The trunk of my grandfather’s Buick Riviera boat tail held two cases of Budweiser and still had room for Jimmy Hoffa. “I couldn’t buy any goddamned Coors this side of the Mississippi so I have to drink this horse piss,” he said. “I don’t know how they can call this beer.” He slammed the copper-colored trunk lid. His flattop was razor sharp, as always.
“I told you you should’ve brought more,” my grandmother said.
“Mabel, you never said no such a goddamned thing.”
“Oh, I know it,” she said.
We sat in the living room, my grandparents, parents, and I. No one spoke, and my grandfather swilled his Bud. I’d recently concluded that he was entitled to his alcoholism, which was awfully gracious of me. The Depression, Mauthausen, identifying the charred remains of his brother and his brother’s children after a house fire. I’m still amazed that man survived for so many years. I can’t handle a crowded shopping mall.
“What you got planned for after graduation, Jimmer?” he asked.
“My buddy and I are riding our bikes to the beach.”
“I haven’t been on a goddamned bicycle in fifty years,” he said.
I didn’t want to attend my graduation, but my grandparents drove across the country and gagged down Budweiser to watch me shake hands with a school administrator. One of my sisters was coming, too, driving seven hours one way to sit on the concrete bleachers of the high school stadium where she once cheered. She was popular and participatory in school, and now she was very much the same in her young adult life.
But not me. I’d never been on that football field before, not for any reason, and the only school clubs to which I belonged weren’t clubs at all. They were byproducts of class enrollment: French club, art club. No meetings, nothing other than a club photo in the yearbook to mar my perfect record of non-participation.
I was graduating almost exactly in the middle of a class of three hundred, which tells you everything you need to know about the public school system circa 1985. For four years I’d done less than the minimum required, sometimes getting by with a little cheating and at others thanks to teachers who didn’t see me in black and white terms.
Mr. Smith, my English teacher, pulled me aside on one of the last days of school. “I wanted to give you the creative writing award, but I couldn’t justify it when you refused to do any other classwork,” he said. “You have a great mind. Please consider using it.”
Listen, I don’t recommend my academic path for anyone, especially my kids. I’m not proud of the complete lack of regard that I showed for my childhood education, but at the same time I’m not particularly proud of an educational system that showed little regard for me. Mr. Smith was an exception in a system that demanded both uniformity and conformity.
I was an exception, too, which is not to say that I was exceptional. As hard as it is for me to admit, I was bright, talented, and extremely sensitive, but in retrospect it is easy to diagnose the depression, intrusive thoughts, and anxiety; one can clearly see the beginnings of compulsive behaviors and thoughts. The factory wasn’t equipped to deal with me, so most of the teachers simply pulled the “bad egg” lever and down I tumbled like Veruca Salt. The occasional Mr. Smith happened along, though, who saw in me a golden egg and floated me enough points to get out of the machine.
I don’t have any answers here. One can’t reasonably expect teachers to create custom curricula for each of their hundreds of students. Public education is an enormous system, and with big systems sticking to the median makes sense. Perhaps the moral is this: If I had been subjected to inflexible standardized tests I never would have had a shot at a successful adult life. Machines grade only “rotten” and “golden”: it takes a real teacher to see beyond the shell.
It isn’t just teachers but the whole community, to paraphrase Ms. Hillary. It takes a random cop showing a little interest rather than judgement. It takes a parent willing to go to bat for a fucked up kid, even if doing so means marital tension. It takes ministers who see the whole community as their congregation.
I hadn’t been to church since Dr. Fred so kindly exposed the whole thing as a scam. My mother still went, though no longer to a Southern Baptist church. She was a Presbyterian now, and her minister wasn’t “Dr.” or “Brother” anybody. No, he was Ed. Just Ed.
At some point during that last year of school I received a phone call from Ed. Would I mind coming down to the church? he asked. He needed my help with a business idea.
We sat in his office, which was a small room with a desk and a couple of chairs, nothing fancy. “So how are you doing?” he asked me. “How is school?”
“It’s okay. Hard to juggle that and work.”
“That’s why I tell my daughter that school is her job. Let Dad take care of the money, honey, you just focus on your grades.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not an option for me.”
“Your mom tells me you’re quite an artist.”
“I don’t know. I’m okay, I guess.”
“Well, here is what I was thinking. Folks around here are crazy for their Boiling Springs High Bulldogs, so what if we created a line of merchandise? Buttons, t-shirts, that sort of thing.”
We spent the next hour or so kicking around ideas, me doodling as we talked and grew more animated. Not once during that time did Ed mention God or invite me to church. He never lectured me about my future or my father or my hair. For an hour he was both my collaborator and my client.
As I was packing to leave I said, “I have an idea for a sculpture that I’d like to do for your church.”
“What is it?”
“I think it would be carved out of twisted, knotted wood. There would be a post sticking up that would suggest the base of the Cross, and wrapped around that would be a Christ-like figure’s arms. He’d be face down and his torso would be emerging from the ground like he was trying to pull himself back.”
Ed smiled. “That’s unconventional, but we’d be proud to have it. That really makes a statement.”
I never followed up on that sculpture or his business idea, but I suspect Ed knew that I wouldn’t. He was an artist of a different kind, and that afternoon he made the only good thing that he intended to make.
Ed was such a good guy that he almost had me believing in God, or at least in fathers. Two of them sat in my family room/breakfast nook, mine in his place on the couch, engrossed in another war documentary. His own father sat 3,000 miles away at the breakfast table, staring blankly past his cup of coffee. On screen someone else’s father used his rich baritone to march Patton’s Third Army across Europe, and other people’s fathers lined up other people’s fathers in front of trenches and riddled them with bullets manufactured by someone’s father. Other fathers stood emaciated in their striped pajamas and waited to die and be thrown into piles by other fathers.
This last image caused my grandfather to speak. “The smoke from the chimneys was so sweet it made you sick,” he said, and then he went outside to smoke a Raleigh and grab another Budweiser from the trunk of the Riviera. My father did not turn off the documentary.
That night I said goodnight to my surrogate fathers of the last four years: Big Mac, the Bible-citing principal; Mr. Smith, the kind and understanding English teacher; Coach Parsons, the lecherous psychology teacher; the whole goddamned school system.
We don’t choose our families of origin, and the overwhelming majority of us have no say in our primary education. As children we are without agency. We are acted upon by chance occurrence of birth and the ensuing authority of those to whom we are born. School is an extension of that: just another family we’re dropped into and whose seemingly arbitrary rules we must follow. From birth to age eighteen we remain in the grips of fathers and mothers, or at least that’s how it seemed to me, and graduation night was the big goodbye to being one father or another’s puppet.
I sat there in my stupid cap and gown feeling like an asshole, watching my friends and enemies stride proudly across the stage to accept their diplomas from Big Mac, who greeted each of them with a firm handshake. Someone called my name and I walked to where Big Mac stood. “Congratulations, young man,” he said, and he extend his hand. I plopped my relaxed hand into his palm and let him wiggle it like a dead fish. He looked confused for a brief moment, and then his expression changed to “oh, another craphead,” and my moment in the spotlight was done.
When it was all over the newly-minted adults ran around smiling, hugging, and high-fiving each other. I smiled and hugged, too. It felt good to be done with it, and I’m a sucker for big moments. Eventually I made my way over to my family. I hugged my mother and my sister, said thank you to my physically undemonstrative grandmother. I shook my war hero grandfather’s hand. All that was left was my father who, as usual, looked put out, bored, and impatient. I grabbed onto him, hugged him intentionally and sincerely for the first time since that day in the garage years ago when I learned that he was leaving us. “I love you, Dad,” I cried.
“I love you too, son,” he said. And then I was gone, off with my few true friends for one last night of liquor, lust, and primer-gray Camaros.