This week’s six-page post consists of a second and third excerpts from my high school memoir.
In last week’s episode, friends and I gather to meet Pam, a popular student whose family had left Darien. It was late in the summer between our eleventh and twelfth grades, and Pam, on a return trip east, came in by train to visit for a day or two. The episode ends as Pam and those of us who went to meet the train arrive at another friend’s house for a long evening of partying.
Some readers have questioned the point of that excerpt and why my seemingly lukewarm greeting of Pam. So the first excerpt this week skips to the moment in the party where the nature of my friendship with her becomes clearer.
Two other returning characters are Doug, the driver of the car I took to meet Pam, and Priscilla, his girlfriend in the front passenger seat.
High school is fraught with difficult memories for most of us, but there are also joyful moments. Although both occur in the same day, last week’s recollection is a fond one, while this next excerpt is a reminder that high school was a social training ground; even—to use that brutal term—bootcamp. Some bad things happened, but they sowed the seeds of better things to come.
Left to myself while others played table tennis, I remembered an incident I hadn’t thought about for some time. While still at Darien High, Pam had told me she hoped someone would ask her to the junior prom. Her confiding in me implied she didn’t have me in mind. True, I was terrified of dancing. On the other hand, I liked her, and I felt I should participate in this quintessential American high school event. Maybe I was being too negative. Maybe the love of poetry she and I shared meant she’d be open to the idea.
Hoping insecurity had colored my judgment, I asked Priscilla, Doug’s girlfriend and one of Pam’s closest friends, what she thought about my inviting Pam. Priscilla asked me to give her a day or two.
At last during another Group party, she took me aside. “I think it would put Pam in a difficult position.”
I almost demanded an explanation, but Priscilla had done what I’d asked and I didn’t want to make her feel even worse than I imagined she already did. Besides, I could guess what had gone through Pam’s mind. While I was great for a talk and sharing poems, I was unsuitable for such a public show. Much as girls liked me, I was expected to accept the limits. I both understood and resented it.
Since then, I’d returned to thinking of Pam as a kind of surrogate sister, even more so now that she lived three thousand miles away.
I’d reached this point in my thoughts when she sat beside me and asked, “What poems have you been writing?”
I smiled at her familiar way of getting to the point. “The one I wrote today is called ‘The Vanity of Shyness.’”
“Interesting. You’re saying to be shy is vain?”
“Exploring the possibility. Sometimes I think we seem shy when the truth is we feel superior to what’s going on around us.”
“I think of myself as shy. I hope that’s not the reason.”
“You? No way. That’s why I say ‘exploring.’ You know, I don’t really know. Just a thought—a subject for a poem.”
“An interesting one, though. Remember any lines?”
“Only the first: ‘Brick and mortar speeches.’”
“‘Brick and mortar speeches’? Like when someone has got their act so down they don’t think when they speak?”
“I think that’s what I meant. Anyway, so how about California?”
“I miss it here. Hard to make new friends your last year in high school, and I can’t imagine having better friends than people like you.”
“I miss you, too.”
“Listen, Sue just arrived. She needs someone to play against. I’ll stop by again later.”
It was after ten. When Doug next spoke to me, I asked him to take a few minutes to drive me home.
* * *
Now for the short excerpt I’d originally planned for this week.
The rush of autumnal air comes early in western Massachusetts. It won me over the first time my parents and I visited Amherst on our tour of New England colleges at the end of August of 1971, before my last year of high school.
As immigrants ignorant about American higher education, we relied on a list of colleges drawn up for me by Mr. Heffernan, my high school guidance counselor at Darien High. Someone mentioned he liked to wear green jackets, and I always pictured him in one. He walked me through the American college system and drew up a list of colleges for me to consider. Yale, the only name I’d heard of on the list, caught my fancy, as did a small liberal arts school named Amherst College. I was surprised, and of course flattered, by his confidence about my prospects.
When I visited Yale, I got into a lively discussion about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky—authors whose works I’d devoured—with my interviewer, a senior majoring in Russian literature. What a stroke of luck that she’d been assigned to my first college interview. I could only hope all my other interviews brought me out with half as much animation.
At Amherst College, my parents and I ducked under tree branches as we walked the paths of the quad, a great grass rectangle surrounded by the college’s earliest buildings. At one end, after we crossed a campus road, the world opened up to a large expanse of air. Dad said we were standing at the summit of a hill overlooking fields and, beyond, a range of other hills.
Then I was sitting on edge in the Admission Office, waiting for my interview with Dean Ed Wall. (Amherst had an explanation for the dropped “s” in “Admissions” that was lost on me.) Dean Wall emerged, shook hands with my parents, and then steered me into his office, with no hint that either parent should join us. At his prompting, I talked about the subjects that interested me in and outside high school, my first years of an English education, our move to America.
“Do you have any questions for me?” he asked when he’d drawn out of me what he apparently needed. I asked him about the likelihood of Amherst’s switching from all-male to co-educational, and he said he hoped it would happen by my junior year.
He left me in his office to invite my parents to join us.
“We had one blind student in the past,” he began when they were seated, “and I must tell you he had problems getting everything read to him. It put a tremendous burden on the faculty wives.”
He was posing a question; otherwise, why bother interviewing me?
I said, “Volunteers in our hometown have recorded many of my high school texts. An organization in a neighboring town transcribes foreign language and other books into braille. I’ve also used a place called Recordings for the Blind that tapes books I need, so long as we send them two print copies and give them enough notice.”
Dean Wall maintained his genial demeanor. When we stood to go, he folded my hand in his great paw.
In my memoir and in the excerpts I post on the website, I avoid commenting on my experiences from today’s vantage point. My hope is that the entire memoir answers the questions that arise in the reader’s mind or else leaves them as the paradoxes that questions often must remain. However, standing alone, today’s brief sample could leave a misleading impression.
I’ve changed names and biographical details for the usual reasons, but also because it may not be obvious that I interpret clumsy, even hurtful, words and actions often as sincere efforts to connect with me. I did so at the time, as my off-and-on journal makes clear. Besides, I undoubtedly made similarly clumsy and hurtful attempts in my own efforts to connect.
I use Dean Wall’s real name because I trust people who knew him will see in this episode the authentic man he was in search of the right answer. I’m not sure such open, honest searching would be acceptable today. Political correctness is an understandable reaction to bias against certain groups, including disabled people, but it can undermine the free articulation of genuine feelings.
And yes, untethered prejudice does incalculable harm.
To read all my memoir excerpts to date, along with other recent posts, please go to the blog page of my website here.