Updated: 7 days ago
I know we’ve been married fifteen years, but did I ever tell you about the winter I almost failed grade nine French for the third time?
My friends and I stole our first six-pack when we were twelve, but grade eleven was the year our drinking almost escalated out of control.
Duke and I started hanging around with a guy named Booger, because Booger always seemed to know where to find a case of beer, or a bottle of Southern Comfort. (It helped that his father worked for the LCBO, but Booger was friendly with a bootlegger named Whiskey Jack.) Southern Comfort is a liqueur, but we drank it mixed with Hawaiian Punch. That’s like pouring maple syrup over a half-pound bag of brown sugar, then drinking the bag of brown sugar and maple syrup for breakfast.
We really didn’t know what we were doing, so each drinking binge we went on, we kept pushing our luck. Over the course of the first semester, we went from three guys drinking twelve beers, to three guys drinking two cases of beer, and a 40-ounce bottle of Southern Comfort, all in the same night, just for New Year’s Eve: that was December 31, 1987.
Duke, Booger and I almost died of alcohol poisoning on New Year’s Eve, grade eleven, but that’s another story. This is the story of how I almost ended up in French immersion summer school for a month, July in Ottawa, which would have meant living with my Grandfather Harper.
The problem was, grade eleven, I needed a language credit to graduate grade thirteen: grade nine French was my only option, no matter how many times I had to repeat the course. I was top of my class in history and English, middle of the road in math and science, but couldn’t crack grade nine French. It was 90 minutes a day where I didn’t learn a damn thing.
My grade nine French teacher was a retired British army officer named Donald Knott. Mr. Knott served in World War II, part of the taskforce that liberated the death camp at Bergen-Belsen. His men guarded the guards the liberators took prisoner. In the movies, Mr. Knott’s men would have heroically machine-gunned down the captured German soldiers, before moving on to firebomb Berlin, burning it to the ground, but history didn’t happen that way.
Mr. Knott walked into hell on earth, came face-to-face with evil, and never compromised: somehow, his men upheld the Geneva Conventions.
He spent V-E Day babysitting war criminals. How he ended up in Canada after the war, teaching high school French in Northwestern Ontario, I don’t know. He must have suffered greatly, broken by the war, and the war’s aftermath.
But he was the toughest teacher I ever had. The fucking guy flunked me twice, and I only had two courses with him (the same class twice), before he lost his job with the school board. He probably would have failed me a third time, but then I caught a lucky break.
We were just finishing up final exams for the first semester when Mr. Knott got hauled away for domestic assault: his wife came at him with a hammer on Christmas morning, so he gave her a black eye. With Mr. Knott out of the classroom, I finally had a shot at finishing high school, because Mr. Knott’s class was sure to be merged with Mademoiselle Cunningham’s class to start the second semester of grade eleven on schedule, last week of January, 1988: there wouldn’t be time to hire a properly qualified substitute teacher.
Unlike Mr. Knott, Mademoiselle Cunningham was a student dream come true: not only the best-looking teacher in the school, but also an “easy A”.
Mademoiselle Cunningham was 22 years old, and smelled like candy. She bounced around in front of the blackboard wearing tight pink sweaters, and no bra. A former catalogue model from Montreal, she basically taught the answer key to the standardized test in June. On Fridays, Mademoiselle Cunningham wore a beret, and spent the class preparing Crepes Suzette for her students. Getting assigned to her grade nine French class, as opposed to Mr. Knott’s, was like winning the lottery: the boner lottery, if I’m going to be completely honest.
While Mr. Knott kept a bottle of gin in his desk, Mademoiselle Cunningham got outright loaded at student functions, such as dances. She had been a bit of a party girl in Montreal, joining Alcoholics Anonymous while studying toward her teaching diploma, but as soon as she landed a secure job, she’d started drinking again, and I didn’t see anything wrong with that.
(Duke and I helped Mademoiselle Cunningham find her house keys after the Christmas dance. She had been crawling around in the snow outside of her basement apartment, having lost her contact lenses as well. She was a sloppy drunk, but a happy drunk. Good thing she lived right across the street from the high school in Red Rock, renting an apartment with her boyfriend from a retired cop. She would have been no good behind the wheel of a car, most weekends.)
The Wednesday morning Mr. Knott got arrested, our principal, a guy named Molinaro, sat in for the rest of the week as Mr. Knott’s substitute during final exams.
Monday, just as I expected Room 101 to be folded into Room 102, Principal Molinaro introduced my grade nine French class to Mr. Knott’s replacement, Mr. Mahfood. I had spent the entire weekend lighting cigarettes for Mademoiselle Cunningham (in my imagination), and so it came as a bit of a shock that the school board had hired a travelling substitute teacher to stand-in for Mr. Knott, this weirdo who drove back and forth across Northwestern Ontario each semester looking for short-term contract work, while living in a van between jobs.
Mr. Mahfood was from Syria, and had been hired to teach us French because he claimed to speak five separate languages: the problem was, French was probably his fourth language, and English was definitely his fifth (if not sixth). He weighed 100 pounds, and wore a hairpiece that made him look like a Muppet, so nobody was going to listen to him anyway, no matter how well the guy spoke Arabic, or Lebanese, even Hebrew, German, or Spanish.
He might have been the only applicant for the job, but still: did they even interview him?
His dark-rimmed eyes gave Mr. Mahfood a vaguely sinister aura, but as soon as he opened his mouth to speak English, the intimidation factor vanished, like a heat mirage on the highway moving away from you at 110 kilometres an hour, always just out of reach, never really there to begin with, the moment Principal Molinaro stepped out of the classroom.
The threat remained that Principal Molinaro would keep an eye on things by listening in on the class over the intercom system, but even Molinaro couldn’t eavesdrop on a room for more than 30 seconds without the intercom beeping that we were under surveillance.
The moment Principal Molinaro stepped out of the classroom, Mr. Mahfood gave this speech about how he was going to make a real effort to get to know each one of us personally, it might take all semester, but by the end of the school year, he hoped none of us would still think of him as a stranger. “In my mind, you are all A-level students, and so I can tell you right now, regardless of how well you do this semester, I will be giving all of you As at the end of the year.” Mr. Mahfood asked us each to stand up, and retake our seats alphabetically, reading down the list of students like roll call in a prison, pausing only to note the names of those who were absent. (It was obvious he was trying to memorize the seating chart, for the fat lot of good it would do him: by Friday, everybody just sat where they wanted, turning their backs on Mr. Mahfood, breaking into rival groups around the room to eat lunch, play cards, and listen to music.)
I was actually rooting for the guy: I liked his speech about giving us all As at the end of the semester (unrealistic though it was), but Mr. Mahfood lost control of the room the moment he got wrong the name of the first kid he called upon to answer a question, and nobody bothered to correct him; the situation was just too awkward to acknowledge.
Then somebody got the bright idea to ask Mr. Mahfood to chaperone the Winter Dance, alongside Mademoiselle Cunningham. Our high school required two teachers to chaperone each dance, and most teachers weren’t interested in hanging around the high school late Friday night, dealing with drunken teens (or Mademoiselle Cunningham, for that matter.) So asking the rookie teacher was a moment of inspiration, considering the dance was the first weekend of the second semester; Mr. Mahfood didn’t yet know the headaches involved with being a chaperone.
He arrived at the dance decked out in full disco regalia, Mr. Saturday Night Fever. He wore a paisley shirt, tight slacks, leather boots, jade cufflinks; leather necklace with a medallion of the Mayan calendar around his throat. The top three buttons of his shirt were undone, showing off his surprisingly hairy chest. He smelled of Brut aftershave, and had swapped out his hairpiece for a different model (Burt Reynolds as Caesar). The situation was so ridiculous, he had most of the girls asking him to dance with them, sometimes five girls at a time, anything for a laugh. But the joke wasn’t completely on him. While Mademoiselle Cunningham danced with some of the senior boys, playacting her availability, Mr. Mahfood sucked the oxygen out of the room for the juniors, stealing the spotlight on the dance floor for the entire evening.
Even the DJ got in on the act, dropping KC and the Sunshine Band into heavy rotation.
Duke wasn’t there for the greatest night of Mr. Mahfood’s life; he went ice-fishing that weekend. Booger tried to round us up a bottle of Southern Comfort, but Whiskey Jack had gone ice-fishing as well (with a different group of snowmobilers). So, with nothing to drink, that made the Winter Dance the shakiest school event of the year for Booger and I: it was almost enough to get me to start smoking, just to have something to do with my hands.
I never enjoyed going to high school dances, unless I was liquored up with my friends.
Booger and I told Duke about Mr. Mahfood Monday at lunch, but he had already heard the rumours. As we huddled around the burn barrel out in the high school parking lot, struggling to keep warm, we found out Mr. Mahfood was from Egypt, not Turkey (or Syria), and lived in a van that had Star Wars painted on the side: Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Princess Leia, C-3PO and R2-D2, Han Solo and Chewbacca, X-Wing Fighters and the Death Star; the whole bit.
The van was a bit of an urban legend, spotted everywhere across Northwestern Ontario for the last decade, from Dryden to Sault Ste. Marie. In the van, there was a pegboard where Mr. Mahfood kept his wigs, and the night a group of students had tried to break into his van and steal his wigs, he went mental: he drove off in the middle of a snowstorm to find another teaching job at the next school down the road. Which is how Mr. Mahfood ended up in Red Rock, the armpit of Northwestern Ontario, teaching grade nine French to a bunch of grade eleven losers.
(It wasn’t just me: we had guys like D’Arcy Lasook, Wang Johnston, Rainbow Williams, and Smellish Lucifer all in the same classroom. Yes, I went to high school with Smellish Lucifer. This was twenty years before the cannibalism charges. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than my grade nine French class, the kids who got stuck with Mr. Mahfood, after Mademoiselle Cunningham’s classroom filled up across the hallway. I still hear the laughter and shouts of joy from Room 102, in my dusty memories of Room 101.)
Mr. Mahfood wore eyeliner. Mr. Mahfood had a wooden leg. Mr. Mahfood was wanted by the cops for kidnapping boys. It was all bullshit, literally, ghost stories told around a campfire at lunch hour: under an overcast sky, flickering flames lit Duke’s haunted face; sparking logs spit hot ash in the air. For ambiance, that burn barrel was like something out of Robocop.
Two weeks later was the Valentine’s Day Dance, and Booger stole a bottle of Jamaican rum from the LCBO for me and Duke to drink with him at Craig Zapzic’s house party. The label read 151 proof, which meant the liquor was 75.5% alcohol, 24.5% spices and water. Duke tossed back three shots of the stuff, then smacked his head on the corner of a glass coffee table when he passed out on the floor. It sounds terrible, but it was actually quite funny at the time. Needless to say, Duke missed the Valentine’s Day Dance, so didn’t get to see Mr. Mahfood decked out in his full disco regalia to chaperone the Valentine’s Day Dance for us as well.
Except nobody had asked Mr. Mahfood to chaperone the Valentine’s Day Dance; he just showed up that night at the high school gymnasium, along with Mademoiselle Cunningham (and Principal Molinaro, looking for intoxicated students!), ready to party like it was 1979.
What had been amusing two weeks earlier was now not so funny; in fact, Mr. Mahfood’s eagerness to hang out with his students on a Friday night was downright uncool.
It might have been the 151 proof Jamaican rum, but I felt sorry for Mr. Mahfood, and so spent a good portion of the night sitting and chatting with him in the teachers’ lounge. He was an alright dude; pretty cool dude, to be honest. He had been a pilot with the Egyptian Air Force. He fought in the Six-Day War. He immigrated to Canada after the war, but he still had family in the Middle East, and one day hoped to visit them in Jerusalem when the fighting over East Jerusalem and the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was finished for good.
He thought my name was Peter, so why not play along with the confusion? Even though he didn’t have a Peter on his list of students, it wasn’t fair to tell Mr. Mahfood he’d been calling me by the wrong name for the last three weeks; it was just easier to pretend my name was Peter, rather than challenge Mr. Mahfood’s fragile authority in the classroom, after letting him fuck up my name for so long in front of the whole school.
I wasn’t the only person who showed a little compassion to Mr. Mahfood on Valentine’s Day: toward the end of the night, Mademoiselle Cunningham asked him to slow dance with her, dragging Mr. Mahfood out of the teachers’ lounge and into the gymnasium for a waltz. He spent the entire song (“Avalon” by Roxy Music, if I recall correctly) with his toupee wedged between her breasts – and she didn’t do anything about it, just smiled like a mother with a newborn baby!
He was King of the Muppets that night. Even Principal Molinaro gave Mr. Mahfood the thumbs-up when Mademoiselle Cunningham kissed Mr. Mahfood on both cheeks, after the lights came on and the room began to empty out quick. Who knows what Mademoiselle Cunningham had been drinking that night, but whatever it was, she must have been feeling fine.
As soon as the lights came on, Booger and I grabbed our winter coats and headed back to Zapzic’s house party. Stumbling through the snow, it took us almost an hour to get there, and I’m still not sure I could find my way back to Craig Zapzic’s house ever again, even with a road map. Some 15-minute walks you never return from, in the dead of night.
(A lot of shit went down that night, not just Duke having to go to hospital. Apparently, we got kicked out of a dance at the Curling Club, before finding a party at the welfare hotel back in Red Rock; somehow we wandered from Red Rock over to Nipigon, back to Red Rock, before finding Craig Zapzic’s house, on the Starlight Tour.
Outside the Nipigon Train Station, Booger wanted to open a lemonade stand, pissing his signature in a snow bank and telling me it was an auction bid cheque for $1 to buy the long-since abandoned building: that’s drunk logic for you, right there in a nutshell.
At the Curling Club, the Lions were hosting their own Valentine’s Day Dance, except the lights didn’t come on at 11:30 PM, and the cash bar was definitely open past midnight. We lasted less than five minutes before getting bounced, but we managed to steal a roll of liquor tickets, for all the good that did us, out in the parking lot, puking up our guts in a snow bank.
On the way to the Red Rock Inn, we broke the padlock off the freezer at the gas station on Highway 11/17, and tried to steal the case of Budweiser beer rumoured to be at the bottom of the cooler. But it turned out, there was no beer: Chum Ruth, the owner of the gas station, had just wrapped a (probably) 10-pound speckled trout in the cardboard box, for freezing.
At the welfare hotel, a group of grade ten students had rented the entire fourth floor, and were hosting a keg party. Booger and I were both too old, and not old enough, to hang out with a group of grade ten girls, and boys: too old, because we were in grade eleven, and not old enough, because we weren’t in college. So we got out of there, pretty damn quick.
But the nadir of the evening was when we finally stumbled back to Craig Zapzic’s house, and ended up throwing his father out of the party in the living room. Craig’s father made his own liquor, but as soon as he came downstairs and passed out in the kitchen, we carried him out to the sunroom, and dumped the old man like a bag of garbage in the corner.)
Monday morning, burning some old textbooks in the parking lot of the high school, I told Duke about Mr. Mahfood and Mademoiselle Cunningham. Duke went a little green. That’s when I realized he had a thing for her, even though she wasn’t one of his teachers. She lived with a guy but the guy was never around. After the night we helped her find her house keys in the snow, she had invited Duke over for coffee, but he told me she wasn’t his lawn to mow. She was practically married! Now, he was having second thoughts about pulling Mademoiselle Cunningham.
Did I ever mention that James Duke was what they used to call ‘Hollywood handsome’? He could have been an actor. In fact I think he grew up to be Aaron Eckhart, in The Dark Knight.
The next day, Duke turned seventeen, followed by my birthday on Thursday. And with that, something changed: the guy dedicated all his charm to seducing Mademoiselle Cunningham before the end of the school year, rather than missing out on the available action, just because her stupid boyfriend was off working construction for the gold mine in Marathon.
Fuck her boyfriend! Duke started walking the woman home from school each afternoon.
(To celebrate my birthday, Duke, Booger, Craig Zapzic and I drank a bottle of dirty-ass moonshine for lunch. After grade eleven geography and grade nine French in the morning, I had gym, then keyboarding (typing class) in the afternoon, so dodgeball with a slight buzz was great fun. You could take a couple of balls on the chin, get knocked on your ass, and not feel a thing.)
While Duke worked on Mademoiselle Cunningham, I remained stuck with Mr. Mahfood. I can still picture Mr. Mahfood holding up his delicate hands each morning to quiet the class: the universal gesture of surrender. He talked about giving us all As at the end of the semester, but we still had midterms to deal with, and that would be a standardized test at the end of March.
I knew we were in trouble, when even the goody two-shoes kids stopped paying attention to Mr. Mahfood. You expected Wang Johnston to throw shit around, but when even Margaret Lu brought a ghettoblaster to class, things were really spiralling out of control. I might have been the only student in the room interested in learning just enough French to pass the midterm exam; Mr. Mahfood was my best shot at avoiding summer school.
I never thought I would be the one kid who urged the rest of his class to give the teacher a break, but there you had it. If Mr. Mahfood got fired, even a D-minus would be out of reach. Had you told me six weeks would pass without Mr. Mahfood writing a single word on the blackboard I don’t think I’d have believed you, but that’s exactly what ended up happening.
The Friday before March break, we had our Winter Carnival, which meant a full day of Winter Carnival activities. Booger bought us another bottle of overproof rum, off Whiskey Jack, and we planned to spend the whole day drinking. The twist was, as soon as we got off the school bus, Duker led us right over to Mademoiselle Cunningham’s apartment, where she had told him to wake her up, and get the party started before 8:00 AM: she was totally cool with us using her apartment as a place to drink, so long as we didn’t get caught.
It was crazy, but I guess she thought, if Duker was going to drink, it would be better for her to supervise the three of us, rather than allow us to stumble around the high school, stepping into garbage cans, and having to deal with Principal Molinaro at the end of the night. She wanted Duke to be safe, hang out in her boudoir for the day, before going to the Winter Carnival Dance.
Boudoir is the correct word to use here, meaning a woman’s private sitting room, usually between the dining room and the bedroom, in a furnished apartment. Her boudoir was decorated with a fish tank, bar fridge, sports memorabilia, and neon sign of a naked lady, but keep in mind: she rented the basement from a retired cop, so it was a pretty macho environment.
When we got to her apartment, my father was coming up out of the basement stairwell. It took me by surprise, but what the hell: by that day, my dad had been separated from my mom for five years, so he could be friends (and have breakfast) with whomever he wanted.
We nodded at each other in passing, me slipping in, him slipping out of the apartment.
After my dad took off, Mademoiselle Cunningham answered the door in her nightie, then fled to get dressed. Duke followed her into her bedroom as Booger and I got comfortable in front of her TV, flopping down on the leather couch. It felt like it was too early to crack the seal on the bottle of rum, but somehow we managed to get it uncapped and ready to go for the day.
Thinking of Mademoiselle Cunningham answering the door barefoot and hugely annoyed that she couldn’t go back to bed for another hour, I forgot that Duke had invited a few other guys over to the basement to drink with us that Winter Carnival. Craig Zapzic showed up with another bottle of moonshine; Jeffrey Joseph brought two cases of beer in a hockey bag; but Dallas Hardy and Adrian Lester brought a brick of homegrown dope. That was almost enough to make Booger go off and steal a pair of Mademoiselle Cunningham’s gitch, as a prank.
I didn’t know Dallas or Adrian all that well until that weekend, but Jeffrey Joseph was a real goon: if you saw him walking toward you on the street in his winter parka you’d think it was some guy carrying a kid on his shoulders, but no, it was just Jeffrey Joseph; there was no kid; the kid was Jeffrey Joseph’s oversized head; he was a motherfucking mutant, with probably a litre of saliva sloshing around that giant noggin of his, especially when he got excited, like that morning.
I spent two and a half years in the same homeroom as Dallas Hardy, and never spoke with him; our lockers were right beside each other (Grogan; Hardy) but I was scared of the guy. He had a bad reputation (totally undeserved) and I was afraid of getting beaten up (for being a nerd), or robbed. Or robbed, and beaten up, despite the fact that Dallas Hardy weighed less than me (I know this for a fact, because we were on the high school wrestling team together in grade nine: I might have been lightweight, but he was super-lightweight) and it was Adrian Lester that I should have been worried about: 220 pounds of muscle, his nickname was Mr. Benchpress.
Adrian and Dallas were good cats, all told. Some groups just don’t mix together in high school until it’s almost too late, but I was fortunate enough to rub shoulders with those dudes in grade eleven gym, then during the Winter Carnival. By the time we hit grade twelve, Adrian had dropped out to become a professional arena wrestler, out in Saskatchewan, and Dallas went west with him to manage Adrian’s career. But in the brief semester we hung out together, those dudes opened me up to looking at people of different backgrounds in a new light.
I was never racist; I just didn’t have much experience outside my own culture (and class). Class was probably a bigger barrier than race, in Northwestern Ontario. When everybody around you growing up is exactly the same as you, it’s a challenge to have empathy for other groups. I’d rather sit down for coffee with a guy from the street in Winnipeg, than go to a hockey game with a white-collar sports fan in Toronto, especially a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Race is a tricky question, but during the Oka Crisis, summer of 1990, I honestly think I would have fought on the side of the Indians, if it had come right down to Civil War against Quebec.
I’m not a paragon of racial sensitivity, but I try to pay attention to the people around me, figure out what makes them tick. I was there the morning Dallas Hardy hyperextended his elbow playing football, and of all the injuries I’ve ever witnessed, he had the most grace under pressure.
Booger always had a slightly pervy quality to him. You couldn’t quite trust the guy. But Jeff was an outright animal, operating on a completely different level of hormonal imbalance. He made me genuinely uncomfortable to be around; the type of bastard who might bend your thumb if you dealt him a poor hand while playing cribbage in the high school cafeteria.
He didn’t masturbate in public, but still: he might be off splashing water on an erection, if you left him alone in a public washroom, or a beautiful woman’s apartment for too long. Nothing would have surprised me about Jeffrey Joseph; no behaviour was too extreme for the guy. I don’t know why Duke invited him to drink with us, other than the fact the guy was crazy enough to lug around two cases of beer in a hockey bag on the school bus the morning of Winter Carnival.
I think Jeff might have had a gay thing for Duke, but since we were already on the edge of chaos that winter, what difference did one more unstable variable make in the equation? Duke didn’t seem to mind the unrequited attention: he was chasing Mademoiselle Cunningham. Maybe I was just jealous of his success with a sexy older woman, and her tight pink sweaters.
And so began our March break: using Mademoiselle Cunningham’s basement apartment as a headquarters to get drunk for Winter Carnival, while Duke was off messing around with the French teacher. If they weren’t messing around, I don’t know what was going on. It was awfully quiet in the next room, behind closed doors. What could they have been talking about?
While Dallas and Adrian dried out their pound of dope in the microwave, Booger pulled this ceremonial sword off the wall and attempted to spear one of the fish in the fish tank. Booger had this idea it would be hilarious to use Mademoiselle Cunningham’s landlord’s retirement gift from the Ontario Provincial Police to harpoon breakfast at the apartment.
Mademoiselle Cunningham didn’t think it was all that funny. She came storming out of her bedroom in her housecoat, and pried the sword out of Booger’s hands in one swift move. She started to berate him in guttural French, calling him an idiot. Duke stood behind her, shaking his head sheepishly. It was an awkward moment for all involved, like getting scolded by a babysitter who was only two years older than you, when you were ten years old.
After the woman confiscated our bottle of rum (she didn’t know about the moonshine, or two cases of beer in the hockey bag!), there wasn’t much point sticking around her apartment for the morning. We left Duke behind, and hauled ass to the Winter Carnival.
It would be a full day of drunken floor hockey; drunken volleyball; drunken tobogganing down Bobsled Hill. I signed out a camera from the Yearbook Committee, and shot a few drunken photographs for the high school yearbook. Nothing too artsy; just trick photos of Booger walking on walls, and Craig Zapzic’s skinny forearms stuck out the sleeves of Jeffrey Joseph’s t-shirt and flapping in the air around Jeff’s head like a baby T. Rex attempting to wipe its own nose.
With Dallas and Adrian hustling me to buy magic mushrooms from them, I didn’t notice Duke wasn’t around until Booger got picked up by the cops, and spent half an hour talking to the police right in front of the school. Booger was never going to be a hard egg to crack, but the cops still gave him the full treatment: he’d be charged with sexual assault, for jumping up and sticking his bare ass in Principal Molinaro’s face during the volleyball tournament, if he didn’t apologize to Principal Molinaro for humiliating him in front of the whole school.
Never mind that Booger was wasted when he stuck his ass in Molly’s face! There are just some moments of youthful exuberance you can’t let go unchecked.
That whole day, Winter Carnival, was just a moment that happened, a full day of youthful exuberance. Some situations in life you plan; others you find yourself in, and make all you can of the moment. I’d rather regret a misspent day, than have nothing to look back at in shame.
Cops, and teachers, and even my parents: they were just obstacles on the road to pleasure.
The pleasure of figuring out just what I was capable of getting away with; what type of hijinks I could pull off and still live to tell the tale years later. How close to the line I could walk, without falling into the abyss. It wasn’t the drinking; my addiction was always to the pleasure of breaking rules and dodging the consequences; talking my way out of any potential trouble.
Having pulled at least a dozen girlfriends by the time we started grade eleven, Duke was emerging as a sex addict. But I acted out in my own way.
The only adult I was never able to pull a fast one on was Lord Zechner. Lord Zechner (I’m not making this up! That really was his name! Like Lord Vader! Shortened from Gaylord, supposedly: I don’t know why he didn’t just use Gary) was this fat fuck who tooled around town in a 1979 Lincoln Continental (he won the car playing poker, but it could have been worse: Doc Winfield once lost his wife in a card game) and ran a dozen regular scams, cheating most of the senior citizens in town, and more than a few of the students, at both St. Mary’s Catholic School and George O’Neill Public School in Nipigon, the only two schools in town.
We used to meet him at the Nipigon Cafe, and pick up work after school. Whether it was raking leaves, shovelling snow, painting houses, collecting beer bottles, selling lottery tickets, or burying dead pets, Lord Zechner had his thumb on the scale, sending out work crews for most of the handy-man odd jobs in town: I cut grass, swept roofs, stole cigarettes for Lord Zechner. Lord Zechner paid us 10 cents on the dollar, but he was the only game in town. Each winter, he got us to rig the “Stop the Clock” used car drop put on by the Lions Club, having me and Duke (or me, by myself) go out on the ice at the Nipigon Lagoon to submerge the clock in the water before the car itself went through the ice, “stopping the clock” to award the grand prize to the time-stamped ticket of Lord Zechner’s choice (usually belonging to his common-law wife, who we called Lady Zechner, despite the fact that she had a beard, and looked like a grizzly bear.)
With his bad toupee, gold chains, and chest scars from open-heart surgery, Lord Zechner was a real greaseball. But what I learned from him was the importance of presentation: if you’re going to be a villain, you shouldn’t walk around looking like a character out of Dostoevsky, even though open-heart surgery, gold chains, and bad toupees don’t figure too prominently in Russian literature: I finally broke with the old scumbag when I learned children were allowed to sell their own beer bottles back to the beer store, without an adult brokering the deal for them.
By the time Booger was done talking with the police, they were chasing their tails over Whiskey Jack. I mean, the guy practically had an ad in the Yellow Pages, so he got ratted out to the cops almost every weekend. Whiskey Jack didn’t care; as a full treaty Indian, Weesageechak was pretty much untouchable by the Ontario Provincial Police, so long as he didn’t move off the reserve. That’s just the way things often are; something my friends and I learned early, growing up in Northwestern Ontario: depending on who is playing the game, there can be two sets of rules.
Later that night, the Winter Carnival Dance came within half an hour of being cancelled because Mademoiselle Cunningham didn’t show up to chaperone the event. Mr. Schmidt showed up on time, and the parent chaperones, but Mademoiselle Cunningham was MIA/POW. Without the minimum two teachers required to supervise the parent chaperones, and janitorial staff, a sign would have been posted in the lobby of the high school, cancelling the dance, and sending everyone home.
So Booger and I dashed over to the Red Rock Inn (another 15-minute walk I might never return from, in the dead of night) to find Mr. Mahfood, ask him to chaperone the Winter Carnival Dance alongside Mr. Schmidt. We just had to find the Star Wars van outside the Red Rock Inn; it wouldn’t take much jive talking to get Mr. Mahfood to boogie down with his students. On a cold Friday night in Red Rock, Ontario, what else did he have to do? Polish his jade cufflinks?
He was actually sitting in his van, listening to the soundtrack from Saturday Night Fever.
The van was painted black, but had no Star Wars mural on the side; it had a red stripe, and red hubcaps, which gave the van more of an A-Team vibe. Pity the fool!
We rode to the rescue, saving the Winter Carnival Dance with the arrival of Mr. Mahfood at the high school just minutes before the lobby would have been locked for March break. Except Mr. Mahfood didn’t do much chaperoning that night; he spent the night on the dance floor.
Mr. Schmidt did his best to intercept the flow of booze into the dance, but with no backup from Mr. Mahfood, it was like emptying the ocean with a tablespoon. Not a single kid got kicked out of the dance that night, and pretty much everyone should have been expelled from the Winter Carnival Dance that year. It was a disaster of historic proportions; not quite the Berkeley balcony tragedy of 2015, but still a pretty big mess for Principal Molinaro to sort out a week later.
Duke spent March break in Florida with Mademoiselle Cunningham. They flew out early Saturday morning, a quick hop to party central, Panama City Beach. I still have the postcard smudged with her pink lip gloss. They broke a dozen international laws that week, but still took the time to send me a postcard from the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t think they made it to Disney World.
The first morning back, after March break, Principal Molinaro invited over 100 students to the front office, not just the regular truants and disciplinary cases. Something like three dozen students ended up getting suspended for their activities at the Winter Carnival Dance. There had been fistfights, and vandalism, and vomit all over the gymnasium. The boys’ washroom smelled like an ash tray; the mirrors in the girls’ washroom were covered in lipstick obscenities.
Just minutes before lunch, the intercom beeped that our grade nine French class had been under surveillance for at least the last 30 seconds, probably more than that. You’ve never heard a large room go so quiet so quick. It was like a funeral broke out at a hockey game. Nobody made a sound, waiting for the intercom to continue beeping. Even Mr. Mahfood was speechless. Up at the blackboard, he’d been trying to teach a lesson on conjugating irregular verbs, but nobody had been paying him any attention, so he wasn’t quite sure what to do with the spotlight.
The rest of the week, even during our midterm exam, the intercom beeped at least three times a day. Everyone was still throwing shit around, playing cards and listening to music (even during our midterm exam) but the intercom was subject to the law of diminishing returns: after a while, lacking the element of surprise, the intercom could only get things to quiet down for a few minutes each time it beeped; other than that, it was business as usual.
In the end, they didn’t fire Mr. Mahfood because he let the Winter Carnival Dance get out of control (though that didn’t help his case); they didn’t even fire him because our classroom was out of control; they fired him because of something he wrote on the blackboard while teaching us (for some weird reason) about homonyms: the idea that two separate expressions in French could sound the same, but have different meanings.
For example, as Mr. Mahfood wrote on the blackboard, in his one-of-a-kind handwriting: “Hitler est un bon a rien” and “Hitler est un bon Aryan”, which translated as “Hitler is a good for nothing” and “Hitler is a good Aryan”; not the most awkward example Mr. Mahfood could have picked, but pretty damn close. (He was his own worst enemy! When it came to homonyms, that’s what I should have said to him: “You’re your own worst enemy!”) And he left those words up on the blackboard for over two months, even after watching me erase “Hitler est un bon a rien” with the chalk brush and sketch elaborate swastikas circling his handwriting, just goofing around.
I didn’t mean anything by that, not really: it was just an expression of teenage nihilism.
The day midterm results were scheduled to be posted, Principal Molinaro’s voice came over the intercom: “Mr. Mahfood, please report to the front office. Sinam Mahfood, report to the front office.” And as soon as Mr. Mahfood left the room, Vice-Principal Garrett marched in, and informed us the entire class had failed the midterm exam; if we didn’t get our act together in the next twelve weeks, the entire class would have to report for summer school in July.
Summer school for me would have meant being sent to Ottawa for the summer, taking a French immersion program in Hull. My stepfather had sent me away to live with my Grandfather Harper the summer of 1986, something I was in no rush to ever do again. (I only got through that experience because of comic books: Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Crisis on Infinite Earths saved my soul. You’ll never be lonely, if the Incredible Hulk is one of your friends.) I had plans for the summer: working at the Nipigon Public Library, and getting drunk each weekend. It was out of the question that I would spend July in Ottawa, attending the model United Nations in my spare time, like some sort of diplomat’s son prepping for McGill University.
That was not the life for me; that was not the life I wanted. Never again!
It was Rainbow Williams who pointed out the swastikas I had drawn on the blackboard. “How are we supposed to learn anything, when this is what the guy was teaching us? ‘Hitler is a good Aryan’? ‘HITLER IS A GOOD ARYAN’!?! What the fuck is up with that? My grandfather fought against the Germans in World War II! This is an outrage! ATTICA! ATTICA!”
(OK: technically, the school board fired Mr. Mahfood because of something I wrote on the blackboard, but it was Rainbow Williams who turned it into a human rights complaint. If he had kept his mouth closed, Vice-Principal Garrett probably wouldn’t have noticed the swastikas circling Mr. Mahfood’s handwriting: she was pretty dense about stuff like that, easy to con. She once let me off the hook for drinking on school property because I told her I had an older brother who had been killed in Vietnam: I had a real talent for making up stories like that, when needed.)
Principal Molinaro sat in as Mr. Mahfood’s replacement until we were introduced to our emergency substitute substitute teacher, Madame Trudeau, on Thursday morning.
The school board didn’t even wait until the end of the week to replace Mr. Mahfood; we had a lot of work to do, cramming a full semester of French education into the last twelve weeks of the school year, especially since we were already thought of as the remedial grade nine French class. So the school board brought in a ringer; Madame Trudeau taught high school French to not only elite pre-schoolers in Toronto, but also employees of the federal government in Alberta, some of the toughest students in Canada.
Madame Trudeau was in her 40s, and her breath smelled like farts. (If you wanted her to fart on your baby, she would cuddle it in her arms, and sing a lullaby.) I still have anxiety dreams about waking up the last Friday of June, and realizing I have a French test that morning; a French test scheduled in a classroom I never visited, based on a course outline I never received.
(It makes no sense: I still have anxiety dreams about not being able to finish high school, if I don’t pass grade nine French, even though I finished high school over 25 years ago. I suppose on some level I feel like a fraud in my current career, unqualified for the successes I’ve achieved. But being stuck back in high school, unable to graduate because of that one test you’ve forgotten to prepare for, is a fairly common anxiety dream, from what I have been told.)
Madame Trudeau motivated me to do my absolute best, for the first time in my life. She wasn’t a particularly effective teacher, but after Mr. Mahfood, I studied French not simply to get a passing grade, but to get the highest grade possible. They say you can learn any language from start to finish in 400 hours; I wanted to push myself as far as I could go, cram 400 hours of study into twelve weeks; find out what I was capable of achieving, if I ever hit rock bottom.
Find out if I was capable of achieving perfection, between a rock and a hard place.
I will never forget her; she completely changed the course of my life, much more than Mr. Knott, or even Mademoiselle Cunningham. (Mademoiselle Cunningham changed the course of Duke’s life, but her impact on me was negligible, even once you got her out of the classroom: Mademoiselle Cunningham broke it off with Duker the evening they returned from Florida, and went back to both Alcoholics Anonymous, and my father. I’ve had more than one woman tell me my father is a beautiful man. He once picked up a former Miss Canada by asking her Chihuahua, “Where’d you get the fox?” It’s hard to compete with that.)
Duke, Booger and I still hung out around the burn barrel in the high school parking lot at lunch, but my evenings were my own, devoted to studying the French language as if my very life depended on it: for twelve weeks, like never before and few times since, I was on fire.
On my third attempt at grade nine French, with Madame Trudeau at the front of the class, I scored a perfect 100% on the standardized test in June. If I hadn’t been perfectly bilingual when Principal Molinaro called me into his office to discuss the exam, I hate to think what would have happened, first week of July: he probably wouldn’t have released my grades that summer.
As for Mr. Mahfood, years later, I stumbled across a video on YouTube that reminded me of the last time anyone from my high school saw the guy: it was about a month after he got fired, end of April, I suppose, and he still hadn’t left town; we were on the school bus, heading home to Nipigon from Red Rock at the end of the day, when Wang Johnston pointed out Mr. Mahfood on the sidewalk: he was just minding his own business, in the late afternoon sun.
As we turned the corner, everybody scrambling starboard to watch Mr. Mahfood shuffle down the street with a small bag of groceries (a pot of mustard and loaf of baguette poking out of the paper sack; I remember that clearly), the bus went silent…until somebody zipped down their window, shouted: “See ya later, you fucking asshole!” – then zipped their window right back up, in that split half-second before the entire bus exploded with laughter.
It wasn’t “Jump, you fucker, jump!” but I think Dudley Moore would have understood; sitting at his piano, laughing at a stranger, he could have been singing a lament for Mr. Mahfood.