June 8 - June 14, 1995

B y  J e f f  S m i t h 

Smith Ends Up In The Principal's Office.


FOR KIDS THEY prescribe Ritalin: I don't know how they medicate grownups with attention deficit disorder. Maybe they just make them go sit in a corner and think about it.

Matter of fact that's what they used to do with troublesome children--kids who cut-up in class because they couldn't keep their minds on Dick and Jane--back in the days of spinster schoolteachers in sensible shoes.

Which fits, because we've come face-to-face with the growing phenomenon of adult attention deficit disorder...and, both ironically yet somehow appropriately, where one might least expect it:

In the principal's office.

It began with a phone call from a young woman in the graduating class at Rincon High School. She invited me to deliver the commencement address for the class of '95. Given my reputation for lurid prose, it never fails to amaze me when I get this sort of summons. But get them I do, and I never turn one down.

I've been honored to launch graduating classes from Green Fields Prep, Patagonia, Elgin (twice) and even Rincon once before. And they keep inviting me back (I can only surmise because I haven't yet put the entire class, faculty, assembled parents and honored guests to sleep). I figure that whoever asks me to speak has read my stuff and knows I'm not going to advise anybody to register with the Republican Party and go into plastics.

I could be wrong.

When I arrived at Rincon a month before my speaking date, for a command performance with principal Suzanne Ashby, selected faculty and student bodies, I was mildly disquieted to hear everybody from the kids to the junior administrators to a volunteer parent answering phones refer to the principal (as in "your pal") as "Dr. Ashby." I believe in higher education but I believe just as firmly in simplicity, so I've always saved "doctor" for somebody who can take your tonsils out.

She led me on a tour of the campus and at various times allusions were made to previous speakers who were too long-winded, too something. There seemed considerable tension between Dr. Ashby and everyone else as to how this would turn out. I told them not to worry their pretty little heads.

"Day at the beach."

Well, that day arrived and so did I, bearing various messages advanced by Dr. Ashby and her minions, lest I make some grievous blunder. I reported to the auditorium where, for the severalth time the principal was re-instructing her seniors on which hand to take the diploma with and which hand to shake hands with the person who handed them the diploma with. She made a kid stand up and walk through it, by way of demonstration for the rest, who were instructed to sit up and take note.

I had decided, based upon a very bad joke I'd heard the day before from Jim Pickrell, the local vet who tells really awful jokes, to address the graduates on the subject of listening, of assuming the best of those with whom one disagrees, of giving credence to opposing points of view...of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

So I opened with Pickrell's joke, by way of illustration:

What do you call a Mexican with a vasectomy? A dry Martinez.

"Even now, some of you in the audience are taking offense," I told the crowd. "But you shouldn't. This joke is not racist, not sexist...not very funny, unfortunately. What it is is a play on words, an ear joke."

But, I amplified, it is also an example of the slim excuses we seize to start accusing one another of political incorrectitude. We are so accustomed to getting huffy and shouting in our daily discourse that we have forgotten how to listen, while remembering all too well how to take positions from which we will not be budged.

I suggested that the graduates try to avoid this trap and that as they approach college, grad school, flipping burgers, whatever, they consider that education isn't about getting a grade-point average, it's about getting the joke. If life is just one cosmic shaggy dog story--and this is as likely as any other scenario--then education is about understanding the punchline when it's delivered.

Rather than having it sail over your head.

Well, the whole point sailed over Dr. Suzanne Ashby's head. She wouldn't even look in my direction, so I just shrugged and split.

To learn later she'd sent letters of apology to Dr. Garcia and to all those defenseless parents and students who were subjected to my "inappropriate racial remarks." She wrote me a letter, too, saying she regretted inviting me to speak.

Me, I don't regret speaking at Rincon at all. I love it when pompous people get all puffed up with self-righteousness and end up smothering in it. I only hope the students and faculty at Rincon who were polite and attentive, who got my point and thanked me for taking the better part of two days and driving 240 miles to deliver it, don't get reamed by Dr. Ashby for being nice to me. Good manners are in such short supply these days, don't you agree?

Suzie closed her terse missive to me with a tidy signature in perfect cursive, over the typed legend:

Suzanne Ashby, Ed.D.


The doctor thing again. Well, it's clear to me that you can get to be a D. of Ed. without understanding plain English, otherwise she'd never have missed the Martinez/martini bit. And if it's racist to use the word Mexican in a joke, the racism must be in the ear of the beholder.

What's the use of getting a doctorate if you don't wind up savvy enough to comprehend irony? Well, maybe she can help me with my hemis.

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June 8 - June 14, 1995

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