Growing up, I assumed all five-year olds were offered the same academic advice my father gave me each time we discussed school: always do your best, never take the easy way out, follow your passions, and most importantly don’t contract the mumps.
My dad stored his report cards from elementary and middle school in a green, fireproof World War II ammo box that he acquired at a local army supply depot. Each time he’d retrieve tax papers or other important documents from the metal box, I’d ask him to retell the story of his youth. At eleven, he moved from France to Cleveland, and was placed in public school without any sort of intervention or ESL tutor. He was forced to learn the English language and an odd system of measurements entirely on his own. Despite this disadvantage, he outscored many of his American peers, proudly flaunting his language skills in French class when the teacher turned to him for advice.
I’d ask to see the report cards every time he opened the box, so he’d pull out the folded pieces of paper, scattering them on the bed.
“What do you think?” he’d ask me. “Your old man’s not so bad, eh?” He received straight-A’s in every class until his sophomore year. Those report cards were missing from this pile. “I expect the same thing from you. If you’re going to succeed, you have to keep up your grades, no excuses.”
“Tell me again why your other report cards aren’t in here,” I said, wanting to hear the story again. “The ones from tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades.”
“It was those darn mumps,” he said, sorting the progress reports into a neat stack. “Ever since then I got stupid.”
“So mumps make you stupid?” I asked.
“Whatever you do,” he warned, “don’t get the mumps.”
I never attended preschool, any sort of daycare, or camp. Yet I was over prepared for kindergarten due to my parents’ insistence on excelling in the arts and academics. Before I ever set foot in a classroom, we read together each day, pulled a variety of educational games out of the closet, and spent the lazy summer afternoons finger painting on the patio. They frequently reminded me that I’d be the first in my whole family to attend college, so therefore I must push myself. When it came time to attend “real school,” I could barely contain my excitement. The day before I entered kindergarten I recorded a song into my parents’ portable tape recorder. The chorus went, School days, school days, I love school days. My mom still has the tape—proof of my early enthusiasm for education, even though we no longer own a tape player.
A check minus. I held the paper in disbelief as Mrs. Hall, my kindergarten teacher, finished passing out papers to the rest of the students. On the top of my paper, in red marker, she wrote, “Color in the lines next time,” followed by a thick check minus. This may not have been my finest display of coloring talent—my crayon strokes frequently broke the black boundary of Goofy’s outlined body—but this was in no way check-minus work. It wasn’t up to the high standards I’d set with the Donald Duck project where I demonstrated a hint of shading, but it wasn’t any worse than the average kindergartner. I contested the grade with Mrs. Hall at the end of the school day after I slung my bag onto my back, preparing for the walk home. I thought perhaps the minus was simply a slip of the pen.
She took the paper from my hand and pointed to the stray lines. “This is not the sort of work I expect from you, Michael. You’re better than this.”
“But Brad’s paper was sloppier than mine, and he at least got a check.”
“But you’re not Brad.”
As my eyes welled, I ran from her room and out the front doors of the school. I’d never received a check-minus on anything. Paranoia overcame me. There is no way a college will let me in with that sort of grade. I bet that check minus will show up on my report card. What if I’ve caught the mumps? John looked a little sick the other day on the playground. What if I caught the mumps and am now stupid and can’t get into college?
I crumpled up the paper as I walked home, stuffing it in the branches of a dense bush growing beside the brick school building. I figured I would crush my folks by informing them their son wasn’t going to continue his education after high school because of this Goofy disaster. I couldn’t bring these marks home to my dad; I was too ashamed. He was an incredible artist, sketching fantastic drawings of Daffy Duck and other cartoon characters for my amusement.
On the walk home I wiped my eyes, trying to compose myself and not let on there was anything amiss. I found that my dad had taken a half-day off of work so we could play soccer together in the front yard. I conjured up some mild enthusiasm while kicking the ball around until I eventually confessed my crime to him.
“Well,” Dad said, “where’s the paper now?”
“In a bush,” I said.
He held me while I cried into his shirtsleeve and then took my hand as we returned to the school to retrieve the check-minus from the bush. But we never found it. It must have blown away or been retrieved by the janitor. Or maybe, he said, it was a trick of my imagination and never existed at all.
After high school my father served in the Coast Guard before working as a pressman for a local newspaper. It was an arduous job that subjected employees to caustic chemicals, hazardous fumes, and exhausting manual labor. My dad’s friends lost fingers in the blades of the presses, and the huge rolls of paper had been known to fall off the shelves, permanently disabling several employees. The cracks and creases of my dad’s hands were dyed with black ink, despite the number of times he scrubbed them with the pink, chalky soap he stored underneath the utility sink in the basement.
But I loved the smell of the ink. It clung to his navy blue work shirts and was infused in his hair. When he returned home from work, the smell of ink wafted into the kitchen, mixing with the chicken or fish sticks Mom was preparing. Biting and sharp like gasoline, there was something fresh about its presence in a stale room. On those long nights when my dad worked double shifts, my mom would send me to bed, insisting he wouldn’t be home until well past midnight, and I needed my rest. She’d leave my bedroom door open just a crack, while waiting up for him in the living room, listening quietly to Billie Holiday records. I’d close my eyes, listening to every word of those records, anxiously awaiting the scent of ink to rouse me.
After fifteen years on the pressroom floor, the estimating department realized my dad was gifted with numbers so they offered him a white-collar desk job at a “slightly higher pay scale than his current position” (but also much lower than the other white-collar employees because he didn’t possess a college degree). The company needed my dad’s assistance in saving the company from financial ruin because he understood the practical matters on the floor but could also design, engineer, and manufacture the needed parts for the presses at a much greater discount than an outside contractor. They flew him to California to evaluate a used press the company was interested in purchasing. “It was the most amazing experience,” he said. “From here to LA there are mountains and plains and lakes, everything so beautiful from way up there. The world is evened out. At that elevation there is barely any trace of man.”
For Christmas, the company gave my dad $500 and a large tin of caramel, cheese, and butter-flavored popcorn. When he asked why he’d received such a generous gift, his boss said it was the standard bonus for all employees. My dad mentioned that he’d never received a bonus when he worked on the pressroom floor. The man laughed and said they never issued bonuses to “those sort of employees.” Dad returned the money, and that following Monday returned to his job on the press. He kept the popcorn.
“Upon accepting our invitation into the honors program, you have a moral and intellectual responsibility to understand that you are better than everyone else. That can be a great burden when your peers in high school can’t understand that you are intellectually superior.”
I chewed on my pen cap. Most of my blue pen caps were dented with imprints of my teeth. My mom and my health teacher lectured that the caps housed hundreds of germs that could potentially cause illness. Despite understanding and appreciating this information, I gnawed away at the plastic until it eventually snapped, forcing me to find a new cap.
The classroom was occupied by two dozen seventh-graders who were instructed to listen to a lecture by the junior-high guidance counselor and then fill out a form indicating our interest in being admitted into the honors program for all subject areas. I raised my hand. I didn’t wait to be called on. We were supposed to wait. We were supposed to know better.
“Excuse me,” I interrupted from the back of the classroom. “Can you say that again?”
The guidance counselor cleared his throat. “I said you must understand that you are the best of the best. You are the brightest and most promising students in the seventh grade; each of you have the potential for greatness. The school has been watching you, and you are better than everyone else.”
I unclenched my molars from the pen cap, stood up, and gave the blank form to the secretary who sat near the door. “That’s what I thought you said.”
My grandmother handed me a $100 bill to “buy new shoes and pants” for my first day of school—the private college ten minutes from my home that I’d been eyeing since kindergarten. The only application I sent out. She wanted me to have the gift because I was the first person in my family ever to attend college. She hoped that I’d be a success and learn what she, her husband, my dad, my mom, her parents, her sister, my cousins, their parents, and on and on and on never had the opportunity to learn. I don’t remember what I said back to her. I must have thanked her. I know I hugged her. I also know I didn’t spend the money on shoes.
My dad attended college for one day. He said he’d wanted to go to Case Western Reserve University for drawing and design, but when the admissions counselor met with him, she actually laughed when she looked at his grades. He settled for Cleveland State University. On the first day of school, his science professor insisted that all papers be written longhand in a particular, uppercase font or they would not be accepted for credit. When my dad asked the reasoning behind this request, the professor explained that this was the “handwriting of scholars.” My dad withdrew from school the following day. When I asked him why he never stuck it out, he said his mom never really pushed him to continue. She didn’t care one way or the other what he did. More likely it was because my father has no patience for unexplained bullshit.
The day of orientation, I was corralled into the school’s tennis courts with a few hundred college freshmen. We were instructed to hold hands with the two people standing next to us as we entered the cages. A “student leader” then commanded us to duck under outstretched arms, forming a twisted mess of bodies. A senior standing on a ladder, shouting through a megaphone, told us to untangle ourselves while still holding hands to make a circle around the perimeter of the court. I couldn’t comprehend what this had to do with preparing me for the five courses I was scheduled to begin the following day, but I understood this was some sort of “getting to know you,” team-building activity. I searched out fellow cynics to commiserate on the absurdity of this request, rolling my eyes at the eighteen-year-old girl with too much eye makeup who gripped my right hand. She asked what was wrong as she loosened herself from the knot she’d formed with the boy next to her. I said, “You know,” nodding my head to the senior on the ladder who was now cheering motivational rhymes. She said, “I don’t know.” I said, “That’s too bad.” She asked if I owned a car, because she and her friends had fake IDs and wanted to run to the convenience store after the orientation for beer. She said none of them had wheels and just needed someone, anyone, to make the run for them. I said I didn’t have a car. She said she’d seen me in the commuters’ meeting earlier that day and knew I had a car.
Ten minutes later, as I ducked underneath arms, twisting my body over and under other freshman, trying to untangle and free myself from my peers, the girl said she wished she’d been holding hands with someone much more fun. She asked how such a “fucking loser” like me was accepted into college.
I sat at the foot of my parents’ bed, sniveling that I didn’t want to go back to school. I said I’d always envisioned college as a place filled with academics who were self-motivated, focused on their studies. I wanted to return my ticket of admission. I said neither of them went to college, so I saw no reason why I had to go. My mom stroked my hair, telling me it would be all right. She said tomorrow would be better. They told me I had to go back if I ever planned on changing the world. They lied.
After returning to the pressroom floor, my dad began exploring other careers because he said the job wasn’t “fun” anymore. When the company changed ownership, they fired most of his friends while expecting the remaining employees to work more for less pay. Dad said it used to be one of the best jobs he’d ever had because his coworkers developed a sense of camaraderie working long hours together to produce the paper. During breaks and lunch his buddies would play pranks on each other (slipping mice into their friends’ brown lunch bags and encouraging one another to sit on wet paint). After work they’d share a beer on the curb in front of the building. But the company broke their spirits by increasing restrictions on conversations in the pressroom and shortening their lunch breaks. They were now expected to remain virtually silent while working, as to not distract them from increased production.
My dad took a second job—substituting as a night custodian for an elementary school. He hoped to demonstrate his strong work ethic to the principal so he could eventually be considered for fulltime employment. A year later he quit the printing business when he was hired fulltime to work as a second shift janitor. His few remaining friends in the pressroom were jealous.
One evening while emptying the principal’s trashcan, my dad overheard the man complaining to his secretary about an error on his computer. My dad was a self-taught computer genius. He’d always remained ahead of the trends—he owned a Commodore 64 and a modem before anyone even heard of the Internet. As he relined the garbage can he offered the principal a brief explanation on how to resolve the error and prevent it from occurring again.
Once computers began to be integrated into the school for teacher use, my dad became the unofficial technology coordinator. Administrators asked him to abandon his mop and vacuum throughout the day to do in-service instruction for teachers. One time my dad was asked by the superintendent to give a lecture on computers in the elementary school’s gymnasium. My mom and I had the day off, so we sat in the back and listened to his speech. After receiving a round of applause at the conclusion of his lecture, he didn’t wait until the room was empty to begin stacking chairs and sweeping the floor clean.
“Pick up the paper,” I said to my student who cleared the tattered notebook paper scraps off his desk onto the carpeted floor.
“No,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
“I said pick up the paper, now.” The room of twenty-nine other students fell silent.
“No,” he said. “Do I look like a janitor?”
From the Yale handbook: “To ensure that undergraduate students are exposed to a range of ideas and disciplines during their time at Yale, Yale College requires them to fulfill a variety of distributional requirements, which must be met by certain milestone points. As knowledge of more than one language and familiarity with more than one culture will become increasingly important in the world of the twenty-first century for professionals in every field, the distributional requirements include foreign language study.”
My dad is bilingual.
The janitor is bilingual.
My grandfather is bilingual.
My grandfather was a janitor, too.
That janitor was bilingual, too.
My undergraduate creative writing instructor used to be a janitor.
My undergraduate creative writing instructor is not bilingual.
“Mr. Hemery,” one of my former students said, rushing into my classroom. “I heard that the nonfiction English class I’m signed up for next year is the dumb English class. Is that true?”
The English department at the high school where I teach recently revised the curriculum to be more demanding and engaging for all levels of students. We strove to find challenging selections to motivate different types of learners to read the books and participate in intellectual classroom discussions. We still offered AP English—the course for students who’d been following the honors track for the past three years, but introduced two new courses: Nonfiction and Fiction.
At the curriculum meeting I said, “The whole point is to instill some sense of passion about reading. It’s naïve to assume all people are passionate about the same things.” After hours of deliberation, we successfully created reading lists for each of the non-AP classes that would hopefully spur engaging real-life conversations—Nickel and Dimed, a book about trying to live on minimum wage, and Fast Food Nation, an exposé on big business’s exploitation of America.
“Who told you Nonfiction was the ‘dumb’ class?” I asked the student.
“Well, one of my friends said that she had to take AP; otherwise, she’d be bored because those other classes were for regular students.”
“We worked really hard to make sure our classes prepare students for both college and work. I don’t know who is spreading these rumors, but they’re wrong,” I said.
The student hesitated and then said, “She heard it from her teacher.”
Bumper sticker: My child is an honor student at——-school.
Bumper sticker: My kid can beat up your honor student.
My dad refuses to read fiction. He’ll read my wife’s poetry, but that’s about as close to the “not real” as he’ll get. I’ve tried to explain to him that fiction is a reflection of reality’s concerns.
“Then why not deal with reality itself?” he asked. “It’s fucked up enough, isn’t it? What’s the point of reading something that’s not real? That just seems like a waste of time. Enough people avoid reality. And fiction is usually too wordy. Just get to the point, already, you know? Besides, I’ve never liked adjectives.”
“Iago isn’t a faggot,” Shawn, one of my senior English students, said outside my classroom.
“Mrs. Black said there is evidence that Iago is gay,” said another male student’s voice that I couldn’t identify.
“He’s a pissed off, evil motherfucker, but he ain’t gay. Everything he does is calculated and precise and he brought down Othello because of pure revenge for fucking him over as lieutenant. He’s a badass motherfucker.”
“Well, maybe it’s because we read Othello in AP English and your teacher doesn’t think you can handle that discussion in regular English.”
“Maybe it’s because you’ve never seen real evil.”
My wife and I met my parents for breakfast recently and Dad recounted the intricate details of the sailing books we bought him for Christmas. He does this all the time, but before we presented him with his gifts this year, I made him promise to restrain himself from telling us every minute fact. I’m not really interested in sailing.
He’s read all of Bernard Moitessier’s works but said he lost some respect for the author in his last book because Moitessier started to become a “mooch,” writing the book because he needed the money, rather than for the love of sailing. At breakfast my dad talked about some teacher from Stanford who teaches college courses on his boat, while sailing the coast of Europe. He told about a crew that survived a journey to Antarctica, but the boat sank on their return home in a small bay off the coast of South America when manmade debris crashed into it. He ended the morning by explaining the details of the crew of the Endurance who traveled to Antarctica in 1914 and survived. When they returned, they decided to join the military and fight for their country during World War I. They said it was the right thing to do. Nearly every man died in battle. According to Dad, man fucks everything up.
One of my students slipped his book bag off his shoulder as he entered my Broadcasting class. He’s typically one of the first in the room. “I have a question for you,” he said. “In AP English yesterday, our teacher said that we’re the only class that is required to make cross references in our research papers because none of the other students can handle it. She said that they can’t even get their citations done correctly, let alone understand more sophisticated constructions. Is that true?”
He emphasized the word true as if he couldn’t even fathom not cross-referencing citations.
“Sophomore year we primarily focus on the concept of research in general,” I said. “We stress how to take information from multiple sources, create a thesis and then support it with details. There is another paper junior year that is a little more advanced, but my seniors aren’t required to write a research paper like AP. I suppose they expect a little more out of you guys because you will most likely take higher-level English courses in college.”
The student nodded his head and said, “Since you don’t teach your students how to really write a true research paper, do you ever feel like you are short-changing them?”
“Not really,” I said. “Most students will only write research papers in school. In some way or another they may work on something similar in their jobs, like compiling data, but unless you’re a college professor, an MLA formatted research paper isn’t going to mean a whole heck of a lot after college. I think it’s all about getting people to think, rather than the nitty-gritty details. That’s why I like teaching English, because we get to talk about real concepts and philosophies. I don’t get too hung up on the little stuff.”
“But still, I feel bad for you having to teach those kids. Don’t you ever feel like you’re wasting your time?”
I really like this student quite a bit. He’s a good kid with good intentions and will surely run his own company someday. He has a likeable personality and is always prepared for class. Despite my fondness for the boy, I still cleared my throat and answered, “Never.”
1. Senior retaking my literature class because he refused to complete any homework first
semester and failed the course:
a. Assisted the industrial arts teacher and a NASA engineer in the design and
construction of a robot that placed second in statewide competition.
b. Overheard me complaining to another teacher that my mobile broadcasting cart had
no cable management.
i. Welded and installed two intricate wire hangers on my cart without my
knowledge, and left a note that read, “Merry Christmas, Hemery.”
2. Sophomore who received 53% on her research paper because of incorrect formatting on
citations and, despite hours of extra help before and after school, lacks the ability to form
a. Could easily be accepted into any art school in the country because she is an art
b. Writes poetry at sixteen that promises to one day be published by the most respected
3. Sophomore in my fifth period class who was suspended for asking his math teacher to
“kindly shut the fuck up” and spent last Wednesday in the office due to an infraction of the
dress code (holes in his jeans):
a. Believes John Lennon was the greatest gift to society.
b. Can play much of the Beatles library on his guitar (he brought me an audio recording
of himself playing to prove it).
4. Sophomore failing my third period class because he’s not read one of the ten novels we’ve
covered this year:
a. Can quote hundreds of lines, word for word, from the great movies of the past
5. Sophomore failing my third period class because he plagiarized his persuasive essay:
a. Plans on joining the military in two years to “protect” his older brother who’s been
serving in Iraq.
6. Senior who sleeps in my class each day:
a. Works nights at UPS.
i. Uses money to pay for:
2. His own apartment.
b. His mother is addicted to heroin.
c. His father left when he was two.
7. Senior failing my composition class:
a. Can rebuild the engine of his Toyota Corolla, modifying it for illegal street racing.
8. Sophomore who has piercings in his tongue, ears, nose, and lips; a tattoo of Satan on his
bicep; and is receiving 6% in my class:
a. Asked if I’m willing to “round up” his grade and winked.
b. Stopped by to say, “Thanks for everything” and “I’m sorry I didn’t do anything in
your class, but I really did enjoy the shit you talked about. You get it, man” the day he
was permanently removed from my class by his assistant principal because of his failing
grades and “complete lack of effort.”
Note my dad left on my desk the day before I started my senior year of college:
August 23, 1998
School starts again tomorrow, seems hard to believe summer has passed us by so quickly, it always does. Seemed longer when I was a kid, there was always time to do nothing. I was looking for a quote having to deal with “education,” after all that’s what tomorrow and the next months will be all about, but I ran across this one, and really that’s all I really wanted to say today. I don’t spare my words and often times speak out of emotion, not thinking, just feeling, and not saying the right things, and for that I’m sorry, so I hope this quote explains…you and me.
“Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor to measure words but to pour them all out, just as it is, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keeping what is worth keeping, and then, with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.”
Have a great school year, and be “Good,” always,
Love ya with all my heart,
Michael Hemery is the nonfiction editor for Hunger Mountain and earned his MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio, with his wife Stacie Leatherman and son. This story is part of his collection titled, No Permanent Scars.