“The Answer Guy,” New Era, Apr. 2001, 40
My throat felt scratchy, and my stomach was doing cartwheels as Mrs. Allen cleared her throat and prepared to read the last assignments for newspaper staff.
I didn’t know journalism class could be such an emotional experience.
“All right, we have only a couple of assignments left,” Mrs. Allen said cheerfully. “The student government beat is open.”
Student government? I don’t think so. Covering endless and pointless debates about crummy school food, keeping the water fountains free of gum, and ways to get drivers to slow down in the parking lot didn’t exactly bring to mind stories that would land my byline on the front page of the New York Times.
Mrs. Allen looked over her list again. “And we need an advice columnist to take Twila Terwilliger’s place. That was our most popular feature last year.”
Yes, I remember Twila’s column, “Tips from Twila.” No matter what the question, Twila had a spunky answer, which always ran along the theme of “Hang in there!” or “Keep your chin up!” or “Think positive thoughts and everything will be better!” Twila believed that a heavy dose of sugar could cure anything, and she poured it into her columns by the bagful.
Now, if I were the advice columnist, things would be different. Straight answers. No mushy, sensitive stuff. No coddling from Gabe Jeffries. Besides, for my first three years in high school, I hadn’t really found my place. I wasn’t an athlete or much of a scholar, and I never ran for school office. Having my photo in every edition of the paper with a big byline over my column, I had to admit, sounded more than okay.
“Any takers?” Mrs. Allen pleaded.
I raised my hand.
“Gabe? You want to take the column?” Mrs. Allen sounded a little surprised.
“Yeah, Mrs. Allen. I can handle a column.”
She seemed doubtful but said, “Okay, Gabe. Let’s give it a try. Maybe a male perspective would work in an advice column. Stay a few minutes after class. Some letters have already been sent in, and you can get to work on them right away.”
Success! My byline would never appear on a story about crusty spaghetti and runny sauce, or cross-country runners getting sick halfway through their race. My journalism career was looking up.
Later that night, at a desk in the corner of my room, I grabbed the small stack of letters and prepared to take on the problems of the cold, the weary, the downtrodden, the hopeless, the nobodies who inhabited my corner of the world.
To Whomever Is the New Advice Person:
I have a boyfriend, and what we do most of the time for our dates is sit on the couch at his house and watch football or basketball games or action movies. Like, we never do anything fun; we just sort of sit and watch games and eat, although he does most of the eating. If I suggest we go to a movie or on a walk, he just says he’s tired. But I really do love him, and we may get married after we graduate next spring. What do you think? Should I stay with him?
I thoughtfully read the letter and asked myself, What would Twila say? She’d say, “Be perky, smile a lot, and things will get better before you know it.”
Of course, I didn’t want to even faintly sound like Twila. I sat at the keyboard of my computer and began picking at the letters. My answer came quickly.
I have three words for you: Lose the loser. Fast forward a few years and think what life will be like if you hang in with this dude. Imagine, Friday night in the house, you have three noisy kids to deal with, and your husband is passed out in front of the TV. He’s 60 pounds heavier than he is now, hasn’t shaved in three days, and he’s sitting in his undershirt and sweat pants snoring. Is this the life you want? No way. Drop him. The sooner the better. You don’t want to be his girlfriend now and for sure not his wife. Get the picture?
The Answer Guy
I sat back and re-read my answer. Well, maybe it is a little rough, but someone had to steer this girl away from the wreck that was awaiting her. No one would ever confuse me with Twila, that’s for sure. No one would call me Mr. Nice Guy.
I sorted through the other letters Mrs. Allen had given me and picked out a couple more to answer. One from a guy who wanted to move out of his house (“What? Free room and board, the folks pay the utilities, and you want to leave? Are you nuts?”) and another from a kid who complained it was unfair that the 10th graders were assigned early lunch (“Quit whining. You’ve got to eat sometime, right? Stick with it, and maybe you’ll make it all the way to the senior class and get to eat with the grown-ups”).
Three letters, three answers, in 20 minutes. And I didn’t sprinkle any sugar.
I didn’t think much about my column until the newspaper came out a week later. Just before English class began, Adam Fletcher, who is among the very chosen in our school, a guy who would make anyone’s I-want-him-at-my-next-party list, flopped his hands on my desk, leaned over and said “Man, your column was great. Harsh. I really like it. Sixty pounds in an undershirt. That was money, man.”
“Uh, thanks. Yeah, it was. But I can do harsh. Really.”
Adam, who in the last three years of school had done little more than occasionally grunt at me, was actually paying me a compliment. He wasn’t the only one who noticed the column. A dozen more people said something about “The Answer Guy.” Even Mrs. Allen gave me a thin smile and mumbled, “Well, it looks like you’re not Twila, Gabe.”
Gabe Jeffries, columnist. The Answer Guy, a Someone. Maybe someday I’d have my own radio talk show, coast-to-coast, every weekday night, handing out advice like candy at Halloween. I would be wise, witty, clever, and above all, tell it like it is. My name would be heard in every household.
Two weeks later, I was back home reading a fresh stack of mail. A lot of letters had come in since my first column.
I grabbed a letter out of the middle of the bundle.
To the Answer Guy,
Since you’re a guy, maybe you can help me with this one. I went to homecoming last week, and the guy I was with seemed really annoyed when I ordered a salad for dinner. He got really quiet and seemed like he was upset. We were with a whole group of people at the restaurant, and he hardly spoke to me later on. I just wasn’t hungry and didn’t want to cost him a lot of money, so that’s why I ordered a salad. Did I do something wrong? Let me know.
This is too easy, I thought.
Dear Lettuce Woman,
Of course the guy you went out with was annoyed. You are a Salad Girl. Guys do not like to take out Salad Girls. He takes you to a nice restaurant, hungry, ready to eat a big meal, and then you order a salad. He’s not impressed when you do that. It makes him feel stupid to order a steak with the trimmings if all you’re eating is a salad. You finish your salad and then all you do is stare at him while he eats, or he decides he’d better just get a salad too, so he doesn’t show you up.
Do everyone a favor: next time when you go out to dinner, order a T-bone, rare, and smack your lips all the way through it. Everyone will relax more. Leave the salads to the weight-challenged who really need to diet!
Not exactly Shakespearian, but I thought Lettuce Woman would get the idea.
The next edition of the newspaper came out, and my transformation to being a Someone rolled along. People who never paid much attention to me were becoming friendly. Sure, I would never be a great athlete, Harvard would never offer me an academic scholarship, and I’d never date a cheerleader, but through my column I was starting to feel accepted by the socials. And I liked it.
Of course, not everyone was ready to nominate me for a Pulitzer Prize. There was the cafeteria incident.
I was sitting among some of my new friends, at a table where mostly the popular hung out, and Rachel Patton came by with a sweet smile on her face.
“Hello, Gabe. I read your column yesterday,” she cooed. “And I just wanted to give you a little something.” Rachel is smart enough to be a doctor and gorgeous enough to be a model. Maybe she’ll end up being both.
“Uh, great,” I stammered. “Yeah. Thanks.”
She pulled out a salad from behind her back and dumped it on my head. “Just a little token of our affection, Gabe. Call it a little gift from all the Salad Girls. And I thought you were such a nice guy before.”
At least there wasn’t much dressing on it. Some people, I guess, just don’t know how to deal with celebrities.
The third edition of the newspaper was much the same, although I had to work harder at coming up with rude answers. The guys at school loved what I wrote. In the fourth edition, I answered a letter from a guy who thought his girlfriend was going to dump him (“Beat her to it. Dump her. It is much better to be the dumper than the dumpee, and she is not worthy of you anyway”) and another from a girl who worried about having no social life (“Millions of people don’t have enough food to eat, and you’re whining because you haven’t had a date since June?”).
After I finished my last answer, I sat back. Great stuff. How will I ever top it? The answer was easy: Just get a little more rude; find new ways of ripping others. Just keep those put-downs coming.
I picked another letter, handwritten on plain white paper.
Dear Answer Guy,
I’m kind of new to this school, and I am having a hard time fitting in. I feel lonely. Sometimes I wish I had a good friend or two. Sometimes, I just feel like giving up. What can I do?
It was signed in an unusual style, small letters, backslanted, the way left-handed people often write. It was definitely a male’s handwriting. I waited a second for inspiration, then started my answer.
Dear No One,
You are a loser. That’s why you don’t have any friends. That’s why you sit by yourself at lunch, stay home on weekends, and sit in class too afraid to raise your hand and answer a question. You have no confidence, bud. I know your kind. I know everything about you. I know exactly what you’re like and …
And what? I stopped typing. What if this letter were real? What if someone was really asking me for help? What if I gave him rude advice when he needed a real answer? And why did I write that I knew exactly what he was like? Was it because, not too long ago, I’d sat in a class or the cafeteria and wondered where I fit in?
All of a sudden, I felt like a fraud. For too long, I’d been ignoring the gnawing feeling in me every time I wrote an answer filled with put-downs. Was I taking the chance of hurting someone just to get some attention?
I didn’t sleep well that night. I kept thinking about what I’d written. Every column was becoming more rude, more attacking. It was getting tougher to out-do myself. I could feel the expectations of others. In each answer, they wanted me to cut more deeply. Rachel’s words bothered me: “I thought you were such a nice guy before.”
And about midnight, when my eyes were wide open and my mind racing along, I finally understood that feeling inside. I didn’t like the kind of person I was becoming. Acceptance, at least the kind I was getting, wasn’t worth becoming someone else. Maybe I hadn’t been popular before, but at least I was a nice guy who wouldn’t hurt anyone. It was time for Gabe Jeffries to become Gabe Jeffries again.
I finally had come up with an honest answer.
In the morning, I took the letter to school. In study hall, I started writing another answer to the guy who could only call himself “No One.”
Dear No One,
I liked your letter. It took courage to write it. I can tell some things about you from your letter, and they are good things. But I must disagree about one thing. You’re not a No One. You are Someone—someone who is important, who has talent and ability, even though you might not recognize it. You’re someone I’d like to become friends with. I hope we meet. Until then, try to find some good in your life. I’m sure you have a few friends. I also hope you have a family who cares about you. You deserve that much. Things will get better. I know it.
I read through it again. For the first time since I’d become a columnist, I’d provided someone with a real answer.
Later that afternoon, I wrote a second letter. This one was to Mrs. Allen. I gave it to her at the beginning of class. She placed it on her desk and said softly, “I guess I’m surprised, Gabe. You have potential as a writer, and I’m sorry you’re resigning as the Answer Guy. Maybe we can find another place for you as a different kind of columnist.”
“If you still need someone to write about water polo, I guess I’m the one,” I said.
“We’ll find you something a little more exciting than that, Gabe,” she promised.
The following day in history class, Mr. Haney droned on about Germany’s economic collapse after World War I.
Suddenly, Mr. Haney said, “Okay, everyone, put away your books. It’s quiz time!”
The quiz was only 10 questions. When it was over, Mr. Haney told us to pass our papers to the person two rows to our right for correcting. Someone handed me a paper, and as I looked down at it, I almost fell out of my chair. I’d seen that handwriting before: small letters, backslanted, distinctive. No mistake about it. I was correcting “No One’s” paper. Funny, he’d been in my class three months, and I didn’t even know his name.
He nailed nine out of ten answers on the quiz, so I scribbled “Way to go!” on the top of his paper, then passed it back just as the bell rang.
I wasn’t sure what to do next, but I knew I had to do something. He was already out the door. I called his name.
He turned toward me, a look of surprise on his face.
I thought quickly. “Uh, a bunch of us are going to my church tonight to shoot hoops. Want to come?”
He smiled awkwardly. “You want me to play basketball? I’m not very good.”
“None of us are. That’s why we have so much fun. We don’t even keep score. And we only call fouls if blood is involved. You’ll fit right in.”
And the way he looked back at me, I knew he would. I could sense the changes taking place at that very moment: a “no one” was becoming a “someone.”
Well, the New York Times never called, begging me to work for them. I ended up writing feature stories most of the semester, one of which won a statewide writing prize; I even covered a couple of student council meetings, which were, of course, really boring. The next semester, I became the news editor. Mrs. Allen thinks I have a chance at a journalism scholarship. I asked Rachel Patton out, and she said yes, probably just a charity date, but she kept her salad on her plate and off my head at dinner, which I appreciated. On the doorstep, she told me I was a really nice guy.
I took it as a major compliment.
And the guy in history class, well, we still hang out, and I never have mentioned his letter to him. He seems happier now.
Yep, things are going great for me. It all started, I think, when I decided to not worry about trying to be someone else or pleasing others who didn’t really care for me. Everything I need to deal with any problem is all around me: home, family, church, and friends.
I guess I had the right answers all along.