One day in 6th grade I was unceremoniously yanked out of class, then car-pooled to another school where I was informed that due to having scored rather high on an IQ test that I didn’t recall taking, I was now enrolled in the prestigious course called “Academically Able.” I not only didn’t feel academically able; I didn’t feel academically interested in the slightest. The fact that I now had to take some other class beside my regular old elementary school classes—and I was already stuck in Hebrew school two or three afternoons a week, as well as Sundays—made me queasy.
At Academically Able I was asked, “Have you got any special interests?”
“Yes,” I immediately replied, “Movies.”
This was met with an expression of sadness. “Oh, we haven’t got any classes related to movies. But maybe we should. In any case, here are the classes we offer,” and I was handed a sheet of paper with a list: “science, math, electronics, music, architecture . . .” and, from my perspective, other equally dull subjects. Once movies were out, I completely lost all interest and my eyes went glassy.
I was then arbitrarily put into the architecture class. From before the first second I arrived I didn’t give a rat’s ass, and since this whole “Academically Able” thing seemed like some sort of put-on, anyway, I figured, “Fuck you. Make me care,” which of course they couldn’t.
I spent weeks going to this architecture class that meant absolutely nothing to me. The entire class was based on a building a model of a building that would be turned in and graded at the end of the semester. I wasn’t sure what this grade could possibly mean and didn’t care at all. The day the model had to be turned in I hastily took two pieces of gray plastic, glued them to a cereal box and said, “Here. It’s a skyscraper.” You could clearly see the Cheerios box through the glue-smeared plastic. The expression on the utterly sincere, caring, good-hearted teacher’s face was priceless.
But this wasn’t sufficient humiliation for me or this prestigious course that I was supposed to be thankful that I’d been enrolled in without my knowledge. So I was then assigned to an electronics class, which seemed minutely more interesting than architecture for perhaps one day, then I just blew that whole class off, too. And just like before, the last day I had to turn in a project. I found a do-it-yourself wireless radio kit which I quickly attempted to assemble in about fifteen minutes. I turned it in and the teacher asked, “Does it work?” I didn’t have a clue, and since I hadn’t had time to attach all of the wires and diodes and things I was pretty certain it didn’t work. Nevertheless, we went to the trouble of attaching it to a dry-cell battery to prove conclusively that in fact it did not work. The teacher said, “That’s OK. You can take it home with you and work on it over the summer.” “Sure,” I replied, and as soon as he wasn’t looking I pitched the whole thing in the trash.
Although I didn’t manage to make an acceptable model of a building, or a working radio, one thing I did achieve in elementary school was getting more detentions and suspensions than just about any other kid. Therefore, when I started junior high in 7th grade I was now no longer considered academically able; I was considered, “troubled and defiant.” A special behavior counselor came into the school one day a week to meet with me and my two best friends: Jim Foley and Robert Egren, who were also troubled and defiant, which was probably why we got along so well. The counselor’s name was Gary Franklin, and he was a thoughtful, sincere, caring young social worker with a red beard who took an honest interest in the three of us. Except that early on Robert told him to fuck himself, walked out and never came back. Jim and I stuck with it because we were able to skip last hour every Friday to meet with him.
We were both given a battery of psychological tests, like the Rorschach test, having to say what we saw in the abstract drawings. But the most memorable aspect of this testing was being asked to, “Draw a man.”
My favorite album at that moment was Nantucket Sleighride by the band Mountain. Within the album was a booklet containing the song’s lyrics that also had caricature drawings of the band members, one of whom was the bass player, Felix Pappalardi (who had previously produced albums for the great band, Cream), and I had taught myself to draw these caricatures. So, when called upon to draw a man, I quickly drew Felix Pappalardi.
Felix Pappalardi is the guy with
the ‘fro and sunglasses.
Gary Franklin looked long and hard at my drawing, then looked up at me and asked, “Does this man have a name?”
“Yes. Felix Pappalardi,” I unhesitatingly replied.
Gary thought about that for a long moment, considered it, then asked, “Is he a real person?”
It was too good of a set up that I couldn’t possibly let pass. “No, Felix Pappalardi is my imaginary friend.”
“Really?” he asked in astonishment.
But Gary was a nice, sincere fellow and I couldn’t leave him wondering about my sanity. “No,” I confessed, “he’s the bass player for the band Mountain. He produced Cream’s albums.”
Nodding, Gary said, “Ah,” as though he understood, but he didn’t really look like he believed me.
In any case, Gary got a weekly report card from both mine and Jim’s teachers, and if we got Cs or better in all of our classes he would take us up to Kresge’s and buy us a Coke. Jim and I thought it was a swell arrangement.
My main antagonist in that school was the shop teacher, Mr. Collins, a big, broad-chested guy with a low, commanding voice and a mustache. I hated him and he couldn’t stand me. There were two shop teachers: Mr. Collins and Mr. Kaleta, and of the three years I was there, I got Collins twice. If you had to go to the bathroom you needed a hall pass. Instead of filling out a piece of paper, Mr. Collins would have you grab a piece of wood from the scrap wood box and he’d sign it. But, just for me, he’d make me take a six-foot by four-sheet of plywood and drag that up the hall to the bathroom.
The last day of junior high, once I’d completed all of my classes, I went out of my way to stop by the shop. There was Mr. Collins sweeping up.
“You know what the best part about finishing junior high is?” I asked, pointing my finger at him.
“No, what?” he asked.
“Never having to see you again, because I can’t stand you.”
Mr. Collins looked at me for a long moment, then smiled. “You know what?”
“What?” I asked in my most defiant tone.
“I can’t stand you, either. And it’ll be a pleasure to not have you around.”
I was aghast and my mouth dropped open. How dare he? My thirteen-year-old brain whirred attempting to come up with just the right, witty, snotty rejoinder. In lieu of that, I croaked, “Yeah, well, fuck you!”
Smiling even wider behind his shaggy mustache, Mr. Collins casually replied, “No, fuck you.”
I couldn’t even believe it. I was truly speechless. I turned and walked away. How dare he get the last word in on me.
After a leisurely summer, three months later I started high school. On the first day of school I came walking down the hall and who should I encounter right away? Mr. Collins. Over the summer he had been promoted to assistant principal of the high school. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I stood there with a look of complete horror on my face. When Mr. Collins saw me an expression of ridiculous amusement lit up his face, causing him to grin. He stepped up to me and said, “So, thought that you’d never see me again, huh?” I couldn’t speak; more worst dreams had been realized. Still grinning, Mr. Collins said, “See you around” and walked away.
I immediately became determined to get out of high school, no matter what it took. I complained so bitterly that I was soon sent to therapy in the now discredited form of therapy called Transactional Analysis, mainly known for the book written about it entitled, I’m OK, You’re OK. My therapist was a friendly, heavyset fellow named Bill, with a burly black beard. As I endlessly complained about authority, he urged me to take a tennis racket and beat the shit out of pillow, which I was more than happy to do. After a few sessions, however, and having really beaten the bejesus out of that pillow, I asked if perhaps there wasn’t something more that could be accomplished. Bill said he’d think about it.
Bill’s answer was, “You can take the GED test and get out of high school. You legitimately have to be eighteen, but they will occasionally make an exception when you’re sixteen.”
“But I’m only fifteen,” I answered forlornly.
“When’s your birthday?”
“Good,” Bill declared brightly, “that will give you plenty of time to study. If you’re really serious, that is.”
Well, I was. Bill gave me five reasonably thick booklets representing the five topics of the test: math, English, science, history, and general knowledge, as well as an example version of the test, and I put myself the task. I quickly realized that listening to music with lyrics caused me to be unable to focus my thoughts, so I began playing side two of David Bowie’s newest album, Low, over and over because it was instrumental. When I wearied of that, I went down to my parents’ mostly unused record collection that contained many classical and jazz records they had both listened to when they were younger, and began playing those while I studied. This is when I developed a great, abiding love for both classical and jazz music.
Came the day of my sixteenth birthday, August 17, 1974, I was taken to some old building in downtown Detroit where the GED test was given. (Chris Rock once said that GED stands for, “Good enough diploma”). It was an insanely hot summer day and the building was not air conditioned. There were about fifty desks spread out across the huge room, as well as quite a few large oscillating fans. Since the war in Vietnam had recently ended, most of the men there—and there were no women that I recall—were veterans with beards, all smoking cigarettes, which, back then, you were allowed to do inside. I too had a beard and smoked cigarettes and was immediately mistaken to be a fellow veteran, and I did nothing to correct misconception.
“How’s it been since you been back?” I was asked.
“Yeah. Me, too. Hey! What are you gonna do?”
“Get a GED and move on. Get past it, man. Move on.”
“Right on, man. Semper Fi.”
“Yeah. Semper Fi.”
Then we’d shake hands, hooking thumbs, hugging and slapping each other hard on the back.
There were ashtrays available and since most of us were smoking, we each took one and set it on our desks, then nervously chain-smoked all the way through taking the test. As the fans swiveled and blew in our direction, the hot blowing air would empty your ashtray all over your test and your lap. All of us kept picking up our tests and shaking them off, the immediately return to the test. A moment later the fan would blow all of the newly accumulated ashes all over your test and lap, and you’d shake it off again. This went on for hours.
I passed the test with flying colors, and was then invited to a GED graduation ceremony held downtown at the enormous Olympia Auditorium where the Detroit Red Wings played hockey. Since I didn’t know anyone there, I skipped it.
Two weeks later, at the age of sixteen and fifteen days, I started college. And guess what? The second I could take classes that interested me, like: the History of Film, Cinematography, Poetry, Acting, Speech and Composition, I got a 4.0 and made the Dean’s List. If only Academically Able had had a film class.