Knatz.com / Stories / Hierarchy vs Conviviality / School /
High School / College Juncture
Six months before high school commencement was scheduled I was told by more than one teacher that it was impossible that I graduate from high school with the class. Maybe I could graduate, but not in June 1956. For one thing, I was failing physics. “Kiss your college applications good-bye.” Big deal. My mother had been told since I was in grade school that I was stupid. My mother denied it vehemently, but what part of it filtered to me I agreed with. Indeed, my first novel opens with a character in the same situation. My Alison Appleby agrees with her teachers that she’s stupid. After all, they, the adults understand how there can be five continents and seven seas: what she sees on the globe is land and water inter-bordering each other: one could see the land as separate, but how could the ocean be anything but one? How could Europe and Asia be two continents when the globe showed one land mass? Adults must be awfully smart to understand those things that look so false to a child. In my case, adults understood how the teachers were educated, smart; they seemed like crass morons to me. Adults understood how what politicians said made sense, how the illiterate minister was our spiritual leader.
Et cetera. Anyway, my grades were never anything but mediocre (with some spectacular exceptions such as I report in Freshman English) [the book report story above]. Enough about all that. Maybe I’ll add other details later, but my purpose here is to give some context to people’s surprise that I got into Columbia. I was still on Columbia’s waiting list when guys on the high school honor roll were getting rejected by that same institution. Indeed, when my acceptance came, I believe it was before a guy from the honor roll who was finally accepted. (A total of three from my high school class were accepted by Columbia. 100% of 200 students were accepted somewhere. There were lots of Harvards and Colgates and Amhersts.)
My father said (one of the few things I ever heard him say) that with my grades I needed a little something extra to get them to notice me. He arranged an interview, not with their standard staff of interviewers, but with history professor emeritus Henry Steele Commager. I take the train to the ‘Apple. I subway to Columbia. I find Hamilton Hall. I find the office with Commager’s name on it. That office seemed small to me at the time. I realized within another year that it was an exceptionally large office for a professor. More than one leather arm chair, for example. Indeed two were ranged around a little table. I sat in one. He came from behind his desk and took the other.
“Have you ever been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art?”
I don’t know if he’d seen my application where I’d stated my reason for wanting to attend Columbia to be because it was in easy range of Birdland (the night club (long defunct) named after Charlie Parker) and the Museum of Modern Art. (See Music and Art [not yet recreated among my blogs].)
“Only a couple of times. I like the Modern.”
“But when you were in the Met, did you see anything you liked?”
“Oh, sure. Rodin.”
“Is there anything in particular you like about Rodin?”
Commager reached behind him to the bookshelves. He didn’t have to really look for his hand to fall on the volume he wanted. He shoved the knickknacks back on the little table to make room. The Rodin book fell open to The Thinker. He turned the page. There were enlargements there of the hands, the feet. Little else was said at the interview. We were quickly beyond words. Mutual gestures and grunts sufficed as this octogenarian entered into mimetic communion with this teenager.
I’ve remembered (and told) that story more than once since then. But something just occurred to me to explain it further: to myself! What made me say “the feet” so firmly and so fast? Actually, I liked the girl’s ass in The Kiss. Actually, I liked all of it. But he’d asked for a detail. And I’ll bet I remembered, fast as lightning, a passage from some junk Book of the Month Club selection of my mother’s. I don’t remember the title [latter: The Horse’s Mouth], but Alec Guiness played the crazy artist hero in the movie. He or one of the other crazy artists was obsessed with feet. So actually, I was giving someone else’s answer: a fictional character’s. Not that I didn’t mean it, whose-ever answer it was.
I didn’t really appreciate what I’d done or what Commager had allowed to happen until I went to the standard interview some time later. I sleep walked through that: it was very boring. Had no opinion how I did. But I hung around for a few minutes after to eavesdrop on the performances of other interviewees. One, they all seemed petrified, ashen. I hadn’t been. What did I give a fuck? College wasn’t my idea. Oh, so maybe I was pale. I actually did want to go to Columbia. Get out of the ‘burbs and into the ‘Apple.
“So, you expect to be valedictorian?”
“Uh, duh, duh, yes. I lead my class in grades so far.”
“So what do you like?”
“Duh, uh … art?”
One or two of those were enough. I turned away.
Perhaps I should add another detail to the same general context. About a week before the school year ended the physics teacher again told me that it was impossible for me to pass, even if she went out of her way to be easy on me, which she wasn’t inclined to do. (I’d hated that teacher ever since she’d insisted that work was “force through distance.” What? the dictionary, the common meanings, were wrong?) It occurred to me that maybe I’d better do the year’s homework. But it was no good. The afternoon before the state regents test on physics I still hadn’t gotten past page one of the physics test. After dinner I panicked and got a couple of chapters into it. That seemed to be enough because my regents grade was 88 or 90, some such number. The local school has to defer to the regents, and I not only passed, I did OK.
It might have been just as well if I hadn’t. I was a hard worker in public school. Oh, I don’t mean school work; I mean my jobs: paper boy, soda jerk, supermarket clerk … I always had a pile of money as a kid. Never had any since, not even when I was supposed to be a millionaire. Oh, there were big numbers in the bank, big numbers in inventory, but it wasn’t mine: even though I owned the company. It was all tied up. I could only spend it … on itself.
But I was thirty-five by then. I honestly believe that had I not gone to college I might have been a real millionaire by twenty-five. Why shouldn’t I have stayed with the supermarket that so respected my work and my ethic? But they were so inefficient! Either I’d have straightened them out or gone into competition against them. Without the Columbia-bred habit of reading six or twelve hours a day, I’d have stuck to it. Maybe I would have come to have read some of the same stuff anyway.
But would I have met R. Buckminster Fuller? Would I have met Ivan Illich? Maybe not. Or maybe sooner.
Meet those guys though and making a living becomes difficult to impossible. But then I’d already met Jesus. Our high-water mark for economic misfit. (What was I ever doing in the supermarket?) (I’ve mentioned elsewhere and should repeat here: the “millionaire” business evaporated as swiftly as it had arrived. I’ve been impoverished since high school. Had to pay big bucks to become that way.)
(Note: Fuller had money pouring on him by the time I met him, but prior to his old age money had avoided him. Illich is famous for arriving at the airport for his lecture at your university without a dime in his pocket. If you don’t pick him up, transport him, feed him, take him back to the airport with another ticket, he’s stuck: right there on the tarmac. When I met Illich on his home turf he was living in poverty, but even defrocked, the poverty was priestly: he had a goddam palace! (one nice room of which was his. It was a commune. That he headed. Now I think he’s pretty well homeless: except for friends: with palaces. I have no friends. No palaces. And if money is going to rain on my old age, it sure hasn’t started yet.)
2004 07 25 Soon the student statement, the college interview, escalates, degenerates into the professional statement and the job interview. I just saw the most delicious job interview distilled as fiction in the movie Changing Lanes. Ben Affleck hires the virgin lawyer just so he’ll be able to watch the jerk as he experiences a little real law.
Duh, uh, Art? — Specificity
Surely my point doesn’t need explication. Before you decide that it does, see another story illustrating the same point of specificity. That latter word is the key however much I doubt I understood it consciously at the time. I was specific. The others were vague. (I also had the advantage that Commager invited, guided me to be specific: wanted to see if I could be.
Now that I think of it, I can remember grade school lessons where the teacher probably thought that that was what she was doing. I won’t say it has no effect on the general public, but very little. But I’ll pick these points up in the file just linked.
|Deschooling Quotes: Illich||Deschooling Quotes: FLEX||Deschooling Quotes: Since ’74|