I'm the product of a government experiment called the public school system.
I suppose you should know this about me. It explains a lot. I've never told anyone because it's so ridiculous you'll assume I'm making it up. That's the price of satire - no one believes you when you're telling the truth.
I was born a rich kid, Beverly Hills, north of Santa Monica Blvd., big house, tennis court, Cadillac in the driveway, all needs met. One neighbor had an Oscar I played with (I.A.L. Diamond, for writing The Apartment), another had a lavish vomitorium for those really GOOD parties with endless courses of too much food. I'd go to a friend's house after school only to discover they actually had their own house behind their parent's house. When my dad died, we started a gradual descent, moving to a smaller house, then a smaller house, then to an apartment in the slums of Beverly Hills below Santa Monica Blvd., all to keep me in what was supposed to be the best school system in the world.
None of this stopped me from being a holy terror in class. I was thrown out of the fifth grade at Beverly Vista Elementary in BH, sent to military school as a "disciplinary problem," sent back to the sixth grade at Horace Mann Elementary in BH, thrown out, sent to another military school where I advanced to the rank of corporal, sent back to the seventh grade at El Rodeo Elementary in BH, and finally declared "emotionally disturbed" and thrown out of the entire Beverly Hills Unified School System.
How did this happen? In 1960 or thereabouts, when I was 8, the Beverly Hills Unified School District decided to be the very first to give every single one of their students one of them fancy new standardized IQ tests in order to scientifically analyze the entire student body. They wouldn't tell me the number but I got fourth highest in the entire district, across all schools, ages and grades. All the other students with high IQs were the top straight A students except me. I had Cs and Ds and Fs so I became a case study. How could someone as bright as me be doing so poorly academically? They plucked me out of elementary school and sent me to UCLA Psychiatric Institute where I was tested and observed for weeks, test after test, observation after observation, drawing, piling blocks, answering endless questions. They had to figure me out because if the problem wasn't me, it would have to be them.
I was actually surprised I did so well on the IQ test because I had such difficulty answering certain questions, particularly the ones showing a list of words saying "which one doesn't belong." The list would be something like...
One might think the obvious answer was d) since it's the only one that isn't a form of vegetation, but I'd be able to come up with a rational reason why every single word didn't belong. Each word has an "a" but banana is the only one with three. Potato is the only word with an "o." Petunia is the only word that isn't six letters. I'd sit there not trying to figure out which was the right answer, they all were right, but trying to figure out which right answer the jerks who came up with the test were expecting.
The same problem crept into my studies. Teachers didn't know how to handle me. I figured if they had the right to test me, I had the right to test them. I noticed they used a template for grading tests. I'd reorganize my answers so they couldn't use it. For my answer to question 1, I'd write "see answer #6," where the correct answer would be found. I got Fs on tests where I got every answer right, just not in the expected order. I used this technique from the first grade, elementary school arithmetic, if the question was "What's 3 + 8," I'd answer "5 + 6." Correct, but not the answer they were looking for. When did Columbus discover America? 320 years before the War of 1812.
It never occurred to anyone that the reason I was acting like this was because I was bored out of my skull. Anything to pass the time. I managed to learn absolutely everything they were teaching, just as reliably as their finest students. I just wasn't mirroring it back to them properly, thus, Cs and Ds and Fs.
Teachers were warned about me before I ever met them. They kept their eye on me from the first day so I couldn't get away with anything. I was the first to be blamed if anything happened, and half my time was spent exiled to the hallway for insubordination.
When I got my first history book, I drew a little B-52 bomber in the lower left margin of the first page, along with a little city on the far right. On the next page, I drew the bomber a little bit to the right, closer to the city, continuing on each page until eventually, if you flipped through the book, the bomber would fly across the page till it dropped a big one on the city, causing a mushroom cloud to go up the right margin.
When my teacher saw this, were they impressed by the fact a seven-year-old had seemingly invented animation? Animation wasn't the day's lesson. Did they simply ask me to erase it? Did they encourage my creativity by handing me a pad of blank paper and asking me to use it for my animations instead of the textbook? Nope, they suspended me for defacing school property.
How do you get thrown out of the 5th grade? I was bored with what they were having me read. One day during a PE period where I was excused for some medical problem, I had nothing to do, so I started reading a paperback I saw in a metal rack in the playground, Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, the first book I ever read so it was the best book I'd ever read, way better than Dick and Jane. I couldn't stop reading so I took it with me to class. Nobody had ever explained that those particular books had to be checked out. I left school on my bike and got chased by two bigger kids who threw me to the ground, searched my backpack, found the book, and dragged me back to the school office for stealing school property.
Upon finding a fifth grader caught trying to read a tenth grade book, did they advance me to another grade? Nope, it was the final straw, they threw me out of the whole system.
Despite this particular moment of idiocy, it turned out the BH school system really was better then the rest, which caused a very strange problem. They'd get rid of me, I'd end up in a school in the LA system that was teaching what I'd learned the year before, I'd get straight As, they'd say to Beverly Hills "what's the matter with you, this is a fine student," BH would take me back, I'd be a year behind, learn everything but fail, they'd throw me out, send me to another LA school where they were teaching everything I'd just learned, I'd get straight As again, and end up right back in BH.
Finally I found myself at Beverly High for four years, class of '69, WAY before Beverly Hills 90210, with a theater department headed by the magnificent John Ingle, and a separate parking lot just for students, full of much better cars than those in the faculty lot. I took swim lessons in the "swim gym," the pool under the slide-away basketball court made famous in the film It's a Wonderful Life. Hung with Patricia Cummings - daughter of Bob (You don't know who Bob Cummings is?), Cathie Amsterdam - daughter of Morry (C'mon, Morry Amsterdam, from The Dick Van Dyke Show. Who's Dick Van Dyke? Jesus!), and Phil Ritz, son of Harry of the Ritz Brothers (they replaced The Three Stooges in Blazing Stewardesses when Moe died before filming, but you knew that).
When Ella Fitzgerald moved to Beverly Hills, her son Ray Brown Jr. became the very first person of color many of us had ever met and we went out of our way to treat him as an equal. I directed him in the school production of Marty.
One day I was called to the office where Dr. Morgenstern, an official with the school system, now the school psychologist, told me he'd read my file and wanted to talk. He told me I was still one of the smartest students in the system, that they were proud to have someone so brilliant at the school. He sincerely apologized for the way I had been treated so far. He couldn't understand why they didn't realize the problem wasn't me, it was their inability to cope with anybody challenging the status quo. Dr. Morgenstern followed my career as a journalist and wrote me decades later with pride at how I had turned out.
Though I went through the ceremony with my classmates, I was given a blank sheet of paper instead of a diploma. I never actually graduated BHHS because I was lacking 2 grade points. I learned absolutely everything they were teaching without having to bother with crap like homework, which I never handed in, or daily quizzes, which I inevitably failed. I aced my finals, proving all the other stuff was unnecessary, but not to one teacher who flunked me anyway. I'd already been accepted to LACC so who cared.
Time went on. It was a gradual descent from uptrodden to downtrodden, from all needs met to most needs met to some needs met to few needs met to no needs met, from Paris Hilton to Motel 6, from hobnobbing with the got-alls to scrounging with the rest, but the gravity of life can tend to run downhill.
I always intended to move back to Beverly Hills to see how my own kids would fare in the same system that had such problems with me, but that ship has either sailed or never docked. Now my kids are the products of completely different bad school systems. Dr. Morgenstern's apology was nice but I really hope they learned their lesson and they're not still creating people so fucked up.
Maybe telling me my IQ wasn't such a hot idea, but how else could they explain what they were doing? I never bragged about it and fifty years later, this is first time I've ever mentioned it. It was too traumatic for me to consider it a plus. I can't think of any circumstances in my childhood where knowing I was supposed to be so smart did me any good. On the contrary, the guys watching me with clipboards only instilled the belief there was something wrong with me, a belief I apparently still hold to this day.
Thanks for reading this. Now I don't have to pay for a therapist.
"The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it."
- Wendell Berry -
Letters about My Childhood from Issue #216 of Disinfotainment Today
- Jeff Crook
My Childhood is a fabulous read. Life is a trip. Thanks. Do more of this.
- Frank Cavestani
If you were a stand-up, I'd stand in the back and watch you.
- Larry Hankin
I don't know what are your plans for an autobiography, if you have written the full scale of it or intend to promote your writings as such, but I was completely captivated. Surely, this is the premise of a memorable screenplay, at the very least.
One of life's insults that perplexes me most is how truly brilliant minds of creative genius so often seem to be perpetually at odds with realizing their full potential and the ability to lay claim to greatness, primarily in the form of significant recognition and cold hard cash.
I, for one, would pay the price of a hardcover to read it - a new hardcover from one of those expensive hotel book shops with organic bagels and espresso served in porcelain demi tasse. In other words, surely the story of your life would sell well.
I have been in that position a few times at school, seen the kid who is obviously gifted on a level far beyond his peers and instructors, stuck in the corner, struggling with the strictures of cookie-cutter education, doodling ideas that speak of talents the rest of us can only marvel. And I have seen what just a few words of encouragement and understanding can do to help them see that those years coming of age are such a small part of the great expanse of destiny. It staggers the imagination what those kids could accomplish if only more of their educators had the wisdom and resources to cultivate their abilities.
Thank you for sharing your personal struggles. Few biographies, in my opinion, prove more interesting than a life lived in full pursuit of breaking free from the status quo.
- Kristen Twedt
This is a wonderful piece you've written and should be a chapter in a book of your life. You don't need a therapist, you just need to continue to believe in how smart you are, how well you write, and how someday, someone is going to realize this and do something for you.