I found a dog collar at Sherri’s house that fit me perfectly — nothing fancy, just a heavy red cotton belt with a buckle and a leash loop. I imagined that I looked like Cheetah Chrome in it, and even if I didn’t I felt like a Dead Boy so it was good enough for me. I liked it so much that I decided to wear it to school along with a metal leash.
Coach Parsons said nothing during first period psychology. Since our little run in I was the invisible man in his class, which was fine by me. That meant more time to read and draw and not worry about having my shoulder molested by the roving pervert psychology teacher.
But the hallway buzz was enormous. I think that I can safely claim that I was the first student in the history of Boiling Springs, South Carolina to wear a leash and collar to school. Results ranged from remedial cootie runs to the usual daily ass whipping threats. Lee G. was amused, Sherri wasn’t.
Second period English. I wasn’t in AP English nor was I in dumb kid English, just average English, where the kids with Camaros read because they had to but at least they could read.
Mr. Smith was a good and earnest teacher. He did not deserve a student like me who by this time had completely given up. I refused to participate in any grammar lessons — never diagrammed a sentence or conjugated a verb. The only thing I did consistently in his class was pop my gum loudly during quiet moments and then turn and glare at some poor sucker. Inevitably Mr. Smith would tell him or her to cut it out and I was adequately amused for a couple of minutes.
“I’m going to break y’all up into groups today to work on sentence diagrams. Starting right here count off 1-2-3-4 and get in your groups.”
“No way,” Ashley said. She sat two desks behind me.
“Is that a problem, Miss Norris?”
“I’ll do the assignment, but not with that freak.”
“Quietin’ down, now.”
“It’s better than what I want to call it. Wearing a dog collar, that ain’t no man.”
I stood and walked to Ashley’s desk, held the leash’s red handle in my curled hands and wagged it inches from her cheek before tossing it into her lap.
“Get that thing off of me, you faggot!”
“Jim, why don’t you go to the library and work on your essay,” Mr. Smith yelled over the laughter. I unclipped the leash and dropped the chain in Ashley’s lap.
On my way to the library I passed the vice principal. “What are you doing out of class?”
“Let me see your pass, and take that thing off.”
“Why? It isn’t hurting anybody.”
“You can’t wear a dog collar to school.”
“That isn’t in the handbook.”
“Take it off. Somebody’s going to grab it and choke you.”
“It’s tighter than a necklace. Nobody can get their fingers under here. Are you going to make everybody take off their necklaces?”
“That ain’t a necklace. That’s a dog collar.”
“It’s my necklace.”
“Get it off right now or get out.”
Even in the middle of all of this obnoxiousness the thought of dealing with my father after getting kicked out of school panicked me. I took the collar off.
The essay to which Mr. Smith referred was your standard three to five-page paper on John F. Kennedy. We were to thoroughly research our subject before writing said paper, so with nothing better to do I dug in.
Kids my age grew up in the shadows of the Kennedys. We weren’t old enough to remember when the brothers were assassinated, but we weren’t young enough for those events to feel like distant history. Our teachers and parents shared their first person accounts of the moments when they first heard the news. No matter how many of these I heard I always found them moving. Knowing people who were there — even if “there” meant 1,500 miles away watching television — when it happened made the whole thing real in a way that history books never could.
Some families still hung in their living rooms portraits of the fallen brothers. Even as a current event investigations into that day at Dealey Plaza made the nightly news well into the late seventies.
JFK’s death was even something of a ghost story when I was a grade schooler. Kids on the playground loved to share the supernatural coincidences connecting Lincoln and Kennedy. They did so in the hushed tones reserved for “the bloody hook” and “the call is coming from inside the house.”
So here in my twelfth year of public education the JFK topic was well-worn. Simply the thought of sitting through hours of droning declarative sentences cribbed from the Britannica bored me, never mind actually writing such a paper.
John Kennedy was born May 29, 1917. He was a Catholic. He was a hero in the war. He wrote a book. It was good. John Kennedy was murdered. He was a good president.
I had the same dull facts to work with as everyone else. I couldn’t very well create my own JFK, but what I could create was a new framework for those dull facts. For the next couple of days I ditched English and spent my time in the library, researching and writing.
Reading day finally arrived, and true to form my classmates cited lists in narcoleptic monotones. The readings were like a mind-numbingly slow wave creeping toward me, and the closer it came the greater my butterflies. If I didn’t know better I would’ve thought that I actually cared about something.
“…John Kennedy was a good president,” read the person seated in front of me.
“All right, thank you. Jim, you ready?” Mr. Smith asked.
My voice trembled, but I managed to get my first person account moving. My unnamed character wasn’t exactly a friend of JFK’s, but rather a working class kid who through geography and timing found himself a peer to young Jack. Through his eyes we learned that young JFK was a golden boy — popular, handsome, athletic. My protagonist struggled through childhood while the silver spoon Kennedy sailed through adolescence on Daddy Joe the Bootlegger’s coat tails. Our speaker and JFK left for Harvard at the same time, Kennedy on daddy’s money and my character on scholarships, nickels, and dimes.
I even put my guy in JFK’s PT boat and played with the doubts raised regarding Kennedy’s Profiles In Courage. My protagonist was instrumental in the heroics of that event but he didn’t get credit because, well, he wasn’t a Kennedy.
As I read the part of this poor bastard my nervous trembling gave way to occupying him, performing him. After the war I had a string of meaningless jobs, my wounds both physical and mental pushing me farther and farther down the ladder. Meanwhile, that son of a bitch won a Pulitzer for his book of lies. Next thing I knew he was a senator and I was a drunk.
I was on the skids when he was elected president, and that’s when it hit me: we were yin and yang. All of his privilege and success came at the cost of me having nothing. I was going to die drunk and derelict because that was the only way for Jack to have everything.
On November 19, 1963, I packed my duffel and stuck out my thumb. Three days later I was squatting in an empty building in Dallas, staring down the barrel of my rifle. And then I heard the sickening crack. Then again. And again.
The story was the sort of melodramatic nonsense that only a seventeen year old would write, and the complete silence in the room amplified what a colossal mistake my massive ego had made. I should’ve stuck to simple, declarative sentences. My classmates didn’t bother with pity claps or even heavy “thank God that’s over” sighs. There was no sound in the room at all aside from my projectile flop sweat hitting the floor and walls.
And then Ashley said, “Y’all, am I the only one with goosebumps?” The room was jumping now with nervous conversation. Was he the killer? Was that a true story? How come he didn’t have a name? It couldn’t be Oswald, he’s dead. Who was it? The fabled second shooter?
After class Mr. Smith stopped me just outside of his door, in the same spot Coach Parsons screamed at me. “In fourteen years of teaching I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. “Why don’t you try all the time? I’ve never had a student as talented as you.”
I’ve often wondered how that story would go over in a classroom today. I can’t imagine that post-Columbine a kid in a dog collar reading a first person narrative of the armed and embittered wouldn’t be treated like a warning flag. In retrospect maybe it was. Every day in that school was like running some kind of verbal gauntlet, so it’s no surprise that I turned a simple assignment into a combination morality play and revenge fantasy.
But Mr. Smith played it right. He didn’t overreact or tell me he was concerned or ask me if I was okay. No, he focused on the positive, or at least made me believe that there was a positive. That day I wasn’t a craphead who wouldn’t amount to anything but rather a talented young writer, and that was enough to keep my head above water for a little while longer.