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First pages



This here? What you have in front of you took me a few years to do. Don’t worry about how many. Not your concern. This all started on account of an assignment I never did when I was in eighth grade. I was too afraid to write it. Speaking the truth, any truth -- even just some -- comes with consequences. At thirteen, I just wasn’t ready for all of that.

It was back in a class I used to call Reading Hell with Mr. Foxx. I could see where he was going with it. The assignment was about trying to get you to own all your crap. Either own it or acknowledge it. We were just eighth graders at the time, so it was probably more about acknowledging all the crap around you. And for a few kids, I think the assignment actually worked. He got a few kids thinking. He got me thinking the most, but no way. I was nowhere near ready to give some teacher I hardly knew the satisfaction of knowing that he was having an impact on me. I got close, but I was able to pull back just enough. I claimed this all started with an assignment I never turned in, but technically I did turn something in. I gave him a few lines. It went like this:


Your assignment is stupid and impossible to do. How can I write about when I officially stopped giving a crap about school when I am still in the process of not giving a crap? So, if I still don’t give a crap, I can’t give a crap about this assignment. Like I said, this is stupid and not really possible.


He was unimpressed. He leaned in and told me that he knew I already wrote the assignment. He knew that I had been writing in my head for days. He said he was this master at planting seeds and that he knew the true seed had been planted in me. In fact, he predicted that I was really taking notes for a much longer paper, maybe even something book length because I was just looking for an excuse and an invitation to spill myself, like blood, all over the page. He told me to keep writing, and he gave me an email where I could one day send the completed manuscript. And then, I remember he pissed me off even more because he gave me an A on my four sentences with a note explaining that he was giving me extra credit for the writing that I was doing at home.

Oh, and don’t worry by the way. If you just panicked thinking the whole bloody book thing was just some metaphor, you’re wrong. Blood to come, I promise. The thing is, I knew that Mr. Foxx was a total asshole half the time. But he was also totally right. I had been secretly writing in a bunch of cheap notebooks for days. I actually held off on buying chips after school for a while and bought notebooks instead. I had to do it at a different store, too. I couldn’t have nobody at school see me buying notebooks in the middle of March. I never would have heard the end of it. I went over to the pharmacy a few blocks down and picked them up there. Mostly only old ladies buying medicines to help them poop and pee, so no threat. It was actually kind of nice when I bought the notebooks because for a moment or two they didn’t look at me like I might jump them.

And Mr. Foxx was exactly right about me. I had been looking for just the right invitation and the right excuse to bleed all over the pages. Took me a while. I was unraveling a whole bunch of stuff. And here is what I got. You’re looking at it.

When I started writing it, I wasn’t even shaving yet. I shave now. Makes me laugh when I go back and read the beginning. Kind of makes me cry a little, too. I mean, if I was actually capable of crying.

For kids like us, crying is one of the first luxuries to go. I noticed that one early on. See, crying can lead to beatings and beatings can lead to more crying. You can see where this is going. You can’t control the beatings, but you can control the crying. So, it’s the crying that has to go. The thing though that nobody tells you about tears is that crying isn’t like riding a bicycle. Once you train yourself not to cry, you forget how to do it. It’s like a strange half amnesia sets in. You’re still clear on all the day to day stuff. Name. Place. Address. Who and what to avoid. But you forget some other part of yourself. Some important inner stuff. It’s been lost or boarded up. It is like you’re playing this cruel game of hide and seek with yourself and you forgot where you hid.

And since I mentioned riding bicycles, it might be worth mentioning that I learned how to ride a bike when I stole one. I saw kids with bikes all the time, and I knew that I could probably ride it better than half of them. Fat, dopey kids wobbled along all the time, so I just picked a kid one day who was riding slow, fat and wobbly and I punched him in the face while he was riding by me. Poor kid never saw it coming. Obviously he fell, and I scooped up his bike and got on one for the first time. And I was right. Instantly, I could ride. The trick is you just need to go fast enough. Once you get moving, it’s pretty impossible to fall down. Unless, of course, you’re a slow kid wobbling along and some a-hole punches you in the face when you least expect it. I didn’t steal it completely. I rode it for a few blocks, then just dropped it off somewhere. In the distance, I could see the poor kid coming towards where I left it on somebody’s lawn. I just assumed he got it back. That was one of the last times I cried, by the way. To get just a taste of the good life only because I punched a kid and temporarily stole his bike was a little too much for me. It was quick. You can’t look like you were crying when you come through the door. Obviously.

And this is not a crying book. Sorry. It’s not called a teary-eyed book. But you can’t have one without a little of the other. Tears lead to violence and violence can get pretty bloody and the aftermath can lead to more tears. You can see where this is going.

So, it’s a few years late and about 150 pages longer than it needed to be. But it is finished. At the very least, I can say that I finally earned the A Mr. Foxx gave me in eighth grade. A debt has been paid, I guess. So, both in metaphors and authentic red splatters, I give to you, A Bloody Book.




If you’re reading this right now….no…that ain’t right. That’s a stupid way to start. Let me try again. Dear Reader. No. Pathetic. See, for a minute I was talking that glazed over adult talk. It’s weird, but when you try to write stuff down sometimes, and it feels all official, it’s kinda like you lose your own words and you just sort of slip into adult talk. And, in case you haven’t noticed, adult talk has nothing to do with talking. Or communicating. It really has more to do with NOT talking to each other. I mean, have you ever watched a couple of adults talk?

First, they laugh at so much stupid stuff they say to each other. It’s almost like they’re taking turns. First, one person says all the stupid stuff, then the other person laughs. Then, they pause and switch and let the other person do the laughing and the other person says all the stupid stuff. Here’s an actual clip from an adult conversation I heard two teachers having out on the quad the other day while they were on duty.

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“Good. How about you?”


“Brr…it’s a cold one this morning.”

And then? Then the other teacher laughed. She actually laughed at, “Brr…it’s cold.” What could possibly be so darn funny about being cold? I mean if one of them said something like, “Look my boogers are frozen to my upper lip,” now that might be at least a little bit funny. I think the reason they keep talking and laughing is because adults hate silence. I mean they really hate it. That’s why middle school kids love to use silence against adults. We know that the longer we can stay silent while adults are asking us stupid questions that they already know the answers to, the angrier and funnier adults get. I mean, unless you know the adult is going to physically hurt you bad, there ain’t much else more funny than a pissed off adult. They get all red in the face and little spit bubbles start to build up in the corners of their mouth. And the bald ones are even funnier to piss off. Their heads get red and, if you do it right, you can actually see veins bulging out of their scalps like their brains are going to bust wide open. Actually, there is an adult funnier than a pissed-off, bald-headed adult and that’s a pissed off adult wearing a wig. You don’t get too many of those these days, since being bald ain’t as bad as it used to be. But, an adult with a wig is funny to watch when they’re screaming. See, the wig starts shaking like it might fall off. When the wig starts going one way and their fleshy heads start shaking in the other direction, you got yourself a very entertaining show to watch. I’ve only seen this happen once back in sixth grade.

It was Ms. Spencer’s last year and you could just tell she was ready to go. She had shoes from like the 1800’s. And, she had a wig. And, like a lot of old-lady-wigs, it didn’t really fit too well. The wig seemed a few sizes too big for her little head. It really should’ve come with a chinstrap to keep it in place. Anyway, one time near the end of the year, near the end of her teaching career, she was laying into me pretty good. It was like she was yelling at me for all the things kids had done to her over the last century. She was yelling at me for things kids did who were now like fifty years old. And, to make it worse for poor Ms. Spencer, she really should’ve retired about ten years before she did. But, Ms. Spencer had to work. Mr. Spencer had gotten really sick and had to stop working years ago. Ms. Spencer got into teaching late on account of having to earn a living, take care of her husband, and raise her kids. So, for Ms. Spencer to get her 30 years of teaching in to retire, she had to teach until she was like 75 years old. And, I did feel really bad for her because no little old lady who is 75 should be dealing with middle school kids. I mean, we tire out the young and healthy teachers. Just think about the woopin’ we must have been putting on poor old Ms. Spencer. And you know, it’s a shame me and Ms. Spencer weren’t friends. We really had a lot in common. First, we both got stuck in the worst classes. The principal didn’t know what to do with Ms. Spencer because she was too old to still be teaching, but her and her wig just kept showing up everyday. So, they made her teach a class I like to call Reading Hell. And, they didn’t know what to do with me neither. I wasn’t no drooling idiot, but I had no kind of book smarts, so they stuck me in Reading Hell too, because even though they thought I had no business getting an education, my butt just kept showing up. School was at least better than home. But the school really can’t count that as bragging rights on account of how bad home is. School just sucks less. I could wear a t-shirt that reads, “SCHOOL. IT SUCKS LESS.”

And also, me and Ms. Spencer, we were both real tired and beat down about it all. And, Ms. Spencer had all kinds of money and family problems. I knew that the cafeteria lady let Ms. Spencer eat for free. I seen it before. Ms. Spencer, everyday, would take out the same crumpled two dollars and offer to pay and Bertha, or whatever her name is in the cafeteria, would shake her head and not take her money. And I ate in the cafeteria for free too, but I never once tried to pay for it with two crumpled dollars. I had all kinds of money problems and my family is a total mess. I don’t even like to say it’s family. It’s more just the people that live in our crapper of an apartment. And there were days during her last year that I wished I just could’ve told her that I knew how she felt and that I was sorry for her because I had only been feeling this bad for the thirteen years I’ve been on the planet and the first few I don’t even remember. But, poor Ms. Spencer had been feeling like this for at least 30 years, maybe more, so I can only imagine how bad it must suck. That’s the kind of thing I wanted to say to Ms. Spencer.

Honestly, that’s what I wanted to say. I did. But I knew I couldn’t. See if any of the kids in my Reading Hell Class saw me showing Ms. Spencer any kindness, I would’ve been teased about Ms. Spencer being my girlfriend and that would’ve gone on for months, and I just wasn’t big enough to swallow that kind of teasing every day, so I couldn’t do it. And, she didn’t know it, but I was also saving her from lots worse by not trying to tell her about all the stuff we had in common and how we could’ve been friends. See, if I had told her and they did tease me bad enough, I would’ve had to spend even more time torturing her to prove that I wasn’t her boyfriend. And you’re just going to have to trust me that I would’ve done anything to that poor old woman to stop the teasing. Anything. This is my third middle school, so I know about doing whatever it takes to make kids stop stuff.

So there I was in late May, listening to Ms. Spencer give it to me good, just dumping on me. And I wasn’t even minding it. I was thinking that since I couldn’t tell her about the friendship we could have had, the least I could do for this poor old lady was let her just dump on me. When I used to have a mom, that’s what I used to let her do to me. She just needed someone to dump on. She just needed someone to scream at that wasn’t going to punch her face in, so that was my job when she used to be around. So while she was screaming, I was thinking, “There you go Ms. Spencer. That’s right. Just let it all out. It’s ok. I understand. I know about your pain and how you need to dump some of it out, so your heart don’t explode. I’m your guy. Think of it as my retirement present.” So, I was really okay with her just unloading on me like that. And, she was also doing me a favor in return. By bringing Ms. Spencer to the point of insane anger, she was building up my reputation with the rest of the Reading Hell Class. Her crazy screaming was helping me with my street cred. So, in a weird way, we were helping each other and having a real friendship. It was just one we could never talk about. Heck, it wasn’t no different than any other relationship I had with an adult who did a whole lot of yelling about one thing, when really they were all yelling about totally different stuff down inside their guts.

Anyway, I was thinking about how it must be feeling good for Ms. Spencer to let it all go for a few minutes when, all of a sudden, her head went hard to the left and her wig went hard to the right. And when it was all over, the side of her wig was covering her eyes and most of her nose. The whole room just fell silent. And, as bad as I felt about Ms. Spencer and the new wig situation, it was probably the funniest thing I had ever seen. It was probably the funniest thing anybody in Reading Hell ever saw in their lives either. The room full exploded in laughter. Ms. Spencer just tugged it back in place, but it was too late. In between big heaping wails of laughter, I was sort of worried that Ms. Spencer might cry. I mean, she was like 75 and her wig had just spun around her head in front of one of the worst classes in school. It might sound strange to some of you that haven’t been beaten down so low yet, but it was probably a good thing for Ms. Spencer that she had been used to being beaten down so much. It wasn’t like she had a whole lot to lose by being so humiliated in front of everyone. She was already on the bottom, so there was no need to cry.

I know about that. It was why I almost had to work at it to stay this low on the bottom. I have very little to lose, and I sort of need it to be that way so I don’t explode. Once, when I was in first grade, a teacher took four of us over to the Kiwanis club for this special Christmas breakfast. The teacher told us we were picked because we had been working so hard in class, but once we saw each other, we all knew it had nothing to do with hard work. We were probably the four poorest and dirtiest kids in school. And, out of all the poorest and dirtiest kids in school, we were the four who probably weren’t getting no good Christmas stuff. The teacher seemed so damn happy riding us over to the breakfast. I really think she did it more to make herself feel good, then doing it for us. But, to tell you the truth, I really didn’t want to go. I’ve never been a big fan of feeling happy. Being happy never lasts and when it ends and you remember just how badly your life sucks, you wind up even sadder than you ever were before you had the happiness. So, I try my best to stay away from any happy stuff.

Anyway, when we got to the breakfast, there was the most breakfast food I had ever seen in my life. I took the meal. That part I took. All meals, good and bad, go away anyway, so I took the good meal and filled my little belly until it was about to burst. I could hardly talk to the old Kiwanis men at my table. But, the next part, I didn’t want. Santa Clause came out and gave every kid a good gift. All the girls got these cool dolls and all the boys got these cool jeeps that had like a hundred awesome little parts. But, I wouldn’t take it. This seemed to kill my teacher’s buzz. She got all angry at me for not taking the present. But, what she didn’t know is that if I took that present home and actually allowed that gift, that cool Jeep, to make me happy, then my dad would see how happy it made me and then he would throw it away or step on it and crush it on purpose. My first grade teacher just had no idea that being happy in my house was a dangerous thing and any happiness you felt was just gonna make you even extra unhappy at the end.

And that’s the kind of thing that was keeping Ms. Spencer all together that afternoon. She took it real well on account of her life sucking so much. Nothing left to lose. Knowing that, made me stop laughing. At least, it made me stop laughing for real. I kept laughing after that because I couldn’t be the first person to stop laughing. That would’ve hurt my rep. So, I just kept right on laughing, all the while hoping that Ms. Spencer was going to hold it together.

Now, the next thing that happened was pretty big. And, I’m still not sure if it was an example of Ms. Spencer holding it together in the greatest way possible or if it was Ms. Spencer losing it big time. See after the laughing hit its highest point, Ms. Spencer sat down at her desk and just sighed. It was a big, heavy sigh. Her thick, old breath just crackled out of her like she had a lung disease. And then, like it was no big deal, she took her wig off and threw it in the trash. She didn’t even really throw it. She just tossed it like it was a candy wrapper and not her wig. The laughing just stopped. And there she sat. Her head was rough to see. In some places there were patches of little old lady hair and in other parts there was nothing but bare, spotted wrinkles. She seemed naked in a really bad way. It was like nothing you ever wanted to see, but at the same time, you couldn’t really look away because you knew this was something that you weren’t ever gonna see again. And, I’m not just talking about seeing a bald old lady throwing away her wig in front of a bunch of troublemakers. I mean, what we were also staring at was an adult who was just as confused, frustrated, and sad as us. And here’s the thing. She was actually being honest about it. This was real. And, I wasn’t missing it. It was the first time all semester that Ms. Spencer had us totally quiet at the same time. And then she spoke. We hung on every mumbling word that dripped from her old dry mouth.

“I started losing my hair when I was only about 40.” That’s how she started. Just like that. Like we had all been talking about this already, which, I guess, we kind of were.

“It was stress. My husband couldn’t walk anymore and I didn’t have much money and then my hair started falling out. And it never really came back. Probably because since then I’ve never had too many days in a row where I wasn’t having such a hard time.” And then she did the next thing. She went into her old lady bag and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and just lit one up. She took a long drag and let it out in one long stream of smoke. She spoke again. No one was turning away.

“Life ain’t fair and life ain’t easy. It ain’t. And most things don’t work out the way you hoped. But, trust me, it’s even worse if you can’t read. That much is true. If you remember nothing, at least remember that.” Then she chuckled. “I’m sure you won’t forget this one.” Then she felt her head lightly. “Does anyone have a brush?” Maria Chavez quickly pulled out a brush. And then, Maria did something even cooler. She stood behind poor old Ms. Spencer and very gently combed her patches of hair. Maria was the oldest in a house of like a hundred and six little kids. About forty-seven of them still in diapers. They live in an actual house, so at first you think her life might be at least decent. But, in order for Maria’s parents to live in that house, they had to let in at least three families of cousins to flip the bill. So, even though it was a house, she still had to sleep on a floor somewhere and then she was practically a slave because she had to take care of a ton of snot-nosed little kids.

And see, that’s the kind of thing that teachers don’t think about, and for their stupid teaching worlds to make sense, they really can’t think about it. See because then they’d have to realize that Maria’s got no time to do their stupid homework on account of her having to cook meals, clean clothes, change diapers until like midnight and then fall asleep on some floor so drunk uncles and their wives could have the beds. If you took that stuff into consideration, then the whole school thing would just stop making sense. So, instead of making sense out of it? Here’s Maria, sitting in Reading Hell with me and everyone like us, and yet she’s probably much more of an adult than half of these smooth-skinned teachers. One thing for sure, is Maria knows how to take care of people. There she was, combing Ms. Spencer’s little baldhead. And the room was silent. All you could hear was the brush snagging on the hair patches on Ms. Spencer’s head. You don’t really think about the noise a brush can make, but we were all listening to the same sandpaper sound. And watching Maria being so kind and gentle with Ms. Spencer made it all sort of hurt for the rest of us. It made me wish I had an adult like Maria in my life. Problem is I don’t. Bigger problem is my new adult role model is only thirteen. Adults suck.

Ms. Spencer never put the wig back on. She came to school for those last few weeks with her patchy hair for everybody to see. And, I loved going to that class after that. It was the best three weeks I ever had in a class. And no one disrespected Ms. Spencer no more. She was one of us. She always was, but now she was official. And on the last day of school, we had a party for her. Maria Chavez, my favorite thirteen-year-old adult role model, made this killer taco dish and there was such a warm feeling about the whole thing. And you know what? Ms. Spencer told us that she wasn’t going to the lame party they were going to have for her in the staff lounge after school. In fact, she told me that she was going home after she finished her little taco plate because she wanted it to be her last memory of teaching. She didn’t want to ruin it with a fake party with people pretending to like her and know stuff about her. And, when the bell rang, she got up and waved good-bye. I watched her walk across campus and get in her old Buick. She never looked back. And, I figured that was the last time I would ever meet an honest adult. But, I was dead wrong.




Ok, let me get you more details on Reading Hell Class. First, just like jail, you gotta get sentenced. See, in May, you take this long bubble test. And I hate the test before I even open it on account of the fact that teachers actually take like a half hour and try and teach you how to bubble. Like you’re such a moron that you can’t possibly know how to fill in the little ovals by yourself. Of course, in all my classes, I’m caged in with the true goon-faced morons, but trust me, they’re not so stupid that they couldn’t fill in a bubble.

In fact? One year Mr. Hale spent almost the whole first half of the testing block to review the art of bubbling with us. We took a break before we even opened the test. That was the year our school was going to run into all kinds of problems if we didn’t do better on the test. And, get this…they actually told us that. I mean the last thing you wanna go and do is tell middle school kids that you’re counting on them. That’s a sure way to get us to do worse. If you’re some adult reading this right now, then let me tell you that if you let a middle school kid know that you’re counting on them, it’s a guarantee that you will NOT, repeat…NOT, be able to count on them. The less of a big deal you make about something, the better chance you got of getting it done. The whole thing was like putting gas on a fire. Total gas on a fire. Really, if you wanted kids to try harder on the test, the best thing to do would’ve been to sit us all down in an assembly and then get Mr. Crock up there. Mr. Crock is our principal. All that blubber gut had to say was,

“Look, we need you to do better on the test. So, here’s the deal. If we do better on the test, then I agree to blow stuff up in the quad.” I’m thinking big stuff like cars and dumpsters. That might do it. See, that way you’d be talking to the kids you most need to do better. Let me break it down for you.

In this situation, most of the kids can fall into three categories. Well, most of the kids, except of course for Bach Sturgent. Bach. That’s his real first name. His parents named him after some classical music guy from like two million years ago or something. They thought the name would make him smart. And, I don’t know if it worked, but the dude is wildly smart. But, he could care less about school. He makes up his own magic tricks and they’re really cool. He once made Mr. Jesup’s lesson plan book disappear and claimed that he didn’t know the spell to bring it back. He also made Mrs. Ritchie’s laptop disappear and made it reappear in the boy’s bathroom. He’s better than tv. He really is. And, when I say that, I mean that he’s better than tv in a rich kid’s house. In our crap apartment we only get two channels, but I mean his stunts are better than anything on a hundred and six channels of rich kid tv. Our apartment is on the second floor of a two story dive. Rats and roaches are free of charge. My Uncle Bonz, who is sort of the leader of our pack, says we’re lucky to be on the second floor because when all the string and glue that holds the place together finally rots away, we’ll probably survive on account of the people on the first floor breaking our fall. And that’s as free as the rats and roaches. So, we got that going for us. We got two views from this place. If I look left, I got a view of the freeway onramp. And if I look right, I can see our school. School. It sucks less. And a few times, pretty late at night, I’ve seen Bach Sturgent scaling the school fence with supplies setting up his next stunt. He says that his greatest stunt will be when they actually lock him in the room next to the VP’s and he’ll break free like some guy named Houdini from over a hundred years ago. Then, he says he’ll go missing long enough for his parents to sue the school for having lost him on their watch. Then, the final part of his plan is how he’ll return. See, after the lawyers have gotten his parents a truck load of dough from the school system and the check has cleared the bank, Bach Sturgent claims he’ll reemerge tied up in the trunk of Mr.Woody’s old Ford. Mr. Woody is our VP. He says that people will know to come find him in the trunk because on that day, a message of him will magically appear in the morning announcement. Then, Mr. Woody will have to serve jail time for a crime he never committed. Bach insists this is what Mr. Woody has coming to him for all the times he’s given Bach detention just because he’s Bach Sturgent and he MIGHT have done it. And Bach says that once the right people find him in the trunk all tied and gagged and maybe even crying if he can keep from laughing, it’s all down hill for the man. See, Bach Sturgent is sort of like that prisoner who escapes and gives all the other prisoners hope. I would kill to see all that go down the way Bach Sturgent says it will. I don’t think it’s likely, because thinking it’s likely is almost like being happy, and I’ve already told you how I can’t afford to have too much of that. But, I have just enough room in my head to accept the fact that it is possible. Hopeful, but not too much to bring actual happiness.

So, as I break down how all the kids pretty much fall into three categories and how you can break them down based on how they feel about explosives, you can see how Bach Sturgent is in a category all by himself.

First, you got all the kids that are afraid of explosives. That’s because they already have nice lives and they’re going to do better on the test because that’s just who they are. They can’t help themselves. They’re actually worried and even frightened about things like permanent records, grades, juvenile hall, and losing pinky fingers. These guys already know that they’re going to live nice lives where they’re really going to need good permanent records and as many fingers as they can hold onto. They can’t help but do well. I could threaten to punch their faces in every morning for the rest of the school year if they did well on that test and it wouldn’t matter. They’d just take their woopin’ from me. They’re programmed to do well in school. They already know that they’ll own the world someday and a whooping from me is just a temporary discomfort.

Now the kids that already blow a bunch of stuff up anyway, it won’t make no difference to them, either. And usually the kids that aren’t afraid to blow stuff up couldn’t do better if they tried. It just ain’t in them. So Mr. Crock wouldn’t really be talking to them either. It’s just how they’re programmed.


About me

I am a veteran teacher of over twenty years that has read too many young adult books to count. And now, I try my hand at the genre. I have been Teacher of the Year at three different schools, as well as for my district and the County of Los Angeles. I have appeared three times on national television with my first book, Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom. Now I look to build many new relationships with students from a much different perspective. Happy Reading!

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
Art follows life. As a teacher that has worked with struggling students over the years, you realize how little so many of their struggles have to do with education and how most of it hinges on circumstances. Rarely is the struggle reading. It is often a battle with poverty and what it breeds.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
The voice of this character. The voice of Maxx is so strong and clear that I was writing with his tone and demeanor long before I had a story to tell. His voice feels to penetrate and cut through the noise of adolescence and will hopefully speak to young adults.
Q. Which writers inspire you?
I was immediately blown away by Hemingway's short stories when I was a teenager. The emotional impact the stories were able to deliver while being so understated somehow spoke to me. I became immersed in those stories the way other teenagers become immersed in new music.