I entered grade school with an unfair advantage, like a robot sidekick, all strobes and whirly-gigs and “yes, sir . . . “no, sir.” (God, I would have given my left nut for a robot sidekick when I was a kid!) First grade. My parents held me back from kindergarten, didn’t think I was emotionally mature enough—though I’m sure they didn’t use the phrase “emotionally mature.” This was the early 60s, after all. Kids with difficulties were all just lumped into the “troublemakers” category.
Yes, obviously, there were kids who started their public-school career with more innate smarts than me. Brains. I’m no genius. But what good’s that? Someday, their smarts would be marketable, but right here, right now, it was so unimpressive. Its merit was totally lost on us.
The kind of things that captured our admiration had more . . . flash. (We were unaware of the concept of sex appeal.) A deformity. An extra joint somewhere. A cast we could sign.
And, ahem, I could draw.
John, could you draw me a gorilla being shot out of a cannon? No, wait, make it donkey! (Hushed: Did you know another name for a donkey is . . . ass?)
The other kids shunned the brainiacs and, in fact, soon enough, the brainiacs would come to regard their brains as a social liability. All the pedestrian students could do was grumble and plod after the gifted kids as we learned the alphabet and basic mathematics, which, they knew, you needed in order to cheat on your taxes. It was a contest they couldn’t win so they resented the smart kids.
Me, though—nobody was expected to be good at art. Your success in life wouldn’t be determined by your ability to draw a picture of the teacher riding a T Rex like a bucking bronco. I wasn't a threat.
I fact, I was all the rage, which I milked like a boy smiling indulgently next to his robot sidekick. Yeah, he can fly. Duh. I just don’t want him to do it right now.
In a way, all my artistic talent was a curse in that it played right into my natural laziness. Or perhaps it begot it. Whichever, I didn’t have to try. Creative expression came naturally.
For example, when I told my parents I wanted to play drums, they bought me lessons and I showed an immediate facility for it. (Their thinking: Yes, you couldn’t make a proper living as a musician. It’s not respectable. But maybe it would teach the boy responsibility somehow. My parents were continually aware they would be blamed if I turned out to be a drain on society.) But I’d never practice, so the teacher would always end up telling my Mom, “Look, I feel bad taking your money. The boy won’t work at it.”
I joined the grade school band. A piffling affair—once a week in the storeroom of the administrative building/library. We labored all year just to go “Oom pah-pah.”
The band teacher tested the three drummers on the 26 Rudiments. I could do single-stroke roll and double-stroke roll without much effort. The five-stroke, seven-stroke and nine-stroke roll were surmountable, I could see. I could do the five-stroke roll pretty well—left-left, right-right, left—but it was clear getting better/faster would take . . . work. So I put down the drumsticks and drew.
So . . . the day before the rudiments test in band, I was in a panic. Exposed! What would all my adoring fans say?
That night, as I lay in my bed, I cast up one of my utterly infrequent prayers to God. Please, please make something happen so I don’t have to take that rudiments test in front of everyone tomorrow.
Knowing we lived on a hill, and were a distance from the ocean, a tsunami probably wasn’t in the cards. It would have to be a hell of a tsunami, an end-of-the-world type. I didn’t need that. I just needed a diversion, something to distract the teacher while I exited stage left. Something like a . . . what? A fire drill. Yeah, that would do it. How hard is that, God? (Word on the playground was that if you pulled a fire alarm it would spray something on you to sterilize you, whatever that was. Suburban legend.)
I rested my fate in God’s hands and fell asleep.
The next morning, I arose, seemingly in perfect health. Everything attached. Apparently, I was screwed. I poured a bowl of over-sugared cereal, then when there was milk left in the bowl poured more cereal in the bowl and ate it and then lifted the bowl to my lips and slurped the leftover cereal/sugar/milk slurry. Brain food.
Then I trudged to school. By the first recess, it became clear God was going to be of no help.
I had to make my own miracle.
Fortuitously, I had a slight wound on my hand, a hangnail or something, so I cooked up a subterfuge. I picked it raw and then smooshed around the blood. I went to the school “nurse” with some lame explanation. What the hell was she going to do? She had a degree in sociology.
So, she put a band-aid on it. No, it still hurts, I said. Oh, dear. More band-aids. Nope, it still hurts. Eventually, she wrapped my entire hand in an ace bandage.
God helps those who help themselves. Thank you, Jesus.
When I walked into the band room with my hand encased like a museum artifact, I could tell the teacher wasn’t buying it. But what was he going to do? This wasn’t even his main job.
I sat and listened to the other boys who had been actually working on their rudiments, the ones who did as they were told.
The band teacher gave me an evil glare when he saw me walk into the storeroom with my unbandaged hand the next week.
What did I care? I was the cool kid.
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