Friday, January 21, 2011

Another friend from home

When I wrote about my friend Bill, I mentioned one of the last times we spoke.  "It was a fine conversation, with Bill and our friend Crandall, whose story is worth a whole other post." 

This is that post. That's Crandall, #44, next to Bill. A genuinely good man, but someone who, as a kid, had a steep hill to climb, not because of his own situation, but because of a situation he found himself in. He had strong character, good parents and solid values. But he had the wrong last name.

Here's a column I wrote in 1995 for the Press-Republican of Plattsburgh, NY:

When my buddy came to school each September, the teacher always had a welcoming speech ready:  "Sit down and shut up. I don't want any trouble from you."

You see, he had the misfortune to be on the Faculty Mafia's hit-list.

The Faculty Mafia is a lot like the real thing: If you ask, everyone tells you it doesn't exist. It's a myth. There's no such thing.

And that's correct, to this extent: There is no formal organization, there is no recorded hit list, there is no way to trace anything. But the fact remains that every school has a core of teachers who, if you get on the wrong side of one, whether you are a kid, an untenured teacher or even an administrator with a delicate constitution, you might just as well pack up your books and move on down the road.

My friend had cousins and uncles who raised hell, and that was enough. When the family name turned up on the class roster, the old hands would roll their eyes and groan about the awful things to be expected from him, and declare that the only thing to do was to jump right on him before things got out of control.

My dad was constantly confused, because he was both my dad and a school board member, which meant he'd meet my friends in real life and get to know them, and then he'd hear about them at school board meetings and wonder how they had suddenly turned into such monsters.

In this case, he remembered my buddy from Cub Scouts, and from altar boys, and he couldn't understand why the teachers had so much trouble with him. What was confusing him, of course, was that he still thought of my friends as nice kids, so he treated them like nice kids, and so they behaved toward him like nice kids.

Most folks are like that.

Anyway, I remember sitting with my buddy in a diner late one afternoon. He was telling me that he had decided to drop out and take a job in Rochester that, I kept trying to tell him, was never going to get him anywhere.

But the only place he wanted to get was out of town, and I was hard-pressed to explain why he should stay in school. He'd flunked two years and was now only a sophomore to my senior. For me, staying in school meant a few more months; for him it was another two and half years, more if they nailed him again.

And you have to know how that time would be spent: If I were out in the hall without a pass, I'd get yelled at. He'd be put on detention at the very least. It had been that way for years, and I couldn't advise him to stick around where he clearly wasn't wanted.

So he left for Rochester and I finished school and went on to college, and we didn't see each other again for quite a while.

Then I came home for vacation and there he was, in the bar where we all hung out. He limped over, cane in hand, and we embraced in the middle of the floor, two 20-year-olds with a friendship that went back a decade-and-a-half.

We bought each other several beers, and he told me about Vietnam, and about his time rehabbing in stateside hospitals and how he was hopeful of being 100 percent before too much time had gone by.

He wasn't at all bitter. In fact, while he hadn't enjoyed being blown up, he'd had a pretty decent time since he left town, all things considered.

In the space between his words, I heard his story.

Basic training strips you of your identity, and you're only a number to the military.

Well, maybe that's bad, if you've gotten special privileges because of your name.

But he must have found a wonderful liberation at Parris Island, when those screaming, bullying drill instructors saw the name tag on his clothes and didn't even bother to read it.

They treated him like garbage, but he was used to that. What he wasn't used to was that they treated everyone like garbage. Not only that, but it seems his physical strength and mental toughness were seen as positive attributes, not the warning signs of a low-bred, hillbilly troublemaker.

In other words, he started on exactly the same footing as everyone else, and then was judged solely on his own actions and abilities, and he responded by becoming a good Marine.

It's a nice story, but those days are past. With cuts in defense, high-school dropouts can't get into the service anymore, and the only way today's kids could have that experience would be for us to declare war on somebody.

Might I suggest the Faculty Mafia?

Of course, since then we have gotten back into a war, which opens the doors of opportunity once more. I would still prefer that there be other ways for a young person of good character to succeed.


Dann said...

Sadly, they don't take many high school drop outs. Even during a war.

ronnie said...

A very well-told story, Mike, and painfully true. We all knew kids who had "THAT name" and who suffered for it. The Faculty Mafia, I'm afraid, seems universal.

Do you have any idea where he is today?

Sherwood Harrington said...

The Faculty Mafia's expectations aren't always bad ones, but the others aren't great, either. My dad's oldest sister was brilliant, so all of her siblings were expected to be, too, which led to varying degrees of shame in not living up to expectations.