I heard the kid was good, really good. A machine. A once in a lifetime prospect. In my twenty years as a scout, I have seen some great ones. Some have made it to New York or LA. Sure, I’ve seen my share of busted pencil tips, a mixed metaphor here, a malapropism there, a purple patch of prose everywhere, but this kid? Passive voice? Are you kidding me? Stilted dialogue? Get the heck outta here! My hunch was this kid was the next Babe Ruth of Literature.
When I’m scouting I usually stay outside the margins. Nobody notices me until I make an offer. I’m the one casually ordering a Perrier in the lobby during intermission. I’m the one chatting on motifs at the urinal before a poetry recital. I’m the uncle from Virginia visiting for the day to hear “this thing my nephew wrote.” That sort of banter. It has all the elements of a spy network, but we’re not Germany and Russia and the United States—we’re your Princeton and Yale and Harvard.
And we’re after the most literate of the Literati.
I was getting weekly updates on the kid’s stats: from the principal, from the teachers, his SAT coaches, and they all said the same thing: you need to see this kid quick. “He’s a dynamo, a juggernaut,” one gushed. “I haven’t read metaphors this translucent since Whitman,” another wrote me. Another teacher exclaimed, “His allusions to the ancient gods are reminiscent to John Keats. How many John Keats have there been?”
Now, I do realize these are high school English teachers. We’re not talking Princeton professors or New Yorker editors. So I slipped some of his copy to someone really in the know… his Eminence at Yale, Professor Harold Bloom. He texted me: “He prose was made by the wings of a butterfly. He is the reincarnated F. Scott Fitzgerald! Please keep him away from Princeton! Land this sucker!”
So on a Monday morning, I slipped onto the Jersey Turnpike, headed south into the bowels of some provincial suburb. The kid’s English class was during period 3. Dressed like a typical teenager, a dark blue hoodie, brown suede corduroys, and tan Tom’s, I lingered outside the classroom window. A rather large hedge concealed me. His teacher on the DL slipped through the window samples of his recent work. “Ad Hominem Gone Awry: A Case For Attacking the Man if the Man is Chris Christie.” “An Ode to Hurricane Sandy Relief.” “Give Free Drugs to Anyone Who Wants Them: A Modest Proposal.”
His AP score? Need you ask? His SAT reading and writing? Just shy of perfection to showcase his humanity and creativity. And essay contests? Staples’ “Ode to Business” Award, Hallmark’s “Moments with Step-Mom”, and the Ayn Rand Foundation’s contest, “Why Atlas Shrugged is the Most Influential Book of All Time.”
And that was just this week.
The class was having a debate on the merits of Thoreau’s Walden. The kid prowled the classroom like a young Clarence Darrow. “What we have here, my young scholars, is a classic case of affluenza. Nay, this isn’t some recent phenom—as we have all seen daily in the hallways of our esteemed institution. Henry David Thoreau was just a mere rich boy from Harvard who didn’t want to work. Who does that sound like? Look around!”
At the end of his Aristotelian oration, the class gave him a standing ovation. As the bell rang and the class collected their materials, the teacher pulled him aside and brought him to the window.
“I have someone very important I want you to meet,” she said. “But you can’t see him.”
“Jake,” I whispered. “Jake, some very influential people have been watching you. And let me say, they’ve been very impressed.”
“I know,” he replied. “Ithaca was here earlier this week.”
“Ithaca!” I stammered. “Minor leagues. Oh, boy, you can do much better than Ithaca!”
“They’re offering a full ride plus my own private freshman suite,” he said.
“Middlebury was also here last week,” the teacher said. “Offered him free courses at Breadloaf Conference.”
That did impress me. “Has Harvard been to see you? Columbia? . . . Princeton?”
“I really can’t say,” Jake said slyly. “Maybe they have. Maybe they haven’t.”
“I can guarantee you personal access to Louise Glück at least once a week.”
“If you can get me weekly access to Téa Obreht, then I’ll consider. That’s what NYU promised. And she’s a babe!” he said.
“Listen, I’ll make some calls about Téa. But you’ll need to get those math scores up,” I told him. “What happens in math class?”
“When I hear the learned math teacher discuss balancing equations, I just drift into the netherworld and compose lengthy verse of the nature of verisimilitude, and I wander into the courtyard, and contemplate my place in the universe.”
“Well, that’s not helping your math SAT scores.”
“I don’t think Shakespeare would have given two East End whores about math!”
“But you’re not Shakespeare.”
“Have you read the reviews of my play, The Tragedy of Mr. Mackerel?”
“Of course, in the New York Times.”
“And what did Charles Isherwood say?”
“That no one since the Bard has dared to pen such blank verse in iambic pentameter until now.”
“And the pathos?”
“Something akin to Lear, yes, but these grades in phys ed,” I exclaimed. “Why a D in phys ed?”
“We have to work in teams,” he said. “And sweat. If Shakespeare was a team player, he wouldn’t be Shakespeare, but a nameless ‘collaborator.’ Egads! Can you imagine?”
“Listen, I know scouts will be blowing smoke up your ass to try to get you to commit, but I can’t let that happen. We want you to visit. We will supply you with a personalized physical education trainer and a professor of mathematics to get those grades up. All expenses paid. It’s a good thing we don’t have to comply with the NCAA, huh? We’ll show you around in style. Do you realize just how popular you’ll be with the ladies on campus?”
He hesitated. Then he asked, “Could you arrange my sensei to be none other than His Holiness, Professor Harold Bloom?”
I smiled. I had my man. “I believe he already has plans on penning a new essay welcoming you to the American Canon. Welcome to Yale. I greet you on the beginning of a fruitful career.”
Walter Bowne’s work has been published in The Satirist, The Yellow Ham, Monkeybicycle, The Big Jewel, Points in Case, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Even more of his work can be found at walterbowne.com.
Painting by unknown artist (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A16th-century_unknown_painters_-_Allegorical_Portrait_of_Dante_-_WGA23943.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.