A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS
PART TWO: HIGH SCHOOL HELL
Written by Rick Archer
FOOT IN THE
Behind the scenes of my
St. John's crime spree was my ongoing dilemma of how I would ever
pay for college.
Little Mexico was
driving me out of my mind. I had to get out of this
house or go mad. My dreams of escape were the only thing keeping me
going. College meant peace and quiet. College
meant happiness. College meant the chance to start dating.
College meant everything.
Ordinarily, an SJS senior
with my grades and
my beleaguered financial position could expect a college scholarship.
But I had a very real concern.
David's lunchtime warning,
that my father's financial status would prove to be a real
impediment in getting a scholarship.
My father was currently paying full tuition to send two children to two different
Houston private schools. One look at my father's finances
would raise serious questions as to why he
couldn't provide for me too. That spelled trouble. I
had no idea how to explain my father's status in my life to anyone
unfamiliar with my situation.
On the other hand, if my
father came through with his Sixth Grade Pledge of college tuition, I
was good to go. However, that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach said it
all... I was certain his promise was complete bullshit.
In case my father jilted
me, I came up
with a backup plan.
I called it my Foot
in the Door strategy.
My Foot in the Door strategy was modeled on the circumstances of how
I received my scholarships at St. John's.
After attending SJS for three years
paying full tuition, St. John's decided to offer a half-scholarship
following the 6th grade when my father bowed out. Headmaster Mr. Chidsey
didn't know much about me, but saw that I had made the Honor Roll
twelve straight times. He decided I was a valuable student and went out of his way to keep me.
When I took his Bible History class two years later, he had been
impressed. This time, he offered a full scholarship.
So my plan was to make
an equally good impression at Georgetown University and then throw
myself on their mercy.
I could pay
for my first year of college out of my own pocket? Once
I was there, surely I could show Georgetown my value during that
first semester. Perhaps I could persuade Georgetown administrators to help me in the second
semester or the following year.
It was one thing for Georgetown to be indifferent to
some anonymous kid
from Texas with a strange story. However, if I could walk into their office
with an impressive first semester Georgetown GPA, surely they would listen. I
would no longer be anonymous. If they could see my good grades
and how earnest I was, my personal request to receive financial aid would be much stronger.
But first I had to
find enough money to get my foot in the door.
My father and his Sixth
Grade Pledge was one source of potential money.
remaining hopes were pinned on winning a special grant known as the
Jesse H. Jones Scholarship. This scholarship
was given to one
graduating senior per year from each
high school in the
area. Back in those days, the Jones Scholarship paid
$4,000 total spread out over four years.
In other words, $1,000 per year.
The scholarship was awarded based on both need and
I really liked
my chances of winning this
award. In fact,
I considered myself
candidate. No, change that. I assumed I was the ONLY
CANDIDATE. I couldn't even imagine who else they
would give it to. There were no other poor kids in my class
that I knew of.
When it came to 'need', I was the poorest kid in
the entire school. What more did it take?
When it came to 'performance', I was in
the Top Five of my class.
It seemed to me that my level of need and
the quality of
my performance formed an unbeatable combination. But I dared not count on the scholarship until it was in my hands.
I worried about getting that scholarship day and night.
Although $1,000 per year
wasn't nearly enough to solve my money problems, it was a good
I had an
imaginative secondary use for the Jones Scholarship.
I assumed winning this
grant would make it easier to persuade a Georgetown
financial aid officer that I was a
needy student no matter how much money my father made. Winning
this scholarship would go a long way towards overcoming my "Deadbeat
Dad" handicap because it implied that my own school had nominated
me for this award due to my financial problems. If St. John's
believed in me, wouldn't that make it easier for Georgetown to
believe in me?
The Jones Scholarship
was the absolute cornerstone of my plan. I had to have it.
So where did I stand
with my Foot in the Door plan?
Studying the college
brochures sent to me, college tuition plus room and board would cost $6,000 a year.
I had already saved $1,000 in grocery
store money. I figured I could add another $1,000 working throughout the rest of my Senior year and
this coming summer before college started. The $1,000 Jones
Scholarship would boost me to $3,000. Halfway there.
Unfortunately, I was
well aware that my plan was still $3,000 short for my first year of
would the remaining money come from?
I vaguely understood
that loans were a possibility, but I was certain one parent would
have to be involved. My father was out of the question and my
mother was out of the question. That didn't leave much, did
When I left for college,
I was planning on a clean break from both parents. If loans
meant staying beholden to either of them, then forget it. I intended
to be on my own. Did they give loans to 18 year old kids?
I doubted it. Loans were not the answer.
I decided to see if Dad
would come through on his Sixth Grade Pledge. If he fulfilled
his promise, then I was set.
drifted back to the details of my father's infamous Sixth Grade
SIXTH GRADE PLEDGE
It was 1959.
I was nine years old and struggling in public school.
I was bored. I was also deeply unhappy thanks to my
parent's nightly arguments. I had average grades and
the worst behavior of any student. The principal was
threatening action if I didn't shape up.
psychiatrist's recommendation had my mother convinced that
St. John's was the only place that might give me the structure
and discipline I needed.
After my lackluster performance in public school, he said
that competing head to head with the best and the brightest
would be too much for me. I would get discouraged and
quit. Leave the boy in public school.
Obviously my father didn't believe in me. Or, as my
mother later put it, it was less expensive to say he didn't
believe in me. Fortunately, at the time I didn't know
about my father's reluctance.
My mother got
her way. To her delight, it turned out
that Dr. Mendel's advice was right on the money. Just as the psychiatrist had predicted,
I did extremely well. Entering in the 4th Grade, to
everyone's surprise (mine included), I made the Honor Roll in the
first quarter. Then I did it again. And again.
I would never miss the Honor Roll once in nine years.
seemed to understand the
academic challenge was exactly what I needed.
I had gone from
a zero in public school to an ace in private school despite
had to study my tail off to keep up, but I thrived on the challenge of proving that I could
hang with these smart kids.
This school brought out the very best
in me. From an underachieving child in public school, I
finally started to reach my potential. I showed
everyone I belonged.
If ever there was money
well spent, this school was it.
My mother beamed
at the remarkable difference in my attitude.
As far as
concerned, St. John's had worked a miracle.
What a shame it
was that my father didn't agree.
Most parents would have been thrilled at my impressive turnabout.
Not Dad. My father could not have cared less. Although I was thriving at St. John's, the moment he
was no longer legally obligated to do so, Dad refused to pay my tuition
past the completion of the 6th Grade.
I was deeply
upset. I argued and begged, but my pleas fell on deaf ears.
What hurt me
was that my father had come from a childhood just as poor
as mine. I was certain Dad knew first-hand
how valuable an education was. After all, he had used
education as his ticket out. Furthermore, he knew how much St. John's meant to me.
But my father snubbed me anyway.
I was astonished
when my father had the nerve to jeopardize my chance to
remain at St. John's by refusing to continue to pay my
tuition after the 6th grade. That was the final straw. This school was the
one single source of stability in my entire life. My
that, but he didn't care.
As my mother
humorlessly said at the time, "I see Jim is finally showing
you his true colors."
Mom knew how
much I had once admired him. I was badly hurt when he turned
his back on St.
John's. To me, it was like discovering my hero was
a complete jerk whenever no one was looking.
I didn't want to stop believing in my father. Maybe
I was wrong. So I decided to
plead my case one last time. Let's give my
father one more chance to prove he was a stand-up guy. So the
next time I saw him, I demanded an explanation.
Dad began to explain
the reason why he wasn't going to send me to St. John's
any more. I remember his words like it was yesterday.
"Dick, back when I
was a boy, I went to public school. I got a good
education. My problem came with college. My father
died when I was six and my mother was dirt poor. There was
not a penny in the house for college. Thank goodness my
service in World War II enabled me to go college or I don't know
what I would have done.
College is very
expensive. I am serious. College is where the real
problem lies. I think St. John's has been good for you,
but don't worry, the public system here in Houston is excellent.
I have done research and have been very impressed. Given a
choice, I think the smart thing to do is to put the St. John's
tuition aside for your
I don't know what
your mother has told you, but I am convinced it is better to let
you go to public school
so I can save all that wasted St. John's money for the
future when it will really count.
money will be waiting for
the time for college comes around."
Back in the 6th grade, that explanation sounded
like complete bullshit to me. However I chose to keep that
opinion to myself. A cynical part of me thought it was a
clever move on his part to justify not paying any more.
At the time, all my
remaining illusions as to my father's decency were about to expire.
With this "Pledge", Dad had conveniently bought
himself six more years of my good will at no cost to him. Dad
said he was doing the right thing by starting now to save for
How noble of him.
At the time, I seethed.
I was 12 years old and St. John's was my whole world. St.
John's was the only thing keeping me going following the divorce. I vowed that when the time
came, I would hold my father to his words. This unhappy 1962
moment became emblazoned in my memory as the "Sixth Grade Pledge".
It was now February 1968.
Six years had passed since
my father's promise.
Soon I would learn the
Would my father come through for me?
I was pessimistic.
In the past six years, my father had never said another word about
his pledge. Because I had so little faith in him,
I harbored a dark fear that
had not saved
a single penny. I did not believe I could count
On the other hand, I
told myself maybe
I was wrong. For nine years, my father had paid my child
support without hesitation. Based on his impressive
performance in this arena, I knew the man had a sense of honor.
Or was it a fear of the law? My guess was the latter.
What is it about the
heart? I still clung to my memory of the good times with my
father like a spurned lover who believes that someday their idol
will return. Maybe my father would come through me.
After all, he promised.
Back in the Sixties, SJS
tuition was $800-$1,000 per year. Six years times $1,000=
I frowned. I
estimated without financial help that Georgetown would cost $24,000
for four years. Dad had been right about one thing... the cost
of college was astronomical. Maybe he had been right all
along. Whatever he had saved was critical at this point.
If Dad was good for his
word and had banked six years of St. John's tuition, he would have saved anywhere from $4,000-$6,000 over a six year period.
Back in those days, that was a
lot of money.
Even in my wildest
dreams I didn't expect him to show me that kind of money. But
$3,000 would be great. That would get my foot in the door!
assure I had enough money for my first year at Georgetown.
If Dad could come up with that kind of money, I would promise him this would be the end of it. After
that, once I left for Georgetown, it would be our understanding that I would be on my
own. I would never ask him for another cent. Just get me to
Georgetown, Dad, get me to Georgetown.
The clock was
ticking. Any day now I would get word on college acceptance.
For that matter, any day now they would announce the winner of the Jones Scholarship.
That additional $4,000 would be a godsend. With my father's
help and winning that scholarship, I figured a half-scholarship to
Georgetown would be all I would need. Surely winning the Jones
Scholarship would be enough to help me convince a Georgetown
financial officer of both my value and my need.
Throughout January 1968, I
bit off every fingernail I had. I would have bitten off my
toenails too if I could reach them. I didn't worry much about the
Jones Scholarship because I was a shoo-in. It was my father I was
worried about. Dad could solve all my problems if he came through
with his Sixth Grade Pledge. However, I didn't hear a word from
him. My anxiety intensified daily.
Finally in mid-February,
the SJS receptionist called out to me as I walked past her desk.
She said my father had left a message for me.
He said to meet him for lunch tomorrow at the usual coffee shop.
My heart immediately
began to pound. I was
sure this was it. Tomorrow the secret of the Sixth Grade
Pledge would finally be revealed. What would my father say?
Did I dare tell him I
had been caught recently cheating on the German test?
Probably not. I still walked the halls of my school with my
head down in shame. Then I frowned. If
ever there was a bad omen, that would be the German test. I
could not get the bizarre coincidence of that boy's sudden
appearance out of my mind. Considering how fragile my mental
state was, I was feeling superstitious in a very pessimistic way.
Some sort of supernatural being had guided that boy to find me, I
was sure of it.
What other surprises lie
in wait for me? Tomorrow I would find out.
I did not sleep that
night. As I lay there unable to rest, all sorts of memories
about my father raced through my mind.
ON THE EVE
OF THE SHOWDOWN
Shortly after the August
1959 divorce, Dad began to disappear from my life. I saw my father every
other weekend without fail for the first four months. Then something awkward happened that first
I was 10 years old.
Here we were in his apartment full of Christmas cheer, just Dad and
me and the Christmas Tree. Under the tree was an enormous
I ripped open the paper
to discover my father had bought me a
gigantic erector set complete with some kind of fancy electrical motor.
This was a very expensive set. It came in a heavy metal box so large I could
barely lift it. Dad was extremely proud of his gift.
I have a hunch this was the kind of gift he coveted when he was my age,
but of course never received because his mother was very poor.
Dad beamed at his lavish present. Being an electrical engineer, this erector set was right up his alley.
As for me, I gulped. I had never tried this sort of thing
before and wasn't sure how I would I do. But I kept my worries
I hugged my father and
said thank you. Dad looked at me with a
huge smile. He
said that building something neat with his son would make
this his best Christmas ever!
Well, sure, of course,
Dad, let's build
something! At this comment, I was beside with myself
with happiness. I had missed my father so much lately.
Dad took out the list of projects and looked it over. He immediately suggested
we build a drawbridge so we could take advantage of that fancy motor.
I wasn't so sure. That idea seemed a little
ambitious. I was thinking the stuff on the first page was more my
speed. However, if Dad said I could do it, I would try.
The drawbridge had
elaborate instructions. He said all we had to do was follow
the instructions. What could be easier? Dad handed me
the tools and worked with me for a while. I was game, but I
didn't do very well. The instructions made no sense.
As I had feared, this project was
way over my head.
When he realized how totally overwhelmed I was,
Dad got the strangest look in his face. He stared at me in
Now I gulped again. I was almost certain I
knew what he was thinking.
I believe when my father was my
had the talent to build stuff like this without anyone's help.
So why couldn't his son do it?
deepened. He couldn't believe
how inept I was, especially when compared to his own immense
natural ability at mechanics.
At that moment, something terrible snapped in the man. I could see it in his
expression. He had just discovered his son had
no mechanical ability. There would be no following in his genius
footsteps, now would there?
Dad studied me in disbelief.
His face was crestfallen. What a
disappointment I was to him. How could I possibly be his
snatched the tools out of my hands and began to build the bridge
Dad told me to watch carefully and he would
show me how to do it. Then I could do it again by myself tomorrow after
he took me back to Mom's apartment. Sure, Dad.
With the sparkling
Christmas tree as our backdrop, Dad got down to business on the
living room carpet. The moment he stuck his tongue out on the
side of his mouth, I knew he was in his zone. Sticking his
tongue out was Dad's trademark signal whenever he locked in.
I noticed he didn't even need the instructions. One look at
the picture was enough. I was incredulous... not even another
Dad was in another
world. The entire time I did
not exist. Despite my own sadness, I smiled at seeing how
happy Dad was. I had never
seen him look happier. Dad was probably reliving some of his
own boyhood Christmas memories. I marveled at my
father's immense talent. I was reminded of the good old days when he
had built that gigantic electric train complex in the attic with me
at his side watching in awe. It is
a good thing I paid such close attention. Little did I know
this would be the last time I would ever see him in action.
Three hours later, Dad
finished. If it took my father three hours, that in itself should
explain how complicated this project was.
The completed drawbridge was a magnificent structure.
It was huge. Hit a switch and
the drawbridge went up and down. Dad was so proud of himself.
This is what he was capable of. He
looked at the bridge and beamed. Then he looked at me and frowned.
I got the message. I had failed him. I wasn't good enough.
After Christmas, Dad stopped seeing me. He skipped our next weekend
visit. Then he skipped the one after that. An entire month
had gone by without hearing from him. At the time I was
sick in my stomach.
Things were really bad
in my new home. Mom was struggling with the divorce and had
brought this awful man named Tom Cook to live with us. Among
other things, Tom Cook stole my silver dollar collection for alcohol
and beat my mother whenever he was drunk. He even tried to get
me started on smoking. What a pal. Now I was badly
rattled and needed my father. Where was he?
I assumed Dad's absence had something to
do with how badly I had done with the erector set. What
else was I supposed to think? He didn't call. I missed him a lot. My mother
was still too angry about the divorce to get in touch with him, so I
stayed in the dark assuming it was all my fault. I went around
criticizing myself for being so stupid. Probably other
sons my age could have built that drawbridge with no trouble.
Half a year went by without seeing or hearing from him.
Then one day out of the blue Dad called and said he was coming over to pick me up for
our scheduled Saturday. I was thrilled! I got my father
back! He must have forgiven me for being so stupid. I was going to be the best kid possible.
Now get this.
I went to my closet and got out the erector set which had sat
there untouched for six months. I
tried building the beginner models every day for the next few days
leading up to our
visit. I wasn't very good, but I finally figured out how to build a
simple house frame. Mind you, it
had no moving parts like the drawbridge, but it was a good start.
The point is I tried as hard as I could to do something to make
my father proud of me again.
When Dad came to the
door, I had my giant erector set kit in my hand. I was going to
bring it with me and show Dad what I had taught myself to do.
I was going to build that house for him without any help. Dad
took one look and frowned. He said, "You won't need that,
Dick. Leave it
When I got
to his apartment, there was a surprise waiting for me. Dad introduced me to his new girlfriend.
She had lunch waiting for us.
After lunch, he suggested I turn on the TV. Dad spent
the rest of the day hanging out with that lady in the kitchen where I
could barely see them. I watched
nervously out of the corner of my eye as the two of them played court
and spark in the background. I wasn't quite sure why he was
ignoring me. I guess she was better with erector sets than I was.
he drove me home. What a great father-son Saturday.
It took me a few years to
figure it out, but the real reason Dad had skipped his weekends
with me was to pursue his new flame. It had nothing to do with my
lack of mechanical ability.
Too bad I didn't know that at the time. I spent half a year
feeling worthless for nothing.
I did not like his
girlfriend at all. Due to my eternal contempt, I won't give her a name, not even a fake one. We
will call her "Stepmother". The best words to describe the
woman were "frosty" and "phony". Where I was concerned, she merely went through the
motions until she could seal the deal. And seal
the deal she did.
Dad married that woman not too long afterwards. I wasn't invited
to the wedding. No surprise there.
Stepmother did not
like me at all. Mind you, Stepmother never came out and
admitted I disgusted her. But actions do have a way of sending
the message. Stepmother allowed me into her home once a
year at Christmas time. It was the Christian thing to do, no
After the wedding,
Stepmother's next step was to get rid of me. She was wildly
successful. Dad almost completely disappeared from my life.
During the nine year period from the 1959 divorce to high school
saw my father four times a year.
My father was a creature
played a game called "Four Seasons."
marked my yearly visit to his home. Since I was not
welcome in my stepmother's home at any other time, Dad switched to picking me up at school
for lunch. No problem. Lunch
was a convenient option. Once on my birthday in October. Once in early Spring. Once before the Summer
I am not sure why I
didn't see my father more often. After all, my father worked
just down the street from St. John's.
I estimate by car, St.
John's was a four minute drive from his office. Maybe less.
Dad's office was at the corner of Weslayan
and Westheimer. This
spot was a half mile
from my school on Westheimer and Buffalo Speedway.
to be exact, but a million miles away in my father's mind.
For a busy
too far to take the time to see the forgotten son.
In my opinion, my
father had no excuse not to see me more often. Seeing me
was so easy it was ridiculous. Permission slips
were unnecessary at St. John's. Back in the Sixties,
security was nowhere as tight as things are today. Since the
SJS receptionist knew
who my father was, any time my father wanted to see me, he would just
phone and leave a
message at SJS. The lady would hand it to me when I passed
through the Reception area. The following day Dad would
pick me up for lunch for our quarterly visit.
In the final
two years when I
got my car, things got even easier than that. Now I would go to the front desk, sign out and drive to meet him.
was always a very simple arrangement.
periodically hint in some roundabout way that Stepmother was responsible for his
That set me to
thinking about the sincerity of his statement. If Dad wanted
to see me more often, I would have gladly ridden my bike to his
didn't have to be lunch; why not after school? I
could have visited him at his office behind Stepmother's back.
The suspicious wife would never have to know her husband was seeing
the forbidden child.
Here is my point.
If my father wanted to see me, it was effortless. He could
have seen me every day of the week if he chose to. I would
have been overjoyed to see my father more often had he permitted
it. One lunch a week
would have been wonderful. The truth is that I have always
had a soft spot for the guy even though a part of me despised
him for how he neglected me. I have never really quite
understood my mixed feelings. No matter how much my father
disgusted me, I was shocked to realize how much I looked forward
to seeing him again.
fact remains that I rarely saw my father. He obviously preferred his Four
Seasons approach. Maybe he liked the symmetry of it. The rest of the time, Dad
made it clear how busy he was and that my phone calls to his
office were a nuisance. The message was clear... I needed
to know my place. He was a busy man. Don't call him; he'll call me.
Now that I wasn't allowed to bother him, like a desperate mistress, I began to
wait anxiously for his call. For the first year or so (4th
grade), I developed a pathetic habit of walking past the
receptionist twice a day just in case he had called.
Once I hit the 5th grade I didn't bother any more. Now sometimes
the receptionist had to hunt me down if he called. This
kind woman always looked at me with the most profound sympathy.
I think she understood how sensitive this issue was for me.
Perhaps if my father
had ever been openly mean to me, I might have gotten the guy out
of my system. Such was not the case.
Whenever we met for
lunch, Dad was
invariably nice to me. In person, Dad was warm to me, always
friendly, always affable. I cannot recall a single harsh word
I still remember that big smile
Dad would greet me with. I guess when you spend four
hours a year with your kid, you can smile with the best of them.
Must have been his sales training.
Seriously, Dad put
up a great front. I swear a casual observer would never
guess the utter mediocrity of his parenting skills where I was
Stepmother had two children
by Dad, a boy and a girl. The boy, Charles, was eleven years younger than me
and the girl, Joy, was thirteen years younger. No effort was ever
made to include me in his second family. I saw them each
Christmas, but that was it. Certainly not enough time for
my bad seed ways to rub off on them.
Considering they were
five and seven the last time I saw them, I didn't get to know
Joy and Charles very well. However, thanks to our
quarterly lunch visits, I knew a lot
about their stories.
One of the most
painful aspects of our relationship was my knowledge that Dad
treated his other two children very well. And how did I
know this? He told me! Dad had the strangest habit of spending most of
our time together telling me all
about his two children.
After Joy was born
when I was 13, Dad ceased talking to me like a father to a son. He developed a friendly, superficial rapport with me. There was no heart
to heart communication whatsoever, just cordial stuff.
While he spoke, I was mesmerized by how
incredibly oblivious Dad was to my pain. I think he preferred
to avoid that subject.
behaved more like a distant uncle who calls for a friendly visit
whenever he is town. I was no longer his son in these
conversations, but rather his buddy and confidant. Nothing
serious was ever discussed between us. Just happy talk.
Now that I was his
spent most of our time talking about his children or his job.
From what Dad told me
over the years, it was apparent he loved his second and third children. The
girl was very talented, but the boy was somewhat mentally
handicapped due to a problem during the birth process. Based on the stories he told me, I came to the conclusion that Dad was a pretty
good father to these two children.
In particular, Dad exhibited
a patience and caring for his struggling son that I admired.
Dad went to great lengths to help that boy overcome his
handicaps. His concern
for my struggling half-brother indicated he was actively
helping this boy any way he could.
"Dick, I spend a
couple hours every night helping Charles and Joy with their
homework. I am so proud of them, but especially Charles.
School comes easy to Joy, she's so smart, but school is an
uphill battle for my son. Charles gets very frustrated,
but after I calm him down and give him some encouragement, that
boy works as hard as he is capable of."
I could see the pride
written all over my father's face. It gave him pleasure to
talk about what a good father he was!!
It doesn't get much
more ironic than this.
Here I was, the world's most miserable kid in desperate need of
attention, but instead of receiving encouragement for my own problems, my
job was to politely listen to Dad brag about how well he was
raising his other children.
To me, his behavior
reminded me of a man who makes a starving dog watch while he
feeds his favorite dog. To deal with the pain, I simply
observed him in action with an odd detachment. I must have been a
good actor because I don't think he ever had a clue the contempt I
felt for him while he told me these stories.
Okay, I was glad that
Dad had the ability to be a decent father. Good for you, Dad.
But what about me? Why are you always giving me the short end of the
stick? And why would you make it so apparent that you care
more for them than me?
This became the great
mystery of my life. Why would a decent man stop caring for a
child he once loved?
His disdain really hurt.
I wanted to believe I was a good kid and that I was worthy of his
love, but it sure didn't seem that way. When I was alone, I
would rehearse what I wanted to say to him the next time we met.
don't mind listening to your problems, but sometimes I could really use
some of your attention as well. You never ask me any
questions, so I am just going to tell you what my life is
In case you
didn't know, I am the most miserable, lonely, screwed-up kid
in the world. I get so bitter sometimes, but I don't
give up. I refuse to quit. Even though I have a lot of problems, I work hard, really hard.
I make very
good grades and I do it through sheer effort. I
believe I work as hard or harder than anyone at my school.
I know I don't
have the same talent you do, but if you would look a
little closer, you would see I am not as stupid as you think
I am. Did you know I
have made the Honor Roll at St. John's 36 quarters in a row?
These are not inflated grades against soft competition. I am going up against some really smart kids. Some
say these are the smartest set of students in Houston.
In addition, I have a job after school.
I am responsible and do my work without being told. I get compliments on my good manners
all the time. I try to be a son you can
be proud of.
I am not getting
along with my mother at all. I feel so isolated.
I really wish I could see you more often.
Do you still
remember those days when I worshipped the ground you walk
on? Do you have any idea how much I miss those days? And
yet you don't pay a bit of attention to me. Why is
that? What did I do wrong? What can I do to make
it up to you?"
Did I ever tell him
that? No, of course not. I didn't have the
guts to say a word. I was an introverted cripple when it
came to talking about my feelings. Instead I just sat
there impassively listening to his tales.
The entire time, I was stunned by the irony
of hearing him discuss his love for Joy and Charles while I was dying for the most simple word of praise
the whole time.
Why would my father play favorites?
Or, more to the point, why would my father play favorites and
discuss it openly with the unwanted child? Sure I was moody and introverted, but
I never gave my father a bit of trouble. Okay, so I was
withdrawn and insecure. Is that any reason to give up on me? I was at a complete loss
to understand how he could care for these two children, but not me,
his first child. This was the mystery.
How could Dad be such a good
father to them and yet a worthless father to me? And when I say "worthless", I really
mean it. It made no sense that he could be a good father to
those children and yet totally fail me at the exact same time.
Where had my father gone
to? I was certain that he had loved me when I was a little boy.
Now it was
like he had a blind spot for me. I could not imagine what I
had done to lose his love.
I tried so hard to
please him, but it didn't seem to make any difference.
lost interest, that was apparent. I will never know the real reason.
I laid much of the responsibility for this pathos on the doorstep of
Stepmother. I was ten years old when the brush-off began.
I don't know why she disliked me so much, but from the start I could sense she really did not want me
around my father. I resented her deeply for the wedge she drove between
In my opinion, Stepmother was the coldest
woman I have ever met.
What sort of threat could I have possibly been to
her or to her children? I was a little boy, for crying out
loud. Nor was I any brat. I was a quiet, withdrawn,
sensitive kid who missed his father.
I have written about the kindness of several teachers who
willingly gave me extra attention when it wasn't their job to do so.
I have spoken of a Headmaster who twice gave me scholarships
after my father turned his back on me. I have talked about an
uncle with four children of his own who paid my way to St. John's
for two years when my own perfectly capable father refused to do so. I have
pointed out how my first grocery store manager hired me even though he
knew I had once stolen candy from his store. Whenever I faltered, men like these
stepped forward to catch me and guide me
back to the light.
Stepmother went in exactly the opposite direction. She not
only refused to lift a finger to help me, she deliberately deprived me of my father. Children depend on their parents. Who was I supposed to
What the hell was wrong
with that woman? And what the hell was wrong with my father
for his inability to defy her?
My early life had
been idyllic. I once had a happy home and my father adored
me. It was mutual; I worshipped Dad. I followed him
everywhere like a puppy dog. Dad was my best friend in the world. Why he abandoned me
after the divorce made no sense. I will always despise
Stepmother. I blame her.
Once in a while, I
wonder about the strange nature of good luck and bad luck.
Yes, Stepmother was incredibly bad luck. She cost me my
father. Yet at the same time, Stepmother was indirectly
responsible for my St. John's education... not that she deserved
any credit of course.
From what Mom
me, Stepmother had been Dad's secretary at his office. Mom suspected an office
affair that pre-dated the divorce. Mom had no proof and no
witnesses; she just felt it in her bones. Call it woman's
When my father
refused to send me to St. John's as the psychiatrist
recommended, Mom told my father she knew all about his affair.
She would use the knowledge to take him to the cleaners in the
divorce... unless he paid for St. John's. Mom was taking a
shot in the dark, but she nailed it. Dad folded.
I traded my father
for the best education in Houston.
Good luck or bad
In hindsight, I
suppose I got the better end of the deal, but the heartache was
very difficult to handle.
I missed Dad
terribly. It was a devil's bargain to be sure.
It was now February 1968.
waited six years for this showdown.
As I drove to the
coffee shop to meet him for lunch, I was intensely curious.
Six years ago Dad had
promised to help me pay for college. Today was the day I would
find out. I actually had no idea what would
happen. I was skeptical and hopeful at the same time.
This was my father's
chance to finally come through for me. I needed his help in
the worst way imaginable. Was my father good for his word?
As I walked through the
doors at the coffee shop, my heart was thumping. I was praying that Dad
had really put that money into a savings account like he said he would.
If so, the nightmare of how to pay my college tuition would be over.
The phrase "hoping against hope" was coined for a
situation like this. Would the father I had always hoped for show up today
or would the father he had turned into appear instead?
was waiting for me in a reception area at the coffee shop. He stood up and
greeted me with the biggest smile on his
face. He shook my hand and gave me a big hug. Dad was so glad to see me!
spirits lifted. This was a good sign. Maybe there was hope after all.
A waitress escorted us to a booth.
We sat down
across from one another and our eyes locked. I could barely
breathe. Six years of waiting since the Sixth Grade Pledge and
four years of High School Hell had brought us to this moment. The
tension I felt was unbearable.
At this point, Dad reached
in his coat pocket and placed $400 in cash
on the table.
I stared at the four $100
bills laying on the table. I frowned. Did this mean what I thought
"Dad, what is this for?"
beamed with pride.
"Look, son, it's Four Hundred Dollars!
Dick, this is the money I have been saving for your college tuition!
I promised you long ago I would help.
I told you I would help you pay for college and I meant what I said!
This money will help you go to college! "
I stared in disbelief.
The very first thing that crossed my mind was the number
The tuition at
Georgetown was $20,000 for four years. And what about room and board?
I estimated another $4,000 ($1,000 for four years). Compared to $24,000, this $400 was
a drop in the bucket, maybe 1% of what I would need.
Instantly the phrase
everyone but me starting playing in my brain again.
Every student in my class would be going to college next year but
me. I was sure of it.
For a moment I was also
Dad was sitting across the table,
smiling and exulting with triumph. Dad was so pumped he looked
like he was ready to put on a Indian war bonnet and dance around a
What in the hell is my
father so damn happy about? At that moment, I wondered if Dad
was playing a joke on me. I began to peer at him for clues.
I couldn't tell. But I soon surrendered all hope. This
was it. No more money would be placed on the table.
What could this man be thinking?
I knew he was a born salesman, but even Dad had to know he was
Or maybe not.
Oh my god,
look at him! The man
was as proud of himself as he could
possibly be thanks to this amazing contribution
he had just made. I could not believe my father was doing a
goddamn victory dance over $400!
The way he was grinning from ear to ear, you would think Dad had just won the f...ing Father of the
I was sick.
I was beyond sick.
I was disgusted. I had planned on getting nasty with him if
he disappointed me, but here in crunch time I had just discovered I was far too
introverted to confront him. I didn't say a word. I just
stared at the money dumbfounded. I wouldn't even touch it.
The money laid there on the table like a Betrayed Kingdom daring me to
pick it up. The money seemed to spit at me with contempt.
This moment would become
the defining image of my father for the rest of my life. Any
time I thought of my father, the image of that $400 would
automatically pop into my mind before anything else.
I should have just
slapped him in the face and left. But I didn't. Although I was
18 and built like a football linebacker, psychologically I was a
dwarf around my father. I didn't have the guts to confront him.
I hated myself. For six years, I had vowed I would confront
this man if he stiffed me. It was all false bravado. Now
that it was crunch time, I reverted back to being a
However, to my surprise,
I rallied a little. It took all the courage
I had just to mumble a question, but I had to know the answer.
with fear, I whispered, "B-b-but D-d-dad, you said you were saving my
St. John's tuition for college. S-s-shouldn't there be more
Dad's face lit up with
the brilliance of July 4th fireworks. In an instant, I knew he
had anticipated my question. He was just waiting for me to
ask. Dad smiled with
warmth and understanding.
"Well, yes, you're right,
Dick. There was
My ears perked up.
"W-w-well, what happened to it?"
Dick, but I had to
take that money out of your college savings to pay for your skin
operations. It was $2,000 if I remember."
I stared at my father in
dumbfounded disbelief. I could not even say a word. That
comment drove a stake through my heart.
After all I had suffered
due to my fractured face... a pariah at my school, unwelcome at
parties, no chance of dating, giving up basketball to work a job
after school, forced to hide in the shadows for four long years... that comment about
money spent on the skin operations was without a doubt the cruelest
thing my father had ever said to me.
It made me violently sick to
discover that my acne operations had dried up my college funds. Hadn't I
This acne problem truly was the curse that kept on cursing. I was
reminded of the Myth of Sisyphus where some poor jerk could never
get ahead no matter how hard he tried. Just like Sisyphus,
surely there must be some similar
Curse over me. There had to be.
While I sat there in
Dad used my silence as an opening to remind me how tough things were for him
He said when my skin problems hit a couple years ago out of the blue, there was no place he could have turned
cash that quickly.
As he talked, all I could think about was how expensive it had to be
sending my half-brother to Briarwood School and my half-sister to costly Kinkaid. Gee, with those kind of obligations, no
wonder it was so hard for him! Plus that home in the prestigious
Memorial area of town must cost a pretty penny as well. All
those taxes and civic fees. Plus that fancy car to make the
neighbors envious. Living with the best can't be cheap, no doubt about that.
As my father rambled on
and on about all his problems, I focused on that promise he had made
to help me with college back in the 6th grade. In six years
since that promise, Dad had amassed the princely sum of four hundred
dollars. What's that, six bucks a month? A command performance! Heck,
even Mom could have done better than that and she was dead
Dad had more to say. Just
in case there was any flicker of hope left in me, Dad made sure it was
lights out. He had time for one final shove on that stake stuck in my heart.
Dad said that unless he got a raise and things dramatically improved in his
finances, this $400 was going to be his one and only contribution towards my college
Now if that didn't take the
cake. This man might actually be the most pathetic father of them
all. The disgust I felt in this moment was overpowering. I was incredulous.
How was it possible for me to have the lowest possible expectation
for this man and still be disappointed beyond my wildest imagination?
The life drained out of me.
What good would it do to tell him what I thought of him? I
stood up. Then I reached over and picked up the $400. It made me sick just to touch it, but I needed
whatever I could get.
I said, "Thanks, Dad. Sorry, but
I have to leave early today. I have a paper at school I have to finish."
That was that. I knew it was rude to leave, but I had no appetite
for a meal or further bullshit excuses. What's done is done.
If he said one more word about how poor he was, I might scream at
him. What was the point of
sticking around and losing my temper?
I got up and left my father
sitting there. I cannot imagine what he was thinking. He was
probably happy I left. He didn't want to be here any more than
As I drove away in my beat-up VW Bug, I seethed.
I was angry growing angrier, incensed and insulted. Then out of the blue, my anger
shifted. I realized
that I was more hurt than anything else. To be brutally honest, I
half-expected something like this would happen all along. What
'hurt' was that I was right.
I had hoped against hope my
assessment of the man was too harsh. Now it really hurt to see I had
pegged all along.
And with that, all remaining illusions as to
my father's concern for me died. After six years of waiting, I
finally knew who my father was to the core.
I looked at the $400 again.
The four bills were laying on the passenger's seat where I had thrown
disgust. This money had just become the everlasting symbol of my father's ultimate snub.
something about that $400 that bugged me, so I did some quick
math. Dad had stopped
paying child support after October. That left November, December,
January, and now February. Four months times $100 equals $400.
A dark possibility crossed my mind.
Maybe Dad didn't want Stepmother to know he had given the forbidden
child any money at
he had just pretended to keep paying my $100 child support for the
past four months and converted the money to four one-hundred dollar
bills. Stepmother probably had no idea when my child support
ended or maybe she had forgotten when my birthday was.
Clever. I told you
my father was smart.
And then it hit.
In all those years, my father had never saved a dime. There
was never any savings account. That was all a bunch of
bullshit. Dad simply collected that
$400 over the past four months and pretended it was my "college
pledge money". How pathetic. I could not believe the
ease with which this man could lie to me with a straight face.
Now my defiance drained out of me. I
felt my world collapsing.
in the hell was wrong with me? What did I ever do to my father
to deserve to be treated this way?
I bet every father at my school would be ecstatic to have a child pull down the kind of
grades I made. I bet every father at my school would thrilled to
see his son or daughter go out and get a job on his own after school.
Not my father. My father treated me like I was
worthless. Okay, so maybe I didn't have any mechanical ability,
but it wasn't like I was
useless. I had other talents. I had drive, I had ambition.
Didn't that count for something? Did he have any idea how hard I tried, how hard I studied?
Did he even begin to understand what I had to overcome on a daily
What did I have to do to
get my father to show some pride in me?
His indifferent attitude made no sense
at all. Why did my father think so little of me?
To me, after the promise
he had made years ago about helping me with college, giving me this $400
was the worst insult of my life. My father
had no earthly idea of the struggle I was going through right now to
pay for college.
Nor did he care.
That was it, wasn't it?
My father didn't care.
Now I began to cry. It is a good thing I was still able to cry
because it was the only thing that kept me from turning into a
The money problem was depressing enough, but most of all I wondered
my own father didn't love me.