Main > Series > Chapters > Fame Annual 1985 > When A Word Can Paint A Thousand Pictures

“Leroy Johnson!” Miss Sherwood's voice was loud and angry, and tinged with more than a little exasperation. Leroy pretended not to hear, keeping his head well down and rubbing his forehead with his hands so his eyes were hidden. He had hoped to get through the lesson without Miss Sherwood noticing him. He'd failed by two minutes.

     “Leroy,” repeated Miss Sherwood. “Have you or have you not brought your paper with you - yes or no?”

     Leroy looked around, coughed, scratched his ear, blinked and finally took his pencil out of his mouth.

     “Do you mean yes I have or yes I haven't?” he asked, playing for time. The look on Miss Sherwood's face told him it would be a close-run thing. “Or no, I have, but I left it with my other stuff in the -”

     The bell ran and Leroy led the rush for the door.

     “Johnson,” said Miss Sherwood firmly. “I'd like a word with you.”

     Leroy stayed behind and, as Miss Sherwood watched him pacing back and forwards, she could almost feel the waves of anger and frustration in him rippling just below the surface. Some of her own anger was replaced by concern.

     “Leroy,” she said gently, “you know that if you don't put in a paper I can't give you a mark. Your failure here could follow you round for a long time.”

     “You think I don't know that?”

     “If you could just give me something . . .  anything . . .  to mark, it would be a step forward. Remember, one good word is worth a hundred bad books. You've got to start somewhere. It doesn't matter what it is. Just write something that shows you know about the power of words.”

     “They sure got me beat,” Leroy admitted. “Sometimes I think it might be better to walk.”

     “You can't do that, Leroy. Start small. Just give me something. OK?”

     Leroy shrugged. “I'll try, Miss Sherwood,” he said. “I can't promise I'll succeed, but I promise I'll try.”

     Miss Sherwood smiled. “You do that,” she said. “It would be an awful waste if you had to leave without giving it your best.”

     When Leroy reached the dance class Lydia Grant was already hard at work, teaching her pupils some new steps.

     “Ah, Leroy,” she said when Leroy walked in, “I'd like you to demonstrate those steps we were practising yesterday.”

     Leroy nodded and Lydia switched on the tape. The heavy resonant base of a ska rhythm filled the room. Leroy stood with his feet slightly apart and his body bent forward, snapping up and down to the rhythm and popping his neck in and out like a turkey. Every third beat he would jerk his body erect and wiggle his shoulders as though he had just stepped into a cold shower. When the tape finished Lydia clapped her hands.

     “That's excellent, Leroy,” she said. “Perhaps you'd like to explain the steps to the rest of the class?”

     “Well,” said Leroy, “first of all you've got to imagine you swallowed a giant jumping bean, and that you're itching all over . . .” His voice became faint as he lost himself once again in the magic of dance.

     As the others practised the steps, Lydia kept her littering almond shaped eyes firmly on Leroy. She knew how close he was to being thrown out of the school, and she was deeply worried that his instinctive, inspirational talent would be lost to the world. She could sense the tremendous tension underneath his relaxed, free-flowing dancing. When the lesson ended she took him to on side.

     “Is something bothering you, boy?” she asked.

     Leroy made as if to leave. “It's lunch time and I've got an important meeting,” he said curtly.

     “Is it the show?” asked Lydia. Leroy was scheduled to play a large part in the show at the end of the term.

     “The show don't bother me at all,” said Leroy.

     “It should do, honey,” said Lydia. Leroy caught the look of genuine worry in her eyes. He rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. Lydia could see something was bothering him.

     “Miss Grant . . .” he began haltingly, unsure whether he should go on. Lydia's hand on his forearm told him he should. “Miss Grant,” he repeated, “if you had to choose between your career and . . .  and somebody else's life . . .?” As his voice haltingly faded away Leroy raised his eyebrows and searched Lydia's face for an answer. Her normal, rock hard composure seemed to crack a little.

     “Things aren't usually that simple, Leroy,” she said.

     Leroy shrugged her hand off his arm. “I mean, I don't kif I'm going to make it. The chances are a million to one against. Should I hang on to that one chance when I know if I let it go I could save someone's life?”

     “You want to tell me about it?” asked Lydia.

     Leroy's body slumped and he looked up at the ceiling. Lydia could see tears welling up in his sad, black eyes. For all his street-smart toughness she was reminded that Leroy was still growing up. And then Leroy's jaw set in a firm line, he picked up his jacket, and ran for the door. “Naah - forget it. Like I said,” he explained over his shoulder, “I've got an appointment.”

     Leroy sprinted down the corridor, anxious not to be late for his meeting on the school steps. As he ducked round one corner he bumped into the figure on Quentin Morloch, who was hurrying in the opposite direction. The vice principal's papers went flying in the air and he was dumped unceremoniously on to the hard floor. By the time he had struggled to his feet all he could see of his unwitting assailant was Leroy's back as the young dancer bounded down the stairs. At the school steps Leroy saw a small girl anxiously looking at a Mickey Mouse watch. When she saw Leroy, her face lit up in a bright smile.

     “I thought you weren't coming,” she said.

     Leroy smiled and ruffled her hair as they walked down the street. “Have you ever known me to break a promise?”

     When Morloch reached the staff lunch room, his mind was made up, Johnson would have to go. Sure, he was a good dancer, but his behaviour was wrong. So was his attitude. And it wasn't as if he hadn't been given a chance. The kid had had more breaks than Minnesota Fats. Something had to be done before he affected the morale of the whole school. It had been the same with baseball clubs. You can have one guy who's a genius, but if he doesn't pull with the rest of the team he's more trouble than he's worth. These thoughts were at the forefront of his mind when he spoke to Miss Sherwood.

     Are you going to give Johnson a mark?” he asked.

     Miss Sherwood looked up from the tomato she was slicing in readiness for her salad. “I don't think I've got a choice,” she said sadly. “If he doesn't turn in a paper I'll have to fail him.”

     “Do you think he's going to turn a paper in?”

     Miss Sherwood slowly shook her head. “No,” she said simply.

     “Then why should we wait until the end of term?” said Morloch. “Johnson is a disruptive influence. I'm afraid he'll have to go.”

      Shorofsky looked up from the table, where he had been scribbling on a music score. “When do you propose that Mr. Johnson leaves?” he asked.


     Shorofsky placed his pencil on the table and leaned back in his chair. “Is it fair to get rid of him while he still think there's time to make good?”

     Morloch shrugged as Lydia came in, rubbing her hair with a towel. She stood next to Miss Sherwood, opened a flask and poured herself a mug of thin, clear soup. “I'm worried about Leroy,” she said, blowing at the soup. “I think he's in some kind of trouble.”

     The other teachers exchanged apprehensive glances.

     “He's in more trouble than he thinks,” said Morloch.

     Lydia put her cup down. “What do you mean?” she asked menacingly.

     Morloch and Miss Sherwood tried to explain. The three of them were still arguing as they made their way down the corridor for the afternoon's lessons.

     And that's where Doris overheard them.

     At lunch the following day Danny, Doris, Coco, Holly and Chris were discussing what could be done. Leroy had not turned up for school.

     “We could have somebody write a paper for Leroy to hand in,” suggested Holly.

     Doris shook her head. “It wouldn't work. Leroy wouldn't buy it. He's too proud.”

     They pondered the problem in silence. Coco was the first to spot the little girl standing in the doorway, looking frightened and confused. She got up and crossed the lunch room. “Hiya, girl,” she said with a big, bright smile. “You come to enroll?

     The girl smiled back. “I'm too young,” she said.

     “Don't you believe it. In this business you can be washed up before your skin clears. What can I do for you?”

     “I'm looking for Leroy Johnson.”

     As Coco led the girl to the table she learned her name was Mimi and that she'd been meeting Leroy ever lunchtime that week.

     “What for?” asked Danny as the girl settled into a seat. Her face barely peeped over the table.

     “He's been helping my brother. They used to be friends . . . before my brother got sick. My brother used to be so active, but now he just lies in bed at home and mopes. It's only when he and Leroy talk about the old times that he gets happy.”

     “What's your brother's name?” asked Doris.

     “Tony,” said the little girl. “But people used to know him as Sheppo.”

     “Sheppo the artist?” asked Danny. At one time Sheppo's multi-coloured action scenes had decorated every spare surface in the South Bronx.

     “He's a dancer too,” said Coco, “one of the original breakers. Leroy told me that's how he got to know him.”

     “That's right,” agreed the girl. “At one time they were going to form a dancing group. But then Leroy got accepted here and my brother got sick.”

     “What's wrong with him?”

     “His kidneys. He's got no insurance for the treatment. Most of his old friends are too busy getting famous to remember him and Tony's too stubborn to ask for help.”

     Suddenly Danny got to his feet. “I've got an idea,” he said. “I've got a free class first, so cover for me in music if I'm late.”

     “Hey - where are you going?” asked Doris, but Danny was already half way to the door, and within minutes he was working up his anger as he made his way to Soap's Gallery on King Street. Although he had never met Sheppo, he'd always liked his work. Sheppo had done more than anyone to brighten up the mean streets of his childhood. Sheppo was fearless. He'd go anywhere there was a good surface. His feats of daring were part of local legend. He'd even painted teardrops on the Statue of Liberty. By the time Danny got to the gallery he was in a righteous fervour.

     Soap's Gallery had started life as part of a multi-storey car park. It had been in turn a warehouse, a disco and a dancing school. Now it was the baddest art gallery in town, and Danny climbed the long ramp to the entrance the small groups of mean-looking men, lunging against the walls in the gloom, made him momentarily lose heart. And then he thought of all that Sheppo had tried to do and his courage returned. These guys called themselves revolutionary artists? They claimed they were working for a better world? Danny was going to give them a chance to prove it.

     Back at school, Leroy's sudden re-appearance caused an uproar. He refused to say where he had been and Morloch had ordered him from the premises. Doris had persuaded him to stay and was now leading a delegation of students to Morloch's office. When he let them in, the look on his face let them know he was in no mood to be trifled with.

     “What's that child doing in here?” he asked testily, nodding towards Mimi.

     “She's part of the reason you can't let Leroy go,” said Doris.

     “Can't?” asked Morloch.

     “Mimi - you tell him,” said Holly.

     Mimi stepped forward.

     “Hold it,” Leroy butted in. “You don't have to say nothing, Mimi. I'm out of the school and that's that. I'll be out anyway if I don't turn in a paper. There's no point dragging this thing out. These are the breaks.”

     Morloch studied Leroy's face. It seemed Leroy really was ready to go.

     “Wait a minute, Johnson,” he said. “I'd be obliged if you'd wait around until I've heard what this girl has to say.”

     “No!” said Leroy firmly. He knelt down and took Mimi's hands in his own. His voice was soft and tender, and close to cracking. “I'm sorry, Mimi - I was down at the hospital today. They said they couldn't take my kidney. It wasn't the right match for Sheppo.”

     “Then . . . then . . .” Mimi looked heartbroken. Morloch coughed nervously and Doris and Bruno shuffled their feet until a commotion in the doorway made them look up.

     In the doorway stood Danny with Joe “Soap” Mancuso, the owner of Soap's Gallery.

     “Then nothing!” said Danny cheerfully. “Joe's got something to tell you.”

     They all looked at Joe, who smiled sheepishly. “Well,” he began, “there's a whole bunch of nonsense talked about art, and w at Soap's Gallery are trying to get away from all that. We don't like critics. You either do it or you don't. If you kicked the nonsense out of your average critic you could bury him in a matchbox.”

     “Joe,” interrupted Danny, rolling his eyes. “Why don't you get to the point?”

     “All right. When Danny came and told me about Sheppo, I rang around the artists who exhibit with me. Each one of them offered to donate at least one picture for me to auction. The proceeds will go towards Sheppo's treatment, and if everything goes right we might be able to get enough for a down payment on a dialysis machine for the neighbourhood.”

     The whole room burst out in a wave of spontaneous cheering. Danny waved his hands in the air. “That's not all,” he said. “There were some of Sheppo's old break dancing friends down there. They didn't know that Sheppo had been ill. They promised to put on a free show for Sheppo's benefit. And get this - they want me to MC and you guys to do the closing number.”

     “Us?” gasped Doris in mock horror. “Headlining over some of the country's hottest chart acts? Pinch me, someone, I've got to be dreaming!”

     “Did you say pinch or punch?” asked Danny. Coco picked Mimi up and held her in her arms as Miss Sherwood entered with some papers.

     “Well,” said Coco, “it looks like everything turned out right in the end.”

     “Not everything,” said Morloch. “There's still the matter of Leroy's English paper. Is that right, Miss Sherwood?”

     Miss Sherwood nodded. “Well, Leroy?” she asked.

     Leroy leaned his head to one side. “You said that it's not the quantity of word that matter, but the quality, right?”


     “Well, I was telling Sheppo about everything you said, how everything you write has got to be to the point, how the least number of words often catches the meaning better than some long-winded description, how one well-chosen word can be woth more than a book full of bad ones. I was talking to Sheppo about how important it was for me to make a start, and he said -”

     “Leroy - is this another of your excuses?”

     “No, ma'am, I said I'd try, and I have.”

     “I hope so, Leroy, because if you haven't done a paper that shows that at least you've been thinking about this problem; if you haven't even tried to figure out a way to get started on your project; if you've flunked out again, then I'm sorry, but this will be your last day in this school.”

     Leroy fished a sheet of paper from his picket and handed it to Miss Sherwood. Scrawled in the middle was the solitary word, “IF”.

     Miss Sherwood stared at it for a few seconds and then smiled resignedly.

     “What do you say, Miss Sherwood?” asked Leroy. “Will it do?”

     Miss Sherwood smiled broadly, and shook her head. “It won't do, Leroy. It's not enough for a pass.”

     “But it's a start, right?”

     “It's a start, Leroy,” she said grudgingly. “It's a start.”


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