My Dad was a man of few words. Despite having read thousands of books and having written hundreds of pieces of correspondence (in addition to keeping a journal for over thirty years), he kept his speaking to a minimum. Perhaps it was because of all of his reading and writing that he developed an economy for words. When I was growing up, a lot of his talking, that I remember, occurred when he’d fall asleep on the couch after dinner and he’d begin a somnioquoy about people and things at work. Being good and respectful children, we’d inevitably start making fun of him and try to wake him up, asking, “Who’s Randy?” More than that, Dad’s words were almost never foul. Not to say he never cussed, but it was a nearly unique experience that he cussed at home. I can probably count on one hand how many times I ever heard him utter “shit” or “damn.” I never heard him use the Queen Mother Of All Dirty Words. The words he used were almost always well chosen and articulate.
When it came to our schooling, Dad spoke even less. I don’t remember him ever going to any parent/teacher conferences, much less getting involved in our homework. Neither of these things are a knock on Dad, per se, he took his role as breadwinner for a family of twelve kids very seriously but generally left school matters to Mom (which she obliged) as part of their separation of duties. It was because of an incident at school, involving me, however, that led not only to him going full-on into school business but also into him uttering the greatest nine words I ever heard emerge from his mouth:
“I’m going to have her ass on a plate!”
It was my eighth grade year at St. Martha School in Louisville. I was, by and large, an underachieving student. I did pretty well in most of my classes (Reading, Spelling, Civics, Science) without having to really try, but Math was not my friend (and wouldn’t be for several more years when I discovered that you really do use the stuff in real life). Art and music were easy and generally involved staying awake in order to score the much-sought-after “OP.”* At this particular time, music class actually was a little more involved than usual. We were in the early stages of readying ourselves for the school play, a musical version of Alice In Wonderland. I was excited, probably the most excited I ever was in all of eighth grade, because I really, really liked Alice’s surreal adventures down the rabbit hole and through the mirror.
I need to backtrack for a second and tell you about our music teacher, Mrs. Byrd. St. Martha was a middle-class, mostly white, suburban Catholic parish in Louisville, and the associated school was made up of middle-class, mostly white kids who grew up in the suburbs. Mrs. Byrd was the antithesis of this. She was a black woman who had grown up in the South (the real South, not Louisville “south”)and a, gasp, Baptist! Whether it was mostly perceived or reality, culturally, she was worlds away from her students. She single-handedly introduced bongo drums and a rollicking piano into our weekly school Masses, dispensing with the traditional organ notes. She brought the kids of St. Martha from traditional, pre-Vatican II hymns to, essentially, rock music anthems for songs at Mass. Ask any alum from the time about the “Our Father” or “Ho-oh-oly” and they will be able to immediately pick up up and start singing (and bongoing). Guaranteed. Back to Mrs. Byrd, it’s possible (and trust me, I’m stretching here, even thirty years later) that her non-white, non-suburban, non-Catholic background is what led to a such a glorious, er, misunderstanding.
So…. Alice in Wonderland: Love it. Even then, it was one of my favorite books and Disney movies. The absurdity of it all never gets old. And it’s a nice and fitting coincidence that it relates to this particular episode in my life.
In preparation for performing the play, we watched the movie as well as read the script or excerpts from the book in music class. Afterwards, we were asked to complete a worksheet where we were asked to describe some of the characters. In addition to Alice, White Rabbit, and Mad Hatter, the worksheet also delved into some of the minor characters from the stories within the story, notably, the Walrus, the Carpenter, and the Oysters.** Like I said, I was excited that this was going to be our play, so I wanted to show my excitement (and demonstrate how I really was paying attention in class), so I completed my worksheet with some simple, straightforward, and accurate answers:
- WALRUS–P.T. Barnum
In my mind, I had aced this assignment. I had blown it out of the water with my direct answers, as well as throwing in the P.T. Barnum name-drop for good measure, demonstrating a cultural reference to go along with my first two. I was sure I had nailed it, and I couldn’t wait for Mrs. Byrd to see how truly engaged I was in the assignment and the upcoming theatrical extravaganza.
My pride and excitement lasted all the way through to our next music class, where I received my paper back.
Covered in angry red ink.
And violent circles.
And accusatory question marks.
And, in a breach of protocol, a damning F.
Somehow, something had gone horribly wrong.
And I was being accused of making crude sexual references on my worksheet.
Shocked, I walked home in a daze and showed Mom my paper, as well as the note sent home with it for parental signature. I couldn’t believe it. Mrs. Byrd, who had also contacted and received agreement from our first-year principal, Sister Johnette, believed that I was making a mockery of the assignment, saying that said Messrs. Carpenter and Oysters “sucked.” I was devastated. Mom didn’t doubt my sincerity for a second. My tear-filled eyes told her I was telling the truth. She sent me along to do my homework and chores, although I probably just spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in my room, wondering how Mrs. Byrd and Sister Johnette could have misinterpreted my answers. And my thoughts were also on how Dad would react. Just because Mom (rightfully) believed me and I was sure that she’d be the one to sign the paper and send it back to school and that she’d be certain I’d try to choose my words more carefully, even if I was right, there was a part of me that was worried, scared, of his reaction. Writing dirty words, or words that could be construed as dirty, might just be an egregious enough offense that he’d cross over into the realm of school matters and threaten to punish me.
I don’t remember him getting home that night. Or what dinner was. But I do know that there would be no dreams of Randy that evening. Mom must have given him the background info, and pleaded my innocence in the matter. From there, I think, he retreated up to their bedroom, and to one of three corded telephones in the house and called Sister Johnette. Afterwards, he came downstairs, calmly irate, and asked me what happened. I explained it to him honestly: the Carpenter and the Oysters were suckers, fools. They were tricked by the Walrus. In the case of the Carpenter, it led to his hunger, for the Oysters, their demise. The Walrus, I continued, was proving the P.T. Barnum axiom that “there’s a sucker born every minute.” That was it. Nothing subversive or obscene intended (that hadn’t even entered my mind until the whole controversy started). The more I explained, earnestly, my thoughts, Dad became more and more angry. Sister Johnette had told Dad that she and Mrs. Byrd were convinced that I was deeply involved in a insubordinate and offensive conspiracy (I, apparently, wasn’t the only one who thought the characters were “suckers”). After grilling me under a bare lightbulb (or so it seemed) for an eternity, Dad was fuming. Yeah, his boy was being railroaded by a witch-hunting nun and a Baptist. And he wasn’t going to let it go by the wayside. And that’s when it happened. The glorious phrase. You could almost hear Ride Of The Valkyries in the background. Dad was going to call Sister Johnette back. He was going to let this nun know exactly what he thought of her and her accusations.
“I’m going to have her ass on a plate!”
This time, Dad didn’t go upstairs to use the phone, he used the one in the kitchen, where all of us could listen and admire this soft-spoken, smallish man tear into this Tipper Gore precusor. “Sucker! What’s a sucker? Look in the thesaurus! Sucker! Patsy! Chump! Oh! Schmuck! That’s a Jewish word for penis!”
It. Was. Glorious.
All of us who were at home were in awe. Ears and eyes wide open. Up on our knees and leaning over the back of the couch toward the kitchen. Hanging on every word. The man who rarely uttered more than three words at a time was firing off a tirade for the ages. The phone call went on, but by the time Mom heard talk of Jewish penises, she’d had enough and sent everybody off to finish their chores and to get ready for bed. The entire household was electric. I was stunned. My heart was racing and my pride in Dad had never been stronger. This was his moment. This was his finest hour.
The next day at school, Sister Johnette and Mrs. Byrd called me out into the hallway. They said they hoped I understood how they could have misinterpreted what I had written. Smugly, I responded, “yeah.” In my mind I added, “because the two of you are complete dumbasses.” They didn’t apologize, a point that didn’t sit too well with Dad when I reported home to him that evening. Still, he had made his point and Sister Johnette learned not to mess with Bob Barnett. For my part, I learned that teachers weren’t always right, and it was okay to stand up to them when they are wrong. And I learned that Dad, even though he’d rarely say it, had my back.
And in the end, I got the part of the March Hare in our production of Alice In Wonderland. And life was just beginning to become curiouser and curiouser.
*Our grading scale at the time, no doubt in an effort to not hurt feelings was based on three marks: OP (Outstanding Progress), EP (Expected Progress), and LP (Little Progress). Mom despised these, seeing them as arbitrary. For example, a kid that was cruising along and would ordinarily receive an A or B might, theoretically, receive the same OP as a kid who had struggled from F to low-C. Or, that same A or B kid should, theoretically, receive an EP, because they were keeping up and doing their work. I’m pretty sure they ditched that grading scale not long after.
**If you haven’t read Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, and don’t know who these characters are, shame on you. Read that (or at least Google it, for crying out loud) and then come back here.