"Things Can Only Get Better" (1985), 10th Grade, 616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Addie Viggiano, Authority Figures, Chemistry, Disillusionment, Harold Meltzer, Howard Jones, Humanities, hunger, Iced Fudge Nut Brownie, Italian, MVHS, New York State Regents Exams, Paul Lewis, Poverty, Sara Lee, Trigonometry
This time three decades ago I’d started to recover from a week of seemingly endless tests and Regents exams at Mount Vernon High School, which couldn’t have come at a worse time for me. The cupboards and fridge at 616 were as bare as they had been since the days before my Mom had gone on welfare. There was only enough milk for my younger siblings, and besides cornbread and cabbage, we were SOL. That Monday we had our exams in World History and English. Tuesday was the Trig Regents, which I started preparing for at the end of February because our teacher Ms. Viggiano didn’t know the difference between sine, cosine and tangent. All of those went pretty well.
Then we ran out of food Tuesday night. I woke up the next morning with water, milk, ice and freeze-dried meat as my choices for breakfast and 50 cents in my pocket. I chose water and only water for the morning. And Wednesday was the busiest day of all. There were two Regents exams, one that morning in Italian, the other in Chemistry. I went to school feeling like I could overcome my hunger and do decently on the test. After all, I had been taking Italian since seventh grade, and I already knew I had scored an eight out of ten on the oral part of this exam. But deep down, I knew I just didn’t have the energy to get through the exam. I had a headache from the lack of food, which grew worse as I started to forget the difference between Italian in past, present, future and present perfect tense. I finished the exam and found myself just hoping for a 70 (anything below a 65 was an F, and the exam counted for a third of my total grade for the course).
I went to lunch and walked over to Chester Heights (Eastchester) to a deli and bought the only thing I could think of to eat: one Sara Lee Brownie. It cost 45 cents, and it was probably the best investment I had made up to this point in my life. I walked back to MVHS, slowly ate the brownie to make it last, and had just enough time to drink some more water before we sat down to take the Chemistry Regents.
When I opened up the exam booklet I started laughing. Our idiot Chemistry teacher Mr. Lewis had told us the month before to “not worry” about organic chemistry as part of the Regents exam even though he had never covered it in class. Listening to him had me averaging a C in his class all year, with my highest exam grade an 87. So I bought a Barron’s Chemistry Regents test prep book the weekend after his pronouncement, and did nothing but study organic chemistry for this exam. It turned out that the first ten questions on the exam were organic chemistry ones, and something like thirty-five out of 100 total covered organic chem. With my brownie digesting, I was ready to kick some butt. I left that afternoon knowing that I did pretty well. But after that shaky morning, I found myself still wondering, did I do well, or was my malnourished mind playing tricks on me?
I found out on Friday, June 21st that I had failed the Italian Regents, with a total score of 45 — I’d only earned a 37 out of 90 on the written party of the exam (I’d taken the oral part with Ms. Maldonado a couple of weeks earlier). On the Chemistry Regents, I had the third highest score in the school — a 95 out of 100. I was bummed, ecstatic, pissed and disillusioned with my teachers and with myself, all at the same time. The goofy-assed Howard Jones tune “Things Can Only Get Better,” a hit at that time, popped into my head from that morning and off and on for the rest of June.
Luckily on the Friday we found out our scores was also the same day we were to meet our AP US History teacher. I’ve already described my late friend and mentor in a previous post. But it’s worth mentioning again how he broke down my protective wall to talk to me about things I’d never discuss with my classmates or my Mom or Jimme. One of those issues was hunger. Not just my constant need for food even when there was food at 616. My hunger, my drive for something better in life. Meltzer noticed it, and gradually got me to exhibit that side of myself in class.
For years after AP, Meltzer would say, over and over again, “You know, I never worried about you.” I guess it was because I didn’t take the world around me at face value. I had a healthy disdain for authority figures and the daily bullshit that the world attempted to feed my mind with every day. I wasn’t intimidated by my classmates, and I wasn’t going to allow myself to engage in worrying about grades and pleasing teachers the ways in which they did.
Meltzer picked up on this, and laughed about it all the time. He said that I had that one-of-a-kind look of a student who wasn’t just hungry for good grades, but hungry for knowledge, hungry for something to make sense of a senseless world. I guess that this is all true. Boy, it’s remembering days of hunger past that I miss people like Meltzer the most.