Failing the Geography Exam

      People in Alcoholics Anonymous are not supposed to discuss what they hear in the meetings with anyone outside of the meetings, but this happened after a meeting, so I think it’s fair to talk about.  I’m changing a few details to protect the subject’s identity. 

      After the meeting, I went out with a few people for fellowship at a local diner (I swear to God, AA people keep this diner afloat. Every meeting in a 4-block radius–which is a lot of meetings–goes to eat at this diner.  Cheap food.  No booze.  Unlimited soft drink refills.).  

       The meeting had been pretty intense.  The Holidays suck for everyone, but for the addict in recovery, they suck donkey balls.  Lots of people relapse this time of year.  

         I was talking with a fellow who’d recently fallen off the wagon.  Luckily, his relapse was brief, and he came back in pretty good shape.  

        I like this person.  He’s funny, and he’s given me a lot of support over the last two years, including my 90-day chip when I finally earned one.  I even have his phone number, which is okay because he is a pure homosexual (you wouldn’t know it from looking at him, though.  He gets a lot of attention from women.  I thought he was attractive when I met him, and was startled to learn he was gay.  Though, to be fair, my gaydar is terrible.). 

       At the diner, he was talking about what it was like to come out as gay to his parents:

       “I really didn’t want to do it, because I knew that they wouldn’t approve.  I knew they suspected already, though.  See, one time when I was 14, there was this…incident with another boy.  My father called me over in his office and said: If you’re gay, you can tell me.  You just can’t expect me to look at you the same way anymore.

       I jumped in my seat, startled.

       “That’s not okay!” I yelled.  People stopped talking and looked at me, because I am the last person to yell in public.  I have a very calm and polite demeanor.  “It’s not right that he did that to you!  Because I know what that’s like!  It’s bullshit that he said that to you!  It changes you!”

        Because what he said brought back a memory.  A memory that I would have been perfectly happy to have never remembered again.  A memory I would be happy to extract from my mind, if such a thing were possible.  

        One day when I was 11 I was sitting with my father at the kitchen table.  He was reading the newspaper.  He was looking at the back page, where the weather reports are printed.  There was a long column of international cities and their daily weather reports, in Fahrenheit and Celsius. 

      My father decided it was time for a quiz.

       “Where is Amsterdam?  In which country?” he asked.

      “Holland?”

      “Good.  Brussels?”

      Uh-oh, I thought, and then said the three words that you absolutely did not want to have to say in my father’s house: “I don’t know.”

       He winced audibly.  Then: “I see.  Why don’t you know?”

       I was fucking 11 years old.  I hadn’t taken Geography in school yet.  

       I had to say the verboten words: “I don’t know.”

       He moved on to the next city, and I knew that I was trapped.  Moscow, Paris, Cairo, Hong Kong…he went right down the line.  I correctly identified about one in three.  Every time I got one wrong, he would become angrier and more disgusted.  My father’s contempt knew no bounds. The room was filling up with tension.  So was my body.  My throat was so tight that I could hardly breath.  You know that sensation you feel when you are a child, that pain in your throat when you are afraid?

       It felt like I was in that chair forever.  Terrified.  My hands were clenched in tight little fists.

       When we reached the end, he folded up the paper and threw it down on the table.  

        “It is important to know these things, Margo.  People who don’t know these things are stupid.  I do not like stupid people, and I do not like to be around stupid people.  You can’t expect me to think of you the same way after this.”

         “I’m sorry,” I squeaked.  

         “You should be,” he said.  

          Then he stood up and walked away.

         And then he didn’t talk to me for two days.  I do not exaggerate.  When he prepared a meal (I wasn’t doing the cooking yet, and I wasn’t allowed to eat any food that wasn’t given to me.  When I learned that other children had free access to the pantry and the fridge, I was stunned: You can eat whenever you want?), he’d put my plate down in front of me and then walk off to eat his dinner somewhere else.  I ate at the table alone.

          When I approached him and tried to talk, he ignored me completely.  As if he didn’t hear me.

         As if I was a ghost.

         Which, I guess, I was.  In a manner of speaking.  Little ghost Margo, trapped in the haunted house with Daddy.  Now I work in a haunted house. 

        I took the newspaper and a dictionary (he had a globe on his desk, but I wasn’t allowed to touch his things) and spent all day learning where the cities were.  I memorized every one.  I have an excellent memory when I’m not drinking.

        I wanted him to ask me where the cities were again, but he never did.  

        It was not the first test he gave me.  Or the last.  He was a true sadist, my father.  

       And that is why I yelled to defend my friend in the diner.  As if I could shield him.  

       Or myself.


5 thoughts on “Failing the Geography Exam”

    1. Yeah, it was very painful. I think children have an instinctual fear of their parents (though I could be wrong about that), and my father used it to control me.

      But, now you know the secret to my academic success (such as it is). Fear of rejection is a tremendous motivator…but ultimately, as a parenting strategy, I do not recommend it.

  1. “He was a true sadist, my father.”

    Yep, but also a bully. Because he took his dark side out on a defenceless kid. Ample illustration if any were needed that all bullies are cowards.

    Also, as you tell the tale, the stupid one was him. Not knowing that Belgium is a country is, at worst, ignorant, but it’s not stupid.

    But anyone who has trained a dog, let alone brought up a child, knows that you are far more likely to get what you want from them by kindness and reward rather than than brutality and humiliation.

    ‘To educate’ – from the Latin ‘e-ducere’ literally means to lead, bring, or draw out.
    But really stupid people like Adler père don’t have the wit or the empathy to draw the best out of a child. So not only was he a prize Dummkopf, but he was also too stupid to know it. The man gets no points for metaknowledge.

    But it’s heartwarming to see all that pain transmuted into care and concern for others.

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