Bad At Small Talk

Algernon Never Dealt With These People

WHO I WAS: A student with a mild numerical learning disability at a private midwestern college preparatory school. I had transferred there from the suburban Kansas City public schools as a ninth grader when my emotionally unstable mother got a job from her sympathetic, mindbendingly rich younger brother. During my time in public school, my peers and I would annually take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. My scores on the reading and writing portions admitted me into the district’s “gifted” program. My math scores admitted me into something different altogether. So before I moved to this college prep school, I would spent a period on Tuesdays and Thursdays in a class called “Intellectial Giftedness,” where the students would discuss Science Olympiad projects and SAT prep courses. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays included a period in a class called “Learning Disabilities,” where the students would talk about how much they loved grape juice.

WHO THEY WERE The math teachers I had over four years at a college prep school that did not offer remedial classes and did not often admit students with mild numerical learning disabilities, unless of course they had a mindbendingly rich uncle on the board of directors.

MR. ALVAREZ [Algebra I and Geometry, freshman and sophomore year] I had transferred about a month after classes started at this school, and with Algebra I the first class on my class schedule, Mr. Alvarez represented my first encounter with a teacher at the college prep school. I remember being the first one to walk into his classroom that morning, and the first thing he said to me was “I think you’ll like this class. All the good-looking girls are in this period.” He was young, late 20s, with black hair that he combed back and held with hair gel. Despite his name, he did not look Hispanic. I would learn later that this was his first teaching job. He would learn soon that I had no idea what algebra was.

The main thing I recall about my first year of math at this school was Mr. Alvarez becoming inspired by my dumbassery. As soon as he realized the hopelessness of my situation, he began arranging private meetings with me where he would expound on the virtues of focusing on academics and becoming organized. He also suggested I get a girlfriend in order to help me study. I remember him saying this in the same tone one would say “Get a three-ring binder.”

My sophomore year, I had him again, this time for Geometry. Mr. Alvarez was no longer interested in inspiring me by then. By then, he was interested in breaking off his lectures and discussing the importance of conforming young children to the ways of logic. He began showing up for class wearing wrinkled, un-ironed clothes. He would snap at students, myself included. His eyes were constantly red and puffy. For our year-end final exam, Mr. Alvarez spent the allotted two hours telling us his life story before lecturing us on his theory of “thinking in four dimensions.” A theory, he said, he came to after being informed that his teaching contract would not be renewed. A year later, Mr. Alvarez was spotted working as a clerk at a trendy clothing store in the local mall. He never did give us an actual final, and each member of the class of 1999 graduated hoping they wouldn’t have to take Geometry in college.

MR. KEEFER [Algebra II, junior year] Mr. Keefer was a short, pear-shaped man in his 60s with a corny sense of humor, rosy cheeks, bright eyes and a black, angry heart.

Somehow, I had scraped through Algebra I, and everyone who took Geometry under Mr. Alvarez was given a passing grade by the school administration after his breakdown. By this time, there was a growing understanding from both my academic advisor and my college counselor that I was more than just a kid who was bad at math. The chair of the math department, the amiable Mr. Farmer, even began arranging private tutoring sessions, admitting at one point that I clearly had a problem that went beyond aptitude.

Mr. Keefer, however, would have none of this. His thought, grounded in absolutely no evidence whatsoever, was that I was a poor math student because I didn’t try. He told me I had a “mental block” when it came to mathematics, one that developed over the years through hearing people tell me I was bad with numbers. “You just don’t want to learn,” was a favorite phrase. His method of stripping me from this crutch was to call on me often during class, ignoring the raised hands to say “Doug, what’s this? You know this.” When I said I didn’t know, he’d counter with “Yes you do! Yes you do!” This went on for a few months until, during a particularly tense back-and-forth, I snapped and yelled “I DON’T KNOW! WHY CAN’T YOU LEAVE ME ALONE, YOU HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE MAN?!?” That led to a meeting with the Dean of Students, then a meeting with my academic advisor, after which it was decided I would finish the year under Mr. Farmer effective immediately.

MRS. FROGGATTE [AP Statistics, senior year] The curriculum at this school was designed so that the student would end up taking AP courses in pretty much everything. There was no way to avoid it. Plotting out my senior class load, my college counselor suggested AP Statistics would be more accessible than AP Algebra, thus limiting the damage to my college transcript. He really did say “limiting the damage.” Mrs. Froggatte was new to the school, having previously worked at one of the city’s terrible public schools before (totally understandably) working for a bank. I was suspicious, but also heartened. She had taught in a city school. Surely I would not be her first dumb kid.

My first impression of her was that I didn’t know what the hell she was. Really. She had very dark skin, to the point where you might think she was black. But she wasn’t. She wasn’t Hispanic either. Some theorized she was American Indian. The irony here was that had anyone told her that the entire student body was guessing at her heritage, she would have laughed hysterically. Younger than I expected, in her mid 30s, Mrs. Froggatte had both a sense of humor and a conviction that math should only be taught if it has a use in the real world. She also had a conviction that a student like myself had no business in an AP math class (tell me about it, Mrs. F.) She initially greeted the fact that there was no place else to store me with something like horror. Yet after the horror, she did something strange.

One day, she asked me to stop by her classroom after school. Closing the door behind her, she sat down at her desk and said “Look, you don’t need this. I’ve seen your grades in other classes. You can’t do math, but you can do everything else. If you graduate from here, you’ll go to college. If we can somehow make it seem like you can do even a little math, you’ll go to a good college.” Her plan was this: At six every morning, before the rest of the school opened, we would meet in her classroom. Together, we would go through the assignment that was due that day. She would walk me through the problems, show me how to arrive at the answers, and yes, give me the answers. Then, five hours later, she would take my worksheet along with everyone else’s and grade it accordingly. Because I did not have a car and usually had to rely on either one of my baseball teammates or my own feet to get to school (my mom liked to sleep,) Mrs. Froggatte would pick me up at my house in order to get me to school early enough. Which is how I learned something about Mrs. Froggatte.

Sweet Jesus, was she loaded.

One day she would pick me up in black Eddie Bauer Expedition. The next day, a Porsche. Yes, my math teacher would pick me up in a Porche. Turned out her husband owned an accounting firm, or something like that. I never met him, but I learned his name was Theron. To this day, Theron Froggatte remains one of my favorite names.

My grade in AP Statistics crept slowly upward. I don’t know if anyone knew she was “cheating” me. I have a feeling they did. My high school was really unique as far as the other kids went. Most had money, all came from stable families and all made good grades. I had neither. Yet this only seemed to bring everyone closer to me. I never felt like an outcast at my high school. People rooted for me.

Yet there was a problem. I would ace my assignments, yet flunk my tests. And by flunk, I mean not get a single question right. This kept my grade low, and probably signaled a serious red flag when juxtaposed with my perfect daily assignments. So before one test, Mrs. Froggatte asked me to shove my desk next to hers. She handed test sheets out to everyone and said “One more thing: Doug is going to sit up here with me, and if he has questions, I’m going to answer them. Does anyone have a problem with that?” It really was like something out of those formulaic teacher movies. I probably should have been embarrassed.

So I aced my tests. I aced the final. Of course, I bombed on the math portions of the ACT and SAT, but my verbal scores bested most of my classmates. I found a small liberal arts college that was interested in my fantastic AP Statistics grades, and managed to convince them that my bad standardized test scores were due to “performance anxiety” (hopefully the last time I have to use that phrase.) I was admitted, and overjoyed to learn the school did not have any required math courses for freshmen.

WHO I AM NOW I’m 28, and my friends say I’m a successful journalist. I can’t balance my checkbook or do basic math in my head, and if I don’t write phone numbers down immediately I forget them. But that’s about as far as it goes. Mrs. Froggatte was right. I didn’t need to learn anything she was teaching. Best teacher I ever had.

December 3, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Gentlemen, Start Your Unrealistic Dreams

When I was eight, I had a profoundly life-changing event.

I saw a televised NASCAR race.

It was the Rockingham 500, and Neil Bonnett narrowly beat out Alan Kulwicki for the victory. I had never seen auto racing before, live or televised, and I was hooked. I was not a sports fan when I was eight. Indeed, I didn’t even play any sports when I was eight. But something about racing absolutely grabbed my attention, and it wouldn’t let go for the next ten years.

[Incidentally, both Neil Bonnett and Alan Kulwicki would eventually die. I think about five drivers whom I really, really admired died before I graduated from high school. I’m guessing this is different for kids who grow up infatuated with, say, pro golf.]

A year after this, during which I consumed absolutely every form of auto racing I could, I had settled on what I wanted to be when I grew up. Not only did I know I wanted to be a race car driver, but I knew what kind of race car driver I wanted to be. Even at nine, I was short for my age. I knew this, and I also knew that Indy car drivers pretty much had to be short to fit into their cars. Thus, I would be an Indy car driver. I would win at least four Indy 500s, just like A.J. Foyt.

But where to begin?

Competitive karting was not an option, first because there was no competitive karting in Kansas City but also because competitive karting is expensive, and my parents had just divorced and were channeling all their discretionary income towards chocolates, new wardrobes or other women.

Yet there was Malibu Grand Prix.

Malibu Grand Prix was a “fun center” in Kansas City featuring a video arcade and go-karts. There was no racing (the karts were driven one at a time on a narrow and twisty road course,) but at least the course was timed. And the karts seemed really fast for a nine-year old.  There were hulking steel beast karts for adults and, for kids like myself, mini karts that were slower but much more drivable.

There was also something horrible, cruel and insidious: A sign with a thin red line indicating how tall a child must be to drive one of the kiddie karts.

That thin red line became my great white whale.

Every weekend that my dad had custody of me, I would take advantage of his post-divorce guilt and get him to drive me to Malibu Grand Prix. I’d have spent the week doing things like drinking tons of milk and running laps around the playground at recess, thinking those were the things that make one grow three inches. I lost weight. I did not grow. But I would show up at Malibu Grand Prix just the same, thinking I would beat the thin red line.

Every time, to make the trip worthwhile, my dad would throw down eight dollars to take me for a few laps in the Malibu Grand Prix passenger kart – an ugly, blocky two-seated monstrosity that looked nothing like an Indy car. The pictures on the wall inside depicted a muscular, tan man in a hot pink Lecoste shirt and Ray Bans assertively driving his captivated, thrilled girlfriend in the passenger kart. They did not depict a recent divorcee grimly driving his midget fourth grader.

Then came my tenth birthday, and there was only one place I wanted it to be. By then, goddamnit, I surely would be tall enough to drive one of the kiddie karts. Surely no benevolent god would allow a ten-year old to watch his taller friends go zipping about in karts while he stood on the side. Didn’t anyone understand? If I couldn’t get any track time to hone my racing skills, my destiny would forever elude me.

I was prepared for months of milk-drinking if it meant taking a triumphant birthday lap. Then my dad tells me not to worry. My dad tells me he guarantees that I will be tall enough to drive on my own.

He says no more, but it’s all I need to hear. And on my birthday, me and my little friends take over Malibu Grand Prix. There’s cake, ice cream, presents, video games and air hockey. None of which I could possibly care less about. My focus is singular.I believe in my dad. I am still nine, for two more hours. When you are nine, your parents aren’t supposed to lie.

So now it’s kart time. And before it commences, every kid has to stand before the thin red line so that Malibu Grand Prix employees can verify they are of safe height. For my friends, this is not a problem.

My dad comes up to me in the line. He takes a knee to get on my level (which he almost never does) and says “Stand on the sides of your feet. Don’t stand on your tip-toes, because that’s too obvious. But standing on he sides of your feet will make you just tall enough, and they won’t notice.”

And I blurt: “YOU SAID YOU’D MAKE ME TALLER. STANDING ON THE SIDES OF MY FEET DOESN’T MAKE ME TALLER.”

I remember the Malibu Grand Prix workers wheeling out the passenger kart for the birthday boy and his dad. I remember my friends, who had already done their own laps on their own, watching as my dad and I climbed in. My dad drove the kart as fast as it could go, and I tried my best to drive it with him. I sat there and concentrated with everything I had on when he would brake, how he would accelerate out of turns, how he got the most speed possible out of the straightaways.

I concentrated on how much I loved racing. Because I knew I was going to have to find something else to be when I grew up.

December 3, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Speak Now or Forever…Ah, Hell, They’re Not Listening

 It was the modern way to warm your hands against the comforting fires of a dead relationship.

Two weeks ago, I sent a text message to my best friend, noting that a mutual friend of ours had gone from “married” to “single” on Facebook. Two days ago, my best friend texted me to inform me that the other half of said couple had also gone from “married” to “single” on Facebook.

Now let me prep this by saying both these people were friends in college, and I still talk to one of them semi-regularly. They met while they were in school, fell in love and got married immediately after graduating. I went to their wedding, wished them both well and meant it. Both were Church of Christ, therefore they did not drink, therefore I did not go to the reception.

So here’s my point: I sort of like it when these young married couples get divorced.

I went to a lot of weddings right after college, almost all of them involving classmates of mine who had met on-campus without having much in the way of relationship experience. And while I was always happy to see them happy, there was always something, well, a little too earnest about the whole thing. Like a seven-year old, bored on a Sunday, who all of a sudden decides he’s going to make the awesomest tree fort in the world. And for a moment, you forget that the seven-year old has no discernable cognitive skills outside of Guitar Hero and that he can’t even remember to flush, much less see a backyard construction job through to the end.

At the time, you forget these thoughts because the seven-year old’s excitement and optimism is so contagious.

So it is with these people who met and fell for each other while still very much in their pupal stage. You’re not fully formed yet in college. You’re just not. And you’re making a hell of a gamble that the person you’ve chosen to hitch yourself with is going to form right along the same lines as you.

And but so while I want my friends to be happy with whom they choose to mate with, I also think there’s a little bit of presumption that comes with getting hitched early. And because I enjoy it when grandiose things break down due to lack of foresight and respect for the forces of nature, I can’t help but have a small glimmer inside me when these marriages collapse.

I just want to know who gets the salad bowl I bought at Target.

December 1, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Everything and More

Of course the University of Kansas is justified in firing football coach Mark Mangino.

Not for wins and losses, but for conduct and economics.

A review: Arguably the most successful modern-era football coach in KU history (that doesn’t say much,) Mangino’s future is uncertain following complaints from several players regarding his conduct and use of language. The KU athletic administration has seen enough credence in these allegations to conduct a formal investigation, and if some of the accounts are true, Mangino’s words to some of his players count not only as abusive but borderline racist.

Kansas will not play in a bowl this year. I submit that the university would be justified in firing him regardless.

I am willing to venture a guess (this is a blog, which means I can speak authoritatively without actually bothering to look up anything whatsoever) that Mangino is one of the highest-paid state employees in Kansas. Surely he makes more than the school president whom he answers to.

The fact that most Division I revenue-sport coaches are a state’s highest compensated employees has long been a bone of contention for those who believe major college sports have gotten out of control. But the amount of state dollars that go to a coach’s paycheck take on greater importance in light of the economic crisis of 2008-2009.

There hasn’t been a shortage of public and private universities that have had to cut back on resources and even manpower thanks to losses in state funding or drops in endowment. Higher education, long considered a reliable island in rough economic seas, has gotten hit just like the rest of us.

What does this have to do with football?

Much has always been demanded of college coaches. Now we (fans, alums, students and state residents) have the right to demand more. Mark Mangino has rebuilt Kansas football. He has given the program national exposure, kept it perennially competitive, helped spearhead the building of new facilities and for the most part has kept his players out of trouble.

That used to be good enough. It’s not anymore.

One of the state’s highest-paid employees should not ever find himself in administrative hot water for vulgar and offensive statements. With the ravages of the recession all around us, we should not have to settle for a coach who wins and graduates his players, yet does so through questionable coaching methods.

State residents have a right to demand that the coaches at their public universities win games. They have a right to demand coaches who recruit players that are active in the campus community and fit the university’s academic profile. They have a right to demand coaches that embrace the role of being a high-profile state figure, and they have the right to demand coaches that can motivate and discipline athletes without crossing societal boundaries.

Maybe they didn’t have a right to make all these demands in the past. Maybe it takes a near economic collapse to recognize the importance of accountability for those we help fund.

The University of Kansas is justified in firing Mark Mangino. It would be equally justified in slashing his salary for dereliction of duties.

November 28, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment