This three-page excerpt is the last from the junior high school section of my memoir, Spiral to Edinburgh. Miss Friss, the exacting teacher who assisted blind students in Connecticut’s Fairfield County, returns for her third appearance in this series. Al, a blind friend in a neighboring town, gets a third reference, too. Also back is Mrs. Latham, the French teacher who, for half an hour at a time, reminded me how I’d felt like a grown-up on a hospital men’s ward.
In 1983, fourteen years after I left, Middlesex Junior High School was renamed Middlesex Middle School, still its name today, and ninth grade was transferred to Darien High School. The original name was less than ideal, implying as it did a prolonged subordination, but Jeffrey Eugenides could have a field day with the current one.
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Ninth grade was the final year at Middlesex Junior High, a time for goodbyes and marking progress.
In our living room, Miss Friss told Mum, “The only way I could tell he was annoyed was when he sat even straighter.” I was standing next to Mum, so Miss Friss meant me to hear.
Teachers in English schools had trained us to sit straight, but I’d thought teachers here cared as little about that as they did classroom silence. Apparently Miss Friss did care, even if she didn’t write down my test answers in pen. On the other hand, she must have received many other clues that I’d been less than happy with her.
I owed it to her to say it. “Miss Friss, I want to thank you for all you’ve done.”
At the graduation dance, bombarded by noise, I sipped a glass of Coke. Sitting too close to the speaker where someone had shown me a chair, I strained to follow what people were saying. None of these students I liked so much had seen me get around on my own without a cane or someone’s help. They didn’t know that I used to ride a bicycle to the country. The girls couldn’t know that I knew more than their voices.
Through the distorted racket, Mrs. Latham asked me to dance.
I looked up and said, “Thank you, but I can’t.”
My only experiences of dancing had been the ballroom lessons I’d skipped at school in London and staring at teenagers bouncing up and down in eerie trances on English television. I didn’t know what dancing was here. I’d make a fool of myself with everyone watching, ready with sympathy.
“It’s easy,” she insisted.
“No, really.” I offered what I hoped was a winning, regretful smile.
Then a girl, and then another girl asked me to dance. There was nothing I’d rather do than maybe hold the woman and the girls. Instead, I kept smiling my regret.
The graduating class was to have an awards assembly. Beforehand we filled out ballots naming whom we thought was most likely to succeed, most likely to lead, and so on. One girl and one boy were to be selected in each category. It became a source of fruitful discussion at lunch.
At the assembly, conducted entirely by students, I sat in an aisle seat a third of the way from the back and marveled as names were read over a loudspeaker. This culminating event in junior high school was all about popularity and nothing about academic achievement. Each time the student class leaders announced the winners in a category, a boy and girl got up from their seats and, heralded by a new round of applause, strode up to the platform to accept what my neighbor told me were certificates. This was the Rose Bowl for the America I knew, a place of fun worship and deserted streets, both more exotic and prosaic than the one in the letter Dad had sent us when Mum and I were still in England.
As I was accusing myself of ingratitude for my habit of cultural critiques, the student announcers reached the category “friendliest.” They rang out the name of a girl I knew slightly and then mine. A new wave of applause started as the girl, with touching presence of mind, came over and offered her arm. We walked up together to accept our certificates.
Afterwards I’d tell Al that my award was a sympathy vote, like the bowling prize. I couldn’t reconcile my loneliness with the regard my classmates showed me. But for that moment, with clapping and cheering resounding in my ears, I was uplifted.