Break it to me gently

I picked at my dinner, pushing the food around the plate to make it look like I was eating. But I had no appetite. The piece of paper burning a hole in my pocket had ruined it.

Report cards had come out the week before. Normally an A/B student, I had produced a report card with one A…one B…and, jumping out accusingly in bold…three Fs. This was not going to go over well.

I had had a week to come up with compelling excuses and explanations and also a strategy for how to impart my news. Dinner was half over, signed reports cards were due back tomorrow. I was out of time.

I cleared my throat, then said in a higher-than-normal pitch “Um…I need my report card signed.”

Pop didn’t even look up from his spaghetti, he just grunted. Mom took a little more interest. “Oh, OK. How did you do?” she asked. I hesitated.

“Well…I got an F.”

Now I had Pop’s attention. He scowled, wiped his mouth with his napkin, looked at Mom, then me.

“What? Did you say an F? In what?” His glasses made his eyes bug out.

I was shrimpy in ninth grade, had not hit my growth spurt yet, and Mom and Pop knew it bugged me. I had decided to lead with this, the most easily explained.

“Well…it was in PE.” Pop’s expression softened just a bit. I wove a sorrowful tale about playing tag football and getting knocked around day after day until I landed hard on my back and hit my head. A couple of coaches came over, told me to follow their fingers with my eyes, was I seeing double. A few concerned expressions were passed. I decided heck with this, started cutting classes and spent the rest of football season in the library. All those unexcused absences made Coach DeMarco flunk me.

However, there was a hidden danger in this approach, which Mom immediately seized on. “What? You were knocked on your HEAD? Why those damn idiots….you could have had a concussion! I’m going over there tomorrow and talk to that jackass! What’s his name again?”

Fortunately, Pop held up a restraining hand and calmed her, then turned to me. “OK, no more skipping class, if you need a library pass, we can work with the administrators. But no more of that business.”

Things returned to normal, the clatter of forks, asking for bread. One down, three to go. A few minutes later, I cleared my throat again. This time, my voice was markedly higher.

“Umm. I also got an F in Civics.”

This time, there was nothing soft about Pop’s expression. He dropped his fork and stared at me. I could feel Mom’s eyes on me to my right. “What? You mean you got two Fs?”

“Uh…yeah.”

“Wait… what the hell… how…” His eyes bugged out dangerously. This time Mom took the lead. “Darryl,” she said angrily. “What happened? How did you get an F in Civics?”

This time, the story was less compelling. I had stuck a big wad of gum on the seat of the kid next to me just as he sat down. He sat and wriggled on it for twenty minutes, oblivious, until called to the board. The pink tether between his backside and the seat was uproariously funny to the students, less so to the kid, and even less so to Mr. Johnson who immediately sent me to the Dean. The kid’s jeans were ruined, his Mom made a stink, I was given a week’s detention and my essay answers on quizzes and exams were suddenly very harshly graded.

However, I vaguely answered that I “didn’t really get” the drafting of the Constitution. Mom and Pop, seated across from each other at our round dinner table, kept up an angry, incredulous dialog while I shut up. Doug looked at me sympathetically as he reached for the water.

This time, no offers to go to bat with school administrators…just a flat revocation of after-school privileges and limited TV until my grade improved. Dinner resumed, albeit with strained breathing from Mom and Pop, dirty looks, and the occasional outburst: “Two Fs! Can you believe it?”

Dinner almost finished, I cleared my throat for the third time. This time, everybody looked at me. I warily gauged what would a better escape route…through the garage or bathroom door.

“I uh…I actually got three Fs. One in Algebra, too.”

An eerie silence that lasted uncomfortably long ensued. I could hear the clock ticking as three sets of eyes stared at me. Even the family dog, sensing something amiss, looked up. When I dared to look at Pop, I was surprised. He was quietly drumming his fingers on the table and staring at his empty plate. His face was unnaturally calm and he seemed lost in thought. He appeared to come to a decision, got up, and quietly left. I heard his bedroom door shut as Mom and Doug cleared the table in silence. I thought it best to quietly retreat to my room for the rest of the night.

The next morning, Pop was gone by the time I came out for breakfast. Mom grunted and would not engage in conversation. I quietly took my lunch and walked to the bus stop, thankful that it had blown over so easily. However, it had not.

I returned home to find my room transformed. My record player and all my stuff was gone. Books, toys, models, my telescope. The only things left were my bed, my desk and an ancient goose-neck lamp. Pop had re-created his room from his WWII Pilot Flight Cadet training days. I’d heard the stories: rigorous discipline. Demerits and marching them off for hours in all kinds of weather. Studying and testing with guys dropping out left and right. No screwing around.

For the next six-week marking period, I lived a strange existence. School and the bus ride were the high points. After I got home, I sat in a dark room, shades drawn, with only Pop’s Student Cadet gooseneck lamp providing light. The littlest thing…a paper clip…provided 20 minutes of welcome distraction from studying. By dinner, my back and butt ached and my eyes were burning. Dinner conversation was normal, pleasant exchanges, except that as soon as it was over, I returned to my cave for more studying until bedtime.

The next report card produced five As. I presented it at dinner and Mom and Pop were beaming and heaping on the praise….knew I could do it…just needed a little STRUCTURE….the right environment. For a few alarming moments, there was talk about continuing a scaled-down version of the Flight Cadet Home Study regimen but I instead was put on a probationary period.

Thankfully, I completed the final marking period and ninth grade with straight As. The hated gooseneck lamp went back up into the attic; that summer I grew three inches; and I never lost the lesson of All Things in Moderation.

Not sure I would have made it through engineering college at a party school like UF without that lesson. Or the treasured gooseneck lamp, which now sits on my computer table….a mute reminder from Pop, now long gone, of what I could do if I set my mind to it.

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