When I was in just fourth grade, my father had a major cardiac infarction and it looked for quite a long while that he would die.
I was just nine at a time and for about that entire year--when I was from nine to ten, I think no one in my mother's spooky tilted house spoke louder than a whisper. Though my father was miles away intubated in some hospital somewhere (we weren't allowed to visit him) it was as if any noise we made anywhere, any kid-like silliness, any sort of misbehavior whatsoever, would send his EKG a-skitter like an Eastern European Jew on a hot tin roof.
I don't know if that time is when I turned into myself and consulted no one but myself when I faced a problem, but my father's condition and my mother's reaction to it did nothing at all to encourage me to be gregarious. There's no doubt in my mind where my aggressive Super Ego comes from.
The world was different back in 1967--in some ways, I think kinder than it is today. My fourth-grade teacher, Miss Kaiserling, was aware that my father was on the brink of death and took a special liking to me.
Of all the travails I had growing up, I was lucky in a way, in that whatever school I was sentenced to, there was usually a teacher who took some sort of care of me. When you're used to getting crumbs in terms of affection, these teachers seemed to be able to give me a well-margarined slice of black bread. Accordingly, they made if not all the difference in my life, they were, in any case, responsible in many ways for "saving" me.
I don't know why, 55 years after I left Miss Kaiserling's class, I thought about her this afternoon. As I thought about her, I remembered a small in-class test we had. I reached a conclusion I hadn't reached before and then rushed away from my Weber grill and wrote this post.
Back in those days, students, even those who were only in fourth grade, were expected to know how to spell. There were concessions of course for being young, but we were supposed to be literate and always working to improve.
A poem I remember from those days, would get me excoriated today. It would mark me as some sort of pedant, or even worse, a relic of a Draconian time gone by. It went like this:
Good, better best,
Do not let it rest.
Till your good is better,
And your better, best.
The moment I thought about as I was barbecuing was the first time I ever realized I had power in my writing.
I didn't know, at nine, with an almost dead father and a vicious harridan of a mother, that so many years later I would make my living as a writer. But I remember this incident.
We had a pop vocabulary test.
A dozen or twenty words printed out on a gluey-smelling mimeographed paper with blue-purple courier type. We had to write a definition of each word and then use the word in a sentence.
About halfway through the list of words, Miss Kaiserling proffered the word "Flawless."
That presented no problem for me. I defined it in a few words. Probably as accurately as Webster--or at least Webster when he was nine.
But when it came time to use the word in a sentence, I faced a small dilemma. I immediately came to an answer that I liked. But, I wondered, in this situation--fourth grade, 1967, would my flippancy get me in trouble? Even back then I was a wise-ass, but I wasn't sure if this was a place for my wise-ass-ness. Would it get me in trouble?
But, as they say today, I "went for it." I wrote:
Flawless: perfect and without any faults or mistakes.
"I am flawless."
I finished up my dittoed test and handed it in, not without a tremor of trepidation.
In a couple days Miss Kaiserling handed my test back. Next to my "flawless" answer, she wrote "ha! You sure are."
I noticed then and I remember well-more than half a century later, this as the first time my writing had made someone laugh. I noticed then and I remember well-more than half a century later, the feeling that this small feat gave me.
As a boy who was all alone in the world, isolated without a father and with a borderline mother, it gave me a sense that I had power and control and the ability to reach beyond myself and get a reaction with my writing.
In the intervening 55 years, I don't think I've thought about that moment back with Miss Kaiserling more than five times or three.
But maybe, looking back, it was one of the most important moments of my life.