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In fifth grade we met the redoubtable Mr. Edgar V. Tassler and his favorite instrument of torture, the famous "F-8". Every paper he graded was given a mark: A, B, C, D, or F. (For reasons that have always eluded me, the letter E was never used as a grade in the American school system.)

Mr. Tassler was a connoisseur of F's. He was not satisfied with a mere failing grade. This was an F-1, the standard. There was also an F-2, an F-3... if you'd descended into various lower levels of Dante's Inferno. Perhaps the quality of your writing contained a higher level of bozosity than than your norm.

The ultimate was the F-8. There was no lower grade. The mark was written in angry red ink, with a big red circle around it. The worst part was the big red line next to the F-8, that meant you had to get it signed by your mom or dad and bring it back.

I used to get good grades, but every now and then I'd forget to do a homework assignment, or do the wrong one - like I'd mistakenly would do the homework problems on the wrong page - and all of a sudden I'd get a homework back with that big red nasty stain on the top of it. It was utterly horrifying. I'd creep home like a dog with his tail between his legs and worry about the reaction this paper would receive at home. The reaction usually involved a lot of yelling and stern lectures.

Mr. Tassler had glasses and was portly. Despite his fleshy nature, he commanded the absolute respect of all of his fifth graders. When we'd ask him questions too fast, he'd hold up his one hand like the choir director that he was and say "Hold the phone." When he put his hands down, we could resume asking him questions.

Mr. Tassler did not suffer fools gladly. He enjoyed directing choir pieces by Bach, music which favored a degree of precision and correctness. It bled over into the rest of his life. He was fussy about his dress - and ours. He liked homework done a certain way. You could make no extraneous marks on your paper. He told you exactly how to write your name on homework assignments, and where.

The first time he handed homework assignments back to us, at the beginning of fifth grade, he held up a paper written by a freckled fellow named Chuck. He held it up by tip of thumb and forefinger as if it were the most odious thing he'd ever encountered. Chuck had torn it out of his spiral bound notebook, stapled it and handed it in. Now it was dangling in the air, looking forlorn, if fifth grade homework assignments can be said to look forlorn.

"F-5," Mr. Tassler announced, using his most imperious voice. It wasn't the worst Mr. Tassler had ever seen, but we were given to believe it may have been among the worst. He handed it to Chuck with a flourish. Chuck, never a small boy, seemed to shrink two sizes upon receiving it after Mr. Tassler's pincered grip released it and it fell onto Chuck's desk.

"F-8." We were shocked. Some gum-popping miniskirt-wearing chick named Sue received it for cheating. She shrugged, as if to say she didn't care. Mr. Tassler glared at her for daring to think she could exist outside of his system. Was she so foolish as to believe she would be permitted to have a value system apart from Mr. Tassler's? Did we not know that, in this classroom, he was our God? The keys to the kingdom of heaven and hell were held by him, and him alone. He gave her a look that burned through even her hardened facade. It worked. Someone had managed to break Sue. We were all cowed.

A few months into my fifth grade I received an F-8. It wasn't the only one I was to receive, but it was the most shocking to the system. I may have cried. I can't remember. It was a blur.

For years I had nightmares about receiving red F-8s on my papers. My other classmates said they experienced the same nightmares.

Mr. Tassler did his job. If you're reading this, Edgar, well, you know what kind of grade you'd get. And the color of ink it'd be.

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