Throughout high school, as before and beyond, my parents gave me support in the form of encouragement and resources. In those days before widespread personal technology, I doubt a blind student could have succeeded without such support. Still, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Like every adolescent, I had principles at odds with grown-up wisdom. On the other hand, I didn’t maintain principled consistency.
With all that in mind, here are two episodes from my high school memoir.
I couldn’t bring myself to ask my readers at school to fill out my college applications, which put the burden on my parents, and because my mother deferred to Dad when it came to forms, that meant Dad. He sat across from me at the dining room table hour after hour.
“Don’t forget your guitar playing,” he said. “You took lessons.”
“That doesn’t make me a guitar player.”
“I enjoy your playing.”
This was wrenching. His enjoyment came from a father’s pride that I could play any notes at all when that music-loving father had no musical training. His good opinion mattered to me. If I implied his enjoyment didn’t make me a good player, he would be hurt.
With a degree of menace only he knew how to put into a single word, he demanded, “Well?”
I tapped my fingers on the table.
“Are we putting down that you play the guitar or not?” he pressed.
“It doesn’t feel honest.”
“Don’t be a stupid oaf. Every other high school student in this country is claiming they’re an expert in everything from Buddhism to thumb twiddling.”
“Not the ones I know.”
“You obviously don’t know them well. They want to get into the best colleges.”
“So do I.”
“Then answer these questions like you mean it.”
If a college were to test my claim, I’d be exposed as a fraud. More than that, I believed in honesty. Conflicting loyalties to Dad and to Truth rendered me mute.
“You’d better put it down then,” I said.
“I’ll only put it down if you want me to.”
I went silent again.
“I said, ‘Well?’”
In my mind, I answered, I know you did, Dad.
Eventually, I gave in, on that and every other battle set up by those applications.
* * *
An opportunity to pad my extracurricular credentials came when the high school chess club met to elect a new president. I now had a chess board with raised black squares and white pieces whose heads were planed flat so I could identify them as such. I’d begun at the club two years earlier by beating another new member twice in a row. My opponent, Jeff, turned out to be our best player, and I never beat him again. Our club was in a league of surrounding schools in which the contests were less about who would prevail than whether the visiting team would show up with the minimum number of players. Not defaulting was our most feared weapon.
Jeff was the logical choice to be president. We sat at a table with him at the head and, by happenstance, me opposite him. The other five members lined the table’s sides.
“So,” Jeff said, “are we ready to elect the next president?” Murmurs around the table indicated assent. “I nominate myself,” he said. No preamble. A friend of his seconded.
At my left a guy named Mel said, “Jeff, I know you think you’re entitled, but you need a challenger. You can make a fine speech, and we can listen to the other guy’s speech, and then we’ll decide based on what you both say.”
Mel, whom I’d met in the chess club, had read and digested more than anyone I knew, including maybe even Perry, the guy with whom I shared Latin jokes. Not that I liked everything he recommended. When I read Hermann Hesse at his urging, I found the promotion of self-discovery even more depressing than Emerson’s self-reliance. Without the freedom that sight required, how could I possibly forge my own path? In the same vein, Hesse stressed nonconformity, that illusory “do your own thing” that had bludgeoned me in ninth grade. But Mel’s point of view was all his own, untainted by leading questions from teachers. Consistent with his determination to find his own way, he had no time for such distractions as course assignments and good grades. He was what was politely called “socially awkward.” But I respected his determination to be himself, and I liked him.
Several times during the summer, he’d dropped in at my home to play chess in the room my parents had set aside as my study. Part of the exercise in chess was learning to anticipate three or four moves ahead. When Mel became convinced there was no alternative to his losing, he’d say, “I resign,” honoring chess etiquette by not wasting time on a foregone conclusion. I wasn’t always sure his assessment was correct, but he’d immediately start lining up his pieces for a new game.
Jeff asked Mel, “Are you nominating yourself?”
Well-handled, I thought. I assumed Jeff was annoyed, and I wouldn’t have blamed him, but overcoming a natural reaction, he’d put the initiative back on Mel.
Mel said, “I think the right person to run this club would be…” He said my name.
I managed to suppress a gasp. Nothing I could do if I was blushing. Sitting at my right, Liesl, the club’s only girl, promptly seconded. She’d quietly befriended me, too.
I hadn’t done anything to deserve Mel’s nomination other than being his friend. Not only was I a mediocre player, but also Jeff had done all the organizing, such as setting up the contests with neighboring schools. Then I thought of those college applications.
I said, “I appreciate the nomination, and I accept.”
“In that case…” Jeff said. He stopped. He was deflated. It showed in the pause. But once again he rallied, projecting his voice across the table to me, “Who goes first?”
“I’m sure you’ve prepared. I’m putting my thoughts together, so why don’t you start.”
Even three seats away, I heard him take a deep breath. “I hate making speeches,” he began, “and anyway, my case is simple. I’ve been a member of this club for two years, I’m a good player, and I got Stamford and Norwalk to agree to compete with us. That’s my case. I’d love to be president, and I promise more competitions.”
“How about chips and dip?” Liesl said.
“That, too, if members want.”
Mel said, “Not all those meets worked out.”
One school hadn’t shown up on the scheduled afternoon and defaulted. We didn’t want that kind of victory. We just wanted opponents.
To head off more bickering, I spoke up. “Okay, my turn. I promise that if I’m president, I will use all the resources available to us. I’d urge Jeff to continue to use his contacts to make arrangements with the other schools. Above all, I promise to bring a civil tone to our meetings.”
Jeff wasn’t to blame for the bickering. It was my friends, Mel and Liesl. They didn’t like him. But their blaming him worked to my advantage. Appealing to peace seemed an excellent, if cynical, strategy for a one-minute campaign.
“And the chips and dip?” Jeff asked.
“Oh, I count on Liesl for that.” I beamed a smile at her.
The chess club knew nothing about secret ballots. Jeff called for the vote. He and two others raised their hands and declared their vote for him. Mel, Liesl and another boy declared their vote for me. That left my uncast vote as tie-breaker.
I weighed my decision. Conscience pointed a finger at me and said, “You know perfectly well Jeff has earned the honor.” But the voice of my father inside my head barked, “Don’t be a stupid oaf. You need every credential you can get if you really mean you want to go to the best college.”
I told the members, “I vote for me.”
To read all my memoir excerpts to date, along with other recent posts, please go to the blog page of my website here.