September 21, 2005

What do you say?

I had mr. connerton for fifth grade science in the early 70s. He had a face kind of like sean connery, he was bald, and I guess you could say we kids didn't fear him -- though he was worthy of it -- as much as we revered him.

Not only did mr. connerton teach science, but as luck would have it he was the boy's gym teacher, and as such he was the first man I ever laid eyes on in a wrestling outfit, with all of the many countours I had not yet encountered in my young life, and I'm not sure what possessed that forty-year-old man to demonstrate his wrestling talent in a body suit at our middle school talent night, but for whatever reason there he was in the circle on the floor of the gym, where the talent show was being held, which was handy for him since he had to put wrestling matts on the floor, in all his glory. He was wearing this wrestling headgear and orange body suit, and I know he didn't have on any underwear, because let me just say that if you are supposed to wear an athletic cup when you wrestle, and I assume a man would, well he was not wearing one.

I did not intend to notice this. He made me.

But the wrestling display at the talent show wasn't what I started out to write about. I was going to tell you about when I had mr. connerton for science, and it was a pretty big class, him favoring rows of seats, one desk behind the other, with I'm guessing 30 kids in the class. So one day early in the year he does this sort of ice breaker where he stands at the desk of the first kid in the first row against the window wall (me being on the last row against the exit wall) and asks each of us to say what our father does for a living.


Now I know the first reaction you might have is what a sexist question, but this was 1973 and I wasn't really interested in all that what you might now call feminism or some such thing. But what did interest me was the most impossible, choking, dizzying, blood draining panic that gripped me as soon as those words came out of his plump lips, because I had no answer to the question, being that my father was dead, and I was the only kid in my class with this unique situation.

I didn't hear the answers from the kids in the first two rows, because I didn't care about them or their dads, all I cared about was getting out of that room somehow, and so I planned numerous exit strategies none of which made sense in the end, because they all served to achieve the one thing I was trying to avoid - that is drawing attention to myself.

Mr. connerton was headed down row three, the row before mine, when I turned to my friend and pleaded--what do I say? what do I say? and she looked at me like I was a donut and then turned back to the kids answering the questions, yes of course I know Louie DiPrima's dad is a plumber, and I already knew what John DeMarco's dad did, and Peggy D'Auria's dad did something with cars I think or maybe that was Gary DiMartino. Did I mention this was Rochester?

Almost instantly, mr. connerton is at the top of my row, and I'm dripping sweat. My face is beat red and my breath is gone, sucked out of my body by an invisible enemy called 'being different,' and I begged myself to pull an answer out of the air, which, when he said: Jeneane? I did, because I said: My mom works. Yes I did: My mom works.

God came to me and put that answer on my tongue at the split second mr. connerton invaded my protected world of my father's death and I never felt so saved in my life. I don't know if the Lord knew he was wrong for taking a 36-year-old father from his kids or what, but I know I didn't think up that repositioning on my own.

As the primary anxiety began to fade, I was able to answer his next question: What does she do? She rents appartments, I said, that being the truth, and ultimately pretty ordinary, which is all I was asking to be.

Those of us who wind up lasting in the turbulent space of marketing and public relations, the world of spin and messaging, wind up here for a reason.

Thanks, mr. connerton. Wear a cup.

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