This is the fifth round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them not familiar with the challenge, a quick summary: three writers offer the fruit of their labor and inspiration based on a given title.
The Round 5 Title — Rainman — was chosen by Gary. Perry will choose the title for the next round.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same thing goes if you find yourself not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is Gary’s submission.
Oh, before we begin, I solicited blurbs from each writer. Here’s Gary’s:
It’s an epidemic! Autism Spectrum Disorder is running rampant and nobody is saying a word. Statistics show that half of our children will be diagnosed with some form of it by the year 2025. Why the silence? Where is Fauci? Is the government involved? One girl pulls back the curtain to see why she is so different from her classmates. You’ll be surprised by what she finds.
Copyright 2022 — R. G. Broxson
(4,530 words – approx. reading time: about 17 minutes based on 265 WPM)
I’m not sure I should be writing this, but what the hell, no one will read it anyway. They say every English teacher is a frustrated author, always standing at the shoreline of writing success, watching, waiting for the perfect story and the perfect words to tell it. Well, my story-ship has sailed, and I’ve given up on all that crap. I’ve sent dozens of really good shorties and one great American novel into that dream dumpster known as trade-book publishing. A few form rejection letters and a whole lot of silence have convinced me that fiction is not my future. This story, however, is different because it’s true, and it happened to me.
As I mentioned, I am an English teacher, more specifically or pompously, an 8th grade ELA teacher (English Language Arts for the uninitiated). But don’t let that lofty title fool you; the writing we teach to tweens is more craft than art. We stand and deliver the gospels of grammar and the covenants of conventions over any artsy-fartsy poetics or creative-type writing.
I spend most of my day hunched over the shoulders of students, like a second head, as they languidly produce random QWERTY words on a keyboard. My job is to sternly point to their Chromebook screens and correct grammar, spelling, syntax, capitalization, punctuation, and tense agreement ad nauseam. The same thing that any two-dollar word processing program can correct with squiggly blue or red lines. Some students, strangely, seem to be colorblind to these screaming highlights, which affords me job security.
It wasn’t her writing, however, that got my attention; it was her information sheet. As we all recall, on the first day of school, teachers hand out a shitload of standard information forms. You probably filled out volumes in your own academic odyssey. My info sheet bade the usual questions: name, age, birth date, home, email address, emergency contact information, and whatnot. I had to add extra lines for parental contacts because most of my inner-city kiddos live, let’s say, in complicated households. I also added a few personal questions that I secretly use as snapshots to ascertain a student’s basic writing and processing skills.
After the meat and potatoes info, I dig a little deeper in my questionnaire, asking: Do you like to write? Do you have a favorite book or author? What’s the farthest you’ve traveled from home? Do you have a favorite sport? Hobby? Who do you respect and why? These are all open-ended questions designed for expression and elaboration, but I usually get curt, crappy answers or simply an IDK (I Don’t Know), a dreaded carryover from the scourge of texting.
The responses that I always scroll down to are most informative to me as a teacher: What is one thing you think I should know about you? Most often I get something like:
Or something from the snow-flake generation like:
This student, however, wrote something I’ll never forget:
What do you want to be someday? She wrote one word:
While most students misspell their future vocations of Veterinarian (Veteran) or NFL Qarterback, this girl chose simply to become ‘forgotten.’ I shrugged it off as teenage angst for our first month of August but kept an eye on this bright-eyed savant, for that is what her profile proclaimed. I found that she had been hustled around from town to town, school to school; never in one place for more than a year. Her permanent record indicated that she had won every county spelling bee for the last six years and had never ever earned less than an A in her life. You might believe that she was the perfect student, but there was something not quite right about Tara McRainey.
When called upon to answer a question in class, Tara would reply correctly even before I could ask for the difference between Let’s eat, Grandma, and Let’s eat Grandma. I call it the cannibal comma. However, when approached with conversational inquiries, like ‘How was your weekend?’ Tara would freeze up like a buffering video with weak Wi-Fi.
I was patient and would wait as long as it took for some truncated response. She seemed to appreciate my extra effort, and Tara finally became more relaxed and began to warm up to me, sometimes even smiling when I told one of my cornier teacher-jokes. She actually laughed (way too loud, and snorted too) when I asked ‘How did punctuation ruin Santa’s marriage?’ The answer, of course, is: ‘A comma came along and separated the two Clauses.’
That afternoon I approached her in the cafeteria, where she sat alone after disinfecting the table twice. “So, you like my jokes?” Teachers are all hams, always pandering for praise.
She buffered for a moment, then looked up at me through her oversized, bug-eye glasses and said, “It was funny,” she smiled slightly, “because I want my parents to separate, and for a moment, I thought it could be so simple. Like punctuation.”
It was my turn to buffer, to process. But I had to get back to lunch duty. Poignant moments like this are often lost to a behavior-kid throwing a banana peel across the cafeteria.
Tara’s parents were infamous to all her teachers. Her father, Travis McRainey, was the Apache gunship of all helicopter parents. We speculated in the sanctuary of The Teacher’s Lounge that Mr. McRainey monitored the school webpage a constant 24/7. If a score of 89 (B) or below was, god forbid, ever entered into the virtual grade book for Tara, he would light up the phone or email within minutes, reaching out to the offending teacher. These instances, however, were as rare as good manners due to Tara’s diligence and keen intellect. So most teachers, if ever faced with this quandary, rounded up to 90 (A) for Tara… and her father.
Tara’s mother was less confrontational. Actually, she was 180 degrees non-confrontational. She was a woman of Pakistani heritage, and she served in the shadow of her Irish, A-hole husband. Tara took after her mother; she had black, kinky-curly hair with an inverted widow’s peak that left a swath of forehead that bordered on a fivehead; she did have her father’s piercing green Irish eyes, but they were magnified in her Hubble glasses, and she used them like lasers to keep annoying classmates at bay—mainly Jackson Hassel (we’ll get back to him later).
As you might imagine, when I’m not methodically indoctrinating students to the Critical Race Theory or gender-switching (I’m pretty sure that this is a good place to insert a LOL), we’re doing a lot of actual writing in my writing class. This fact apparently surprises many of my students, as several ask me at the beginning of class each morning, “What are we going to do in writing class today?” Really, I can’t make this stuff up.
Anyway, I threw out a theme and had my students write an essay. Simple stuff to start with. Not quite ‘What I did over my summer vacation,‘ but close. ‘Write an expository essay regarding a time in your life when you were bullied,‘ is always a hot topic for middle school misfits. The alternative subtitle was…’or a time when you bullied someone.’
I got a lot of writing back on this subject. Most felt they were the innocent victims, and only a few guilt-ridden kids (probably Catholics) regarded this as a moment to repent for bygone sins. Little secret here: I get over 100 essays on this subject. I honestly don’t have the time or inclination to psychoanalyze or proofread them all. I scan as they write; I give guidance accordingly, and I skim for grammar when they submit their souls for grades.
Having guided each stage of my students’ writing process: Brainstorming, Drafting, Revising, Proofreading, and Publishing, I was ready to review their progress. This being early in the school year, I wanted to leave room for improvement. Most essays fell into the B or C range. A few slackers failed to write anything, and only a tiny percentage of my advanced/gifted students scored an A on this first attempt.
I spent a little extra time on Tara’s essay, curious to see if she really was the wunderkind that her profile and reputation suggested. She doubled my word count minimum of 350 computer-tabulated words. But, she seemed to ramble a bit and didn’t impress me with a clear theme. She referenced the psychology of bullying, offered some quality statistics, and threw in some suggestions to reduce this bane of middle school students. But she never got personal. Never cited an instance of her own encounter with bullies or her own dark moment of bullying.
I was about to grade her a GPA-jolting B when I looked up and saw Tara standing in front of my desk, the altar and sacred ground for a teacher. “Yeessss?” I grumbled, sliding my glasses up, a bit annoyed by her proximity and weird, bracey grin. This was odd because she never smiled. I didn’t even know that she wore braces. So I broke away from my screen and asked again, “Can I help you?”
“Have you read it yet?” she asked.
“Yes, I’ve read It. And I must say that the Pennywise clown is quite disconcerting. Stephen King has ruined the circus for me.”
Tara stopped smiling and contorted her face. “I’m referring to my essay, not some stupid horror story.”
“Yes, Tara, I read your essay. I was merely attempting literary humor.”
“No, I got it,” she said. “But I want to know if you, if you got it?”
“Sure, Tara, I got it. It was a well-crafted essay. You hit most of the high points on the rubric, but I must say, you failed to …”
She sighed and deflated. “You didn’t get it.”
“Tara, I’m trying to explain my views of your writing. I understand that you may not be used to stark criticism.”
She smiled again, revealing those caged teeth, “I know,” she brightened. “I’ll make you a decoder.”
“A decoder?” My eyebrows arched.
“Give me a few minutes.” Tara pivoted and returned to her desk and began folding and snipping at some notebook paper with a pair of safety scissors. She appeared to be cutting out paper dolls. I wasn’t sure what had just happened.
I continued grading essays until the bell rang for 5th period. Tara handed me a cut-up and crumpled sheet of paper on her way out. This was my planning period, so I sat alone and smoothed out the paper. I studied the page. It looked like one of those old punch cards that they used to feed into those refrigerator-size computers. It had several small rectangular cuts in it. They trailed down the left side of the paper and were spaced about a quarter inch vertically. A few slots were out of line with the majority, giving it a cryptic, stair-step appearance.
A sucker for word puzzles and mysteries, I pulled up Tara’s essay, the one that I was going to grade a B. I looked again at her writing, then back to the ‘decoder.’ I skimmed through her essay once more but couldn’t figure out how Tara’s cheat sheet connected. I gave up and grabbed a cup of coffee. It was too hot, so I set it down on Tara’s treasure map. There it was. Pressed down flat on top of a school policy memorandum on my cluttered desk, the cut-out slots were spaced perfectly to border and display size 12 Times New Roman words, the same font I require from my students.
I slid Tara’s ‘decoder’ sheet out and framed it up to my computer monitor. I lined it up with Tara’s essay, starting at the first word of each line. Inside each cut-out rectangle, was a word. Even the indented paragraphs revealed a word. This explained the quarter-inch off-center cuts. Now for the payoff. The first word bordered in the first cut-out box was ‘Never.’ Scrolling down, I read: …gonna…give…you…up…never…gonna…let…you… down…never…gonna…run…around….and…desert…you.
My mouth opened wide. I’d heard these words before; what was it? Buffering. It wasn’t Emerson; it wasn’t Frost.
“You just got Rick Rolled!” Tara stood at my doorway beaming. “Now, do you get it?”
Tara got her A. She was clearly Autistic and clearly a genius. I checked her sped (Special Education) status to confirm this diagnosis. Most educators know that there is a varied spectrum for this disorder, and I was not sure exactly where she fit into this unique condition. People tend to manifest symptoms of Autism in several ways. The most common characteristics include a lack of social skills, emotions, and empathy. Some, however, display amazing intelligence. Autistic students tend to process these behaviors differently than regular kids, and we all know how difficult it can be when you are ‘different’ in middle school.
I mentioned Jackson Hassel earlier. Well, he was in my 4th-period class along with Tara and the rest of the advanced/gifted students. He was one of the cool kids, funny, handsome, and smart. Not as smart as Tara, but close enough so that he competed with her for just about every honor. There was a lot of teasing on his part. Tara didn’t process teasing very well, and she would often complain to teachers that he was bullying her. So this went back and forth, and I just hoped they would grow out of it—but they didn’t.
It came to pass… (ugh, I just re-read that transitional phrase; no wonder I haven’t been published). I saw it all unfold in the cafeteria. Tara had just been handed a lunch tray from the counter when she spun around to retreat to her solo table of solace. Jackson stood behind her—too close. The tray hit him in the chest, and her food went flying. Tara became flustered and just stared at the mess on the floor—buffering. Jackson didn’t miss the opportunity. “How many?” he asked.
Tara looked at him, confused. Now, everyone was watching.
“Come on, Rainman, how many french fries are on the floor?” He laughed, and everyone else chimed in, even the ones that didn’t understand the allusion. I actually thought it was funny myself. Tara didn’t. Jackson pushed the conceit a little farther. “How much do you pay for your Walmart panties, Rainman?” He was obviously very familiar with the old movie.
This was too much for Tara. She swung her tray at his head, shouting, “My name is McRainey,” clearly displaying her Irish ancestry. I anticipated the move, stepped in, and caught the tray, thankfully bypassing a lot of paperwork.
“Come with me, young lady,” I whispered to Tara as the cafeteria coliseum erupted into a roar of laughter and other zoo-like noises. She was breathing fast, and on the verge of hysteria, so I took her elbow and quickly escorted her out of the spotlight into the serene pastels of the Guidance Counselor’s Office, where I explained the sitch to Ms. Hodge. The counselor cooed and offered candy and comfort, but Tara demurred. I couldn’t resist a miniature Nestle Crunch, myself. Tara cooled off remarkably quick, controlling her emotions like a Vulcan. She calmly requested that her parents not be notified. The counselor and I exchanged glances.
The walkie-talkie on Ms. Hodge’s desk crackled. There was yet another emergency that required her attention. “It’s a full moon,” the counselor quipped as she excused herself.
I remained as guardian pro tem for Tara. We sat together in silence until she mumbled, “Twenty-two.”
My mind was in room 821, where I knew my parapro (assistant teacher) was handling things, but as my principal always says: There is no substitute for a teacher. “Twenty-two? Twenty-two what?” I asked.
Tara replied in a robotic tone, “There were twenty-two french fries on the floor.”
That opened a small window in our conversation. “Tara, you declared on your info sheet, the first day of school, that you remember everything. Exactly, what did you mean by that?”
“Wasn’t it clear? I remember everything. Period.”
I half-laughed. That sounded like something I, as a teacher, might have said to a silly question. “So,” I played along, “how far back do you remember? What was I wearing the first day of school?”
A sucker for a pop quiz, Tara buffered for only a second. “You wore a white shirt, a black vest and pants, and a star-spangled, American flag tie and shoes that matched our school colors. You told us that you would only where a tie on the first day of school because you only get one chance to make a first impression.”
“Correct,” I grinned. “I guess I actually made that first impression on you.” She didn’t blink. “Okay, so how far back can you recall?”
Tara’s eyes rolled up weirdly. “I remember my mother singing to me in the womb. I remember my father demanding her to push! Push! I remember the bright light and the man in the mask…”
Then she sniffed, yes sniffed. Tara got up and walked around to the back of the counselor’s desk.
“The candy’s right here,” I pointed to a dish on the front of the desk. “She said you could have some.”
Tara snatched a beige sweater off the back of the counselor’s chair and pulled it to her face. She breathed deeply. “Bastard,” she mumbled.
“Language,” I said automatically.
Then she pulled out drawers from the counselor’s desk. She plundered like a squirrel searching for nuts, pushing past a pint of Smirnoff to get to her prize.
“Whoa! Stop right there, young lady. That’s off limits.”
Tara spritzed a bottle of Chanel into the ether. She waved her hands in the miasma like she was corralling butterflies. She breathed in and muttered, “Bitch.”
“I’ll take it from here, Mr. Broxson.” The counselor had returned, and everyone looked guilty of something.
“Alright, class, November is not only a time for Thanksgiving; it is a time to revisit a dark period in America’s past. Nearly 60 years ago, a U.S. President was assassinated in front of the world’s eyes. It is probably the most investigated murder in history and possibly the most controversial.
You, ladies and gentlemen, will be afforded evidence, tons of it. Your task is to consider all the facts, the fallacies, and conspiracies and come up with a claim of your own. You will write a persuasive essay and convince me, the judge and jury, of your conclusion. Any questions?”
A kid looked up from his Chromebook and asked, “How do you spell Abraham Lincoln?”
I just shook my head and played the Abraham Zapruder film. That got their attention.
Travis McRainey called me that afternoon. When I saw my caller-ID, my first thought was, Oh, shit, he’s going to complain to the principal, the school board, the Supreme Court, the President. As this project was not standard curriculum, I would have a lot of explaining to do to my superiors.
I was wrong. Travis McRainey was ecstatic. He told me that Tara had come home, briefly described the project, then locked herself in her room. He hadn’t seen her so excited about school in a long time. He explained that Tara was rarely academically challenged in public schools, but this intriguing assignment seemed to have piqued her interest. I hung up with a ‘Thank You,’ and a new lease on my job.
One week later, Tara motioned me over to her solo seat in the cafeteria. I scolded a student for sticking green beans up his nose and then walked on over. “My research has been leading me in several directions,” she started out, stealing lines from a noir detective movie. “After I figured out the JFK conundrum for your writing assignment, I came across many more theories surrounding unresolved controversial events.”
“Wait a minute,” I stopped her. “You figured out the JFK conundrum, as you call it? Something different than the Warren Commission?”
“Jackie did it. She got sick of John screwing around,” she blushed and asked if it was alright that she said that. I nodded. “Screwing around,” she tasted the formerly forbidden words, “with Marilyn Monroe and all those other hussies, like Ms. Hodge.”
“I knew it!” I said, way too loud. “And her Secret Service guy, slash boyfriend, he was involved, wasn’t he?” She nodded sagely. Then I regrouped, “Ms. Hodge, our counselor?”
“Now,” she continued, deflecting my question, “I have begun work on other so-called conspiracies. It’s great fun.”
“Other conspiracies, huh?” I couldn’t help myself. I grew up on X-Files, so I knew the truth was out there, even if it came from the mouth of an Autistic teenager. “What about Bigfoot?”
“More like, Fake-foot.”
“Yeah, I figured,” disappointed but ready to peel the Bigfoot sticker off my bumper. “Roswell?” I followed.
My eyes lit up. “Okay,” I said, “awesome,” controlling the conversation, “but can you do this without all the snark?”
“Moon landing?” I continued.
“Ask Stanley Kubric.”
“Damn,” I muttered and quickly corrected. “Darn, I believed ‘ol Buzz after he punched that conspiracist in the mouth.”
After that jolt, I forged on, “Dare I ask…Covid 19?” I cringed, thinking of two years strapped in masks, vaccinated, and pushed into distance learning, not sure I really wanted an answer.
“Big Pharma creating demand and supply,” she said, dipping her chicken nugget and taking a bite.
“No! Those bas…bad guys!” was all I could say.
“Fake news; gotcha’ again!” Tara smiled with yellowed chicken in her braces. “It was that big lab in Wuhan, China. I thought everyone knew that already.” She looked at me as if I had misspelled Conspiracy.
I breathed a sigh of relief and then looked at her real hard. “You know, this is all just hearsay and innuendo unless you have proof.” I waited.
She reached below the table and pulled up her vinyl Stranger Things lunch box. From a Velcro pocket, perhaps designed for carrots or cartridges, she produced a thumb drive. “Believe me, I’ve done my research.”
The bell rang, and we just looked at each other until she finally picked up her tray. Her smile waned. “What’s next?” I prodded, sensing some apprehension.
“Something,” she looked away. “Something personal. There is only one more mystery I intend to solve, and it’s me.”
I put my hands up like Jesse James’ bank teller and let it go.
I heard the news on the radio on my way to school the next morning. There was a tragic accident. Two killed. One was a local husband and father, and the other was a middle school counselor. Names were withheld until relatives could be notified. Initial reports suggested that the car they were driving lost brakes and went off the road. Further investigation was pending.
I was early to arrive at school. I checked my box in the front office and made my way to room 821 down halls that were plastered with construction paper projects. I remember thinking that I would ask Ms. Andrews about the car accident and its occupants; she always seemed to know the story behind the story.
That was odd; my classroom door was open. I always locked it when I left for the day. Probably a janitor. I stepped in and flicked on the fluorescent lights. At first, I thought I’d been pranked. But on closer examination, I realized that there was an apparent system to the drawings, post-its, papers, and yarn that webbed across my entire front wall.
On the upper left-hand corner of my dry-erase board was the topic—Autism, written in red marker and double-underlined. Below that was a sharply drawn timeline that stretched the full length of the wall. Time ticks on it started in 1911. A sticky note under the date mentioned a Swiss psychologist and a diagnosis of schizophrenia (Autism). The next date was 1944. The note attached introduced Dr. Hans Asperger. There were several milestones along that timeline. Each outlined a breakthrough in research, discovery, or diagnosis.
Then the timeline exploded. In 2001, a picture of Jenny McCarthy was plotted on the board. Red yarn spidered out in all directions from there; it led to articles and newsprint bent on exposing vaccinations, experiments, and conspiracies. There were also photos of celebrities and scientists: Einstein, Akroyd, Mozart, Gates, and more. But it was the numbers, the rising numbers, that caught my attention.
Above the line labeled 2001 was a ratio that stated 1:250. I got it. No big deal, I extrapolated that only 4 kids (and their parents) in a thousand were affected by Autism. That’s when things went viral; they spiked. Just six years later, in 2007, the ratio rocketed to 1:150.
Tara had scotch-taped an article at the ’07 timeline that seemed a non sequitur. It promoted STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). It went on to lament that the Russians and Chinese were surpassing the U.S. in every meaningful category but that America would lead the world in underwater basket weaving. It hinted at extreme ways and means to accelerate our lagging student population for national security. One suggestion was highlighted. It mentioned in-utero vaccinations.
But it didn’t stop there. The timeline for 2010 informed us that 1:30 students were Autistic. As a school teacher, I was to expect at least one per class. But it didn’t stop there. I know I just said that, but it didn’t. If we extrapolated the results, and I’m not a math teacher, the numbers continued beyond 2022. The ratio narrows to an astounding 1:2 by 2025. Half our children will be sped, half will be on the so-called spectrum. Those brainiacs with all their quirks and eccentricities will no longer be in the minority; they will eventually rule. My only concern is, will they rule with emotion or cold calculation?
Only a few frayed yarn threads emanated from that proposal. They were from conspiracy websites and secondary news reports taped on my board. The word ‘vaccines’ was highlighted in every article. I followed a dangling thread to the floor. At my feet lay a book, a yearbook. I picked it up and flipped to the photo pages, already sure of what I would and would not find. Between the darling pictures of Beth Madison and Tony Murdoch was a cutout square where a young lady had been stolen, redacted, forgotten, and fed into Orwell’s memory hole.
I slammed the book closed, and I turned on my computer. I clicked on attendance for my 4th period. Tara McRainey was no longer on my roster. I shook my head and looked around the room. You get a B+ Tara. You did the work, and your research was impeccable, but you didn’t nail down your conclusion.
I sat back in my chair, thinking. There it was, a small blue, red, and silver square on my desk—a miniature Nestle Crunch bar, like the one I had sampled from Hodge’s candy dish. I unwrapped it and found a thumb drive. Tara got her A.
If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link, and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.
If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
E. J. D’Alise submission<<link
Perry Broxson submission<<link
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