Life Hacks for a Kid With a Bad Attitude
(Memoir Excerpt © 2019 Steve Russell)
All of my failures were not about teaching styles or the stereotyping of Indians. There were some important things I was just not learning, either because I did not grasp the importance or I did not grasp the subject matter itself.
I would later tell university admissions officers that I had no high school records to offer because I don’t think I ever passed an algebra class or an English class on the high school level. To say I was able to finesse these gaps in my knowledge is not to say having the gaps was a good thing.
Arithmetic did not come easily to me. I have never learned the multiplication tables even now. I multiply by performing multiple additions in my head. The woman who became my law partner, Vivian Mahlab, taught me some long division in the third year of law school to enable me to figure estate taxes. I had survived dividing smaller numbers with hacks like visualizing the units I was adding in my head to fake multiplying and counting them.
My university degree plan required only three hours of math, and I was able to find a course in number theory, which taught me why my arithmetic hacks worked. Most problems were stated in words rather than equations, and my Air Force computer experience was useful when I got thrown into the deep end.
My time on the consoles of various Air Force computers had left me able to read registers displayed in binary-coded octal and I could in those days do calculations more easily in octal (base eight) than in decimal (base ten). When I left the computer field, programmers were working almost exclusively in hexadecimal (base sixteen). The nerds often refer to hexadecimal as “hex,” which seems to me an appropriate description.
These skills have atrophied now from many years of disuse, but they enabled me to pull an A in a college level math course because I was lucky enough to find one that focused on the narrow niche where I had been working.
My failings in the other fundamental academic skill, English, are more complicated. In middle school and high school, I had simply refused to study grammar because, I would haughtily proclaim, I was born a writer, and we writers don’t stoop to that level.
The writer’s method is to read lots of excellent writing, fiction and nonfiction. From that experience, you understand the sound of correct writing. Poorly constructed writing offends your ear like fingernails on a chalkboard.
Two of the times I was sent away from an English class and “to the office,” I was unknowingly practicing the writer’s method. In one case, I got caught ignoring the lesson of the day just as I did most days. I was in the back of the room, hunched over a textbook for a higher grade level and so immersed in one of Shakespeare’s tragedies (it was either Hamlet or Macbeth) I did not notice the teacher walking to the back of the room to investigate my inattention.
The other time, I was in the throes of my romantic period when we were assigned a quiz over some grammatical nonsense the teacher had explained the day before. I dashed out answers — probably incorrect answers, but I shall never know — and proceeded to address my fixation on romantic poetry by testing my memory.
I would have gotten away with that had I not, when she asked for our quiz answers, handed in the wrong piece of paper. Because I was in the back of the room, my paper was on top of the stack. She looked down at what was supposed to be my quiz and read:
She walks in beauty
Like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies….
My attempt to render Lord Byron from memory got me another trip to the office.
The point of these stories is that I share the blame for my miserable high school record. The teachers lacked the authority to deviate from the approved curriculum and I lacked the inclination — -some would say, the common courtesy — -to apply myself to somebody else’s priorities.
I must also admit that I despised Bristow High School so much it made me crazy at times. Finding a place to hide where I could curl up with a book had been easy at Edison Elementary but as I got to higher grade levels it became nearly impossible. It was as if I could not breathe within the building and I would start to hyperventilate half a block away to maximize how long I could hold my breath.
During my abortive run at the ninth grade in Bristow, I did a particularly useless bit of truancy when I put a few possessions in a box, tied it to my Silver Pigeon motor scooter, and left town on a school day.
I know this happened after April of 1962, when I had just turned fifteen, because the fandango had a sound track that was released in that month of that year: Ray Charles’s seminal crossover, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.
“I Can’t Stop Loving You” was a big hit for Charles (© Don Gibson) and it became an earworm I could hear in my head with or without a radio. I discovered I could sing anything out loud when the Pigeon was at highway speed. It lacked the decibels of a Vespa or a Cushman Eagle but it was loud enough to cover up lots of vocal sins.
I steered the Pigeon south on Chestnut Street, which became Oklahoma 48 at the city limits. The highway was straight enough that I was not driving the scooter as much as I was hanging on and impersonating Ray Charles at the top of my lungs. It was amazing how that act unwound my anger.
Along with the anger subsiding came a realization of the utter silliness of my pretend escape. Where did I think I was going and how would it be better than Bristow? By the time Oklahoma 48 intersected with U.S. Highway 62 near Castle, I was seeing the choices at that intersection as symbolic of the life choices facing me.
A right turn on 62 would take me to the Sac and Fox Nation, already significant in my life as the place where my grandparents met. A left turn — naturally, it had to be a left turn — -would take me to Okemah, the boyhood home of Woody Guthrie, Dust Bowl Troubadour and author of the song that should have been the national anthem, “This Land is Your Land.” Either way, I knew I would be doin’ some hard travelin’.
I turned right on U.S. 62, but all of that singing at highway speed dried out my throat and all that thinking made me thirsty anyway, so I stopped at a small grocery store in Boley, Oklahoma, to drink a soda pop and soak up some history.
Boley was established in 1903 as one of many “Negro towns” where black people lived after the Civil War. Boley differed in that it was established not just by freedmen but by Creek freedmen, former slaves of the Muscogee Creek Nation, many of whom had Creek blood and all of whom had a treaty right to enroll in the Creek Nation if they chose
The population of Boley was claimed by the Census to be about half black and under ten percent Indian, mostly Creeks. That last is according to the locals, since the Census follows the laughable conceit of “race,” which holds a Creek to be like a Tonkawa who is like a Hopi who is like a Makah, ad infinitum.
When I started college, some anthropology texts still taught “race” as if it were a meaningful and objective way to classify human beings. The so-called Five Civilized Tribes all practiced chattel slavery, and to support the morality of it they caught the disease of racism from the white settlers. The settlers had started out enslaving the indigenous people, but Indians made poor slaves because, when they escaped, they had somewhere to go.
Settler plantation owners shopped in Atlantic seaports for African slaves, a practice the Five Tribes aped when they formed their own plantations. Only one of the Five Tribes, the Seminoles, caught on to escaped Africans as potential warriors highly motivated to fight the settlers.
The Seminoles fought the Spanish and then disappeared into the Everglades to fight again when a suitable target presented itself. They did the same against the British, and finally the Americans. Escaped slaves formed their own communities among the Seminoles and made common cause with the Seminoles against whichever colonial power was threatening. Those communities were not unlike the “Negro towns” in population if not in armament.
Looking back on my visit to Boley, there’s a lot of absurdity packed into the Indian kid surrounded by Indians who think he looks white in racial terms while he is thinking they look Negro by the same myths.
I cranked up the Pigeon, which appeared to be the only motor scooter in Boley, and roared off toward Prague, a city in the Sac and Fox Nation where Granma still seemed to know lots of people. She, and the locals, said “PRAYgue.” It was only when a Czech professor at the University of Texas, Eduard Taborsky, hired me as a grading assistant I learned that the namesake city in Europe is pronounced “PRAHgue.”
From Prague, I turned right on Oklahoma 99 and headed back north to Stroud, home of the Rock Café, a fixture on the Mother Road since 1939. When I was on the run from school, it was still open 24 hours and was the home of coffee that would remind you why you drink coffee.
Route 66, the Mother Road from Chicago to Santa Monica, was also called by some the Main Street of America. Others called it after my favorite Cherokee, Will Rogers Highway. When Will Rogers the Indian Territory cowpuncher became Will Rogers the touring vaudeville entertainer who hit Chicago regularly and finally Will Rogers the movie star, he bought a ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains. Route 66 was his life on a highway map.
I ended my 85-mile rectangle by scooting from Stroud to Bristow on a remnant of the Mother Road that had been re-designated as Oklahoma 66. Looking back, I played a spectacular and pointless game of hooky that day, starting to escape and quickly realizing I had nowhere to go.
I had long resolved to never let my schooling interfere with my education, a sentiment I thought was original to me until I saw it misattributed to Mark Twain, as so many witticisms are. As best I can tell, Grant Allen got to it first in 1894.
I was so fond of the quotation that I stuck it on my email sig line and attributed it to Mark Twain in the mid-nineties. Somebody called BS on the attribution to Mark Twain and I was unable to prove it to be correct, so I quit using it.
With or without Mark Twain, I declared war on the Bristow school system for wasting my time. I had to give up my claim to be the author of the sentiment, but I never gave up the sentiment itself. The public schools were designed like a roach motel. You are supposed to enter at age six and you can’t leave until they stick a fork in you and proclaim that you are done.
I did not wait for the proclamation. I knew when I was done.
The final battle front, high school, got inextricably linked to my effort to learn the mysteries of my missing birth family. Of course, I was curious. I loved my grandparents but I was always aware of the abstract cloud of human life cycles that decreed I would lose them before I was fully grown. That abstraction became cruel reality when my grandfather died on November 11, 1961.
My school attendance — never anything to brag about — -became mythical for the end of the semester of Grampa’s death and did not improve the next semester. The next school year would bring high schools numbers two and three. Mysteries would be solved, if not exactly in a manner that improved my life prospects.