I hadn't been in trouble in a long time, and when I was called to the principal's office, I was shocked.
"We're calling your mother," she told me grimly, and I noticed how her strawberry blonde hair that looked so straight from a distance frizzed at the edges.
"She's at work," I said. "Can't you just send a note home?"
"She will answer the phone."
"I don't even know what I did wrong," I whined, in the way that only a 13-year-old can manage.
"You embarrassed the entire school in chapel today," she said. Her body tensed and she leaned toward me over the old, scarred desk. "You spent the entire hour while Dr. Jacobs was talking whispering to your friends."
"I did not! I paid attention to everything he said."
"I watched you. Don't lie to me. You're just making it worse for yourself." She picked up the phone and dialed the textile factory where my mother worked. I squirmed with discomfort. This woman was interrupting Mama at work. I wondered if she'd get her pay docked. I wondered what other trouble I'd be in when I got home. I just knew that this bitch sitting across from me would not care.
Mama asked to speak to me. I told her I'd been paying attention. "He read Psalm 23," I said. "And I can tell you everything he talked about. I was totally paying attention." I glared at the principal, who for once, could not interrupt or fail to listen.
2- Tell me how you first learned to read.
I learned to read in kindergarten, and I don't remember the moment when I stopped sounding out individual letters and just saw words. I remember my disappointment, though. I had a small book, given to me by an aunt, I think, just a square of paper glued together, and in my imagination, it held the secrets of flight. Before I learned to read, the words on the pages were magical, they transformed in the face of my failed experiments with flight. Pine branches tied to my arms didn't work. Nor did jumping off the porch rail or getting a running start on my bicycle and then leaping off, flapping my arms as hard as I could. But in that book, the words were magic, until I realized I could read. I tossed the book aside, disappointed. The words were just words now. They could be only what they were.
3- Teach me something. It doesn't have to be the traditional subjects. How about how to tie a shoe, be a good mother, how to clean out the refrigerator, make pudding, change a tire? Something that is deep in your bones – driving in rush hour on I-94 to work each day.
The repetition is what makes it easy, really. The tangle of colored lines on the MBTA subway maps start to make a certain amount of sense, and you realize, all at once, that you've got this inborn sense of how long it takes to get from one place to another. The first thing to learn on a busy subway line like mine, the Red Line, between Porter Square and Downtown Crossing, is where the cars are emptiest. Where to stand so that you're lined up with a door and you can squeeze in ahead of the commuters paying too much attention to their free newspapers or their smartphones. Don't look anyone in the eye. Take up as much psychic room as you can and push through the doors before they're fully open. If there are seats, get one with next to a pole, or one of the ones with a crack next to it. Pay attention to the people on either side. That manic look? That's a talker who's going to want to spill out her life story about her 17 cats and the daughter who died and the husband who left her for a bottle. Avoid her. Avoid the man who's muttering to himself, too, even though it's clear he has a bluetooth earpiece. You're going to have to listen to him berate his staff the entire trip. Where headphones, even if you don't have your iPod turned on. Even if you don't have an iPod. Carry a newspaper and look as if you're reading it. Tense as your stop nears, but don't stand up before the train stops. Otherwise, you'll get tit-punched by someone's gigantic backpack. Step off, take the escalator to the street, and light a cigarette.
4- Tell me how you felt about math. Don't just say, "I hated it." Write about an experience around it: Counting out change, a math course, a situation in school, using division or multiplication, keeping an expense account – or maybe you are one of the rare ones that keeps a math journal.
"I hate math," I told Mama solemnly, handing her the homework with a 75 scrawled across the top.
"You do not hate math," she said. "I don't want to hear you talk like that."
I didn't really hate math. I was 9 years old, and so far, school had been easy. The grades had been easy (except for the handwriting grades, which were impossible to improve – I knew, I'd talked to my teacher, and she just shrugged and said that my handwriting was messy, and it probably wouldn't get any better). Math, though. It was boring. I didn't want to do it.
By the time I was 27, though, I lived and died by math. I could calculate percentages without even pausing to think. A $3 tip on a $26 tab? I was dying. A $2 roll of nickels on a $30 tab? I wanted to cry. Those rare times the percentages crawled up above 20%, I celebrated with half-price sushi at the 24-hour grocery store. I calculated the amount of cash I needed to pay my bills, and the percentage I could afford to spend on essentials like cigarettes, beer, and dog food. As long as my meager checking account balance didn't get below a dollar, I would be fine. I hated math.
5- Tell me some details about an uncle or grandfather. Make sure to name the uncle: I remember Uncle Phil…"
The day after Grandmama died, Ann Marie went with me to Grandmama's house. Granddaddy's house, I supposed. Not Grandmama's house any more. My aunts had tissues and Mama bustled about making sure that everyone had what they might need. She knew the house better than anyone but Granddaddy, me, and, of course, Grandmama.
"Who's your friend?" asked Uncle Jerry, who was standing in middle of the den, not doing anything really.
"This is Ann Marie," I said. "Ann Marie, this is my… " I trailed off.
"I'm her uncle Jerry," he said, smiling with tight, thin lips.
"I couldn't decide whether to say you were my uncle or you were my aunt's husband," I explained, weakly. I'd gotten stuck on a detail. My uncle, Air Force, retired, who'd always been kind to my mother, but who I never quite trusted. I wasn't sure why.
"I'm your uncle until I die or Linda does," he said, and wandered away to make himself useful.
And that bothered me. He was my uncle because he was married to my aunt. Once death they did part, he would no longer be my family. Is that what he was saying?
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