When my friend Jim and I were seniors in high school, we took French 1. It was an odd thing to do. We’d both fulfilled our language requirements already, and we could have had free time during that period instead. But I think we were desperate to do something rebellious, and we were such good, intellectual kids that the only thing we could think of was taking an extra language. It was, of course, a pretty lame rebellion—taking French didn’t piss off our parents, impress girls, or in any way turn us into the James Deans of our high school. But in the actual class, we did get some small taste of what it was like to be bad. We spoke without raising our hands, didn’t do the homework, made loud jokes, and completely destroyed the learning environment for the 15 freshmen in the class. I got a D- first semester, which I belatedly realized might torpedo my early admission to Yale. When I called the admissions office and found out they didn’t care, things got even worse. Second semester, partly on the strength of a year-end oral report on the history of the croissant, I got an F.
One of the freshmen in that class was named Hamid, and he appeared in my dream last night. I was teaching a class back at Francis Parker, my old high school, and Hamid was one of the students. In the dream, he raised his hand, and when I called on him he said, “Oh, so you think you’re famous? We only talk about you when we’re discussing funerals.”
This dream pretty well covers my fears and doubts for the coming week. I’m in Chicago to start the book tour for my new novel, 10th Grade, and I’m going back to Parker to teach creative writing classes, visit with old teachers, and speak to the student body. I am as worried about what they’ll think of me as I was when I was a student there. Will they see me as a Parker success story, a “famous” author? Or will I flop, die right in front of the same students and teachers I’m trying to impress?
I’ll be spending time in the adult world this week, as well. The Chicago Friends of the Author Committee, something of a front organization formed by my mother and her friends to help me and my friends with our careers, is sponsoring a reading and a party for me at the majestic Newberry Library. I’m also going to meet with a book club that just read 10th Grade. And I’ll be doing a second reading at the downtown Hilton, of all places.
God knows what else might happen. When my mother’s involved, you can never be sure. Things pop up suddenly, other things get turned upside down. My mother is the commissioner of culture in Chicago. She’s filled the city with fiberglass cows, put pingpong tables on the sidewalks, started a program that teaches thousands of kids a year how to be professional jewelry makers, photographers, and chefs.
Her free-spirited, whacked-out way of thinking has always been a part of her mothering, too. When I was 12, she told me quite seriously that I should drop out of school and join the circus. Even today, she thinks I should put fiction writing on the back burner and move to Nashville to become a country and western star.
I love being back home with her. Ever since I worked through some of our big issues in therapy, she’s just about my favorite person to hang out with. She’s incredibly funny and interesting, and constantly supportive in a way I depend on. When I’m in town, we walk around the neighborhood, go out for cappuccinos, sit up late in the kitchen yacking (like me, she stays up until 4 most nights). Of course, we do still fall into some old patterns when I’m home:
Mom: Oh. Alexander called.Me: Did you write it down?Mom: No.Me: This is an important week for me. I can’t be missing messages because you forgot to tell me and you didn’t write them down. Can you please write them down?Mom: Yes.Me: Well … why should I believe you? You always say that, and then you don’t.Mom: I do. Sometimes. You said so yourself.Me: Well, this time, will you?Mom: Yes.
The hardest part about being home is missing my father. He died about eight years ago. I miss him all the time anyway, but his absence is more physical here—he’s supposed to be in this house. It’s even worse now that his books are gone. My father was a voracious reader, and our house was always filled with books. But a few months ago, thinking she might want to move, my mother gave them all away. It’s especially noticeable in my bedroom, which was also the family library, where the hideous white shelves that used to sag under the weight of thousands of books are now empty. It’s like looking at a picture of my father not being here. Anyway, tomorrow is lunch with Jim to see what he thinks about high school and how he remembers French 1. (Here’s what I remember from our report on the history of the croissant: We stood up in front of the class, and Jim held up a croissant. I said, “Jim, ou est le croissant?” Jim said, “Joe, le croissant ici.” I think that may have been the entire report.) Then the reading at the Newberry.