September 24, 2018
Dear Daddy –
Yes, it’s been almost two weeks. Yes, it’s been a bad time. Yes, there’s a lot I’m not saying.
So… It’s been a bad few weeks. Come to that, it’s been a bad summer. Not that it was all bad, not that some good things did not happen. But the stress level has been high—very high. Not everyone has been happy with me. I can get very few specifics about that. I’m a person who likes to know specifics. They don’t have to be hard facts. They can be opinions. But, if someone says to me, “I don’t like what you’re doing,” they had better be prepared to tell me exactly what it is that I’m doing that they don’t like.
I think of an experience I had in 3rd Grade. I had a teacher whom I will not name. Let’s call this teacher Miss Flax. (“Miss.” The term “Ms.” had yet to catch on in Howard County schools in 1973, when I began 3rd grade, even though the magazine by that name had been in publication for a year.) Mother and I were just talking about her last night. Miss Flax did not like me. She made that very clear. Naturally, I wasn’t enamored of someone who threatened to beat me with a tree branch, who called me “Wilson,” when she called my classmates by their first names, and who deliberately embarrassed me in front of the class on numerous occasions.
You and Mother also did not care for her. Mother used the word “detested” to describe your feelings about her, and said the she herself (more sympathetic to school teachers because she still was one at the time) “saw nothing to impress” her in Miss Flax’s behavior. On top of her abusive attitude, she also did not bother to teach me anything. I was eight years old and in 3rd Grade, with an IQ well above average, but I didn’t know my multiplication tables yet. I was supposed to have learned them in 2nd grade. Miss Flax’s attempt at a remedy was to say to me, “I know you’re smart enough to do this, but you just don’t wanna be bothered,” or words to that effect.
Miss Flax had a large class to deal with—too big. And often we were loud and out of control. Perhaps we were the cause of her ill-tempered disposition. Or perhaps she had nothing interesting to say to us, so that we might actually focus on the topics being (allegedly) taught. On the day I’m thinking of, we were completely out of focus. All of us. Miss Flax dealt with this situation in typical fashion—singling out a few boys—only boys—as the real troublemakers. “The following students will report to the office and describe their inappropriate behavior to the Principal…” She called out five names, and then mine. I don’t recall exactly what I was doing at that moment. I’m sure it was not sitting attentively, hands folded, face bright and shining and ready to receive knowledge to fill my empty brain. But I’m also sure I was in my seat, not throwing any blunt objects, and not talking. I didn’t talk in that class if I could avoid it.
“What did I do?” I asked Miss Flax.
“You know what you did.”
“No, I really don’t. If you could tell me—”
“Shut up and get to the office, Wilson!”
I went to the office and was placed in a lineup for questioning by Mr. Alexander, the Principal. Ed Alexander seemed like a nice guy to me. I never saw him angry. He was well-spoken. He seemed sympathetic. But I was mortified to be standing in his office. “Going to the office,” was, for 3rd-graders, only a step or two below the gas chamber or the electric chair on the scale of possible punishments. All my classmates admitted their bad behavior—spit balls, yelling, running a crap game in the back of the music room—perhaps my memory fails me. I don’t think anyone actually mentioned spit balls.
And then it was my turn. “I don’t know what I did, Mr. Alexander.”
He just looked at me.
“I really don’t,” I said. “I asked Miss Flax, and she told me I knew, but I don’t.”
It was the first time in my life that I was telling the truth, and I felt like a liar. It wouldn’t be the last. It was my first exposure to one of the great evils of the world—distrust of honest people. I had no reason to lie. If I had done something bad, and was trying to cover it up, the cover-up would have lasted no longer than it took for Mr. Alexander to call Miss Flax. Lying would have been pointless. But I felt Mr. Alexander did not believe me.
I never heard another word about the incident. You may or may not have been told. My sentence in Miss Flax’s class lasted only four months, and then you took steps to get me paroled. You paid a significant amount of bail in the form of private school tuition, and I assume you had my record wiped and the bodies of my victims well-hidden.
But the memory of being detained, questioned and sentenced, without benefit of hearing the charges against me, much less actual evidence of wrongdoing, shaped my attitudes toward people for life. I will not stand for being vaguely accused. I am capable of wrongdoing. I am capable of being petty, if not outright vindictive. I am often irritable. I am not always sensitive to the feelings of others if those feelings make no rational sense to me.
And I will concede on any of those points, if the people who have observed my sub-standard behavior will simply describe it to me, identify their objections, and allow me to answer them.
Largely, during this very stressful time in my life, I have been denied that courtesy. Short of being pretty sure that I, at some point, moved someone’s cheese, I have no idea what the hell I’ve done wrong.
I don’t know how to respond to irrationality. You used to just ignore it and start whistling or singing. I can do that. But I’m not sure what to do.
I actually care what people think, and I respect their feelings. Right now, I feel like that’s a weakness people are preying on.
I had to do some editing on this piece before I published it.
More in a few days.