I was a regular teenager. My clothes cluttered my bedroom floor. When someone with any authority tested me, if Mom yelled about my sloppiness, my dad would put his arm around me…you know how they do when they are trying to pretend they are your best friend when even you know they can barely stand to look at you, probably look back to the day you were conceived and wish someone had walked in on them before the big moment so you had never become an embryo, a bun in the oven, a bawling infant, sassy five-year-old, rebel teen…and he would use that low menacing voice only I could hear and growl, “There ain’t no free lunch boy, better get your act together before I have to beat the tar out of ya!”
My old man. He sure loved me.
I was pretty good in school, though, and enjoyed my walk to the high school. All my friends were always waiting for me and we set out for our algebra class together. I was a whiz kid at math, and regularly earned an extra few bucks by doing some kid’s homework. One Wednesday morning, just about time for first lunch, though, I thought the shit was about to hit the fan. The principal came into my science class, whispered a few words to Mrs. Gilley. They both looked at me, looking a little disappointed I thought, and before they stopped conversing up there, I had my books packed up and was ready to head to the principal’s office.
Mr. Roberts said, “Ian, come with me.”
We walked in silence to the conference room of his office, an inner sanctum I had never seen. It was a really cool office with a big table and soft high-backed chairs. It was nice and cool in there.
“Ian, I understand you’ve been helping your classmates with their algebra homework, and I even heard that a couple of juniors have you doing trig, a class you’ve not even had yet…is that true, Ian?”
I sighed, busted. “Yes, sir, that would be me.”
Mr. Roberts said, “Well, we would rather you find some other way to tap into your obvious math talent. We would like you to become a paid tutor.”
“You mean, like a job?” My stomach growled because I was missing lunch to be here, but I was thinking how happy my folks would be to learn I was going to become a responsible part of society. That shit is overly important to them, in my opinion. But maybe I could buy video games with the money I made. “Well, sure, I’d like that, I guess.”
Two lunch trays somehow appeared on the table in front of us, and I reached into my pocket for the two bucks to pay for it, but Mr. Roberts put his hand on my arm and said, “Lunch is on me today, Ian. Now, let’s talk about a plan for this tutoring job.”
When we finished eating and talking, as I was fighting the crowded hallways, jockeying for position to arrive on time to my biology class, I flipped open my cell phone and dialed my dad’s number. He did not answer, which I expected. Dad is a real responsible guy who worked hard in a factory making bicycles. When his voicemail picked up, after the “beep”, I recorded my message: “Hey, Dad, it’s Ian. Just wanted to let you know that there IS a free lunch sometimes. I just had one.”
I laughed out loud as I put the phone away and wondered if I might get my ears boxed for being a smart ass when Dad made me explain my message that evening over dinner. I could not care less. I was a smart kid, a smart employed kid, who just had a free lunch with the principal, who talked to me as if I was special. Even though my room was a mess, I still had a job, and I had learned you do not have to clean your room to win a free lunch! Life was so good.