June 07, 2009

“Most of our isolation is self-chosen.”

A quotation from the French theologian Henri Nouwen.

Do you realize that this June’s the __th anniversary of my high school graduation? I’ll say it aloud: 40th. I intend to be continually stunned by numbers like this –- and even higher ones! -- for the next many, many years.

I went to a public high school for the gifted, and had a terrible time emotionally. It wasn’t the school’s fault or the teachers’ or my classmates’ or mine, either, it was just deep teenage blues, augmented by historical turmoil -- assassinations of father-figures, a trend for freakouts and literature-induced alienation -- that I took too much to heart. A high school made up almost exclusively of hippies and dorks, and I couldn’t tell whether I was both or neither. Adolescent males either act out or withdraw, and I was bred for the latter.

I've been staying away from that school for forty years. Never sent them my address, never got any reunion announcements.

But last week someone forwarded me a document, a file of capsule biographies my classmates have been submitting. About a hundred, out of a class of 980. I figured it was the most popular ones, or the nerdiest ones, who wrote them.

My instant reaction was, I'm not going to do that.

These people's careers have been pretty intimidating. One of us is now the director of theoretical physics at MIT. About half of the graduates who sent in their bios seem to be doctors or professors. One woman led the world’s foremost study on twins separated at birth. Another is the principal of an elementary school in Chinatown/Little Italy which she turned into one of New York City’s prize success stories, and where Bush and Giuliani held their press conference after 9/11. Many have made small or large fortunes in business. One sent in a genial report about how he wandered aimlessly through his twenties, following the Maharishi and so forth, and, by happenstance, ended up on the ground floor of the computer industry, helped develop “a bunch of new types of tech products including digital photography, advertiser supported email, healthcare information systems, information security technologies, advanced decision support methodologies and virtual world media services,” and now pursues photography. One of us is a jazz musician who played with Miles Davis in the 70s. Another had his picture on the cover of Bass Player magazine. You get the idea.

Well, that’s okay, I can mask envy with pride, but what bothered me was that so many of them wrote things like, “My lovely wife of thirty years and I have been living in Boston since I became partner at Smith, Jones...” “I met X, the love of my life, in Drama Club when he was a junior and I was a sophomore…”

How did they do it? Did they study hard for marriage they way they did for math tests? They’ve gotten all A’s in life. (One of them, in his bio, recounts how he got a 90 in his first high school test and the girl next to him, who’d gotten 100, sympathetically asked him what had gone wrong.) (I did okay, I got an A-minus average by showing up.)

When I read those bios, feelings of inferiority overwhelmed in a way I’d thought I’d outgrown. I wasn’t one of these people; I didn’t belong; they were more fortunate than me; they didn’t know I existed. I recognized lots of their names –- they were people I hadn’t dared speak to back then, because if they were male they were too hip, and if they were female they were too pretty, and in both cases too popular, too urban-mature.

I was sixteen again, in the worst way. And I wasn’t going to send them my stupid bio, I wasn’t going to be like them, nor was I going to send it in just to be snubbed by them either, look how self-satisfied they all were, everybody doing things perfectly in the same way. I’d send in a sarcastic bio, I’d tell them off, it would be the only one that didn’t comply with their format, and they wouldn’t know what to do with me, they’d ignore me and that would prove I was above them…

I read the bios again, to verify how dull and conventional they were -– and they weren’t. These were fine people, living skillfully and well –- they even wrote well. They liked each other and might be willing to like me. Most of them wouldn’t remember me at all; some might recall my name vaguely; but I wanted to know how their plots had turned out; I wanted to do what I’d never deigned to in high school -- learn from them.

I wasn’t sixteen anymore, thank God.

The most dazzling surprises in my life have occurred when, against all my preconceptions, I could no longer avoid seeing that people sought my friendship, that I had something to contribute to a relationship. That realization has been such discomfiting good news, I haven’t been able to surrender to it until it’s hit me again and again and again.

The lessons we most need to learn are the ones we’ve already learned.

I sent in my little bio, and it’s just like everyone else’s, not cleverer or more iconoclastic, not duller or more humdrum, either. It’s a genre piece. Its life comes from it species, it doesn’t stand out, it doesn’t have a mutant’s conceit. All it might be is an exorcism for the haunted classroom of my past.

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