Ted Talks Trash

by Kristen Bealer

"...and that brings me to reason number thirty-four why women are genetically superior to men," Ms. Barch was telling her students. Science class was one of the rare places where Ted actually appreciated other people's tendency to overlook him. Ms. Barch directed a lot of anger at the boys in the class, but her gaze seemed to slide right over him whenever she looked in his direction.

At that moment, Ms. Li entered the classroom and asked, "Students, aren't we a bunch of lucky so-and-sos?" When no one replied, she barreled onward with what sounded like a prepared speech. "With all that this great land has given us, shouldn't we think about giving back just a little? So, as part of the school district's first annual Awareness of Others Week, I'm asking each Lawndale High student to sign up for an extracurricular activity to make the world a better place. One hundred percent participation will earn, ahem, all of us special recognition from the superintendent of schools. Now, I want all of you to go out there and make the school--and its principal--look good. Resume learning!"

Ms. Li left as abruptly as she'd entered, leaving Ms. Barch to continue her tirade-disguised-as-lecture. After class let out, Ted and his fellow classmates spilled out into the hallway and found the Awareness of Others sign-up sheets hanging on the bulletin board. He considered his options as he read each one.

"Arts and crafts class at the hospital children's ward?" Ted thought about his skill with woodworking and other crafts and raised his pen. He was just about to write his name when he took a step back to reconsider. "My last attempt at jewelry making didn't go over very well. Perhaps something else would be better."

Next he saw the option of reading with seniors. "Oh, dear. I couldn't possibly force those poor senior citizens to read! With the notoriously poor eyesight of the elderly, it would just be cruel!" He shook his head and kept looking. "Collecting clothes for the homeless door to door? No, the neighbors stopped speaking to us after Mom and Dad started that riot at the neighborhood barbecue when they found out the potato salad wasn't organic." He shuddered at the violent memories of hurled coleslaw and overturned grills.

He brightened quickly as he turned to the next sign-up sheet. "Highway debris removal. Well, I can't think of anything wrong with that idea!"

"Here are your bags, your safety vest, and your gloves," the site supervisor told Ted when he arrived for work a few days later.

"Gloves?" Ted asked, confused. "It's not cold out. Why do I need gloves?"

The supervisor waved his arm to indicate the massive amount of garbage strewn along the highway. "You do not want to touch this stuff with your bare hands. Trust me."

Ted looked around and saw what he was referring to. The greasy fast-food wrappers fluttering in the breeze. The decaying roadkill covered in smears of dried blood and swarming with flies. The piles of empty beer cans, most of them stacked near an overpass with "QB WUZ HERE" spray-painted on it. He looked back at his supervisor, who gave him a half-hearted wave before climbing back into his car. Shuddering slightly, he got to work.

Half an hour later, Ted gingerly deposited yet another used tissue into his bag and sighed. "I should have picked something else," he moaned. "I don't think this job could possibly get any worse."

At that moment, a car roared into view. The horn blared, and the driver leaned out of his window to shout, "Loser!" as he passed. Soon another car approached. This time the driver slowed down just long enough to hurl a plastic cup full of soda out the window, which hit Ted and splattered his clothes. The driver laughed uproariously, then squealed her tires as she sped away.

More cars passed, many of them honking their horns or yelling insults as they went by. Ted took all the abuse quietly, his face a mixture of emotions. When a well-aimed cigarette nearly scorched his hair, he finally let his emotions run loose.

"Hooray!" he shouted, leaping into the air with a grin. At long last, people were noticing him. It was one of the happiest days of his entire life, and he was humming as he resumed his work.

By the end of his shift, Ted stood on a much cleaner stretch of highway, holding one of many full bags of trash. He'd also learned a great deal about the internal organs of raccoons, heard several new synonyms for "loser," and seen enough discarded gum to lose his appetite for the stuff for months.

His supervisor pulled up and climbed out of the truck. "Looks like you've had a productive day!" he told Ted, gesturing at the pile of garbage bags.

Ted nodded. "What do we do with them now?"

The supervisor picked up two of the bags and tossed them into the back of his truck to join those he'd already collected from other volunteers. "I'm going to take all this to the landfill," he said.

Ted looked at the bags, all of them crammed full of garbage. "Oh...no," he gasped in horror.

"Mom! Dad!" Ted cried as he ran into the house. "Come quick! I have a moral dilemma!"

Grant and Leslie hurried into the room, looking concerned. "Did someone try to offer you gum again?" his mother demanded angrily. "You know that gum--"

"--is a gateway to more dangerous things like fast food and soda, yes," Ted finished impatiently. "It's about my volunteer work. I decided to help clean up the highway, but I just found out that all of the garbage I picked up is going to the landfill!" He buried his face in his hands. "I know I don't have to tell you both about the negative impact even one of those Styrofoam coffee cups will have on the environment."

His parents exchanged a panicked look. "This is terrible," Grant said, putting a comforting arm around his son.

"We'll take immediate action," Leslie agreed, joining them in a hug.

Ted sniffed and looked gratefully at them. "I knew I could count on you to help," he said. "What should we do?"

"We're going straight to the principal to insist that she resolve this," Grant said firmly.

Leslie nodded. "I'll go get the emergency complaint kit. Do you think we'll need the bullhorn?"

Grant thought about it. "Better bring it, just in case."

Ms. Li peered at the unhappy-looking family sitting across from her and frowned slightly. "My secretary informs me that you have an issue with your son's community service assignment. May I ask what the problem might be?"

Before Ted could even open his mouth, both of his parents stood up and leaned angrily over the principal's desk. Leslie pounded her fist so hard it scattered a few papers. "We demand that you stop exposing Ted to the consumer-driven leavings of this empty shell of a society!"

The principal gaped. "I beg your pardon?"

Grant held up a large paper bag and upended it over her desk, spilling garbage everywhere. "Ultra Cola cans, Cluster Burger wrappers, ZooZoo Drop boxes...do you have any idea how much corporate propaganda our son has had to endure? It's enough to make anyone sick."

The trash spread over Ms. Li's desk, some of it landing in her lap. She leaped out of her chair in shock and tried to protect her papers and supplies from damage. "How dare you come in here and--"

"No, how dare you!" Leslie interrupted. "How dare you force our child to pick up after a town obsessed with mindless capitalism? It's bad enough that you let the rest of the students in this school run wild; do you have to darken poor Ted's soul as well?"

"Run wild?" Ms. Li sputtered. "I'll have you know that I run the most disciplined school in the county!"

"That's true," Ted interjected. "Everyone here says she's a control freak."

"Thank you," Ms. Li said, blushing.

"If you really wanted to run a decent school," Grant thundered, ignoring them, "you'd shield your students from the hollow, meaningless pursuit of pop culture waste!"

As the adults continued to argue, Ted leaned back in his chair and tuned them out. He had already figured out that neither his parents nor his principal cared about where the garbage went, so it was up to him to solve this.

All that trash, filling up landfills and ruining the environment. Still, it wouldn't be right to just leave it all on the side of the highway, either. So what to do?

He was still pondering the question when the argument grew louder and broke into his concentration. "...and that filth you call food in the cafeteria? Nothing but trans fats and nonorganic poison!"

"You'd prefer organic poison?" Ms. Li asked sarcastically. "And, may I ask, where is the money for all of this so-called better food supposed to come from?"

"Maybe if you weren't spending all of the school's funds on security equipment you'd start seeing a budget surplus. Or would you rather just keep cutting back on programs like music and art instead?"

Art? Hmmm. As Ms. Li and his parents continued to debate the fine distinctions between education and fascism, Ted began to form an idea.

Ted's next shift on highway cleanup was even more pleasant than his first. He smiled and waved at every heckler that drove past as he collected several bags' worth of garbage. When the supervisor came to collect it, though, Ted shook his head. "I'm going to keep this, if you don't mind."

"It's your junk, kid," the supervisor replied with a shrug.

Aside from the confused looks he kept getting on the bus, Ted had no trouble getting the trash bags home. Once there, he spread out a tarp on his bedroom floor and got to work.

By the end of his service project, Ted was ready to show off his creations. He called his parents into his room for the big unveiling.

"Voila!" he cried, pulling sheets off of his work with a flourish.

Grant and Leslie looked at it all in silence for a few minutes. "It's...creative," his mother said haltingly, as though searching for the right words.

"Yes!" his father chimed in gratefully. "Creative."

"Really?" Ted asked, beaming with pride. "Which one is your favorite?"

His parents seemed to be trying to look-without-really looking at the sculptures that Ted had assembled from the trash he'd brought home. His father pointed at one at random. "Um, that one." Leslie nodded her agreement.

"Oh, the rhinoceros? Yes, I'm especially proud of it. What do you like about it?"

His mother let out a sigh, shrugged, and took a step closer to the rhinoceros. "The cigarette butts you crafted into eyes look surprisingly lifelike, and it was a very interesting choice to use syringes for the horns."

Grant looked at the sculpture and back at his son with slightly widened eyes. "You were careful when you made all these, right?"

Ted nodded. "I used gloves the whole time. Wouldn't want to hurt myself on the sharp points or broken glass!"

Relieved, his parents relaxed slightly. "And what did you use to attach all of these beer cans together?" Grant asked, peering closely at the sculpture.

"I found a lot of these things called condoms while I was picking up trash," Ted explained. "They're surprisingly strong and flexible, perfect for tying things together! I'm thinking of buying more to use for art projects."

Grant pulled his face back from the sculpture while Leslie made an odd choking sound.

Ted's smile dimmed as he began to realize that his parents didn't look nearly as enthusiastic as he'd expected. "Did I do something wrong?"

His parents exchanged a wary look. "Um...no," Leslie assured him. "Everything's fine. It's just, er, we're speechless at your resourcefulness and imagination. So impressive."

"Great!" Ted's good mood returned instantly. "So will you help me bring these to school so I can present them to Ms. Li at the assembly tomorrow?"

"No!" Grant and Leslie shouted at the same time.

"But there are so many of them," Ted protested. "It will take me hours to move them all on my own!"

His parents were giving each other that look again. After the family had stood in awkward silence for a minute or two, Leslie finally spoke up. "I have a better idea," she said with a shaky smile. "I think we should put them all on display right here at home!"

"Yes, that's a great idea!" Grant said quickly. "I think we'll arrange them in the back yard, in between the squash and the beans!"

"But no one will be able to see them back there," Ted pointed out. "Why not the front yard?"

"The sculptures would...um...." Grant fumbled for words.

"Block the sunlight from the corn," Leslie cut in, rescuing her husband.

"Then wouldn't the beans and squash have the same--"

"The back yard it is!" Grant cried. "I'll go get the wheelbarrow and we can start loading them up!"

As he helped his parents cart the sculptures outside, Ted decided to save the best news for later: he'd already donated a few of his favorite sculptures to display at various places in town, including the lobby of the Alfred Joyce Kilmer Library, the picnic area of High Hills Park, and the Village Green.

He'd offered one of his works to the Cedars of Lawndale Hospital, but they'd very firmly refused. Claiming an unorthodox experience in the children's ward, he was told in no uncertain terms that the hospital building had already seen more bizarre artwork than they cared to.

I'll have to see if Mom and Dad will go to the Lawndale Art Museum with me this weekend, he decided. They'll be so surprised to see their newest exhibit!