Monday, January 28, 2008

School Days (1)

"Good old golden rule days..."--what does that mean anyway? Nuns rapping your knuckles with a ruler? Schoolyard bullies stealing your lunch money? Some sort of Athenian democracy of equals working usefully together? Hard to see how anyone's school experience fits some fine Golden Rule.

And I write as one who pretty much had it easy. We changed schools often (Air Force family), but I knew how to keep quiet among my peers and keep my head down, focussed on homework or tests. I had a quick intelligence, evidently, and a good memory, so doing the work was never a problem. I always made straight A's, only had a couple of fights, played sports with minor success by hustling harder than my skills allowed for, survived a couple of unrequited crushes, etc.

But my lasting school memories are limited, really. I remember my Third/Fourth grade teacher encouraged me to start creative writing. (My first stories were about a Chinese boy so inept with chopsticks he had to invent the fork, and a dumb science fiction parody of television's Dragnet I called "Pla-net"!) And I remember walking home one day through fields where I found a fire starting to spread and, rather than running off to get help, I just brashly beat it out with my quickly-ruined, Davy Crockett fringed leather jacket. That small moment of feeling heroic may have been the highlight of my gradeschool days.

But we kept moving on, so I got to experience the preteen dating mores and general racial attitudes of Montgomery, Alabama, 1955-56, making for a difficult Seventh grade year (see the blog chapter called Two Kings). And then we shipped out to Izmir, Turkey--where my grades were so solid and the school so small that the teachers decided to skip me from Eighth into Ninth instead. I went from being somewhat older for Eighth to being younger than most of the other students. But aside from another fight or two, things and I adapted.

The most interesting events were hints of hard drugs circa 1957--at least one senior, an aspiring Jazz drummer, was toying with marijuana and maybe even heroin--and having to play Turkish highschool teams in soccer and basketball. A local "highschool" guy might mean a 35-year-old, a huge and definitely hardened worker or mechanic, even ex-Army maybe. Us American kids routinely got our shins and asses kicked!

When we moved to Tacoma for my Junior and Senior years, I managed to sidle back into the structure; played intermural sports, held minor student government and/or dance committee jobs, and kept getting good grades. In fact, by the end of school, because Clover Park HS offered some college-level courses worth extra credit, I managed to graduate with a 4.02 grade point. But for some reason, I have blanked out on graduation itself; I think I was number one in the graduating class of 1200 seniors, but I don't remember delivering any valedictorian speech, nor indeed the big event itself...

I'd played the plan-for-college game, so I was accepted to a few spots across the country (even tried for the recently-opened Air Force Academy; didn't make it), but picked Northwestern, in Evanston right by Chicago, because my parents were off to another duty tour elsewhere, and I had relatives nearby in Illinois, in case of any problems. Between a healthy scholarship, family support, student loans, and part-time jobs ranging from kitchen clean-up at a popular campus hangout to an excellent assistant slot with Northwestern's offical events impresario (I got to read/press-clip the New York Times every day and be a "gopher" at all the campus drama and musical events), I managed to last there for the first two, very expensive years (1960-1962).

Then I transferred west to the considerably cheaper University of Washington. At Northwestern I had started with the idea of majoring in Mathematics and Computers (Fortran machine-language and punchcards were the order of business in those days), but quickly found the programming boring and the math daunting. So then I was a general Liberal Arts guy, sort of toying with Languages and Linguistics, until I reached the UW and had to get serious. First it was Political Science with a Latin American focus (I was imagining a career in the diplomatic service), but the gathering storm against America's interference around the world--Guatemala, Chile, the beginnings of Vietnam--coupled with my own lefty-populist ideals, convinced me I couldn't blithely support my government as an embassy worker somewhere.

Also, one rotten PoliSci professor gave me the only C I got in six years of college (B's a couple of times), because I didn't do the extra-credit scrapbook we had been told would NOT count against us, but would instead only boost our grades; well, I had B's at worst on tests, including the final, but wound up with that damned C grade. I was too foolishly proud to do more than squawk to the T.A., but it cost me in the long run, because my final college grade point was one tiny percentage away from Summa cum Laude, and a B would have put me in. (On the other hand, aside from pride, I really never did put much stock in grades or I.Q. numbers; so I got A's, was 139 or something, did great on College Boards--did any of it make me a better man or someone better able to cope with the changes/problems in life? I don't think so.)

So I switched to a major in Spanish for a couple of quarters, for no good reason except the courses I had taken, until I realized I really didn't want to teach Spanish somewhere--which was the only job I could imagine in my naive, anti-entrepreneurial way... "Go into business? Never." Suddenly I was facing the Senior year with no plan or major. The only thing I could think to do was fall back on what I had always enjoyed doing, reading and writing. I shifted straight into English Literature, took solid English courses for the next four quarters, and graduated with a B.A. in Lit in August of 1964.

"Now what?" I thought.

((The answer comes next time.))

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