I was a regular Nellie Oleson when I was in elementary school. You'd have hated my guts. My family was financially comfortable, I had perfect grades and attendance, and I'd tattle on you in a heartbeat. I even had sandy-blond hair like Nellie.
Then, the summer between 5th and 6th grades, my parents got divorced and I became less Nellie Oleson and more Olsen twin. I got sullen and thin, my grades plummeted and my school attendance was, at best, spotty. I kept finding reasons to stay home sick.
My grades didn't improve over time; by high school, I was a solid D student. I did, however, get straight A's in drinking a bottle of wine before football games and making out with my boyfriend du jour.
In short, I was kind of a hot mess.
Luckily for me, that was when I met Mr. Parsons. He was my sociology teacher, a subject I did not care about one whit. But the minute I sat down in that class, I knew he was different. For one thing, Mr. Parsons was hilarious. He had no problem being as sarcastic with you as you were with him. And he called his pop quizzes "rewards."
"Today, I'm going to reward you for all your hard work," he'd say while grinning at us horrifically and handing out mimeographed sheets. "I'm going to let you show me just how much you've learned up 'til now."
He'd also mark you wrong if you spelled it "ture" or "flase" on true/false quizzes, even if you meant "true" and the answer was, in fact, true. There was no misspelling these easy words with Mr. Parsons.
I really just liked the guy. And more importantly, I liked how he treated me. He didn't see me as rebellious. He acted like he liked my sassy ass. Very few adults were fond of me back then. And even less of them liked my sassy ass.
But that didn't mean I was gonna work for him. As with every other class, I blew off homework to listen to Pat Benetar on my headphones at night. My father, who'd moved far away after the divorce, had sent me a really nice stereo for Christmas that year.
This was when I was in 10th grade. That year, my father flew into town to meet with each of my teachers to find out what on earth was wrong with me. My father and mother were baffled. They knew I'd always been a smart kid, and couldn't figure out what had gone so wrong with me all of a sudden.
Dear Mom and Dad: My life had been turned upside-down by divorce. That's what was wrong. I know you didn't mean to screw me up, but that is what happened. I forgive you. Love, 10th-grade, screwed-up Karen
True (or ture) to his word, Dad met with each teacher. "Hey, why is my kid getting D's?" he asked my English teacher.
"You shouldn't be that worried about her," my English teacher said. "Karen is performing to the best of her ability. Not everyone's a scholar." I'd like to note for the record that I graduated college with a bachelor's degree in English. Grade point average? 3.6.
"That's just the best she can do," said my math teacher. OK, the math teacher might have had a point .
Finally came my father's appointment with Mr. Parsons. "Mr. Sommerfeld, I hear you," he said. "Your daughter's a bright kid. Is there something going on at home? Because she shouldn't be performing at this level. She's so much smarter than this."
My father told me the whole story at dinner that night. "Most of your teachers think you're dumb," he told me, astonished.
I remember the angry tears I fought back. I'd just assumed all my teachers knew I was smart, and knew I was screwed up, and that they, too, couldn't figure out how to fix me. Turns out they'd just written me off.
The only one who knew was Mr. Parsons.
I didn't get my act together until senior year, and I got into college through some miracle of good test scores and good-enough grades. But I was a little scared that I really wasn't going to be smart enough for college, that maybe my teachers were right about me.
But then I'd remember Mr. Parsons. Funny, cool Mr. Parsons knew I had it in me, and as a result, so did I.
Not only did I make the dean's list in college, I also got offered a scholarship to study in England, and did. Now I write and edit for a living, and I know I'm no Stephen Hawking or anything, but I'm smart. I know that (but maybe don't ask me to balance your checkbook).
To tell you the truth, I don't remember anything I learned in sociology, except to not misspell "true" or "false." But what I've never forgotten is that someone believed in this tarted-up, fairly drunk high school girl who just needed a little vote of confidence to be successful again. And that little vote of confidence made all the difference.