I Are Smart
Note: A version of this essay is performed in episode 002 of the PeteBrownSays podcast.
I think 11 is the greatest age.
It’s likely the last year of pure childhood fun you have before the slow onset of cynicism and disillusionment as middle school starts and cliques form and tween psyches run roughshod over each other. If I could pick any age to return to, I think it would be 11 for this reason, and summertime, when I’d leave my house on my BMX bike (mine had a sweet shock absorber in it) just after morning Cheerios and try to make it back home before the streetlights came on, the hours in-between filled with baseball and soccer, building forts and running through sprinklers. At age 11, you’re just becoming aware of your own narrative in the world, and starting to understand how you can influence it to your liking.
When my daughter was 11, she started making her own comic book, which was called So Far, So Good, and involved heroes traveling around in a Tardis working to overturn a global ban on pie. Dr. Who ephemera was woven throughout the story. She was, and still is, a huge Whovian, and that was reflected in her comic book.
Now, what my daughter was creating with her comic book would today be called Fan Fiction. That’s when you take characters and elements from your favorite entertainment properties and put them into stories of your own design and publish them, years ago in photocopied fan zines and nowadays on the Internet, the advent of which, I believe, ushered in an avalanche of fanfic. In many cases, the entities that own the characters the fans are engaging with tend to be more or less supportive of fan fiction, at least non-pornographic fanfic, which I think they consider to be an homage to their property, rather than out-and-out plagiarism, and so long as no one is making any money off it, which as far as I can tell, they aren’t, then it’s all good.
I don’t remember fan fiction being a thing when I was in grade school, but the Internet assures me that it has existed in some primordial analog forms for much of the 20th century. What I do remember is how creativity, in those early days, often began with taking something familiar and then adding more onto it. I remember taking my Star Wars action figures and mixing them in with my GI Joes and my green army men and my Lego figures in these very long and complex cross-genre narratives, and much later, as a Dad, encouraging my kids to do the same.
So I want explore the line between homage and plagiarism today, to do so by going back to when I was eleven. Eleven years old and in fifth grade. We lived in a yellow house, and the kitchen was covered in fern- patterned wallpaper had an orange rotary telephone mounted to the wall right next to the calendar, which hung on a single thin nail. Next to the phone was a countertop. A single wide drawer faced phone-ward.
It was the junk drawer.
Did you have a junk drawer in your home? Do you have one now?
I always thought that everyone in the US had a junk drawer in their home, that is until I met my future in-laws, for whom the word ‘fastidious’ is far too sloppy. I moved to a new home recently, and while I never specifically declared any one drawer to be the junk drawer, a junk drawer has nonetheless formed on its own. It’s at the end of the counter, right near where there is a phone jack installed on the wall, which is where I would undoubtedly mount an orange rotary if landlines were still a thing in my life. Here’s a shortlist of just some of the items that have found their way into our junk drawer:
- 3 battery-powered LED tea lights
- An aim-and-flame lighter that does not seem to have enough juice left to actually create a flame.
- A cut open clamshell pack of picture hangers — hooks with accompanying nails, which have spilled out across the bottom of the drawer.
- A pack of carbons from a checkbook that no longer has any checks in it
- A pink and a yellow highlighter
- The twisty, double ended Allen wrench that comes in Ikea furniture
- A pack of post-it notes, open, the note on top of which reads “Thursday — furniture.” (I have no idea what that means).
There is much more junk in my junk drawer, but I think you get the idea. Junk drawers form from the detritus of living, they hold the things that we deem to have just enough value to not throw away, but not valuable enough to have their own designated place in the home.
The junk drawer of my childhood home was glorious.
I have honestly never seen its equal. There were afternoons where I’d pull a chair over and just sit and go through it. Taking things out, considering them as I turned them over in my hands, then putting them back just as higgledy piggledy as they were.
Here are some things I remember from our junk drawer:
Poker chips in various shades
A key chain on whose ring was affixed 15 more keychains
A horror-movie-worthy ice pick
So — quick aside here — As a child I lived through the transition from having gas station attendants fill up your car to self-serve, and when it happened, my entrepreneurial parents created this invention called the Gaslatch — which was a length of curved steel tubing which could be added to your keychain and it hooked on to to gas pump handles and held them open while filling the car.
My parents had several thousand of these Gaslatches made, and sold them via mail order, placing an ad in the back of the National Enquirer to do so. I remember being transfixed by the envelopes that came from other countries. Such stamps! Where’s Sweden?
In any case, the Gaslatch never caught on, in part because your keys would always fall off the keychain end of it and in part because people just didn’t seem to mind holding the pump themselves. (Today’s pumps, as you know, have little latch that you can flip to hold them open, plus they have an auto-shutoff feature that the pumps of the early 70s did not have. But every time I flip the modern latch to hold the pump open, I think of it as a kind of homage to my parent’s Gaslatch. Gaslatch Fan fic, if you roll. Also, I’m more than certain that if I went and dug around my Dad’s current place, I could still turn up a few hundred Gaslatches.
On the day I’m remembering just now, which was back when I was 11, I found in the junk drawer a bumper sticker that read “I choose note to cope,” the letters of the word ‘cope’ spilling off the vinyl, Travis Bickle/organizized-style. And I also found a button, probably two inches around, white background with green sans serif letters that read:
I are smart.
I are Irish.
Then there was a little shamrock.
I remember looking a it when my Mom, who was half-Irish, came into the kitchen.
“Can I wear this to school on St. Patrick’s Day?” I asked.
She said “no.”
And I didn’t think much of it at the time. Like most 11 year olds in the pre-helicopter parent era, I heard a lost of unexplained No’s that I didn’t have the fervor for further inquiry. My best guess is that I assumed she said No because she was going to wear it on St. Patrick’s day.
You see — I didn’t get the joke.
I didn’t get the joke until years and years later, and once I finally got it, I was instantly perplexed as to how and where the button came to be in our junk drawer. Again, just guessing here, is that my Dad found the button in a bargain bin in one of the bargain stores he often went to after he retired to, as he put it, kill some time. He liked to tease my Mom now and again about things she was that he was not, namely being Irish, or being Catholic, or every once in a while, about being Croatian (which was her other half). He probably bought the button for two bits, as he likes to say, and put it on my Mom’s dresser or something, and by the black hole theory of junk drawers, it simply made its way there. No harm, no foul.
Another aside: I recently tried to ask my Dad if he remembered anything about this button, but he is a 91-year-old widower now, and while he remembers a great many things, this button is not one of them. In fact, without the button itself, I’m not sure he really grokked what I was describing to him at all. He just shook his head and put his hand to his ear and turned off his hearing aid, which is one of the ways he signals he’s had enough conversation with you.
I are smart.
Later that year, in fifth grade art class at the Catholic school I attended, our teacher, Ms. Albrecht, passed out sheets of paper, each of which had a large circle drawn on it. This was in anticipation of a forthcoming kind of “Catholic Pride” week that our school, and indeed, the diocese, was scheduled to celebrate. I should note for the record that I am sure it was not called “Catholic Pride Week,” but was something along those lines — Spirit week, perhaps, or the word Jubilee keeps coming to mind.
I are Irish.
Ms. Abrecht, whom I remember as a kind and unusually tall teacher (though when I was 11, most teachers seemed unusually tall) explained to the class that the school was having a button contest for the upcoming spirit week. Every kid in school was to draw their entry on the paper she just passed out. and Father Callahan and Sister Ardath would choose a winner, and then buttons would get made and every kid in school would get one.
You see where this is going, don’t you?
I can’t describe how excited I was when she gave us this assignment. So excited your leg jumps and down and your hands shake a little bit because you know you got it, you’ve got the inside track to winning something big.
I chose a blue marker. And although I had then and to this day still have terrible handwriting, I wrote in the circle as legibly as I could:
I are smart.
I are Catholic.
I didn’t write ‘boom’ on the button. I just said that because that’s how I felt looking down at my creation. Elegant in its simplicity. Powerfully messaged. Would it win? Of course it will! It has to! It’s based on a REAL BUTTON.
I walked up to Ms Albrecht’s desk and handed it to her. She looked it over and frowned. Then she handed it back to me without saying anything and pointed towards my desk.
I can’t tell you how confused I was by this, but I remember thinking that maybe Ms. Albrecht had also seen the I are smart, I are Irish button and I was busted for copying it.
Back at my desk, I looked at my design for along time, wondering if it was handwriting, maybe. Or my choice of the color blue. Then I remembered that the I are Irish button included a shamrock on it, and maybe Ms. Albrecht was reacting to the fact that my button was a pure text treatment. That had to be it.
So I thought for a minute, then took out a brown crayon, and below the words “I are Catholic” I drew a cross. Then, to be on the safe side, I drew two smaller crosses, one on each side of the first cross, so it looked like a mini Gethsemane there at the bottom curve of my button.
I walked it back to Ms. Albrecht. This time, she looked at it and sort of whipped back into my hands.
“What?” I asked.
Here’s the part about this story that I remember in the most detail.
Ms. Albrecht leaned down to my level, which again, seemed lik a long way to lean dowm, and said “ I ARE smart?????? I ARE Catholic????”
Just like that, like the copy was in fact a question.
“Oh,” I said. And still, somehow inexplicably not in understanding that the original button was a joke. Instead, it was said as I realized that yeah, that doesn’t sound right at all. As if, in the world my 11-year-old brain could conjure- the original copy “I are smart, I are Catholic” was simply a mistake that slipped past the button factory proofreaders and into production.
So back at my desk, I took my blue marker and carefully colored over the word “are” in each sentence, and then, on top of this blue square like a medal winning athlete stepping onto the podium, I wrote the word ‘Am’ twice, so that my button now read “I am smart. I am Catholic.”
I have to admit to feeling like this was an improvement. More powerful in its declaration. Now somehow even more certain to win. When I took it back to Ms. Albrecht, she shook her head in what I was learning to recognize as disappointment, put the paper on the pile of other button designs that had been turned in, and told me to go to my desk and read something.
I was forever disappointing my teachers in ways I never understood.
Still, I figured whatever her problem was, she’d get over it when Sister Ardath and Fr. Callahan picked it as the winner.
So you can imagine my surprise a few days later when Sister Ardath, during morning annoucements she made over the PA, announced the name of the winner, and it was not me. It was some eight grade girl.
What a rip off! How could I have been ripped off like that. Didn’t they know that mine was based on a REAL BUTTON?
And then I paused.
Maybe they did know.
I mean, Fr. Callahan was like the most Irish guy I knew. He wrote a book called “Irish Americans and the Communities of Cleveland” that my mom had on her bookshelf (and that I once put in as a topic for a family game of charades). If anyone was to also have the I are smart. I are Irish button, it was probably him.
And maybe, despite the corrections I made to the original copy, my version was too close to the original. Maybe they thought I was a copier. That I copied. Maybe I was gonna be in trouble even though I didn’t win. Oh my God. Maybe they called Mom and told her about it. Maybe my Mom was on the orange rotary right now looking at the button and saying “I believe I do know where he got the idea.”
Maybes build quickly and with force when you’re eleven, confused and a little bit scared. I kept my head down the rest of the week. I was worried that maybe Sister Ardath would see me in the bus line and it would remind her she was supposed to call my Mom and tell her about this dirty business.
Don’t look up, I’d tell myself. Don’t make eye contact.
Looking down is how I remember the end of this story, too. As we left the classroom for the bus lines at then ednd of the following week, the teachers pressed a copy of the winning button into our outstretched palms. I closed my fist around mine, and didn’t look at it until I was on the bus, sitting inmy seat, my head resting against the back of the seat in front of me.
The button was about the side of a half dollar (or 4 bits as my Dad would say), yellow background with maroon letters (our school colors! Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?) The button read:
Catch that Catholic Spirit!
Which is a fine tagline, except that it was awfully similar to a major campaign that Pepsi Cola was running at the time — Catch that Pepsi Spirit — on TV, on the Radio. There was even a a major contest to spell it out with the letters found on each bottle cap (no one could ever find the ‘R’).
And I wondered how the heck my button, based on a real button, could lose to this? Why was it my button was copying but this, this was just fine.
I mean, don’t Nuns drink Pepsi?
Doesn’t Fr. Callahan have a TV in that weird little house behind the church that he lives in?
It was as if, I realized, sitting on the bus and looking down at this button in my palm, it was as if…the Catholic church…was somehow…out of touch…with reality.
Eleven years old, I was, sitting with this thought on my long bus ride home. And as we walked home from the bus stop that afternoon, my sisters chided me to not lose my button because we had to wear it to school on Monday.
But when I got home, I looked up and saw the junk drawer, thee by the orange rotary, waiting for me. Calling out to me. And as if in a dream, I walked over to it, slid it open, and dropped the button in.
Because I realized that I am a quarter Irish, which, were the button in the junk drawer at home to be believed, made me at least a quarter smart.
Or two bits, as my Dad likes to say.