Keep It Steady Episode 1
MORNING ANNOUNCEMENTS Good morning Columbus High students. Today is Monday, November 7th, 2005 and these are your morning announcements. Please be advised this episode contains strong language and some period-typical homophobia, as well as underage drinking and discussion of underage drug use. Congratulations to the marching band for making it to regionals at the MCBA, please see Bo if you’d like to cheer them on in person. And this weekend is the first football game of the season; tickets are available at the office. Go Comets!
(FX: UNDER ZACH’S VOICE WHENEVER HE NARRATES, AMBIENT MUSIC PLAYS.)
The first thing you need to understand, to appreciate just how bonkers this story is gonna get, is that Columbus High School in the year of our Lord two thousand and five is not, like, a haven of love and tolerance. It’s not one of those schools where everybody calls the teachers by their first names and nobody gets grades or wears shoes.
The morning before our story starts, in Government, we had a debate about gay marriage. It was not pro vs con. It was con vs “Sure, gays are an abomination, but maybe it’s a little over-the-top to compare them to axe murderers? Maybe they’re more like, I don’t know, shoplifters?”
I, uh. (EMBARRASSED) I spent the whole period drawing on my arms with a felt-tip marker, until the teacher sent me to wash it off. I couldn’t get it all, and for the rest of the day, kids kept shooting me looks like, “How high were you?”
The answer being none. None high. Unfortunately.
In a way, that’s the second thing you need to know.
FX: A SCHOOL BELL RINGS. WE’RE IN A HIGH SCHOOL HALLWAY. DOORS OPEN, A FLOOD OF FOOTSTEPS AND VOICES. SOMEWHERE IN THE MIX: MELISSA ...think I got, like, a D. C minus, maybe.
EDDIE Dude, what is with Ms. Cook and pop quizzes?
MELISSA “Ooh, element of surprise!” It’s so gay.
EDDIE So gay. Yo, Zach!
ZACH ‘Sup, Eddie?
EDDIE Where’re you going?
ZACH (WRY) Home sweet home.
EDDIE What, did you get caught smoking up?
ZACH Who can even say at this point?
MELISSA (LAUGHS) See you, Zach.
FX: A DOOR OPENS, ZACH ENTERS A CLASSROOM. THE DOOR SHUTS BEHIND HIM, THE HALLWAY SOUNDS MUTED.
ZACH What’s up, Miz P? MRS PETERSON (JUST SO TIRED OF ZACH’S BULLSHIT) Take your seat, please, Zach. Everyone! Everyone take your seats.
FX: FOOTSTEPS CROSS THE ROOM. CHAIRS SQUEAK AS VARIOUS PEOPLE TAKE THEIR SEATS. ZACH THROWS DOWN HIS BACKPACK AND COLLAPSES ONTO A CHAIR.
GABE Hey. (A PAUSE, SLIGHTLY LOUDER) Hey.
ZACH Uh, what?
GABE (THERE IS AN INTENSITY ABOUT HIM) How does this work?
GABE Detention. How does it work.
ZACH First time?
ZACH We sit here quietly for an hour.
GABE Then what.
ZACH Then we...go home?
GABE That’s it. An hour of sitting?
ZACH She takes our phones, too.
GABE She what?
ZACH If you have a phone with you. (A BEAT) She gives them back at the end.
GABE (MYSTIFIED) What is the point of this?
ZACH (OF COURSE IT’S POINTLESS, WHY IS THIS SURPRISING?) High school, man.
FX: RUMMAGING IN BACKPACK SOUNDS. A SPIRAL NOTEBOOK IS FLUNG ONTO A DESK
ZACH (AMUSED) What’s with the notebook, are you gonna write, like, an angry letter to the president about it?
(A BEAT) Dude, what’d you do?
GABE I’m sorry?
ZACH To get in trouble. Detention. What’d you do?
...does this school really not have a single gender-neutral restroom?
GABE Over two thousand kids go here every year. The odds that not a single one falls outside the, the traditional Western gender binary--
That’s why you’re here? You used the girls’ bathroom?
GABE It’s the twenty-first century. You shouldn’t need to be nonbinary to see what an unsafe environment that’s gonna make for anyone who-- (SIGH) I didn’t use the girl’s bathroom.
ZACH So then why…?
GABE I calmly (HE WAS NOT CALM) pointed out how completely, wildly unacceptable it was to deny kids such a fundamental right. And he--a U.S. history teacher, of all people, should know better than to actually say--
ZACH History. Was it Walker?
ZACH That sucks, dude. Walker’s a dick. (A LITTLE QUIETER) Listen, word of advice? You’re new here, right? Maybe you don’t wanna be known, right out of the gate as like, Bathroom Kid, y’know?
(A BEAT, DURING WHICH HE REGISTERS THAT GABE IS GLARING AT HIM) No, sorry, free country and all that! (A BEAT) What am I saying, you’re gonna do fine. “Stay gold, Ponyboy” or whatever. (A BEAT) Hell, maybe the whole rebel thing gets you girls--
GABE Women aren’t Pokemon, asshole!
MRS PETERSON Gabriel Navarro, you just earned yourself another detention! We do not allow that kind of language in here!
ZACH (DELIGHTED) Yeah, Gabriel. You bet your ass we don’t!
FX: SCATTERED LAUGHTER FROM THE OTHER KIDS IN DETENTION
MRS PETERSON Zach, you too, detention!
ZACH (STILL DELIGHTED; IT WAS ABSOLUTELY ON PURPOSE) Oh no. What. Really?
A word about Gabe Navarro. Or who I am kidding, more than one word. In addition to having the most intense eyes known to the human race, like, X-ray vision-grade eyes, Gabe Navarro believes in the separation of church and state. Like, believes-believes. You could write hymns on his feelings about the separation of church and state, ironically. Or maybe that’s not irony? Shit, I sleep through English, I don’t know.
He thinks that the two-party system and the campaign finance system need aggressive overhaul. He’s still mad about the electoral college, even though the whole thing with Gore was fully five years ago. He holds that America’s shrinking middle class is creating, quote “what’s basically neo-feudalism.” He is horrified CHS has no recycling program, and he is still incensed about the bathroom thing.
All of this I learned waiting for the start of our next detention together, and all of it stems from the one question I asked, upon slipping into Mrs. Peterson’s class seconds after the bell, which, for the record, was “Sup?”
I--maybe ran all the way there? I might’ve leapt over a freshman at one point, details are hazy. For the record: totally worth it.
FX: CLASSROOM SOUNDS: KIDS ARE SETTLING INTO CHAIRS AND CHATTING AMONGST THEMSELVES
--and really, this all goes back to Reagan, who gets lauded like some kind of saint, but not only did his regulation and so-called reforms gut the social fabric of America--
ZACH (DELIGHTED) Uh huh--
GABE --he also absolutely has blood on his hands, like more than most presidents, and not just-- MRS PETERSON Okay, everybody be quiet. One hour starts now.
ZACH (WHISPERING) Hey Gabe! (A BEAT) Gabe! Gabe!
GABE (WHISPERING) We’re not supposed to-- (REALIZES THE PARADOX AND SHUTS UP)
ZACH (WHISPERING) --talk? Yeah, it’s a paradox, right? (A BEAT)
FX: THE BACK OF A CHAIR IS KICKED
FX: THE BACK OF A CHAIR IS KICKED AGAIN
FX: THE BACK OF A CHAIR IS KICKED A THIRD TIME--
GABE (WHISPERING) Stop kicking--
ZACH (WHISPERING) I’m bored! (A BEAT) Entertain me!
FX: A FLUTTER OF PAGES AND “FWUMP” THAT IS THE SOUND OF A BOOK TOSSED AT ZACH
ZACH NARRATION The book he tosses at me is Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, by James Baldwin.
ZACH (WHISPERING) Classic literature, really?
GABE (WHISPERING) It’s actually--
MRS PETERSON (SEVERE) Gabe, no talking in detention.
A PAGE TURNS
A PAGE TURNS
TRANSITION: TIME PASSES. MORE PAGES TURN. MRS PETERSON
Alright, hour’s up. Get out of here.
FX: GENERAL MURMUR OF STUDENTS GATHERING THINGS AND LEAVING. A CHAIR SCOOTS.
GABE Hey, I need that back.
ZACH Lemme finish this sentence, dude, hang on.
GABE You’re actually reading it?
ZACH Try not to shit yourself, but yeah, I can read.
GABE I didn’t mean it like that. (A BEAT. HESITANTLY, POLITELY, AWKWARDLY…) Did you like it?
ZACH I dunno, man. It’s slow going. Doesn’t even have any pictures. Or well, it didn’t. Good thing I always carry a marker.
GABE Give me back my book.
FX: A PAPERBACK IS HANDED OVER. QUICKLY FLIPPING THROUGH THE PAGES, ONE AFTER ANOTHER.
ZACH (CRACKING UP) ...I’m just messing with you. Your book’s fine, Gabe.
FX: STOMPING FOOTSTEPS OUT OF THE ROOM
MRS PETERSON Bye, Gabriel. See you tomorrow.
ZACH He has detention again?
MRS PETERSON Every day this week.
ZACH (NARRATION) And there, standing in Mrs Peterson’s room, with that last sentence still unread, there are exactly two thoughts in my head.
One: Jesus, what did that guy do?
Two: What can I do, to get three more detentions?
In the end, though, all it takes is filling the first floor men’s faculty bathroom floor to ceiling with packing peanuts. If anyone asks, it’s a political statement.
FX: BELL RINGS. DOORS OPEN. HIGH SCHOOL HALLWAY SOUNDS: LOCKERS OPENING AND CLOSING, A MURMUR OF CONVERSATIONS. FOOTSTEPS.
Can you give me a ride home?
ZACH ...I assume you mean my home? TORI (FLAT) Yeah.
ZACH “Mi casa es su casa, amigo.”
ZACH Tori Krueger, are you admitting we’re friends?
TORI I’m admitting you’re bad at Spanish. Cody’s coming, too.
ZACH It’s Wednesday.
Not that I don’t like hanging out with your little brother, but...
TORI We’re staying over.
ZACH (WORRIED) Tori…
TORI (FIERCELY) We’re staying over, no questions.
ZACH (NOT AFRAID OF TORI, MORE RESIGNED) Uh. Sure. You’ve got--clothes and toothbrushes and stuff?
TORI We’re fine.
ZACH You’ll have to wait around an hour before I can take you.
ZACH All this week.
ZACH Am I? TORI It’s disturbing.
ZACH Yeah, well. No questions.
FX: A DOOR OPENS. ZACH WALKS THROUGH. THE DOOR CLOSES BEHIND HIM.
MS PETERSON Zach. You’re early. Again.
ZACH Hey Gabe! I’ve been wondering: do we, like, need civil liberties?
ZACH (NARRATION) On Friday, I spend our final detention together trying to think of something to say at the end. Something funny and memorable, but also cool and effortless, and, y’know, natural. It’s tricky. I watch the clock tick down to 3:45 and when it comes, I’ve still got nothing. And Gabe, well. He doesn’t exactly wait around. Two Saturdays later, Tori sneaks over with a bottle of vodka for videogames and drunk trash-talking.
FX: MID-OUGHTS VIDEO GAME MUSIC AND NOISES, SPECIFICALLY MACHINE GUN FIRE.
ZACH How do you like that? Aw, are you hungry? Eat lead, shithead!
TORI Zach, that’s your guy. I’m shooting you.
ZACH You assume I’m rooting for myself. Maybe I wanna be on the winning team for once.
FX: VIDEO GAME NOISES CUT OUT; THE “TINK, TINK” OF A PAUSE MENU
ZACH Why’re you--
TORI You’ve been running headfirst into that wall for like five minutes.
TORI Do you still have those drawings you did last week?
ZACH Maybe. The mushrooms?
The messed-up monsters. ZACH Uh. Yeah. (FX: PAPER RUSTLING) I’ve got crayons someplace. Uh. Here, go nuts. (FX: ZACH DROPS A BUNCH OF CRAYONS AT TORI)
TORI Right. Got anything to smoke? ZACH Cigarettes. Nothing else. You?
ZACH Tell your dealer to get his ass out of prison, this sucks.
Quit calling him that, Nick’s my friend. I’ve known him since I was four.
ZACH When’s he getting out?
TORI Five months.
ZACH Ugh, we might as well get a hobby or something.
TORI You could always join Social Justice Club.
TORI It’s this...activism-y...the dude who started it is like, terrifyingly determined to recruit people.
ZACH (“PLAY IT COOL”) (UTTERLY FAILING TO PLAY IT COOL) Oh, uh, that Navarro guy?
ZACH Think you’ll go?
TORI Nah. What about you?
ZACH (FUCKED UP) No. God, why would I? He didn’t, like, mention it to me or anything. I mean, why would he? No. Definitely no. Is there more vodka?
TORI Not for you. (FX: PAPER RUSTLES) Here, take a monster.
Monday. Last class of the day. Worst class of the day. World myth. I had a mythology phase way back when, but I took the class because I figured it’d be easy. Looking around the room, I get the sense 24 kids had the same thought. We’re talking wall to wall jocks and burnouts.
Well, jocks, burnouts, and Leslie McClary. She’s a year younger, but I remember her from middle school mural club. She was so clumsy, we didn’t let her touch the paint. She’d just sit on the ground, cleaning everyone's brushes and reading aloud from whatever book happened to be in her backpack: Shel Silverstein and Rumi, Edgar Allen Poe and Gwendolyn Brooks. Leslie stammers when she's called on in class, but she’s never had any problem reading. Even facing the wall, paintbrush in hand, you could hear the reverence in her voice.
I wonder if she remembers any of that. She doesn’t seem to have changed much since middle school. If anything, she’s just become more herself.
Because Leslie lives by her own rules. Halfway into sophomore year, she’ll show up to school in shirts with wolves on them, baggy men’s jeans, a faded Sailor Moon backpack, a pointedly rainbow scrunchie swinging from the end of her long, fraying braid. Your survival instincts hurt just looking at her.
I’ve read the school handbook three times. Once in the fitful, optimistic summer before high school, and then twice in the years after that, looking for rules to break. In theory, CHS has a zero-tolerance policy against bullying.
FX: A CLASSROOM. EVERYONE IS TALKING
MIKE Leslie. Hey, Lez. (SING-SONGING) Lez. I like your backpack, Lezzie. You like anime, are you into hentai? (A BEAT) Do you even know what hentai is?
ZACH (NARRATION) It...goes on like that for a while. I’ll spare you. Mr. Clark doesn’t even look up from his game of computer solitaire. She doesn’t give him a reaction and eventually he wanders off.
She’s staring down at her book. She hasn’t turned a page in about five minutes. I don’t really know why I do it.
FX: WE’RE IN THE CLASSROOM AGAIN. AMBIENT TALKING.
FX: FOOTSTEPS ACROSS THE TILE FLOOR.
ZACH Hey, Leslie.
ZACH ....okay, Screw Marry Kill. Norse mythology, Greek mythology, Egyptian mythology.
LESLIE Um, what? ZACH
It’s a simple question.
LESLIE (AS IF SOLVING A RIDDLE) Okay, see this—this is actually—yeah, okay, I have it. Marry Norse mythology. The wedding feast alone’d be worth it. Kill Egyptian mythology. Not as any kind of a—the stakes are different, y’know? It’ll rise again; I mean, resurrection’s in the lifeblood. And, uh, screw Greek mythology, but use every kind of protection so you don't get, y’know, swan herpes.
ZACH Bull herpes.
LESLIE Flying-showers-of-gold-coins herpes. My turn.
FX: THE BELL RINGS. AMBIENT CONVERSATIONS. WE’RE WALKING DOWN A HALLWAY.
LESLIE Screw Marry Kill: the color yellow, the sound of cymbals, trepidation.
ZACH Kill trepidation. Screw yellow, I can deal with it for a little while but I couldn’t look at it for life. Marry cymbals.
LESLIE Really? The sound of cymbals, following you everywhere?
ZACH A little ba-dum-ching every time I make a joke? Hell yeah. Screw Marry Kill: Sleep, laughter, or pizza?
FX: RUNNING FOOTSTEPS
KRISTA Leslie, oh Leslie my darling, how I’ve missed you! Never, ever leave me like that again!
LESLIE (SMILING, HER CRUSH IS HERE!) Hi Krista.
KRISTA How was that?
LESLIE Very believable.
KRISTA I am gonna audition the shit out of that part, I can feel it.
LESLIE How’s it going?
KRISTA (DRAMATICALLY) Horrible. I had a tragic case of Leslie withdrawal. I was five minutes from slapping a wig on Andy and making him talk about Dante, just to fill the void. (OFFHAND) Hey Zach.
LESLIE (GRINNING) That sounds tough.
KRISTA It was agony. We’re talking slings, arrows, outrageous fortune, the works. Is Zachary coming with us?
LESLIE Oh, he should! (SIGNIFICANTLY) We’re going to a meeting. It’s this activism-y--
ZACH Uh yeah, okay.
Social Justice Club is still setting up when we slip into Ms. Cook’s room.
Maybe Krista put out some kind of only-Black-girl-in-the-school bat signal, because half of Columbus High’s ethnic diversity is here. Which is to say, not just Gabe, and not just Ponni Chandrasekar, who’s leaning on her cane as she writes ‘WELCOME’ on the board in bubble letters, but Andy Li, of all people. Wrestling team dudes aren’t famous for questioning the social order.
Andy’s the only other guy, and I can’t help wondering how many of the girls just showed up to stare at Gabe. Then again, in the waning minutes before the meeting, nobody’s really looking in his direction; Andy’s bouncing a superball, Ponni is adding cat ears and tails to each of her letters, and Krista and Leslie are talking with their heads bent together. No ulterior motives in sight.
You’ve gotta hand it to Gabe: in a school where even most of the pot heads are conservatives, he’s managed to find four allies, all united by a common purpose. Well, except for Andy, who could be there by accident.
When Gabe looks up and sees me, a muscle in his jaw twitches gratifyingly.
GABE Why are you here.
ZACH Gosh, I dunno. I guess I felt like making a difference in my local community.
LESLIE He’s, uh. He’s with us.
ZACH Hey, you never know. Maybe I’ll see the light and decide I’m just nuts about change.
PONNI Oh no, are we starting?
ANDY The letters look great, Ponni.
PONNI I think the last cat could be cuter.
ANDY Don’t make me say “It’s purr-fect,” don’t make me be that guy.
KRISTA Welcome to Social Justice Club! We meet Mondays and Fridays.
Last week, we voted on what cause to tackle for now.
KRISTA Ponni won, she had “the war.”
ZACH Right, end the entire war. No pressure.
GABE So! This week.
PONNI We’re starting!
FX: PONNI, WALKING WITH A CANE, CROSSES THE ROOM AND SITS
GABE This week: calling your representatives.
FX: CHALK SQUEAKS ON THE BOARD AS GABE WRITES OUT THREE NAMES
GABE Michigan’s senators, of course, and our house rep. Don’t be nervous, they have interns for actually answering the phone. All you have to do is call, establish you’re from their district, share your stance on the issue, and tell them it’ll affect how you vote.
PONNI What if we’re too young to vote right now? Will we get in trouble for lying?
Great point. Yesterday I met with our legal consultant--
FX: EVERYONE EXCEPT ZACH LAUGHS A LITTLE.
GABE --here’s what you need to know.
FX: MORE CHALK WRITING
GABE 2006, 2008, and 2006 again. Anyone want to guess what these are? Krista.
KRISTA Their re-election years.
GABE Exactly. So Ponni, you say…
PONNI “I will be voting in the 2008 election, and this issue will affect my vote.”
GABE (IN HIS ELEMENT, PAINFULLY EARNEST) Perfect! It may feel awkward at first, but that’s what your call script’s for. And remember, you’re not misleading them. You’re a future voter, and your vote counts just as much as anyone else’s. They work for you. Any other questions?
ZACH What if I’m a single issue voter and my one issue is just how sick their dance moves are?
TRANSITION ZACH Hi again, Gabe!
GABE Why are you here.
ZACH Damn, you mean this isn’t cheerleading tryouts? Must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.
TRANSITION ZACH (NARRATION) Every time I show up--and I show up every time--Gabe asks why. He seems at best resigned to my presence, but he still keeps asking.
I tell myself maybe part of Gabe looks forward to the latest smartass answer, maybe he’d even be disappointed if I stopped coming to meetings. I tell myself this and am struck by a sudden memory of being eleven years old, pointing a homemade wand at an automatic door and trying to convince myself I had moved it by magic.
TRANSITION FX: A HALLWAY FULL OF WALKING STUDENTS. A LOCKER DOOR SLAMS.
ZACH Eddie, what’s up?
EDDIE You and McClary’ve been cozy lately.
ZACH Dude, I don’t like her like that.
EDDIE Good. You realize she is not into guys, right?
(HATING HIMSELF) Leslie’s not gay, she’s just weird.
EDDIE Please. Do you know any straight chicks named Lezzie?
ZACH (FAKE-LAUGHS. IT’S NOT SUPER CONVINCING BUT IT FOOLS EDDIE.)
EDDIE See you.
ZACH (LOST) See you.
ZACH (NARRATION) Gabe and his friends have a plan. It’s all set in place, on white boards and notebooks and probably Krista’s Livejournal somewhere. What they don’t seem to understand is that humanity isn’t going to get better. Even if you wanted to, you can’t just wake up smarter, kinder, braver. It doesn’t work that way. As I stuff my books into my backpack, I’m thinking I should really stop going to meetings.
Why are you here.
No worries, I’m only in it for the snacks.
GABE There are no snacks\.
I know. And I think I deserve a lot of credit for how well I’m handling my disappointment.
ZACH (NARRATION) Social Justice Club writes call scripts against the war. They circulate petitions. They plan a field trip to a protest happening two towns over. Nobody asks me to drive, even though I have a giant-ass van.
But for the first time in years, I find myself sketching real people again. Suddenly my algebra notebook is half filled with scribbled portraits: Krista rebraiding Leslie’s hair, Leslie laughing at whatever Krista’s saying under her breath. Gabe frowning thoughtfully over a sheet of paper. Ponni and Andy decorating Ponni’s cane with constellation stickers. I try not to draw Gabe more than the others.
I mean, I do try.
FX: WE’RE OUTSIDE. BIRDS ARE SINGING
KRISTA Zachariah! What are you doing out here, we ended like ten minutes ago.
ZACH Waiting on Tori.
FX: KEYS JINGLE ZACH I’m her ride.
KRISTA Well hell, let us wait together.
ZACH (AWKWARD) Good meeting today.
KRISTA (SKEPTICAL) Really?
ZACH It's pretty nuts you guys can remember all those numbers off the top of your head and shit.
KRISTA That’s nothing, I’ve got like half of Shakespeare’s sonnets in here. The ones that aren’t total bullshit.
ZACH He’s Shakespeare.
KRISTA I know. Everyone falls over themselves to point that out. He’s okay as dead white guys go, but I’ve read better.
ZACH You are exactly the same. Remember when we used to play war at recess and you’d bust my chops over historical accuracy? KRISTA It was World War Two. You wanted a talking robot dog.
I stand by that. Think how fast we would’ve beat the Germans with robots on our side.
That's not even historical accuracy, that's just, like, sticking to a genre. (A BEAT) You seriously remember all that?
ZACH How could I forget, dude, those were the days.
ZACH (NARRATING) You know how sometimes you have to hear yourself say something out loud before you realize how pathetic it sounds? Like, bad enough when someone’s dad is all, ‘High school is the greatest time of your life’ but Jesus, who admits to peaking in second grade? I try to throw on a laugh but it’s way too late, that comment is just sitting there, like a turd in a public pool.
KRISTA Hey, so we’re getting together this weekend to watch a movie if you…
ZACH Sounds great but I’ve got plans that day.