(this was an assignment for a class from years ago. I had to write of a defining moment in my life. )
Romeo and Juliet, the Big Grade
Who ever thought getting arrested would have a beneficial impact on their scholastic career? Perhaps I am getting a bit ahead of myself; let me begin with the third grader I once was.
It was the end of the third grade. I sat nervously twittering, barely able to contain myself, dying to see my report card. Had I done it? Had I made straight A’s the entire year? Had I wings, surely I would have flown away. I opened the yellow envelope the second it was in my hands. I was shaking so badly I thought I would vibrate right out of my tiny desk. Finally it was open and to my horror, after so many beautiful A’s, there was a B. The B stood there brazenly defying my will to magically melt away and be triumphantly replaced by another of my coveted A’s. It was not to be, it would not go. It just sat there mocking me. I was furious.
My mother told me she was very proud, but I couldn’t bear the thought of my grandmother coming to visit with me holding a less than perfect report card. As I stood there, unable to breathe with tears creeping into my eyes, she exclaimed, to my great relief, “This is wonderful Jeffery!”
“But Grandma,” I stammered, “I didn’t get all A’s like I promised.” This is why I had been so horrified, I had promised my grandmother a few months earlier that I was going get all A’s for her. She had moved about a year earlier and I hadn’t seen her since her move. I didn’t know till later that the move was to be near my uncles because she was sick. I have tried many times to remember if she looked sick when I saw her that day. My memory refuses to see anything but my Grandma proudly beaming at her grandson’s report card. That was the last time I saw her.
Consequently that was the last grade I passed for six years. I was always placed in the next grade by scoring highly on the state exams. My grandmother was my only real educational motivation. Please don’t misunderstand, my mother always wanted me to do well and it upset her when I didn’t. Coddling was not tolerated in the home I grew up in. My stepfather would not have allowed it. It seemed any amount of praise for me was akin to severe pain.
I guess I just gave up; one can only be told they are stupid and worthless so many times before the belief starts to set in. I had absolutely no confidence in myself. I resigned myself to the fate that I’d never amount to anything or be anybody of value.
Let’s skip ahead a few years. I was in ninth grade. I was a poor student, I regularly disrupted class, and homework was something losers did. I was the real loser so homework was too much to expect from me.
I became convinced that my teachers all had it in for me. I didn’t think this because they were teachers; I thought this because they were adults. In some twisted way I thought all adults were just as bad as my stepfather. In hindsight, I now see it was a fairly irrational mindset I allowed myself to slip into. In fact it was I who tormented my teachers, not the other way around. It got so bad, that I avoided adults when ever possible.
My behavior continually degraded and eventually I found myself sitting in a police car. How I got there doesn’t really matter anymore. It was just another rung on the ladder I was heading down, my descent accelerated with each passing moment.
After a cozy weekend stay at the local juvenile detention center, I found myself packing my belongings as quickly as I was able into the trunk of my mother’s car. I was no longer welcome in my stepfather’s home; it was probably the nicest thing he ever did for me.
I was now living with the youth pastor from my church and his family. (That was an odd adventure to say the least.) Along with the new address I inherited a probation officer. An imposing black man named Edward Grady; he stood six feet six inches tall and weighed 350lbs. (He turned out to be one of the most caring people I had ever met. This was a fact I didn’t know just then, it wasn’t until it was too late that I realized his true nature, but that is a story for a different day.)
Mr. Grady told me sternly, “If you don’t pass the ninth grade you are going to juvenile hall.”
I knew he was serious, but I tried very hard to explain that my highest class average was a 43 in English and that passing was impossible. He was not moved, and only repeated his order that I had better pass or else.
I was very nervous when I returned to school because along with the weekend in detention, I spent an all expenses paid, month long vacation on the third floor of Memorial Hospital in the Juvenile Psychiatric Ward. I had been getting my assignments in the hospital and for lack of anything else to do I was actually catching up. My first week back everyone was nice but distant. Someone in my English class told me a few days after I came back that the teacher had warned everyone not to say a word to me about where I was and what had happened. I am sure they all knew.
We had been studying Shakespeare and we had a very important test coming up, which counted as four different tests all rolled into one. It just so happened to be on Romeo and Juliet, which I had read no less than five times in third grade. I remember being fascinated with how Shakespeare had worded his plays. I would recite lines while riding my bike back then. Remembering Mr. Grady’s stern warning, I studied and studied again. I reread the play several times refreshing the story in my mind.
The day had come and the teacher passed out the tests. I was nervous but I answered every question correctly. I knew this simply because I knew the story so well. As we were taking these tests she announced that there would be optional extra credit. For each detail we could name about each of the story’s characters, we would earn an extra point. I had finished the test itself fairly quickly, so I had plenty of time to list details about the characters. I took my time and listed them all.
The following Monday the teacher passed out the freshly graded tests as she cheerfully announced, “The highest grade from all four of my classes was made by a student in this room.”
There was a murmur and several people on the other side of the class all patted this guy on the shoulder, congratulating him. I remember the smug look on his face, and the look of satisfaction when the teacher said, “No it wasn’t Mr. E.”
Then there was the murmur again. I, like everyone else had grown curious. Our teacher always placed our tests face down so as not to embarrass anyone with a poor mark. She passed me several times and I heard several people say that it was not them. Then she stopped in front of my desk and said, “Out of a possible 116 points Mr. Vogel got 116 points.”
I was shocked, to say the least. The noise in the class got even louder, or so it seemed. I felt the heat rising in my face as all eyes were on me. The teacher continued to explain that the second highest grade had been nine points lower than mine. I was embarrassed, but in hindsight I understand that she was trying to impress upon me what had been missing for so long. She knew I needed someone to tell me, “Hey you did a damn good job and I’m proud of you.” I was very happy. The smoke began to clear and suddenly I realized my stepfather was wrong. I wasn’t stupid.
People in the class all congratulated me and told me I did a great job. Girls I didn’t even have the nerve to speak to were asking me for help on assignments. I made many new friends that I attribute to that moment. Before, I think I was seen as some weird dummy people would much rather steer clear of.
It was the same in all my classes save one, Algebra. I chalked that up to it being a building process and I had missed half the steps. Even still, I tried very hard but just couldn’t pass it. I had some semblance of confidence. By the end of the year I passed five of the six classes I had spent half the year skipping. I even received a letter from the principal saying how proud he was of my improvement.
Ultimately, I finished the ninth grade with my head held high ready to take on the world and looking forward to my next adventure. There were many, and hopefully there are many more to come.
A Note: I have to add that the English teacher I had that year saved my life. It seems that looking back on the past 38 years that when I was at my lowest there was always someone there who reached out because somehow they saw through the act and knew I needed help. She was a great teacher and an even more wonderful person. I have tried in vain to look her up, I just can’t find her. She would be in her 80’s by now. Where ever she is I hope she knows she made a difference in at least one life. -JM