Apr 1997

The Magic Pen Goes to School

by Philip R. Dunn

One time a little boy from the hood named Jolly found a magical pen. He found it near Pico and La Cienega amongst some yellowed newspaper and barf remnants. One of the beauty salon patrons must have dropped it after receiving a sweet coiffure. The magic pen looked swell, with a black enamel finish, gold accents and a blue streak running the length of it. Jolly was thrilled to be the new owner of such a fine pen. He buffed some of the grime off of it and clipped it to the front pocket of his jeans. He knew the day was going to be good—starting off with such a neat find and all.

The school bus passed him up as he strolled up the sidewalk, but he didn't care because he figured he'd find something else cool. He passed a bum who smiled at him. He chased a cat up an overpruned tree. He kicked a rock for a few blocks until he and his magic pen arrived at school. Up the stairs he went to room 23, Mrs. Cooper's second grade circus.

She took roll as he sat in his lift-top, convertible desk storage unit. He thought about keeping the pen in the desk but then thought again. Daniella Hatch had once taken a pack of sour patch kids from his desk when he wasn't looking. He wouldn't make that mistake again, that's for sure. So it stayed in his jeans and pressed against his leg in this sitting position. As roll call winded down, he felt heat coming from the pen. It seemed very warm, he thought. That was the first indication Jolly got that the pen was magic.

Mrs. Cooper called, "Jefferson Zenz."

"Here," said Jolly. All the kids called him Jolly-Jelly because he was kind of fat. He was pretty happy, too. He wasn't very disturbed about the nickname since there were two other Jeffs in the class, and they weren't very nice.

"I'd rather be Jolly than a Jerky Jeff," he told his friend Donyell.

So Jolly felt the heat of the magic pen press against his leg as Mrs. Cooper passed out the first assignment of the day. She dittoed off a little form sheet with questions and spaces for the students to write in their creative answers. Mrs. Cooper passed the last one out to Jolly and smiled at him warmly. She liked Jolly. He was a good student with a remarkably positive attitude. It was remarkable to her because he always seemed to get picked on the most. Jolly really didn't notice all that stuff. But he did notice always being last. Mrs. Cooper's class was designed so he was always called last on roll and he always got the last assignment. He rather liked that, though. It gave him plenty of time to imagine what the assignment might be.

This assignment was fairly standard. The first question asked, "If you could drive a car, where would you drive it to?"

That was easy for Jolly. He'd known his answer for quite some time. He'd drive his car to the huge, twisting metal, pipe, conduit, smokestack refinery off of the 405 freeway. His mom's boyfriend once told him it was the Arco gasoline refinery, but he had his own ideas. He thought it might be a giant chemistry set where they could make anything in the world. That's where he wanted to go, though.

So Jolly slipped the magic pen from his jeans and pressed the tip to the paper. He wrote down his idea just as he thought it. But what appeared on the page was something quite different. Where Jolly had written "I want to drive to the chemistry set" some different words appeared. The paper read, "I want to drive to places known only by the heart, not by the location." He puzzled at this for a while, then felt the heat of the pen. It was getting warmer, he thought. Jolly didn't completely understand what this phrase meant about "location" and all that, but he seemed pretty happy about the abilities of his new pen to write things he wasn't even thinking.

The next question read, "What is your favorite TV show?"

Jolly put the pen to the page, and this time the magic pen took off, jerking his hand around with it. Before he knew it, Jolly had written a paragraph on the ditto, filled in the back of the page, and had his hand in the air to get some more paper. Mrs. Cooper seemed puzzled but nevertheless directed him toward the supply cabinet to get more.

The answer he wrote down was more of a thesis or a treatise. The magic pen went on and on about the vacuous nature of television viewing and programming, how the news has just become entertainment, how programs portray kids as smart and adults as stupid when in reality the world enforces the opposite standard. The pen wrote, "Television exploits children, turning kids into consumer-empowered, advertisement archives ordering their parents' shopping carts around the supermarket floor." The tirade ended up with an indictment of the education system for promoting passivity as a means to education. And this is the weird part. The last line read, in print not cursive, "Stupid fucking teacher - what kind of question is this?"

Jolly tried to read it, but couldn't figure it out.

The last question was: "Who is your best friend, and why?"

Jolly had a hard time with this one. He couldn't think of what a best friend would be like. He was fairly sure he didn't have one. His mind raced to concoct something believable. He should at least know enough of the best friend qualities in order to make a credible sentence about it. Is a best friend someone you can put your arm around? he asked himself. Is it someone who will give you money when you need it. Maybe Donyell was his best friend. No. Donyell was just someone who let Jolly talk to him. Donyell had his own best friends and they were in junior high. Jolly had seen them drinking beer together and igniting circles of lighter fluid.

Just as Jolly conceded he was going to mess up the last part of the assignment, the magic pen heated up like one of those electric lumps in his mother's blanket. Well, he figured, here goes nothing. So, without an idea of his own, he pressed the tip to the paper one more time.

But unlike the second answer, this time the pen went slowly and smoothly, as if it were drawing letter-sized pictures with the greatest of care. It swirled and dotted, scratching and looping, dipping and slashing. Jolly just smiled at the pen, knowing whatever it was writing would be extraordinary.

While Mrs. Cooper drank copious amounts of black coffee from an oversized mug, the pen danced on. The other kids were finished writing, so gradually they craned their necks and turned around to see Jolly's remarkably hyper pen. They'd never seen Jolly write so much before. Some of them giggled, but Jolly didn't care. He was busy writing:

"My best friend is someone who doesn't know me—a place and time that cannot be. Not in a class with bitten fingernails, tuna seeping through a paper sack, and the snot of the next world's grown-ups.

"No, my friend would not be a creep named Chad, who only knows the world as bad." Chad Terrell pushed a girl off of the monkey bars last year and broke her arm.

"Nor would my friend be Daniella Hatch, the girl who stole my sour patch. My friend would not be a thief, thug, creep or wedgie grinder—my friend would simply be much kinder." And the pen drifted into a smoother verse. It wandered dreamily through the next section.

"Yes my best friend is from the future," wrote the pen. "From the world where teasing can hurt more, but friendliness is more accepted. From a place where one friend means everything, like one sun means one warm.

She's got blood washing onto me, a spinal chord attached to mine like Christmas lights. Her legs are tan as pretzels and similarly wrapped around my hips. Her lips, well, lips, lips, lips.

"She says words like `put the potato in the pot', and I like just hearing them. We cook together, eat together, and, of course, we clench in panting fury. We're two puzzle pieces who don't need the rest of the scene—a two-piece puzzle. And she's got a smell like the tender core of a giant lemon cake.

"Her hair color may change by the time I meet her. Her teeth may shift a bit. But I'll know her that day. She'll be the one with her hand in my hair and her underwear in my hamper." The pen stopped and dripped a little ink into the paper, reminding Jolly of a sponge.

"Ok class," whined Mrs. Cooper, "stop teasing Jolly and pass those assignments up."

They did, and she collected all of them including Jolly's, which was finished just in the nick of time. She stacked them up on her desk and said, "Now class, I'm going to read your papers out loud and correct your mistakes as we go along." She tried to pick a piece of sleep crumb from her eye as she talked. "First I'll read the sentence, then I'll call on you to correct any mistakes I find. OK?"

Nobody said anything. Most of them, in fact, felt a little slighted. They thought she would read them to herself and then hand them back as usual.

"I'm not going to use any names, though," she said. "But you may be able to tell who is who if you listen carefully."

This relieved the class a little. At least you wouldn't know for sure who the person was. Jolly, however, was not relieved. He feared, correctly, that his wouldn't sound like the others'.

Then one of the kids said it, out loud, before Mrs. Cooper could even begin reading her first selection. Jimmy Darnell was the kid. He quipped, "Read Jolly's—he wrote a book."

"What's he going to do, eat it?" said another. Everyone laughed. Jolly just rubbed his warm, magic pen.

"All right, calm down class," said Mrs. Cooper. "I'll read yours, young Mr. Darnell."

She read Jimmy's out loud. He wrote about how he wanted to go to the moon like Star Track. Mrs. Cooper asked the class how to spell Star Trek, but no one knew. "It's trek, not track," she corrected. "T-R-E-K, not T-R-A-C-K." Jimmy's favorite TV show was "the one where they all talk back to each other and is really funny," but he didn't know what the name was. His best friend was Marvin Butler, a third grader.

Mrs. Cooper read a few more—one about driving to Las Vegas, one about driving to the store to get chips, five about an action cartoon, and three about a girl who seemed to have an excess of best friends.

Then she came to Jolly's. She glanced at it quickly, slightly interested in its length, but more concerned with the format. "Jolly," she asked, "how do we write all our assignments?"

"With letters," he said genuinely. Someone in the back row giggled.

"No, Jolly, how do we write it on the paper?"

"Umm," he paused. "Some go above the dotted line, small ones below, but all go between the dark lines."

"Yes, Jolly, that's true," replied Mrs. Cooper. "But we don't print—we use cursive, cursive." She sounded it out as if that would bring it home, "Cuur-sssive." Mrs. Cooper didn't even realize the printed words in question communicated an idea. To her they just stuck out—printed words amongst all the flowing cursive. They read quite clearly, "STUPID FUCKING TEACHER."

Jolly said, "Well I didn't really write it." The class laughed.

"It is a bit long, Jolly. Your handwriting is nice, but please don't print when you're doing so well with cursive." She loved to say the word cursive. So she read the first answer aloud and puzzled at it.

"You didn't write this, did you?"

Jolly tried to explain, "This pen is..." but she cut him off.

"Question number two -" She read through, with jaw slightly agape, the rant about exploitation and consumerism raping the minds of youth. By the time she reached the "stupid fucking teacher" part, she was already furious. The class was disinterested in the reading for the most part, but they were fascinated with the strange transformation of Mrs. Cooper. She stopped reading aloud when she got to the f-word. Then she worried the kids might have heard too much already. She might be damaging the minds of the children, she thought.

When she got to question three, her fury turned to wonder. She was engaged. And for some reason, as if the magic pen had jumped into her body, she felt compelled to start reading aloud again. Parts of it she mumbled just to put words out into the ether. Or perhaps she was censoring out things she found unsuitable for youngsters.

She read: "My best friend is someone who doesn't know me—a place and time that cannot be. Not in a class with... fingernails... tuna... ssseeping... sack.

"Yes my best friend is from the future, from the world where teasing can hurt more, but friendliness is more accepted. From a place where one friend means everything, like one sun means one warm. She's got blood washing onto me, a spinal chord attached to mine like Christmas lights. Her legs are tan as pretzels and similarly wrapped around my hips. Her lips, well, lips, lips, lips." Mrs. Cooper looked up at Jolly and asked, "Where did you get this?" But without waiting for an answer, she continued reading aloud. Jolly figured he was in trouble. The class sat there, mesmerized and quiet. A few stared out the windows. They liked the sounds of the words and the way they made Mrs. Cooper sound like a nice, calm lady.

"Potato . . . pot. We cook together, eat together, and, of course, we clench in panting fury." Here she snapped back into discipline mode. "What on earth?" she boomed. "Jolly where did you get this?"

"Actually, the pen," he stammered, "I just, I just found it on the street."

"The street, yes the street," ruminated a perturbed Mrs. Cooper. "You get everything from the street nowadays don't you? You get your crack, your gangs, your rap music—and this filth. Who's writing this?" She waited for no answers. "Is it the older kids? Are they teaching you how use words? Are they telling you kids sexy words?"

The class collectively giggled. They didn't know anything about what Mrs. Cooper had just read, but they had heard that "sexy" word before, and they thought it was funny.

"Class, SHUT-UP!" she yelled. "This isn't funny in the least." She didn't know what to do, so she just frantically ripped up the paper. She was mad but didn't know who to be mad with.

Then Jolly piped up. "The pen did it, not the paper," he said.

Mrs. Cooper didn't know what to make of that, so she ordered him outside. "Jolly—outside, now. I will speak with you in a moment." He walked out the big orange door and sat below the windows. "Now class, never do what Jolly did. If someone on the street talks bad words to you, then you ignore them. And you certainly will not bring words like that into this educational institution." The kids looked confused. She stormed out the door to deal with Jolly.

"Jolly, you're suspended for the day. Go to the office and get Janice, the attendance monitor, to sign you out. And until you can write like a second grader... well..." She stopped. "Just don't listen to those boys on the street corner—they wont teach you anything but trouble. The world is a bad enough place without you describing it."

"Ok," he said meekly. The magic pen grew warm in his pocket. He figured he could use a different pen for class assignments. Besides, he didn't want to waste the ink in the magic pen.

Satisfied she'd taken a stand on the issue, Mrs. Cooper looked down pitifully on Jolly and reached for the doorknob. At the same time, Jimmy Darnell was opening the door from the other side. It hit her hand first, crunching the knuckles on her writing hand, then bonked her in the center of the forehead. The two boys laughed hysterically as Mrs. Cooper winced and screamed. And the whole class was laughing in their seats for another reason. Jimmy had come out to tell Mrs. Cooper that Chrissy Weidmeyer had peed at her desk and on to the floor.

Jolly skipped toward the office with the laughs trailing behind him. He checked out of the office, the pen growing hotter during his encounter with Janice, the fifth grader who helped out in attendance. Then he headed toward home the same way he came to school. And he stopped off at the place where he found the pen. Next to the spot was a rather young looking, homeless bum man. The man was sleeping with his face turned toward the brick wall. Jolly grabbed some of the yellow newspaper—the pieces which weren't splattered with barf remnants. He decided he would write something down with his magic pen. He tried to think of something very good to write. The bum woke up and rolled over toward Jolly and the barf. In a very high-pitched whiny voice, the man said, "You should be in school ... fucking kid."

Jolly ignored him. Then Jolly got an idea. He wrote down a list of things he wanted to do with his life. The first one was: "I want to write with a magic pen."


Philip lives in Costa Mesa, California, while writing features and a web column for Coast Magazine. He studied (and attempted to write) fiction with Leonard Michaels at UC Berkeley (undergrad History BA) and with Ben Masselink at USC (grad Journalism MA). Those were elective creative writing courses. He's working on a novel titled The Wrong Castle, which follows a manic trail loosely based on Franz Kafka's The Castle. It reads a little more like Voltaire's Candide. He also conducts information searches for law firms and general business.