First published by The Vocabula Review
"Tony is reel shamed of hisself," began my mother's carefully misspelled letter regarding my brother's unexcused absence from school the previous day, "an' he wont do nothin like dis aggen."
It was a joke that no one understood except my mother and brother. I didn't get it either, but I was impressed by the furrows it had left on the brows of the office secretaries at Northport High School. Mrs. Endee, the head secretary, was the first to read it: "Tony dint wanna cum to school iesturday cuz he waz lazy an dint feeel like geting outta bed."
She narrowed her eyes and handed the letter to Mrs. Sabatino, who skimmed it, emitted a “tsk,” and passed it to Mrs. Geller. They kept glancing at my brother's stony face, not sure how to react. I couldn't decide whether they pitied our genetic pool or suspected a conspiracy. After all, the handwriting was meticulous, the syntax only slightly reproachable; even the writing paper was clean, crisp, whiter than newly washed linen drying in the summer sun.
What intrigued me most, however, was my mother and brother's willingness to appear — well — stupid. They regularly held court at lofty gatherings, quoting Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, sipping champagne from long-stemmed crystal—a gift from one of my mother's wealthy customers—staging elegant disagreements about topics I only pretended to understand. How could they jeopardize their shining, carefully wrought personas for a prank? It may have been a heroic high dive; but, still, it struck me as slightly absurd given their very public acts of intellectualism and high-stakes literacy — for in those days, literacy referenced things literate; that is, reading and writing. A literate person was called a learned person, which, even today, is a relative description. An illiterate person was someone who couldn’t read or write. Things were more easily defined in those days before color and gradations of gray.
Nonetheless, as I watched the secretaries mumble and mull over the meticulously penned errors, it occurred to me this was not simply a private joke between my mother and brother; this was an act of rebellion against rule makers, rule executors, moneyed and comfortable members of the middle class, hypocrisy, and the superficiality of appearances.
We as a culture value appearances above all. We kneel in awe of surface things, impressed by the paraphernalia of authority, beauty, literacy, wealth; and eager to condemn anyone without those trappings. I understood that our family had now been judged illiterate, and I thought that was pretty funny. Whatever these readers knew of us had been gleaned from that silly, awkwardly composed letter. Now, they understood why my brother and I were such frequent visitors to Assistant Principal Fazio's chamber of "bad choices and disappointing behavior." With such a mother, with such an illiterate mother, one could hardly expect otherwise. They looked sorry for us and advised us not to be late for homeroom.
It was a superb lesson for me. Writing was an act of power. Writing could announce one's superiority and ridicule the uninitiated without their ever knowing it. Writing had the muscle to supersede or suspend reality, creating images that didn’t exist—mirror tricks and slights of hand. It revealed truths by lying and exposed lies by telling the truth. Writing, the fourth dimension, made all things possible. My mother, a woman who had spent her life shaking off the nightmare of the poor house, a book in one hand and a sewing needle in the other, had staked out and judged her audience, correctly predicting their reaction and aiming her dart so precisely, no one felt its sting. Mission accomplished. We left the office.