(what follows is an excerpt from a work-in-progress; find more here)
Is there any danger?
No, no not really,
Just lean on me.
Takin’ time to treat,
Your friendly neighbors honestly.
I’ve just been fakin’ it,
I’m not really makin’ it,
This feeling of fakin’ it.
I still haven’t shaken it.
— Simon & Garfunkel
Getting suspended from school for leafletting and littering was just the first momentous thing that happened to me on March 27, 1969.
The second was getting in to a college.
Despite years of miscreant classroom behavior, the only time I was sufficiently delinquent to warrant an actual suspension from school was the result of an exercise of the First Amerndment — and then only in the company of dozens of my classmates. I don’t know about the other kids that were sent home that day, but the “principal’s office” was entirely familiar territory for me. My own trips to that academic purgatory started in the third grade. I think the infraction that time was drawing a stick-figure of Mrs Gaul’s tits.
Letters to our parents in hand, Johnny and I walked home. When we got to Lewis Drive I looked in the mailbox, and waiting for me there was the proverbial “fat envelope” — an acceptance letter for admission to the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. the following fall.
It was, in a way, the fulfillment of everything my parents had expected of me. I’m sure they met the news with a sigh of relief.
I was pretty ambivalent about the whole thing.
For as long as I could remember, “college” was the singular destination that defined my life.
Getting into college — any college in my case — was the fulfillment of a Life Plan that had been drawn out for me almost from the moment of my birth.
It had been pretty well drummed into me for as long as I could remember, this simple formula for how I was to flourish in life. It was a simple mantra, one that had been drummed into me no doubt since first day of nursery school at St. George’s Episcopal Church on the banks of the Shrewsbury River in Rumson New Jersey, back in 1954. There, along with my tricycle, I must have been handed a map that outlined the following course:
Go to school
Get good grades
Get into a good college
Enter a respectable profession
Return to / live comfortably in the suburbs
Get married, have kids of my own
Rinse and repeat.
That was it. That was all the calling I was expected to prepare myself for. Doctor, lawyer, businessman… it didn’t matter which, so long as I reached the primary objective of getting into a “good college.” THAT was drummed into me as the key to my destiny. College. If nursery school was the Alpha, then college was the Omega of My Existence. Any future beyond that would take care of itself.
Consequently, throughout my academic career, I was consigned to the “fast-track” — the classes and subjects that would look most favorable on a college application.
But I secretly envied the jocks and working class kids who were enrolled in auto-mechanics and other vocational programs. I’d been fascinated with hot rods and race cars back in junior high school; Even though Columbia had an auto mechanics workshop, I was pretty much prohibited from taking classes there, because somebody — who hadn’t really consulted with me — had determined that the purpose of my life was to go to college. Knowing what to do with a wrench under the hood of a car was not considered compatible with that pre-destiny.
The world now is filled with all kinds of self-help mantras: “follow your bliss,” “find your passion,” “find something you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” That all sounds great here in the 21st century, after a few decades of New-Age-Enlightenment. But in the 1960s, for the generation that grew out of the Great Depression and fought World War II, the mantra they offered their issue was more external and linear: school, grades, college. A mission not of purpose but of conformity.
Thus, with the arrival of that letter from The George Washington University, the primary mission was fulfilled.
GW was not my first choice. If I had a first choice, it might have been Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
I’d visited Wellesley on a college tour my Temple Youth Group sponsored in the fall of my junior year, when I and about 30 of my classmates boarded a bus and toured the (mostly prestigious) colleges around Boston: Harvard, Brandeis, MIT, Boston U, Wellesley and a few others.
Of all the schools we visited, the campus of Wellesley was the only one that really appealed to me. Its isolated, rolling green hills and gothic revival architecture suggested the kind of cloistered environment where I could flourish academically. I learned that the previous summer, when, in order to bolster my prospects when college application time came around, I’d spent a month at a similarly secluded prep school campus near Newport, Rhode Island. I took two classes that summer, English and American History, and since those were both subjects that I genuinely enjoyed I did well and added some decent supplemental grades to my record.
But there was no way I was ever going to get in to Wellesley. Never mind Wellesley was strictly a women’s school. Wellesley was one of the “Seven Sisters” — the women’s equivalent of the Ivy Leagues. There was just no way I was ever getting in to an Ivy League school, not with my record of academic ambivalence and “underachievement.”
In addition to having lower entry requirements than the Ivies, GW had a reputation as one of the schools a lot of kids went to as their “second choice.” Unless they were looking to study political science or go into international diplomacy, GW was the place a lot of kids wound up at if they couldn’t get in to a more prestigious institution.
Unfortunately, unlike Wellesley, GW didn’t really have a campus at all. The school was just a concentration of mid-century buildings woven into the fabric of the Foggy Bottom, a few blocks west of the White House. It was not the kind of monastic environment where I’d been known to thrive academically.
I don’t remember if I was accepted anywhere else. Quite possibly not, because, despite the Life Plan, my academic record was not very impressive. Hell, I’d practically flunked out of high school in my junior year. I have often thought that my need for any kind of “formal education” may have ended around the time of my sophomore year, and the “F”s I brought home in several classes during my junior year might attest to that conclusion.
Coming out of my junior year. and going into my senior year — there was considerable doubt that I was going to get into ANY college — let alone the sort of prestigious school that my parents (actually mother and stepfather) thought would pave a clear path for me through life.
When I was a kid, people kept telling me I was smart. Not quite as smart as my brother, though, who excelled at whatever he undertook and was already at Yale when I was trying to get in to Anyplace That Would Take Me U.
When I spoke at my brother’s funeral a few years ago, one of the things I said was that I was pretty sure I was the only one there who had ever had to endure the schoolyard taunt of
“Hey kid… are you as smart as your brother??”
Uhh…. I guess not. But I played guitar better than he did.
Despite my supposed potential, I spent most of my academic career rising only to the level of “underachiever.” I have no idea how many times I must have heard that description of myself: Underachiever.
“You could do so well if you just applied yourself…”
— was the line that usually came right after being called an “underachiever.”
— that was another term I got familiar with during my high-school years, too.
You might think that at some point, somebody might have connected the dots and considered the possibility that I was “underachieving” because I was “unmotivated.” Fuck, not even the over-paid psychiatrist I was sent to figured that out…
The trouble was, apparently, that the things that did motivate me were not the sort of things that lent themselves to getting into “a good college.” They were more the kinds of things that got kids into “art” schools. But, again: I just didn’t know that option was available to me.
For example, starting in my freshman year I’d pretty well taught myself how to play the guitar with some measure of proficiency. I could entertain friends with the Simon and Garfunkel tunes that I learned by dropping a needle into the grooves of their records and replicating what I heard with my own fingers. It was not easy getting past the “my fingers are killing me” phase in the first few months, but once my fingertips had toughened up some I got pretty good, and people listened to me play.
But playing the guitar is not the way by which one gets into Harvard or Yale. Not that I was ever gonna go to Harvard, but my brother went to Yale, and my stepfather had gone to Yale (in the 1930s). So there were these unspoken expectations… none of which had anything to do with anything that might have been right for ME.
So the die was cast, my destiny pre-determined, and in my senior year I started applying to colleges that I really didn’t want to go to and quite understandably didn’t really want me.
I managed to get into a college despite the fact that I had pretty much drifted through high school. It was almost as though the Universe was saying “this is your destiny, and even though you have not acted in accordance with your destiny, here it is anyway; you are condemned to this destiny, assigned to it, whether you follow the path or not… you will go to college…
And then I got my ass suspended from school.
And that very day I got accepted to college.
With the benefit of 45 years of hindsight, it’s easy to see now that the timing of those two events could not have been more ominous…
©2016 Paul Schatzkin / email@example.com