Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Yesterday I returned to Pittsburgh after yet another trip to Lancaster, my second in three weeks, and fortunately this post is not a recounting of the experience driving home. I attended my friend Mark's mother's 65th birthday party, and as with every trip I make to Lancaster, I enjoyed myself immensely. There is a palpable ease that comes with being in the company of longtime friends. Simply passing time with Mark & Adrienne, even if we're just watching TV, is worthwhile, just as it is with my friends Rob & Kate. If I had a job that caused me as much stress as my girlfriend Tina's job does (or any job whatsoever for that matter) I would be visiting them for the sole purpose of maintaining my sanity. Just to keep my stress meter out of the red, I would find cause to seek out their company, even if just to watch Harold & Kumar escape from Guantanamo Bay.

Just before I left this past Saturday to visit them, I completed a test assignment for a freelance writing job that I've applied for. It involves producing content for a particular company's websites. The test assignment was to write a general information piece for one of its online education clients, which describes to a potential online student what a Bachelors in Business Administration degree is...what courses are typically required, what skills are acquired...very basic stuff. In doing my research for the test assignment, I discovered that the BBA is also known as the Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (BSBA) degree, and I wondered how different my life would be if I had pursued a Bachelor in Science rather than my Bachelor of the Arts.

According to every standardized test that I've ever taken, my aptitude in math and science far exceeds my verbal aptitude. How would my life be different today if I had embraced this natural proficiency rather than playing around with words like a kid with fingerpaints? Would I have a job right now? A wife and family? Be a homeowner? (marriage, carriage, and mortgage -- note: the common denominator in these three words) Would I be markedly further along in the game of life than the individual described in this poem I wrote more than four years ago?


Your problem is
You don’t know how old
You are, or if
You do know
You’re in denial.

You can only sit for so long before
You can’t sit any longer; the phone
You should see it for the corpse that it is, but
You don’t.

You keep thinking it will jump to life any minute with something for
You to do, interesting, and when it doesn’t
You press buttons, coax friends like coma patients for a little something visceral
You know they can no longer provide.

You have not yet come to terms with what
Your life has become;
You no longer belong in a convertible while
Your friends’ SUVs ease off exit ramps, turn signals blinking. Somehow

You never learned the art of coupling; coagulation was never
Your forté; now that
You’re alone, lone passenger on the highway
You have no one else to blame for not being parked in a garage, in a home
You own at the end of a cauterized cul-de-sac.

You only have
Your hair tossing about
Your still baby-face,
Your cheeks pinched capillary pink by the breeze,
Your eyes full-on bloodshot, staring into
Your rear-view mirror staring back at

Again the question of nature vs. nurture. Though my mind was wired (now atrophied) for math and science, my experiences in high-school led me away from embracing this aptitude. As I recall, the definitive point of departure came by way of Ms. Martin in my AP Chemistry class--not Mrs. Martin, as she would quickly correct you if your tongue slipped in that direction. Nor was it Miss Martin; there was nothing miss-y about her. She was a blunt tool of science instruction and, as such, had the personality of a beaker (not the Beaker--the Henson muppet--who had loads more personality.)

She was controversial, though--a character trait that is often mistaken for "having a personality." (Think of a person you would call "controversial" and ask yourself, "Is there really anything more to him or her than that?") Ms. Martin was controversial bee-CAW-zuh her zealotry for science, and all things scientific, was coupled with an abhorrence for the arts and all things artistic. The first meeting of our AP Chemistry class began with her saying, "If you kids don't apply yourselves seriously to studying this material now, you'll end up going to college and becoming English majors."

Of course, she could not have anticipated the scope of her error. She was most likely oblivious to the fact that I was an editor (in one capacity or another) in every publication (except yearbook; too pop) on campus, that I would in a few short weeks win our class's English award, that I had all but proudly declared my intention to major in English at college. (Ironically enough I wouldn't do so, but that's another story.)

She could not have known how her words, in effect, weaponized me.

I began by targeting certain members of our class that had laughed at what she said. I looked past the incorrigible brown-nosers who couldn't help but laugh when they sensed the teacher was attempting a funny. (I could recognize them immediately, having been an incorrigible brown-noser myself, up until my sophomore year and my intellectual expansion sessions with Jon.)

Instead, I targeted those in the class who truly seemed to share her perspective. The absolute scientists. The next generation of Oppenheimers who needed to be checked early on in their careers. This was how I rationalized sabotaging the chemical solutions in their lab drawers before class when no one was around, substituting acids for bases, etc... until I realized I was doing nothing more than creating a nuisance, and not the cataclysms that I had envisioned occurring during lab period. Nothing ever blew up or corroded through a desk because I had no access to the chemicals needed to do so; they were always locked in a cabinet behind a locked door in the back of the lab.

Without chemical weapons at my disposal, I resorted to conventional guerrilla warfare. In our class, each lab station had a pressurized sink that shot a laser-thin stream of water from its faucet directly down into its drain. One day, with John Michael (my lab partner-in-crime), I loosened the nut at the base of one of these faucets, causing its chrome pipe to launch skyward when its hapless user (I forgot who I had targeted back then) turned the water on. Utterly stunned, the poor poindexter flailed in shutting off the geyser of water that was erupting from his lab station, causing his (and his lab partner's) textbooks and notebooks to be soaked beyond legibility.

Neither John nor I were fingered for the crime, but Ms. Martin had begun to suspect me as the culprit bee-CAW-zuh I had developed an increasingly combative attitude in class. Also I was the person that everyone in the room would turn towards, trying to hide the smiles on their faces, whenever she said one word in particular.

Ms. Martin was a native Bostonian, but her accent was somewhat difficult to discern until she pronounced this one word. In brainstorming conventional means to disrupt the class, I happened to notice how this word was inflected differently than I had ever heard it before, and I called John Michael's attention to it. We began to share smirks across our lab station, each time she used the word in explaining something in class.

Soon enough, the two of us had the entire class keyed on to her pronunciation of the word. It had become a game--even among those who didn't find her zealotry overbearing--to try to ask questions evoking a response that included this word. If you could get her to say bee-CAW-zuh twice in responding, you would bring the entire classroom to its knees, and this became a goal recognized as worthy of achieving, even among the most serious scientists in the class.

More so than any of my other classroom tactics, this was the most consistently effective disruptor. I took an added pleasure-- as a fore sworn English major -- in knowing that this chaos was being achieved using linguistic, rather than chemical, means. How apropos.

The day when she said bee-CAW-zuh four times in responding to a single question (asked in earnest, not as a joke, regarding a homework assignment - thus making it even funnier) it was like watching a dam break. With each bee-CAW-zuh, each face in the classroom cracked some more, until every one finally crumbled in laughter with its fourth utterance. Dumbfounded, Ms. Martin had no clue what everyone--even her prized coterie of favorite students--could be laughing about. All she knew was that I had to be at the bottom of it and told me so in private, after class. And though she had no proof, scientific or otherwise, I received detention.

From that point on, every time someone audibly snickered at a stray bee-CAW-zuh uttered during class, Ms. Martin dismissed me on the spot to see Mr. Hall with a detention slip. My game had developed a life of its own, running amok, a juggernaut beyond my control. The new game became who could get Todd detention. Even John Michael, that turncoat, laughed once at my (literal) expense, thereby sending me off from class with a detention slip. In the end, I received detention more times in that class alone than I had received in all of my other classes combined throughout four years of high-school.

Once the AP exam date drew near, Ms. Martin had the class motivated and prepared. No one even smiled anymore whenever she said bee-CAW-zuh; it had simply become because in their ears. Everyone was too focused on getting at least a 3 on the AP and the tangible reward of testing out of a required class in college. Her mantra had finally sunk in. She had won.

In turn, I had stopped receiving detention, and I had ceased devising means by which I could disrupt the classroom. I had no hope of getting a 3 on the AP test; that was certain. But I could still get a B in Ms. Martin's class, and I convinced myself that this was a goal worth attaining.

On our last day of class, I rose my hand and told this to Ms. Martin before everyone in the classroom. I told her that I was even inclined to seek out tutor help and, if I put my nose to the grindstone, I thought I'd be able to eek out a 3 on the AP exam. With everyone looking at me, absolutely dumbstruck, I confided that I had had a dream the previous night. I told her that, in my dream, I didn't go onto college and become an English major. I told her that, after studying with her, I was going to become an engineer.

After saying this, for the first time that I looked at her, I saw a human being. Her face reddened. Her eyes watered. She told me, in front of the class, that that is precisely what a teacher lives to hear. She then proceeded to ask me what kind of engineer I intended to be when I went to college. Structural? Electrical? Chemical?

"None of those," I said. "I want to be a train engineer."
"A what?"
"A train engineer," I said. "I want to drive a choo-choo."

She was so upset with my response, and the laughter that immediately filled the lab afterwards, that she forgot to give me a detention slip after dismissing me from the room.

Now that I think about it, I had no longer been upset about her derogatory comment regarding English majors at that point. Nor did I mind the detentions, which had given me a bad-apple Breakfast Club cache. I said what I did simply because I didn't want her to win, and though I had been weaponized, it's no excuse for me being the lesser person I had been in allowing myself to be. (?) If that makes sense... I need a glass of wine...

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