Basic math was the first thing that ever made sense to me. It was also the first subject I was clearly better than average at. So it was obvious, from an early age through most of high school, that me and math got along just fine. I loved math.
But this post is not about math.
At some point during my junior year of high school my whole paradigm shifted in the opposing direction. I had just come off back-to-back semesters of recording A’s in what was known as a “College-Prep” English class — basically a friendly name for what was actually the lowest level of an English course at my high school. The teacher was a joke, and the course had a disrespectfully low standard for the students.
I didn’t even like English. I’m not supposed to be getting A’s in English, I thought.
So I chose to challenge myself during my junior year, and entered into an I.B. English class instead of rolling with College Prep again. What effectively happened was, as it turned out, I happened to really like the damn stuff.
Around the same time, junior year was also when I took Trigonometry. And Trig sucks. For me, math was always about numbers. Algebra, mainly. Because algebra was what I was always good at, always fast at. My brain is geared towards charging up and firing off addition or multiplication problems in a pinch. That’s what my mind was made for.
Trig dealt with shapes; it was more graphing and slopes and geometry than it was my algebraic preference. This made math less fun to me, partly because I was lazy and felt like I had to learn new things, but mostly because now I was on the same playing field as the other students. There was no room for me to stand out in math anymore.
English, on the other hand, was the new frontier. I had never read a real novel (that wasn’t an Illustrated Classic) cover to cover, and in fact I wouldn’t do so until a couple years later in my dorm room at Virginia Tech. While math is boring to most kids and people, for me that’s what English was like. That’s what reading was like.
It’s been a full decade since I was 16, but I still remember it all like it was yesterday. In some respects I recall the details of that era more than what happened last week.
* * * * *
A lot of it had to do with relationships. I was a challenge to many of my teachers growing up, and naturally the older I got the more serious the courses were. It seemed like every year, from middle school through high school, there was one particular class — which was based on the collection of students, the teacher itself, and the overall classroom environment — where I spoke out at a higher frequency and gave the teacher more shit. Don’t ask me why.
In my head I justified it as if I was expanding the dialogue. But looking back that may have been the case only about 30% of the time for all I know. If that. If there was a general consensus on a topic, I would play devil’s advocate just for the fuck of it if there was enough juice to work with. Most of the time I played the role of the contrarian, for mostly I just liked to argue.
Junior year that class was English. About half of the course was tied into receiving college credit, and the official I.B. thing asked us to perform 15-minute presentations from an excerpt or a poem that was assigned to us. These projects revolved around not only grasping the material, necessarily, but also the way we looked at it. They didn’t really care what perspective we gave, just as long as we could reasonably back it up.
This was a break from my math-centric mind, the idea that there was not always a right answer and a wrong one.
I volunteered to be the first, the guinea pig, kind of because no one originally rose their hand and kind of because the first always gets graded less stringently. So for the rest of the semester I got to sit back and watch everyone else do the bloody thing.
The teacher was in his 40’s. He was average size and average build, a white guy, and the varsity softball coach. Since we always talked about sports and off-the-wall movies from the 1970’s and 80’s, I knew pretty early on that I was one of his Guys. And it’s for that reason that I think I benefitted from some preferential treatment, especially because of all the books we were assigned to read — like The Scarlett Letter, Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, and so on — I probably only read a composite 100 pages. I was also an above-average bullshit artist whenever we were assigned papers to write, so that helped.
With this teacher, there was a healthy percentage of students who didn’t care for him. There was a rumor about him that he messed around with one of his softball players once upon a time, at some point that predated my high school experience, and it was enough that she had to move cities or whatever. By virtue of him still being a teacher, who knows. It never interfered with my participation in that class, and I didn’t think of him any differently over some rumor.
The following year he volunteered to run the school newspaper, something I doubt he would have accepted if not for the fact that I was returning as Editor-in-Chief. The class is about what you would expect: it was a bullshit A for anyone involved. But mainly from hanging out some nights until 6:00 PM, working on the paper and bullshitting, I felt like my education was being furthered. And by that time I really loved writing.
One night the teacher and I were talking about what I was going to study at Virginia Tech; I said I wanted to be a sports writer someday. He laughed and told me, “You like to argue so that’s perfect for you. There is this saying that all failed lawyers always have sports writing to fall back on.”
* * * * *
It was hot and sticky and towards the end of summer in 2008. In the afternoon I walked down 12 flights of stairs, from the top floor of my dorm structure down to the bottom, and into the 80-plus percent humidity. I wore a backpack then.
Past the immediate trees and greenery of the dorm area were the on-campus dining halls, from the West End Market to the sports grill and on. Virginia Tech ranked #1 in the country according to The Princeton Review at on-campus food, and that was nice. For me the freshman 15 was the freshman 30.
After all the dorms and dining I made my way to the drill field, a five-minute walk through the vast space partitioning the academic buildings from the rest of the campus. A quick google search of Virginia Tech would likely show some football stuff and views from the drill field. This is where the memorial of the 32 victims from the massacre rests, and where they hold a candle-light vigil once a year to honor them.
Eventually I found my way to the Communication building. Inside one of the tiny classrooms within the building, I sat along with 20 other students waiting for the professor to arrive.
She looked like someone out of a Tim Burton movie. She was frail, and pale white, and wore red lipstick almost everyday. She was in her late-20’s and was, like me, in her first year at VT. For the last few years she taught literature at Radford, a smaller college about 15 minutes away in Virginia.
Her name was Emilie. After introducing herself she began to take roll, calling one kid’s name after the other. One by one the students stood up and positioned themselves on opposite ends of the class — one side for males and the other for females. By the end of it I was still sitting down.
I had showed up to the wrong class.
Emilie walked up to me, leaned over and showed me the roll she had, and asked to see my I.D. card. When I presented it she wrote my name down on the roll and said it was no big deal, and had me stand with the rest of the guys. Then we got to work on that semester, which was Interpersonal Communication.
Back in my dorm room I started reading the first real book in my life. It was by Chuck Klosterman and titled Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. As opposed to the public education system, for the first time I wasn’t forced to read. This was my choice.
Another revelation popped up as I read this book: I was learning new ways to write. Back then I was on a Xanga blog, and it seemed like whenever I felt like writing, I would first hammer out 20 pages or so of the book. Since Klosterman was the first writer — or only writer, I should say — I had consumed up to that point, everything I wrote was like an extension of his voice. And in some way I think, to this day, that my style is originally a bite off of his.
By the time we had to write papers for the Interpersonal Communication class, I would like to say I had a rejuvenated confidence in everything I wrote. But to say rejuvenated feels like a misleading description: the truth is I never had any confidence in my writing voice until I started reading. I didn’t know what my voice was. Yeah I could use words, and spell words, and maybe even keep things grammatically correct along the way. But there was never any consistency to what I was trying to say.
So I took Chuck’s voice and put my own spin on it it. Emilie set up little 10-minute meetings to individually discuss our papers, and she admitted that she spent less time grading mine than any of the others. She told me my style was very Catcher in the Rye, a book I had heard of but didn’t know anything about. “Thank you,” I nonetheless said.
We spent the last eight minutes talking about the class; she said “you are the only journalism student in a class full of business majors.” I took that to mean: business majors don’t make for very good writers.
So her and I had a good report. Just from that one meeting I always kind of figured she took a liking to me, which was further proven around the wintertime in 2009. I had grown depressed and quit going to class. One day, after a day I did show up, I waited around until after all the kids left to let her know about my situation. She said she understood and that it’s not uncommon for kids that age, especially being so far from home.
We left the class and I walked with her a few blocks until she arrived at the next class she was teaching that day. It was snowing outside even though the sun was out. She told me she would send me the classwork, the reading material, and I could finish it whenever I wanted.
The remainder of the school year was strange. Like five of my classmates paid me to edit their final papers, which I was happy to do on a shoestring budget. On the day of the final I spent about an hour tracking everyone down, with the papers that I personally edited and re-printed out for them. I showed up to Emilie’s class for probably the 10th time in the last 12 weeks. I just quit functioning on that level.
She ended up giving me an A.
Emilie and I still get in contact every six months, or every year, to catch up. It’s always weird revisiting these fragments from a time period that’s so far gone by now. But I remember being 18, in my dorm room, exchanging messages with her on Facebook. She told me one of her rules when she got depressed was to keep a journal, but never go back to re-read it. Just get it out and let it be.
“I could never do that,” I said, presumably with a “haha” in there somewhere.
* * * * *
After I left Virginia Tech I wouldn’t return to school on part-time basis until the fall of 2010. The year prior, in 2009, I spent a couple weeks at a community college in San Bernardino, and there I took a film class and Microeconomics. But in no time I realized being confined for hours at a time wasn’t for me. I don’t know how to explain it, exactly.
In the fall of 2010 I went to a different community college, out in Rancho Cucamonga. Over the next two semesters I probably enrolled in a half dozen classes, but the only two I completed were of the obvious variety: creative writing for both poetry and non-fiction.
All I remember from the poetry class was a girl. Over time the two of us became good friends, and even went on a few dates. This was totally out of my general lane. After class we would go to a nearby park in Fontana and smoke cigarettes and walk around. Other days we would meet up for coffee at a place called Badass Coffee, with some volcanic death Sumatra black coffee, or some such name. Whatever the kids are into nowadays.
In typical Me fashion I remember breaking it off with her right when we were on the brink of being boyfriend/girlfriend. The label always threw me off, but I could sense that’s what she wanted. Something official. It must have been only a week or two after we slept together for the first time that I told her I couldn’t go through with being in an actual relationship.
Since writing poetry is a skill I’m frankly dogshit at, the non-fiction class was more my bag. Around then I was re-acclimated to the school environment, and carried myself like I was the fucking source for all things writing.
The professor, for whatever reason, actually had the audacity to give me a C on the first paper I wrote. It was my form of eating humble pie. I was at a C.C. for Christ’s sake. She said she liked the detail I went into, but that the whole paper was detail. She said I don’t offer enough commentary, which has always been a plague of mine. Even right now.
But she also said something that was pretty smart, I thought: she only wrote for a few months out of the year, and the rest of the time she spent reading. “That’s the only way to become a better writer,” she told me.
* * * * *
I read a handful of books in 2016. Here is that list:
Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens
God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens
Slaughterhouse V, Kurt Vonnegut
The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut
I Wear The Black Hat, Chuck Klosterman
Just as I wrote in my latest blog, I have no grand plans for 2017. I am more focused on continuing the progress I’ve made, and if something special arises out of that I will gladly accept. On the more minor levels, yes, I intend to quit smoking; I intend to get a new vehicle of some sort; I intend on switching casinos for the third time in four years. Other than that it’s pretty simple.
Among those simple things are reading, and writing. When I started this blog I didn’t believe it would last as long as it has. I think if you read some of the earlier stuff I was already balls deep in planning my escape from it. Though escaping is kind of the point, no? Why else would I do this, other than for the momentary vacations I take in my head.
At this moment, right now, I am the best version of myself as a writer. But if the last decade of blogging and reading and schooling has taught me anything, it’s that writing is likely to be a lifetime hobby for me. So it would be retarded if I kept up at the same reading pace I’m at now, knowing the only way I can get to where I want to be as a writer is directly proportional to how much effort I put into reading. Reading five books in a year is unacceptable.
As such, for this year, following this blog, I will be on a strict One Book, One Blog pace. At the moment I am reading The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson, a collection of articles he wrote in the late-60’s and early-70’s. Anyway, it’s like 500 pages long and written in that tiny, tiny print. The type of shit that takes like a half hour to read 10 or 12 pages. I’m on page 150 at current, so it’s probably going to take a while.
Just like that first book I read in my dorm room at Virginia Tech, I enjoy reading while it’s a choice. At work I have no choice; it’s math and more math. And that’s cool, too, because that’s how I make my money.
I still love to write, maybe more than anything. But this silly blog is so amateur compared to the writers I love and the standard I hold myself to. I know I can do better.
So take care and be healthy, and I’ll be around some more in 2017. Just a little less than my track record would suggest.