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Next: DAD'S COOL Up: No Title Previous: LEAH'S STORIES


In high school, we were friends for awhile with a young history teacher named Mr. Evans.

Mr. Evans was small, bearded and very skinny, and extremely clever and amusing. His parents had emigrated from Ireland, and he loved to talk. Mom especially was impressed by his wit, and they enjoyed spending time together. But Mr. Evans was really closer to our generation than to Mom and Dad's. He had an apartment near our house, and when he gave Vicky and me rides to school he let us smoke in his car. When folk dancing became an official school club it needed a faculty sponsor, and Mr. Evans volunteered. He was perfect, since he already came to folk dancing anyway (though he just watched, never danced), and so having him there did not interfere at all with the fun, as almost any other teacher's presence would have.

Mr. Plotkin, the art teacher, was a lot older than Mr. Evans but also a cool guy (his beautiful young wife was a former high school student of his). Mr. Plotkin had once taken a university course in film-making, and had a sixteen millimeter camera. I was a junior when Mr. Evans came up with the idea of a group of students making a movie, with his and Mr. Plotkin's help. (This was years before video cameras came along; making a movie was a very unusual project for high school kids.)

About six of us began by meeting at Mr. Evans's apartment and brainstorming for a plot. I wanted to do something with a slightly fantastic element to it. Mr. Evans didn't have many actual suggestions, but his presence created a certain pressure on us to come up with something, and he did not hesitate to express his opinions of our ideas. In a few meetings we put together what we thought was a really good story, and came up with a title, ``The Magic Chalk.'' With guidelines from Mr. Plotkin, Bart and Nicole and I wrote a professional shooting script, organized into numbered scenes.

The story was about three little boys who find a piece of chalk on the school playground. They break it into three pieces, to share it. One boy immediately draws a picture of a lion on the blacktop; another draws a picture of a horse. The third boy can't think of what to draw, and grows more and more frustrated as he watches the other boys producing their masterpieces, drawing nothing himself, sighing and fingering the chalk.

One of the other boys looks up--and for the first time notices a statue of a lion across the street, in front of the city hall, very much like the picture he has just drawn. He is enchanted by it, and runs across the street to pet the cement lion. Then he dares to climb up on its back. He pretends to ride it through the jungle, joyously bouncing up and down. But soon a dour businessman comes out of the building and interrupts his fantasy, angrily makes the boy get off the lion, and sends him away humiliated.

The second boy, who has drawn a horse, skips away from the playground. Passing a diner, he sees a pinball machine through the window--with a picture of a horse on it, very much like the one he has just drawn. He hesitantly enters the diner, and watches the three tough teenagers who are playing pinball. When they leave the game to eat their hamburgers the boy takes over the machine. He inserts his one dime and begins to play, having a wonderful time, racking up a tremendous score. But the three toughs have been watching him from the counter, and soon one of them nastily slaps the machine, making it tilt. The boy's game is ruined, and his dime is lost. The toughs laugh while he tries to blink back his tears.

The third boy is still on the playground, still unable to draw anything, nervously bouncing his ball. He sees the other boys' pictures again. Even more frustrated now, unable to create a real drawing, he kneels down and scribbles an ugly jagged line, then angrily throws down the chalk and marches away.

He wanders into a seedier neighborhood, still bouncing his ball. He pauses by a storefront. A woman comes out of the store and rudely pushes him out of the way, glaring at him. He begins throwing the ball against the wall of an apartment building, near a window. Suddenly a man rushes out onto the fire escape and screams at him to go away. The boy looks wildly around, confronted on all sides by hateful graffiti, signs reading ``Violation'' and ``Stop.'' The man is still shouting at him. The boy squeezes his eyes shut and hurls the ball, which smashes the apartment window--in exactly the same shape as the line he scribbled with the broken piece of chalk.

He rushes away, back to the playground. There are the three ominously prophetic drawings and the strange piece of chalk, which is magically whole again. He reaches out for it, wondering if he should pick it up. Then he decides it is too dangerous and runs away. The camera pans back to the piece of chalk, which has written ``The End'' on the pavement.

Mr. Evans and Mr. Plotkin used the shooting script to apply for a grant from the school board. The grant was approved. Mr. Plotkin said the check was small, but might possibly be enough, if we were careful.

We shot most of the film over spring vacation. Mr. Plotkin was the cameraman. Danny and Tycho and a friend of theirs named Herman were the stars. We picked Herman because he was cutely missing one of his front teeth. Mr. Plotkin was unsure about this. From experience, he knew that we might need additional shots later, and was afraid Herman might have grown a new tooth by then. ``If that happens, I'll just knock it out,'' little Mr. Evans assured him with a genial chuckle. That didn't become necessary. (Though during shooting we often did have to send Herman home to put on the same clothes he'd worn the day before. His mother, who did not at first understand about continuity, wanted him to look nice in the movie, and kept putting different, clean clothes on him every day.)

Tycho was six, Herman was seven, and Danny, who was eight, played the leading role of the frustrated boy who can't create anything, and breaks the window. Dad was the dour businessman, Mom the glaring shopper, and I was one of the toughs in the diner. Vicky, the most photogenic of us all, was oddly enough the only person in the family who did not act in the film.

Tycho and Herman didn't really act. We just told them what to do, and they were so young that they usually behaved naturally in front of the camera. Tycho had his stubborn moments though, especially because we kept asking him to do the same things over and over again. All the scenes had to be shot many times, to be sure we would have several good takes and different camera angles to choose from when editing later. Tycho was in an especially bad mood the day we shot the scene when he sees the lion. He was supposed to look up from his drawing, suddenly notice the lion statue, and beam in surprise and delight. But Tycho was sick of this, he refused to smile, in take after take he would just look up and pout sullenly at the camera. We were wasting a lot of expensive film.

Finally Vicky and I figured out what to do. We stood behind the camera, and when Tycho looked up we suddenly began making the most obscene and violent gestures we could think of. His face lit up in an expression of innocent childish bliss. ``Cut and print!'' cried Mr. Plotkin.

We also had trouble with Herman at the end of the pinball scene. He was unable to cry on cue, but instead kept grinning at the camera, showing his missing tooth. Mr. Evans solved this problem by making him stare directly into the brightest light for several minutes, ordering him not to turn his head or close his eyes whenever he tried to look away. Soon we had a perfect shot of Herman blinking back tears.

Danny was old enough to know how to act. The nervous, frustrated role suited him, and he never had any problems scowling at Tycho on cue. He also responded well to coaching from Mr. Evans, who seemed especially concerned with the depiction of this particular character.

Danny was also very adept with the ball. We didn't really break an apartment house window. We broke windows in a deserted building downtown that was about to be demol-ished, filming every smash of the glass. We gave Danny the fun of throwing the ball through many of the windows himself, though Mr. Evans playfully insisted on breaking some of them too. We studied the broken windows and picked the one with the simplest, most easily recognizable shape. Then Mr. Plotkin took several still photographs of it. A few days later, using the photographs, he made a series of dots on the schoolyard pavement. All Danny had to do was quickly connect the dots with the chalk, to make a line the same shape as the shattered window.

Editing turned out to be more fun than shooting. Now we were in control; we didn't have the little brats to deal with any more. We didn't touch the original negatives, but used a cheap workprint, which was cut up into individual shots, each numbered and hung from a wire with a clothes-pin. We worked in Mr. Evans's small apartment, which was soon completely taken over by dangling strips of film. We rented a machine called a ``Movieola,'' through which we could run the pieces of film and watch them on a little screen.

The fun of editing was that you could play around with the storytelling. Once you'd selected the best take of a particular shot, for instance, you could cut it in half and then insert a piece of another shot into the middle of it, to keep the camera moving between closeups and long shots, and from one face to another. It was magical the way you could take scenes that had been shot on different days, in completely the wrong order, and rearrange them on screen to make them flow naturally together. Bart and Nicole and I came up with many clever maneuvers while editing that we had never thought of when we were writing the script.

We also made an effort to cut out everything that wasn't completely necessary, to pare down the scenes as much as possible. Mr. Plotkin did not participate in the editing--he was busy with his family now, and his duties as cameraman were completed. But he did give us some pointers before we started. ``It's easy to fall in love with a shot and let it drag on longer than it has to,'' he told us. ``Shorter is always better, even if it's just by a few seconds.'' We took him seriously, and forced ourselves to discard some of our most beloved footage--though often we had to persuade Mr. Evans, who didn't want to cut so much. We started with six and a half hours of usable film and ended up with a thirty-one minute movie.

Bart and Nicole and I did the editing during the summer before my senior year. Mr. Evans worked the movieola, but the rest of us had most of the ideas. Bart and Nicole often had to go home earlier than I did, and Mr. Evans and I would stay alone in his apartment working late. We got to be very good friends. He was twenty-three, only six years older than I was, near enough in age so that he didn't seem like a real adult. But he was also old enough to appear to be an authority on many things I was just beginning to experience myself. Soon I was telling him everything about my life.

I was a little depressed one evening because it had finally hit me that someone I was attracted to had no interest in me that way at all. Mr. Evans assured me that this happened to almost everyone; it did not mean that I was unlovable or unattractive myself. To make me feel better, he described the recommendation he had written about me to Harvard. It said, among other things, that I was the most creative and imaginative person he had ever met in his life. It cheered me up quite a bit to hear that. Mr. Evans asked me not to tell anyone, even my parents and best friends, that he had mentioned the recommendation to me, and of course I promised that I wouldn't.

Once Mr. Evans and I drove to Chicago with a married couple he was friends with, so that I could interview at the university there. Mom and Dad did not want me to stay in the motel with these adults, and had arranged for me to sleep at the apartment of some friends of theirs I had never met. We arrived in Chicago at dinner time, and instead of stopping off first at this apartment we went directly to a Greek restaurant. The restaurant was a lot of fun because there was a belly dancer who would dance especially for you if you inserted money into various parts of her costume. Since my budget was very limited, Mr. Evans gave me several dollar bills for this purpose. He was very appreciative of the belly dancer, and she spent a lot of time at our table, joking with us as well as dancing. It was almost two in the morning when they finally dropped me off at the apartment of these strangers. The husband had waited up for me, and started yelling as soon as he let me in the door. I felt terrible.

After the interview the next day we went to a beach on Lake Michigan. I was a little shocked by Mr. Evans's scrawny and densely hirsute body--there was so much long black hair all over him that you could barely get a glimpse of the pasty-white skin underneath. I had never seen anything like it, (and later described it to all my friends). We ate in a French restaurant that night, and when I got home from Chicago I made the mistake of telling Mom I had paid $4.95 for canard a l'orange. She was horrified that I had spent all that money on one meal. She did not seem to find Mr. Evans quite so charming after that.

Meanwhile, I was composing the musical score for ``The Magic Chalk.'' This was more fun than other pieces I had written before, because the music was telling a story. I timed every shot to the second, and then, with projector and screen set up beside the piano, played along with the movie. I loved making the music fit into the exact number of seconds of each particular sequence. And I began to learn how much control the composer has over the emotional impact of the film. I experimented with different sounds, and saw that the same footage could come across as ominous or wistful, tense or humorous, depending on what music I put to it.

At the beginning of my senior year we premiered the film on a Friday and Saturday night at the high school auditorium. We advertised it in advance, with silk-screened posters Nicole made, based on a shot of Tycho in the film. We performed the music live, which was written for a five-piece ensemble with me at the piano. It was a joyous occasion for me. My name appeared many times in the credits, and I loved coming across in public as the genius who had co-written the film, acted in it, edited it, and composed and performed the musical score.

Mr. Evans' name appeared in the credits once. Though he had not directly contributed anything creative--in the story, shooting, editing or music--he did not hesitate to go around telling people during the intermission, and at the party afterwards, that he was the impresario who had made the whole thing possible, a kind of modern Serge Diaghilev. Most people he spoke to didn't know who Serge Diaghilev was.

Both shows were sold out. We used the proceeds to pay for a recording of the music that was made into a real optical sound track on the film.

There was an article about ``The Magic Chalk'' in the newspaper, most of it focused on me, since I was the most visible at the showing. Mr. Evans was mentioned only in passing, in a boring obligatory paragraph at the end that listed a lot of people's names. The article quoted a real filmmaker in the city who had come to see the movie, who went on and on about how my music was professional quality, though he also mentioned that the film itself was too long. Of course I basked in all the attention, reading the article over and over again. Everyone else was excited about the article too--except for Mr. Evans, who changed the subject.

Mom suggested I enclose the article with my application to Harvard. We all felt it was partly because of ``The Magic Chalk'' that Harvard accepted me almost immediately, months before the normal notification date of April 15.

Now that the movie was finished I didn't spend much time with Mr. Evans. School was harder this year, and I was also working diligently on another project, a violin and piano sonata I was composing, based on a tune of Dad's. I did see Mr. Evans at folk dancing, since he was still the sponsor, but we couldn't have long conversations there. He didn't come over to our house any more. Mom had decided she didn't like him. She thought it was peculiar that he would be friends with high school kids.

One evening at folk dancing Mr. Evans excitedly showed Bart and Nicole and me a letter he had received from an organization of amateur filmmakers who had seen the article about ``The Magic Chalk,'' and were inviting us to enter it in their annual competition in New York City. They were amazingly generous, offering to fund Mr. Evans and one of the students who had worked on the film to come to the screening in New York--they would pay for the transportation and two nights in a hotel. We were all thrilled. Naturally Bart and Nicole assumed that I, who had done more work on the film in more capacities than anyone else, would get to go to New York.

Mr. Evans surprised us. He said he wanted Bart to go, since I had already received more public attention for the film than any other student involved in it. For a moment, we didn't know what to say. Bart seemed uncomfortable, and of course I was very disappointed, even a little angry. But Bart was now my best friend, and I didn't want to come across as selfishly craving all the acclaim (though I was eager for as much of it as I could get). I told them, without much enthusiasm, that it was okay with me for Bart to go to New York, he had done a lot of work on the film and it seemed fair enough. Mr. Evans gave me an odd look; he seemed less impressed by my generosity than Bart and Nicole were.

We told our parents of course. Mom declared indignantly that the film was more my work than Bart's, but she also seemed relieved that Mr. Evans hadn't asked me to go to New York. ``It's just as well. You're too busy right now anyway,'' she said.

A week or so later, Mr. Evans asked me in the hallway at school to come to his room at the end of the day. I figured he probably wanted to give me more reasons why Bart deserved to go to New York, to try to soften the blow.

When I got to his room Mr. Evans took a while to get to the point, smiling a quirky little smile, tapping his fingers on the windows, pulling at his beard. Then he dropped the bombshell. The letter had been a fake. There was no film competition. He had manufactured the whole thing himself, typing out the letter, getting an Irish relative of his to sign it so we wouldn't recognize the signature. He explained that he had done it for my own good. All the recognition I had gotten for the film had made me too full of myself, and I needed to be taken down a peg and learn that the world wasn't really so easy. He smiled nervously. I had to realize that there were more important things in life than just creating little stories and tunes.

Then he told me another teacher knew all about this clever and funny lesson he had arranged for me. He said that when he mentioned to her how quickly I had agreed that it was fair for Bart to go to New York instead of me, this teacher had laughed and said sarcastically, ``How noble of Bill!''

Hearing that remark gave me a terrible, humiliated feeling that hit me right in the stomach. I had thought I behaved pretty decently, and now I felt tricked and shamed that they saw it as a joke. ``What about Bart? Did he know too?'' I asked.

``Oh, no,'' Mr. Evans said, with a kind of forced insousciance. ``He wouldn't have been able to play along with it convincingly enough.''

``You mean, he really thinks he's going to New York? How's he going to feel when you tell him it was just a trick on me?''

Mr. Evans lifted his eyebrows and shrugged his narrow little shoulders. ``It wasn't a trick, Bill. And Bart can take it. He's a pretty stolid kid.''

At school the next day Bart told me that Mr. Evans had phoned him and told him the letter was a fake. Bart didn't seem particularly upset. But he was always calm on the surface; his behavior didn't mean that he wasn't hurting. ``My mother thought it was pretty weird,'' he said.

``God, so did mine!'' I told him. ``She went on and on about how Mr. Evans is pathological. She said he wasn't trying to help me, he was lashing out at me for some reason--and using you. She doesn't want me to even talk to him any more.''

``I think you'll be able to live with that,'' Bart said, with characteristic understatement. I agreed. I never spoke to Mr. Evans again. Conveniently, Mr. Evans resigned almost immediately as the faculty sponsor of folk dancing, and was replaced by another teacher.

Soon after that, I fell obsessively in love with somebody, for the first time in my life--someone younger than me, who was hot and cold. I never knew from one day to the next whether my affections would be returned, or spurned contemptuously. I couldn't think about anything else, and was in a bad way for quite awhile because of it. Mr. Evans hardly crossed my mind at all any more.

But when I was unexpectedly rejected by Harvard in April--they lamely explained they had changed their minds because of my grades--Mr. Evans was the first person Mom thought of.

next up previous
Next: DAD'S COOL Up: No Title Previous: LEAH'S STORIES

Daniel Sleator
Wed Jan 14 17:24:59 EST 1998