On a certain episode of the classic TV sitcom Dinosaurs, Earl Sinclair admonished his rebellious teenage son Robbie that “School is a place you go to be out of this house.”
Today, of course, we know a lot more than the dinosaurs did, even TV-sitcom dinosaurs and the Neanderthals who created their characters. http://
Here in the US, school is a marvelous institution, valued for all the ways a public education enriches life—but valued especially for the socialization of children, who learn not only who they themselves are, but also who their classmates are, and how charming their classmates can be.
Ahem. For example. In the sixth grade, I was included on a list of people my classmate Scott Cribbins created. I was nearby when Scott shared a sheet of paper titled with the words “TEN NUTS” just like that, in all caps, of course. My eyes zeroed directly onto my name, which was at the very bottom, opposite the numeral 10. It was mildly deflating, but because I had zero confidence, I didn’t question Scott about his standards for inclusion. Naturally, Scott’s list included our teacher, Fannie Bett Browning, who had a halitosis problem that could make an elephant wither.
Considering things in a larger context that includes today’s scandalous bullying, I feel very lucky. My school years fell in a much milder age, when calling someone a “nut” was almost as bad as it got. I’m not looking for sympathy. It’s too late for sympathy. The bombs fell eons ago. I have incorporated all these experiences into something larger, which, for want of a better concept, I call my life.
In the eighth grade I had a minor altercation with the tiniest guy in the class. His name was Walter Blalock. Though he was tiny, he was great at basketball and therefore much admired by all the other guys who liked basketball.
I did not like basketball or football, and I abhorred gym class. I always hoped for the rainy weather that would keep us inside. I felt completely awkward whenever I attempted anything more exotic than walking. But I swam, and I swam really fast. I swam every stroke, crawl, back, breast, and fly (that’s real swimmer talk). I won every event I entered, except for two. I lost one of those two because of my honesty. I didn’t touch the wall and had to turn back to make contact. It cost me the match. I lost the other one to a guy who swam backstroke like he was trying to empty the water from the pool. Afterwards, my teammates consoled me. “You have a beautiful stroke,” they said.
Our family friend, Mrs. Henry Grady, who often witnessed my swimming prowess, told my mother that I was the most beautifully coordinated young man she’d ever seen. I couldn’t believe anyone could think that. And The Raleigh Times wrote “Wollman is a swimmer to watch in the future.”
Public schools in 1960s Raleigh had no pools, so I had no athletic home during school season. I became an outcast among the land sports guys, though I’m sure there were other reasons for that. So, to shift back to Walter Blalock: one day, in Mrs. Mandelbaum’s English class, Walter and I had a short battle. Mrs. Mandlebaum was pretty, red-haired, intelligent and soft-spoken, and she was the only Jewish teacher in Leroy Martin Junior High in Raleigh, NC. I knew she was Jewish and I am fairly certain that almost no other classmate knew she was Jewish—except maybe for the other Jewish kids—because that’s the way it was in Raleigh then. I liked Mrs. Mandelbaum a lot, and I knew she liked me.
First, I should expand the ground. One day, a guy accosted me in the boys’ room. His name was Mike Commee, aka “Blubber Lips.” To a guy like me, he was downright scary; his aggressive energy intimidated meek geeks like me. Mike blew into the boys’ room, came right up to me, looked me in the eyes and asked, “You’re Jewish, aren’t you? Do you believe in God? I answered “yes” of course—I assumed ‘yes” was the right answer, the answer Mike wanted. I didn’t know whether I believed in God or not. My first rule was, “do not offend.” Prior to that encounter, Mike and I had almost no interactions, and not much afterwards. Obviously I satisfied his curiosity, leaving him free to move on to bigger things. I would hate to have retarded his progress by getting into a big theological discussion. People like it when their questions get a nice, simple “Yes”.
But to return to the business with Walter. Here’s what happened. Little bitty Walter was seated in a corner of the classroom, flanked by a number of his mischievous admirers, so he must have felt relatively invincible. And he picked me as his target. He began to tease me, to taunt me—and he began throwing small spitballs at me. I was not good at the quick retort, and pretty lousy at defending myself. So Walter’s efforts became more intense as I increasingly revealed myself to be a wimp. Mrs. Mandelbaum was busy teaching us something while I was busy losing my dignity, and, as it happened, also losing my non-aggressive, non-combative nature.
At some point, I’d had enough. I gathered my weapons: a good rubber band, a well-crafted wad of moist paper. I knew my target. I took good aim, and sent that spitball—the only one I have ever deployed—right into Walter’s left eye. Walter immediately put his hand over his eye, and he yelled.
I did not intend a mortal wound. I didn’t mean to hit Walter’s eye. That’s just where where the spitball landed. As I have already said, my physical abilities weren’t so keen, and my experience shooting spitballs was very limited.
Mrs. Mandelbaum smiled and sent me to the office, where I had to confess my crime to Mr. Shook, the agreeable men’s counselor, as opposed to Mr. Hawkins, the stuffy and officious Nazi who presided over the whole prison. I felt terrible inside for hurting Walter, and I was fully prepared to do the time. Mr. Shook sentenced me to three days of raking and sweeping in the schoolyard. I remember, as I sat in Mr. Shook’s office, the great relief I felt to learn that yard duty was the price.
Walter never teased me again.
Things seemed to settle down for a while, though I had to face the usual taunts and insults, like the one from Jennifer Holmes, who looked at me and said in passing, “Russ, you are frigid.” I hadn’t the foggiest notion what she meant—and I’d had very little to do with her before then; what could she know of my life? I didn’t even have a life then. Obviously, kids pick up on aspects of their peers. They make judgements, and they are driven by mysterious internal forces (more about that in a moment) to make devastating remarks. This is the primary purpose of being a teenager.
Thinking about it, I realize eighth grade was a particularly trying time. Eighth grade was capped by another fiasco, this one in French class. Maybe it was the seductive nature of the French language that brought it on, bringing my budding manhood to the fore—literally.
Anyhow, the teacher called on me to speak in front of the class. Obedient little angel that I was, I unhesitatingly rose from my desk. I walked to the front of the class, and before I spoke a word, the laughter began. Had I been at all cool, I’d have begged off and remained in my seat. I would have let some other sucker have the limelight, and thereby saved myself mortal humiliation and fantastic embarrassment. Today I’d like to think that the class understood. No one ever mentioned a single word later. I think it was that pesky mysterious internal force that did it all.
Anyhow, I have never been cool. I am not cool now, despite opinions to the contrary, which I think are the product of a rather limited concept of cool. I do propose this, though, that if you can admit that you are not cool, then that’s the very crux of being cool.
Cool today is innocence, because everyone is so intent on being cool—and especially looking cool to thousands of strangers—that the whole thing has gotten lost under layers of pretense. Tattoos, for instance, might have been cool eons ago, before they became as commonplace as shoes. Here in NYC, people cover themselves with tattoos until their skin resembles a road map. Later, when the sagging and the wrinkles reduce their costly advertisements to ink stains, they might begin to wonder why they ever did that. When Eliza deserts you and moves in with Elmer, will you still want her name on your forearm?
I used to ask people about their tattoos. I wanted to know what they were advertising. I did discover something very general about people who have tattoos. Ours is a politically correct world, so I won’t offend anyone. Suffice it to say that an awful lot of people have what I call disposable income, which they dispose of with alarming abandon.
I’ve thrown money away, too. I spent it on cars. I usually kept them for many years, as many as fourteen. But a few years ago I bought a bunch of cars in rapid succession, largely because I was bored. I thought my beautiful previously-owned silver Mercedes wagon
was the ultimate—until I traded it for a Volkswagen diesel with a manual shift. The VW was much more fun, got much better fuel mileage, and it never did the first thing to upstage me.
When you drive a Mercedes, you have to endure the psychological rigors of owning a car that costs more than everything else you own, which was certainly my situation. Some Mercedes owners must have the finest of everything, but that’s not me. When I drove my Mercedes, I was very conscious that I was driving a Mercedes, and that there was little I could do to disguise the car’s Mercedes-ness.
Mercedes cars do another thing extraordinarily well: they make you so comfortable that you feel invincible, like a god traversing the heavens in a golden chariot. Mercedes cars are rarely tripped up by potholes or curves or other nasty threats from the road. Mercedes cars remain steadfast and level, ever obedient to the genius at the helm, giving him pause only when the inevitable happens, and something under the bonnet breaks, which calls for a visit to the high priest who speaks German, thinks in Euros, and charges accordingly.
The VW diesel wagon with its manual shifter was much more me.It was every bit as obedient as the Merc, just without the pomp and circumstance. It had a sunroof almost as wide as the car and as long as a bathtub, making the car wonderfully light and bright inside, as opposed to the Merc’s interior, which was designed to hide you from public view. Methinks that’s just as well, perfectly befitting the nature of the car.
Here in the Big City I am carless. I think mass transit is very cool, and because of my advanced age, the MTA lets me ride for half price. My old Saab convertible waits for me in a garage in Iowa. Since no one drives it, its battery is likely flat. But it’s a stalwart Swede. It’ll start and run like a champ next time I visit it there.
Tomorrow I’m off to my hometown. That’s an adventure of a different sort. I get to explore the familiar and take stock of the inevitable changes in the environment and the lives of familiar friends. This time, I will see friends I haven’t seen in 50 years, friends who were much older than I was when I knew them ‘way back. But now we’re all senior citizens—whatever that means. Today, a friend said to me, “You don’t know what old is.”
I like that. I’m still figuring out who I am. I’m too young to know.