Reputation

My new Mars story isn’t done yet, so I’m not ready to write about how I did it. While you wait, here’s a brand-new anecdote from the Mostly True collection.wbhs2

Every class has one student known by his negative reputation instead of his name, and some have more than one. Unable to excel at education, he strives to be known for rebellion instead. He may become the class clown, taking foolish risks to gain attention. Other times, he lashes out in violence.

As a high-school freshman (9th grade), my crowded course schedule placed me in gym with a class of 8th-grade students. This wouldn’t happen in most school districts, because most districts don’t teach 8th-grade classes at their high school. Ours was different. Eighth-grade students were using the gym in my only available calendar slot, so I was assigned to their class.a bubbler, or water fountain if you don't come from Massachusetts.

This left me in the unexpected role of “big kid.” I have never been athletic, and to this day I cannot truly comprehend the idea of being a threat to anyone in gym. Still, I was the outsider, older than everyone else, a clear target for the Worf Effect. And I drew the attention of the class tough guy.

We were in the locker room after class, he and I, jostling for position at the bubbler (water fountain). I was not a selfless child, and probably did something to provoke his ire, but the response I got was entirely unexpected: without a word, he punched me in the head. And I–

Did nothing.

Okay, to be honest, that’s not entirely accurate. If you’ve ever taken a haymaker to the left temple, you know it hurts. And while he didn’t knock me down, he did surprise me. And I just stood there, looking at him, while tears of pain filled my eyes. After a few seconds, he took his drink at the bubbler, and life went on.

Looking back, I wonder why this day lingers in my mind when nothing ever came of it. I didn’t hit him back. I didn’t meet him after school to settle things at a time and place when school discipline wouldn’t be invoked. I didn’t even change my standing in gym class, because I’m not a jock, and never will be. But despite all this, the memory of that day still haunts me.

Maybe it haunts me because I’ll never know what would have happened. I tell myself I did the right thing, that he led a tough life, and had probably been beaten on by tougher people than I. I tell myself that I was the “big kid” at that bubbler, and social standing being what it is, I had nothing to gain by a fight, while he had nothing to lose.  But I also know it hurt, and I tell myself I could have punched him back, and won.

Science is beginning to prove that it’s not the larger-than-life personalities who make the best leaders. For men, however, social ranking is still achieved by a Rambo-sized physique or a Napoleon-sized ego.  Ninth-grade boys desperately need to feel like a man, and society tells our boys that violence is a quick way to get there. But I did nothing. The adult in me knows I did the right thing.

The 9th-grade boy in me still doesn’t know.

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Surviving Childhood

For the past few weeks, NPR has been airing a series of programs on Men in America. Since I think I have some applicable experience on this topic, I thought I’d tell you a story. And since I think the way to understand men is to understand male childhood development, I’ll tell you a story from my childhood.

Somewhere in the archives of the West Bridgewater Historical Society there is a high school valedictory address with my name on it. Looking back, I’m proud of that accomplishment, but I’m also somewhat surprised, because I was a major discipline case for the first eight years of my grade-school education. Faced with boring material in class, I constantly challenged my teachers. I wanted to know more at a faster pace than the system was ready to teach me, and when I didn’t get it, my frustration showed up in a need to move, to do something, to do anything but sit still.Spring Street School

The best teachers in our school system found creative ways to challenge me.  Whether it was delivering the attendance to the office every morning or asking me to solve problems the rest of the class didn’t have to consider, they kept me engaged, which in turn kept me out of the way.

The less successful teachers tried to block me directly from disrupting things, with limited success.  In second grade, a teacher seatbelted me to my chair with a scarf to keep me from running around, so I carried the chair with me just to oppose her. In third grade, my math teacher punished my disruptions with detention, so I made it my personal goal to identify and announce every mistake she made for the rest of the year.  In middle school I once gave an improvisational presentation in health class based on things I heard others present in class that day because I hadn’t bothered to write my own report the night before–a report in which I explicitly told people not to do the very things I was doing.

At the same time, I was a social disaster. My parents insisted that the growing trend for denim jeans in school was unacceptable, so I had to wear my (husky) corduroys instead.  But we were living on a teacher’s salary, so I had to find a way to make three pairs (all I owned) last through five days of school (between laundry days) without anyone finding out I was re-wearing my dirty clothes.  Since t-shirts were likewise deemed unacceptable by my parents, I paired those limited trouser choices with the only shirts I could wear to school–polo shirts, generally adorned with horizontal stripes that made me look even less attractive. Paired with my 1950’s-era haircut, my wardrobe guaranteed that I would fit in like a biker at the ballet–but faced with a list of “don’t” options, it was the only solution I could see.

Many boys use sports or other physical activity to feel part of a group. Being entirely incompetent at gross motor activities, I could not use this option. This was, however, a fact that my parents didn’t know about at the time. Indeed, I used false claims about intramural sports activity to cover up my excessive detention record through fifth grade. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true.

High School graduation, 1984.

It wasn’t until early in ninth grade that one of the “cool kids” in school talked with me about my appearance. Instead of telling me what I couldn’t do, he had some ideas about what I could do. With his guidance, I was able to swap out my polo shirts for regular dress shirts–an upgrade for my parents and my peers.  With the addition of a fuller haircut, I was able to shed my Steve Urkel image for one that was, if not debonair, at least marginally acceptable.

At the same time, I suddenly found myself able to select the high school classes I was going to attend. I wasn’t always the most successful, but by the time I graduated I had become an expert on maximizing my grade in each class while simultaneously minimizing the amount of work I had to do outside of class. It was an exercise in optimization that kept me occupied, and my delinquency rate dropped. This ability to optimize my education served me very well in college, and I still fall back on it today from time to time.

The takeaway from this story is that for me, I don’t need to hear what I can’t or shouldn’t do. What I need to know is the complete rules for this game we call living, negative and positive. Give me a puzzle with an actual solution, and some hope of finding it, and I’ll pursue it.

Modern society often leaves men with a set of conflicting requirements.  Express your emotions, except for the emotions other people don’t like. Take responsibility for everything, except where some other group wants that responsibility to move ahead.  Work hard and provide for others, and just accept the criticism when your job leaves you unavailable to do something else.  While women may be told “you can do it all”, men are often told the opposite.  I think this can change, and I think it has to change if we’re going to see the societal improvements from men that so many are asking for.

The Smell of Mathematics

Earlier this month, Jilly of Eight Ladies Writing discussed the use of scent to enhance our descriptive text. I have had mixed success in my own writing with the sense of smell, and while the short story I’m currently writing has smell as a significant motive for several characters, mostly I find that detailed description in general is an afterthought for me, added during the editing process. There is, however, a story in my personal history that highlights the significance of smell.

As I have mentioned previously, my home town had several farms of note, one of which was a dairy farm. As it happens, this particular farm included property directly across the street from our town high school.  The mathematics department, which abutted the street, was particularly close.

wbhsBeing an older building in a small town, the high school didn’t have air conditioning.  In New England, this doesn’t matter much: during school months, its never so hot that you can’t simply open a window to cool off.  The only real problem happened in the spring, when (you guessed it) the dairyman was mucking out his barns.

May is not terribly warm in Massachusetts, but you often have a few days here and there that peak in the seventies (F).  On those particular days, teachers needed to open their windows to cool off their classrooms.  At the same time, the pungent smell of cow manure rose from the dairyman’s property. It was occasionally so strong that it made my eyes water. You might expect, therefore, that I would associate the smell of cow manure with math, and I do.

What you might not expect is the emotional content of that memory.  Math for me has always been easy, and I was blessed with teachers who didn’t force me to waste time doing the homework as long as I learned the material. Occasionally I was given something interesting to do in class (chess on a TRS-80 comes to mind) so I’d stay out of the teacher’s way and let him teach.  Math was fun.

These days, if I’m out hiking with my wife, we may suddenly encounter the smell of cow manure from a nearby farm. “What’s that smell?” she would ask.

“Math,” I’d say, and smile.

Passing Notes

C and I had been friends from the beginning. When the other girls went to the far side of the playground for recess and the athletic boys took over the field, leaving a handful of us boys to play Star Trek with her on the jungle gym, we were friends. When we used to talk for hours about Tolkien and D&D on the phone, we were friends. And in seventh grade, in math class, we were friends.

The teacher, whom I’ll call T, had a strict rule in his class about passing notes: if you were caught doing it, your note would be posted on his bulletin board for the entire class to see. The prospect of humiliation was sufficient threat to keep the cool kids from even trying it. To me, it was a challenge.

T had organized the desks in his class alphabetically: seven columns of three desks each, with a fourth desk in the back of the first and last columns.  Because C’s name was near the start of the alphabet, she ended up in the back of the lefthand column. My name, at the end of the alphabet, placed me all the way in the back of the righthand column. Since I was a math geek, and C was well-behaved, T must have thought he had it all figured out. He was wrong.

Separated by five rows of empty desks, C and I couldn’t pass notes by any traditional method. Even folding the paper into a tight triangular football wouldn’t work; If T saw either of us pick up a piece of paper from the floor, he’d know something was amiss.  My solution?  A ball-point pen with its guts removed.

One day, when T had given us desk work to do, I saw my chance. I had disassembled a pen that was large enough to hold a fairly large note, provided the note was folded carefully and rolled up into a small cylinder. To test my theory, I wrote a brief note to C, inserted it into the pen, and slid it across the floor to C when T was looking away. So far, so good.

C wrote me a reply, and passed it back. T didn’t even look up, and I became bold. I wrote her a second note, inserted it into the pen, and shot it towards C’s desk. The pen banged loudly against her three-ring binder, and T looked up. C picked up the pen from the floor, and no one seemed the wiser. When C passed me her second reply, and I stepped on the pen to stop its progress, I was sure I would be caught, but T went back to his work after a brief glare towards my desk.a-note

At this point, I knew the jig was up. There was no chance I could possibly get another note past him, even with my innovative concealment methods. Knowing this, I fashioned one last, special note, waited for T to glance my way, and tossed it across the floor.

“Miss C,” T said. “Give me that note.” T and I had been challenging each other all year, and he seemed smugly satisfied to have finally caught me in the act.

C, who hadn’t even had enough time to look at the note herself, handed it over, a look of sheer terror on her face. T unfolded the note, glanced at it, and his face fell. Still, he had an official policy–no exceptions allowed–and he posted it on his bulletin board.

“THIS IS A NOTE” it read, in letters large enough that the whole class could read it without leaving their desks.

I feel somewhat sorry about doing that to the poor man, but I probably feel more guilty about the fact that I’m proud I pulled it off.