Coming of Age

Time to Move On.

Fourteen is an awkward age for a boy. You're surrounded by life lessons. Sometimes you learn them by making mistakes, sometimes by making the right decisions, and sometimes from good mentoring. One of my most important lessons learned came from none of these. It was pure serendipity.

I found myself headed to the Assistant Principal's office. That's not good, but even worse, being escorted by my favorite teacher of all time, Miss Taylor. So vivid to me even today was the trip. As a kid, you're usually in the hall before, after, or between classes. This was during class. The hall was empty. All I remember hearing was the 'click-clicking' of her heels and the 'swish-swishing' noise of her pants-suit legs. She was motoring.

When we got to the office, she pointed to a bench in the hallway and said, "Sit here." Within a few minutes, she returned and said, "He'll be out for you in a moment." She left, leaving in the same brusque manner as our arrival.

Perhaps it was a moment, but it seemed much longer to me. I was trying to weigh in my mind, how much trouble I'd be in. Maybe in my favor was the Assistant Principal himself, Mr. Leister. He occupied other titles in my life, basketball coach and next-door neighbor. He knew me quite well.

His receptionist finally came out and said, "He'll see you now."

When I walked into his office, he was sitting there, flipping through some papers which he finally put away. He then placed a yellow pad in front of him and pulled a pencil from his desk drawer. He looked up at me and peered over his glasses. After a wait, he said, "Sit down. You're in trouble, you know?"

I sat down. It didn't make sense for me to say anything, so I just sat there. The ticks and tocks of the old Regulator clock were the loudest noise in the room.

He finally spoke. "Miss Taylor said that you disrupted her class. Frankly, I was surprised. It didn't sound like something you would do. Also, Miss Taylor is very fond of you. She has told me on numerous occasions that you were one of her best students. You always read your book assignments and turn in all exercises on time. What made you disrupt her class today?"

Looking up, I timidly replied, "I didn't mean to."

He wrote something down on his yellow pad. He said, "She was doing a class exercise and asked the class what fictional character had the most impact on their lives. Since she was getting zero feedback, she specifically called on you, knowing that you seem to read more than the rest of the class. She felt that your thoughtful response might encourage more participation. The only participation you encouraged was laughter."

"I didn't mean for that to happen. In honesty, once that answer left my mouth, I wanted to reach out, grab it and pull it back."

"Okay, Bill, for the record, what was your answer to the question of what fictional character had the most impact on your life."

Looking down at my feet, I practically mumbled, "Popeye the Sailor Man."

He wrote some more on his pad. "That's what Miss Taylor said. Now, what is it about that answer that you think wouldn't be disruptive?"

I didn't say anything. Mr. Leister finally asked, "Bill?"

"If I tell you, you'll probably laugh or think I'm dumb."

"I doubt I'll do either. It is a bit unusual that I probably know you better than any other student in this school. I truly do want to hear your answer and have a serious conversation."

Taking a breath, I started. "Until last Friday, Susie Stine was my girlfriend. We went to a party at a friend's house and Larry Eubanks just danced her out of my life. After the party, Susie told me that she just wanted to be friends. Do you know what that means?"

"Well, Bill, it could mean a lot of things. It could mean she just wanted to be friends."

"Come on, Mr. Leister. You said a serious conversation. What it means is to drop dead and get out of my life. Do you know Larry?"

"Well, I don't know him as well as you. I know that he's the quarterback on our football team and is a very good athlete."

"Yes sir, he is all that. He's also an obnoxious bully. Being held back a year, he tends to be bigger than most of us. In classes we've been in together, he rarely does homework and is a big prankster. He always seems to wear the coolest and neatest clothes in school. So, he's the guy that just danced Susie out of my life."

Mr. Leister chewed on the end of his pencil before finally replying. "I know it hurts right now, but I believe you'll have lots of girlfriends in your life. You've got a lot going for yourself. In time you're going to see that this is just another day in your life."

"You might be right, but I know that it sure hurt me. Did you know Chris Brown?"

Mr. Leister was silent for a moment. "Yes, I knew Chris. He was well-liked in this school. His suicide last month was a shock to us all."

"Well, it was sure a shock to me. He was my best friend. When I got home last Friday, I started to dial his phone number. Girls naturally seemed to like him. I knew he would give me good advice. I'm glad I didn't finish dialing. It's just hard for me to believe that he's gone."

"Bill, I'm glad to talk about these things, but it is unclear to me how they are related to our situation."

"I know, Mr. Leister, but they all connect. This Sunday, I walked down to our basement. My sister was on the couch watching cartoons. I sat there for a minute and wasn't paying attention. All of a sudden, I noticed that the cartoon was Popeye. Olive Oyl told Popeye that she didn't want to be his girlfriend anymore. At that moment, Brutus drove up. He was in a brand-new car and had a fancy suit on. Olive grabbed his arm and they practically waltzed out the door."

I took a breath, really just checking to see if Mr. Leister was listening. He was, so I continued. "Popeye was broken up. He walked around muttering to himself, stopping every once in a while and looking up, and finally said, "I loves you, Olive Oyl, but you've got to understand, 'I yam what I yam and that's all that I yam. I'm Popeye the Sailor Man." As it turned out, Brutus wasn't all that he seemed to be and Olive came back to Popeye."

"Okay, Bill, I bite. What's your point?"

"Mr. Leister, believe it or not, Popeye made sense to me. Susie might come back to me, and that's fine. If she doesn't, that's fine too. It got me to thinking. I yam what I yam as well, and guess what?"

"What's that, Bill?"

"I'm okay with that. I like myself just fine. I’m moving on. "

Mr. Leister paused for a minute, made a note in his notebook, and pulled out an index card. With a magic marker, in block letters, he wrote, "I YAM WHAT I YAM AND THAT'S ALL THAT I YAM. I'M POPEYE THE SAILOR MAN." He posted the note to his corkboard.

Looking up at me, he said, "Just go on back to class. I'll clear this up with Miss Taylor. You know what? You are okay."

October 14, 2022 16:39

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Mary Lehnert
20:31 Oct 27, 2022

So engaging. Wish teachers would sometimes lighten up. Raised two boys in the American system. So many principals were just like this one . Still the best way for a kid to go through High School.


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Alistair James
10:10 Oct 27, 2022

Excellent William, 'I yam what I yam' - the words came back to me and took on a new meaning and a context too.


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Writers Block
06:46 Oct 24, 2022

Good references and dissonance


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