I was the youngest student in the class and unfortunately the most naive and confident—there’s no more toxic a combination than youth and bravado. The other students were college juniors from prestigious universities, and I was fresh off graduating from Rutherford Hayes high school in Delaware Ohio. My Dad had accepted a director position at an abroad program in Florence Italy, and I was brought along for the ride. My unearned intellectual confidence begged to be euthanized, but I never anticipated it would be at the hands of my father’s political theory class.
From a young age, I remember my dad’s students dropping by the house just to hang out with “Doctor Good.” One of them had a Fu Man Chu mustache and a hammer & sickle tattoo on his upper arm. My dad was the cool the cool professor. He expected a lot from his students and had the charisma needed to bring it out in them.
Excited and nervous to experience this first hand—to see my father doing what he did best—I sat in the middle of the classroom. I wanted to blend in. To my right was Yale and to my left, Brown. I was the turkey in an Ivy League sandwich. Dad walked in, suit-clad, his presence instantly commanding respect. I felt the rumblings of pride in my stomach, seasoned with the uneasy tickle of nerves.
Without first saying hello, or welcome, or even giving his name, Dad asked a rhetorical question. “What does a civilization do to ensure it’s remembered by posterity?”
The room was quiet, each of us waiting for someone else to answer. I looked around and found the other students doing the same. It was up to me. I would be the hero here. Without raising my hand, I confidently bellowed, “They procreate.” Dad looked over at me blankly, as if he didn’t recognize me. Then, staring just above my head, he pointed and said, “No!” Panic bloomed in my stomach, and stretched into my chest; my ears turned hot to the touch. A voice from behind me answered, “They keep records?” My father responded with a resounding “YES!” and began his lecture on Cicero. At least I think it was about Cicero. I didn’t hear a word of what he said. I was too busy punching my brain for thinking that the reason we know about Socrates, Plato, Machiavelli, and so on, is that mommies and a daddies did super long hugs and then babies came out! This was a college political theory course, not middle school health class. I wanted to leave and never come back. I wanted to go back to high school and my bed, my drums and my girlfriend.
A few days later, I found the non-ivy league students—the ones who smoked hash, drank Peroni, slept on the beach: the one’s who made American style mistakes. I recovered from the embarrassment quickly, though I never opened my mouth again in that class. I wrote a terrible term paper, but Dad, of course, gave me an A. It was the first and last one I received that year. Dad says he doesn’t remember this. He also claims that I deserved an A.
Two years later, after I’d returned stateside to finish college at Ohio Wesleyan University (where Dad taught for 20 years), I was barely maintaining a C average. The year in Florence had convinced me that Art History was my calling. While there, I visited the famous works, seeing them with my own eyes. In Ohio, I was falling asleep in the darkness of slide shows. Dad was concerned, but, luckily, had a plan. “Go to Elliot Hall and talk to a professor named Ted Cohen,” he said. “Tell him you want to major in Sociology. He’ll take care of you.” I didn’t question Dad’s advice, which seems odd, but that’s just how lost I was. Dr. Cohen was generous, kind-faced. He spent the first fifteen minutes of our meeting telling me how funny my dad is and how much he was missed. I knew that most of Dad’s funniest lines came directly from David Letterman. He would tape it, and then watch it in the morning before heading to his office. I kept that to myself.
Within the day, I’d changed my major. I received nothing but A’s from that point forward. I somehow eked out a GPA that allowed me to go to graduate school. One night, a couple of years later, in my studio apartment, I lay on a futon, gazing at both the bathroom and kitchen—a copy of Das Kapital on my lap. I called Dad, hoping he could explain a particularly vexing passage from Marx. “Eh, just skip that,” he said. “Marx was drunk a lot of the time and didn’t make sense.” I was no longer a student, no longer that unfortunately brave kid in Political Theory class. I knew that civilizations kept records for posterity, and that people procreated so that their children might write about them.