Lots of people will tell you that their parents are saints. But I’m the only one who really means it.
Do you want to know how nice my parents are? Here goes. In the spring of 2007, I flew up from southern CA to visit them. I was about to move back to the east coast, and for the entire time I lived in southern CA I fed my sense of filial loyalty by telling myself that I could fly up to visit them any time I wanted. But as I prepared to move away I became aware that I had hardly ever done so. (Please note that this is a story about how nice my parents are. I myself am decidedly not nice, especially toward people who are simple and good and love me unconditionally. But I digress.) So I bought a ticket, flew into Oakland airport, rented a car, and drove to the house in San Francisco that my dad bought in 1958 for less than the cost of a semester’s tuition by today’s rates at an average private college.
Most houses in San Francisco don’t have true basements. The Sunset District, where I grew up, is built on sand. In this neighborhood, the place where one keeps the washer and dryer and power tools and every shoebox and shopping bag that one’s family of seven has acquired since 1958 – which one does call the basement – is located on the ground level of the house. The first and second floors, where one lives, are accessed by an outside staircase. On our street, each homeowner possesses a peculiar squarish block of concrete that protrudes from the house and takes up the space between the outdoor staircase and the driveway. The purpose of this block of concrete is decorative. When I was a kid, we had juniper bushes and other shrubs planted in ours. At some point, my dad had the block filled in, and now it looks like exactly what it is: a slab of concrete. With some potted plants on it.
When I pulled my rental car up to the house on a sunny Saturday in May, it came to my attention that someone had spray-painted a certain word, which happened to be FUCK, on the front of our slab of concrete. The slab is shoulder height on me, so it’s about four and a half feet tall, and probably seven feet long, and FUCK – black letters on a turquoise background – took up the whole canvas.
Imagine my distress.
I locked the car and went inside. My mom, a semi-invalid by this point, was in her upstairs sitting room having lunch, and my dad was keeping her company. They were happy to see me. Shouts, raptures of joy, tossing the paper napkin aside to maximize hugging surfaces, etc. But I was having none of it.
“No time for that right now,” I said. “Why does it say FUCK on the house?”
“Oh, that,” my mom said. “Yes, we noticed that. It’s been like that for a few days now.” My dad nodded his assent.
“Who did it?” I asked.
“Well, we don’t know. We just figure that somebody wanted to say that.”
“Did you call the police?”
My dad: “Why would we do that? I don’t think it’s a crime to write that word, is it?”
I sighed. “Well, don’t you think you should do something to get rid of it?” I asked.
They looked at each other. “Well,” my dad said, “I suppose I could get a piece of plywood and prop it up against the house so no one will see it. I could probably find something in the basement that would do the trick.”
Once, in high school, one of my friends built an electric shock machine out of things he found in my dad’s basement. You could find something in my dad’s basement that would do the trick for anything, trust me.
So you’re getting the picture, right? My parents are really nice. And I haven’t even mentioned yet that their son Gary, who lives with them, used to be a professional janitor. And still has all of his old equipment stored in – you guessed it – the basement.
So I was born into this family. And yes, I am aware of how many children on this planet are born into families that are not nice, and I know how lucky I am. But being aware of this luck did nothing to change the fact that from the moment I was born I was hungry for conflict. I watched after-school specials as if they were porn, NOT for the moral lessons (I hated those) but for all the bad guys. Child molesters. Drug dealers. Abusive parents. Kidnappers. Holy Christ, I wanted the world to bring them on.
But there’s more. I was also afraid. If you had watched me from a distance as a child, you would have had no idea that inside I was aching for a fight. I cried if anyone hit me or called me a name. I hid my face in embarrassment if I made a mistake or if anyone laughed at me. One of my favorite things to do when I was about six was to overturn the wicker hamper where we kept my stuffed animals and crawl inside it, reading Little House on the Prairie books and picking my toenails. For hours – days if my presence was not required anywhere else. I was afraid of baseballs and basketballs and volleyballs and hockey pucks and water slides and dogs and cats and boys and the anomaly in the wood grain of our rocking chair that looked like a crazed kangaroo. I lived in terror of my kindergarten teacher’s husband, Harold, who gave noogies.
But most of all I was afraid of getting in trouble. Not so much at home. But the minute I left the house, the world was full of adults who were watching everything I did and were just waiting to get in trouble. And if I did, they would never, ever forgive me.
There was a reason that I knew this. On the occasions that I did get in trouble – and there weren’t many – I NEVER forgave the adult involved. Ever. I never forgave anyone who laughed at me or pointed out that I had made a mistake. There are former teachers of mine that I could see dying in a gutter right now and not want to help. There are entire nursing homes in San Francisco full of ninety year-olds that I hate. I don’t want to feel this way, and I would like to think that my better nature would take charge and do the compassionate thing if, for example, the daycare volunteer named Edna who once told me when I was three that I was not allowed to open the front door of the center by myself were in need of a meal or a warm coat or a blood transfusion or a friendly smile – but my better nature would have to fight its way to the surface in order to do so and would have some three year-old blood on its hands by the time it got there.
The irony, of course, is that once I became a teacher it took me all of about three seconds to learn that all teachers do all day is forgive. We spend so much time forgiving that we barely have time to eat and go to the bathroom. We forgive kids for cheating, for being late, for chewing gum, and for thinking the internet is cooler than books. We forgive them for using “gay” as an insult and for forgetting to turn out the lights and for being loud in the library. We forgive them for falling asleep and for texting and for feigning innocence when we catch them texting and for asking to go to the bathroom just when the discussion is getting brilliant. We forgive them for parroting back their parents’ political opinions instead of having their own and for thinking we are too stupid to notice that their essays have been copied from Wikipedia. We forgive them for carving their initials into expensive Harkness tables and for locking the door behind us when we go to the copy room and for never remembering how to use a semicolon. We forgive them for knowing more about computers than we do and for constantly asking if we can just watch a movie. We forgive them for drawing penises on things and for asking guest lecturers if they are Team Edward or Team Jacob. We forgive them for not caring, for rolling their eyes, and for thinking, deep down in their souls, that our lives must be very, very boring.
We’re not teachers. We’re priests.
But I don’t forgive Edna the day care volunteer. I don’t forgive the first-grade teacher who ran her classroom according to a system of iron-clad schedules and called my mother to complain that I never wanted to play with the dollhouse when the schedule dictated that it was my turn. I don’t forgive the new high school physics teacher who reprimanded me for telling another student a detail about the senior retreat system that was supposed to be kept secret (although I DO laugh hysterically when I picture all of the other teachers – the ones who knew me well and knew how badly I would take it – somehow convincing the youngest member of the faculty that he needed to be the one to reprimand me). I remember every time I ever got in trouble. I remember every time anyone ever said, did, or hinted something to suggest that I was just a kid – that I was little and small and subject to their power. And, in case you’re forgetting, the adults in my life were very, very nice. I went to good schools and had good parents and was rarely so much as left with a babysitter.
How do I reconcile the two sides of my school-aged self – the side that was desperate for conflict and the side that was so meek that my mother actually pulled out my baby book when I was five and wrote in it that for the first time I actually hit back when another child hit me on the playground (quickly admitting that after hitting back I immediately ran and hid)? I don’t know. But maybe the adults in my life – bless them all – were too nice, were so careful with my feelings that I sensed they thought I might break at any moment. And, like anything our parents and teachers repeat often enough, I internalized it.
More to come soon.