A few weeks back, I was talking to daughter Jess’ softball trainer when he offhandedly told me he’d gotten himself a membership in Mensa. Mensa, if you don’t know, is an organization that has one qualification: a member has to have scored in the top 2 percent of the general population on a standardized intelligence test.
“Walter, did you ever apply to Mensa?” Jess’ trainer asked.
“Nope,” I said. “I served 12 years in backward schools in a South Carolina cotton-mill town. When school was out, I spent all my time working on my guitar playing. I don’t think I’d qualify.”
“Bet you would,” said the trainer.
On the way home, I started thinking that maybe I ought to apply. If I turned out to be a dumbass, nobody would be surprised. If I turned out to be extra-smart, I just wouldn’t tell anybody. If I wanted to apply to Mensa, I’d need my IQ score. To get the score, I’d have to get my hands on my permanent record from the schools back home.
So I called the Aiken County Public Schools’ superintendent’s office. I got a nice lady on the phone who told me my old high school was now a middle school and all the records were kept there.
“Who’s the smartest person in the office over at the middle school?” I asked.
“Debbie Turner,” the lady said.
I called Debbie Turner. She found my permanent record and told me she’d put it in the mail that very day, signed and sealed, for the low, low cost of $2. A few days later, two copies of my permanent record showed up in my mailbox. One was sealed, in case I decided to send it off to Mensa. The other was an unsigned photocopy.
During the 12 years that I went to school in Aiken County, hardly a day went by without a teacher threatening to note my willful, impudent ways on my permanent record. “It’ll follow you your whole life,” said crabby old Ms. Rogers. “They won’t even take you in the Army.”
Once I heard that, I started trying to get written up as often as possible. When I was in junior high, my cousin brought his homemade battery-powered telegraph set to history class for a show-and-tell. While nobody was looking, I took the wires off the battery and plugged them straight into the wall socket. Halfway through history class, I pushed down the telegraph key with a pencil and blew out all the lights in the building. Four years later, when we started harvesting fetal kittens in advanced biology class, I stuffed a few stiff kitties into my backpack, then dropped them into the center drawer of mean old Ms. Dix’s desk. When she reached in the drawer for her roll book but snagged a pickled kitten instead, she screamed for a good half-minute. It was more fun than tickling circus monkeys.
So don’t you know, I couldn’t wait to look at my permanent record. What had those mean-tempered, dried-up, baggy-stockinged old women written about me? Was there anything in there that would get me put into the Army now?
I went straight to “Evaluation of Personal and Social Assets,” where every teacher from second grade through high school graded me on cooperation, courtesy, dependability, industriousness, initiative, leadership, emotional maturity, personal appearance, self control, honesty, perseverance and service to school. My second-, third- and fourth-grade teachers wrote me up as “normal” in each category, even though the fourth-grade teacher literally dragged me out of her classroom one day and threw me out on the front steps. My surly, Yankee-hating fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Wise, wrote that I was below normal in cooperation, dependability, industriousness and perseverance. Easy for her to say—because of Ms. Wise’s alphabetical-seating rule, I spent a year sitting behind a kid who could not read silently. I had to endure 180 days of him whispering to himself during silent-reading time. It’s a wonder I didn’t burn down the schoolhouse.
My sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Rogers, cribbed off Ms. Wise’s marks—same grades in everything. My seventh-grade homeroom teacher marked me above average in everything. Then I went back to normal for eighth and ninth grade, then to above average in everything in 10th grade, back to normal in 11th grade (except for above-average honesty and perseverance), and finally to above average in everything in 12th grade. When it was all over, I finished 32nd in a class of 143, with a B-minus average.
Three things stood out. My daddy, Jabo Jowers, wrote that he had a fifth-grade education. Truth is, he dropped out of school in the fourth grade.
On my seventh-grade record, I saw that I was absent seven days in a row. That was the week after my mother died.
Scribbled in a corner of one page, most likely in a teacher’s handwriting, was “USC, Columbia.” Well, that was where I was supposed to go to college. But Jabo died the summer after I graduated high school, so I ended up at the Aiken branch of USC.
Lucky for me though, I ran into an English professor, Franklin Ashley, who nudged me toward writing for a living. If it weren’t for him, I’d be driving a bulldozer right now.
In case anybody’s wondering: I sent my application to Mensa. I got a reply. I’m keeping it to myself.
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