As is so often the case, CBS’ “Sunday Morning” newsmagazine — my favorite program on television ever — draws stuff out of me. It could be inspiration, it could be revelation. It could be recollection. In this past weekend’s episode, a simple segment on fountain pens, reminded me of what was one of my biggest junior high school disappointments and lessons in bad teachering.
It was eighth grade at Le Conte Junior High in Hollywood. 1978. The class was history. The teacher was a fellow named Mr. Failla, he pronounced it Fay-lah. Folks in the halls liked to call him Mr. Fail-ya. He was tough, for sure. The class itself was of an advanced type and the fact that I was in it was something of a fluke the reasons of which I was never clear on. In fact, I remember because of my somewhat tenuous status as a not-so-full-fledged member of that class, I came veeeeery close because of a lack of ticket availability to not being able to attend a field trip with them to the King Tut exhibit at the LA County Museum of Art that year… but it worked out in the end and I got to go instead of being left back to feel like more of an outcast than I already was.
Decidedly opposite to that happy ending was the undeserving grade Mr. Fail-ya gave to a project into which I had poured a lot of hours, energy and research. The timeframe of the assignment was to explore the United States during the mid-19th centure, and what I opted to do was to create a handwritten diary of a young girl chronicling the trip she was making with her family from Alabama to California via covered wagon.
I went to the the old Hollywood branch of the library and got volumes on the country’s westward expansion. I interviewed western novelist William R. Cox (my first time meeting my mother’s friend who, as things would have it, six years later would become my stepfather), and he helped give me a better, more realistic perspective of what life could be like crossing the great plains (hint: there wouldn’t be a rogue tribe of bloodthirsty indians waiting around every butte of my active Hollywood-influenced imagination). I remember he had a scale model version of a prairie schooner in his office and we huddled over it as he described its details.
And then, when it came down to creating the entries, I almost instinctively knew that ballpoint pen and notebook paper would not do. The document had to look authentic. I mentioned this to my mom and the next day she’s stopped at an office supply store and brought home a sheaf of blank typing paper and a strange contraption known as a fountain pen, accompanied by a pot of ink — brown in color to aid in presenting the journal as something not just about the past, but from it.
It took a good bit of trial and error and a fair share of ink stains and splotches to become comfortable working something so foreign feeling as a fountain pen. Nowadays, in this era of key clicks and computer screens, sometimes picking up a ballpoint pen seems just as strange.
Having charted a course that took the family up from Alabama to St. Louis and then west, I began crafting the entries. I think there were somewhere about 30 in all, some a few words, some multiple pages, some stained with tears, some with dirt, some with blood (in the form of food coloring). One entry I wrote out and then tore the pages vertically in half. There were occasionally pages featuring sketches I made — unavoidably bad ones given my lack of artistic talent — of what the young girl had observed: the wagon, the vast grasslands, the family around a campfire, buzzards in the sky. There was a crude point-to-point map drawn of the 2,000 mile journey. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but taken as a whole I felt that I’d done a pretty good job laying out a three-month trek full of struggle and triumph, high excitement and infinite boredom, with the family ultimately arriving in San Francisco to begin life anew (minus an uncle who drowned saving the girl’s life during a river crossing in Colorado).
The icing on the cake was when my mom literally cooked the book. She had come up with the idea to age the pages and had experimented with dampening blank sheets of the paper and then baking them in the oven. Eventually she dialed in the temperature and time so that all the entries wouldn’t go up in smoke and instead came out nicely browned, some with slightly charred edges.
After that we sandwiched it between two covers and bound the whole thing with leather string taken from the fringe of an old vest of mine. My mom and I stared at it on the table and she gave me a huge hug telling me how proud she was of me.
It wasn’t my first work of fiction (that dubious distinction goes to a bloodsoaked schoolyard horror tale cowritten with my friend Paul Okennon at Cheremoya Avenue School in sixth grade), but it certainly could qualify as my first book — albeit obviously one offering value far more stylistic than literary. I was only 13, after all.
And maybe Mr. Fail-ya forgot about that key point. Maybe he couldn’t see past my less-than-advanced use of the written language. Maybe the narrative didn’t flow as well as he thought at should. Or he got hung up on some historical accuracies so that he couldn’t see the overall effort that went not into regurgitating history written by others, but in breathing life into that era, tangibly and with imagination. Maybe he held me subjectively to a standard always beyond my reach because he didn’t think I belonged in his class. Maybe he just had a bad day when it came time to grade my project or maybe he was just an incorrigible, indefatigable asshole. I’ll never know. All I know is that when he returned the journal to me, I was expecting something better than C+ grade with which he insulted me. In his opinion the project warranted nothing more than a designation as average, with the “+” perhaps donated to soften the sting of his narrow-minded reality. Whadda guy. From that point on I was pretty much a zombie during those hours of the week I was forced to sit before that simp in his lifeless classroom.
I wish I could show the journal to you. Scan in some of pages and display them here warts and all in the hopes that you could see it for the sum of its parts and not any individual nits that could be picked. But I can’t. Faux and half-baked (literally!) that it may be, that document testifying to my capabilities is an ancient casualty of my history. So incensed and demoralized and gut-punched was I when I saw that horrible invalidating grade written alone in red on the back cover — with not even an accompanying note to explain it — that I found the nearest hallway trashcan outside the classroom and in passing slamdunked the thing hard into it and never looked back.
I kept the grade from my mom until she finally remembered to ask me about it, and when I told her she was so mad she wanted to go kick Mr. Fail-ya’s ass up between his shoulder blades. When I told her I threw it away, she wanted to do the same to me. But she gave me a huge hug instead. She told me that I could live my life dwelling on those small people who’ll jump at the chance to put me down, or do what’s harder and strive to rise above them.
Thirty-four years later I’m still trying to rise above them. Thirty-four years later I still have that fountain pen (somewhere), along with that pot of brown ink (in my desk), along with a lot of resentment. All I have to do is think of his name and the chills swirl around my shoulders, splashing up the back of neck and head. Sometimes I’ll entertain visions of standing before the little man, only now it’s me looking down at him and that arrogant Mona Lisa smirk while watching it disappear as I get him to recall a certain student from his past, an outsider working so hard to fit in and on whom he so thoughtlessly slammed the door.
Mr. Fail-ya, indeed. As far as I’m concerned he was a complete and total one.
UPDATED (1:15 p.m.): I forgot to mention that the nondescript fountain pen used in the project isn’t my only one. A dedicated fan of Montblanc ballpoints since the mid-1980s, on September 20, 1990 (I still have the receipt), I got on my Honda Hawk 400 motorcycle and rode from my apartment in Glendale to the the Brooks Brothers store in the Century City mall, and for one of my greatest impulse purchases ever, brought home this bad boy:
A Montblanc Meisterstuck Model No. 149, 18K-gold nib. $318.06, with tax. Why? Because I WANTED one. Why Brooks? Because that clothier’s credit card was the only remaining functioning one at that time in my freshly post-divorced possession.
I can count the number of times I’ve filled it with ink and written with it on one-hand — which would include today after taking its picture.