My brother, aka Treasure, was the apple of my mother’s eye. His red hair, sparkling blue eyes and sweet personality could charm her into anything. Growing up, I would kick and scream and argue my way into the world, fighting parental injustice with a loud voice and the slamming of doors. Jeff, smarter and more easygoing from the gate, would smile and nod and agree to whatever terms my parents would set. Then he’d do exactly what he wanted to do, on his terms. If they coincided with my parents, then okay, if not, he’d cajole my mother until she giggled with maternal pride in her young son. His baby blues could always convince our sainted mother of his innocence, his boyish rapscallion behavior found charming rather than troublesome. Jeff could get away with anything.
My brother’s first glimpse of trouble came in the form of a report for his 4th grade class. He was to write about Hitler. A little heavy for the 4th grade, in my book, but who am I to question the California school system? Jeff gathered encyclopedias and library books to help him with the report. It was the first report that he did not have help in writing. Most of the time our mother would go over everything and make sure we lived up to her standards. I can only assume that the reason for this slip up was the earlier arrival of my redheaded, blue-eyed sister. My mother had a 14-year-old hormonal teenager (me), two ten-year-old boys (my brother and stepbrother) and a newborn. It’s safe to say she was overwhelmed. Jeff, on his own, wrote the report and turned it in unseen by parental eyes.
A week later my mother got a phone call. It was Jeff’s teacher, Bunny Parrott. She wanted to schedule a parent teacher conference to discuss my brother’s recent work. Puzzled but not concerned, my mother set the appointment.
An aside: Why, if your parents named you Bunny, would you take the married name of Parrott? And why do elementary teachers have such boffo names? Jeff also had teachers named Ms. Jelly and Mrs. Schnauzer. I had a Mrs. Lipschitz.
The day came and I babysat while my brother and mother headed off to the conference. When they got back, my mother’s treasure was sent directly to his room “To think about what he had done.”
As it turns out, left to his own devices, Jeff wrote a kicker of a report. His teacher, a nice moral Mormon, started the coolly polite conversation by making sure my mother knew she was trying not to stand in judgment of our family’s belief system. Mrs. Parrott explained she had waited a few days before calling my mom, unsure on how to proceed with the sticky subject of white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Mrs. Parrott wanted to make sure my mother was aware of my brother’s views and while our family had the right to believe anything we wanted, some things would not be tolerated at a public school.
My mother was confused. Did this teacher think that because Jeff was so pale we might be interested in joining some sort of organization? Were we being recruited by an elementary teacher to join the local suburban branch of the KKK? My mother thought it might have something to do with those crazy Mormons. She opened her mouth to say something when Mrs. Parrott handed her Jeff’s report. She read the first line, written in my brother’s chicken scratch scrawl.
“Hitler was a great man.”
The rest of the report told of the horrors of World War II and ended with the same thesis statement indicating Hitler’s greatness. A synopsis clearly copied from a book with some facts in a different style thrown in the middle. My brother had plagiarized and plagiarized badly. In order for the report to fit in with report he wrote on some other historical figure, he started it out the same. Lincoln was a great man and he guessed Hitler was, too.
My mother tried to explain to Mrs. Parrott that she hadn’t read the report. The trials of four kids did not seem to impress Mrs. Parrott, the mother of seven. My mother apologized profusely and stumbled over explanations. In a feeble attempt to illustrate our family’s stance on racism, my mother told a story about father calling my brother and me half-breeds because we were half Italian. She mentioned how our Irish-German coloring stood out against our last name. She forgot to include the part about our father’s pride in being full-blooded Italian. She forgot to say, “We are not racists.” My mother made matters worse as she attempted to clarify our belief system. I’m sure she looked over at her sweet son, with his summer buzz cut red hair and pale freckled skin in horror. She promised Jeff’s teacher that it would never happen again and quickly left.
On the way home, Jeff explained that he hadn’t actually read what he wrote, he just copied it from the library book he’d checked out. He managed to write the entire report without comprehending a single word.
Treasure was sent directly to his room, grounded from video games, TV and GI Joes for 2 weeks.
With that report, Jeff’s halo tarnished for the first time in his 9 years on earth. As I watched my favorite show on TV during Jeff’s cartoon time, in my opinion, that day, Hitler was a great man.