Benji had made it all the way to sixth grade and, without his explicit consent in the matter, had moved four times. This was his fifth. It was the middle of the school year and he had learned the hard way not to have any expectations. The cafeteria was probably going to suck, he doubted there would be a cartoon drawing class, and he braced himself for the inevitable challenge of making friends. There was a Harvard study a bunch of years ago that spent a bazillion dollars on the smartest people trying to find the secret to happiness and at the end of the highly anticipated study, this is what they came up with: low expectations. People who expect the least are the happiest in their lives. Benji was heavily counting on these Ivy League brains.
Moving in grade school was one thing: it was annoying but tolerable and someone always wanted to play Leggos so he knew how to cross that social bridge. But this was middle school. There were now cliques and hormones and classes and dress codes that you couldn’t BS your way through. And it was a fucking beast.
Benji got the usual introduction in homeroom where he stood in front of the class to be judged from head to toe like his grandmother picking out a pineapple at the market.
“Benji is from North Carolina. Please give him a warm, Florida welcome. Get it? ‘Warm?;” Mr. Scott was so pleased with his joke that he didn’t bother noticing his student's lack of, well, warmth.
The kids in room 104 looked just as disinterested as you might expect. Benji returned the gaze. Something was different about this group of students. At every other school, it was pretty easy to classify the jocks or the dorks or the teacher’s pets. In this particular room, all the kids seemed kind of, well, similar. They all appeared to be friends. A very, very, tight-knit group of friends.
At lunch, they milled around and talked to each other, sharing high fives and jokes and showing off skateboard tricks on the pavement. Benji sat alone. It sucked. He tried to pretend that he was utterly fascinated by what his mom had packed for lunch, the trajectory of the cracks in the playground cement, and a lone seagull circling the parking lot, but there really wasn’t much in the open yard barely shaded by palm trees to get his attention. He chastised himself for not remembering his drawing pad. That was Benji’s thing, drawing cartoon characters. But he’d moved in the middle of the year and hadn’t gotten into the art class.
It was January, everyone had just gotten back from winter break and had new gadgets and clothes to show off to their friends. Benji didn’t. So he would doodle in the margins of his notebook throughout class and practice his animation in his real sketch pad during lunch and free periods. Weeks went by and he was still spending every Friday night alone. He tried to talk to people, he swore up and down to his mom that he was making an effort, but it just wasn’t working and he didn’t know why, and NO HE DID NOT WANT HER TO TALK TO THE PRINCIPAL. After that suggestion, Benji started lying at dinner about his social life.
“Yeah, and today I worked on pre-algebra with Gina.”
“Gina?” His mom would light up.
“Yeah, Gina. She’s a… Capricorn.” Benji and his mom had spent enough time together in his twelve years on the planet that he knew exactly how to lie to his horoscope-devoted only parent.
“That’s great! Do you know what her rising sign is?”
Benji pretended to be busy with his quesadilla and his mom answered a call from one of the other nurses on her floor so Benji was free to doodle on his art pad. He was split on the whole making friends thing. He knew how crappy afternoons and weekends were when there was no one to call. He knew how much better school days could be with a crew you looked forward to seeing. But, he also knew how much work it took to make this whole social life thing happen and he wasn’t convinced that his mom would keep them in Sarasota long enough to make it worthwhile.
You know this drill if you’ve had to move as a kid. It’s sort of a waiting game, a try-and-see scenario where you try to numb yourself to wanting friends but also keep yourself on the constant lookout for someone who might want to hang out with you. It was exhausting and Benji was lonely. Even when his mom bought him a new art set, it didn’t land quite right. Nowadays, we would have called him depressed. In the 90s, it was just called “life.”
The art set had a bunch of clear (or white, he can’t remember) oil pastels. So you could draw a cool picture that was basically invisible until you water-color-ed over it and then the white would contrast against the background. This, and the new roadside fruit stands he’d discovered in the Southern state that he now called home, were the only two things that made him happy. This was until he met Brigette.
Brigette wasn’t new but she’d been moved up from the 5th grade elementary school class because she was either incredibly smart or pissing off her teacher or, most likely, both. She immediately took a liking to Benji and sat with him under the half-dead palm tree that he’d commandeered as his lunch space.
“You’re a really good artist,” she said, blowing bits of her salami sandwich onto his sketch pad as she leaned way too closely over his shoulder. “You’re really good. You should show the other kids. Then, they might like you.”
Brigette was full of all kinds of good ideas.
“Just let me do my thing,” Benji had accurately assessed that being friends with no one was a better social strategy than being friends with Brigette.
“Why are you drawing in CLEAR?” she wanted to know, ripping into a pack of Doritos, spraying a cloud of orange dust over his white paper. Benji tried to blow off the nacho-flavored coating.
“Look,” he explained, pulling out the painting kit, complete with a container of water and a soft, fine brush. He thoughtfully dipped through a rainbow of colors, washing the background of the piece in colors that reminded him of a sunset over the ocean in North Carolina. The clear drawings practically popped off the page; a city-scape with Benji’s original superheroes flying across the neon sky. Brigette was appropriately impressed.
“Ohhh, I get it,” she crooned, not so gently taking the piece into her own orange-coated hands to inspect it further, “It’s like your secret work and then there’s, like, a big reveal.”
Benji’s annoyance with Brigette was momentarily stilted as he felt secretly flattered by her interpretation of his work.
The recess bell rang and the class clamored to the trash bins to empty their chip bags and pop cans and then lined up for Mrs. Antonio’s math class. This was Benji’s least favorite part of the day. The kids in this period were especially rough and Mrs. Antonio was seven hundred years old, always left her hearing aids in the teacher’s lounge, and never had a clue what was going on when her back was turned. Benji felt the pit in his stomach contract.
The kids filed into the math room, sticky with sweat from the humid recess. Benji had to sit in front since all the other seats were taken. He put down his notebook and popped over to the water fountain. It had been almost two months of living in the Sunshine State and he was still in disbelief at how hot the days could be. When he got back to his desk, his drawings were gone. Benji didn’t think that his heart could sink lower than post-lunch math class but, hey, it just did.
The kids were passing around his superhero drawings, being exactly as kind and polite as you’d expect.
“What is this? It makes no sense. Why is the drawing in white? What a WIERDO.”
Benji felt his face burn with painful embarrassment. His notepad got tossed around from one bully to the next. Benji’s first instinct was to run. He was sure he could find his way to a Northbound Greyhound bus and maybe find his grandmother in New Hampshire. No, he wasn’t sure of that at all. But he was sure that running away was, presently, his only option.
“SHOW THEM WHY YOU DO IT,” yelled a very helpful Brigette from the corner where she was skipping ahead three chapters to quadratic equations.
Scanning the room, Benji weighed his options. He didn’t even know which town in the North his grandma called home. He sighed with the breath that he didn’t realize that he’d been holding.
“Look,” he explained to the NFL linebacker-looking sixth grader, and he pulled his clear oil pastel out of his knapsack.
“You just draw on a surface and then you can see the drawing as soon as there’s a background to contrast it.”
The pro-football-sized kid did not understand this at all. Benji should have known better than to have been so surprised.
And he doesn’t know why he did what he did next.
Maybe he was so anxious, so lonely, so no-fucks-left to give? Maybe he felt empowered by the fact that he knew that he would come home before the end of the school year to his mom packing their suitcases and telling him that they were leaving this miserable state. Who knows? Benji honestly doesn’t remember. But something got into him at that specific moment on that specific day. He took his white pastel and marched up to the whiteboard, quickly drawing something with more skill than any kid in that class could have done.
“We can’t even see it!” Said the mini Dan Marino.
Before Benji could explain, Mrs. Antonio shuffled her polyester-clad self into the math room for what could have been the hundred-thousandth time in her life.
“Class, we have a lot of work to do today. Take out your notebooks and copy exactly what I’m putting up here.”
There were the usual sounds of grumbling and shuffling papers and looking for pencils, but the class eventually settled and began writing out the lesson that Mrs. Antonio was enumerating.
Her red marker squiggled across the whiteboard like Matt Damon solving an equation in Good Will Hunting. And did she notice the clear lines where Benji’s artistic endeavor had left their mark? Nope. She kept on writing, filling up most of the white space with her large, loopy cursive. It didn’t take long for it to be way, way too late.
She stepped back from the board, now absolutely filled with red x’s and lines and numbers and symbols, and began to explain, in a voice that had solved for x close to a million times, what exactly was happening on the wall behind her. Which is funny, because she had no idea what was happening on the wall behind her.
So very clearly, for all to see, standing out in clear where the dry-erase marker couldn’t penetrate, was a detailed and impressively drawn penis. And that’s when all mayhem broke loose.
The students first started chuckling, then laughing, then laughing so hard they snorted and sneezed and swept tears from their cheeks. Even Dan Marino couldn’t contain himself, falling to the linoleum floor, clutching his stomach as he gasped for air. Being seven hundred years old with a misplaced hearing aid, it took Mrs. Antonio some time to identify the problem. She, for whatever reason, didn’t find the same humor in the situation.
She marched back over to the board, trying to rub out the phallic but extremely artistic rendering. It was no use. Oil and water just don’t mix. Steam puffed out of Mrs. Antonio’s ears as the class’s laughter reached a deafening cacophony.
“Who did this?” She demanded with the force of a woman about to leave this earth for good.
Benji wished for nothing harder in his life at that moment for some kind of very sharp shovel or very powerful drill to blast through the grey classroom floor and disappear deep into whatever the next layer of earth was that he should have learned in geology. He knew this was it for him. Mrs. Antonio was the kind of teacher who would not tolerate any sort of penis joke and he would probably get suspended and absolutely wreck his poor mother and then he’d be an outcast from the teachers on top of the kids hating him. And, if his mom didn’t pack up their lives and move, he had three years left at this miserable institution. He closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable. Someone would call out his name and it would all be over.
“You tell me who did this or you will all spend the afternoon in detention.”
The laughing continued. No one said a word. Benji tried to sneak a glance around the room without drawing any kind of attention to himself. No one looked at him in any particular way.
“YOU WILL ALL BE IN DETENTION FOR THE ENTIRE WEEK!” Mrs. Antonio had now pulled a bottle of Windex out of the coat closet and was going to work on the whiteboard, making nothing but a red, streaky mess behind the thoughtfully drawn phallus, making it stand out even more, like the sunset behind the superheroes in his notebook. SHIT. His notebook!
Benji scanned the room. It was on Dan Marino’s desk. He caught his tormenter’s eye. Without so much as a nod, Dan slipped the pad into his own backpack. What did that mean? Well, it meant a lot.
“THAT IS IT!” Mrs. Antonio bellowed. “Detention! All of you! Every. Single. Day. This. Week.” But no one even looked at Benji. No one, not for a second, even looked like they might give him up. This school’s social scene had been impossible to break into. Wow, he thought, these kids stick together.
Even Brigette seemed to have gotten the message. And that was saying a lot.
That week, Benji had a social activity every afternoon for that entire week of school, as far as his mother was concerned.
As far as his drawing and probably taking years off the life of Mrs. Antonio and subjecting every single person in his class to mandatory after-school study hall, well, it went a little different than Benji, whose anxiety was threatening to murder him right then and there, could have imagined. Because every single day before the bell let out, Mrs. Antonio would give the kids an out.
“Tell me who did it and no one has to stay.” And the room would be… silent. Every day someone would slide a note to Benji asking for a cartoon of themselves. And every day, he seemed to make another friend. And, every day, Mrs. Antonio, who also didn’t see very well, would forget where the invisible penis was indelibly etched into her whiteboard, drawing over the lines with her red pen, making the drawing extra visible for all to see.
For the remainder of the year, Mrs. Anotonio’s math class consisted of one Mrs. Antonio, nineteen students, one whiteboard, and one penis. It was finally replaced over the summer. In September, the kids arrived in the classroom and felt quite disappointed. The penis drawing had almost become a friend within the foes of algebra.
There’s a lesson here. Not just about childhood or friendship or sticking together. The lesson is about penis jokes. They bring people together and are awesome and they never get old. The drawing still made every single kid in the class crack up every single math day for the rest of the year. So that’s the story of how Benjamin Beauregard made a whole lot of friends. Legend has it that the penis incident is what finally made Mrs. Antonio retire. So, really, a happy ending for everyone.