Pride had them.
I could see by the clock in the gym there was only two more minutes before the first bell that would call all of us to class. And Pride had planted his feet.
Pride and I had gotten into a blistering fight one hot spring day when we were both in first grade. Pride had pounded me into the ground for a reason I still can’t figure out, and I had been carried bawling to the assistant principal’s office. When we shook hands and walked back to the class, he laughed at me and flexed his fists.
“You got a hard head, White Bread,” he said with a laugh. “My hand damn near broke. What do you keep in that white head of yours, rocks?”
I laughed. He laughed, and from that moment on, I was obsessed with Pride.
He was short, he was stocky, and to this day he was the best basketball player I have ever seen. I would put him up against any grown man by the time he was in fifth grade, and he was about to win this game.
He planted his feet and braced himself. He took the charge and, without a blink of fear, without a flinch or a wince, he fell straight back to the ground and Liechen blew the whistle. Pride had drawn the foul, and no one had ever seen him miss a free throw. In the last two minutes, Pride broke the tie, then the bell screamed and off we went.
Liechen loved basketball. Before school, he held a game for anyone who would come. He kept score and reffed. I took one more look at him and shuddered. There was no more terrifying man than Mr. Liechen.
Rumor said he was Russian. He stood six-eight and was a trim two hundred pounds. He was bald with a bit of graying hair he kept trimmed. He could still dunk a basketball even though he was well over fifty, and he was the scariest teacher at 20th Street School. Liechen could stop a fight with a stare. He could silence the lunch room by clearing his throat. He was a legend, more myth than man. The following year, Liechen and I would go to war. But that was sixth grade. I was about to meet my fifth grade teacher, and everyone knew he was a tough one.
Mr. Olsen never got mad. He never yelled, slammed a book, or even sent a kid to the office. No one knew why they obeyed Mr. Olsen, they just did. Back then, I thought it witchcraft. This was a wild school. With angry kids. Poor and frustrated. My white friends, my black brothers, all of us were a churning, growling mess, but Olsen kept us in line without trying. Back then, it was the mystery of my life. Now, as I sit here writing this story, I have it figured out.
He was just cool.
When Mr. Olsen talked to you, his tone calmed you down. He smiled at you even if you were mad, and you could feel the rage within you just fizzle out. He dressed like a teacher, but did it with style. He wore dress shirts, but while everyone else rolled their sleeves up to the bicep, like my uncles and my stepfather, Olsen rolled his in loose cuffs that stopped at his elbow. He wore perfect shoes. His hair was perfectly combed, yet tumbled as well. It was feathered back and just a tad long. It moved, whereas all the other men who wore that style had sprayed theirs stiff.
When Olsen walked, it was like watching a movie. And when he looked at you and grinned, you wanted to learn. You wanted to make him happy. He was the coolest teacher I ever had. The most diligent I would ever meet, and he would hand me a life. He gave me an identity. He saved my life and gave me a future on April 15, 1986.
But first, we should talk about Mountain Standard Time and the project that pulled me out of the hole.
He divided the class into four groups, based on the four time zones of the continental United States, and gave each group a time zone. He scared me when he was giving the assignment because he called my name right out loud and smacked me out of a stupor.
“Jesse. Jesse Teller,” he barked out.
I jumped and looked at him. I had been thinking about what it would take to get a dragon into my stepfather’s Chevette. I looked up in shock, and a little afraid.
“You’re my first leader, Jesse. What time zone do you want?” Olsen said. The entire class turned to look at me and I froze. “Come on, what will it be?”
“Why me?” I said.
He grinned. “Can’t hide forever.”
“Mountain,” I said.
“Good, what is your name?” Olsen said.
The kids all laughed. Pride looked at me and shook his head.
“What?” I said.
“Everyone gets a code name for the project. It has to be a historical figure from America’s past and you need to choose yours right this very moment.”
“I want to be Paul Revere.”
“He saved us all,” I said.
“Yes, he did.”
“And he was alone all night,” I said.
Olsen nodded. “Cool, then everyone will call you Paul for the next week, but only during social studies. Jesse, pick your army.”
I took Pride, I took Brotherhood, I took Dang and Bright, and when I was done, I had Paul Revere’s crew and we were studying the mountains. We drew maps. We wrote reports. We did historical studies, even tracked exports and imports, and when we were done, we were given an A. I was hailed a hero. Mr. Olsen patted me on the head and grinned at me.
On the playground the next day, I told him I was getting beat up by kids during morning recess, and he shook his head at me and grinned. “We will have to fix that, won’t we?”
The next morning, when all the other kids went outside for recess, he stopped me at the door. He made me go back up to his classroom then shut the door behind me.
I knew I was in trouble. I ran through the entire morning in my head, fighting to figure out what I had done wrong, when he slapped a book down in my hand and went to his desk.
I stared at the book for a long time before looking up at him, sitting at his desk with his knee propped up against the edge where a crasser man would rest his feet.
“You don’t want to go to morning recess, you are going to read,” he said. “This is a friend of mine named Encyclopedia Brown.” He motioned to the book in my hand. “He is your age and he solves crimes. You are going to read the story, then before you turn to the back of the book to see who did the crime, you are going to tell me your theory.”
“How will you know if I am right or not?” I asked.
“Read them all this morning before work.” He tapped his temple. “Got all the answers right here.”
I laughed. I walked circles around the room as I read. He graded papers and, when I was done with a short story, I would stop. I would tell him my theory. He would ask me questions that would guide me to a new one. After that first book, before I went on to the second, he laughed as I told him who did it. I was never wrong after that first book.
Now I am ready to talk about April 15th. See, you had to understand the man a little. Needed to see how he thought and what he did for me. How he could see the struggling little boy fighting odds impossible and, without coddling me, give me the tools to keep fighting. How he called me out, and found me when other teachers hadn’t. When you have heard all that, you are ready for April 15th, for that is the day he assigned us our short story.
This was the first time anyone had ever told me I could write a story. It sounds ridiculous when it’s put that way, but think about it. I was a timid kid, beaten down with rules and fists. I was scared all the time, and even time didn’t make sense to me.
I would be talking and laughing one moment, and then there would be a stutter of time and I was in a completely different place, doing a completely different thing. It was terrifying to try to live with DID. I heard voices. I had, after The Wall, begun to hallucinate. I had a mother who was growing ever angrier as the court case dragged on, and I was under attack from my sister.
Char had told her I was going to keep her safe from harm. When Char molested her, she blamed me. I blamed me.
I was not living in a world where I could do much of anything. I needed permission to do everything. When Olsen looked up at us and said, “Now we are going to write short stories,” my mind exploded. I stared slack-jawed at him as the reality hit me. I didn’t have to have permission to write a story. As long as I had paper, I was allowed.
My parents were tired of my stories. They would not sit any longer while I told them long, run-on stories about superheroes and dragons. They were tired of hearing about how much I wanted to play DnD, and they had grown exhausted with my constant talking at home. Stories had been playing in my head all year. Artist had been crafting the wildest, most insane stories for me, but I hadn’t been able to do anything with them.
When I was told to write a short story the first time, all the other kids groaned. They complained that they didn’t know what to write about. He told them to think, be creative. He told them to look at their lives and find an idea they wanted to explore. By the time he got done telling them this, I was a page in.
My story came to me immediately. It was about a boy. A boy who had been picked on for years. The kids at school hated him, and he had lost his father. It was not abuse, it was divorce. The boy lived with his mother. On his birthday, he received a crate in the mail from his father, who was on safari. Inside was a purple hippopotamus. The boy rode that hippopotamus to school every day.
Mr. Olsen walked around the room, bending over desks and whispering words of encouragement. By the time he made it to my desk, I was done. My papers turned over. My pencil sitting beside them.
I was breathless, gasping as if I had just run a mile. I was thrumming. I was sweating. I was more alive than I had ever been in my entire life.
“No ideas?” he said.
I was crying when I flipped over my papers. He took them and read them right there. He set them on the table, then looked at his feet. I was too stunned to be scared. Too vivid to be worried that my story was no good. I knew my story was not bad. I knew it was the best this class would ever see.
He crouched in front of my desk. “Look at me,” he said gently.
I looked up at him, my eyes rimmed with tears.
“You are a writer,” he said.
I was sobbing, because I knew he was right.
“You are going to write books one day.” He grinned his Mr. Olsen grin and said, “Thank you.”
I was so overwhelmed I could not even ask him for what. When I could only stare at him and cry, he elaborated. “Thank you for finding yourself in my class. I will never forget it.”
I took my story to my parents and told them I was a writer. My mother told me that was great and kept singing I’ll Fly Away. I gave my stepfather my first story to read when he got home from work, and he set it on the table beside his chair. When I found it later that night, it had a coffee ring on it.
I threw it in the trash.
Then I went back to school. I didn’t walk circles in Mr. Olsen’s class. I was done with Encyclopedia Brown. Now, when the other kids went to recess in the morning, I sat at my desk and wrote stories. I let him read them, then, when I got home, I threw them away.
Mr. Olsen had found me. Had given me a purpose and introduced me to a destiny. After years of neglect and abuse, it would go cold.
It would take Mrs. Hegg to blow that ember back into a fire. But for now, I had Mr. Olsen. I had a destiny.