May 15, 2008

One Clear Victory

My life has been one of chaos, willfulness, living on the edge, self-centeredness, untutored study, and predictable failures. There were environmental and psychological factors that brought all this about, but mostly it was my own doing.

My aborted formal education in the tenth-grade has been both a curse and a blessing (I had less to unlearn.) I followed my thumb out of Lake Charles, La., in 1958, as if an army of murderers was in pursuit. Went in the Marine Corps at 17 and barely got my Honorable four years later, due to the fact that I got in too many fights, usually with sailors. I was dumb enough to think that marines were supposed to fight sailors. I won't go far into the adventures and misadventures that made me who I am today, and I am still not beyond ruminating on the past.

I thought that everything I ever tried had failed, and that I must be a creature from another planet, because I didn't seem to fit anywhere on this one. Looking back, however, I see one thing that I'm still proud of, which was probably the only clear, untainted accomplishment of my life.

I found my salvation in book early-on. I started reading at age 10, and, growing up in an atmosphere of unrestricted southern bullying, I gradually withdrew from the meanness around me into the rarefied climes of literature. I think I had the idea that if I couldn't beat them in a fight, I could make myself smarter than the bullies who tormented me. It became serious when I entered high school, had a bitch of a time paying attention, and started bringing books to school. I couldn't pay attention in class. Everything was boring or not-complicated-enough. Nothing challenged me, I know now, except algebra. (Despite several adult-education classes later in life, I never mastered it.)

Teachers naturally didn't like me reading in class, and when they tried to stop me, I played class clown. I would make wisecracks, tell jokes, ask irrelevant questions, and tap my pencil on the desk to the beat of a song that only I could hear. They soon left me alone. I gazed out the window a lot, kept one ear tuned to the class, and read. One teacher wouldn't put up with it, however.

Mrs. Thompson was a stern but fair teacher of general science at LaGrange High. After I ignored her admonishment to pay attention, she sent me to the principals office, a familiar room. He threatened to take the paddle from his desk and apply it to my bottom. Though I was a teenager, they could do that then.

The threat didn't faze me. I went back to her class and picked up my book. Mrs. Thompson, strangely and wisely, let it drop. Every now and then she would walk down the aisle and take the book, look at it for a minute, and return it. Once, she found me reading something that was probably too deep for me, said, "Oh my," and went on. So it went for the whole school year. Another time, she read my book for a full five minutes--I think it was Hemingway--and said, "All right," and went back to teaching. This went on for nine months. But finally, her plot was revealed.

As the end of the school year approached, she announced that a final exam would be given Tuesday, and that everyone in her classes must make at least a "C" to pass.

"And you, Michael Lee Havenar, you have to make 100% in order to pass my class with a "D." Everyone laughed. If they hadn't, I would have shrugged it off. I had enough trouble at home with my mother, a recent widow who had taken to the remedy of bourbon to relieve the pain of her loss, and lessen the stress of raising two toddlers and a rebellious smart-aleck. My stepfather had been run over by a car in New Orleans.

The laughter finally got to me. Most kids in my school--except the ones who somehow always singled me out for a fight that I never wanted and seldom won--ignored me. But I'd had had enough of their crap. I'd been transferred through three school systems since fourth grade and was now an outsider. Always the new kid, not knowing anyone, belonging to no cliques, and basically shy, school was an everyday misery. I decided at that moment that I would show them by passing the test.

That was Friday. I think I took my science book home for the first time. I studied it well past midnight, woke at six and opened it again. I took notes. I asked myself questions and answered them. I studied past midnight Saturday, and on Sunday morning arose to do it again. My mother was puzzled but said nothing. On Monday, I skipped school and stayed home to study the book, chapter-by-chapter, and page-by-page, until I had absorbed and memorized everything my brain could contain.

Tuesday arrived. General science was my last class. I skipped the other classes and studied in the library. Nobody said a thing. Everybody knew that Mike Havenar was a rebellious student.

Mrs. Thompson separated the desks to prevent cheating. The exam was a 100-question multiple choice test. I zipped through it in 15 minutes, turned it in, and walked out. The book was fresh in my mind. It was a snap. Someone snickered. Of course he finished in 15 minutes, he doesn't know anything.

The results returned Friday.

"Well class," she said, "Most students in my classes did well on the test. There were some failures (a few looked at me,) but overall it was pretty good. There were only two people who got all one hundred questions correct. They were (and here she named the smartest girl in school,) and Mike Havenar."

They gasped. It was one of the most-satisfying moments of my life. They turned to look at me. I looked down so I wouldn't have to look at them. Then she said, "Well, Mike, it just proves that when you put your mind to something, you can do it." I thanked her. She smiled at me for the first and only time. When the bell rang, I got out of there fast so I wouldn't have to talk to anyone. There was still a week of school left, but I never went back. Near the end of summer, I turned 17, had a final altercation with my mother, and left Lake Charles for good.

Or so I thought.

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