Ninety-ninth Percentile

by Michael McGrath

Two hippies signaling a car on a dirt road

When I received my first report card in the fall of 1967, I was afraid to bring it home. Unlike most of my friends, who had a collection of As, Bs, Cs—and the occasional D—to show for their efforts, the only grade featured prominently on my card was a string of Hs. I knew my ABCs, and the letter H was even further down the list than the dreaded F. At the bottom of the report, my grade-one teacher, Miss Kendrick, had added a comment, neatly printing in block letters: MICHAEL IS A PLEASURE TO HAVE IN CLASS. The compliment struck me as odd, as if she had included it solely as a means of softening the blow once my parents saw my grades, and so I approached her for an explanation.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” she assured me. “H stands for Honors. Keep that up, and you’ll have a bright future ahead of you.” She crouched low, her eyes level with mine. “Have you ever thought about what you might want to be when you grow up?”

No one had ever asked me that question before, but I knew the answer immediately. “I sure do,” I said. “I want to be a hippie.”

Miss Kendrick chuckled. “And to think that all this time, I had you pegged as one of the smart ones.”

H also stood for hippie, and because I’d wanted to be one ever since I could remember, I took this as a good omen. Like the formation of new buds on the trees, hippies returned every spring to Banff National Park, which was located just west of where I lived in the small coal-mining town of Canmore, Alberta. “Freeloaders,” my mother called them, but to me they were long-haired heroes who danced barefoot in the grass, smoked funny-smelling cigarettes, and refused to take a bath every day.

Four years later, at the age of ten, I was returning from a grocery-shopping trip in Banff with my parents when I finally broke the news to them about my future plans. It was a clear, crisp, early October afternoon, the air perfumed with the scent of decaying leaves, and the Rockies’ purple majesty surrounded us on all sides, making it appear as if their snow-capped peaks were airbrushed white onto a sky-blue canvas. I was in the back seat, opening a new batch of hockey cards, when my father pulled up to a stoplight next to a group of hippies gathered in a park. They sat huddled on blankets, and their hair was held in place by beaded headbands or pulled into ponytails, looking as if they’d never had a haircut in their lives. As the car idled, one of the hippies pushed a shoulder-length hank behind his ear and began strumming his guitar, and after rolling down my window to listen to the music, I wistfully ran my hand over my bristly crew cut and sang along with him and the rest of his friends:

All the leaves are brown (All the leaves are brown)

And the sky is gray (And the sky is gray)

I’ve been for a walk (I’ve been for a walk)

On a winter’s—

That was as far as I got before my mother told me to roll up my damn window before she froze to death. “And stop singing that hippie-crap, or I’ll kick you out of this car and leave you on the side of the road with all those losers.”

The light was about to change, and so I decided to call her bluff. “Let me out right here, then,” I said, reaching for the door handle, but before I could set foot on the pavement, my mother whipped around and yanked me back into the car. “What are you doing?” she hissed.

It was there, pinned against the back seat by my mother’s outstretched arm, that I announced my desire to become a hippie.

“That’ll be the day,” she said, and then, facing forward, she flipped down the mirror on her sun visor and began smearing on a fresh coat of lipstick as my father pulled away from the light. “Those freaks are going to hell in a handbasket. Why in the world would you want to join them?

“So I can grow my hair long and wear it in a ponytail.”

My mother gave her paint job a final inspection before flinging the lipstick back into her makeup bag. “Oh, give me strength. You need a ponytail like you need a hole in the head.”

“Be cool, old lady,” I said, flashing her the peace sign.

“Don’t get smart with me, young man. You keep talking like that and I’ll have your father knock some sense into you. Do you want that? Huh? Do you? Don’t think I won’t do it either. I’ll have him pull this car over so fast, it’ll make your head spin. Isn’t that right, Austin?”

My father kept his eyes locked on the road and answered, stoically, like an expert witness summoned to testify at a murder trial. “That’s correct, Phyllis.”

I thought that might have been the end of it, but she was on a roll now. “First the long hair, and the next thing you know, you’ll be copping fixes and dropping out of school. Isn’t that right, Austin?”

This time he added a nod. “That’s correct, Phyllis.”

My mother twisted around in her seat, holding her mascara wand up to her arm like a hypodermic needle. “You want to pop speed and shoot up? You want to throw your life away? Because if that’s what you want to do, then fine, by all means, go right ahead and break your mother’s heart. Just don’t come home crying to me when you’re all strung out.” Then she faced forward again and, removing her glasses, brushed her eyelashes, saying, “And since we’re on the subject, what do you plan on doing with the rest of your life?”

“I plan on growing my hair long.”

Now I was just asking for it.

“I’ve had just about enough of this crap,” my mother said, and when she spun to face me again, the tendons in her neck were as taut as finely tuned guitar strings.“I want to grow my hair long. God, I wish you could hear yourself sometimes.” She took a swipe at the stack of hockey cards I was holding, knocking them onto the floormat. “Leave those blasted things alone for a second and listen to me. I’m talking about what you’d like to do for a living when you get older.”

I crammed a piece of bubble gum into my mouth. “I dunno. What do you think I should do?”

She gave it no thought. “I think you’d make a good doctor or lawyer. Wouldn’t he, Austin.”

“Uh-huh.” By this point my father’s voice was flat and robotic, and I doubted if he was even listening anymore.

“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” I said, and this time, I wasn’t trying to be difficult. All the doctors I’d ever come across had stethoscopes hanging from their necks instead of love beads. As for lawyers, I’d never met one, but the few I’d seen on TV never showed up for court wearing a poncho or addressed the judge saying, “Far out, man. I can dig it.”

“There’s more to life than fun, Michael. I mean, take your dad, for instance. Do you think he enjoys being a coal miner?” She glanced in my father’s direction and patted his arm. “Then again, he didn’t have much choice. You, on the other hand, have the freedom to be anything you want. If it’s fun you’re after, why not become an engineer or an accountant? You’re good with numbers, aren’t you?”

I sat in silence, gathering my cards. I couldn’t argue with her about this one. My school had recently administered Canada-wide scholastic testing, and when I received my results in the mail, a line graph announced that I’d done remarkably well in all my subjects. My best score, though, was the Mount Everest peak under the math column, indicating that I was in the ninety-ninth percentile of my age group.

I had nothing against numbers—they were fine—but what really captured my attention was sports, though I could never fully understand why I was so interested in them. For starters, I was a terrible athlete—so bad, in fact, that my friends often called me a spaz. Were an activity limited to running and jumping, I was generally able to hold my own, but add a piece of sporting equipment into the mix, and I was a hopeless mess. My throwing motion, for example, was notorious, all herky-jerky, as if my arm had never been properly attached to my shoulder. My hand-eye coordination, too, had a mind of its own. It came and went as it pleased, taking days off at random, which left me with lumps on my head and chipped teeth from grossly misjudging the trajectories of airborne objects such as frisbees, footballs, and routine pop flies. Then, on top of everything else, there was my complete lack of foot-eye coordination, but, luckily, it somehow managed to go undetected. It helped that I lived in Canada, I suppose, one of the few countries in the world that wasn’t totally obsessed with soccer. Otherwise, had I been born anywhere in Europe, South America, or Africa, I figured that I probably would have been institutionalized as soon as this crippling defect was discovered, forced to spend the rest of my life in isolation with the rest of society’s castaways.

Because of my limited abilities, I shied away from the rugged and competitive side of sports. Rather, it was the social aspect—the pageantry of the brightly colored uniforms, the public celebration surrounding the lavish spectacle—that drew me in. My friends fantasized about winning the Stanley Cup by scoring the overtime goal in game seven or hitting a homerun to cap off a World Series title, but I dreamed only of attending these events. Free from the nerve-wracking responsibility of having my questionable talents come into play, I imagined sitting comfortably in a front-row seat, enjoying a Coke and a hot dog as the drama unfolded before me.

I inherited this spasticity gene from my mother, but while mine resulted in physical afflictions, hers manifested itself as an emotional powder keg. Shop clerks, tradesmen, waitstaff, even her best friend, Lena: anyone could set her off, triggering her wrath, and any attempt to calm her down only increased the risk of igniting an even greater frenzy. “Don’t tell me to relax,” she’d warn, her face assuming an expression she reserved for complete and utter contempt. Go on, just try me, it seemed to say.

When I finally looked up from my cards, my eyes met my mother’s seething glare in the rearview mirror. Steam rose from her flared nostrils, fogging up the windshield like a simmering kettle about to boil. “Well?” she said. “Are you going to give me an answer or not?”

“Maybe I’ll be a gym teacher,” I told her, hoping that this choice of profession would be enough to appease her and bring our conversation to a peaceful conclusion.

My mother shook her head and let out a sigh. It wasn’t an adoring one or brought on as a result of fatigue but, rather, disappointing in nature, the sort you release when you suddenly realize that the person you’re dealing with might not actually be as intelligent as you originally thought. “Oh my Lord. Did you hear that, Austin? A gym teacher. What kind of baloney is that?” She reached up and grabbed the rearview mirror, twisting it to see me clearly. “Honestly, I don’t know what the hell’s gotten into you. Maybe you’re already on drugs.” Then she slumped back into her seat. “Austin, talk to him. I’m fed up trying to get through to this kid.”

My father reached up, adjusted the mirror, and then leaned back in his seat and pressed his palms against the steering wheel. “Just leave the poor bugger alone,” he sighed. “He’s got plenty of time to figure it out. Besides, kids change their minds all the time at this age. Next week he’ll probably want to be a fireman or something. Now, let me get home and put these groceries away so I can go play some darts at the Legion this afternoon.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” my mother moaned, staring out at the oncoming traffic. “Just shut up and drive.”

And that was that, problem solved, I’d be a gym teacher when I grew up. It was, I thought, a job any hippie could easily do. There would be no dressing up for work, for instance, or much marking involved, and during the summer I’d be able to travel to places like San Francisco, where I could burn incense and tie-dye T-shirts. Heck, maybe I’d even learn to play the bongos! A doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, an accountant: these were things I’d let my mother worry about. I myself had much more important matters to attend to, like using my prodigious math skills to figure out exactly how long it would take me to grow my hair into a ponytail. While formulating some initial calculations in my head, I listened to a newsman on the car radio call for a cold evening with an overnight dusting of snow, which was fine by me. I looked forward to waking up the following morning with my hair infinitesimally longer, one step closer to being a hippie, California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.

Category: Featured, Memoir, Nonfiction