Algebra class was a bit of an awkward situation. Both my current girlfriend, Sherri, and my ex-girlfriend, Melody, shared the class with me. This shouldn’t have been too uncomfortable as Melody had a new boyfriend, but Sherri on my lap every afternoon until the bell rang was awkward. I felt like I was doing something wrong, as if having chosen Melody in the eighth grade was supposed to be a lifetime commitment. Cuddling with Sherri in front of her seemed like a betrayal of some core principle that I couldn’t articulate. Melody didn’t seem to be sweating it, though. Her boyfriend’s locker was just three down from mine, and the two entangled there between classes. Sometimes I would notice her looking at me.
Adding to my algebra awkwardness was a varsity football player named Brian Kirby — one of those hairy, mesomorphic bastards who hit puberty at age six, likely due to smoking. Brian and I had history going back to the fifth grade when his girlfriend developed a crush on me, the weird new Yankee kid. She was Lee G.’s neighbor, and one afternoon after school while Lee G. and I kicked a soccer ball around his backyard she put on my coat and strut like a runway model. Brian got wind of this and stopped me by the twirly slide the next day at recess, two buddies with him as backup.
“You been messing with my girl?”
“No, I don’t even know who your girl is.”
“Then how do you know you haven’t been messing with her?”
“Because I don’t mess with any girls.”
“I heard about your coat, Fonzie.”
That’s when the fifth grade magnitude of the situation hit me. I wasn’t getting past the twirly slide without a fight, so rather than drag it out I threw the first punch. It was a big, right-hand haymaker that came all the way from Gaffney. It took so long to travel the distance between Brian and me that Traffic Copter 3 gave intermittent updates on its progress. Brian ducked it easily and responded with a quick left jab to my jaw. We stood there for a few seconds, both of us wondering whether the matter was settled, and then we went our separate ways.
And so six years later I was still Fonzie, as in “Hey Fonzie, where’s your coat?” No sense messing with the classics, I suppose, until the day that the thick caramel in Brian’s brain unseized during algebra and he noticed the lone Adam Ant braid dangling from my Serious Moonlight Bowie ‘do.
“Hey, Ponytail Boy! Why don’t you come back here on sit on my lap, Ponytail Boy! I dropped my pencil, Ponytail Boy — come back here and pick it up and I’ll give you a present!”
Or he would go after Sherri: “Don’t it bother you that your boyfriend is a faggot? Do you braid his hair for him?” On and on. Maybe it was the South, maybe it was the Pre-Columbine era, but the most likely explanation for Brian’s commentary is that our algebra teacher, Mrs. Gortner, had absolutely no control over the classroom. She was a strange-looking woman: maybe five feet tall with a short Harpo Marx permanent. She wore the same bright red polyester pant suit at least three days per week. It was too small for her, which emphasized her comically round body. With her slightly upturned nose she bore a resemblance to a cartoon pig.
Mrs. Gortner was easily flustered. Any appeal to her vanity derailed her, so if she scolded Brian for going too far with his Ponytail Boy routine he’d throw her a “you know you’re the only woman in the world for me” and she would blush and giggle and go back to whatever she was doing. I took advantage of her self-esteem issues, too. Rather than pay attention or study I simply skipped class on test days. A week or so later while flipping through her grade book she would say, “Jim Stafford, you need to make up that last test.”
Another week would pass. “Jim, you need to make up that test soon or I’ll have to mark it a zero.”
“Yes, ma’am.” And another week would pass. “Jim Stafford! If that test isn’t made up this week I’m failing you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The last test, from three weeks ago. I am tired of reminding you.”
“What do you mean? I took that two weeks ago.”
“You most certainly did not.”
I’d roll my eyes and sigh. “Two weeks ago? It was a Wednesday and I stayed after class? I sat right there while you were grading papers. You were wearing a bright red pant suit and you graded my test as soon as I was done. I made a 78 and you told me that I needed to study harder. Man, I can’t believe you don’t remember this.”
“Oh, that’s right that’s right,” she’d say and scribble a 78 in her grade book.
Thirty years later the United States trails thirty other countries in that particular academic discipline. What went wrong? You do the math — neither Brian Kirby nor I can.