In my household, there was never any question as to who the boss was. My father ruled the roost, and if you didn’t like it- you could lump it. There was none of this current day conferring with the kids about how they felt, or what they thought, or any of that ‘warm, fuzzy crap’ to quote the man himself. The bottom line was: Dad paid for everything, was the biggest, strongest and (definitely) loudest, and was therefore King. End of story. Though it often felt unfair, particularly when he was handing down verdicts against us personally (‘Annie, you’ll wear your rubbers to school and you’ll like it! I don’t care how hard it is to get them on and off!’*) we also had a deep-seated desire to please him as well. And it turned out that the worst case scenario of a parent who ruled with an iron fist was that you would do everything in your power to leave their kingdom and be-gasp!-independent. (Oh! The horror!)
One of our family rituals was the ‘School Report’. This took place during dinner (served at 5:30 on the dot) and it was a game wherein my father would randomly say ”School Report!”, and my brothers and I would throw our hands up in the air in a fury, waving them, panting and squirming in our chairs. Pick me! Pick me! We were frantic with our desire to be declared the winner. Once the words were spoken-usually towards the end of the meal, my father would slowly and deliberately put down his knife and fork, dropping it onto his plate with a clank (having finally finished his giant T-bone steak with extra fat, just the way he liked it, or perhaps some meaty pork chops, the exact same size and shape as the state of Florida) and dab his mouth with a cloth napkin. He would then scan the table, looking at each of us with a mischievous glint in his eyes. The anticipation was almost unbearable! Then: Boom! He’d point to the kid he deemed the winner, the groans of the ‘losers’ echoing across the table, two faces with lower lips jutting out far enough to adequately handle a bird landing or two. The winner, of coarse, would be sporting the ‘how do ya like me now?’ grin, sometimes adding a thumbs up sign, or sticking out a tongue, infuriating the two losers even more. These dynamics would usually illicit a “tsk, tsk. Oh…Bob!” spoken with a sigh from my mother, who was not a fan of dinner time competitions. My father would ignore this completely, then say ‘Shoot!’ to the winner, his index finger forming a fake pistol. The ‘winner’ was now to report on what happened at school that day. Though it was off the cuff and unscripted, we certainly wanted to please our father the King, but as many a stand-up comic will tell you- improvisation isn’t that easy. Add this to the fact that you now had two instant, very bitter hecklers wishing you to fail, and you’ve got all the makings of a tough crowd, the kind comedians turn to legend. In fact, ‘School Report’ was responsible for an approximately 35% increase in family fights during the years it was in effect, according to recent studies.
It might go something like this: Rob wins. Negative vibes emit like radon from both David and I, funneled directly at Rob. Rob clears his throat, and begins: “Today….in school….we…ummmm…..had….ummm…math….with numbers…and ummm….I wrote numbers…..and….ummmm……” Well! I would think: You have got to be kidding me! This kid can’t tell a story to save his life, and someone has to step in. “That’s dumb, Robby!” I might say.
“Lisa Anne! Be Quiet!” my father warns. Rob tries to kick me under the table, but can’t reach. Air kick! What a fool!
“Simmer down and wait for your turn!” my father demands.
I puff my cheeks out like a blow-fish, hold my breath, place my elbow on the table, drop my head into my hand, lower my eyelids and let the air out of my pursed lips like a leaky tire. I could get an Academy Award for my conveyance of boredom.
My father helps Rob along: “Did you have recess?” he asks.
“Yeah!” Rob says ‘…and Timmy Shoales fell off the swing and had bleeding!” I have to admit, this kind of gets my attention. But I credit my father for punching up the script, not Rob’s ability to tell a story.
“It was his nose!” Rob says “and his knee! and his…over here!” Rob points to his own chest. Ut oh! Now he’s getting his Michael Bay on, and I hope my Dad reels him in pretty soon or this tale is gonna be all special effects and no story.
“OK!” says my Dad to Rob “Good Job!” and he claps. “Now. Annie! Bam!” he says, pointing his index finger at me. I’m on!
I, too, start by clearing my throat. I then tap the table, and ask: “Is this thing on?” and wait for the laughter that doesn’t come.
“Annie!Cut the Malarkey! We don’t have time for jokes!” my father growls. This always gets me. I mean- even the best joke ever takes what? Ten-twenty seconds? And let’s say it’s really super funny (which is what I strive for) then, including the laughter- we’re looking at maybe - a minute, minute-ten at the most? So, really-don’t we in fact have the time? I’m not just referring to jokes either, but other stuff parents say there’s not time for. It’s hard for me to imagine that we’re cutting it that close! Is all I’m saying. But whatever.
“OK….” I begin…’Today in school, John was wearing the best peace sign t-shirt, which he got at Caldors, just in case anyone wants to know.” I look directly at my mother, who knits her brows and frowns. “Kristen said we shouldn’t have to do the ropes in gym, so me and her and Renee signed a paper about it- but Lara wouldn’t sign it because she can get to the top. Mrs. Baxter in the library said a bad word (I mouth ‘Damn!’) when Todd brought in a worm, and I got ‘Stuart Little’ and ‘The Ghost Of Windy Hill’ out- and then Todd dropped a book on the worm and it turned into like 50 worms!” I exclaimed. “It was soooo icky!”
“Alright That’s enough” says my mother, “Or I’m going to upchuck” but my Dad says “Oh forgodsakes- it’s nothing!”
“Yes, Bob, you’re right..I have one story about a child bleeding out, and another about smashed worms! What’s next? Murder?” says my mom.
“Well- let’s SEE!” says my father, “David? What do ya got?” he asks. It looks like I’ve been Kanye’d. But no one’s gonna let me finish! And I had killer knock-knock jokes lined up!
David is only five, and in kindergarten and doesn’t really understand the “Hunger Games’ type stakes that he is up against.
“I put my jacket in my cubby all by myself” he says – and practically gets a standing ovation by my parents. True- they were leaving the table anyway, my mom collecting soiled dishes in a pile, but it seemed celebratory,encouraging somehow. If my parents had had Bic lighters, they may have held them high and insisted on a David Encore. Regardless of the story, the younger you were, the more you got congratulated on everything. I really put effort into my school reports -cherry picking the best-of’s from the day, but it wasn’t exactly appreciated. It’s hard to be a headliner, when you’re surrounded by openers who think they’re the draw, and management who sends everyone on willy-nilly. Still, I always gave it my best shot, and every once in awhile, it was like magic. Like Carlin in the 7o’s, only not a millionth as good.
*kids, these rubbers were for shoes.