It takes courage to grow up and be who you really are.
~ EE Cummings
My earliest memory of wanting to be someone else was at the Woodhaven Mall arcade with mom.
Once a week mom and I would get a slice at Luca’s Pizza and walk hand- in- hand through the mall passing the Jamesway, passing the record store and its thumping speakers, passing the pet store where puppies played in the windows and passing the smell of damp hay and into the blue glow of dark arcade for a few games of pinball. Pizza and pinball. That was our thing.
It’s 1984. Mom slides a shiny GW into the pinball machine’s silver smile. The quarter clinks. The machine sparks to life. Lights pop orange. Flippers flip. A silver ball appears and waits like a photograph in an old science textbook on a page expounding the truths of potential energy.
Mom’s hand guides me up on a stool and I tell her I’m going to play with my eyes closed. My right hand feels its way to the trigger. I’m four years old.
Mom asks why and I tell her that’s how “Tommy” plays.
“ The Pinball Wizard. He’s deaf dumb and blind and dad and Roger say he plays a mean pinball.”
It would be easy to read that last sentence and think I’m a product of some high haired 1980’s love triangle between mom dad and a fella named Roger. Though being raised by a love triangle would make interesting fodder, especially for a writer, but regretfully Roger is Roger Daltrey the lead singer of The Who, one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all-time, not mom and dad’s love jockey.
In 1969 The Who released the rock opera Tommy. A modern masterpiece, the concept album is a violent story that centers on an English boy named Tommy born during the World War I. Tommy is the product of his mother, Mrs. Walker, getting it on with some nameless dude, while Mr. Walker is off fighting Wilhem the Duece and the rest of the Central Powers. When Mr. Walker returns from war, he finds nameless dude in his house with Mrs. Walker. Mr. Walker kills nameless dude while Tommy watches through a reflection in the mirror. Witnessing this, sends Tommy into a catatonic state. He visits a couple quacks and drops acid to no avail. His Cousin Kevin snubs cigarettes out on him and his Uncle Ernie sexually abuses him. In spite of all this, Tommy, a glass half-full kind of guy, rises up to become a Pinball Wizard. His silver ball wizardry gains a Harry Potter-esque following of want-a -be wizards. Tommy leads his disciples to a retreat camp where he preaches his philosophies only to have his disciples turn on him, chastise him, metaphorically crucify him and by album’s end our Pinball Wizard is utterly alone.
As absurd as a Pinball Wizardary sounds, Pete Townshend explained, in a 1969 Rolling Stone article, that pinball is Tommy’s escape from the shit of his life. Townshend further suggested that pinball offers Tommy solace and excitement and triumph. And that every person needs to find their own version of pinball. Their own escapism. It’s through that escapism where people feel most alive.
Since mom and dad are Who fans most of my early childhood memories are set to the progressive sounds of Tommy. I remember sporting GI Joe footy pajamas, sitting in a style formerly known as Indian on the shag carpet of our Abby Road* duplex, with the album cover unfolded before me, trying to read the song lyrics.
*From 1980 to 1986 Mom dad and I lived in a red brick duplex on Abby Road. Unfortunately not the Abbey Road of Westminster, London home of the famed Beatles studio. Besides not having an ‘e’, my Abby Road of Northeast Philadelphia did not have even have a crosswalk or a barefoot Paul McCartney striding about. My Abby Road had meth heads and high school dropouts. In more bad news, my Abby Road is not a road at all– it’s a cul-de-sac.
Dad is the kitchen deep frying dinner and doing his best Daltrey. Dad and Daltrey sung Tommy’s story to me night after night. In doing so they validated the fantastical power of storytelling. Daltrey’s growling voice and Dad’s grease smudged work pants and heavy step of his steel-toed boots showed me that storytelling can be a masculine business.
The record player needle would drop and the “Overture” would roll across the small living room– a cacophony of horns and drums and bass and I would begin to dream Tommy’s story. There was something magical happening in the little duplex. Mom leans back on the couch, smiles and watches me sing along with Roger and dad. She watches me cut loose a “Townshend” air guitar windmill when the song called for it. She watches me shut my eyes and transform into the Pinball Wizard. What mom may not know is that she witnessing her boy fall in love with music and imagination and with the power of storytelling. Mom holds the smile and wishes, like all parents secretly wish, that he never grows up, he remains innocent and he never feels pain but she blinks and it’s 2002 and I walk across a stage in a black cap and black gown and a gold and red hood wreathed around my neck and mom squeezes dad’s hand and someone offers me a college diploma and the auditorium claps. A man in a blue suit coat and slick parted hair stands behind a pulpit and talks to us. There is a little American flag pinned on his suit coat above his heart. He encourages us to be creative and follow our dreams. The pin catches a stage light and glints. A choir sings.
Mom dad and their Pinball Wizard file out to the Gwynedd-Mercy College campus lawn. We smile and pose for pictures in the great American sunlight. There are people milling about in black gowns and silk ties and sundresses and comes a soft breeze which tussles the edges of the sundresses.
It’s May and I’m 22 and I’m confident I can pretend to be an English teacher for the next 30 years of my life.
25 miles away, east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike Tommy is at home, in my bedroom, turning over in his plastic CD case grave.
Then, an unseen hand flips the calendar and its 2013 and mom’s parents are now dead and dad’s father is now dead and mom is squeezing my hand again as we sit in another hospital waiting room. I’ve been diagnosed with Cerebellar Degeneration and today I’m having a DATScan to test if I have Parkinson ’s disease. Since September I’ve been tested for ALS, MS, Cancer and Huntington’s disease. All tested negative. But that knowledge doesn’t seem to help. It’s October. There’s a smiling skeleton tacked to waiting room door and I have this growing concern he might be waving at me.
Mom’s hand is bony and tight. I smile and pretend I’m not scared. The waiting room is too small. Like a closet someone tossed a few chairs and a few magazines and Rachael Ray in and called it a waiting room. The air is stale and the people are sickly and mom is squeezing my hand and the potassium iodine I had to drink weighs in my gut like a chalky bear claw and Rachael Ray is on TV laughing and I hate Rachael fucking Ray and I think about the Woodhaven Mall and the pizza and playing pinball with my eyes closed. I’m 33 and I want to be the Pinball Wizard when I grow up. I want to escape. I want to feel nothing– like Tommy. But lately I feel everything. Mom’s hand, the potassium iodine, the smell of rubbing alcohol, the rubber band choking my bicep, the needle poking and poking at my private vein, the cute mousey girl injecting me with radiation and her lavender scent and her sterile white shoes that match the sterile white walls and Rachael fucking Ray is making a Seafood Bouillon Base and she’s not measuring and she’s laughing, stirring, laughing and a hint of sea salt and dash of garlic gloves and laughing and laughing and laughing and I’m squeezing a fistful of fuck-yous for Rachael Ray and the mousy girl missing my vein and the doctors who can’t figure me out and the old man across from me who can’t stop rocking in his chair and he’s sucking air through his mouth like he’s a mile off shore with a brick roped around his ankle.
Mom traces my knuckles with her thumb. I close my eyes.
When I open them it’s 2015. And I don’t have Parkinson’s disease. But my eyesight is worsening. My hands and feet often cramp. Pen-to-paper writing has become challenging. Running is a sad endeavor. My balance is poor. I can’t ride a two-wheel bike anymore. My body has grown weak and soft. I have seen doctors for two years and they still don’t know what caused my brain to shrink. Rachael fucking Ray is still on TV in waiting rooms across this country. She is still laughing, still refusing to measure. And I’ve been teaching high school English for 13 years in order to escape to the childish trappings of the Pinball Wizard only to find that he, the Pinball Wizard, is my one salvation right now.
9:08 pm on a Tuesday in April. Cindy wrangles up the kids for bed. I give three little foreheads three goodnight kisses. I sit down at the kitchen table and open my laptop. I stretch my hands and massage my eyes. Mom’s unseen hand guides me up on the stool. The Pinball Wizard arrives quick tonight. Some nights I have to coax him from his haunts with a bowl of Frosted Flakes or Cap’n Crunch. Something sugary. Something childish. Something a grown man watching his weight should not eat at 9:08 pm. A silver ball appears. Lights pop orange. He closes his eyes and feels for the trigger. The house is silent save the tick tick of the clock and in my head the slap of the flippers and buzzes and bells. The trigger cocks. Potential energy in all of its restrained majesty. My fingers hover the keyboard. The Pinball Wizard lets go, the trigger springs and then this happens…
I’m in my classroom sitting at my desk with Red Pen firmly in hand pouring over my student’s essays on the importance of setting in The Great Gatsby when a high school students appears in the doorway. The student waits patiently for my attention. When I finish writing a thorough and perfectly legible cursive commentary on how the student did an excellent job of integrating textual evidence into their essay to support their thesis I look up and smile and invite the student in. The student smiles back and offers me the roundest, reddest apple — as if Eve picked it herself.
Student: Excuse me, Mr. Armstrong. I know you are busy but can I ask you a question?
Me:(Putting Red Pen down.) Sure. (Smiling.)Anything for my students.
Student: Well, I have been thinking about pursuing a degree in secondary education English–mostly because you are the most inspiring teacher I have ever had– and I guess I would like to know when did you realize that you wanted to dedicate your life to inspiring children?
Me: (Polishing the apple on my sleeve, checking my reflection in the apple, taking a deep breath and raising my chin ever so slightly).
Henry Adams once said, “Teachers affect eternity; no one can tell where their influence stops.” And you know what my friend, I truly, truly believe that. I decided long ago, long before I could read and write and even feed myself that I wanted to spend my life molding young minds so that one day those young minds may do the same. And maybe– just maybe– together we can make this world a better place.
A lone tear runs down the student’s young cheek.
I know it’s silly but nothing brings me such pleasure then seeing my students inspired. I have seen Niagara Falls. I have cut umbilical cords. I have rode mechanical bulls. But nothing compares to witnessing my students eyes sparkle with the kind of enthusiasm and inspiration and rapture that only education can bring.
I smile and raise my chin a notch higher.
The student smiles, bows and says thank you. The student runs home, climbs his porch steps, wipes his shoes on “Home Is Where the Heart Is” welcome mat and rushes in to tell his parents. They listen. They smile. Dad puts his arm lovingly around his wife and proudly announces, “That’s why we moved to this school district. That’s why I don’t mind the high taxes. Because at the end of the day, I know my child is being educated by teachers like Mr. Armstrong.” The oven timer dings. The casserole dinner is done. Dad-mom-child share a smile, a family hug, then a hand- in- hand- in- hand walk across the living room to the kitchen. After dinner, the student cleans the dishes without fuss. The parents retreat to the den and write a pen- to-paper letter to the Robbinsville Superintendent praising my dedication to teaching and inspiring his child. Three days later the Superintendent opens the letter. His chest swells with pride. He appears in my classroom doorway. He shakes my hand and names the school library after me. In the spring, between Prom and Graduation there is a ribbon cutting ceremony on the lawn outside the library doors. There is coffee and scones. I give a speech. News reporters take notes and snap pictures. Grown men cry. The mayor offers me a key to the city. My wife is there and my children and my parents. Oprah is there. And Bono and Jesus and Diane Sawyer and Bill Gates. George Bush Jr. is holding a hand printed sign “Mr. Armstrong Never Leaves No Child Behind.” And despite the double negative, the moment is absolute yogurt. All my old students are there. Some give speeches. Some pat me on the back. Some hug me. The successful ones offer me 10 percent of their annual salary. The unsuccessful ones offer me their first born child. The sun is bright and full. The sky is a perfect and blue. Crickets hum. Shadows of gulls glide overhead. The trees and grass are alive and green. I stand alone on stage. My cerebellum is full, like a bloom cauliflower. My hands don’t cramp. My feet are calm. My vision is crystalline. The sun glows a halo around my head and the applause from the crowd is long and loud and I think about Kurt Vonnegut and how everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.
The Pinball Wizard backs from the laptop. He steps down from the stool and dissolves.
The clock is ticking ticking. The oil heater growls and runs. I set the coffee maker timer for 5:15 am. My muse, the Pinball Wizard, likes night writing. Don’t ask me why. In fact the PW does not often play well with my other responsibilities and my illness. Maybe it’s because the PW is just a kid. And when kids hit a certain age, 4 or 5, they want to stay up late, curious to the night-time mysteries of the adult world.
I have to wake in 6 hours to teach 3 classes of high school seniors Jay Gatsby and his green light. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy teaching. I’m fully appreciative of the relationships I made with students and teachers. And the classroom is a great arena for learning important human qualities like empathy, patience, kindness and how to neatly bow-tie bullshit.
But I don’t love teaching the way I love writing.
See, I thought I became a teacher to make a living. Because that’s what adults do. Adults sacrifice dreams and their imagination for a paycheck and a pension. At least that’s what adults do in Bucks County Pennsylvania (and according to Mr. Bruce Springsteen so does New Jersey, for that matter).
But what I recently realized is that I became a teacher for a totally selfish reason. I became a teacher to learn how to become a better writer.
I was 14 when the thought of “writer” flashed across my adolescent brain. The flash occurred in freshmen English at Archbishop Ryan High School when we were studying, of all things, the rowdy writings of Puritanical literature. Our teacher, a young slender woman whose name escapes me, but I do remember how she melted the wholesome hearts of the horny Catholic boys who were willing to risk eternal damnation for one night of premarital relations with Ms. Holy Hotpants.
Note to the non-Catholic reader: any Catholic school teacher under 30 years old and not a nun or priest has a good chance of being labeled hot by the students.
In an ironic twist I actually taught English in two catholic high schools. And true to theory I was in my early twenties and deemed hot. Suffice to say teenage judgement still remains one of great unsolvable mysteries of the world.
And in a second ironic twist my nickname when I taught at Conwell-Egan Catholic High School was Mr. Hotpants. Unfortunately, and this may break a few Class of 2003 hearts, due to age and illness and eating bowls of junk at 9:08 at night, Mr. Soggy Slacks is now a more accurate description.
So Ms. Hotpants walks to my desk and hands me back an assignment. The assignment required us to write in the voice of a women being probed at the Salem Witch Trials. Ms. Hotpants stands at my desk. She smells like vanilla and she smiles and says, “Jason, very impressive. You’ve got a strong writing voice. Keep writing.” She turns and walks away, leaving a vanilla wake in which the pothead behind me inhales then calls me gay and then under his weedy breath lists filthy and deportable acts he would conduct with Ms. Hotpants if he had the chance. I dismissed the latter as typical teenage boy nonsense. But for some reason, I believed the former. I believed that writing was gay. Maybe not Brokeback Mountain gay but gay like weak and feminine and it was the 1994 and I was 14 and I was being educated by the Catholic church and by adolescent potheads to believe that anything gay was punishable by communal ostracization and endless teenage mockery and ridicule.
At 17 I tried to read Emerson’s Self- Reliance and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. I say tried because at 17 my vocabulary was weak and found myself retreating to a dictionary every fifth word. But something in me stirred. I thought maybe, for better or worse, I may want to spend my life writing and imagining and using writing as a way to expound my personal philosophies on the world. So a year later, without any personal philosophies, I meekly declared myself an English major. I quickly learned writing is hard. Save for a few, most writers live in obscurity and poverty and attempt suicide at least once. By the time I was a senior in college I boxed up the writer dream, shoved it in a dark corner of my internal attic and decided that a teaching was a more realistic endeavor. And I went along with the pedagogical life. Playing the part, learning the language, wearing cheap khakis and silk ties emblazoned with Shakespeare’s bust and when my students asked me why I wanted to be a teacher I would tell them the highly fictionalized vignette that the PW just told you. And the students would listen and nod and smile. And all was right in the world.
But I was a hypocrite. At times I could not stand myself. Here’s an example–when my students asked for advice on choosing a college major I direct them to what childhood activity they love to do, that they got lost in. Some would say play with Legos. And I’d suggest engineering. Some would say they played dress up and I’d recommend fashion design. Inevitably a student would ask if I played school. Of course I’d lie and say yes just to prove my theory right. But the true answer is a big fat NO. I dreamed impossible dreams. I wanted to become a Pinball Wizard. But I for a long time I didn’t have the courage to say that. Because even as an adult I was afraid of announcing my Pinball Wizard dreams to a class of teenagers. Because teenage ridicule is tough to forget. Because some days I felt trapped in my old high school English class. First row first seat. The pothead smiling behind me. His red, water eyes scuttling up and down Ms. Hotpants. Some days I still smell his weedy breathe. Some days I still hear the revulsion in his voice.
Thoreau writes, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
When I got sick I started hearing the desperation. Listen to adults talk. You will hear many adult conversations begin with a deep sigh followed by a diatribe about how much they hate work and how just 10,15 ,20 years or so ‘til retirement punctuated by a desperate laugh and footnoted with how their luck, the day they retire is probably the day they will die.
For me, it was utterly terrifying to learn how powerless and hopeless adults become.
Emerson suggested that we should be like children. That infancy conforms to no one.
Chase is four and though I can’t see his thoughts I know his mind cartwheels with imagination. I envy the way he plays Ninja Turtles. There’s passion. There’s exuberance. When he plays, he believes he’s saving the world from the evil hands of Shredder. Which I think is awesome. Kids don’t consider judgment or fear ridicule or ostracization. They create something out of nothing and pursuit the impossible. As a high school teacher I unfortunately know the empty dreamer shell. Most of us hit a point, around 17 before we graduated high school, where we think we must unemploy our imagination in order to get employed. We are lured to jobs that will bring us money. Jobs that will raise eye brows at the high school reunion. I want to tell my children and my students that they need the little kid inside them. Their PW. I want to tell them that if they lose their imagination they’re on the fast track to Lameville. Sighing and counting down the days ‘til retirement. But who am I. I was just like them in high school. Petrified to become the adult I really wanted to be.
But then the Pinball Wizard saved my life. When I got sick he screamed and I woke up. Adults often resign their dreams as childish fantasies. Maybe they’re right. Maybe someday I’ll regret listening to the PW. Maybe I’ll fail as a writer and be confined to my cheap khakis and the classroom for the next 30 years. But I’ve got to take a shot. I know when I’m writing, even when I’m writing about my illness, I’m in control. I don’t feel sick or weak or hopeless. I must feel what the four- year old version of me felt when he first stepped up to the pinball machine.
Now, when my students ask me how did I know I wanted to become a teacher, I tell them the truth. I tell them I don’t want to be a teacher. I tell them when I grow up I want to be a writer. Some snicker. Some roll their eyes. The young Republicans consider the wasted tax dollars. Others, I’d like to think, understand. The Pinball Wizard, like any four-year old who wants your attention, is calling my name over and over and over until I pay attention. He gives me no choice. I’m going to imagine silly things. Impossible things. I’m going to write.
And, in what is our third bout of irony together, I had to lose a part of my brain in order to find such an important part of who I was and who I hope to become.
At 70 years old, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are still touring. Albeit a bit slower and grayer, they still bounce like kids on stage. They still sing and windmill with childlike abandonment. Maybe that’s why rock stars refuse to go away. Maybe that’s why when a band announces a “final tour” we should be skeptical. Because the musical stage, like the blank page, is a place where the untamed rapture of youth and innocence can be reclaimed. Because the pop star dream is just as fantastical and implausible as a Pinball Wizard.
One night as the Pinball Wizard wrote, Haley stood behind watching the gears in his head turn. After some time, the PW steps down from the stool.
I look at her and smile. She’s wearing pajamas, freshly bathed, hair damp, smelling like sweet coconut. She smiles and says, “when I grow up I want to be a writer like you dad.” I smile. The PW smiles. I kiss her forehead and as she climbs the stairs I dread the thought of her growing up and losing innocence and feeling all the pain that not just writers, but every breathing soul must endure. I felt what mom must feel every time we step into a waiting room that is too small, and the people are too sickly and Racheal fucking Ray is smiling and whisking and not measuring.
When I grow up I want to be like Haley. And I can only hope when Haley finds her muse she’s not called gay or whatever insult is trending on Twitter at the time. I hope at 35 she is still pretending to be someone else. I hope she listens to her Pinball Wizard. Because one day, she may need him to save her life.