Catching Up, With a Little Help

I am a 44-year-old recovering knucklehead. Following the path of most of the guys I knew growing up in the mining and steel culture of Allentown, Pa., I gave up on school and became a construction worker. Later, I became a doorman, which blossomed into a bartending career at the kind of dive joints where physical toughness and street smarts were at more of a premium than, say, a knowledge of French wines. I reached the top of my profession, too, successfully managing a "gentleman's club" in Washington, D.C., for several years.

But I no longer idolize the Hulk Hogans and Vin Diesels of the world. No, my role model has become a 17-year-old high-school girl named Cleopatra.

See, after dealing with a half dozen or so minor arrests, numerous death threats at the strip joint, a felony trial and worsening drug, alcohol and gambling issues, I decided it was time to go back to school. And that's where Cleo comes in. Cleo is my girlfriend's daughter, and she's a 4.0 student. Actually, her grade-point average is higher than 4.0; it's like a 4.25. It's a "weighted GPA," something about honors and AP classes.

When I went back to school at Towson University in Maryland, I hadn't met Cleo yet. At Towson I slid into the continuing-education program and, after passing a couple of classes, switched over to degree-candidate status. I flunked out once or twice, but graduated in 2002, almost 39, and had a sparkling GPA of 2.16. Now I'm in the Master of Arts writing program at Johns Hopkins University. I took my first Hopkins class, by chance, at the D.C. campus, which is within walking distance of the strip club where I used to work.

Cleo, who can be very charming when she wants, keeps to herself a bit. Of course, she studies a lot. She was a mature and responsible kid when I first met her at 15. But as her mom will tell you, she occasionally likes to remind people how smart she is. After her first semester as a sophomore, she put her perfect report card with the glowing comments from her humanities, film studies, trigonometry and physics instructors on the refrigerator. A few days later she pretended to be impressed when I told her I had gotten accepted at Johns Hopkins. Later her mom told me they had been courting her since she took the SAT in eighth grade. Nonetheless, I printed up a copy of my acceptance letter and put it on the refrigerator as well.

But I find myself missing the foundation of a genuine education. At Hopkins I feel the need to play catch-up and read all those books you're supposed to read—the kind of books that smart women in my classes, 15 and 20 years younger than me, seem to have read when they were Cleo's age. I'm not knocking my high-school teachers or anything; I'm sure they did the best they could with my 200-pound, middle-linebacker teenage self. But what I remember most about high school is eating lunch twice a day and napping.

Cleo read "Siddhartha" over her summer vacation. "Yeah," she said after she finished it. "I liked it."

"Was it required reading?" I asked.

"No, but some of my older friends had to read it last year and they said I should."

"That's cool," I said. Cleo's friends are very bright, too. Most went to the same bilingual preschool and speak fluent Spanish. And they all seem to have traveled to Paris and South America.

I asked to borrow the book. That's how Cleo became my literary guru.

Shortly after that I spotted "Brave New World" on the kitchen table. Figuring it wasn't her brother's or her mom's, I again queried Cleo.

"Yeah, I liked it. It was better than '1984'," she said. This time I didn't ask to borrow it. I went straight to Barnes & Noble.

Next was "Animal Farm." I knew I had to read this Orwell guy, and Cleo said it was shorter than "1984." Hey, I'm 44. I don't have forever.

Then came Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." I read it almost straight through. Cleo was doing a great job showing the way. I began to get excited, like a kid, when I saw a new book lying around the house.

Recently, I found a weathered paperback called "Breakfast of Champions" by Kurt Vonnegut buried on the kitchen table. I couldn't wait to see if this was my next lesson. I called out to Cleo, who was down the hallway working at her computer. "Yo, Cleo …"