Sergeant Ficarra gave everyone in our sophomore ROTC class a “C” after some overly sensitive kid ratted him out for having barked a variety of conjugations with fuck as their root.
Short of that, a professor in law school gave me my most disappointing grade. I told him so after we became friends.
“You can’t fool everyone,” he said, perhaps as a joke.
He struck a chord because those words stayed with me. I can’t fool everyone.
From time-to-time I question whether I’m projecting a life plagiarized of qualities I envy in others and am fooling only myself: I’m competent, confident, compassionate, creative, clever, capable.
Untitled, Acrylic, 11" x 13", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
Speaking of Cs, my parents started me in school just before my fifth birthday. The deadline was September 1, and mine was August 31. I was small and immature, even for my age, and my parents questioned their decision not to hold me back a year as my progress seemed slower and anxiety higher than what they had seen in my two older sisters. Boys are less mature than girls and, given the state of the world, I doubt they ever catch up.
My parents asked the district psychologist for advice. He pulled me from Mrs. Rouse’s third grade class and ran me through a battery of tests. I remember the snap of the spring-loaded hasps on his briefcase as he faced me across a desk and told me we’d be playing some games. We did, and I returned to class none-the-wiser but worried I had fallen behind the other students during my short absence.
Years later I learned he’d advised my parents not to send me back to the second grade, or the first, because it wouldn’t do any good. They should not expect better than “C” work from me, he said.
I was born with the accessories necessary for sectarian privilege. White and male. Baptism took place around my eighth birthday, the age of accountability according to Mormon belief. Jesus, I was told, washed away all the bad things I had done, but god would hold me to account going forward. That didn’t seem a contradiction at the time.
I grew up in a culture where appearances mattered. That might be every culture. I did my best to keep them up, but I couldn’t hide from god what was beneath. I couldn’t fool him. I came to believe he hated me because I was unfailingly unworthy, despite my appearances or, maybe, because of them. I questioned motives as suspect, my own and others’, and struggled with whether anything done for other than just the right reason was valid. Paralyzing.
I haven’t checked the DSM-V to see which diagnoses I fell into, but let’s just say my religious upbringing had very little calming or assuring influence on me. I made a lot of promises to god, and, I thought, he to me, which neither of us kept.
Untitled, Oil, 10" x 8", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Richard and Helen Bero-Van Wagoner**
And then there were the whipsawing effects of sex and guilt as a teen and the near ruinous experience during the first couple of months of my mission when I suffered the fear and angst that I would be sent home early because of my unworthiness, a tragedy that would cause eternal embarrassment and shame to my mother. “Go thy way and sin no more,” were the generous words that allowed me to avert that catastrophe. Even though I long ago left that church and no longer believe in a deity, not the supernatural kind anyway, I wouldn’t trade the life experience and education I gained from two years in Japan, learning the language, committing to a cause, experiencing a culture where the concept of “self” expands beyond the individual to family and community, and negotiating living with other, equally immature 19- and 20-year-old boys.
So much of my history was fear- and shame-based. I did my best, however, to keep up appearances.
Untitled, Pen and Ink, 19" x 12.5", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Richard and Helen Bero-Van Wagoner**
The unraveling accelerated during my jurisprudence class in law school when I was a 3L. John Flynn was an exceptional teacher who cared about his students. We discussed concepts of “self’ and “roles” and whether there could or should be any difference between them. His focus was the role of a lawyer. Am I one person with one set of values in one context and a different person with a different set in another? That triggered in me a broader analysis of what were my values, my moral code, their origins, and whether what I purported to claim or projected were mine had anything to do with me. I consciously embarked on a period of personal reflection and deconstruction. I would get to the bottom of this and rebuild, except to do so I couldn’t divorce myself from what had brought me to that place. For it to have a chance to work, I had to recognize the internal conflict of interest, the incestuousness and circularity of the problem.
Much of what I cared about, I concluded, was extrinsic, ingenuine or inauthentic. (Back to my suspicions about motivation and appearances. More shame.) Through a slow and deliberate process, I began to re-ravel on a somewhat different spool. Because religion had been central in my upbringing and development, I took a while to escape what in hindsight I view as the pathology of Mormonism, to shed the parts that no longer resonated. Values that exist independent of any lawgiver remained, which, in my judgment, give them an unconditional and pure quality.
Trying to be more honest with myself comes with consequences, however. There were things I would no longer be and do, and I am sad for the destruction I caused. I would subject myself to the harsh judgments of others, those who had other expectations of me, and to my own judgment and inner turmoil. I have tried to make choices that allow me to be myself, not to pretend, not to project an appearance that isn’t me. I am trying not to fool anyone, myself included. Yes, an honest dialogue with myself and candor create vulnerability, but I don’t see a different path.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com. Rob’s second novel, a beautifully written suspense drama that takes place in Utah, Wyoming, and Norway, dropped on November 17, 2020. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Bookstore and your favorite local bookshop, this novel, The Contortionists, which Rob himself narrates for the audio version, is a psychological page-turner about a missing child in a predominantly Mormon community. I have read the novel and listened to the audio version twice. It is a literary masterpiece. The Contortionists is not, however, for the faint of heart.
**Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in many traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father's work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his artwork. The photographs of my father's art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers.