One afternoon I came home from the barbershop sporting an aerodynamic new hair creation of my own. What on earth did you let them do to you, son? Pappy said as soon as he saw me. (Our house was not spacious; the front door opened directly into Pappys study, which he had converted from what ordinarily would have been a living room. To enter the house was literally to step into his scrutinizing gaze.)
Huh? I said, touching my hand to my head. The top was so flat and cylindrical it resembled an unused No. 2 pencil eraser; the sides and the back were shaved all the way down, revealing a shaft of high-yellow scalp.
What, they didnt listen when you told them what you wanted?
No, they did, I said. This is what I wanted.
You wanted that?
Well, yeah, its what everyone is wearing, Babe; its whats on BET and in all the magazines. (We call my father Babe when speaking to him casually, kind of a tu to the vous of Pappy.)
And you want to look like everyone else, son? Is that what you want? He was staring at me intently now.
I stood there before him, studying the Air Flights on my feet. I didnt have a response he would find remotely respectable. The thing is that I did want to look like everyone elseeveryone else in the barbershop and on that TV screen. After all, even in the backseat of a big ol Murrsaydeez, the woman on the balcony would never mistake a brother with a flattop like this for being white.
Annoyed or dismayed by my new coif as he was, though, Pappy allowed Clarence and me a generous amount of latitude when it came to our personal style, as long as we were giving him our best efforts in what he cared about most: the development of our minds. What this meant, giving him our best, was not that we were pressured to place first in our classes or even to get straight As on our schoolwork, although it would have been welcome if we did. We were expected to maintain decent grades, but it was deeper than that. Pappy, no longer working as a sociologist, now put his PhD and extensive store of personal knowledge and reading to use running a private academic and SAT preparation service from our home. From the second grade on, giving Pappy our best meant we needed to try hard in school, but much more important than that, we needed to study one-on-one with him in the evenings and on the weekends, on long vacations, and all throughout the summer break. If we could not do that, he was able to make our home the most uncomfortable inn to lodge in. When Clarence began blowing off work, he didnt just get grounded, he came home to find his bedroom walls stripped bare, his Michael Jordan and Run-D.M.C. posters replaced with pastel sheets of algebra equations Pappy had printed out and tacked up.
As for me, the first time Pappy called me into his study to explain my summer schedule, I was seven and my eyes betrayed me, welling with tears against my will. When he looked up from his notes and saw this, he got so offended that he stormed out of the room and I fell into my mothers lap crying. I did not want to do the work he had planned for me. I wanted to play with my friends and have sleepover parties. I wanted to capture fireflies in ventilated Smuckers jars and beat Super Mario Brothers on Clarences Nintendo. That was the truth. However, more than anything, I wanted not to disappoint my father. With my mothers encouragement and some Kleenex, I followed Pappy into his bedroom and told him that I had just had something in my eye and that, in fact, I had not been crying. I was eager to start studying, I told him. He suspended his disbelief and led me back to his desk, where he proceeded to lay out an intensive program of regimented work in syllogistic and spatial reasoning, vocabulary-building, Miller analogies, arithmetic, and reading comprehensionhis signature cocktail.
Excerpted from Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams. Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Chatterton Williams. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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