I had a less-than-optimal childhood when I was young. I moved a lot and, as a result, attended a lot of different schools. The less-than-optimal thing created a powerful desire for goodness and decency.
When I was a sophomore in high school, i was very fortunate that my aunt and uncle took me in and gave me a near-optimal home. It was supremely excellent. A bit of frosting on the cake that would have been nice would have been some encouragement with dating, but I was so grateful for what they did provide that I never asked for any of that. Their four kids were all adults and I heard a lot of their dating and party stories ... I get the impression that I was already such a handful, that that might have been too much for these lovely people. So, I didn't date. And a few beautiful girls made extremely strong suggestions down that road, but ... so ... very ... frustrating ... We lived eight miles out of town and I was an avid cyclist so I popped in and out of town on my bicycle a lot. But this was a time and place where dating really required a car and some money.
I stayed at the same school until I graduated. I think that might have been my longest run at any one school. It was the best school I had ever been to. A lot of really excellent teachers. A lot of encouragement and nurturing for learning stuff in all sorts of creative ways. I ended up showing up at school when they opened the doors at 7am, and I was given special permission to stay after the doors closed at 4pm. I was often there until 10pm. I seriously thrived there.
Of course, people are so .... human. Each is different. And with any set of standards, some will be better than others.
As a senior, I was taking chemistry and physics from the same teacher. In hindsight, our roles were a bit like Professor Snape and Harry Potter. Eventually things got so bad, that I wanted out of his classes. He wanted me to stay in so he could continue his nefarious yuck and flunk me. I don't know what I was thinking. I was in a daily butting of heads with not just any teacher, but a particulary wicked potions master chemistry and physics teacher. It seems that we were perpetually working on evil plots against one another, and our public exchanges, typically during class, were riddled with barbs that were utterly unacceptable - for either of us. It was an ongoing war of intellect and our swords were wit, guile and the english language. How could a student ever win when going up against a teacher. Naturally, the other students didn't want any part of this "war" and a few managed to get out of the class.
Eventually, it escalated to the point that it had to go to dumbledore the principal, Mr. Wyatt. It was a bit like court. We were both given a chance to express our position without interruption (that alone infuriated snape). But snape was infuriated to a super freaky level of anger that I, a mere student, was even allowed to have any voice in all of this. Mr. Wyatt was very patient and managed to calm the teacher. And, in the end ... I got what I wanted - and the teacher seriously lost his cool. Mr. Wyatt, pointed out that that sort sort of behavior was not the sort of example he would like to see in front of the students. I was still in the room when he said this. Holy shit!
But that's not the story. I'm just painting the background. In fact, a year later I was in college and struggling with something in calculus. Since the high school was right next door, I thought I would visit my old math teacher. Mostly for the visit, because my old math teacher, Mr. Gregory, was awesome in every way. And he did have some magic in explaining things. I was spotted in the hall by professor snape .... uh oh, I don't know what the rules are about non students inside the school, so I suspect that I am to be run out on a rail ... possibly arrested for trespass? Snape asks why I am here and I explain that I thought I would pop in a visit with Mr. Gregory a bit and maybe he would be so kind as to say magic words that would help me understand a bit of calculus. Snape tells me that Mr. Gregory did not come in this day, but that he would like to have a go at my problem. It was actually helpful. I dunno, it felt a bit like we washed away all the harsh from before. It was as if our history were nothing more than some passionate chess matches. It was authentically nice. respectful. I didn't see much of snape after that, but I wouldn't have minded a visit.
Now I'm getting to the story ....
I went to bed last night at about 9:30. Normally I pop right off to sleep. But I didn't get to sleep until about 3am. And for some reason my brain connected two incidents in my head and I saw a path I should have taken, but didn't. That was around midnight. by 3am I had roped in Mr. Wyatt.
With about two weeks to go before I graduate, I am told that I am being summoned by the school board to appear before them during their public meeting. I know that there is a school board and that my uncle richard is the chair (I live with my aunt donna lee and uncle jon. richard is donna lee's brother). I don't know where the school board meets and I've never paid attention to anything to do with them. My mind reels with the possibilities of what it could be about. I am involved in a lot of things. I ran some community fundraisers; I do the lights in the auditorium for plays and some of the special events; I was robbed of winning state in speech (a teacher at another school cheated so his student won instead - I'm still angry about that); being a giant, I am a magnet for bullies but I tend to "handle that" myself; I have witnessed some bullying, and I have stepped in to "handle that" also .... it probably has something to do with some bully that is displeased with the way I "handle" their bullying. I also know that "no good deed goes unpunished" so it is possible that something that I helped with or ran point on had some detail that I overlooked and it pissed somebody off. I can think of at least two dozen things which would lead to me being called up in front of the school board, but for one reason or another, none of them seem to fit being called-before-the-school-board.
The moment arrives. The room is packed. On one end of the large room is the school board and the other end is a huge audience. Crap, this is bigger than I thought. Who did I piss off to this level? I have to stand to the back and wait - there is no place to sit.
Then there is "next order of business ... " and my uncle richard is asking me to step forward. So now I am in the middle of the room standing in front of the school board and there is a big audience behind me.
I'm nervous, but not the same sort of nervous as any other student probably would be. I have seen some shit. I faced off with snape and won. Even as an 18 year old I am a cold, calculating arrogant and obnoxious fucker. The english language is my weapon and I wield it well. There is a damn good reason I should have won state in speech. I am ready to take on whatever they are going to dish out. I'm made for this shit. Of course, I've never been "put on trial" to this level and it always helps to be prepared and I have no idea what is about to be thrown at me.
The previous stuff that the school board was dealing with was pretty dull, so they all had somber faces, including my uncle richard. And when I get to the spot where I am supposed to stand, my uncle richard puts on a small, sly smile. Quite small. Quite sly. But still a smile. He opens with "how is your english class?" I respond "It looks like it is possible that I will pass and then graduate."
So I need to set "incident #1" aside for a moment while exploring ....
For my last semester of high school I was required to take an English class. I ended up with "creative writing" taught by .... for the sake of what I am about to spell out, I am going to change her name to "umbridge" ... Ms. Umbridge.
I could draw this out with oodles of details, but I'm going to cut right to it. Umbridge made it clear that I would have to have sex with her or else I would not pass her class. As a hormone riddled teen that did not have the raw materials for dating, there were times when I thought I would be glad to sex up ANY willing woman. My brain was so flooded with thoughts of sex, I felt I must be some sort of mutant - because if other boys were thinking these same thoughts, there is no way they would let us into a school that also had girls. And if the girls had even one tenth the notion of sex, it would be just one giant orgy all day long, every day. The fact that this was not happening was proof that I was ... broken. I went through school trying to hide this broken-ness. I learned later that all boys suffer that much at that age and a few girls suffer just as much, although their "suffering" typically comes later. Like at Ms. Umbridge's age.
Ms. Umbridge was divorced. So there was emphasis on the "Ms." and not "Miss" or "Mrs."
(Are we, as a society, done with "Miss", "Mrs." and "Ms."? Back then it seemed a bit like the first thing you needed to know about any woman was "vagina has never been touched", "vagina in use by some guy" and "vagina has been discarded by some guy." And this vaginal status would be presented to ALL people before you would even find out the woman's name. It seems bizarre that this would ever be part of a society with such a puritan foundation. You would think that that sort of thing would be something that might never come up. You should be able to be an acquaintance with a woman for decades and never know anything about her vagina. And the only time it could possibly come up is with potential dating stuff. But nooooooo.... "I'm sorry, did you say 'Ms.' and not 'Miss'? I just want to be clear. A slightly different pronunciation means that nobody has ever wanted your dusty old vagina. Instead, it seems somebody did and then later said 'no thanks, changed my mind.' I'm glad we got that all cleared up. Hey Ed! Have you met Ms. Emily? Note that it is Ms. and not Miss - in case you wanted to know that. After all, it is proper etiquette for you to be clear on whether you are addressing her as Ms. or Miss.")
Ms. Umbridge struck me as .... icky. Reptilian. She probably thought her manner of speech with me was .... seductive? But it struck me as creepy. I learned that my psychotic lust had limits after all. I would take the "F". Only one problem - without this required class, I would not graduate.
I went to one of the school counselors. He told me that this seems to happen about every year with this teacher - I am not the first. At the same time, he pointed out that it would be the word of a student vs. the word of a teacher. And this teacher is very crafty. When arguing with snape, snape would never lie about anything. He would make wicked arguments, but he would never lie. Umbridge would lie as easy as breathing. So she would easily deny that she said anything of the sort. This was a whole new ballgame. The counselor went over several possible paths to solve this and in the end he painted a grim picture of how all the paths end up being awful for me. The bottom line is that most people simply wouldn't believe me. I have no proof. I have no way to get proof. He never said "just give her some dick and be done with it." but it did seem like that was what he was leaving on the table. I think his exact words were "Sorry. Good luck."
As part of my being allowed to stay at the school past 4pm, the head janitor, Fred, had to agree to be a sort of official mentor or teacher or something. As long as he agrees to keep an eye on me, it was okay for me to be there late. It was as if it was an after school program that fred was running and I was participating in. There were three janitors every night. At 7pm they took a break and I would usually hang out with them for that break. I told them my problem. They told me that she does this every year. Their advice was not veiled in any way: give her the dick, collect an inflated grade and consider myself lucky. In their opinion, she wasn't THAT bad looking. They were happy to go into a lot of crude detail.
(about a month before graduation is "The Mother Senior Tea" where the seniors all take their moms to this fancy event. My aunt donna lee was in africa at the time, so I took fred as my mom. He was the only adult male there. He was a salty dog flirting with all the moms. He took what was going to be a horribly boring event and made it magnificent. What a wonderful guy.)
High school is supposed to prepare you for adulthood. And before arriving at this school I had to deal with stuff worse than this. So this didn't bug me all that much. But it was a puzzler. How would I beat this? Surely there is a way. A clever way. A way where I not only win, but I win magnificently. At this point, graduation is still months away. Maybe a solution will present itself. I will make the best of it until then.
Time passes .... to catch up to the moment of the school board thing ...
Skipping past a lot of details ... My aunt donna lee had been in africa. She comes back for my graduation and a few other things. She'll go back to africa in a few weeks. Naturally, she checks in with me about school. I tell her that I may not be passing english and that graduating may be in jeapordy. I tell her nothing of the greater scandal. My aunt donna lee is no stranger to wit, guile and the english language herself. In fact, I have never before encountered a person that can get things done as well as she can. She is a get-things-done machine. Crisp, efficient language coupled with a barrage of calendars and notebooks.
This is not a demonstration of magnificence on my part. In whole, it is a bit of a cheat. It's like bringing a hired gun to a knife fight. Rather than showing my own knife fighting skills, I stoop to solving the problem with not a gun, not an expert knife fighter, but an expert gunfighter: Ms. Umbridge is a powerful reptilian force, but she cannot hold a candle to the brilliance of the force of decency and goodness of my aunt donna lee. It was a beautiful thing to watch as my aunt donna lee demanded to know exactly where my grades stood at this time (mysteriously, just shy of passing) and surely there would be some extra credit that could be done .... it was like the snake is quick and venomous, but this time, the eagle turns out to eat five snakes a day and the whole issue was resolved in about a minute and a half, "thank you and good day Ms. Umbridge."
Bang, bang and it was over. I would write three excellent essays and receive a grade of D-. I didn't win this myself, and the outcome was not magnificent (donna lee must think I am a poor writer), but it was a true pleasure to watch a master at work. I don't think aunt donna lee ever knew what battle she had actually won. She died not long ago. I wrote about her in an essay I called "life as art."
A battle was won, but there was still much to do. I will finish this story after ....
Incident #1, the conclusion:
I am before the school board and a large audience and uncle richard says "how is your english class?" I respond "It looks like it is possible that I will pass and then graduate."
Uncle richard smiles. He clearly does not know the truth of it. And he has clearly been talking to his magnificent sister.
"Do you know why you are here?"
It is this exact moment that occupied my brain until midnight or so last night. It wasn't keeping me up, it was passing time until I could fall asleep. In hindsight, I should have leveraged this moment to say something like "I can think of dozens of possibilities but all of those things seem too small for the school board. At the same time, there is one thing that is plenty big enough, but it puts this board at such legal risk that I would think you want to discuss it privately - so surely it is not that." Plant the seed. Get the attention. They won't be able to walk away from bait like that.
I must pause for a moment to apologize to you. This is gonna get boring for a moment, but I promise excitement will be coming a bit later.
.... "Do you know why you are here?"
"No." and the expression on my face is authentic curiosity. It is a true mystery.
Joanne Strickland works in the high school office. She is aunt donna lee's friend. She is a wonderful person and excellent at her job. Her job is to be the center of all-the-things. She is a receptionist and she does all the paperwork for everything. A huge job. All done manually. Computers had not found their way to this high school office. Until me. I wrote something that, in hindsight, could be called a hand rolled database for a CBM computer. The computer had a total of 32k of memory and a single floppy disk that could hold about 160k of data. I wrote something to help manage all the grades for all the students - including doing the GPA math.
It seemed to me like this program does not offer very much more than doing it manually. Probably not worth the effort really.
But the school board apparently liked it. They gave me a hundred bucks. This turned out be my first paid software engineering gig.
I guess this is a feather in my cap, of sorts. Of all the things I had accomplished within the last six months or so, this struck me as pretty tiny - so it was a little weird to be getting so much attention for it. And a hundred bucks was a massive amount of coin for me. There was applause. My uncle looked proud. That was the best part - my uncle looking proud. This branch of my family is pretty hard to impress.
The board went on to the next thing, I found the door. The end.
Incident #2, the conclusion:
In all of the harry potter books, I keep thinking that early in each book, harry should just go to dumbledore and then the problems would go away. But I suppose that would make those books a bit too short.
So, from midnight to 3am last night while sleep couldn't seem to find me, I contemplated what could have been ... I take the umbridge problem to dumbledore Mr. Wyatt. I tell him that I would need six minutes of his time. As I begin I ask that he not say anything or even show any facial expression. I lay the situation out. I tell him that I would like to receive an "A" for the class but would not attend any more classes. I explain that he might be reluctant due to the backlash from umbridge, but I queue him up for what he might say to her when she comes: "The boy is either telling the truth about an extremely serious thing, and I should do the right thing and research it, or he is being a drama queen and it is baseless. I have a lot on my plate right now and I found a way to put the whole mess behind me and put it out of my mind. If it is false, I expect you won't really care. If there is even a little truth to it, I expect you would care very much. So now the ball is in your court. Do you care?" And then I would wrap up the whole thing with "my gift to you is that I am actively NOT making it your problem. No matter your decision, the whole issue ends here and now. I will not take it to the school board or a lawyer. Therefore, I sorta erase all the things I just shared with you and ask that perhaps that you utter the words "I cannot recall the things you just said, but I think you are a funny kid. Because you entertain me and I think it would be funny for no particular reason, I will give you an A for that class and you don't even have to attend any of those classes for the rest of the year."
Mr. Wyatt was pretty damn cool. I think he woulda gone for it. That would have been a pretty sweet victory.
As it turns out, I think reality happened to turn out sweeter. But it was sheer luck.
I could not bring myself to write the three essays. It would be wrong to write those essays.
Out of my $100, I gave $5 to a friend to write those essays. A pretty, strawberry-blonde girl who shared my passion with computers. I could not bring myself to tell her the exact details (sex!) but I did say it was some serious ick going down and complying with this three essays thing just seemed wrong. But paying $5 and having somebody else write it seemed right. Due to the principle of the thing, I didn't even look at them. They were printed on the computer printer - thus masking any handwriting. In all of my life, this is the only time I claimed somebody else's work as my own.
In order to graduate there is a document that I must get signed by all of my teachers. For each class, there is a line for the name of the class, and then the teacher fills in the grade and signs. I already had all of the other signatures. Umbridge gave me a D- and signed the last spot while giving me the stink-eye.
The next morning I took the form into office. It needed to be signed by Mr. Wyatt and then I would turn the form in to Joanne Strickland - and that's it. I would then graduate.
As luck should have it, Mr. Wyatt was there talking to Joanne. He said "I wondered when i would see you." I handed him the paper and he smiled, pointing at the Umbridge line "I was worried you weren't going to get that one." How much does he know about what is going on there?
At that very second, Umbridge storms in. She's freaky pissed. Oh shit, I don't have Mr. Wyatt's signature yet.
"YOU! YOU ARE COMING TO MY HOUSE THIS INSTANT AND CLEAN UP ALL THAT ICE CREAM!"
"DON'T PLAY DUMB WITH ME MISTER! I KNOW IT WAS YOU!"
"I don't know anything about any ice cream."
"THIS INSTANT! NOW! CLEAN IT! ALL OF IT! THAT ICE CREAM HAS TURNED INTO A STICKY, STINKY MESS!"
"I still don't know about any ice cream."
She yells unintelligible things as she goes back out and slams the door.
I have never seen Mr. Wyatt and Joanne Strickland laugh so hard. While laughing he signs the form. While laughing he stumbles to his office, enters, closes the door and I can still hear him laughing. I give the form to a laughing Joanne Strickland. It was, unexpectedly, and accidentally, a magnificent victory after all.
I graduated. I was not valedictorian. I was not even in the honor society (note: it turns out that if you want to be in the honor society, you cannot openly exchange barbs with a science teacher). But by my own standards, I was the most fucking awesome graduate that year. And Mr. Wyatt had a special, knowing smile for me when he handed me my diploma a few days later.