The Essay Contest
When Ms. Stavropoulos suggested that he enter the Junior Essay contest in front of the class, Eddie Brown was astonished, embarrassed, and wary. He didn’t know how to react to being singled out for excellence. He was never singled out except for sullenness and anger.
For once he wasn’t angry or sullen, exactly. Ms. S told the entire class – the entire class, out loud, without the least bit of irony – that Eddie was the best writer in hers, the second-best English class in the school. Every kid’s jealous eyes were upon him. They looked none too pleased with their exacting teacher, either. Several let out gasps of scorn and/or indignation.
Not everyone was incensed by the teacher’s statement. Gilberto Espinosa was happy for him and sounded a little cheer from the back of the room. But Gilberto was a nobody like Eddie; they called him “the Rican”, although he was far from being a Puerto Rican, but he was a Brazilian with a mulatto tinge. And unlike Eddie, he didn’t take the city bus to school but drove his new red BMW.
But what shocked Eddie the most was that he believed Ms. Stavropoulos didn’t like him, that she thought he was a lower-class impostor in an upper-middle-class world – a shifty thug who wore a bitter expression every day, as if someone had crossed him and let him down hard. Eddie lived in a slowly decaying neighborhood south of US 1 and came from a family and social world that valued loyalty far above excellence. They affected a ghetto style of dress and life, which included copious tattoos and piercings. These two habits Eddie did without; the Educated Man wouldn’t be marked by them.
While Eddie was lost in his internal storm of confusion, Ms. S was explaining that the Junior Essay was prestigious and more than just an honor. A $2000 scholarship came with it, “which is something some students badly need to pay for at least part of their freshman-year tuition in college. I must tell you that the prize virtually guarantees admission to their college of choice in the SUNY system.”
Several lips curled at this. Only the class dullards aspired to a state university. Anyway, almost all of the students could afford to go wherever they got in: Amherst, Sarah Lawrence, Cornell, and so on.
At the end of the period, Eddie stalked by Ms. Stavropoulos’ desk. She stopped him. “Mr. Brown, stay a minute. I suppose you’re wondering why I made the announcement in front of the whole class. I wanted everyone to know that they aren’t the only ones with talent and brains.”
Eddie’s reflexive cynicism rose up and roared. “So I’m an example. A worthy case. Like the neediest at Christmas time.” Lines bitterly delivered.
She looked wryly at him, “I was like you. My parents were poor immigrants from Greece.”
“My parents were born in Brooklyn.”
His teacher persevered. “I worked hard in school and received no encouragement. I needed it. You need it. And, by the way, I’ll be hearing about this from the dreaded Mr. Duhamel, not to mention some irate parents. Tough.” Duhamel was the English department chairman, no small position in a high school with over 3000 students and some of the most demanding parents this side of Shanghai.
Eddie hovered between disdain and self-adoration. His eloquent response was to grunt and leave the room.
At this point Eddie had the first tangible promise that he, too, might enter into the rarefied world of the Educated Man, comfortable in the realm of ideas with an Olympian perspective on the sweep of history, wise and kind to all but utter fools. He saw himself discussing big ideas in paneled libraries, sipping sherry with the best of them. This was what he wanted. Not riches, nor the adulation of the mob. The respect of other intelligent people, and entry into their frictionless world.
These vague longtime yearnings now, all of a sudden, became so real to him that he almost tasted the sherry, although he had no idea how sherry tasted. His desire swept over him like a tidal wave.
It was last period on Friday. Gilberto was waiting for him on the first floor. “Cool, Edoardo. You killin’ it, man. My man Eddie, the great author.” They exchanged an elaborate handshake that was inspired by a movie about the ghetto five miles away in the Bronx. “You see that pickle face on that bitch Natalie Greenstone? Fuck her.” They pounded each other on the back and laughed too loud in the well-bred hallway.
They cruised around Westchester in the new BMW until Eddie said, “I gotta go to work now.” He was a stock boy in a shoe store, where most of his time was spent reshelving too-small women’s shoes.
“Okay. See you at ten. Let’s celebrate, man.”
Celebrating meant going to a secluded area behind the school’s tennis courts and drinking screwdrivers and smoking weed. Gilberto’s older brother got him booze and mixers for a weed fee. A couple of other misfits would be recruited for the celebration. Eddie said, “I’ll need it.”
A pair of losers from the third-best English class joined them and Gilberto talked idly with them. Eddie wasn’t in the moment. He was thinking about the glory of winning the essay contest and doors opening wide to admit him to a good college where he could brush off the dust of his crappy upbringing, scrub the stain of his upper lower class life, and replace the thuggish clothes and deplorable accent that marked him as an outsider in his affluent, preppy suburb. The world of the Educated Man beckoned.
“God knows I’m ready,” he declared, woozy with weed and booze. “I’m gonna show these fuckers Eddie Brown is a man to be reckoned with.” Assuming what he thought was an English accent he declared, “They shall rue the flippin’ dye that they scorned Edward T. Brown.” And he thought of all the thousands of hours he’d spent, despite the jeers of the neighborhood kids and his family, buried in the public library, reading omnivorously and constructing his own thought-world. It was finally paying off.
Eddie’s big secret was that he had a strong streak of spirituality in his nature. He had read the great mystics of Christianity, although the Browns were so lapsed in their Catholicism they couldn’t have named the current Pope and which Roman numerals followed his name. Even so, Eddie derived great insights into the nature of humanity from these explorations. He explored the well-known mystics of other traditions, like Rumi and the Buddha, and he concluded that there was a hunger for such things in every human being. Of course, he did wonder if he wasn’t being too generous of his assessment of every human being. A hard-up life had taught him not to expect much from anybody but, guaranteed, a raft of shit. But he considered that he was seeing through a glass a bit too darkly.
“My own limited experience shouldn’t warp me,” he admonished himself. His confusion was always how much or little to trust himself. Being stoned provided evanescent clarity.
Gilberto dropped Eddie at home around six in the morning. Eddie slept the sleep of inebriated youth until three.
Dropping the news at home was tricky. Depending on his mother’s mood and the behavior of his siblings, Eddie could be greeted by a shriek of pride in her oldest child, or a brusque, “Vacuum the goddamn living room.” His father, one of the few failed plumbers in North America, would be in the crummy little den, maximum occupancy 1, watching a sporting event, half in the bag. If he responded at all, it would be with a surly, “So you think you’re better than me.” Eddie always wanted to say yes but valued his life more than that.
His mother was in a good phase of her bipolarity and exclaimed, “I think you’re headed for college. Eddie, honey, I’m proud of you.” She was mopping the kitchen floor and actually smiled at him. This was high praise from a woman who was noted for saying, “You’ll never be smarter than your fuckin’ cousin Michael.” Michael was a claims adjuster for an insurance company in Albany. Of Michael Eddie would say, Ah, Mr. Michael Brown, the most trenchant writer of claims reports in three counties.” Even his father would laugh; he bitched that that Michael thought he was better than everyone else.
Eddie’s faith in himself was almost restored – no, not restored -- created out of the thin air of Ms. S’s public praise.
On Monday the junior class was abuzz over Ms. S’s unseemly singling out of one student – Eddie Brown!!!!!!!???????? OMFG as the girls texted – and Eddie himself saw a few grim-faced parents leaving the principal’s office. This pleased him to a degree, although it did not please him when he saw the chairman of the English department, Mr. Duhamel, leaving Ms. S’s classroom with a stern, stern face. He turned toward Eddie and got sterner.
“Oh, it’s all right,” his teacher told him. “The chairman and I often don’t see eye to eye.” She was shaken though. It looked like suppressed fury to Eddie.
The dismay and merriment over the Crowning of Eddie, as Larry Goldman in the best English class (Duhamel’s) dubbed it, had died down by the day of the essay contest. The contest was conducted with no fanfare. At 3 o’clock the seven students selected for the honor went to Mr. Duhamel’s classroom and sat down well apart from each another.
One of them was Larry Goldman himself, whose many honors included being class president, president of the math club, president of the French club, president of the fencing club, captain of the lacrosse and golf teams, and, Eddie thought, shoo-in for the next governor of New York. He was bound for Harvard, accepted under early admissions, the object of admiration of Harvard itself in the form of a full scholarship. He was from a prosperous but not rich family, so the rich kids, in awe of his intelligence and accomplishments, called him pure and righteous in his modest demeanor and omnicompetence. He drove to school in his mom’s old Honda Accord.
Larry was fond of paraphrasing his father, saying, “School is my job. I intend to excel in every job I undertake – always.”
“What a stuffed shirt,” Gilberto remarked after one of Larry’s aw-shucks self-congratulations. Eddie didn’t feel threatened by him. He imagined Larry, who aspired to be a corporate lawyer, would fill his essay with bullet points and therefores and howsoevers.
Once the blue books had been distributed, Mr. Duhamel wrote the topic on the board:
With all the violence and misery in the world, what place, if any, does human happiness have?
The chairman also squeezed Goldman’s shoulder, which Eddie saw but didn’t register.
Eddie grinned internally and thought, “Playing into my hands!” He began with an explication of the mystic paradoxes in Jesus’ parables and went on to show the same types of paradox which imbued the writings of the Christian mystics, with special emphasis on St. John of the Cross. He dove into the subject with brio and wrote an ascending series of contrasts that tied together strands of several faith traditions, with appropriate quotes that could be fact-checked, culminating in an elevated awareness of the oneness of all existence, the living and the dead, and “the snow was general over Ireland” – he had to drag Joyce into it. He made sure it didn’t get too airy-fairy, because he tempered everything with the class-consciousness that spoke of societal limitations and expectations, which could sometimes, only at humanity’s best moments, be transcended. His primary metaphor was the contrast between the beauty of the Manhattan skyline at night and the weary, dirty lives that were lived under the glittering façade, concluded with the snow that blanketed Ireland.
Eddie wrote in a fever of inspiration and concluded his work with half an hour to go. This included lengthy moments of staring into the abyss of the self. Larry Goldman – who was, Eddie believed, called a swot in England – scribbled diligently for the entire two hours. Eddie almost felt sorry for him.
He walked all the way to his job, elated, exalted, proud of his work. For the first time in his life, he was powerful with success.
The winner of the contest was supposed to be announced on Wednesday. It caused a little stir when the day passed without any mention of it. Eddie didn’t really notice; he was in a state of high excitement. He was already counting the scholarship money. He saw himself at SUNY Binghamton or – dare he dream so high? – at a choice liberal arts college like Bowdoin.
“Why not?” he asked himself. “Maybe I’ll get some recognition for a change.”
In the corridor he watched Mr. Duhamel and Larry Goldman walk along together, side by side, almost as equals. They saw Eddie and actually raised their noses in the air, just like in the old movies his mother watched while she peeled potatoes for the family slop. Eddie was amused and thought, “Seems like they’re holding hands.”
On Friday the results of the essay contest were finally to be announced. Eddie observed Larry: he walked around the place with a modesty Eddie saw as antagonism. The junior class was squarely behind Mr. Harvard-bound, which their eyes and body language made crushingly clear. “We know you’ll win, Larry!” they all cried. “Go Harvard!”
Now Ms. Stavropoulos spoke with fire in her green eyes. “All the readers – other teachers in the department plus a well-known writer who lives in town -- judged that Mr. Brown’s essay was the most successfully ambitious piece of work. They couldn’t believe that such an authoritative voice was that of a junior in high school. The content and brilliance of expression were very impressive to them indeed. The vote for him was unanimous.”
Eddie was on his guard. He suddenly remembered the Duhamel squeeze on the Goldman shoulder. He heard the next sentence before it was spoken. His eager face took on its usual sullenness. He slumped carelessly in his seat.
Change of tone and expression from Ms. Stavropoulos too. “However, the winner is Mr. Goldman, who, as you may know by now, has been accepted at Harvard.” Slight pause. “Mr. Duhamel is the chairman of the department, so his decision was, of course, final. His judgment was based on the undeniable fact that Mr. Goldman is the fabled All-Round Student we hear so much about.“
A number of Eddie’s classmates exclaimed, “Oh no! That isn’t right!” Natalie Greenstone was one of them. She sat directly in front of him. She turned around and muttered, “That sucks, Eddie.” He glared straight ahead at the wainscoting beneath the blackboard.
Eddie felt nothing but contempt for himself and his ridiculous imaginings. And for the rigged system. Because he was bitter. Bitter past all bounds. Eddie’s late-built self-regard and his modest dreams of glory toppled into Long Island Sound. If he could go to a community college he’d be lucky. His vision of entering into the world of the Educated Man was drowning with an image of himself flailing at the waves. He realized, before he went below the waves for the last time, that he could get a plumbing apprenticeship and join his father in the business, to save it and act as his shiftless family’s redeemer.
“Fuck that,” he told himself. “They can take care of themselves.” The plumbing business, dying, wasn’t going to take him down. He briefly considered asking cousin Michael to help him find work. Very briefly. No, not a serious consideration. All the possibilities that came to mind were things he was bent on escaping.
He raged on within himself in a turmoil of ugly and wounded emotion. He burned with shame. In his mind he meted out terrible punishments to his enemies. Oh he would smite them and call them to account on Judgment Day, maybe next Friday, just to ruin their fucking weekend. They had made him small and valueless. He knew it was true, and they were the dread prophets of his destiny.
What stuck in Eddie’s craw was that Larry didn’t need this additional feather in his cap – it was festooned enough already. He thought, “Another pointless honor for Larry.” And Eddie was incensed: “He doesn’t even need the money.”
Eddie wore his customary scowl, and slumped down in his seat. He was unable to listen or even hear as Ms. Stavropoulos guided the class into a dissection of the leitmotifs of betrayal in The Heart of Darkness. She glanced at him with an almost sympathetic irony. This Eddie caught, and he loathed her the most.