Reading is Fundamental

July 30, 2012

Originally published in the Front Range Review

My father hates receiving mail from the government.  Census reports, tax statements, registration forms—it doesn’t matter what’s inside the envelope, he doesn’t want it.  First of all, it rankles him that those paper-pushers in Washington know his address.  He is aware, of course, that his location is a matter of public record and anyone with five spare minutes and a phone book can find him, but it annoys him to be reminded of this fact.  They’re just rubbing it in.  Secondly, they always want something.  Sometimes it’s his information, sometimes it’s his vote, but usually it’s his money.  Perhaps the local fire department needs a new hose or maybe some congressman wants to finance another prairie dog preserve.  It’s always something.  The government is like a stingy brother-in-law who keeps ordering fillet mignon at expensive restaurants and then misplacing his wallet.

But the primary reason my father detests official mail is simply because he doesn’t like being told what to do.  For those with authority issues, a government mandate is the ultimate slap in the face.  You can’t ignore it, you can’t fight it.  All you can do is bend over and take it.

Therefore, when the STATE OF COLORADO sent a letter to the house reminding our parents that their children were old enough to enroll in school, my father bristled.  This meant our family’s information would be recorded by some secret government agency, and his offspring would spend five days a week under lock and key in the public education system, where anti-patriotic hippies disguised as teachers would indoctrinate us with their socialist agenda.  Sure, it seemed like a good idea on the surface, free education, but now that the Supreme Court had removed prayer from school, it was just a matter of time before students started making Bolshevik Revolution dioramas and burning the American flag for show-and-tell.  The modern public school system was just a ruse invented by left-leaning academics to brainwash future generations.  Everyone knew that.

My father is not the type of man to back down from a fight, especially one that exists only in his head, and so he decided to start a school of his own.  What did he know about educating young minds?  Well, nothing, really.  But how hard could it be?  Give the students some flash cards, force them to memorize the Gettysburg Address, add a few multiplication tables into the mix—and voila!  Your kids were ready for Princeton.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy.

It should be noted here that there is a stubborn streak a mile wide that runs through the male descendants of the Bridges clan.  I have no idea if the cause is genetic or environmental, but I do know that it is often petty and can be shocking for unsuspecting bystanders to behold.  I once saw my grandfather fall thirty feet onto a gravel road while attempting to trim the branches of an oak tree on our property.  Frightened, I asked if I should call 911.  But he just shook his head, wiped the blood off his face, and—even though he was probably concussed—climbed back up to finish the job.  Why?  Because no tree’s gonna get the best of him, that’s why.  I think it was stubbornness that inspired my brother to become one of the best long-distance runners in the state.  Someone once told him that he couldn’t sprint from one end of town to the other, and, without pausing to contemplate the logic of such a challenge, he said, “Oh,yeah.  Watch me.”  When he finished, he fell to his knees and vomited for several minutes.  He then looked up at the person who told him he couldn’t do it…and smiled.  As for myself, in my mid-twenties I nearly drowned trying to swim across a lake in Guatemala because I was too stubborn to admit I couldn’t make it to the other side.  Not once, not twice, but three times local fishermen in boats stopped to ask me if I needed assistance—my desperate flailing was causing a scene and possibly scaring off the fish—but I waved them on.  Less than two minutes after the last boat departed, I realized I was going to die in a city whose name I couldn’t pronounce, and I began to scream for help.  The fishermen in the third boat turned around and picked me up.  He piloted me to the other side, where my friends were waiting, their hands strategically covering their mouths in an effort to hide their laughter.

Possibly the most stubborn branch on our well-trimmed family tree, my father is constantly on the lookout for opportunities to be uncooperative.  He enjoys doing things his own way, especially if his own way is unpopular in the community and inconvenient for the mainstream establishment.  Therefore, after being told by various family members and local government officials that starting his own school was a terrible idea, my father decided to do just that.

And that is how it came to pass that I began my formal education in a bomb shelter beneath the First Church of Christ in Fort Morgan, Colorado.

Originally, the space had been a basement where potlucks and prayer meetings were held, but as the Cold War wore on and fear of a nuclear holocaust increased, certain churchgoers began referring to the subterranean space as a fall-out shelter.  Whenever there was a tornado warning in the area—and in the summer this occurred at least twice a week—congregation members who lived nearby would huddle together underneath the church, singing hymns or praying silently while the storm raged overhead.  Of course, a nuclear bomb is not the same as a funnel cloud of wind, but when the sky is falling Chicken Little doesn’t waste time clucking about petty details.  Hypothetically, if the Ruskies ever decided to nuke the local Gas-N-Sip, we would be able to hide out in the cement sanctuary beneath our house of worship until the radioactive dust had settled.  After that, we would emerge like Noah from the Ark to witness the dawn of a new day in human civilization.

It was only logical to combine the school with the bomb shelter.  That way the children would receive a quality religious education while simultaneously being protected from an atomic blast.  It was like killing two adulterers with one stone.

Technically the school was open to anyone who wanted to pay the tuition fee, but for some reason the local citizens failed to see the benefits their children would reap from studying penmanship inside an armored foxhole.  Therefore, Christ Foundation School (or CFS, as the cool kids called it) matriculated exactly eleven students varying in age from five to eighteen, all offspring of our congregation members.  We were a collection of shy, homely children who said “sir” and “ma’am” far too often and had difficulty making direct eye contact with strangers.  You’ve probably seen young people like this handing out religious pamphlets at the mall or trudging door-to-door in suburban neighborhoods.  No matter what decade it is, the boys tend to have uneven home haircuts and the girls twist their pigtails into rope-like braids.  Braids are cute when you’re six years old, but they start taking on an air of creepiness as one approaches voting age.  Like doll collections and clip-on ties.  It wasn’t hard to understand why our parents put all their philosophical eggs in one spiritual basket.  In the physical world, we were a few yokes short of an omelet.

There was one teacher for the entire school, a large, pear-shaped woman named Roberta Dilrumple, who spent most of her time sitting on an aluminum folding chair in the back of the classroom, quietly humming “Nearer My God to Thee” while she embroidered Bible verses on pillow cases.  She wore pastel turtlenecks under denim vests, and there was always a turquoise broach the size of a tarantula pinned to her enormous bosom.  Mrs. Dilrumple’s ample hips had given birth to more than half the student body, which was the only reason she had been given the title of educator in the first place.  She was a nice enough woman, I suppose, but you could tell molding young minds wasn’t exactly her lifelong ambition.  Mrs. Dilrumple’s work philosophy was not dissimilar to that of a goat herder: as long as one of the kids didn’t wander onto the highway or get eaten by a pack of wolves, she considered the day a success.

The school itself was just a single room, a dark, damp space that always smelled curiously of moth balls and cheese.  There were no windows and the only door led to a dirt parking lot behind the church.  The ceiling was low and littered with exposed wires, as well as various metal pipes that made hissing noises and dripped brown sludge whenever someone flushed a toilet upstairs.  On the south wall, an American flag hung next to a watercolor painting of Jesus tending a flock of sheep, and on the north wall, there was a loan chalkboard with the words Welcome, Soldiers of God! written in large, cursive letters.  The i in Soldiers was dotted with a little, pink heart.  The other two walls were occupied by the students’ desks, each separated one from another by tall, plywood dividers, like rows of public bathroom stalls.  Add the dim lighting and cement floors, and the facility looked remarkably similar to the men’s room at the local swimming pool.  Except more educational.

The curriculum was based on a series of age-appropriate workbooks called Packets of Accelerated Christian Education, or PACEs for short.  These workbooks covered the same subject matter featured in most public schools, with one minor exception: everything had a religious theme. For instance, while attempting to complete one of the math PACEs, a student might have come across a word problem like this: If there are 4 sinners and God saves 2 sinners, how many sinners are left?  On every desk there was a red, plastic cup that contained various pens, pencils, and a small American flag.  If a student had a question, they would remove the flag from the cup and place its stem in a pencil-sized hole above their desk.  Mrs. Dilrumple would then heave herself off her chair with an irritated grunt and waddle over to answer this patriotic inquiry.

Christ Foundation School was based on the honor system.  When a student completed a section in their workbook, they would take it to the Grading Station, a long folding table at the front of the class, where their answers would be compared to those found in the teacher’s manual.  The Grading Station was littered with red pens, which were used to mark wrong answers and record the overall score at the top of the page.  9/10, 7/15, etc.  The graded workbook would then be carried across the room to Mrs. Dilrumple, who would put aside her knitting needles and record the final score in her grade book.  At the end of the quarter, these scores were tallied and report cards were either sent home by mail or, more often than not, passed out to parents following the Sunday-morning sermon.

Because my father was both the preacher of the church and the principal of the school, I decided that I must be better than the other students.  Not better at any one particular subject, just a better all around person.  Spiritually better.  Of course Mrs. Dilrumple insisted we were all equal in the eyes of God, but I knew this couldn’t possibly be true.  One look at Laura Freytag’s cauliflower ear or Gary Crismer’s back hump and anyone with an ounce of sense could see that God played favorites.  I just happened to be one of them.  As the son of a holy man, it stood to reason that I would be more intelligent and talented than my peers.  Not to mention the moral superiority that I wielded, if I did say so myself, in an impressively altruistic fashion.  Whenever a student giggled during the morning prayer or made farting noises with their armpit, I would immediately raise my hand and inform on the little heretic.  More often than not, the perpetrator was a pudgy, freckle-faced dullard named Philip, who happened to be the youngest member of the Dilrumple brood and as such was prone to acts of immaturity as a means of drawing attention to himself.  It wasn’t entirely Philip’s fault.  Not blessed with an overabundance of intelligence or charm, he needed some way to distinguish himself from his numerous siblings, so imitating flatulence became his calling card.  Philip and I quickly became oppositional clichés, he of the class clown variety and me the teacher’s pet.  Whenever I informed on Philip, Mrs. Dilrumple would either yell at him or smack him in the back of the head or both.  Watching these mini-beatings I felt a sense of accomplishment.  I was helping punish the wicked.  I was doing God’s work.

Since I was not yet fully literate, I spent a majority of my first year at Christ Foundation School memorizing Bible verses and then carefully copying them into a large notebook that I kept at my desk.  I got to be pretty good at it, too, going so far as to imitate the ornate calligraphy found in certain passages of my father’s ancient King James Version.  But the satisfaction was negligible.  There was no need to grade these clumsy scratchings, as it was simply an exercise designed to sharpen my reading and writing skills.  As long as I completed the assignments in a timely manner, my report cards were exemplary, but no one was impressed by them.  I was like a family pet performing a trick on command.  “Good boy,” my mother would say when I showed her my finished homework.  Then she would pat me on the head and give me a treat.

But I didn’t want to be merely good.  I wanted to be exceptional.

At the start of my second year, I received a stack of PACEs along with the older students and was told to complete them as best I could.  Expectations were not high.  So far I had displayed no special talents in the academic department.  Despite constant prayers requesting a genius brain and the ability to shoot laser beams from my eyes, my intellectual progress remained average, at best, and my enemies refused to burst into flames no matter how hard I stared at them.  “What are you looking at?” Mrs. Dilrumple asked after informing me that, no, I could not skip a grade, and, yes, it was too early for me to apply to Harvard.

“Does your head feel warm?” I replied.

“No.”

“How about now?”

“No!”

“How about now?”

But then a miracle happened.  Much to the astonishment of everyone concerned, I cruised through my first set of workbooks in a single week with just a few wrong answers along the way.  The second week yielded similar results, as did the third, and by the end of the quarter people were starting to take notice.  I received perfect marks in all my subjects.  It was an unbelievable turnaround.  The school soon ran out of workbooks at my age level, and I was given a three-day vacation while more were ordered.  My fellow students regarded me with wonder, and their parents suggested I lead a study group.  By the end of the school year, even Mrs. Dilrumple was forced to acknowledge my intellectual prowess.

My parents were delighted, especially my father, who now felt vindicated for his decision to start the school in the first place.  All those naysayers had been proven wrong.  Public education was a farce.  There was no need to waste taxpayer money on expensive textbooks and “certified” teachers when students could thrive just as well in a hole in the ground.  His own son was living proof that religious education worked.

Gaining my father’s attention was no easy feat.  Not only was he the leader of our church and our school, he had also been tasked with converting as many sinners to our faith as possible before the world ended.  With the fate of the human race in his hands, it was sometimes difficult to convince my father that he should drop everything and listen to a story about how I’d caught a lizard in the backyard that afternoon.  Even if the lizard was big and green and I had to run really fast to catch it and then its tail fell off and that was pretty gross and then I put the lizard in a jar and then it escaped and then my sister screamed and then I chased the lizard around the kitchen and then I took it outside and then I saw a squirrel.

Normally my father listened to these riveting lizard stories from the other side of a newspaper, pausing intermittently to clear his throat and turn a page, but now that I was the star pupil at his school he began taking an interest in my life.  Unprompted, he volunteered to tutor me in math and purchased a set of used encyclopedias, which sat thenceforth unused on a bookshelf next to my bed.  I was thrilled to receive his full attention and became even more determined to be a model student.

News of my educational accomplishments reached the company that made our workbooks, and they sent me a medal in honor of my success.  It was bronze plated and about the size of a silver dollar.  On the front was a cross floating above an open Bible, and on the back it was engraved with the words, For exceptional academic achievement.  God Bless America.  The medal was attached to a red, white, and blue ribbon that had a stickpin on the back so the exceptional recipient could fasten it to his exceptional shirt.  I wore it everywhere that summer.  It was physical evidence that I was indeed special, and I wanted to rub it in everyone’s face.  Often I would pin the medal to my Sesame Street pajamas before I crawled into bed at night or attach it to my uniform before soccer practice.  Eventually the ribbon became frayed and the medal itself began to tarnish, but nothing could convince me to take it off.  After a few months my mother gently suggested that perhaps the medal should stay at home when I went certain places, like to the swimming pool, say, or anywhere else in public.  She tried to explain that it was important for me to be humble like Jesus, but I wasn’t having it.  I figured humility was something invented by ordinary people to keep the extraordinary in check.  Why should I pretend to be just like everyone else when it was obvious that I was better?  How did I know I was better?  I had a medal to prove it.  So there.

As summer vacation drew to an end, I prepared to return to school a conquering hero.  By this time I’d retired my medal to a prominent spot on top of my dresser, but only because I planned to earn a dozen more the upcoming year.  Now that I’d had a taste of public recognition, there was no limit to my ambition.  I expected Mrs. Dilrumple and the other students to fall all over themselves when I walked through the door.  Flash bulbs would pop from all directions and autographs would be requested.  Reporters from a variety of national and international newspapers would fight for my attention as I held up my hands.  “Please, everyone calm down.  One question at a time.”

But when I arrived at school, there were no photographers and everyone acted as though I was just another student, not a celebrity genius.  I was tempted to go home and retrieve my medal just to remind everyone who they were dealing with, but decided against it.  Better to prove myself again in the trenches than to rehash old war stories.  So I graciously accepted my stack of PACEs and settled back into my cubicle, prepared to eclipse the previous year’s performance and claim my rightful place next to Newton and Einstein in the pantheon of prominent intellectuals.

Everything went as planned for the first couple of months.  I continued to fly through my workbooks with incredible ease, scoring almost perfect marks in every subject and earning the admiration of my peers along the way.  I made room on my dresser for more medals and petitioned my parents for a glass trophy case.  At night in front of the bathroom mirror, I often practiced the witty conversations I would have with Dick Cavett when he invited me to appear on his popular talk show.

“So you’re the boy genius we’ve heard so much about,” Dick would say.  “How does it feel to be one of the smartest kids on the planet?”

I would dismiss his compliment with a blasé shrug.  “I’m really not so special,” I’d say.  “Surely there are other children out there who can sing the ‘Alphabet Song’ really fast while standing on their heads.”

Then I would shock the studio audience by doing a perfect headstand right there on stage while simultaneously reciting the alphabet at an astonishing pace.  The audience would gasp and erupt into wild applause.  As a special bonus prize for being the most interesting person to ever appear on his show, Dick would give me a million dollars and a spider monkey.  I would name the monkey Cornelius and train him to attack my sisters whenever they attempted to enter my room uninvited.  We would be very happy together.

It was Philip Dilrumple who ended my dreams of owning a territorial primate and becoming the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  Later he would claim it was an accident, but I never believed it.  He was getting even for all those times I ratted him out.

It happened one afternoon in mid-October, just after lunch.  I had recently finished a PACE dedicated to social studies that featured a cartoon image of a soldier saluting the American flag on the cover, and I was going over it at the Grading Station when Philip, who was sitting across from me, suddenly yelled, “Mom!  He’s cheating!  He’s cheating!  Mom!”

I looked up, surprised by the sudden outburst but otherwise nonplussed.  After all, I was innocent.  Why would a genius need to cheat?  It was absurd.  When asked, I willingly extended my workbook to Mrs. Dilrumple, expecting her to glance at it and then give Philip a good, hard whipping for attempting to incriminate the school’s star pupil.  Instead, her eyes widened and she said the seven most horrible words in the English language: “I need to talk to your father.”

It turned out my entire academic career had been a lie.  I had been cheating from day one without knowing it.  The vacations, the medal, the accolades—they meant nothing.  I was not a genius, I was a charlatan.

Here’s how it happened.  On the first day of class, Mrs. Dilrumple spent several hours explaining the numerous rules and regulations of Christ Foundation School to the students.  She went into painstaking detail concerning the importance of punctuality, what to do when we had a question, and even how many times we were allowed to urinate in a single afternoon.  I listened as long as I could until I became bored, which was approximately two minutes, and then I leaned back in my chair and began daydreaming about what it would be like to deliver my valedictorian speech.  I pictured a large audience dressed in formal wear hanging on my every word.  The President of the United States would be there, of course, along with certain important political figures and various members of the entertainment industry: Robert Redford, Hulk Hogan, the cast of The Dukes of Hazzard, etc.  My parents would be seated in the front row, and toward the end of the speech, after thanking God and America, I would graciously acknowledge their role in my upbringing.  My mother would burst into tears, and my father would put his arm around her shoulder to comfort her.  It would be clear even to the television audience watching at home that there were no two prouder parents on the planet.

My ears were still ringing with applause when Mrs. Dilrumple’s lecture ended.

I was able to figure out most of the rules and procedures simply by watching my classmates and using common sense.  However, the grading system tripped me up a bit.  I decided that I was supposed to sit in my cubicle and answer all the questions I knew in my workbooks.  I left the questions I didn’t know the answers to blank, because why would you write down an answer if you didn’t know it?  That would be absurd.  Afterward, I would take my workbook to the Grading Station, check to see if the answers I’d written down were correct, and then fill in the rest of the questions with the appropriate solutions.  I assumed my peers were also using this method, as it seemed the only logical course of action based on the physical evidence available.  And that was how I completed more PACEs than any other student at the school.  It was simple.

During the meeting with Mrs. Dilrumple and my father, I was confused.  I knew I had done something dishonest, but I still didn’t entirely understand where I’d gone wrong.  Academic assignments had been given to me, I completed them to the best of my ability, and then I corrected them.  Why all this fuss over a procedural technicality?

My father’s disappointment was considerable.  Just a few short hours ago, his son had been a budding prodigy who proved his theory that big government had no business educating the youth of America.  Now I was just an odd, lizard-chasing kid with an inflated sense of entitlement and a short attention span.  I’d gone from hero to hoax in the time it took to boil an egg.

In the end, it was decided that mine was an honest mistake and instead of announcing it publicly, which would embarrass everyone involved and diminish the school’s credibility, I would simply start grading my workbooks in the appropriate manner.  I returned to my studies a chastened man.  My academic performance immediately slowed to a snail’s pace, and the words “average” and “potential” began appearing on my report cards.

Despite the fact that there was no official announcement, somehow my little misunderstanding spread quickly through the ranks.  Considering all the gloating I’d done the previous year, my classmates were magnanimous when I fell off my pedestal, although they failed to completely hide their amusement.  For the next six months, it became a running joke amongst the older students to ask if I would grade their workbooks when they were doing poorly in a subject.  For some reason, they were certain their scores would improve if I was the one correcting their work.  Mrs. Dilrumple scolded the students for teasing me in this manner, but on several occasions I was certain I saw a wry smile tug at the corners of her mouth when she did so.

With my whiz-kid reputation publicly dismantled, I was left with an enormous, attention-starved ego and nothing to feed it.  Over the past year, I had grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle, one that included public recognition and the smug sense of self-importance that is common to those who think they’re smarter than everyone else.  I couldn’t go back to being just another average kid, not after being told I was exceptional.  And so, with my vanity against the wall, I fell back on the only other trick in my bag: moral superiority.  After all, there would always be someone more intelligent, talented, attractive, or athletically gifted, but that did not necessarily mean they were walking the righteous path, right?  Of course not.  In fact, if you niggled enough and narrowed your criteria until it became impossible for any normal, red-blooded human to live up to, you could find character flaws in just about anyone.

I became the living, breathing embodiment of sanctimony.  Whenever one of my peers skipped class or stole so much as a nickel from the tithe box, I was there to point a diminutive, judgmental finger in their direction.  No lie was too white, no crime to petty.  Nothing escaped my hypocrisy.  And being that ethical purity was far more important at our school than academic prowess, it wasn’t long until I regained my old pedestal—and then stacked a soapbox and a high horse on top of it.

While my father generally approved of my new-found zealotry, he was not about to let me off the hook so easily.  I was allowed to keep the medal I had been given as a reminder of my behavior.  It was supposed to be a badge of dishonor to keep me humble.  However, I quickly turned the shameful souvenir into a prop.  Alone in my room, I would stand on my bed and deliver acceptance speeches for a wide variety of honors and awards, as my stuffed animals applauded below.  Sometimes I had just won Best Actor at the Oscars, sometimes I was accepting my twentieth Grammy, and sometimes I was simply being recognized for being an all-around great person by everyone who had ever met me.  Whatever the occasion, when the speech was over I would pin the medal to my shirt and take a deep bow, while the audience cheered and cheered.

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