King of the Road

I did not excel in high school math.

I enjoyed Geometry, but I did poorly in Algebra II, so poorly that I was in Algebra II-B my senior year instead of Trigonometry.

As I approached graduation, I had pretty much given up on my math class, and I spent sixth period twiddling a quarter-inch drill bit in my fingers, very very slowly drilling a hole through my desk. It was months before the hole went all the way through the desk. I tore a small piece of paper out of my assignment notebook and sketched a grayscale Union Jack. I licked the homemade flag and stuck it to my pencil, and planted it in the hole. Then I saluted. Ms. Tangney laughed.

A friend of mine, Rob, sat in the back of the class. He was even more checked out than I was, having given up on academics in general. He taught me the lyrics to “King of the Road” and “The Gambler,” and we staged mock kung fu battles in the back of the classroom before class started, complete with random mouth movements meant to suggest bad English overdubs.

One day, Rob decided to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” drowning out Ms. Tangney’s attempts at instruction. I joined in with gusto. She promptly threw me out of the classroom and sent me to see the assistant principal. Mr. Doherty drew the short straw and ushered me into his tiny office, barely big enough for his desk.

“What is it this time, mister?”

I admitted that I had been singing during class.

“What do you think would be an appropriate consequence?”

I said that I thought it was unfair that Ms. Tangney had sent me for disciplinary action and not Rob, as he was singing the melody and I was only singing harmony.

Mr. Doherty snorted and suppressed a laugh, but he quickly recovered his stern demeanor.

“Why do you suppose Ms. Tangney sent you to see me, but not Rob?”

I said I didn’t know.

“Let me ask you this. Between you and Rob, which of you is more likely to get your act together and make something useful out of your life? You don’t have to answer that, just think about it.”

My eyes opened wide as I tried to wrap my head around what I thought he was saying. I knew I would graduate with or without a decent math grade, but Rob was a burnout. Had he given up on himself? Had the school given up on him?

“While you think about that, think about this. I don’t give a damn if you learn algebra or not. But you will NOT disrupt the class and prevent someone else from learning. Is that clear?”

Yes, sir.

“Am I going to have any more crap out of you?”

No, sir.

Thank you, sir.