I was a below-average student. A mediocre baseball player. I tried out for the football team twice. Rejected twice.
I was chubby—built like a summer squash. I talked too much.
I failed fifth grade.
It was my first major failure, and it was a crushing blow. On the last day of class, the teacher kept me late.
She called me to her desk. “I’m really sorry to tell you this…” she said.
The liar. She was a hateful woman who disliked me from the moment she laid her beady little turkey eyes on me.
I sat on the school curb and cried.
I’d decided I would join the circus, or perhaps get certified to empty Port-a-Johns. Maybe then, I could avoid begging outside shopping malls.
The school janitor found me sitting. He was a young man. Tall and lanky. He was a different bird. Some kids made fun of him.
They said things like: “He’s three aces short of a deck.”
Others called him worse.
He sat beside me on the pavement while I waited for Mama to arrive.
“It’s the last day of school,” he said. “You oughta be happy.”
I told him what happened.
He didn’t answer. Instead, he showed me a magic trick with a quarter.
I was in no mood. I’d seen tricks like that before. I was far too old to believe coins came from behind my ears, anyway.
So, he quit trying and said, “You ain’t stupid.”
I asked him, kindly, if he’d leave me alone. Besides, the jury had spoken. I had the intellect of an Allen-wrench.
He wouldn’t leave. He only did more magic tricks.
Finally, he said, “You know, I’s born with my birth cord wrapped ‘round my neck. My old man called ME stupid.”
He went on to explain he was partially deaf, and how school had been a struggle. He’d dropped out after eighth grade. He admitted he could hardly spell his name.
God, was he a happy joker.
“Every day,” he went on. “I tell my own self that my dad was wrong about me. I ain’t dumb. I’m like that one duckling that turns into the eagle, or dove, or something.”
It’s been a long time since that black day. And I wish, for the life of me, I could remember more about him, but I can’t. All I’m able to recall is my mother pulling to the curb.
I remember crawling into the vehicle, feeling two-inches tall. Because I knew she’d ask about school. And I knew my answer would disappoint her.
I also remember that janitor. He watched our car drive off. I remember his light-blue work shirt, the ring of keys on his belt, and how he waved goodbye.
And I remember how on a very bad day, one of the worst of my childhood, he sat beside me and made quarters fall out of my ear.
And told me I wasn’t stupid.