I hid it in the grand piano. I lifted the lid, slipped it under the wires, under the structure that held the wires, into the soundbox below. Dropped the lid closed.
Even now, thinking about it, my muscles tense. I get nervous.
There was a certain irony, of which my twelve year-old self was unaware, that I had stuffed my grade report into my mother’s piano. It was her prize possession. Purchased with settlement money from her nearly fatal car accident when she was twenty-three, she rarely played it now. But its symbolism thrilled her – triumph over adversity! I almost got killed and instead I got a grand piano!
Now I was using her triumph to hide my failures.
Everything was going wrong for me in seventh grade. My parents were split – but that wasn’t the biggest problem. Bigger problems were that my older step-brothers, one on each side, were making my life miserable. Picking on me, taunting me. Whether at my mother’s or my father’s house, I felt like I had no escape.
Making things worse, my grades were going to shit and it was entirely confusing why I just couldn’t study or concentrate when it seemed so easy for my friends. My parents were brilliant. Mom graduated high school when she was sixteen, dad was captain of his high school football team and class president. They both went to University of Chicago. Why was I so dumb?
Long before my seventh grade first semester grades came, I knew I was doing terribly. F’s and D-minuses on math and Spanish quizzes. C’s in English. It felt like riding a sinking ship to the bottom. I got piteous looks from teachers at my expensive private school when they handed out test results. They offered help after class, but I was so humiliated and upset, it was too hard to lift my feet towards their offices after school.
I knew what was happening. Everything was unraveling. My parents were wrong: I would never be as smart as them. I would never get out of the hole. Why couldn’t I just fix all this and study like a normal kid? “It’s easy!” they’d say as they pulled out flash cards and recited the equations, verb conjugations, and grammar forms they’d memorized. For me, everything instead turned into a white hot mess.
I knew they’d ask questions about my grades. We didn’t have report card day like public schools, my school just mailed them home. Easy enough to intercept when you get home long before your parents. But still, they’d begin to wonder where they were.
My dad was predictable. He’d look at me with his sad, pity face and say, “Oh, Michael. Don’t you think you could have tried harder this year? How do we make it better?” His genuine sadness was hard to deal with, but I could get through that. No, no, no. Much, much harder to deal with was Mom.
I was her oldest, and she had great hopes for me. They all did. Her parents too. My grandfather had split the atom with Enrico Fermi. My grandmother who taught poor kids in Gary, Indiana, reminded me every time I saw her, “You have privilege, young man.” Punctuating every word. “Make. Something. Of. Yourself!”
I was the conduit. The channel for Mom’s ambition. When I asked what she thought I should be when I grew up, she always sweetly replied: “The best at whatever you choose.” She poured energy into me, pushing, encouraging. Usually it was giving and warm.
But when I dismayed her, when I resisted her, it was like an erupting volcano. She would yell, and shout, and curse – even stamp her feet! It terrified me. I would cry and shiver in fear. I would do anything, anything! to avoid her anger. But now, I was on a collision course. I had two D’s and two C’s. The teachers had warned me that I could get kicked out of school if things didn’t improve. I could not bear to confront my mother with this news. The volcano.
Play it cool, I’d think. She’ll never look in the piano. Eventually she’ll find out what my grades were. But I would give anything for one more day of not being a failure. Just one more day.
Every evening the trial came around six, when she came home from work. I planted myself in front of the television, locking my eyes on the screen, so I didn’t have to look at her.
She came into the TV room, stared at me, one hip higher than the other. “Michael, honey, do you know when your grades come home?”
“No. They don’t give them to me,” I said defensively.
“They haven’t told you?”
”No! I don’t know, alright?”
She stopped and stared at me. I kept my eyes focused on the television screen.
“O.K., then.” And I heard her heels click away down the hall.
And then, I’d let out a breath. Another day. I wasn’t a failure today.
This went on for an incredible two weeks. Much longer than I had ever imagined possible. The strain at six o’clock every evening became increasingly intense. My mother and father must have known. They must have called the school to find out my grades.
But they didn’t.
On a Saturday afternoon, my father came to my mother’s house. Mom called me downstairs. I was shocked to see him sitting in the living room, across from the piano. They indicated for me to sit.
“Michael,” my mother began. My father’s soulful eyes looked at me. Oh no. This is it. They never meet with me together.
“Your father and I know your grades should have arrived home by now. We would like to know where they are.”
I began to tremble. Silent.
“Michael,” my father said. “Where are they?”
Shaking, I got up. Walked to the piano. Lifted the lid. Pulled out the envelope. Walked to my mother, handed it to her, holding it from the far end.
She didn’t look at the envelope. She looked at me. A thousand pounds pressed on my chest as I sat. I could barely breathe.
She opened the envelope, read the papers. Handed it to my father. She began to cry.
“Honey. Why? Why did you hide it from us?” Tears were flowing steadily now. Hers and mine.
“What did you think we would do?” My father pleaded.
My face was hot, snot running down my face. “I don’t know!” I blustered. I just didn’t want to fail! I don’t want to be a failure!”
“Oh, honey. No!” my mother wailed. It was not a volcano. Much different.
I’d like to tell you that things got better after that. They didn’t. Well, they did, and they didn’t. I struggled mightily with my grades that year. And the struggle spun into all kinds of other problems. I was suspended from school twice. Alienated most of my friends. Still terrorized by my step-brothers. But I managed to get a C average that year. Enough that I wasn’t kicked out of the expensive private school.
Fifteen years later I was tested for and found to have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It was a relief. It explained so much about why I couldn’t study well and why my grades went into the toilet. But my condition doesn’t abdicate my responsibility for my poor grades.
The real challenge, was confronting my fear of disappointing my parents. Of failing. Of not measuring up to what they expected of me. I should have asked for help. Should have admitted that I couldn’t do it alone. I still struggle with that, even though my parents are both long passed. And sometimes, I am still that twelve year old, locking eyes with the television, trying to ignore the problem staring me in the face.