I had picked up my son from his job. “Have you ever heard of Phi Beta Kappa?” he asked.
“I think so.”
“One of my teachers was going on about it in school today and about how it’s a huge deal if you can get Phi Beta Kappa in college. She was encouraging everyone to really aim high and stuff.”
“It’s the oldest academic fraternity in America, maybe the world. It was founded at Harvard in 1776.”
“That’s older than America.”
“Depends on who you ask, but okay.”
“Anyway it’s really hard to get in you have to have good grades and stuff.”
“I’m sure it is.”
“Teddy Roosevelt was one.”
“Yep. And FDR and Clinton and Carter and Eisenhower.”
“All smart people.”
“You gotta be super smart and stuff to get in.”
“So you said.”
“Do you know any Phi Beta Kappas?”
“Wow.” Then he paused a minute. “Kinda makes sense, though. He went to Princeton and taught at Rice and stuff.”
“There’s that magic ‘stuff’ again.”
“Do you know any others?
“YOU?” Then he looked out the window and stifled a smile. “Got me, Dad.”
“Yeah. You can’t be a Phi Beta Kappa. You have to take linear algebra in college our teacher told us and you told me you flunked Algebra II in high school.”
“I never took any math at all in college.”
“See? But that’s pretty cool about Grandpa.”
We drove back home and sat down to dinner. My grandson was tossing food and we all laughed and talked about the day. “Hey, Dad said he was a Phi Beta Kappa. Do you know what that is?” Woodrow asked his older sister, who knows everything.
“No,” she said.
“It’s an honorary society for smart people. Grandpa’s in it.”
“So am I,” I said.
“But you already admitted you didn’t take linear algebra.”
“Maybe it’s a new requirement. When I was in college they just sent me a letter saying I’d been offered admission and I accepted.”
Yasuko chimed in. “He’s probably not lying but only 50-50 chance. And if it’s true he’s lucky that they let people in back then when they didn’t have to know math.”
My daughter laughed. “Why are you all dissing on Dad?”
“We’re not dissing,” said Woodrow. “I was just surprised, that’s all, shocked, you know, it’s not really expected and stuff. Kind of amazing if it’s true. Unbelievable, really. Incredible in an astounding sort of way. I mean, Dad?”
“Who’s dissing?” said Yasuko. “He’s lucky. If he tried to get in now, no way. He’s terrible at math. So I’m not dissing. I’m complimenting him on being so lucky. Being super lucky is better than being smart.”
“It is pretty surprising,” said Woodrow. “If it’s true.”
“I like your skepticism,” I said.
“He’d never get in nowadays if there’s math,” Yasuko added. “He failed math in high school. With an ‘F.'”
My son put down his fork. “If it’s such a big deal how come you’ve never told anybody? My teacher said you get jewelry and a pin for your lapel and it’s a big deal.”
“I’ve told lots of people.”
“How come you’ve never told us?”
“I’m telling you now.”
“But you’re the kind of Dad who brags about everything. You were bragging last night about fifth place in some dumb bike race that no one even knows about. How come you’d brag about a dumb bike race but not about Phi Beta Kappa? If you walked around with a Phi Beta Kappa ring people would be impressed. But instead you taped some old race numbers on the door. Nobody even knows what they mean. And if they did they wouldn’t care at all. Not even a tiny little bit.”
“All true,” I agreed.
Woodrow folded his arms. “If you’re Phi Beta Kappa, prove it.”
“Why’s it so hard to believe?”
“Because you can’t do any math at all,” Yasuko chimed back in. “You failed math in high school.”
“I’m telling you it wasn’t a requirement back then. I didn’t even know I was a candidate.”
“Did Grandpa take linear algebra in college?” Woodrow asked his sister.
“I don’t know.”
“He went to Texas, too. Maybe it was a rogue program or something,” Woodrow mused.
“Poppa’s smart about some things,” Cassady offered.
“Like what?” Woodrow challenged.
“Blogging,” she said decisively. “He knows how to blog.”
“But he’s not good at math. He can’t do any math at all. When we lived in Japan he stopped being able to help you with math homework in First Grade.” Yasuko wasn’t backing down on the math thing.
“You guys are funny,” I said.
“Well prove it, then,” Woodrow replied.
“I’ve got my certificate framed somewhere.”
“Go find it!” Woodrow said.
So I did.
Silence ensued, the kind of silence you only get after patiently waiting thirty years to yank your whole family’s chain at once. Woodrow stared at it. “It’s real,” he marveled. “How come you never told me? How come?”
Yasuko shook her head. “What kind of smarty club is that if you can’t do math?”
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