Thursday, August 15, 2013
Summer Fiction Week — "Bad Report Card"
Bad Report Card
I pick up coffee and an uncut bagel from the cheerful Korean woman at the grocery near my building. On impulse, I add the Post. Sometimes I get it, sometimes I don't. Ten minutes later, upstairs at the office, I sip the coffee, bite the bagel, and look at the newspaper. "JERRY ROBERTS' GRADES PLUNGE" the front page screams.
Jerry Roberts is my 9-year-old son. I set down the bagel, pick up the phone, hit "1" on the autodial. Two rings and it's Claire, my wife. "Honey..." I begin. "Yes, the Post," she says, without my asking. "They called yesterday. I forgot to tell you."
The pictures looks as if shot through a telephoto lens from 100 yards away. Grainy, his hair uncombed. He looks like a maniac. As usual, the headline overstates the gist of the article. From a B to a C in math. From an A to a B minus in English. Everything else pretty much the same. Some plunge.
Still, repercussions come quick. Long Island Newsday calls before I finish the coffee. "He's growing," I say, around the last mouthful of bagel. "This is nothing that hasn't happened before." My boss sticks his head into my cubicle, pretending to ask about some small business matter. But he soon cuts to the chase. "So how's everything at home?" he says, awkwardly faking conversation, the way a bum asks you for the time. "How's your boy?"
"Well Stan, you know how kids are," I say, exuding false bonhomie like a gas, squeaking back in my chair, spreading my hands goofily and grinning. "Yadda yadda yadda." He seems mollified.
Nothing is getting done, work-wise, so at lunch I head over to Jerry's school. Two television trucks parked outside—big, white, boxy with telescoping masts swaying high above. One WNYC, the other, French television. I enter the school—that school smell, what is it? Boiled hot dogs? Wet scarves?
Empty classrooms—everybody is at recess, on the patch of crumbling asphalt penned by chain link fence they call a playground. Out back I find Jerry's teacher, Mrs. Something-or-other standing near the Four Square courts, her little powder blue cardigan draped over her shoulders and held in place by a chain and clips. She calmly watches two boys pound the tar out of each other. "I'm Mr. Roberts," I say. She jerks her thumb over her left shoulder, wordlessly.
Jerry's sitting by himself, on a milk carton, his hands placed limply on his knees, staring at a spot on the ground. I squat down on my haunches, reach out and squeeze his shoulder. "Hey sport," I say, in my best, reassuring manner. He doesn't look at me. I resist the urge to lift my hand off his shoulder and slap him upside the head. Instead, another gentle squeeze and a full 60 seconds of silence.
"The Post was mean to me," he finally sniffs, pitifully, starting to cry. He looks at me for the first time. Ball in my court. "Now there hey," I say. "Don't Jerry. Don't." I stand up, and look around for help. Some two dozen kids holding sticks with red streamers fluttering at the ends, one in each hand, are going through an elaborate running dance, arms straight out like airplanes taking off. It looks like something out of a Red Chinese opera. "Come on," I say.
I lift him up and sling him over my shoulder. He doesn't struggle or protest. Walking quickly I pass the teacher, who starts to say something, but I cut her off. "How did the Post find out about his grades, anyway?" I ask. Her eyes narrow. "Quisling! Traitor! Judas!" I shout at her, over my shoulder, gesturing with my free arm.
On the street the television people, pressed against the window of Jerry's empty classroom, notice us and hurry in our direction, each woman reporter in full high-heeled tottering trot, their cameramen and sound men chugging after them. New York is faster than France.
"Mr. Roberts!" she yells, as I reach the corner. "Mr. Roberts!" I shift into overdrive and nearly sprint in front of a garbage truck. The pause gives the French reporter just enough time to get into earshot. "A qui me louer?" I hear her screaming as I hustle out of sight. "Quelle bete faut-il adorer? Quels couers briserai-je? Quel mensonge dois-je tenir? Dans quel sang marcher?"
Three blocks away, my heart is going like an air hammer as I set Jerry down. He is beaming happily—he enjoys the escape; it is something from a TV show, something he can understand. We stand there smiling at each other, catching our breaths. I look down at him and he looks up at me with a "Now what?" look. "You want a beer?" I say. This doesn't register. "Let's go home to your mother." We do.
After dinner we sit on the sofa and laugh as WNYC runs a four-second clip of me huffing by, Jerry over my shoulder like a blue duffle bag with legs, change jingling in my pockets, my hair sticking up in random directions, a look of sweaty lunacy slapped all over my mug. God knows what they'll think in France.
The next morning, I go for the pecan roll with the coffee. The papers ring me like a bell—"Bethpage Dad Sloughs Off Grade Shocker," Newsday bleats. The Post puffs me into a trend: "U.S. School Score Lag—Are Lax Dads to Blame?" At work, Stan mutters, "You could have mentioned the new thermocouple unit," as we pass in the hall. I look bad, but at least the focus has shifted away from Jerry. And we got knocked off the front page by a 12-year-old girl in Elizabeth, New Jersey who still wets the bed.
That night, Jerry and I make her a big Valentine—a red construction paper heart festooned with glitter and stickers and gold braid from gift boxes. In the middle, Jerry writes "HANG IN THERE HONEY!" and we all sign it.
# # #
The questions the French TV reporter shouts out, by the way, are lifted verbatim from Arthur Rimbaud's poem "A Season in Hell." Translated: "For whom shall I hire myself out? What beast should I adore? What holy image attack? What hearts shall I break? What lies should I uphold? In what blood tread?" I've always considered that passage to be the credo of professional journalism.