“John,” she called out as I was heading for the door, “could I see you for a minute?” Coming from my eighth grade social studies teacher in Abilene, Texas when Buddy Holly walked the earth, this was no request, but I was fine. Ever the would-be teacher’s pet—grateful for the only grownups who sometimes understood—I thought some special privilege or honor must await. The class had been a triumph for me that day. The assignment, whatever it was, was one that interested me (historical or map-related, perhaps), and I knew the answer to every question she had asked. I couldn’t fathom why the other kids were bored or dumb, and didn’t care much either, happy I’d done well.
“I’d like you not to raise your hand so much,” she said. “I know you know the answers, but let the other students have a chance to answer first! All right?”
My mind raced like a pinball heading for the hole. What was wrong with being right? The others never answered questions, anyway. I couldn’t understand, but said the thing she wanted. “Okay,” I stammered, ashamed and stunned, as doors were slamming in my head. It had been my favorite class of all and now was snatched away.
Of all the things that happened to me in school, this probably stayed with me the longest. I see her now as real as life: dark hair, black sweater, white blouse, red skirt. She bends down to talk to me in the doorway as the bell rings and my classmates push past to the hallway. My arms are full of books—at least I brought mine—my head is bowed, my ears are red. I manage not to cry.
As awful as this was, I could have parried the blow with better training, but my parents were of similar mind and taught me well. A few years before in Germany, my sister and brother weren’t the best in school, so my father invented a plan to boost our grades: every “A” on our report cards was worth a quarter, a “B” a dime, and so forth. This meant a bonanza for me, I knew, because I always got straight A’s. My weekly allowance was only twenty-five cents, anyway. It took over a month to save enough to buy a record (45 rpm) or a simple model plane.
You can probably guess the rest. Just before Christmas, report cards in hand, Johnny, Teresa, and Bill walked proudly up to Dad. He started with with my brother, who only got a nickel. Teresa got a couple of dimes. I had six A’s on my card and was so excited!
My father handed me a single quarter.
“Your mother and I expect you to get A’s,” he said. “It wouldn’t be fair to give you that much more than them…”
The fucking sons of bitches, I sometimes think, these many decades later. The lonely, weary, Depression-era bastards full of preacher’s guilt. I’m not so angry now—I know they loved me, in their way, and holy wounds can lead full-circle to the truth. Here I am though, much older than I ever dreamed I’d be, with a closet full of ragged shirts I bought ten years ago on sale. Then this morning someone mildly famous whom I’ve never met loved something I’d written and shared online. The telling thing was what a shock it was, like something didn’t fit!
The reaction brought the memories back. I understood about the shirts and gave myself another day to be a goddamn mighty man.