HIGH SCHOOL MEMORIES
This is a memoir about my father and some problems I had during my high school years. Please comment nicely!
Most people have high school memories that make them happy, but when I look back the only way to feel good is to imagine things I should have done, not things I actually did.
Of course, there are probably a lot of people who have daydreams like mine. If only I'd punched out that one guy I always hated. If only I'd kissed that one girl I always liked. My whole life might have been different if I could have acted the right way on that one night . . . I'm sure you get the idea.
I can see Mrs. Goldstein's 10th grade English classroom in the spring of 1979. I'm in the last seat in back on the right hand side as you walk into the room. On my left is Danny O'Neill, the most popular kid in school. A joker, a talker, a guy who always knows the right thing to say. Right in front of me is Kitty O'Connell, looking so incredibly sexy and desirable. She has dark brown eyes, dark brown hair, and she looks sort of like Gene Tierney in the movie LAURA, or if you're too young to remember that, sort of like Lily James in WAR AND PEACE. She doesn't care about school, but she can be smart enough in her own cynical way. She's so amazingly sexy and I don't dare say even one word to her!
It's time for our weekly test. The papers are getting passed back. English is my favorite subject. My brilliant father is an English professor, so I always do really well. But this time it's different. This time I stand up and say:
"Excuse me, everyone. I don't mean to disrupt the class, but I have an announcement to make. My father is a guy I really like and admire, but night after night when I'm in bed I can hear him coughing his lungs out and it's really getting to me. I've asked him to quit smoking a thousand times but he just looks at me and goes right back to doing it. I can't take anymore because I know he's killing himself. So until he quits smoking I'm not taking any more tests in this class!"
It's so amazing to me that I never thought of doing this. When I was a kid one of my favorite books was Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King Jr. Deep down I wanted to start a campaign of non-violent protest against my father. What would have happened if I'd taken a zero in English class, just one time? What if I'd done it over and over?
I can picture myself getting sent down to the principal's office and talking to Mr. Roman our school principal. Of course in real life I was terrified of him and I hated his guts. He was at least six feet four, or six feet five. He was an Italian, and a real tough guy, like those wise guys you see on THE SOPRANOS. I always used to see him walking through the cafeteria and I used to wonder what he did to guys who got in trouble. I hated him for being so big and strong, for being somebody. For being the opposite of my father in every way.
But in this daydream I have it's all totally different. I get sent down to the principal's office for disrupting the class and instead of being scared I'm excited. I can't wait to explain to Mr. Roman all about non-violence and why we can't wait.
Of course the conversation would probably start off cheesy, like Mr. Roman warning me about failing English class and think about my future, think about college. What if I fail 10th grade? But then I say, well, if I fail 10th grade I can repeat the grade. And I know I'm smart enough to pass. But if my father dies of a heart attack in six months or two years, there's no way he can come back. I can repeat 10th grade but if he dies he's all gone. Every night I lie in bed listening to him cough and worrying about whether he'll be around for my graduation. What does it matter if I graduate if he's not around anyway?
But then Mr. Roman is like, think about your future. And I'm telling him, I am thinking about my future. I'm thinking about the thirty or forty years I have to live after my father is dead wondering why I never tried to help him. Why I never told anyone what he was doing to me. I don't want to live with that. I won't live with that. Maybe I can't stop him from dying but I can tell the whole world what I think about him doing it.
So then Mr. Roman is angry and starts warning me he's going to call my parents and have a conference. And I tell him, that's exactly what I want to happen. I want to see my father sitting in this room talking to a much bigger, tougher man than he is with a lot more authority. I want to see my father pull his usual stone wall, go sullen and silent. At home he gets away with it, but if he does it here, to you, he'll look like a clown. He'll tell you that he's got nothing to say. And then we'll go home and he won't beat me, or even yell at me. He'll just give me the silent treatment. But it won't matter this time. Because for once I saw him back down in public. I want to see what a chicken he really is, outside of the house where he can't shut me down by going silent all the time.
I can picture the conference happening, too. I can picture my old man sitting there, looking fat and ugly, squat and brown skinned, like a piece of trash I'm ashamed to call my father. And I can imagine the fake, sullen way he'd talk, saying he does his best and has tried to educate me to respect school.
And I can see myself saying, respect for school and education is great, but what about respect for your own body? My good grades won't save you when you're dead. I have to step up now because I care about you, about all the things you've done for me. Why do I have to pretend not to feel anything when I can see you killing yourself day by day?
At home I could say stuff like that, but my father would always laugh and accuse me of being dramatic, of inventing emotions I didn't really feel. My emotions weren't real at home. But they might have seemed a lot more real if we were in a public place and there were public consequences for my actions.
The key thing here is that I can picture Mr. Roman listening to me, taking my ideas seriously, which my father never really did. The principal might say something about me not being in school to help my father, but to build a future for myself. Then I could say, I want a future, but not one where I spend the rest of my life wondering why I never spoke up about something I thought was wrong. And I have to speak up now because in ten years, in five years, in two years, it might be too late. My father is killing himself now. It's killing me now.
That's why we can't wait.
And let me tell you something else, Mr. Roman, right here and now in the principals' office, in front of my mother and father. I'm not stupid. I know my father wants to quit smoking, but he just isn't strong enough to do it. Well, if he's not strong enough to quit, I'm not strong enough to keep quiet about it. I'm tired of being strong just to keep someone else's secrets, to let someone else off the hook. As long as I keep quiet, my father's failures are on me just as much as they're on him. But once I show him up in public his failures are all his.
So what would happen next? Would my father quit smoking? I doubt it. What he would probably do is quit talking to me. He might stop speaking to me altogether. He might even stop cooking meals, or buying groceries. But I doubt he'd do that because it would hurt my kid brother as much as me. What he would do would be to cut me out of his life for good. Of course, being in his life was painful and hopeless since he only talked to me about books and music, not his feelings or my future or anything he hoped for me to achieve. He wasn't the kind of father who cared about his kids' future.
But what about the other kids? Would people like Danny O'Neill and Kitty O'Connell laugh at me, or would they call me a hero and even start imitating me in other ways? At the time I was always trying to make myself invisible in school. I wanted kids to like me but I didn't want them to know anything about me. Looking back I realize that I really didn't want them to know anything about my father. I had to keep quiet about my life so I could keep quiet about his. But if I'd put my father's life right out in the middle of the classroom I wouldn't have had any reason to keep quiet anymore. If I could talk about my feelings about my father I could have talked about my feelings about other things too. And that would have led to me getting closer to other people. And then I wouldn't have needed my father as much.
But for that to happen, I would have had to stand up in class and say that my father was dying, and that I hated him for what he was doing to himself. And I just didn't have the guts.
So that explains why I don't have any happy high school memories. But I did get amazing grades and go to a good college. And my father killed himself in 1986.