The joke that broke Hiba Hariri's 14-year-old heart goes like this.
She tells her boyfriend over the phone that she pushed a kid off his scooter at Taco Bell and broke his arm. She tried to run, but the police caught her. "I got arrested," she says. And she's in jail.
"Swear?" asks eighth-grader Sean Guerrero. Could it be?
"Yes," Hiba replies.
"Swear on our relationship?"
A pause. Hiba shrieks: "I'm kidding!"
Sean is not amused. He is hurt. He tells her that she is not his girlfriend anymore, and he hangs up.
Hours later, Hiba can't sleep. At 3 a.m., she calls a friend, crying. Hiba and Sean have been together for a month, and she never liked a boy as much as she likes him. He is 13, goofy, gifted and surprisingly romantic. He writes notes to her on Myspace.com: "Every second my love grows for you." Now it is over, and Hiba is bereft.
And what about the school play? She and Sean perform opposite each other in important roles. Can she still bring herself to do it?
The play, a comedy, must succeed. Hiba and Sean attend John Muir Middle School in Burbank. At John Muir, productions like this one have flopped, and Hiba knows it. Neither the teachers nor the students want another failure. Two of the teachers, both schooled in comedy, have invested hours. They wrote this play themselves.
John Muir's mascot is the Mustang. The play is a spoof on old westerns, with middle-schoolers in mind. It is set in the ramshackle town of Los Doritos. It features "yo momma" jokes, a belching game and a hopeless romance. It also spoofs middle school punishment. The play is called "The Good, the Bad and the Detained."
In middle school, humor dances with heartache, brilliance with bad jokes. Every morning, well-meaning adults show up and try to figure it out. It can be as complicated as algebra. Why do kids giggle at any mention of passing gas? Mimic teachers? Stuff one another into trash cans? How does Sean, who cannot sit still, write beautiful poetry? Will Hiba, who blows soda bubbles through straws, ever taste maturity?
In the morning, word of their breakup spreads online.
At 10:14 a.m., a girl named Angel writes to Sean: "you deserve better then someone who swears on your R.S. [relationship]"
At 10:41 a.m., Hiba writes to Sean: "SorrySorrySorrySorry SorrySorrySorry.......and wat angel said is true u do deserve better than someone like me"
At 2:59 p.m. Sean writes back: "I do beleive in second chances and maybe we can work it out."
Hiba clings to Sean's words.
The opening curtain is just a month away.
Yesterday's rehearsal started with Sean yelling, "Josh, I bet you can't do this!" Sean ran down an aisle in the auditorium and leaped headlong onto the stage, which is as tall as he is.
"Sean!" said Stephen James, the drama teacher. "How many times have I told you not to get on the stage like that?"
Nearby, two stagehands began a noisy dispute.
"Hey, hey, hey," James said. "Laurel. Hardy. Don't argue."
James, one of the playwrights, is a trained actor and comedian. He can cry on cue. His class revels in it. "Cry, cry, cry!" they chant. "C'mon, Mr. James, cry!" He obliges. He stands with a silly grin, tears trickling down his face. The kids cheer.
As a poetry major, James had pictured himself teaching English literature to appreciative high school students. Today he turns 30. His birthday gift: yet another day of comedy rehearsal for kids in middle school.
The cast, trying to make this day better for him than the day before, sings "Happy Birthday." Off key.
Hiba notices that Sean isn't singing. He is scrubbing grass stains off his black-and-white sneakers with damp paper towels. Hiba wishes he would pay as much attention to her as he does to his sneakers.
Since their breakup, he has hardly acknowledged her.
"Haaa-p-eeey B-iiii-rthdaaay, Mr. Jaaa-aaa-messss!"
James cringes, then smiles. "Whew," he says, when they finish. "Like listening to angels chewing on broken bottles." Then he turns serious. Only 30 days more. He cannot have a repeat of yesterday's chaos.
"I can't keep stopping like I was," he says. "It was like trying to juggle kittens yesterday. Far too difficult and awfully cruel." Today, each time he has to yell at someone it will mean 10 push-ups for the entire cast.
In character, Sean struts across the stage, wearing his signature tight-fitting black jeans. He plays Mr. Black, a mean cowboy in a trench coat. Sean is confident and dazzling under the spotlights.
"I ya'm lookin' for Muuuuy Tarde," Sean says, in his best manly drawl.
His eyes click to Hiba.
She has swept up the sides of her dark brown hair and styled her choppy bangs to the side, just so. But inside, she is falling apart. Already petite, she is slouching, as if she were trying to shrink. She is supposed to be Muy Tarde, a strutting, growling, lying boyfriend who is always late. She tries hard to pull off a swagger, but her legs feel like licorice.
Worse, she swallows her lines in a girlie grumble:
"YoumustbeMr.Black," she says. She crosses her arms, then flaps them against her sides. She fidgets with her hands, finally sticking them into the front pockets of her jeans. "Come," she says, turning to exit the stage.
It doesn't work.
She simply cannot do it. How can she bear this torture for a month? How can she win Sean back if he sees her every day as a big-bellied, burping man with a mustache? But if she can't pull it off, the play will bomb.
The Girl in Blue
Little more than three weeks to go.
A girl who plays a tumbleweed twirls successfully across the stage. Two actors face off in an impressive western showdown.
But then Sean, togged out in his favorite skateboarding hoodie, announces to everyone in a loud whisper: "You guys can't tickle me. I'm not ticklish!" He and a girl fall over each other tickling and wriggling among folding chairs and fake pistols on the sawdust floor. The girl grabs a plastic bat and pummels him. Sean arches into a backbend and springs to his feet.
Hiba notices his shiny sneakers. He is creeping up behind her. She pretends to be startled when he tickles her. She feels a sparkle of breath in her ear.
He whispers: "I still like you."
Is it true?
Beaming, she watches him run away.
James, the drama teacher, has heard the pummeling with the plastic bat.
"What is the rule about props!"
"Oh, God," Sean mutters.
"Everyone down. Everyone does 10 push-ups!" James orders. "Folks, if it is not your prop, you don't use it." For a moment, the teacher turns his back. A girl gently brushes a piece of tape against his hip pocket. It sticks. He doesn't notice. The kids giggle. James lectures, shouts, climbs a ladder to fix a broken light -- with masking tape on his butt.
A boy grabs the plastic bat.
Sean mocks the rule. "If it's not your prop, don't play with it! Now give it to me. I'll play with it."
Hiba smiles. But she shakes her head. It's not Sean the clown she adores. It is Sean the sensitive, the one who writes about romance and whose words, as his English teacher says, come out like jazz:
Rate of 10/10
Need you, till I die
Wise and wealthy as wine
Never leave me, please
She is drawn to Sean the serious -- the Sean who does not like it when the joke is on him. Never had she thought it would cost her so much.
In his locker, Sean finds a note. Someone has slipped it through the slits in the door, which is decorated with stickers of a skeleton and a florescent green girl. He opens the note. It says: "I love you tight pants." The note instructs him to go to Mustang Field on Friday and look for a girl in blue. The note is signed "From a Secret Admirer."
Friday comes. On Mustang Field, many of the girls are dressed in blue. Indeed, the entire 50-member school choir is there, dressed in blue. It is National Blue Day.
After class, Sean and his friends head for Fuddrucker's, their favorite eatery. They sit across from the ice cream sundae station. A jukebox plays "Rockin' Robin." The place glows with neon lights and smells like grease and waffle cones. The kids like Fuddrucker's. Jill, who lives on Sean's block, says, "You can be loud in here, and it's cheap."
They order chicken nuggets and fries, and they complain that waiters won't let them order off the kids' menu anymore: It has a 12-year-old cut off.
Jill jokes about a girl at the table: "Courtney's last name is Morman, and she's Jewish, so she needs to have a son and call him Christian." Then they talk about Lester. The last time they came here, they poured salt, pepper and hot sauce into Lester's drink, and he threw up. That reminds them of an episode on "Grey's Anatomy" when a pole pierced two people in a train wreck and turned them into human kebabs.
That makes them think of the opposite of gross: "Have you ever had grilled cheese and tomato soup? It's, like, the best."
A cellphone rings. A girl checks her caller ID: "OK," she announces: "Parent."
"Hey, put your shirt back on!" Sean says loudly to the girl, who is talking to her mother.
After a Coke and Dr Pepper toast, Jill turns to Sean. She puts a hand on his shoulder. Finally, she addresses Sean's big unspoken question. "Sean," she says, "there's no such thing as a secret admirer for you. Sorry."
His eyes open wide.
" 'I love you tight pants,' " she says, quoting the note. "I wrote it."
Sean, as MTV would have it, has been punk'd.
His face tenses like a muscle.
"Why did it have to be me?"
"Because I knew where your locker was."
Sean takes a breath. He looks at Jill -- and then at Angel. Unexpectedly, he smiles.
Everyone laughs. Sean pours red fruit punch into a plate of half-eaten chicken nuggets and says: "This is for Lester!" the kid who threw up.
Hiba, who isn't there, hears about it all -- especially Sean's reaction: He did not get angry this time. Dare she hope?
'You're Killing Me'
Dare she hope for the play? Now there are only two weeks to go.
Practice is grim. Every rehearsal, Hiba can't help running her hands over the fat pillow stuffed beneath her brown tweed jacket, wishing it would go away.
"OK, Hiba," James says. Mustache.
Each time, she frowns.
"We've totally got to put facial hair on you," James says.
"Agghhh. Why?" she rolls her eyes.
During rehearsals, Hiba can't help but long for Sean when he bursts into the saloon, dashing in his black trench coat, cowboy boots and bandanna. She tries hard to look away. But she always gives in, turns her head and stares admiringly.
Today, Rod Rothacher, an English teacher who wrote the script with James, drops by to help. Instantly, he gets sucked into the craziness.
"Mr. Rothacher, there's broken glass here!" a student shouts, pointing to a corner.
"OK," Rothacher yells back. "Just don't roll around in it."
In the script, Muy Tarde is meant to burp -- long and loud, like a man.
Hiba offers a hiccup.
Muy Tarde tries to smooth things over with Carolina, his unhappy girlfriend. Hiba pretends to kiss Carolina's hand. But she hurries, and it makes her look as if she were spitting in it.
Then, in a scene with Sean, Muy Tarde is supposed to cry out when he discovers that Carolina has been kidnapped. "Not my Carolina," the script reads. "Nooooooooooooooooo! [Pause] Oooooooooo! I'll kill them!"
Hiba musters a weak: "Nooo. I'll kill them."
Rothacher stops the action. He singles Hiba out. "Project more," he says. "Instead of 'No,' it's 'NOOOOOOOOOO!' You're William Shatner in an episode of 'Star Trek.' NOOOOOOOOO!"
"Who's that?" Hiba says.
James tells her to act as if she were doing her best John Belushi impersonation.
"Who's that?" she asks.
He tries Chris Farley, another comedian.
The next day, James brings in a DVD clip of Farley on "Saturday Night Live."
But the tutorial hardly helps. Hiba has other things on her mind. She discovers that Sean has developed a crush on Angel. Rumor is that they went to a movie together. Hiba shouldn't have dared to hope.
Now everything is dashed.
In her anguish, Hiba tries to like another boy. But her heart isn't in it.
Nor is her heart in the play. A scene with Sean implodes. Hiba mumbles her lines, one hand covering her mouth. "Carolina, Carolina. Oh, where could she be?" Her mustache droops and starts to slide off.
"Are we having a mustache malfunction?" James asks.
Behind her hand, Hiba yells a muffled: "Yes!"
"Stay focused," he says.
Sean's line is next, but he is laughing. "Doc, hahahahaha p-p-a-ck the weapons. I'm gonna need some m-o -- hihihihahaha -- m-o-ney."
"Sorry, Mr. James," Sean says, still laughing.
"It's just falling off!" Hiba shrieks.
"Just whip it off," James shouts back.
The kids laugh.
"Oh, my God, you're killing me," James says in a low quiver. "You're killing me." Then he raises his voice. "Is this the show you want to perform?" Finally, he yells: "Because I don't see anything funny about it!"
'I Just Get Mad'
One week to go.
In a hallway behind the stage, Hiba hears a commotion. Sean laughs as two others pick up the boy Hiba thought she could like. They are dangling him over a trash can. He wrestles free before they can stuff him in.
Slowly, Hiba is growing tired of it all.
On Saturday night, Sean joins Jill, Angel and their other friends at a Macaroni Grill. Hiba is late.
On the paper tablecloth, Sean writes in green crayon: "Angel will you go out w/me?"
Jill nudges Angel, and Angel says yes.
Sean and Angel concoct a new prank. When Hiba walks in, the new couple, knowing that Hiba still likes Sean, casually stroll up to greet her. They are holding hands.
Hiba pretends to laugh it off. Then she flees to the bathroom.
At the next rehearsal, Hiba encounters Sean backstage.
"Jerk, jerk, jerk," she whispers.
She moves away and sits with two other girls. They talk in soft tones about a girl who believes in magic.
"What are you talking about?" he asks, in a loud whisper.
Hiba hisses: "We're not talking about you."
The girls resume their conversation. Sean butts in: "I don't believe in magic. Just like I don't believe in love."
"So why are you going out with Angel?" one girl asks.
"That doesn't mean we're in love."
"What does love mean, really?" Hiba asks.
"Nobody knows what love is," the other girl says, " 'cause none of us have ever been in love."
Sean still wants to know whom they were whispering about. "Just tell me."
Hiba snaps loudly: "We're not talking about you!"
Sean click-clucks away in his cowboy boots.
Hiba stands, ready to go on stage. She pauses. "I don't like Sean anymore," she says. She pauses again. "Now, if I look Sean in the eye, I just get mad."
On cue, she strides into a scene -- with Sean.
In the scene, Muy Tarde discovers Carolina has been kidnapped. This time, Hiba howls like a true movie villain. "Not my Carolina! Nooooooooooo!" She waits a beat for effect, takes a deep, wheezy breath and continues: "Ooooooooooooo!"
James chuckles. He is pleased.
Hiba shouts her next line, glaring at Sean: "I'll kill them both with my bare hands! You hear me, Black?"
James interrupts, smiling. "You're getting closer and closer and closer," he says to Hiba. Then he tells everyone, "You have no idea how close you guys are. The only thing standing in your way is you."
At each rehearsal, Hiba gets better. Day after day, she grows in her role. Both James and Rothacher notice.
The others improve too.
As show time nears, the cast presents preview scenes to two student assemblies. Jill, assigned to review the play for the Mustang Press, the school newspaper, tells James she liked the scenes.
But James and his cast still worry. The entire play, presented for paid attendance after school, is the real test. Will students buy tickets? Will they show up?
The Curtain Rises
Slowly, kids line up outside the auditorium. Then more of them. Then more.
Backstage, James tells everyone: "I'm incredibly proud of you guys. I love all of you so much, and you're going to have an amazing show."
Hiba smiles. The girl next to her is crying. This is not just their last play. It is the end of middle school. Soon the eighth graders will graduate and leave the Mustangs and Stephen James behind.
In unison the cast chants: "Whether the weather is cold. Or whether the weather is hot. Whatever the weather. We're in this together. Whether we like it or not."
"Woo!" James shouts. He applauds. "Show them what you can do!"
On stage hangs the town sign: Los Doritos. Cast members rub it for luck.
Now fists knock on the bolted auditorium doors. The students outside are trying to get in.
A stagehand unlocks the doors, unleashing a drumbeat of feet.
Members of the audience wear flip-flops, spiky hair and beaded necklaces. They carry sequined purses. Some squeal when they read their friends' names on the program.
On stage, an actor in a wide-brimmed hat and a poncho slumps in the saloon. He plays a harmonica. The girl who had been crying backstage wipes her tears, takes a breath and becomes a bartender.
Hiba's heartbeat quickens.
On stage, wind moans and thunder rumbles. The auditorium darkens, and lightning flashes.
The spotlight singles out Dan Hacking, the school principal, who has agreed to a cameo appearance to warm up the audience. He is a good-natured principal who shaved his hair into a Mohawk and dyed it pink last year as a reward for students who raised money for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
The principal stomps down the aisle and into the saloon.
The harmonica player shoots him. He wails: "Gosh darn it, ouch! Gosh that hurt! Ow! Eeeeeeooooooowwwww. Youch." He dances a jig and shouts, "Son of a motherless goat!"
The audience laughs.
Now showgirls are dancing and batting their eyelashes. Cowboys are sipping glasses of milk. Carolina waits for her boyfriend, the villainous and violent Muy Tarde.
"Hey Carolina, where's The Boss?"
The saloon doors slam open. In walks Muy Tarde.
"CAROLIIIINNNNAA! I'm heeeeeeerrrrrrrrre!" Hiba explodes onto the stage.
The audience hoots at the sight. Hiba's belly protrudes, her mustache is slicked down, and her coat pocket overflows with a wad of fake cash. The spotlight hugs her tubby shape as she plods forward like a bear.
Her friends scream from the audience: "Wooo!" "I love you Hiba!" "Go, Hiba!"
Muy Tarde shoots a pistol into the air to get the attention of drinkers on the bar stools. He roars like an angry scoundrel: "Hey! Did you idiots forget who I was? Huh?" POW! With precision, Muy Tarde shoots a glass out of a drinker's hand. "I'm Muy Tarde, and I run this town!"
There is a stick up. The bandit, his hands tied with rope, shouts at his captors: "Yo momma's so fat, she's floating in the ocean, Spain claimed her for a new world!" "Yo momma's so stupid, she hears it's chilly outside, she runs to get a bowl!"
The audience erupts in glee.
"Yo momma's so ugly, her momma had to tie a steak around her neck just to get the dog to play with her!"
The audience collapses with delirious laughter.
Then: wonk, wonk, wonk, music plays. Smoke blows. Sean, in a trench coat, as Mr. Black, swaggers through the haze.
"I yaa'm lookin' for Muuuy Tarde," he growls.
Muy Tarde glares boldly, raising his chin to give Sean a hard scan.
"You," Hiba snarls at full volume, "must be Mr. Black!"
They eye each other coolly.
On cue, Muy Tarde groans, then burps like a toad and announces: "You can smell it and guess what I had for lunch."
Carolina breaks up with Muy Tarde and departs for "somewhere nice
Mr. Black hires a band of gun-wielding, hooting and hollering killers who call themselves "The Ladies of the Deadly Red Chimichangas."
Everyone ends up in a raging brawl, during which the saloon singers pummel and flip the Chimichangas, while Mr. Black loses a gun fight and Muy Tarde gets slapped and is run out of town.
The curtains close.
The audience jumps to its feet applauding in a thundering ovation.
The cast lines up on stage. Hiba takes off her hat. She bows, and her shiny hair tumbles down her neck.
Kids chant: "Go, Hiba!"
They honor Sean. "Wooo!"
Stephen James stands in the back of the auditorium, smiling proudly.
Together, the cast points to him.
It's a Wrap
Hiba forgives Sean and Angel. She accepts their relationship. And she redesigns her Myspace.com page.
It says: "Love? Translation please."
In a section called, "Who I Would Like To Meet," Hiba writes:
"someone who can just walk and talk for hours with me"
"someone kool enough to sit by"
She posts a photo of the words "I love you (HEART)" carved into a tree.
Beneath it, Hiba writes:
"its as simple as that"
About This Story: Writer Erika Hayasaki and photographer Bryan Chan spent three months with drama students at John Muir Middle School in Burbank.
Hayasaki witnessed all of the scenes in this story and spent hours observing and interviewing the participants. She heard all of the dialogue between and among the students and their teachers, with the sole exception of the telephone conversation that introduces the story. That conversation was recalled by both students involved.