A remembrance of things past– and boy am I relieved!

A memory from my senior year in high school begs to be told. I’ve tried to surpress it all these years. I never breathed a word of this story until today. It was the evening my beloved mother was my date.

It started when one of my teachers took me aside and asked if I would submit an essay for a local contest. The winners would be chosen from each of the public high schools in the listening range of our small local radio station. The station sponsored the contest and offered a prize although I to this day cannot remember what it was. Something about the competition caught my interest so I went to work. No doubt, I produced a masterpiece on the theme: “What attending high school has meant to me.”

I submitted it and forgot about it. A few weeks later I was notified by letter that my essay was a winner. (I wondered later if any classmates submitted entries. Probably not. It may have been like winning a race when you are the only runner.) But, at that time, my thoughts were “Wow! I won a contest.” During my teenage years, positive reinforcements were hard to come by so I was very happy with this news.

       Winners and a guest were invited to a dinner to collect their prize.

This may have not have been a big deal to others, but I was feeling good. I know my mother was excited for me. But what was the prize? The letter said that there was a dinner hosted by a restaurant owner, Johnny Cocolin. He was the contest sponsor and a well-known local figure. Winners and a guest were invited to a dinner in their honor.

To give some background to my story, in early September of my senior year, I “totalled” (wrecked to the point the cost of repair exceeded the cost of replacement) my brother’s brand new classic 64′ Mustang. It had less than five thousand miles on the odometer. Afterward, I became a hermit. In effect, I was grounded. The insurance company agreed not to raise the auto insurance rates on our family because of my accident if I agreed in writing not to drive. Agreeing was the least I could do. I stayed home going nowhere except to school and church. The exile turned out to be a good thing but my seventeen year-old social life was non-existent. I have to share this to explain that when it came to selecting a guest to take to the dinner it was an easy choice, I was bringing my momma. (Elsewhere, I confessed to being a momma’s boy. Here’s proof.)

The big night finally arrived. I dressed in a jacket and tie. Mother had on her finest, also, as we walked into the dining area. The long table, with a white table cloth, made a fancy impression. Johnny Cocolin was there to welcome the students and their guests as we each took our place. Each sat directly across from someone from another school. It slowly began to dawn on me: the others brought dates. Looking around, my mother and the restaurant owner were the only non-teens in the room. The embarrassment that I felt was heightened by the embarrassment my fellow students were feeling for me.

      I wanted to crawl under the table and slink away into the night, flag down a car and hitch a ride home. But no, that would have been too easy.

Of course, I sat directly across from a good-looking girl and her handsome date. By this time, I wanted to crawl under the table and slink away into the night, flag down a car and hitch a ride home. But no, that would have been too easy. There was more humiliation to bear. Our host asked the eight to ten winners to introduce themselves and their guest, and, also, the school they represented. Could I give a fake name and maybe make up a name for a school? I couldn’t get away with that because the winners (I wasn’t feeling very winner-like at that moment) were written in the program. Anyone could figure out who I was by the process of deduction. I had to think fast. Who was I? I couldn’t remember my name.

A young man to my mother’s immediate right began. He introduced himself confidently, the school he represented and “the cutie” he brought. Then our host asked, “Please give us a brief recap of your winning essay. What has attending high school meant to you?” The punk was probably headed to some Ivy League school with a full scholarship the way he handled the question. I hated him for that.

Then it came my turn. My mind went blank. Why was my name not coming to me? Who was this woman who drove me there? It started to become clearer: “My name is.. uh, my name is John, er, Finkbeiner.” (I felt momentarily relieved. I passed the first test.) It occurred to me I couldn’t rest on that accomplishment. My most difficult challenge was still ahead. “This is my mother.” (Too bad mother didn’t have a name.  She did, of course. It was Edith Bennett Russell Finkbeiner.) My brain was trying to focus on what in the world I wrote in that essay. All I could think of was how sorry I was that I entered that stupid contest and, if this is what it had come to, how much I regretted ever going to high school .

      The next thing out of my mouth would be critical to salvaging what little dignity remained.

I sensed the eyes glued to me as though I were a terrible accident in progress. Inwardly, I struggled to keep from self-destructing like I did during speech class a couple years earlier. The next thing out of my mouth would be critical to salvaging what little dignity remained. “Uh, uh, my school went, I mean, was, uh, my school is, … er, uh,… I don’t know.” Everyone grimaced. The pain I experienced was shared by every person in that room. Mother and I never talked about it. To add to my misery, it would be twenty years before she would go out with me again.

The rest of the night is a blank. I must have brought some prize home to remember the evening by and burnt it. I disassociated from the event like a trauma victim that loses all memory of a frightful incident. I did not utter a word about it. I am sure I was responsible for ruining that contest for future essayists. Now, forty-six years later, it comes back to me– and boy is it funny.