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The Rainy Season: “make room for teaching”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:

1

June 2012

I go online, click on Uncle Google. In the search bar I type “education” and then click “news” because I’m not interested in websites. It’s the issues I care about and I’m curious what’s important in the world to which I used to belong. My results are delivered in a mere 0.16 seconds but it’s not Uncle Google’s speed that overwhelms, it’s the sheer volume of results: more than eight hundred million. I could narrow my search by typing “education issues” or “problems in education” or “U.S.+education+sucks” … but what’s the point?

FYI, searching for “U.S.+education+sucks” on a filtered network from my old classroom on a U.S. military installation in Germany yields an ACCESS DENIED banner under the category of “Pornography/Adult Content.”

Just saying.

You probably didn’t need Uncle Google to figure this out, but here’s the deal: we’ve got problems. Probably not eight hundred million problems, but we’ve got more than just a few, and they’re all serious for someone, and some of them are serious for all of us.

Teachers earn on average 17% less money than “other professionals with an equivalent education.” Apparently that’s a problem for teachers. The “other professionals” seem okay with it. One survey claims teachers are “overworked” and another survey shows “the more we spend the less our students achieve.” One article details how school districts are “cutting back on professional development,” but on the next page of my search results is an article with the caption “professional development is linked to student achievement.” Hmm. Maybe we’re not spending our money well? Hardly a unique problem, but there you go. Dropout rates are soaring. Graduation rates are tanking. Don’t even start on math and science scores in Asia. I was a teacher. I’ve heard too much about that already. Oh, and budget deficits. Or is it no budget? Maybe both? You’ve seen the news. You know what I mean.

Educators are in the news, too.

Usually that’s bad. I had a favorite college professor. He used to tell me, “If you make CNN as a teacher, you’re probably going to jail.”

Teachers do things every day that are good and newsworthy. They’re tough to find, though. Apparently the New York principal busted this week for having sex with a teenager is more newsworthy—and when the news anchor reported on further “shocking developments,” he seemed less shocked than he was giddy that both the principal and the student were males. I guess it made for a better story. Last week it was a teacher in New York replying to an online personal ad with pictures of his “privates” from a not so private shared e-mail account at school. In the same news cycle, a teacher in Europe let kindergarten students sample her blood—sample, as in touch and taste. There’s an article about Chicago closing dozens of schools and I should probably read it because it seems important and relevant—but to be honest, the headline about the professor in Florida telling students to “stomp on Jesus” has really got my attention. A lot of people are upset in California. LGBT-themed books are in the public schools. Parents are criticizing teachers who support the policy, but everyone else is criticizing the teachers who oppose it.

There are a lot of issues in education, a lot of problems we need to figure out.

It’s a seemingly endless list.

That’s why I was delighted with myself when an invitation arrived in my inbox to speak at a conference on education leadership being held in Jakarta, Indonesia. I accepted immediately, congratulated myself for being invited, ignored the fact they’d probably exhausted every other option before extending my invitation, and then I jumped right into the research for what I was sure would be the most talked about presentation of the conference.

Don’t worry, the smugness doesn’t last.

The topic was teacher leadership and, specifically, I’d be discussing how certain tenets of emotional intelligence are consistently shown to be present among people considered to be successful or quality teachers … further, I would argue, is that the reason we should care is because those same tenets of EI are not fixed traits. That means they are things we can teach and learn. Old school leadership studies always identified traits that were fixed—you were born with them or you weren’t—which made the selection of leaders a Darwinian process. Well, forget old school. I was ready to show the world—or at least the teachers and administrators attending the conference—that this new leadership paradigm has the power to change schools and solve many of our problems.

I prepared my remarks and tweaked my PowerPoint. I even bought a new suit.

I was still teaching in Germany at that time and my plan was to fly from Frankfurt to Jakarta via Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur. I had to make an unexpected trip to the states, however, just days before I was scheduled to leave. It forced a change in my itinerary and by the time my return flight from Atlanta arrived in Germany I had only three hours to rest—inside the airport, mind you—until my flight to Amsterdam. My itinerary change also forced me to make an additional layover in Bangkok, wedged in between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, and by the time I finally arrived in Jakarta I’d been traveling non-stop for fifty-five hours.

I was relatively smug-free by that point.

I was also somewhat amused by the friendly reminder on the Indonesian immigration form that drug smuggling is a capital offense in the world’s most heavily populated Muslim country. You see I get frequent migraines, and the only medicine that’s really effective for me is delivered by way of a needle. My bags had been searched a thousand times in airports the world over and not once had any airport employee taken a second glance at the injection kits I carry in my backpack, but I still had this brief image flash in my mind of an Indonesian customs official seeing a needle and then detaining me for another few hours while he “sorted things out.” I needn’t have worried. The immigration and customs process in Jakarta proved to be relatively fast and painless—unlike the traffic and the heat that was waiting outside the colossal, sprawling mass of humanity that was also known as Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. There were people everywhere and, despite being winter on this side of the equator, the humidity was suffocating.

I’d been given instructions to exit to the right.

The arrivals hall felt like a placard convention. The frenzied mess included a smallish Indonesian man dressed a bit more professionally than most of the other drivers. He held a placard that read: MR. TRUCKER. I guess the first sign that I really wasn’t so important after all was a literal one. Maybe the driver would be embarrassed if I told him. Or maybe we’d share a good laugh. I had no idea if he would be disappointed leaving the airport alone. He’d likely be worried about it affecting his job in some way.

Department of Defense civilians have access to a secure government travel agency for official business—but in this situation it was the conference that had covered a portion of my airfare, and my itinerary had come from a Jakarta-based travel agency. The huge downside to that is an untold number of complete strangers had access to my itinerary.

I had never been to Jakarta, but I had been a teacher on U.S. military bases in Korea and Germany long enough to know there’s a legitimate reason the DOD inundates its employees with training and PSA’s on force protection and operational security and anti-terrorism. It’s because there actually are bad people in the world, and sometimes they try to hurt us.

Vigilance isn’t a part-time job.

It’s not about being nice. It’s about reality.

I made a terrible mistake once. I saw monsters in black and white, and was ignorant to the fact true monsters often lurk close to home.

That’s my reality.

In the arrivals hall, I wore my hat low, but my head was up and my eyes forward and alert. I slung my backpack across my right shoulder and rolled my carry-on and checked bags right past my would-be driver.

My shirt was drenched by the time I reached the taxi queue. It clung to my back, and I felt about as nasty as a traveler can get. High nineties, high humidity … and it was nighttime.

I ignored several men who tried to take my bags and lead me to unlicensed cabs. It’s a scene that plays out the same way at airports the world over, but in a foreign country where I was at least six inches taller and a whole lot whiter than the average male, the unwanted attention was a reminder that blending in with the local population was going to be a real challenge. I finally settled into a random cab with a driver whose name was Hadi.

“Where you go?” he asked.

“I’ll show you.” Hadi didn’t know I had never been to Jakarta, and my odds for a hassle free ride were greatly improved if he thought I was already familiar with his city. “Just stay on the highway toward the city,” I said, because large airports always have a highway toward the city. The traffic was a nightmare though, and we weren’t going anywhere in a hurry. There were car headlights and brake lights as far as I could see, in every direction. Motorbikes were weaving in and out of traffic with reckless abandon.

Hadi glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “You are USA?”

“France.”

That caught him off-guard. “You are France?”

“Oui.”

“You not USA?”

“France hates USA.”

We sat in traffic, unmoving. Hadi scratched his head, thinking. Finally he laughed. “You are USA. You test if I hate USA, but I do not. I love USA. Very good USA.”

“Oui,” I agreed. “Very good, USA.”

The traffic yielded for a few minutes, we made some headway, and soon the outline of tall city buildings lit up the night sky. Hadi said, “I pass test. Now where you go?”

“The JW Marriott.”

The Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton were the Jakarta hotels that had been hit by terrorists a couple years earlier. The Marriott had been targeted because it was hosting a breakfast for CEOs affiliated with the United States Chamber of Commerce. The Ritz-Carlton had been targeted because the Manchester United Football Club was going to be staying there. Apparently the terrorists thought United had some Christians on its team, though as a Chelsea fan I wasn’t so sure. It was a devastating attack by suicide bombers that killed seven innocent people and injured dozens more. It also made life even more difficult for Indonesia’s overwhelmingly tolerant and non-violent Muslim population.

I began to recognize landmarks as Hadi drove us into Central Jakarta. The towering National Monument came into view. It’s called the Monas by locals and it was built to symbolize their independence from the Dutch. It looks like someone inverted a pyramid, stuck it into the ground, and then pinned it there with the Washington Monument. The inverted pyramid houses a museum and the entire site was one I looked forward to visiting on this trip. I also recognized Istiqlal Mosque. Kind of hard to miss it, considering it’s the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. In person I was taken aback by its beauty and size. The pictures I’d seen beforehand didn’t do it justice. Hadi drove past the mosque and into a large roundabout and finally the hotel came into view.

The security checkpoints and vehicle inspections outside the major hotels in Central Jakarta came as a result of the suicide bombers, and they made arriving outside the JW Marriott an interesting and time-consuming experience.

“You stay here?” Hadi asked, just to be sure.

“Yes, this is it.”

He obviously didn’t want to deal with the security hassle, especially if I was lying to him, which I was. A gate lifted and Hadi parked in an inspection area that was essentially a secure “lock.” Security guards carefully examined the cab’s undercarriage and trunk, my luggage, and even my travel documents.

Hadi’s fare meter was north of 200,000 rupiah.

It might sound expensive, but the Indonesian currency had been devalued so much in recent years that when I’d exchanged two hundred dollars before leaving the airport I’d been given an incredibly thick wad of bills that totaled nearly 2.5 million rupiah … so in reality, I only owed Hadi sixteen dollars for the pleasure of sitting in his cab for the last hour-plus. A second gate lifted and Hadi was free to pull up in front of the hotel.

I gave Hadi 400,000 rupiah. “You’re a good driver.”

“I love USA,” he said.

“Me too.”

I climbed from the cab and a bellman already had my luggage. The bellman said, “I take you to check-in.”

“Wait, please.” I wasn’t going anywhere until Hadi drove away.

Hadi sat for the longest time, though. He shook his head and held his hands in a questioning pose, palms up, as if to ask, really pal? He finally stepped out of his cab. “Where you go? I drive you, please.”

I shook my head. “I made a mistake once.”

Hadi was thoroughly confused when he drove away. I’m sure he thought I was the strangest American he’d ever met. It’s not a part-time job though, and it’s not about being nice.

I gave the bellman some rupiah and said, “I changed my mind.” I took my luggage and headed for a shopping center adjacent to the Marriott. I went inside, walked its floors for twenty minutes, and then I exited the other side and found my hotel exactly where Uncle Google said it would be.

That night I had a hard time sleeping, despite the long journey.

My room was on the fifteenth floor and I sat outside on the balcony to take in the view. Jakarta’s skyline was stunning. I could see the Monas and Istiqlal Mosque bathed in brilliant yellow and white lights and a dozen other places of cultural and historical significance. It’s an amazing, beautiful world we live in … despite Uncle Google’s abysmal view of American schools, the security checkpoints and vehicle inspections that seem to be everywhere, and the need to be vigilant because of the things we do to each other.

I’d have to sleep, eventually.

Finally, I did.

In my dreams I was back in Korea, inside the school where I spent my first overseas assignment. I was standing on a staircase beside a scared nine-year-old girl. She was tall, but her hair was short and dirty blond. She carried a backpack, she was jetlagged and tired, and she was trying desperately to tell me something.

I could see her lips moving, but I couldn’t hear anything.

Or maybe I just wasn’t listening.

2

The following morning I noticed a green arrow on the ceiling above the bed. I’d also seen a prayer rug, along with a white cap and a robe in the closet. It didn’t take long to discern the arrow was a not-so-subtle reminder for the Faithful.

I’m an infidel.

I don’t care which way it is to Mecca … although I did take a picture so I could show my friends back in Germany. All flippancy aside, the green arrow was a useful reminder—I was a guest, and it was important to show respect for the culture and religion of my hosts. I tried to imagine how successful my own students would be if I was as faithful and committed to teaching as my hosts were to praying. It was something to think about as I prepared for my first full day in Jakarta.

Social settings aren’t my thing, but I went to a welcome breakfast on the mezzanine because I needed to check-in with my point of contact and let her know I had arrived and was ready for the conference.

“I worried so much,” she said in near-perfect English. Her name was Indira and it was her boss who was in charge of the conference, which meant she was the one doing all of the work. She was Indonesian, of course, tall and professional, probably late twenties or early thirties, though I’m terrible at guessing ages. She was dressed modestly—which you’d expect—but she also had her head covered, which surprised me. It’s not something adhered to as stringently in Jakarta as it is in other Muslim countries. “I am so sorry the driver make a mistake.”

Hmm, I thought. “It’s fine,” is what I said.

“I call the hotel to see if you make it. They say you never check-in.”

I shrugged, like, what can I say?

“You stay here?”

“Yes.”

“Strange,” she said. Indira spoke Bahasa and had a short conversation on her BlackBerry. She translated, “Really strange. They still say you are not here.” Indira said “strange” one more time and I got the sense that she was really bothered by it. Maybe she was worried that I’d be upset. Maybe I should have told her I ditched the ride so she’d stop saying “strange,” but she’d probably find that even more strange, so I let her fidget in awkward silence until finally she handed me a blue folder with the conference logo on front. Indira explained the hotel map that showed where everything would take place, which forums I was expected to attend and which ones were optional, and she made sure I knew when and where I’d be giving my presentations. She also gave me breakfast coupons that could be used all week in the hotel restaurant and she told me how to find the Starbucks closest to the hotel in case that was something I’d want for later. She finished with, “Please wear your nametag all the time.”

I took everything and said, “Thanks, Indira.”

“I am sorry again that everything started so wrong for you.”

“It hasn’t,” I assured her, thus concluding the longest conversation I’d had in a month. Indira walked away to attend to someone else and I stuck the nametag in my pocket. I found an empty table in a back corner of the room where I sat and drank tea, did a lot of people watching, a little thinking and some listening, and I found some irony in the idiocy of a colleague that left me feeling the task of solving even half the problems we have in education to be insurmountable.

The colleague was a stateside professor that I’d agreed to accompany to some local schools for observations and data collection in support of an ongoing research project. He’d published multiple papers and lectured hundreds of times on social awareness—and whereas my invitation was essentially a fluke, he’d been invited because people would actually come to hear him lecture. Helping him would be a good experience and it might even get my name associated with a published paper at some point in the future. Well, he’d found the bacon bin that had been placed at the end of the breakfast buffet, in the far corner of the room, as far as possible from our hosts and the many teachers in attendance who were also Muslim. I noticed him loading his plate about the same time I noticed Indira crossing the front of the room, and this wasn’t the “beef bacon” or “beef sausage” that would normally be used by Jakarta hotels—a placard on the buffet warned it was the real thing.

My colleague approached Indira on the way back to his table.

Maybe there was a pressing issue he needed to discuss with her. I guess it’s possible. They were too far away for me to hear what was said, but I could see plenty. He put a hand on her shoulder to stop her, then leaned in close to talk to her, and he began wafting his plate full of bacon to and fro, right in front of her face.

Jackass.

Was it possible to be any less socially aware?

Indira’s composure was both remarkable and commendable. I was curious which was more offensive—was it the touching and invasion of her personal space, or was it assaulting her senses with a sight and smell that’s repulsive to many people in this part of the world? This guy is here to teach social awareness as a leadership strategy … and we wonder why there are so many problems in education? I’m not normally so enlightened, but it also occurred to me that someone had to cook the bacon for the invited infidels, and he or she had almost certainly been Muslim. I’m guessing that wasn’t a pleasant experience either.

I was scheduled to be on a Q&A panel later that evening, but since I hadn’t given my first presentation yet and no one knew who I was, no one asked me any questions. I made it the entire ninety minutes without saying a word—which, if you knew me, would not surprise you. Professor Jackass was also on the panel, and he talked pretty much non-stop—which, if you knew him, also would not surprise you.

The panel was all western and all male.

I didn’t choose it. I’m just telling you how it was.

The audience was an even male-female mix, but divisions were evident when they’d introduce themselves prior to asking questions. The male Asians were college professors or administrators but the female Asians were overwhelmingly secondary or elementary teachers. Most of the Indonesian teachers had come in groups of three or four. A number of foreign nationals were also in attendance. They were a mix of English-speaking westerners from the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, along with some Asians and a few Australians.

The westerners and Australians were all teachers or administrators who worked in Jakarta’s large international school community—but the rest of the foreigners were “loners,” for lack of a better word, because they’d come alone from other countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam or Laos.

The questions were a bit tentative at first. When did you decide to become a teacher? What made you want to become a teacher? Is it hard to teach in the USA?

I tuned them out because Professor Jackass was telling a long-winded story about his early days in Wherever, USA, and I had discovered that there was a problem in my head. No, not like that. Not a problem with my head. I mean “the problem,” as in I’d clicked on something that Uncle Google had missed that was right there beneath the surface, and I was trying to kick it loose, to figure out what was bothering me so much. It felt like I was circling a big idea, but for whatever reason I couldn’t latch on to it. I began to focus on the Q&A again when things got more specific—less “where are you from” and more “how do I fix it.”

Occasionally they were heartbreaking.

I listened as a teacher described how teenage girls from impoverished villages were being lured on Facebook to go and meet strange men, thinking it was a chance to find a better life only to be kidnapped and trafficked for sex. She wanted to teach her kids English and she wanted them to be able to experience the benefits and wealth of information that the Internet can provide, but the more English she taught and the more access her students had to the Internet, the more her students were at risk. “What should I do?” she asked.

A teacher from outside Jakarta said about half of her students had access to clean drinking water. She asked, “Will my students do better if I can find them all good water?”

There was one teacher who came all the way from Laos. “My village is far from school,” she said. “No one send kids, is too far. I want make room for teaching.” You could see how nervous she was, that she was a “loner,” and I think she was waiting for a reply—but since she hadn’t really asked a question, no one answered. She quickly gave the microphone to someone else and sat down again.

You flew all the way from Laos for a school that doesn’t even exist?

That’s what I thought at the time … as if this teacher had committed some great act of folly. In the coming days I’d be humbled by the truth.

That night I walked around Central Jakarta. It’s not a city made for walking. Not like New York or London, although the traffic is British style. Cars drive on the left, but there aren’t any “look right-left-right” curbside reminders like the British helpfully give foreign pedestrians. The infrastructure is terrible, the sidewalks nearly non-existent, and the elevated pedestrian crosswalks at major intersections are nothing more than Erector Set-quality deathtraps. Plenty of Starbucks, though, including one right where Indira said it would be. I actually don’t drink coffee, but I assumed Starbucks had AC and Wi-Fi. True, I had both those things in the hotel, but I’m also not the kind of person to sit in a hotel room all night.

This type of conference, it’s common for groups to congregate in coffee shops, bars and restaurants. I don’t like the inherent stuffiness at formal gatherings, but impromptu groups are closer to my comfort zone.

My colleague whose behavior at breakfast had been so annoying was sitting with one such group inside Starbucks. His name isn’t really Professor Jackass, obviously. It’s Wallach. Imagine an aloof college professor with a New England accent, early fifties, whose clothes are never tailored well enough for an exact fit. That’s Wallach. He is brilliant in a lot of ways. He studied under Howard Gardner at Harvard and he is in fact a highly regarded professor … he’s just clueless sometimes.

Anyway, Wallach was blathering on about something.

To his credit, several teachers were intently focused on every word he said. Indira was also with the group. I bought a bottle of water and found a table where I could sit alone, with my back against the wall, and with a clear view of who was coming in or going out of the coffee shop. It’s not that I don’t want to trust people, really—but not too long ago, a suicide bomber had self-detonated on his way to hell about a hundred meters from my table.

The jihadists had chosen targets they alleged had brought harm to Islam by allowing Christianity and western cultures to influence Indonesian society. The jihadists would argue everyone at the conference was doing that as well. In reality, every person at the conference was a potential target. It would have been naïve to think otherwise.

I settled in and spent a few minutes online. Important things, like fantasy baseball. I also did some work, drank water to combat the heat and humidity, and tried to focus on my notes for the presentation I’d be making first thing in the morning. There was a lot of laughter coming from Wallach’s group.

I glanced that way and felt a good vibe, as if what was going on at the table was a positive experience for everyone involved. I recognized a few of the teachers from earlier in the day—including the “loner” from Laos—but as I looked closer there was something I couldn’t reconcile with the vibe and the laughter, a part of the image that didn’t fit.

I asked Uncle Google to search “education in Laos.”

I was still processing what Uncle Google uncovered when Indira realized I was in the coffee shop. She quickly got up and walked to my table.

“What did you think about the first day?” she asked.

“It was good.”

“I hope you had no more problems.”

“Stop worrying,” I said. “There were never any problems.”

“I am happy then. Will you join us?”

“Actually, I should go. My first presentation is really early tomorrow.”

Indira let loose a tremendously loud laugh, as in loud enough to turn heads our way. It caught me off-guard because it seemed so out of character. “Oh come on,” she said. “Can I sit?”

“Sure.”

Indira sat across from me and said, “It is funny because I make the schedule.” Then she shook a finger at me, as if I was a kid being scolded in school, and added, “But it was your fault.”

“My fault? How’s that even possible?”

“You change your flight schedule so close to conference. I was worry you would not be here on first day so I move your time, and early tomorrow was only space.”

“That is funny.”

“So come to other table. The teachers want to meet everyone, learn everything. I will say who you are and you say about the schedule so everyone can laugh.”

I glanced across Starbucks at the group of teachers. Maybe I’d have gone over and talked with them if Wallach wasn’t already at the table, or maybe not. I shrugged and said, “Another time.”

Indira thought for a second. She said, “You look sad.”

“Me, sad? No, it’s jetlag.”

“I do not think so. I am not blind, you know.”

“It’s jetlag.”

“You think about something, when you look at the teachers.”

“I wasn’t thinking anything,” I lied. I’d been thinking about what Uncle Google had just told me regarding education in Laos—specifically, teacher salaries and the poverty level.

“I do not think so,” she said again, clearly not buying it.

This conversation wasn’t on my list of things to do tonight, but I said, “It’s not so much what I think. It’s more about what I see.”

“I do not understand. I see people with coffee and good laughs.” Then with a humorous smile Indira asked me, “Do you need to examine your eyes? I will be happy to schedule you an appointment.”

“Oh you have good eye doctors in Jakarta?”

“We do,” she laughed.

“I guess it’s hard to explain.”

“Try.”

I shrugged and said, “I see one professor and eight teachers.”

“Good. You can count.”

“Five of those teachers are Indonesian and they’re all from the same school here in Jakarta.”

“How did you know that?”

“They’ve been walking around together all day.”

“But how did you know they are from the same school in Jakarta?”

“It says so on the nametags you gave them.”

“Oh come on … you make fun of my nametags,” Indira said, teasingly. “I also see you do not wear the nametag I give to you. You wish to hide your name from my teachers?”

“No.” Yes.

“If you do not wear nametag, then you give me no choice.” Indira smiled and made a face like she was deep in thought. “I think Mr. Strange is good. Do you like it?”

“Good? Like? For what?”

“I must call you something. You hide your name from my teachers so I give you new name. I will inform all my guests as soon as possible.”

“I’m guessing strange is the first English word you ever learned.”

“You do not like your new name? We can discuss it later. After I see you wear the nametag I give you. But now I need explanation about the teachers because I still do not know what it is you see.”

I shrugged, rather amused. “Look over there. You see the teacher from Laos?”

“Yes.”

“She’s a loner. What I mean is she came alone to the conference. The two teachers at the table from Vietnam are also loners.”

“They came a long way and alone, so you are sad? Really, so strange.”

“Jetlagged, not sad.”

“Sad,” Indira said, and again she was smiling, perhaps teasing … but her countenance took a hit when she glanced at the “loners.” Maybe she glimpsed the picture in my mind. The one stirring jackhammers behind my eyes. “Tell me more.”

“What is Wallach drinking?”

“A latte, I think. Why?”

“The teachers from Jakarta all have coffee or whatever, too, but look at the loners.”

“They do not drink anything.”

“They can’t afford anything. A cup of coffee here costs more than what they make in a day of teaching back home.” Uncle Google had shared that tidbit when I was asking about Laos, and something along those lines is why the image hadn’t jived with the vibe and laughter.

Indira took another look. “Now I feel jetlagged.”

I went back to her original question and said, “It was a good first day. You did a great job organizing things.”

Indira nodded her appreciation. “Do you have loners at conferences in your country?”

“It’s different. In my country, most teachers go to training so they can renew or add categories on their teaching certificates. They go because it’s required, but the training is usually close to home and can be finished in one afternoon. If they go to a conference that requires travel and lasts more than a day, then it’s more like a holiday than it is work. I don’t mean any disrespect to your city, Indira, but your loners didn’t come here on holiday. They aren’t out exploring the city or enjoying your culture. They’re sitting in a coffee shop where they can’t afford to buy anything because they think the stranger they’re sitting with has got answers to the problems they have back home.”

“Jakarta eye doctors are good, but if only color you see is sad I do not think they can fix it.”

“Jetlagged, not sad. You know what else? Wallach doesn’t have any answers for them. None of us do.”

Indira took out her BlackBerry and started hitting keys in an exaggerated manner. “One moment, please. You have no answers so I must delete your invitation for next year.”

I drank some water and gathered my notes. “Anyway, I should go.”

“Oh come on,” she said. “I was kidding. You can come again next year but no more sad talk. Tell me something else, like, why did you change your plane?”

“My grandmother died. I went to her funeral.”

“Oh my god,” she said, palming her face with both hands. “I am so sorry.”

“You mean Allah?”

“No, I mean oh my god why are you here? You should stay with your family.”

“It’s okay. My mom knows this is important. She told me to come.”

“When you leave here you will go see your mom again?”

“No. Eventually, sure, but not for a while.”

“You should be a good son and go to your mom.”

I was going to be a good son and go to Vietnam, actually. I didn’t say that, of course. I’d have to explain about my uncle, my name, and the flag my grandmother had left me—and even if Indira’s first language had been English, best-case scenario I still would have sounded like a “headline” from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

I thought:

COPS MAKE ARREST IN BATHROOM AFTER SMELLING CRACK

In my case:

MAN’S GRANDMOTHER DIES, TRAVELS TO VIETNAM

“You know what my problem is?” I asked.

“Oh come on. Only one?”

Maybe I hadn’t kicked it all the way up, but the thought that had been bothering me most of the afternoon came out as: “I’ll fly halfway around the world to humor someone else’s problems, but back home, I’m not sure I’d walk across the street for a solution to my own.”

“I have no idea what you said.”

“The teacher from Laos earns three dollars a day. Do you really believe her school paid for her plane ticket? She was eating raw string beans in the hotel lobby during lunch. She probably brought them from Laos. I know you’re not supposed to bring that kind of thing through customs, but my point is she’s not spending money on food. I have no idea how she could afford a plane ticket or a hotel, and yet she traveled to a foreign country to sit in Starbucks with a social awareness professor who hasn’t even realized that she can’t afford a cup of coffee. She came here because she wants something. Whatever it is, she’s desperate.”

I took a deep breath, slouched a bit in my chair, and tried to decompress.

We sat in silence for a long moment. Maybe Indira was trying to kick something loose in her own mind, or maybe she was just grateful for the respite. Finally, she said, “Now I am curious, too. How did she get here? Why did she come?”

I dug into my backpack and took out the breakfast coupons that Indira had given me about twelve hours ago. “She’s relentless,” I said. “That’s how she got here. That’s why she’s here.”

“Relentless?” Indira repeated. It was the first time she’d struggled with an English word. “It means what?”

I thought about a staircase in Korea, a hacky sack, and a girl who used to be a soccer prodigy. I said, “It means she’s a better teacher than I am. Will you give her my breakfast coupons, please? Tell her … something, whatever.”

“I will. Do not be sad, Mr. Strange.”

I stood and said, “Watch this.”

Indira and I walked over to the large group of teachers. Indira sat with them again. I said hello and introduced myself, and then I said, “I’m sorry I can’t stay. Maybe I can join you all tomorrow night.”

They all nodded happily, saying, “yes, yes, we will come back” and “you come join us.”

I looked at Indira and then touched the corners of my mouth with my index fingers, pushed them up slightly, and asked her, “You see?”

Jetlagged, not sad.

Right.

Add to your Goodreads shelf!

Add to your Goodreads shelf!

gates_header1

Gates Brown and the Gods of Baseball

The Sandlot meets Field of Dreams as three young brothers chase baseball immortality in this coming-of-age story from the best-selling and award-winning author of The Day Before 9/11The Rainy Season, and 11 Bombs.

Gates Brown and the Gods of BaseballMatty Ryan—or as he’s known on the sandlot, “Matt the Bat”—is desperate. For three long years he’s been battling his brothers and best friend for the title “Sandlot Home Run Champion” … but now time is running out for the baseball-crazed middle schooler.

The title will be won soon. He can feel it.

But for Matty and his brothers, something magical is in the air … and it’s bigger than a made-up title for a game played on a backyard sandlot. It’s an extraordinary talisman—a gift from the gods of baseball—and it has the power to make all their baseball dreams come true.

EXCERPT

PART I

“Mustard and Relish”

Gates Brown went to jail for a short spell as a teenager. He would later quip that in high school he’d taken some English, a little math, and a few hubcaps. A black male in mid-1950s Ohio would have found it exceedingly difficult to overcome such severe missteps during adolescence. Maybe it was a loving family member or a caring teacher that helped Gates Brown get his life on track. I don’t know, but if I had to guess I’d go with … a coach.

Whoever it was, Gates Brown could have wound up in jail long term—or worse, dead—but instead he was a profoundly different person in the 1960s. He was also a professional baseball player.

Gates Brown was not a superstar, but he was beloved in Detroit—which fate or luck or the gods of baseball had declared would be his home for the entirety of his thirteen major league seasons. Tiger Stadium was only one hundred and forty miles from the pasture where Gates Brown had played high school baseball.

He was in his sixth season as a part-time outfielder for the Detroit Tigers when he made national headlines in 1968 for his exploits on the diamond … though not entirely because of his skills. The always-pudgy Brown went into the clubhouse and grabbed a couple of hot dogs during a game, but before he’d finished eating, his manager sent him into the game as a pinch-hitter. Not one to waste good food, what he did next is what people primarily remember about his career: Brown stuffed the hot dogs inside his jersey to hide them from his manager, stepped up to the plate, and ripped a liner toward the right field gap.

It should have been an easy double, but the right fielder made a great play and cut the ball off before it could split the gap and roll to the fence.

Gates Brown was never fleet-footed, but he was a ballplayer and he knew how to hustle. He legged it out and slid safely into second on a bang-bang play. It was only after a few perplexed stares from the umpire and opposing players that he realized—much to his horror—that he had mustard and relish all over his jersey. Gates Brown hustled back to the dugout after the inning was over, despite the fact he must have known what was coming.

Mayo Smith was Detroit’s manager.

The ensuing conversation between Smith and Brown wasn’t for kids or the fainthearted. Smith cut loose a torrent of profanity, levied a $100 fine on the spot, launched a second profanity-laced diatribe, and then, eventually, he asked: “Why?”

Gates Brown smiled sheepishly. “I was hungry.”

As for his team, Detroit was the best in baseball and claimed the AL pennant with 103 regular season wins. The Tigers would face the NL champion St. Louis Cardinals in the 1968 World Series.

It was an epic showdown that featured some great individual performances—most notably in game one, when Cardinals’ ace Bob Gibson notched seventeen strikeouts to set a postseason record.

And here our story gets interesting …

In that same game, Mayo Smith sent Gates Brown on as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning. The fans in Busch Stadium barely noticed him. And why should they? Gates Brown was destined to be a number, just one more victim for Gibson.

But Gates Brown didn’t strike out.

He didn’t get a hit either. Gates Brown hit a lazy fly ball. The grainy black and white game footage shows Gates Brown hustling around first and on his way to second when the ball was caught in shallow left field. An easy, routine out.

Hardly dramatic.

Stay with me though. This is important. Gates Brown slowed a bit as he neared second base, and then he jogged across the infield grass and back to the Tigers dugout. Gibson’s masterpiece was complete a few minutes later and the Cardinals had won the opening game of the World Series.

In a best-of-seven series, and with the knowledge that the dominant Gibson would surely be pitching again in game four and, if necessary, a decisive game seven … it was literally do-or-die for Detroit in game two.

The Tigers won.

The series was tied a game apiece. However, Gates Brown did not play. He sat on the bench—sans hot dogs—for the entire game.

St. Louis won games three and four. Gates Brown was a spectator for both games. He never even sniffed the diamond. The Cardinals were one win away from clinching the World Series … but then the unthinkable happened.

Detroit won games five and six.

The series was tied, but no thanks to Gates Brown. He hadn’t gotten off the bench since game one. The only time he’d been on the field was during pregame warm-up. But the Tigers had rallied and forced a decisive game seven.

Against Bob Gibson.

Gibson’s record setting performance in game one had given the Cards a 4-0 victory. In game four the Cardinals had won 10-1 … and Bob Gibson had not only pitched his second complete game, but he’d also hit a two-run homer.

The odds were long against Detroit, but this was exactly what kids dream about as they race barefoot across backyard sandlots—long odds, a chance to be the hero, to win the big game and be the absolute best in baseball. Someone would have to step up for Detroit.

And why not Gates Brown?

Gates Brown must have thought he’d get a second chance. After all, he’d been called on to face Bob Gibson in game one … but fate or luck or the gods of baseball had a different plan. Gates Brown would not be the hero. He got one at bat as a pinch-hitter in game one, and then he never got off the pine for the rest of the series.

I learned about Gates Brown when I was a kid.

There were heroes on the diamond to close out the 1968 World Series. Gibson was dominant once again, but he was matched inning after inning by Mickey Lolich—and it was scoreless until the seventh. That’s when Jim Northrup stepped to the plate and won the World Series with a two-out, two-run triple … for Detroit.

Gates Brown was an improbable world champion.

But he would never be a hero.

I always wondered, how badly did it hurt after a lifetime of dreams and hard work to make it to the World Series … and then get only one at bat? It was the most painful baseball story I’d ever heard. Gates Brown would go on and play another seven years in the majors, but he never again made it to the World Series. A thirteen-year major league career … and yet Gates Brown is remembered for hot dogs, mustard and relish on his jersey.

PART II

“The Sandlot”

I grew up outside and barefoot in rural Florida. My town—think Podunk—had one stoplight, forty churches, sixty lakes and two thousand blue collar workers who mostly had to drive elsewhere to look for whatever work they could get. I had a big brother named Aaron and a kid brother named Eddie. My name is Matthew Ryan (no relation to Nolan, sadly), but my friends used to call me Matty or—my favorite—Matt the Bat, if we were on the sandlot behind my parents’ house.

I should probably clear up one thing right away: we did have good shoes, it’s just we wore them to church three times a week. If we wore them while traipsing through the woods or streaking around our sandlot base paths then we would have to clean them every Wednesday and twice on Sunday.

Barefoot, then.

I also said rural Florida. In reality, I meant forty-miles-to-the-nearest-fast-food-restaurant-rural Florida. Maybe that helps with the image in your mind. Add the ubiquitous four-wheel-drive trucks, gun racks, country music radio stations and Bibles, and now you’re closing in on the full picture.

It was the mid-1980s and I’d seen a few color TVs in Sears and Kmart, but cable hadn’t come to our neck of the woods and my parents weren’t willing to buy an expensive TV just to see our rabbit-ears-antenna-fuzz in color. But a friend of mine did get an Atari for his birthday. Pong and Asteroids were all the rage for about three weeks, and then life got back to normal. For my ninth birthday I got a pellet gun. It was taken away three days later when I won a bet with Aaron, who didn’t think I could hit our dad’s dog in the butt as it chased a squirrel across our backyard.

I had my own baseballs, bats, gloves and hats—we all did.

I also had one thing no one else did: an enormous cowlick. It was cute for a three-year-old. Not so much for a ten-year-old ballplayer. Aaron would take off his batting helmet and his drenched hair would be matted against his forehead. Just like a real ballplayer. My hair would be matted for about two seconds, and then an obstinate sun-bleached lock would pop up and begin doing the wave.

One night I found a grainy black-and-white picture of my dad. He had a shaved head and an army uniform. I asked my dad, “Were you a soldier?”

He nodded, and then took away the picture.

It would take a few more years for me to understand how a granite wall in Washington could bring my dad to tears, but for the moment it was enough that I asked him, “Can you shave my head?” That night I sat shirtless in the yard, and I cheered when the mighty cowlick fell to its death. It took three or four rounds of butchering with a well-oiled pair of scissors, and then came the water hose, disposable razors and shaving cream. Then it was done, and I felt like a real ballplayer. I felt like a man. It was an amazing childhood. I wish I had appreciated it more then. Maybe it always works that way.

Aaron was fourteen months older and a year ahead of me in school; Eddie was five years younger. And no, my story is not about “middle child syndrome.” But did I get upset when my teachers greeted me on the first day of school with “oh Aaron was just the best student ever”? Sure, a little. Was it annoying that Eddie got to do “big boy” things when he was just a tike? Maybe.

Okay, I was in the middle … but I wasn’t stuck.

Me, Aaron and Eddie were close. If Aaron was an ace student and teachers’ pet who also received an unbelievable amount of attention from cheerleaders, then I was cool with it. If Eddie had twice the personality and life experiences of any kid his age in the entire state of Florida, well, good for him. At least I had one thing going in my favor. Ace student? Beloved by teachers and cheerleaders? Crack sense of humor? An abundance of good luck? Ha, not even close.

Something better.

Off-the-charts better … because I was Matt the Bat, and I could hit a baseball a country mile.

Atlanta had a terrible baseball team—it’s just a fact—but Dale Murphy was my hero and lazy summer nights were spent rooting for the hapless Braves as they struggled to achieve something close to mediocrity on the AM dial. My parents built the first and only house they would ever own during this same period of time. My dad had been an outstanding high school athlete. My mom had won a beauty pageant in college. They’d met, married, and set out to build their own version of the American dream.

Now my dad was a businessman and my mom was, well … Super Mom. Paul, my best friend who you’ll meet shortly, once said, “Hey, Matty, think your mom can throw us some extra batting practice?”

You see?

Super Mom.

My dad carried a few extra pounds thanks to job-related stress and long years spent behind a desk—but that didn’t slow him from playing ball with his sons. He’d race home at lunch for a quick game of catch, and then in the evenings he’d hit us fly balls until literal bats—the nocturnal kind—came out to play in the darkness.

Soon after we moved into the new house a man came around with a huge tractor and backhoe. He hauled away a few trees. He trimmed countless limbs. He worked magic with the earth and rid the yard of wild shrubs … and lo and behold, when the work was completed our backyard had been transformed into a sandlot diamond with an in-ground swimming pool in the deepest recesses of centerfield.

We spent countless hours on our sandlot.

The best game in town was plastic baseball. It wasn’t wiffle ball in the sense you see kids playing today—it was baseball, but the bats and balls were made of hard plastic. We played games, kept stats, tracked won-loss records, home run totals, single game records … the level of detail in our record keeping was astounding. Our friends came over and we’d play, argue, fight, play, argue, fight … and play some more.

After all, we were boys.

And speaking of friends … I met Paul for the first time when he was three hours old—which made me about two-and-a-half hours old. Our moms shared the same doctor and delivery and recovery rooms in the hospital. Call it fate or luck or divine intervention from the gods of baseball, but Paul’s family lived in the same backwoods Podunk town as my mom and dad. We were practically neighbors, and soon we’d be teammates. Paul and I would play our first official game together as five-year-old tee ballers, and we would play our last game together as high school seniors. Our first game would be glorious. Our last game would destroy my life.

I learned many baseball stories from my Grandpa Joe—Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in the World Series; Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech; Ted Williams’ home run in the final at bat of his career—but my favorite was Josh Gibson. If you believe the legend, then Gibson, who was an iconic Negro Leagues player, had once hit a baseball completely out of Yankee Stadium.

For the record, I believed it.

It was a feat that no major league player had ever achieved. In fact, most people thought it was impossible. But it was the ultimate goal for sluggers … and I was Matt the Bat, remember? The backwoods and often backward Podunk town where we grew up was a long way from the Bronx, but why should our goals and dreams be any different? The tree line in our backyard had been trimmed to create a natural and very reachable sandlot home run fence in left and right field, but the house and covered back patio that were beyond the swimming pool in straightaway center were a bonus gift from the gods of baseball.

This was our Yankee Stadium.

We had a solemn conversation during our inaugural sandlot season. Paul said, “I don’t think it’s possible.”

Aaron, in his intellectually-superior tone, said, “The wind will be stronger in the afternoons. It could help like it does sometimes at Wrigley Field. I think we should chart home run balls and wind direction.”

For a long beat no one said anything … but then Eddie, Paul and I laughed raucously. You see our parents had banned verbal insults and hand gestures from our backyard sandlot and the consequences for even the mildest violation were swift and severe. A “stupid!” would earn a one-week suspension from all sandlot-related activity. So we adapted and used over-the-top non-verbal cues instead. The right look or an exuberant laugh could adequately convey “stupid!” or pretty much anything else we didn’t want to be caught saying.

Aaron’s face turned red. “Fine.”

I said, “First one to hit a home run over the house should get a title.”

“A title?” Aaron repeated.

“Yeah. Like Hank Aaron is the All-Time Home Run King. First one to hit a ball over the house should be called the Sandlot Home Run Champion.”

“I like it,” Paul said.

Aaron shrugged. “Fine. But we need rules.”

Paul laughed again. “You need rules. The rest of us are cool.”

Aaron ignored the comment. “It can’t bounce off the patio and over the roof. It can’t bounce off anything and over the roof. It has to clear the backside of the roof on the fly. Got it?”

Paul said, “Write it down Einstein.”

“Got it?” Aaron said again.

Paul smirked.

Eddie nodded solemnly.

“Got it,” I said, and then we spent the rest of the day trying to hit a plastic baseball completely out of our Yankee Stadium.

Anna was my age and strawberry-blond with tiny red freckles on her cheeks and nose. We had met in fourth grade when I was forced to sit beside her on a crowded school bus. After a few awkward minutes, Anna had whispered, “You smell like fish.”

I shrugged. “I went fishing.”

“Before school?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh.”

We had been bus seatmates—and maybe even friends—ever since. But now we were in junior high, and suddenly Anna lost her baby fat and grew three inches taller than me. It bothered me at first, because I had been waiting for the growth spurt my parents said was on its way. But then Paul and some of my friends had begun hassling Anna about her recent pimples outbreak. That bothered me too, only in a different sort of way.

It was very confusing.

On this particular Friday afternoon, Anna and I were seated in the middle of the bus and on our way home from school. Eddie and his elementary school pals sat a few rows ahead of us. Aaron and Paul sat a few rows behind us.

Anna told me, “You’re in a crabby mood.”

“I have a problem.”

“You have two brothers plus Paul. If you only have one problem, consider yourself lucky.”

I did a quick three-sixty to make sure no one else could hear me, and then I said, “Aaron hit a monster home run last week.”

Anna’s face twisted into “give-me-a-break” mode. She said, “You’re so weird, Matty.”

“I thought for sure it was going to clear the house. I got lucky because the wind had died five minutes earlier. If the wind had been blowing to center—”

“And you’re pathetic.”

“What? Why?”

“I know all about the home run competition. It’s all you’ve talked about for three years. But now you have an actual problem staring you in the face, and you’re so obsessed with baseball that you haven’t even noticed it yet. Pathetic.”

“Actual problem?”

Anna rolled her eyes. “The one we talked about during lunch today.”

In reply, I gave my best “look-who’s-loony-now” expression—a carryover from my parents hard and fast rule about insults on the sandlot.

“You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

I gathered my backpack. “Next stop is mine.”

“We only have one week left until summer, Matty.”

“Right. You mentioned that at lunch. You see? I was listening.”

Anna rolled her eyes a second time just as the bus came to a stop in front of my parents’ house. “You’re such a lost cause. Good luck with your baseball game.”

Now I smiled. “Thanks, see you Monday.”

Anna shook her head coyly and gave me a folded piece of paper.

“What’s this?”

“A note, obviously. You moron.”

No girl had ever passed me a note. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Just read it! Okay?”

A chorus of oohs and aahs made its way up and down the aisle. Anna’s face was crimson, and she turned toward the window to try and hide it. I felt more confused than ever. “See you Monday,” I said, again.

I raced up our long driveway and inside the house as Paul and Aaron assaulted me with typical junior high barbs regarding Anna, her feverish face, and the note I was guarding so closely it could have been a Honus Wagner tobacco card.

As for my quest to be “Sandlot Home Run Champion” … Anna had been right. We’d been chasing that title for three long and exceptionally frustrating years. Eddie wasn’t a serious threat because of his age and size—but I hadn’t added any inches or pounds in months, and now Aaron was in the midst of a full-on pedal-to-the-metal growth spurt. I felt panicked and stressed. It was a huge problem, and it was made worse by the fact Aaron had nearly won the title last week. I hung a breaking ball out over the plate and Aaron’s eyes had lit up big as saucers. If he’d been wearing shoes then he’d have come out of them. That’s how fast and hard he jumped on that mistake of a pitch.

I hung my head as soon as the ball left the bat.

Aaron had flipped the bat and yelled, “Go! Go! Go!”

Paul was in centerfield and he yelled, “No! No! No!”

Eddie was playing left-center, and he tore after it, as if he could leap and bring it back. Fat chance. It was long gone, an absolute bomb. And then at the last possible fraction of a second, the ball had inexplicably and gloriously dived. It was easily the farthest of the thousands of home runs we’d hit during the past three years, but it hit the awning ten feet short of sandlot immortality.

Aaron was furious.

Paul was giddy.

Eddie was encouraging. “Aaron, that was so close! You almost did it!”

I felt relieved, but it was short-lived. Aaron’s rapidly developing muscles were a majorproblem. Now it was Friday afternoon, one week until summer vacation. The title would be won soon. I could feel it. I had to do something drastic, and fast.

I thought about a fight Aaron and I had a few months earlier. He had punched me in the stomach, and then lied about it to our parents. Aaron had gotten away with it, because his punch hadn’t left any visible marks on my body and our parents didn’t know which one of us was lying … which gave me an idea.

Aaron would bat first this afternoon. I took the mound, with Paul in centerfield and Eddie in left-center. On our sandlot it was possible to field nine-man teams or play one-on-one or any other combination.

We were limited only by our imaginations.

We used a tin barrel salvaged from our great-grandmother’s farm as a makeshift catcher and ball-strike umpire. It sat on its side with an old office chair offering support. A fastball that hit inside the barrel made a distinctive ping, but whether or not it actually hit inside the barrel was irrelevant to our game—any pitch that hit the barrel was an automatic called strike.

It was mistake-free, and a perfect umpire.

Sometimes a breaking ball would land inside the barrel and the spin would cause it to circle furiously like a wheel being spun by a mouse. It was kind of cool, especially if the pitch had been taken as a called third strike.

We modified a few baseball rules for our sandlot: two outs an inning, “pitcher’s hand” and “ghost runners” to name a few. For “pitcher’s hand” to work on bang-bang plays the batter would yell “safe!” when his foot hit the bag at first, and the pitcher would yell “out!” when he caught the ball—either by fielding it, or receiving a throw from another fielder.

We even had double plays.

If a “ghost runner” was on base in a force out situation, then the pitcher could get a double play by fielding the ball and touching the pitcher’s mound before the batter reached first base.

On this Friday afternoon, my first pitch drilled Aaron on his left thigh. Aaron nearly violated our parents’ rule. “Ouch! Watch it—”

“Careful,” I chided. “Use a wordy dird and you’ll be on the patio all weekend long.”

Aaron took a calming breath. “Man on first. Don’t hit me again.”

I nodded, and then drilled Aaron in the back.

“Hey!”

“Sorry,” I lied.

“First and second,” Aaron said, angrily.

My next three pitches were in the dirt, and now Aaron was angry and frustrated. Perfect.

“Three balls, no strikes,” Aaron said.

I nodded, and then drilled him for the third time.

Are you kidding me?” he yelled.

I shrugged, as nonchalant as possible. “If I’m gonna walk you, I might as well hit you.”

“You turd!”

“Got you,” I said.

Eddie yelled, “Mom! Aaron is cussing at Matty!”

Aaron shook the bat at me. “You did that on purpose.”

I smiled, smugly. “Prove it.”

Aaron had to sit on the back patio and watch us play the rest of the afternoon. He should have been suspended for a week, but apparently my smugness had tipped off our mom that something else was going on. But for the moment I didn’t have to worry about Aaron stealing my title.

I’d worry about it again tomorrow.

That night I closed my bedroom door, sat on the floor, and unfolded Anna’s note. In large block letters she’d written, “You should call me this summer. I’ll come watch you play baseball.” Beneath it she’d written her phone number.

Call me?

I had never called a girl. It felt weird—maybe even good—but I had no idea what I was supposed to do.

I woke early on Saturday and played fungo while Aaron and Eddie slept. A fungo is a special bat used during fielding practice—but it was also one of our favorite words, and used generically fungo could mean practice or even a solo game.

It was also a great euphemism.

“I’m going to hit some fungoes” with carefully placed emphasis was a not-so-subtle threat between brothers—and we generally got away with using it.

The game fungo was great because no one had to pitch or run bases. The batter would simply toss a ball in the air and hit it as far as possible, and then we used our game experience to judge if it was an out or a base hit. A game was ten swings, an out was minus two points, and a hit was one point per base. A perfect game was forty points—ten home runs—but a typical score was a more realistic twenty points.

I had already played six or seven games when Aaron opened the back door and yelled, “Paul will be here in five minutes! Five minutes to game time!”

Aaron slammed the door shut.

The living room was on the other side of the back door. It had a large window, and I could see Eddie and Aaron racing about and getting ready to play. I have no explanation for what happened next. I panicked, obviously. But why?

Because—

Today.

It’s going to be won today.

—I had a sense, a premonition that I couldn’t ignore.

Aaron opened the back door and yelled, “Three minutes! Three minutes to game time!” Aaron slammed the door again, and I knew the next time it opened that it would be too late. I was out of time, and I had no other choice but to run full speed to centerfield and hurl a ball high into the air and over the house … and that’s exactly what I did.

I ran inside and screamed, “I did it! I did it!”

Aaron turned pale. “No, no, no!”

I raced out the front door with Aaron, Eddie and my parents close behind. I found the yellow plastic baseball and said, “You see it! You see it!”

My dad picked it up. “Congratulations, Matty! Matt the bat, Sandlot Home Run Champion!”

I began to jump up and down. “Yes, yes, yes!

Aaron yelled, “No, it doesn’t count!”

“Yes it does! I did it!”

Aaron shook his head violently. “It wasn’t a game situation! No one was pitching! That’s a rule, someone has to be pitching!”

“You’re jealous. Stop making up rules!”

Aaron began to plead. “But dad…”

“Hold on, son. Everyone calm down. Matty did hit a home run over the roof—”

“Yes I did, I really did!”

My dad hesitated a beat. “That’s what I said, Matty.”

“But—”

My mom said, “Matty?” She said it with the voice. The one every mom keeps in her arsenal. An awkward half-a-beat later my parents recognized the full truth buried beneath my vehemence.

“Busted,” Aaron said gleefully.

“Shut up, turd!”

Which only made things worse. I had to sit on the back patio and watch Aaron, Eddie and Paul play without me for a solid week—and unlike big league players, I didn’t get an appeal or an arbitration hearing. It was the longest week of my life, and all these years later I still remember the day my suspension was over. It was a magical day, and it changed everything. It was the same day Gates Brown came into our lives.

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Contents

Part I

“Mustard and Relish”

Part II

“The Sandlot”

Part III

“The Talisman”

Part IV

“Curses”

Part V

“Heroes”