Grades always were easy for me in school. From the beginning I got satisfactories in all those important areas such as writing, reading and mathematics. Those turned to A’s when actual grades were given, though I don’t remember the demarcation. In fact, I seldom saw a B. By the eighth grade I took such things for granted. In fact, I was placed in an advanced math class in eighth grade, taking Algebra instead of waiting until 9th. I don’t recall feeling particular special, and I don’t recall being thought of as weird. As I said before, more than half the kids I started kindergarten with, I graduated with. We, by that point, had a pretty clear idea who were the smart ones, who not.
Algebra went fine. In ninth grade we started geometry and I began to struggle. Struggle for me was simply frustration that this stuff wasn’t going so easily for me. I spend actual time doing homework now, and parents were of no help. Neither my mother or father had a clue about math beyond the simple stuff. If geometry was tough, then algebra II was scary. I was really having a tough time. Often, intuitively I could figure out the answer, but I couldn’t “show my work” sufficiently a lot of time, demonstrating that I had not absorbed the finer points of the theorems. I finally, in distress, went to my teacher and asked, exactly what did I need to get on the final to avoid a dreaded C. You see, I had never received a C up to that point. In fact i would receive only one poor grade in my entire high school career. (More of that in a moment.) He said, well, don’t fail it. I got a D- on the final and got a B- for the year. Whew.
So shaken had I become at that turn of events that I pulled myself out of the “college prep” course track, and moved “down” to the business track. The third track was “general” and was reserved for those who would be gas station monkeys, checkout clerks, or hold other brainless jobs. Such was the way we kids understood that stuff. I don’t recall that my parents were consulted or whether they protested. I doubt they did. Grades were the important thing to them I assume, and not the subject they were attached to.
Failure was something that I was not used to as you might have guessed. The main reason I took such lengths to avoid failure, was for that reason, and because I didn’t exactly know what failure entailed, but it didn’t look good to me. Failure was the guy who got fired because he couldn’t do the work. Everyone in my family had a job and worked it until they retired. So to be fired from a job meant you were thoroughly incompetent and an embarrassment to society.To be without work was unthinkable. My parents bought thoroughly into the Protestant work ethic. The reason I had little if any involvement with failure is that my parents had a very strong demarcation between what children do and adults do. I was never allowed to do things in the second category, whether it be painting a wall, planting peas, or fixing a drain. So I had little experience in the normal try, fail, try again syndrome. Such of course is a valuable and essential learning experience but it was not to be mine.
In any event, I very much enjoyed business classes. I loved typing, and in fact still do enjoy it. I enjoyed learning shorthand and was good at that as well. I loved bookkeeping, for the tidy symmetry of the “books” intrigued and appealed to my sense of order. I did well. Most of the business classes were taught by Mrs. James, a very nice woman. She was tall and slim like my mother, with glasses as well, and always the latest hairdo. I recall she was married to a factory worker and there was always talk that she had married “beneath” her status.
I was a somewhat racy kid in my 16-18 year range. We hung out with those “bad boys” from Beecher for starts. We wore leather jackets, we smoked, and we made fun of the “in” kids, the ones who played sports and were on student council. We never admitted it, but we were essentially jealous. They were the teachers favorites, we increasingly were not. Mrs. James never played that game, at least not with me.
By senior year, all we wanted was to get out. We gave up all pretense of being interested in school activities of any kind. We attended no games, no pep rallies, no float building evenings, no extra-curricular clubs any more. We just were waiting it out. Every evening we assembled at Barb’s or Pat’s to listen to music, laugh and make jokes. School was a miserable thing to be suffered.
I had never skipped a day of school, and to tell you the truth I don’t know who decided it was time. We certainly felt that our status as “bad” kids would be in jeopardy should we not have at least one skipped day under our belts. I recall it was warm, so it was either late spring or earlier in the fall. Usually one of our parents drove us to a gas station, which abutted the school property. We didn’t want to be seen with parents, we protested, but in actuality we wanted to smoke before heading on to class, at the very last moment. That one day we had other plans.
We were expecting the boys. They drove in the gas station perhaps 15 or so minutes before school started, and we all piled in Tom’s Chevy. Unbeknownst to us, a bus driver going by, saw us, and could identify a fair number of us. Our group was of course well known, and it was easy for them to figure out who all was gone, just by checking the classes for absences. We, being oblivious to all this, took off, and headed over to Tom’s house. His mother worked days, and there was no one there.
We had no particular plan as to how to spend the day. I don’t recall, but someone called someone, and we were soon advised that everyone already knew we had skipped. So a fun day was spent wondering how to spin this in some way that wouldn’t end us all in a lot of trouble. We came up with no fine plan and all. We stayed at Tom’s the entire day, and the boys drove us to within a block of home so we could dutifully arrive home as usual.
I was met by my grandmother, who said, your dad called and said for you to stay home. He will be calling later. Nothing more was said, and I continued to live with a huge boulder in the gut a few more hours. Finally he called. “How was your day?” he asked innocently. “Fine.” I replied cautiously. “Anything interesting happen?” he followed. Knowing the gig was up of course, I figured lying would hardly be appropriate. “I got caught skipping school,” I confessed and waited. “Wait up for me until I get home.” “Okay.” And he hung up.
I was not severely punished. Us kids got in contact with each other by phone, and knew that all us girls had been grounded. The school had called and said we were suspended and must return with a parent in tow before re-entering. Dad asked what the other kids suffered and imposed the same on me. Since I was not one to get in serious trouble, he had little experience with severe punishments. None of us suffered much from this but one. That was Patty. Patty’s father beat the dickens out of her with a belt, and in fact the school was seriously considering calling the authorities. Such was my one experience with skipping school. I wouldn’t recommend it.
When it had come time to sign up for senior classes, I was taking the lazy way out. I didn’t want to be bothered with classes that taxed my mind much. I decided to take a class in “library science.” It was not a science I tell you, and was considered a “throwaway” elective. It was taught by a new teacher, whose name I no longer remember. She was fat and wore atrocious polka dot dresses. Now I was a huge reader, even then, but for reasons that we can only surmise, me and Miss polka dots didn’t get along. It got pretty much worse as time went on. Whatever she told me to do, I did, but in a fashion that was not pleasing to her. I know I did some things very deliberately wrong, just to aggravate her.
In our school, if you carried at least a B- going into midterms, you didn’t have to take the midterm exams. I’d never taken a midterm exam except the imfamous algebra II midterms. The library “bitch” gave me a C average and I was required to take the damn exam. I decided I was not going to. On the appointed day, I simply didn’t go. My Dad assumed I didn’t have to take any exams and so had no suspicion that I was being disobedient. This was a matter of honor to me. This woman was actively making my life a misery, the kids all knew, and I had to take a stand or loose status in their eyes.
A bit into the morning the phone rang. The principal was on the line and asking why I hadn’t appeared for my exam. “I’m sick,” I replied. No doubt he was unconvinced. “Well,” he finally sighed, “If you don’t show up to take it, Miss Polka dots is going to give you an E for the test and she said you can’t make it up.” “Okay,” I replied. I got a D- for the midterm. That of course did not go over especially well with the male parental. He was thoroughly disgusted. This was at the time in the world when no teacher was wrong, every kid was. I was wrong, evidence not withstanding, had there of course been any.
I had to come up with a solution. Of course, everyone in the school knew about the fight between my and Miss Polka dots. I looked around at what was available, (not much in a suburban school, whose graduating class typically consisted of less than 110 students). I realized that there was a 10th grade home economics class that was about the only thing I could switch to. I went to the home ec teacher, a lovely lady, and asked if I could transfer, even though I was a senior. She smiled, telling me she knew of my problem and sure I could. Such, I thought, ended my nightmarish relationship with the Polka Dot idiot.
Near the end of the year, with graduation only weeks away, we had an “awards” ceremony. We had these each year, and boys got letters for sports, girls got letters for cheerleading and majorettes. Pins and certificates were given out for club activities, school student council, and various stuff. They were mostly boring, and we attended as required with the usual non-interest. Suddenly, an odd thing was occurring, people were being called from the senior class. As they came down, parents started popping out of doors into the gym. It turned out that these were the new inductees into the Honors Society. These new folks were given a sash, and probably some pin. The sash would be worn over their graduation robes.
Now, I was aware at this time of the statistics for our graduating class. I was graduating 3rd out of 102 classmates. I noted that as this parade of parents and called-down students went on that it encapsulated the kids who made up the top ten in the class. There were actually 11 as there was a tie for 3rd place as I recall. As this realization crept over me, the knot began to grow. My parents? No way? Both in the same room? Nope. Not gonna happen. Oh how I dreaded it. But my name was never called. I was puzzled, but still had no idea why I had been ignored. Before I had a opportunity to think about it for long, my name was called, but not for the Honors Society. I was called by Mrs. James and given “best business student” of the year. I was certainly not expecting this, and in fact was dumbfounded. I knew I was “good” at all the business classes, but had never thought about being “best.”
Some time after the assembly and awards ceremony had been concluded, Mrs. James took me aside for a chat. She wanted to assure me that I indeed was the best student that year. But she wanted to tell me something else. It seemed that the requirement for induction into Honors Society required that every teacher you had taken in your senior year had to sign a nominee application. Miss Polka dot had refused. She was the only one who had. Mrs. James told me that every teacher had made a point of going to Polka dots and asked her to reconsider, pointing out my fine record over my entire high school time. She refused to relent, even when some of them pointed out that the dispute she had with me was largely in their view a difference of personality and she was the adult after all. Nope, nada, no way she said. And that was that. Mrs. James felt I should know that my other teachers supported me, and further that the business award was not a consolation prize.
I relate the story because it taught me a very important lesson. Unfortunately it took me a few years before I got it. I was a lawyer and still, when I thought of that incident I would grow wild with anger, wishing all sorts of demented misery on that woman in the library. I mused of seeing her at a reunion and lauding it over her. “See I’m a lawyer, and you Miss Polka dots are still a librarian in a tiny suburban high school. I’m somebody, and you are not.” I cannot point to a time or place or thing, but suddenly in the midst of one of these gut-tightening rants, I got the “aha moment.” I realized that my very success was the best revenge, and there was no reason whatsoever that she need know of it. Her slight, intended to screw me, had made not one single impact in my life that was negative as far as I could determine. Her meanness had accomplished nothing. I never got angry about it again. Lesson: don’t waste time being angry at people who try to hurt you but fail. Don’t waste time bemoaning the past which can’t be changed.
But I do sometimes wonder what happened to Miss Polka dots. I like to imagine she lives as an old maid with a old maid sister, in a gray world where the time can be determined simply by noting what activity a person is engaged in.
Next: college, war, and whatever comes next.