None of them said anything to me when I sat down at the table and said, “Hello.”

“Boys, this is your classmate, Amber Appleton. Don’t you want to say hello to her?” Mrs. Pohlson said.


“Ricky Roberts says hello to Amber Appleton. Hello. Yes.”


“Hi, Amber,” said the boy in the wheelchair.

“Hey,” said the black kid.

“This is Ty, Jared, Chad, and Ricky. All classmates of yours, although they are in the other two fifth grade classes. We’d like you to join our club,” Mrs. Pohlson said.

The only black kid in town. The kid who couldn’t speak properly. The tiny wheelchair kid with a big head. The retarded kid (I didn’t know what autism was back then). And suddenly me. I wasn’t so smart back in the day, but even I knew that I’d landed squarely in Club Freak. I wasn’t all that upset about being admitted into Club Freak, because I was a freak too, and I sorta knew it—word—but I was worried that there would be punishments, like extra homework.

“What sorta club is this?” I asked.

“We play board games twice a week in this room,” Mrs. Pohlson answered.

“Why?” I asked, and then looked around at the other boys who were all looking at their laps. “Won’t we get in trouble for missing class?”

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“Don’t you like board games? We can play Monopoly, Scrabble, Life.”

“Why would you take us out of class just so we can play games?” I asked.

“Well,” Mrs. Pohlson said, “we also practice speaking properly and interacting appropriately with our friends.”



“So this is a club where we learn to play games with each other?”

“Kind of,” Mrs. Pohlson said. “Yes.”

All through elementary and junior high school Mrs. Pohlson took the five of us out of class twice a week. Sometimes we played board games, sometimes we read books aloud, and sometimes we just practiced having conversations with each other.

I began to notice that The Five hardly talked outside of Mrs. Pohlson’s room—but when we were there, we sorta talked a lot, or at least more than we did in the lunchroom or gym or in the schoolyard, maybe because there weren’t so many other people to compete with for talking time. I began to really like going to Mrs. Pohlson’s room, and it wasn’t long before our parents were scheduling after-school and weekend events for The Five. Soon I was over at my boys’ houses, like, all the time, and it was like we had been friends since birth. We got tight quick. Word. Suddenly I sorta had four brothers and all these extra parents looking after me. Suddenly, I had Donna too.

Eventually, Jared stopped stuttering, but nothing else major happened through Mrs. Pohlson’s intervention—except that we all became best friends.


Almost magically, just when we had to leave Mrs. Pohlson, our group social sessions, and the elementary/junior high building behind, Franks was hired to teach marketing at CPHS, so he was sorta like a freshman too (only a teacher freshman) when we started high school, which is exactly when me and The Five first started hanging with Franks. Jared and I were in his marketing class, and because Franks was so cool, allowing us to play video games during class and whatnot, we were soon bringing the rest of The Five to his classroom before school and during lunch. The rest is history, as they say.

Franks’ windowless classroom is in the basement of our high school, and you can access his room from outside by descending down into the earth via a set of old concrete stairs, and then knocking on a metal door seven times. Three quick knocks. Two slow, and then two fast. This lets Franks or whoever is inside know that a Marketing Club member is on the other side of the door. There are only five Childress Public High School M.C. members, and all five just happen to belong to Franks Freak Force Federation as well.

After Ricky knocks, we back up two stairs. Two seconds later, Jared kicks open the door, which doesn’t have a knob, but a silver bar that opens it, and then he sprints back to his seat behind one of the six televisions set up high on roller stands—every one of them connected to an Xbox and each Xbox connected to the rest via a crazy web of chords. Ty and Jared are both seated behind the television closest to the outside door—eyes glued to the ass-kicking alien action on the screen. On the other side of the room Franks is sitting next to Chad’s super robotic wheelchair, which we call Das Boot, even though we don’t even know what the hell Das Boot means exactly. All four of them are holding controllers and are trying to kill each other’s spacemen in a virtual world that the televisions bring to their brains.

Ricky sits down at a third television set and turns on a third Xbox. “Ricky Roberts wants Ty Hendrix and Jared Fox to die so that Ricky Roberts can enter into the Halo 3 game and join Mr. Jonathan Franks’ team, because Mr. Jonathan Franks is Ricky Roberts’ very favorite teacher. Yes.”

“Your wish is my command,” Franks says. And then something happens in the virtual world that makes Jared and Ty moan and hold their heads.

Chad and Franks are high-fiving now, and Ricky is clicking buttons on his controller, entering into the virtual world.

I know my window is tiny, because once the game starts my boys are gone, so I say, “Franks, we doing a Marketing Club announcement today?”

Marketing Club is basically an extension of Franks’ marketing classes. Only once a year we compete against other schools in these debates about marketing strategies and also we do these marketing presentations in front of judges for points. My boys and even Franks wear suits to the competitions and I usually wear one of Donna’s killer business skirt suits. Pretty wild stuff. If you get enough points, you can win and go on to the national competition. We’ve never made it past regionals.

Franks is always trying to get more people to join M.C., because his job is always on the line when it comes to district budget cuts. His marketing classes are electives, and while they are usually full—because he teaches classes like Marketing Video Games, Make and Market Your Own Movie, and my personal favorite, The Business End of the Rap Game—he’s not exactly a PTA favorite, nor do many of the Childress parents take him all that seriously.

Franks is maybe only five-six, he weighs close to three hundred pounds, and he hasn’t cut his hair in years—sporting the gray ponytail look. To make matters worse, he wears these little photosensitive glasses that make him look sorta like a cross between Buddha and Lennon. (John—like, of The Beatles—not to be confused with that Russian dude, Vlad.)

“You write it, and I’ll read it,” Franks says, his eyes locked onto the screen ready to do space battle with teenage boys.

“Cool,” I say, sitting down at Franks’ teacher desk near the whiteboard.

“You can have half of my Sausage Egg McMuffin. It’s in drawer number two,” Franks says to me. “I’m watching my figure. And the top drawer is filled with peanut M&Ms, as always.”

“Donna fed me,” I tell Franks.

“Cool,” he says.

Aside from the occasional curse words muttered and the post-killing taunting, it’s easy to write when the boys are playing Halo 3, because the game distracts them and keeps them all pretty quiet.

Ricky never kills anyone in the game, and no one kills him, because he is diagnosed with autism and just likes running around in the virtual world, stimming out. And I have to say I love that my boys are cool with this—I love their letting Ricky play Halo 3 in his own pacifistic way. My boys are good people. Word.

So I write up the ad for Marketing Club, trying to make Franks sound hip, but also trying to write something that he won’t read over the morning announcements, because I’ve never stumped him yet. There is an art to this, because I know he isn’t going to read curse words or anything like that, so writing profanity into the ad would just be cheap and pointless and the opposite of urbane.

I’m halfway through the writing of the ad when I look up at the big-framed picture on Franks’ desk. His little mean-looking redheaded wife is on the beach surrounded by Franks’ six little redheaded children. Franks’ head is sticking out of the sand by their feet—big head, little glasses. They buried him to the neck and then had someone snap the photo. I think about what would happen to Franks’ kids—who are all less than ten years old—if he got canned.

“Yo, Franks!” I say, but he doesn’t answer me, because he is playing the dumb video game, but I know he hears me, so I say, “You going to the school board meeting tonight?”



The sound of buttons being pushed rapidly by boy thumbs.


“It’s of this world,” Franks says, which is what he says about everything. He means that he only worries about what will happen after this world, when God takes him to heaven, because he’s a Catholic like me, and he has a super faith in JC.

Now I have faith in JC too, but I also know what it’s like to live on a school bus.

“Maybe you should go, Franks. Think of your children, bro,” I say, because tonight’s when they are deciding whether to cut the marketing department’s funding and if they do that, Franks will lose his job at the end of the year. But no worries. Me and The Five are not going to let that happen. We have a killer plan. We’re doing a mission.

My boys, all except Ricky, shoot me nervous glances, because they don’t want Franks to know what we are doing for him—they prefer to be anonymous do-gooders. So I flash them a thumbs-up to reassure them I know what the hell I’m doing.

“My family’s never missed a meal,” Franks says, like a man who has never missed a meal, because he doesn’t know what it’s like to be homeless. But it’s all good in the hood, because I’m not going to let any bad hooey happen to Franks or his redheaded kids.

“Can I give you a hug today, Franks?” I say, because I’ve always wanted to hug Franks ever since we met in his The Art of Marketing Junk Food class.

“Against school policy,” he says.

“Someday, I’m going to give you a big old hug. Teddy bear–style.”

“Maybe when you graduate,” he says just as Ty and Jared start moaning again. “Undefeated Halo 3 champs! Our streak is still alive, brother!”

From his wheelchair, Chad says, “Who’s your poppa?”

Chad and Franks slap hands and then touch elbows before slapping hands again. Man stuff.

Just as I finish the last line of the MC ad, the five-minute warning bell sounds, so I stand by the door and, as they exit, I hand each one of my boys a piece of paper folded into a swan—origami style. Inside all of the swans are coded instructions regarding where to meet and at what time, plus their individual speeches for tonight, written by yours truly. Jared made up our code two years back and we all have it memorized. (It’s just each letter plus 1, so that As are written as Bs and Bs are written as Cs and so forth. Not overly secure, but it stumps most of the morons in our school. True.) And as they walk through Franks’ door, I give each of my boys a pat on the butt too, like I am a football coach or something. The pat on the butt makes my boys blush and smile. I have to pinch Chad on the cheek because he’s in a motorized wheelchair and all, but I get him blushing too.

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