Here is a list of stuff about Wilson Ballinger, who, as you might guess, is me. I like meat, I don't eat green stuff, I like all sports, and I hate school.
Well, duh, who doesn't hate school? I spend the whole year, all the way from August to June, thinking about summer vacation when I'm free to roam the woods, fish the brooks, play baseball or basketball, spend a hot day swimming in the pond across the road, or just lie in the grass and look up at the clouds.
In the summer I can do that because in the summer I don't have to sit still. In the summer I don't have some crabby bully of a teacher on my back all the time, telling me what to do and when to do it and making sarcastic remarks when I don't, which for me is kinda normal.
Well, as you probably guessed, my grades are lousy and each year they seem to get worse. Parents come un- glued when their kids get bad grades. But they go ballistic when they know the kid in question is smart, because that means he's either lazy or doing it on purpose.
Hey, for the past two years in junior high, I was just pushing the envelope, trying to see how low my grades could get before I had to do enough work to keep from getting tossed off whatever team I happened to be playing on.
The nadir, the absolute low point, came at the end of the first grade-reporting period of my freshman year in high school. I was one D away from getting straight F's. That meant no sports and no other school activities. It also meant no video games at home and no cell phone and, of course, I got permanently grounded.
In junior high you didn't get banned from sports until the actual grades came out at the end of the term. Nobody told me about the high school rules and I'd never read the handbook. I tried but I fell asleep after the first paragraph.
So I was off the soccer team. I gave that a big ho-hum. I only played soccer to keep in shape for basketball. Then, the school psychologist told my parents that I had ODD and needed to see a counselor. The actual name of that "disease" is oppositional defiant disorder. I preferred ODD, which spells odd. That fit just fine.
And because the symptom for that disorder is that you don't like authority, it fit me even better. But here's the thing I couldn't understand. How could that be a disease? Are there people who like authority, or do they just put up with it? What kind of a wimp puts up with idiots telling him what to do and then goes and does it?
I'll tell you who doesn't put up with it. Me. What's more, it's intentional. I'm not nuts. I'm not sick. I don't have any loose screws. The only disease I ever get is an occasional cold. I'm tall for my age, at six feet, and I'm rangy and I can run very fast. On the basketball court I can jump high enough to dunk the ball and I can dribble with either hand and shoot with either hand and I am deadly from outside the three-point line.
But with my grades bottoming out, there was no way I could go out for the team. It's just one of the stupid things about school. Playing a sport shouldn't be some kind of privilege like getting a driver's license. There are far, far fewer good athletes than there are good students and, in my school, less than one percent of the students are scholar-athletes.
Okay, I know, I know, schools are not built around athletics. They're built around studies. The thing is, I don't know of any kid in our town who's my age and can take me on the basketball court. In fact, I educate them. Sure, there are guys I haven't gone up against, but I've seen them play and I know where I stand.
The basketball coach, Mr. Linnehan, talks to me every day. I hate those conversations because they always come down to the same thing. Do it my way! Get your grades up and you can play.
I think I should be allowed to play and that should count as a course. I'd get an A. I could play three sports a year and get A's in all of 'em. If they'd go that far for me, then I'd do some work on the other stuff.
But they won't.
So I won't.
My parents just shake their heads, but I think it's making my mother a little crazy. Dad was an athlete all the way through college. Mom was a co-ed, or at least that's what she says. I'm not sure what that means.
When I'm listening to girls talk, I don't understand anything they say so I don't listen. I stand around and think about the stuff I'd rather be doing. They like to have guys standing around. I think it makes them feel as if they're in control. Yeah, guess again. Not me. I control me. It's in my contract.
And because most of my teachers are women, I don't listen to them either.
I can talk to Dad and I do. I also feel kind of guilty about Mom but there's nothing I can do about that except feel guilty. When I talk to her, which really means, she talks at me and tells me what I have to do, the conversations never go anywhere.
Even so, I don't like disappointing my parents. I don't like it at all.
I also hate riding on the school bus. I think that's because I used to get bullied, mostly by Jason Minelli, who is two grades ahead of me. We rode the same bus. But then he went to high school and I got de- Minellied for two years because the high school kids rode a different bus.
And then I got tall and started working out with the weights in order to make sure that when I got fouled going in for a layup I had the strength to finish the shot. This past August, when I climbed onto the high school bus, Minelli looked up at me and then looked away.
That lasted about a month and then one afternoon at the rec field basketball courts where I had gone with my best friend Clark Hadenfeld, Minelli started bullying up on me. At first it was just words. But we were playing four-onfour and his heckling started to get in the way of my concentration. It went on and on and then suddenly as I was bringing the ball up the court, close to the sideline, I suddenly passed the ball to a teammate, walked up to Jason, and nailed him right in his big fat ugly nose.
It was awesome. There was a lot of blood and moaning and crying and somebody from the rec office called his mother and she came and picked him up. I found out later I'd busted his nose.
So, who winds up in trouble? Yeah. Who else? The only trouble Minelli had was that someone finally busted his nose.
That event led to a meeting with the principal, Mr. Martin, the school psychologist, Mrs. Quant, and my parents. Quant started right in about rules against fighting and she went on and on and finally the principal, Mr. Martin, asked me what I had to say for myself.
So I told him. "Jason has been bullying me since the second grade. He bullies kids all the time. This year I decided it would be different and the only way I could get the message across to him was to pop him in the old proboscis."
Mr. Martin grinned. "Proboscis?"
"Like the proboscis monkey," I said.
"He reads everything," Mom said.
"Except," Mr. Martin said, "for his homework."
Mrs. Quant was not easily distracted. "You could have told us about the bullying and we would have done something about it. Things like this can't be settled by fighting. We have to meet and talk our way through them."
I shook my head. "That's what Chamberlain tried with the Nazis. It didn't work out. It's also what they said at the grammar school. Nothing changed. Now, it's changed. You guys all say you'll stop the bullying but you don't. You talk to them and nothing happens."
"We can't have fighting in school," Mr. Martin said.
"I wasn't in school, I wasn't on the bus, and I wasn't on school property," I said. "I also wasn't taking part in any school activity."
"For someone who doesn't bother to do any work here, you do seem to have read the student handbook," Mr. Martin said.
I shrugged. After I'd popped Minelli, I read it, well, at least the parts about fighting and grades. It seemed like a good idea to know what might get me expelled.
Then Dad spoke up. "It seems to me," he said, "that Wilson makes a point here. He has an absolute right not to be bullied and if the adults aren't getting the job done, then he has a right to defend himself. Surely, you're not going to argue with that."
"Mr. Bellinger, are you condoning fighting?" Mrs. Quant looked like someone had stolen her shoes.
"There is a difference between being an instigator and defending oneself."
"There is no difference at all," she said. "Violence is violence and it cannot be tolerated."
I knew what she didn't know. Don't provoke Dad. Not only is he smart, not only is he still an awesome basketball player and golfer, but he does his homework.
"Before you lecture me, Mrs. Quant, you might want to check my academic credentials and find out what I do for a living. I certainly checked ... yours."
Mr. Martin cut into the conversation. "The school has no horse in this race," he said. "Wilson's right about the rules and while we are not happy with any situation which results in a fight, Wilson has an absolute right to defend himself, particularly when it doesn't happen on school grounds."
But Mrs. Quant wasn't through. "What about his academic performance? Surely ..."
Mr. Martin waved his hand to cut her off. "That is another issue altogether. Now, if you'll excuse us, Mrs. Quant?"
"Certainly." She stormed out of the office.
Mr. Martin waited until the door was closed, then he turned and smiled at me. "If you tell anyone I said this, I'll deny it, but I think you did the right thing here, Wilson. I know about Minelli. I had him here in this office with his parents this summer and I warned them that there would be no bullying in my school. I'm telling you this because I want you to know that I'm serious about this and I will track down every single rumor."
Dad smiled. "Good," he said. "That's good to hear."
And then he said something that really took me by surprise.
"The only good thing to be said about bullies, at least with boys, is that they sometimes force you to dig a little deeper and find out what you're made of."
Mr. Martin nodded. "We must have gone to the same school," he said.
"It's no different anywhere," Dad said.
Mom looked as if she'd gone into shock. But then all girls are convinced that they know the right way for everyone to do things ... even boys. But it was the wrong time to say anything. Any opposition she offered would only put her in the same corner as Mrs. Quant. My mom is not stupid.
Mr. Martin looked directly at me. "Now, we need to talk about basketball. Coach is in here everyday talking to me about how to get you to study hard enough to get your grades up so you can play. I want to know how I can help that."
Stunned. I was totally blindsided. Somebody at school wanted to help?
"It's boring," I said.
"Of course it is. It's schoolwork. But perhaps at another level you would find it more interesting."
I knew it! He was gonna put me in with all the dummies and that was definitely not gonna help.
"I'll make a deal with you. Next semester I'll put you in all advanced classes if you can get your grades up to a B average for this semester. And if your mid-term report is at least a C average, you play basketball.
I told you I'm not dumb. I knew it was just another way to get me to work. On the other hand, nobody had tried something like this before. Instead of telling me to do it, he'd made an offer that, in fact, I knew I couldn't refuse. Man, did I want to play basketball. Besides that, it was a fair deal.
"Okay," I said.
I thought my mother would fall out of her chair.
"Wilson," he asked, "do you know why I knew you would take my offer?"
"Last spring you took a test. It's the entry test that we use to place our students."
Dang, I thought, I was afraid that might come up. I like taking those kinds of tests. You don't have to study for them.
I smiled. "Hoist with my own petard, huh?"
"Across the board, you had the highest scores in your class."
"Uh-oh," I said.
Dad laughed. "You rat," he said.
I grinned and when I glanced at Mom, she wasn't laughing.
"What I can guarantee is that you will not be bored in those classes. In fact, you will be in an elite group of students and you will be challenged."
"And you think I can do that?"
He chuckled. "First you pulled the word proboscis out of nowhere and then you used a reference to Neville Chamberlain, and finaly, you tossed in, ‘hoist with your own petard'. You can handle it." He held up his hand in front of his face. "Wilson, up until now your focus has been here." Slowly he moved his hand outward until it was at arm's length. "From now on it will be here. That's where college is. That's where your future is."
The only time I had ever been challenged was on the basketball court. I performed best when the challenge was strongest. But I'd never thought that would work with studies. I also knew that to make this work I had to steer a wide path around Mrs. Quant. I tried to guess how that would work and I came to one conclusion. She would try to catch me breaking the rules to prove that I had a problem with authority.
So all I had to do was keep my nose clean. Talk about a big ticket item. But the bottom line was, he had me in a corner. And I'll give him this. It was a nifty bit of maneuvering. He hadn't told me to do it, instead, he had told me what the reward would be if I did.
I did not feel as if I'd been cornered so much as reasoned with. Here's the way I had always worked. If you tell me to do something, I won't. If you tell me why I should do it and it makes sense, then I do it. The first way leaves me scowling at the world. The second made me smile.
That day in all my classes, I paid attention. I took notes. I listened. It was a whole lot easier than playing basketball. There was no one on defense.
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Robert G. Holland
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