Mom was pissed because I hadn’t called to tell her that I’d be late. We were supposed to get home from our respective junior highs, where she was a student teacher, at about the same time. I couldn’t imagine a more unreasonable reason to be in trouble. So, I patiently explained that I couldn’t remember our phone number. Apparently, that wasn’t a good excuse, so I reminded her that I’ve always had a thing against numbers. I hated them. They ruined my life. I was in dummy math, after all. (Of course, I never told her that a foxy chick’s butt crack had landed me in dummy math. To be honest, I’d fallen behind in math before I’d gotten glasses in grade school and just never caught up. To be superhonest, I’ve never had an aptitude for numbers, and as a kid, I looked for excuses for my deficit. My confusion over numbers only grew in junior high, so yeah, I spaced out, making me vulnerable to foxy chicks’ butt cracks, which were much more interesting than whatever was on the blackboard.)
Mom began another tongue-lashing. Her tirades were truly gifted—full of concern and facts—but I noticed that they never included picking me up from school to save me the three-mile walk home. She always dismissed my overarching point—which I was unable to articulate at the time—that I spent twenty-three hours and fifty-five minutes a day out of her sight, having to navigate a world full of adolescent homoerotic aggression. Daily, I chose to put up with five minutes of maternal disappointment in order to survive the rest of the time. So, I made my face blank to weather her barrage.
She hated it when I did that because I looked dull and lazy and as if I didn’t care to be the sort of son that a respected art teacher and beloved Sunday-school teacher should have. My half-closed eyes finally set her off. She swatted at the side of my head. I guarded myself, which upset her more. I was supposed to take it—she told me to put down my hands—but there was something in me that never could let my guard down. It was the obstinate part of me, the part that felt I deserved something better than slaps, better than kicks in PE just because I missed another lay-up. So, she went for the long-handled wooden spoon. I escaped to my bedroom, my sanctuary, and turned on the radio. “Alone Again (Naturally)” was playing. I loved that song. It felt good that someone else outside my own bedroom understood for about three minutes what it was like to be me.
What was I supposed to do about my failings? I wondered. If it were up to me, I’d be a genius. I’d read the World Book Encyclopediacover to cover and use words with lots of syllables, I figured. That would’ve solved many of my problems at twelve years old; that, and knowing karate as Bruce Lee did. Sure, I could’ve gotten better grades if I’d tried; I knew it then, and I admit it today, but I was still in convict training. It was hard to please everyone, and if I had to choose—grades or toughness—well, it was a no-brainer for me. I had to be safe before I could do higher-functioning activities such as getting good grades. Clearly, I was unsophisticated and childlike, and I didn’t know what to do when Mom confronted me other than resist, shrug, and pretend not to care. Mom thought I had potential. Potential? I just survived day-to-day! Support in my family of origin meant food, shelter, mandated exposure to religion, mandatory school attendance, and not much else.
So then it was my turn to be upset. I figured that I deserved some credit for finally showing a smidge of initiative by going out for the basketball team. Then I was screwed, just as the American Olympians were. Obviously, the junior-high team had already been picked before the so-called tryouts. The difference between the Olympians and me was that I sucked big-time. It all seemed unfair to me, because no one ever told me the rules, and all of the adults in my life merely corralled kids; none ever took the time to connect and explain how things worked. But I still showed up, didn’t I? Where was my credit? I think the lesson was that just showing up wasn’t going to be enough in life. The thing was, even though I knew that I deserved to be with the scrubs and the kid who pulled down our shorts, I didn’t feel that I was as much of a dullard as others seemed to think I was. Something in me knew that Mom was right; I had more to offer than a bad attitude. The problem was, I had no idea what that might be. All I knew was that it wasn’t math or basketball.