Nobody Loves a Loser

Romance requires a hero, and the hero must find a way to win

Dean Martin hadn’t had a Top 40 hit in seven years when he went into the studio to record an album entitled Dream With Dean in 1964. Toward the end of the recording session, he was still one song short, and the pianist suggested one of his own. Ken Lane had co-written the ballad in 1947 with Sam Coslow and Irving Taylor, and it had been recorded by several other singers, including Frank Sinatra, but without commercial success. As an album filler, however, it would do, and so Martin recorded it with Lane on piano, accompanied by a small combo of drums, bass and guitar. The tune went in as the last song of side one of Dream With Dean, and might have been forgotten, except that the singer really liked the song. Martin re-recorded it with a full orchestra for his next album, and when executives at Reprise Records heard the new version, they decided to rename the album for the song:

Everybody loves somebody sometime.
Everybody falls in love somehow.
Something in your kiss just told me
My sometime is now.

“Everybody Loves Somebody” put Dean Martin back on top. It was such a huge hit that, in August 1964, it knocked The Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” out of Number One on the Billboard charts. It became Martin’s signature tune, the theme song for his popular NBC variety show that aired from 1965 to 1974.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, the message of that famous hit seemed somewhat confusing. If everybody loved somebody, I occasionally had cause to wonder, why didn’t anybody love me?

Oh, the pains of unrequited love I felt as a boy! My childhood was plagued by a series of crushes — Priscilla Yates in kindergarten, Joanna Richardson in second grade, Janet Howton in third grade, Carol Purdy in fifth grade, on and on — all of which were hopelessly one-sided. My dream girls never loved me back. To be honest, girls quite generally disliked me, and it hurt.

My basic problem was that I talked too much. My report cards from elementary school always included this complaint from my teachers: “Talks too much in class.” This earned me numerous paddlings and other disciplinary punishments, e.g., “writing sentences.” Back in the day, the misbehaving child would be paddled, and then required to write 100 times a sentence like, “I will not talk in class.” Reflecting on my educational experience, I’m glad the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder or hyperactivity hadn’t yet been popularized, or else they would have had me doped up on Ritalin from an early age. Back then, a troublemaker wasn’t diagnosed as suffering from an illness, he was punished for doing wrong.

I wasn’t a victim. I was a bad child, and everybody hated me.

OK, I exaggerate. Not everybody hated me. My Grandma Kirby loved me. And my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Stringer, seemed to like me. Miss Stringer introduced us to the SRA Readers, a series of graded booklets, where you would read each story and answer the questions at the end. The SRA Readers were numbered and color-coded, according to the difficulty, and you started at the lowest level and then worked your way up. Man, I flew through those things. Here, at last, was something in school I was good at.

Up until fourth grade, schoolwork had consisted mainly of a lot of copying stuff the teacher had written on the chalkboard. You have to remember that this was in the 1960s, in Douglas County, Georgia, where the school system was trying to cope with the strain of the Baby Boom and the metastatic growth of metropolitan Atlanta. My dad worked at the Lockheed aircraft plant in Marietta, a major defense contractor that employed thousands of people, many of whom had bought homes in my hometown of Lithia Springs, about 20 miles away. Douglas County had previously been a rural community, where the tallest structure was the four-story ruins of the New Manchester textile factory on Sweetwater Creek. Sherman’s cavalry burnt the factory in 1864, and by the time I started elementary school, a century of hard times had intervened. Hard times make hard people, and our elders — folks who had survived the Depression and World War II — were not prone to tolerate misbehaving children. Our school system was strained to the max by the swelling enrollment, so that there were 30 or 35 kids to a classroom, and maintaining order required stern disciplinary measures. How many paddlings did I endure in my first three years of school? A lot, not to mention having to write all those sentences: “I will not talk in class.”

A Love of Learning, and a Hatred of School

You can’t blame me for hating school. School hated me first. My restless energy and class-clown tendencies made me a target. I was a disruptive presence, a distraction, a problem child. Also, I was a genius.

No, I’m not bragging. As a Christmas gift in 1967, my mother bought us the World Book Encyclopedia, along with the Thorndike-Barnhart Dictionary in two huge volumes (A-K and L-Z). I devoured this gift. For hours and hours, I’d sit reading the encyclopedia and dictionary for fun. Also as a child, I became the best cartoonist in my grade at school, and displayed some talent in poetry and music. Nowadays, such a child would be considered “gifted,” and singled out for special opportunities, but back then, I was regarded as a nuisance and a troublemaker, singled out for special punishment.

Schools reward quiet obedience, and I was a loudmouthed rebel. This problem actually became worse after it was discovered how smart I was. In fifth grade, for the first time, we were given a standardized test — fill in the circles for your answer, etc. — and I blew the top off that sucker. At age 10, my vocabulary and reading comprehension were at a collegiate level. Thank you, Mr. Thorndike. Thank you, Mr. Barnhart. And also, thanks to Miss Stringer and the SRA Reader, which had allowed me to learn at my own pace, rather than spend fourth grade doing a lot of repetitive busywork.

When the results of that fifth-grade standardized test came back, my mother was called in for a meeting with the principal, who told her that only one other child in the whole county had scored as high as I did, 99th percentile.

This was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Whereas before, my deficiencies in schoolwork had been explained simply — just a Bad Boy — now my genius-level scores brought me the accusation of not trying hard enough.

“You could do so much better, if you’d only apply yourself,” my parents repeatedly scolded me, but to what was I being asked to apply myself? Sitting still, keeping my mouth shut, and doing brain-numbing rote work.

Was I the problem, or was the school the problem? When I read Ph.D. feminist professors whining about how they’re victimized by “systemic oppression,” I want to laugh. Sweetheart, you don’t know a damned thing about being oppressed by a system if you haven’t endured the brutal humiliation the Douglas County public school system inflicted on me back in the day.

Public education is a government bureaucracy, and this is a sufficient indictment of the whole damned system. It was a tragic mistake — a wrong turn in human history — to put government in charge of education. Anyone who has dealt with the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Social Security Administration or the Internal Revenue Service should understand this. The main purpose of a government bureaucracy is to provide employment for the kind of people with an aptitude is filling out paperwork and following orders. (Adolf Eichmann was an efficient bureaucrat, as Hannah Arendt observed.) Turning education into a bureaucracy means hiring bureaucrats to teach children how to be good bureaucrats, and it logically follows that the system designed by these bureaucrats must crush any child who resists. It is a fact of history that the American public school system as it exists originated with Horace Mann in Massachusetts. Mann took as his model for Massachusetts public schools the Prussian state school system. When I compare the modern school teacher to Eichmann, you understand that this is not merely a flippant jest. There is a real historic connection between German totalitarianism and our allegedly “democratic” school system. When we behold the blizzard of Special Snowflakes on our nation’s college campuses — the poor little darlings at Yale were “traumatized” by Hillary’s defeat — what we are witnessing is the predictable outcome of an ill-advised educational experiment based on a 19th-century military autocracy. But I digress . . .

Being identified as a genius did not improve my relationship to the school system in Douglas County circa 1969, but actually made it worse. Once they had tested us, we were sorted out into a classes according to the results. This meant that I was assigned to Class 5A, while most of my hoodlum friends were in Class 5C or 5D. Now, I was stuck among the goody-two-shoes —the nice, polite kids who studied diligently — against whose obedient example my unruly conduct stood out in even sharper contrast. It was a perfect formula for misery, especially because the goody-two-shoes girls all hated me.

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating again, but not by much. There might have been one or two girls who thought some of my jokes were funny, but I sure wasn’t the most popular boy at Lithia Spring Elementary School. Perhaps this had something to do with my being one of the youngest kids in my grade.

‘An Enormous Difference in Physical Maturity’

Born in October, I’d started first grade at age 5. The rules at the time allowed that any child born in September or later could wait another year, which many parents chose to do. Nearly all my classmates were older than me by at least a few months, and some by more than a year, which put me at a disadvantage, from a developmental standpoint. Even allowing for the fact that I was (and am) skinny, and impulsive by nature, my problems in social adjustment were exacerbated by the fact that I was younger, smaller and less mature than nearly everyone else in my grade. The disadvantages of a six-month or nine-month age gap may seem trivial to some people, but not to the 11-year-old boy in a classroom of 12-year-olds. What are called the “tween” years — roughly fifth through eighth grade — are always awkward, but are particularly painful for smaller and less mature boys. In the competition for female admiration, boys are esteemed for muscularity and athletic prowess, superior size and strength. Woe unto the short skinny boy!

In his bestselling book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell discusses how youth hockey leagues in Canada, where Jan. 1 is the cutoff date for birthdays of players in age-limited teams, confer an enormous competitive advantage on boys born early in the year. Among elite players in Canada, 40 percent are born in the first three months of the year, whereas only 10 percent are born in the last three months of the year. “A boy who turns 10 on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn 10 until the end of the year — and at that age, in preadolescence, a 12-month gap in age represents an enormous difference in physical maturity,” Gladwell writes, and he points out that a similar analysis applies to education.

Many parents may believe “whatever disadvantage a younger faces in kindergarten eventually goes away. But it doesn’t. It’s just like hockey,” Gladwell explains. “The small initial advantage that the child born in the early part of the year has over the child born at the end of the year persists. It locks children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years.” Nobody in 1969 was thinking about that stuff, except maybe me, because I was living through those “patterns of . . . encouragement and discouragement” in real time, on a daily basis. My hatred of school — dear God, how I hated it! — was in remarkable contrast to my love of learning. And football.

Weird that football saved me. You wouldn’t think a small guy would be good at football, particularly as an offensive lineman, but I was good enough to be a five-year starter for the Sweetwater Valley Red Raiders, playing in the Cobb County recreation league, from 1969 through 1973.

“Everybody loves somebody,” so why didn’t anybody love me? It took me years to solve this puzzle, but my mother always told me, “You can do anything, son, if you just put your mind to it.” Did I mention I was a genius?

It ain’t bragging if you can do it, as Dizzy Dean said. The human mind is the world’s most valuable resource, and almost any problem in life can be solved by the sustained application of brainpower. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the “10,000-hour rule,” where years of hard work lead to success. How was it that an unlovable 10-year-old boy grew up to marry a long-legged brunette and become the father of six children? Was this mere luck? A coincidence? Maybe it was genetic superiority, or the blessings of a merciful God, but it also involved a lot of hard work, and the application of brainpower.

How does a young man become the romantic hero? Sing it, Dean-o.

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

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