IT ENDED LIKE THIS: “MRS. J—–,” I said evenly, “you should work for the city sewer department instead of teaching English — because you know more about scat than you do about good writing.”
Except I didn’t say “scat.”
And that’s why I didn’t graduate from high school.
Some background is in order: Mrs. J—– co-taught senior AP English at my Walnut Creek high school. She was a bitter, vindictive, tenured old woman who terrorized the other teachers, to say nothing of her students, and she had it in for me from day one. “I know you know all the answers, Neal,” she would say when I raised my hand — if she called on me at all. “But please let someone else try for once, okay?”
Thus passed the semester.
The last straw came near the end of the year, when she assigned us to write a page on a topic that meant something to us. For me, it was loneliness. Despite a handful of mad crushes, I was then (and to some degree, still am) a timid little guy. I had no girlfriend, or even a date, until after I left high school. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I do remember summoning all my talented inner demons to do it. I filled that page to the best of my nascent ability, and when I read it aloud to my classmates (which was also part of the assignment) there were more than a few pairs of wet eyes in the room. I cleared my throat and looked up from my paper to see one of the co-teachers giving me a smiling thumbs-up.
That was when Mrs. J—– pounced. She tore into me like a kid after a cereal-box prize — criticizing my topic, my approach, probably my long hair as well. So I said my piece and walked out of the classroom, never to return; she later gave me an “F” for the year.
I got a lot of compliments in the days after The Incident, both on my writing and my editorializing. However, as I had elected in my senior year to take only as many classes as I needed for graduation, that nobly-won “F” left me one class short and thus cost me my diploma. I had no one to turn to for advice (or rather, didn’t know that I had anyone), so I let it slide. What else could I do?
To be frank, it hasn’t mattered all that much. My diplomaless state didn’t keep me from learning a trade, getting a job, or having a successful (if brief) journalism career. Don’t misunderstand me — I am inordinately fond of higher education, and have the utmost respect for its ancillaries. If I were wealthy or underwritten, you couldn’t pry me from a campus. But so far, that missing diploma just hasn’t been necessary.
I do sometimes think about my last day in English class, but not with anything like regret. It was one of the first times I ever stood up for myself, or even believed that I could. And as it has inspired similar and needful actions over the years, that’s not been a bad price to pay. What else could I do?