe laces franticly wiggled around his sketchers. His pointy elbows pumped the air. As he ran, Max felt the cool wind blow his warm tears into his hairline.
He pivoted around a corner, flung open the door that said KLG, and ran him into the bathroom. There, he crumpled to the floor. He laid his face against the cold tiles of the bathroom; his red cheeks burned. The cold of the tiles seeped through his clothes to his skin—cold shivers shook his trembling body.
I am like a barnacle stuck to the cold side of a ship. The still ground comforted and calmed his spinning head. Max’s mind finally caught up with his impulsive body. What did I just do? I can’t go back. I would rather spend all of fifth grade in the boys’ bathroom than embarrass myself. Maybe I’ll never be able to read. Were Spartan warriors required to read? Do I really have to know how to read? To write? I could spend my whole life telling Greek stories. All I need to be able to do is listen. Listen and Speak. Anyway, what’s so great about reading a book, when I have heard hundreds of books on tape? Max let out a deep, overdue sigh. He breathed out all the words he tried to spell, decode, understand, and beat.
Max sat up; embers of motivation sizzled in his stomach. He stood up; his sketchers lit up as they hit the ground.
His purpose was clear. He knew that he couldn’t trap himself in a classroom anymore. He didn’t even have to be a Spartan warrior. He could escape those battlefields to explore a limitless frontier. He imagined a rocket pack strapped to his back and flew out the door of the boys’ bathroom. He zoomed though the hallways, past classrooms of bored, smarter kids, and away from teachers stuck on teaching only one way. He didn’t care if he was stupid anymore because he could run way from it. He saw his destination: the main doorway of the school.
I am Apollo 11 about to leave the confines of the atmosphere; I am headed to the moon. Max broke through the door and kept running. Pedestrians might have seen a shaggy brown haired little boy with his chest arched forward, back straight, wearing light up sketchers galloping down the sidewalk headed toward Main Street. But Max knew he was a rocket ship headed out and away.