Set in the suburban shadows of New York City as the 1980s crash into the ‘90s, The Punk and the Professor brings us into the troubled world of a young introvert. Jack Tortis is an underdog branded as a punk in a place where sameness is celebrated. Destined to be a dropout laborer like his estranged father, he clings to hope and fights against a tide of dysfunction as obstacles spring up around him. In a battle for survival, Jack is faced with three options—fall into the street life, join the world of service labor, or fight his way through school.
Where we end up in life is often too predictable—but sometimes an opportunity comes along that changes our fate, and sometimes it takes starting all over again to get it right. The story of the punk is framed by a professor reciting an ancient tale that inspires us to see past the shadows, question all we think we know, and distinguish reality from illusion.
"Great, gritty coming of age story that shows how the human spirit and determination can overcome life's obstacles." - Dr. Ray McCarthy, Educator and Consultant
Excerpts from the Book:
A stuttering little boy spells out the word butterfly for the first time.
My brother’s smile.
A faded black and white photograph of six smiling friends, a world ahead of them. The Kennedy brothers on each end. Steven and Paul to my left. Gene to my right. Me in the middle.
Wrestling. Guns N’ Roses. Running free on the track.
The beach. The bay. The birds.
Long Island in the shadow of the city.
The nineteen eighties crashing into the nineties.
A girl in a Catholic school dress stands there laughing and talking with her girlfriends. She doesn’t see me, but I see her. She has long straight brown hair, eyes the color of a forest, and a smile that captures me. Something inside feels funny.
A horn blared and a light flashed——
—My swollen eyes stretched open. My face muscles were numb, and my lips were tight and chapped. A layer of frost covered my hair. The car approached and its window opened. I struggled to roll my window down.
“You gotta go. Can’t stay here. Get on now.”
“No problem. Thanks,” I said.
The security guard couldn’t even let me stay in the empty lot, but I didn’t complain. The guy had saved my life. Another hour or so and I would have frozen to death for sure. I turned the ignition, cranked the heat, and then drove off to the safety of the twenty-four hour diner with twenty dollars in my pocket and several hours to waste before the rest of the world woke.
From Chapter 1
IT WAS A CLEAR SUNNY DAY in late May, but the inside of that school felt subterranean. Some rooms had an unobstructed window to look out of— initial joy for the view of the sky— blue all around from the bottom to the top of the window— only to be followed by the sinking recognition that plexiglass stood between us and nature. It was a glimpse of the world out there, but so difficult to break through. The plexiglass was deceiving. We were caged in that building like broken animals gone from the jungle far too long.
I sat in English class distracted by images of my brother being thrown across the room the night before. The violence was sickening, yet I tiptoed around it and it tiptoed around me. Violence and I didn’t want to know each other. Not anymore. I had had my share of fights early on. All the kids I fought were bigger than me and I took them to the ground like a lion does to a water buffalo. But those fighting days were behind me. I wanted to be left alone, yet it seemed like people poke you when they know you don’t want any trouble. Teachers do this sometimes.
Mrs. Lumbrera slammed her fist down on my desk.
“Mr. Tortis, what is Twain saying in paragraph four?”
“What is he saying? What does he mean?”
“I don’t know… “
“Have you read a single page of the anthology this entire year?”
“Yes, what? Tell me what he means.”
“I don’t know…you’re the teacher. Why don’t you tell me?”
She stood over me with her square, chiseled jaw and flexed her fists together. You would’ve thought this woman was going to beat me down on the spot. Her challenging demeanor warranted the worst from a disturbed student like myself, so she was lucky. Or maybe she knew deep down inside that I wasn’t the crazed girlfriend-beater she had made me out to be a couple of weeks earlier in class.
After I erased the answering machine message, I showed up the next day to serve my suspension and meet the new director. Mr. Horton had been transferred into a teaching position and Mr. Kelly, the lowest on the totem pole, had taken over. The bearded man was stocky with a serious demeanor. He had just arrived at our school from Rhode Island where I heard he was a fisherman. As soon as the bell rang he ordered all the students to quiet down and stare forward. This man was serious, but he gave orders with a degree of respect.
The in-school suspension room, known as ISS, was bare and cold. Eight or nine desks faced opposing directions. Some faced the closed curtained windows. Some faced the brick walls. We were expected to sit quietly for seven hours with only one bathroom break and twenty minutes to eat lunch. If we were good, we were able to go on errands or sometimes we’d be lucky and a teacher would send for us for a period or two. This room was the beginning of the end for some of its inhabitants who would go on to make a life out of being locked up.
Throughout the first hour of the school day, Mr. Kelly went around to each of the students assigning them their work. When he got around to my desk, he handed me five sheets of paper.
“Jack, tell me something about you. A story from your life. An obstacle. Change the names of real people. At least five pages.”
In my many previous suspensions, I’d sit and stare at the wall for seven hours. Mr. Horton would let us melt away in boredom if our teachers didn’t send anything. Mr. Kelly’s assignment could help time go faster. I had a lot to say, and I didn’t know where to start, so I settled on telling him about the previous suspension, or at least what led up to it.
From Chapter 7
My new spiked haircut was really a part of this second coming. I was sick of my moppy mess. I looked around and saw others gelling and spiking their hair back. So I went to the barber and for the first time I knew what I wanted.
“Give me a spiked haircut. You know, the Billy Idol Rebel Yell look,” I told the man.
“I know it well,” the man said.
I walked out of the shop a new kid. I went back to school the next day and kids starting talking to me instantly. It was shallow, but looks were important. A simple haircut gave me a chance to become someone new, someone confident after several years being an outsider.
The popular fraternal twin brothers Jeff and Andy Kennedy with their spiky blond haircuts became my friends. Being friends with the Kennedy brothers was a big step. Paul was already friends with them, but it was a kind of final initiation into the cool club for me and Steven. We were becoming accepted by the other kids. We were mainstream. Let the good times roll.
It was Jeff who opened up the door for me to a whole new world. Jeff was the shorter, more outgoing of the two brothers. He and I took a walk one day. For some reason, he was allowed to go home for lunch, and I had been suspended from lunch for a week for the cafeteria incident and had to go home too. It was surprising the school let two kids walk out the front doors and leave for lunch with no parent or ride, but they had.
“You like music?” he asked as we walked.
“I love music.”
“Hey, you want to come over and eat at my house? I have some records.”
We walked to his house, had lunch, and he showed me the beginnings of a wicked vinyl collection.
“These are my punk albums, real classics.”
He showed me a stack of albums. The Damned. The Misfits. T. Rex.
“Check out this newer one though.”
Jeff put on an album and started it somewhere at the end of side one. He gave me the cover to look at. At first glance it looked like four women on the cover, but then I realized they were men wearing makeup. I didn’t know what to make of it. A song called “Look What the Cat Dragged In” played and I was just as baffled by their sound. Mom had exposed me to some cool music. The Rolling Stones. Elton John. Billy Joel. Cat Stevens. But other than that older 70s music, I was really an 80s pop piano synth kind of listener. Duran Duran. Bruce Hornsby. Johnny Hates Jazz. Those were the first tapes I owned of current music. Poison’s album Look What the Cat Dragged In was different.
“You think this is crazy? You have to hear their newest album.”
He held up an album with a demon woman with a long tongue on the front cover. It was titled Open Up and Say Ahh.
“Have you seen any of their videos?” he asked.
“MTV. Maybe next time we’ll watch the videos.”
I couldn’t wait though. When I went home I turned on the TV and found MTV, a station I hadn’t yet watched. My mother had warned me not to watch cable. Someone somewhere along the way, probably elsewhere on TV, had said that heavy metal music was the work of the devil. No one was around, so I turned on the channel and had a look for myself. After a few wild songs with long-haired men cranking guitars in the air, Poison came on with their makeup, fluorescent green lights, and fireworks. “Nothin’ but a Good Time” was an anthem for young party kids. If the devil was there I couldn’t see it.