Posts Tagged ‘Reading’

Whenever I told people what I did (acting, and the long commute back and forth) I always got the same question as a kid: “Well, what do you do for your education?”  I told them that I was home schooled – and I was. Being in school full time – even a private school – simply didn’t work out. I was pulled out of too many classes, and even when I could make up the work, there were major issues. I had a nasty teacher one year who kept accepting my homework, hiding it, and then insisting I never turned it in. She had a big axe to grind with what I did – she was Mennonite, and I think she thought it was sinful. She made comments about how it was “terrible what my mother was doing to me”. She wasn’t talking about the home situation (about which she knew nothing), she was talking about my career. This made me furious. Eventually, Grandma realized I was doing homework from weeks ago that I had already done. The teacher was reprimanded, I think, and the problem was solved by me being home schooled.

Typically, when you’re home schooled, the parent is responsible for teaching you. They usually give you answer keys (which the adults are supposed to keep) and the textbooks go to the kids. Mom took one look at the stuff that came in – Math, Science, History, and English – and dumped the whole box in my lap.

Mom: I can’t teach this stuff to you. Just do it yourself. You’re smart enough.

So I taught myself. I read all the books – I had a hell of a time with math, even as a kid. The numbers all jumbled together and got confusing. I couldn’t keep track of them and usually ended up getting things wrong. The other subjects were a snap – they involved reading and memorization.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t terribly self motivated when it came to school and Mom wasn’t terribly good at keeping me on schedule. I hummed along, reading my own books and writing my music, until a deadline loomed and we had to send in the tests. Mom wouldn’t be grading it herself, she would just be administering the tests – they would be graded at a facility somewhere down South. They needed to be received by a certain date, and I inevitably sent them in at the last possible moment.  I still remember Mom busting into my room one night.

 

Mom: You need to get your tests in tomorrow.

Me: Tomorrow?

Mom: Yes, tomorrow. Do the work. Just take all the tests now.

Me: That’s a lot of tests…

Mom: Then I will stop taking you to New York and send you to live with your father! And I will go to jail! Do you want that?

Me: No!

Mom: Then take your tests. Here’s the answer key. Get a couple wrong just to make it look good.

 

And so I sat on the floor and took the tests. Most of the time, I didn’t need the answer key – I knew the answers. With math and science I was a little more liberal – they weren’t my field of expertise, and although I read the books I wasn’t very confident and had to check my answers. When things got too down to the wire and I hadn’t studied, I just cut to the chase and copied the answers. I reasoned with myself that I knew most of this anyway (which I did), and Mom assured me that if I didn’t pass my tests she would got to jail and I’d go into foster care (or worse…live with my Dad). How’s that for test pressure?

I still remember a science test question, asking me to explain fossils. I knew all about fossils, and dinosaurs, and gave what I felt was a pretty thorough response. It was a very fundamentalist Christian school, however, and they felt that fossils were basically put there by the Devil to fool people, or God testing people’s faith. There were quasi-scientific explanations to back this up, but even I didn’t buy them. This was one of the few things at the time that really, truly annoyed me with my education. I could recite full names of dinosaur species, and I knew for a fact it wasn’t fake. But was I supposed to toe the party line in order to get a good grade? I asked Mom, and the answer, evidently, was yes. I changed my answer to be more suitable.

I got tutors, eventually – mostly for math (a subject that even proves difficult for me today). One might think this would take the pressure off, but it actually made it worse. Mom became paranoid that they would find out I wasn’t being taught appropriately and call the authorities. If the tutors seemed put out by an answer I gave, or perplexed that I didn’t know something, Mom would freak out at me after the session.

Mom: I am going to go to jail! Do you know that? They’re going to have me arrested and put me in jail!

Me: I’m sorry…

Mom: All because YOU didn’t know the answers. I thought you were supposed to be smart!

Me: I am, I am!

Mom: Well, then…what are these?

She waved her fingers inches from my nose.

Me: Um…fingers?

Mom: NO! THEY ARE PHALANGES! DIDN’T YOU READ THAT IN YOUR SCIENCE BOOK!?

Me: It’s actually not in there…

Mom: Well, pack your things, Danny. They’ll be taking you away any day now.

 

As I got older, these threats became more hollow – nobody took me away, I was never forced to live with my Father, and I still did pretty much as I pleased from an education standpoint. I got by because I read so much and picked up material quickly – not by Mom sitting down and teaching me every day. I’d say pretty often that an entire school semester could have been condensed into 1-2  weeks for me. These inevitably had Mom screaming threats and fears over my shoulder as I worked out a test. Suffice it to say school was not a priority until it had to be. I actually don’t have a problem with this, because she was right – I was smart. I read the books fast, and I had a high GPA. But the threats, the fear, the paranoia? She was wrong to put all that on me, to vent it at me. Even if it was true. If she was concerned, she should have done things differently instead of dumping everything in my lap and then screaming in panic when things didn’t get done. But then, she’s not a normal person, and I can’t hold her to those standards. When it came time for standardized testing (mandatory in my school district, regardless of whether I was home schooled) Mom fought them tooth and nail – and actually won. She was convinced, for whatever reason, that I wouldn’t know any of the answers on the test – that the authorities would be called, my situation would be assessed, and she’d be sent to jail.

I’m a stickler for knowing answers now. If I don’t know something, it bothers me until I research it fully. I know lots of things. So when people asked me what I did for schooling, I told them I was home schooled. It was simpler than telling them anything else.

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I had also gotten involved with an acting coach during my time on the variety show, and thank God I met this man. When I was still very little, I decided to adopt him as my uncle. Aside from my grandmother, he was a source of stability in my otherwise chaotic life. I still remember the first time I met him – I walked into his studio and found him sitting in an overstuffed chair. He kinda looked like Paul Newman, but with voice that rumbled with depth. I always thought he sounded a little like a lion. He was one of the few people in my life who talked to me as an equal, even though I was just a kid. It was one of the great lessons I learned from Uncle Richard – nobody is any better or worse than you. Treat them all equally.

He was also one of the few people (one of only three, actually) that Mom had any respect for. If she was flipping out, he could bring her back down into some semblance of normalcy. Usually. But this wasn’t even the main reason I’m grateful to have met him. He gave me a gateway to escape my difficult home life by instilling in me a love of books. He was probably the most voracious reader I have ever met – he was usually reading two or three at once, and had a studio whose walls seemed to be made from books. At his insistence, I read classics and discussed them with him at length. By 8, I had read the entire works of Shakespeare (and had memorized quite a bit). As a gift, he gave me an Illustrated Edition of Shakespeare, which I still have. I took on his habits and became a voracious reader – I don’t think I was ever without a book in my hand. I read at the table over dinner, I read in the car, I read before lessons with Russ, I read in the waiting rooms of casting offices. I learned, and my world expanded – it was an important aspect of my future. But more immediately, it provided a buffer from the insanity. If Mom said she saw or heard something nuts, I could be off the hook by (truthfully) saying I was reading at the time and didn’t know anything about it. If I didn’t feel like hashing and re-hashing her wild theories about people dressing up like Russ (which was often), I could stick my nose in a book. I used to (and still do) spend hours in a book store. When I used to walk in as kid, I could almost feel myself exhale. I took my time selecting something – the larger the book, the better. I got to the point where I could plow through a 1,200 page novel in a week.

Uncle Richard also taught me comedy – this ended up being another one of my ways to deflect Mom. If I could make her laugh when she was bawling her eyes out, or get her mind off of some obsession, great. He was actually a comedian himself – a rising star in Vaudeville during prohibition. He would do 3 shows a night sometimes, and make sure the material was new every time. Someone suggested to him that he should just recycle his material from previous shows – after all, the crowds were totally different. “Not totally,” Uncle Richard said, pointing at the theater staff.

He was a boxer, a painter, a poet, and a playwright. I don’t think there was anything this man didn’t do. I once asked him how on earth he ended up in the Philly suburbs instead of making movies or having his own TV show. He stroked his mustache and his blue-grey eyes peered at me thoughtfully.

“I used to have an alcohol problem.” He left it at that, but I later learned that he had a child with Downs – something he felt his drinking was responsible for. I guess considering medical science at the time, it was a plausible enough thought. Anyway, he ended up quitting to take care of her rather than have her institutionalized (something all too common at the time).

Mom confided in him about Russ, eventually – she would usually send me out of the studio for these lengthy (and no doubt completely loony) discussions. As I got older, I was allowed a bit more access and got to see Uncle Richard’s reactions to her. He would sit on his overstuffed chair, arms folded, and listen carefully to everything – no matter how obviously delusional. I don’t know how he managed it, but he would often always say something wise and insightful.

“You don’t need Russ to be happy.”

“Sometimes, if you’re too close to something it’s difficult to see the whole picture.”

“Why don’t you take a break from Russ? See how you feel in a couple months.”

Mom would consider these things, but ultimately her obsession was too strong – she just couldn’t walk away from something that enveloped her so thoroughly.