My Life as a Stuntboy
By Janet Tashjian, Jake Tashjian
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2011 Janet Tashjian
All rights reserved.
THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL IS always the worst day of the year. It's like some crazy surgeon throws you on an operating table and removes a major organ from your chest called summer. He doesn't realize how much a kid needs that organ, as much as a liver or a spleen.
I feel almost bruised being back at school, and I haven't even made it to class yet. Maybe if I go to the nurse, she'll take pity on me and hook me up to an emergency life support system. But before I can make any last wishes, my friend Matt punches me in the arm and jolts me back from my daytime nightmare.
"This year definitely won't be as bad as the others." Matt realizes the price tag is hanging from the sleeve of his shirt so he yanks it off as we talk.
When we found out we would have Mr. Maroni this year, Matt and I were almost excited about school.
"It'll be great to finally have a guy teacher — I've never had one." I imagine a school filled with male teachers, couches, potato chips, and flat-screen TVs.
Matt shakes me from my reverie by making a buzzing noise like they use on game shows to get rid of a losing contestant. "They just announced that Mr. Maroni's father died two days ago, and Mr. Maroni is moving to Cincinnati to take care of his mother."
"WHAT?" The first day of school is bad enough without getting hit with a massive curveball while you're still at your locker.
"Want to know who we have instead?" Matt asks.
I can't even begin to guess who'll be the master of my universe this year.
It's not that I dislike Ms. McCoddle — she's nice, young, and has super-blond hair — but Matt and I had her way back in kindergarten, and even though we're totally grown up now, she still thinks of us as kids. It was fine when we were five and she told us to call her Ms. McCuddles and hugged us when we fell during recess, but now we're almost embarrassed when we see her in the hall.
I try to analyze our new situation. "Option one — Ms. McCoddle is easy on us since she's used to dealing with little kids, and we won't have to plug in our brains all year."
Matt offers a different opinion. "Option two — she tries to make up for being a kindergarten teacher by being super hard on us."
"The one year we're supposed to get a guy teacher — figures something would happen to mess it up."
Our worst fears are realized when Ms. McCoddle walks by. "Derek! Matt! Did you hear the good news?"
We look down at our sneakers and nod.
"I'm setting up the mats and juice boxes now. Want to help?"
Matt and I stare at her like she's just asked us to run over the principal with our skateboards.
Ms. McCoddle laughs so hard, she snorts. "I'm kidding! We're starting right in on the Civil War. Get ready for some fierce discussion."
We watch her walk down the hall with a feeling of dread.
"Option two is officially in effect," Matt says.
I barely hear him because I'm halfway down the hall, looking for the janitor, hoping he'll agree to knock me on the head with a mallet to put me out of my misery.
Woe is Me
Carly and Maria are climbing out of their skins with joy. They had Ms. McCoddle back in kindergarten too and now hover around her desk like seagulls down at the pier looking for leftover food to grab.
The decorations in Mr. Maroni's classroom only make me miss him more. Photos of astronauts, bridges, gorillas, and fighting soldiers remind me how Matt and I were foiled by the school gods who insist on our continued suffering. I try to comfort myself by sneaking a peek at the Calvin and Hobbes book hidden in my desk, but even my favorite fictional friends can't jolt me out of my sadness today.
Ms. McCoddle tells the class she's wanted to move up to our grade for several years and Mr. Maroni's leave of absence will give her a chance to fulfill her dreams. I have dreams too — but mine consist of staring out the window and thinking about escaping. When I look over at Matt, he seems to be doing the same thing.
Ms. McCoddle spends the first half hour talking about how she'll run the class, then sends us to the media center to choose a book for our free-reading time. As I head out the door, she pulls me aside.
"Ms. Williams told me how you used to illustrate your vocabulary words — are you still doing that?"
I tell her that Ms. Williams, the reading specialist, and my mother both forced me into it, but now it's a habit I almost enjoy. When I show Ms. McCoddle some of the illustrations I did this week, she thankfully does not get all cuddly but just nods her approval.
Joe, who has been torturing me since first grade, waits for me in the hall.
"Trying to get in good with the new teacher by showing her your stupid little stick figures?"
I want to tell Joe he might take some diet tips from my stick figures, but I don't feel like getting thrown into the school trophy cabinet.
"Anime — now those are real drawings." He shoves the book he's just taken out of the library into my face.
I realize I'm taking my life in my hands by correcting Joe, but I feel I have to. "Actually, anime is when the drawing moves," I explain, "like a cartoon or movie. You know, like 'animate.' It's called manga when it's a book. You should ask Matt — he's an expert."
Joe looks like someone has just dropped a baby grand piano on top of his crew-cut head. He searches his cobwebbed mind for words but comes up short; if the guy hadn't been humiliating me for years, I'd almost feel bad for him.
"Since when did you get so smart?" Joe asks. "I liked you better when you were a moron."
I want to tell him that I'm not smart, that my grades are usually horrible, and every bit of homework is a struggle. But I'm too busy trying to digest the words I liked you better when. ... I thought Joe was my mortal enemy, and now he's telling me he's liked me all this time? What's the next surprise — one of the lunch ladies wants to meet me after school to climb trees?
Matt has checked out lots of manga books; when I look through the stack, I realize he's read all of them before. My mind implodes with the thought that someone would actually read a book from school more than once. I shake my head in amazement and wander to the next aisle.
I know most kids enjoy browsing through books in the media center, but it's always been one of my least favorite parts of school. Other students might glance through these shelves and be thrilled by all the different stories and characters; for me the spines of the books just stare back like a line of gangsters with machine guns loaded with ammunition. You think you can read us, tough guy? Go ahead and try — we'll crush you.
As I scan the books to find one with the shortest chapters and least number of pages, Carly appears beside me and points to the book in my hand.
"Don't get that one," she says. "The story's really slow, and the main character's boring."
She inspects the row of books in front of us and pulls out a volume. "This one's really funny — it's about a boy and his best friend. You'll like it."
I shrug and tuck it under my arm. I want to thank Carly for her help, but Maria and Denise are flittering around us like fireflies, and I need to get away from all that girl energy.
It feels like it's almost noon, but when I look at the clock, it's only nine thirty. Schools are on totally different time zones from the rest of the world; it's amazing how clocks slow down when they're hanging on a classroom wall. I'll have to ask Ms. Decker why we never study interesting things like that in science class.
What Gets Me trough the Day
When the bell finally rings, the teachers don't let you run out the door; they make you walk calmly, the same way convicts are forced to march around a prison yard.
By the time I race up my driveway, Bodi's instinct tells him I'm on my way, so he's pacing by the door. Because he's older, I'm gentler than I was a few years ago when I used to dive-bomb him in the doorway. I stick my face into his thick fur, hoping if I inhale enough dog smell, the stench of school will start to disappear. I can't do that for long, though, because Frank is jealous and starts jumping up and down in his cage.
I have a monkey!
Frank is the capuchin monkey my parents finally let us adopt a few months ago after they couldn't take me bugging them anymore. (For anyone who thinks hounding your parents for something day and night is a bad strategy, I'm here to tell you — it's tried and true and works 99 percent of the time.)
Now Mom has a permanent reason for nagging: She tells me ten times a day that Frank is not our "pet" and that we are his foster home until he's old enough to enter "monkey college," where he'll be trained as a companion for a disabled person.
I got the idea to adopt a monkey from my friend Michael, who's in a wheelchair and has a capuchin named Pedro who helps him with daily tasks like changing water bottles, picking up things from the floor, and putting in DVDs. Frank can't do any of that cool stuff yet, but I'm confident that one day he'll be as talented as Pedro.
Even though my mother doesn't want me to take Frank out of his cage when I'm home alone, I can't resist a monkey in a diaper who's bouncing up and down to greet me. I unlock his cage and hand him a treat from the bowl on the counter. Mom made me swear a thousand times that I'd help with Frank's daily maintenance, but I still don't bother to see if his diaper needs changing. I don't care what I promised, changing a monkey's diaper is definitely not on my to-do list — today or any other day. Luckily, the only smell is Frank's normal monkey aroma.
The monkey organization makes an applicant go through a lot of interviews, and Mom said if I really wanted to adopt a capuchin, I had to fill out the paperwork myself. The organization wanted to make sure people would be around during the day and were pleased that my mother's office is next door and that my father works from home. The fact that my mother is a veterinarian and has taken care of Pedro for years didn't hurt either.
Believe it or not, the main obstacle to adopting a monkey was ME — the person who wanted one most. The organization won't approve a foster family if the family has children under ten because monkeys are as much work as little kids and they don't want the foster parents to be overwhelmed.
I kept telling the woman I was twelve, which is TOTALLY different than ten, but she still needed to think about it. My mother used this as a perfect opportunity for a "teaching moment," reminding me how immature I can be half the time. I told her that if my math was correct — which is unusual — that meant I was mature the other half of the time, which was about all a mother could possibly hope for.
The woman finally relented and said we could be a foster family for Frank. One of the volunteers brought Frank to L.A. and helped him settle in with us. It's only been a month, but Frank already feels like part of the family.
Bodi, Frank, and I climb into the pit I made by shoving the couch, table, and armchair together, and I realize that daydreaming about this moment with my favorite mammals is pretty much the only reason I made it through school today.
Outside, Here I Come!
After hanging with the boys for a while, I put Frank back in his cage, give Bodi a slice of turkey from the fridge, and grab my skateboard. A few years ago, I would let Bodi run alongside me as I rode, but now I try to conserve his energy.
Matt meets me at the top of the street, and we ride to our new favorite place — UCLA.
Sure, the University of California at Los Angeles sounds like a weird place for two kids our age to go after school, but Matt and I don't go for the academics. This summer, while waiting for my mother to drop off some reports to a colleague, I discovered the college campus happened to be the most amazing playground in the city. I thought college meant studying day and night, but there were students everywhere riding bikes, skateboarding, and jogging through the campus. Since UCLA is just a few blocks from our neighborhood, Matt and I spent a lot of the summer there working on our moves.
Today we go to the marble stumps that are part of an art installation and we jump from one to another without stopping. After that, we leap to the wall of the parking garage and creep along the bricks, holding on with our fingertips. Matt just got a new camera with built-in video, so he takes plenty of movies of me climbing. Then he shows me how to use it, and I record him too. A few students stop to watch us as they go to class, but most of the time they leave us alone.
But the person watching us now is not a nerdy student; he's a campus security guard.
"You kids signed up for classes here?"
Based on his question, I expect to see a grin on his face, but when I jump down from the wall, he isn't smiling.
"What if you kids get hurt, then what? Are your parents here? Do you have any identification in case you fall and need to be rushed to the hospital?"
Does this guy really believe Matt and I plan that far ahead? Hel-lo! Just as we're about to leave, a guy sitting on a nearby wall comes over.
"Jerry, these boys aren't going to fall — they have better balance than you do."
The man seems a little older than a college student and looks leaner and faster than
athletes on TV.
"This campus is not a personal gymnasium — especially if people don't even go to school here." The guard looks over to Matt and me, but this time his expression doesn't seem so angry.
"Come on, Jerry, give the kids a break."
"Ahhh, I've got more important things to do anyway." When the guard leaves a few minutes later, he isn't angry at all.
I hold out my hand to the guy who saved our butts. He shakes it and introduces himself as Tony Marshall.
"You seem too old to go to school here," Matt says.
"I don't. I come here to do parkour."
Matt and I look at each other, utterly confused.
Tony laughs. "You kids are doing it already and don't even know what it's called." He puts down his backpack and in one leap jumps onto the side of the brick building behind us. He inches along the top by holding on to the thin strips of concrete.
Matt videotapes while I hold my breath. Tony jumps from the corner of the building to the post eight feet away. Instead of climbing down, he bounds from the post to the bench.
"Whoa!" Matt checks his camera to make sure the video came out.
I'm speechless. Why can't this guy be our teacher?
When we run over to the bench, Tony doesn't even seem out of breath. "That's what parkour is — getting around an obstacle as efficiently as possible."
"Who are you?" I ask. "Some kind of superhero?"
Tony laughs. "Better than that. I'm a stuntman."
Real Life Gets in the Way of All My Fun
Mom and Dad listen to me talk about Tony all through dinner, but by the time eight o'clock rolls around, they've reached their limit.
Mom changes the subject by asking me how I like having Ms. McCoddle again. I tell her the universe just wants me to be miserable by giving me a recycled kindergarten teacher. She ignores me and tells me she heard Mr. Maroni is doing well in Cincinnati. Dad grabs the new media center book from the counter and hands it to me.
"I've been looking everywhere for this," I lie. "Where'd you find it?"
"Propping up the crooked table leg in the den."
"I wonder how it got there?"
Mom takes Frank out of the cage; I pet him, then pet Bodi too. It might seem crazy, but I never want Bodi to get jealous now that we have another animal in the house.
"Speaking of reading, how about if we start the year off on the right foot and hire a tutor?" Mom suggests. "That way all of us can have stress-free homework time."
"Relaxing homework? What's next — happy funerals?"
"Derek!" Mom snaps.
It's just a joke, but after I say it, I realize other kids might actually have stress-free homework. I picture kids like Carly listening to Mozart with scented candles while they complete their assignments every night. Am I the only kid in class who crumples papers, bangs his head on the table, and gets sent to his room all because of a few crummy essay questions? (Continues...)
Excerpted from My Life as a Stuntboy by Janet Tashjian, Jake Tashjian. Copyright © 2011 Janet Tashjian. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.