Posts Tagged ‘Failure’

My Presidential Election, 1961

March 10, 2010

It is May 1961, I am barely sixteen and it is the spring of my junior year in high school, when class elections are held. I am now the junior class president running for reelection, a student strong in Verbal, very weak in Quantitative, unaware of his own weakness, hoping to show leadership or something. I hold several other offices. Among my peers, and by the faculty, I am seen as a leader, I think. I am not popular in many ways that I can tell, but I am regarded as having some maturity (an only child with old parents learns to read adults), even though I am about a year younger than everyone else. I had skipped first grade in 1951 when I was six.

It is important to note that I am typically ignorant in my own ignorant teenage way: New Jersey mill-town, school bus, marching-band ignorant, sexually nowhere, passionately everywhere. I am aware of girls because I am so confused that I do not know what to do about them. I am also at the beginning of watching my father’s life end, and starting to understand what is happening to him. He will retire this year and die in four. I will be twenty by then, and I will have damaged a good deal of my life. But, by then I will also have met my future wife and begun my self rescue; however, at sixteen my ignorance allows me to place nearly all of these complexities in some other room of consciousness, then lock the door.

My laissez-faire, I’m-entitled, gracefully undistinguished, near fatally bland presidential candidacy is troubled by two opponents – amazingly, they are less-qualified than I, a difficult idea to grasp in itself – who also want to demonstrate their leadership out of an altruism as shallow as my own, awakened by the college applications we will begin to fill out by fall. Steve is a very nice guy, currently vice president of the class, an athlete and a decent person. I wish I were more like him. Nick is a smart and kind-of-brash fellow, with roots among the solid middle of our class, and a no-nonsense way of talking. He had a cowlick as I did; but my head was shorn. Neither Steve nor Nick is in an honors class, as I am. They probably ought to be. (I hope by now they have come to understand their good fortune in not being in one. I hope they have had wonderful lives and never think of me.)

The issues of the election are, even for then, hilariously inconsequential, and I only remember one. Having been bullied by an older neighborhood boy, I have publicly expressed doubt about the maturity of seniors hazing freshman. It has been published in the Q. & A. column of our school newspaper, The Triad, with a photograph (I think) of my crew cut empty head. The idea that I, as senior class president, would end the traditional delight of hazing is too much for many of my classmates to bear, and so the issue is presented to me suddenly at the big Candidates’ Debate. Stunned by this crude strategy, I stumble and reel, mumbling something about how it’s my personal observation and opinion, um, and not an, um, uh, a presidential policy decision. It was lame, I was lame, and I felt still lamer when Nick and his comrades nailed a campaign poster to a tree in my yard urging all drivers-by to Vote for Nick Senior Class Pres. It seemed unfair of me to take it down, so I think it remained.

Maybe I took it down, I really don’t remember now. Looking back from here, that cardboard poster is an audacious thing to have done, and now I can admire it even though at sixteen I am self-righteously outraged by the audacity. I also know that it has to have been nailed to our tree by Nick’s friends, maybe with Nick in the car (I don’t think he drove yet), because nobody walked anywhere in my town, no sidewalks — just ditches. So I think I vaguely had an idea of what distinguished him from me:   the audacity of the poster, of course, but also the friends. Who would help me put up a piece of cardboard? Can’t think of anyone now.

Election day happens and at the end of it I hear the class advisor, Mr. Keyes (as I will call him), make the announcement on the PA system that I am the winner. Mr. Keyes has already been my sophomore English teacher and has changed my life. He makes me feel like a reader and a writer and gives me a wild idea that I might grow up less stupid than I would have otherwise. He is my Humanities teacher in senior year and I will consider him a friend.   In fewer than five years he will attend our wedding.

Hands are shaken. The election is ended. I have won. I see my advisor in a fervent meeting with Mr. Whatzit, the assistant principal, typical sadist-administrator, forever enshrined in memory as a classic bastard. I go home on the late bus as usual. Then the school year ends. Senior year begins and students are hazed with a little more fun and a little less sadism than I remember. Senior year happens in full, and I serve my time, and then am done with high school.

A few months on, in the third week of September 1962, seventeen years and five months old, I go off to fail for eighteen months at the University of Virginia, where I am probably the least-well-adjusted first-year student, except for one classmate who slit his wrists. I want to become a poet, and so I write fervently about my death and begin a lifelong romance with suicide. My invocations of honor, integrity, and dignity are not very useful; none of my ideals save me; I know I am done for at UVa. After the murder of John Kennedy in 1963, I rescue myself from Virginia and I go back to New Jersey, to live at home and attend another college where I begin to survive. I get a part-time job in a cemetery, which helps my poetry.

It is 1964 when I make this escape, John Kennedy dead just two months. By my college graduation in 1967, I will have occupied the Dean’s List, secured admission to Teachers College – Columbia University, and married. By then, my father will be dead for nearly two years and my mother will have become emotionally dependent on me for the rest of her life, which will endure until 1994. In 1968 I will become a public school teacher in Princeton, NJ, but I will find that it is not possible for me to be an authentic teacher in a public school, and I will move on, rescuing myself over and over for the rest of my life until I have become a real teacher as I think I am now, an old man in the subsequent century. But I remember now that this is in the future, and I am not yet done with the past. Authenticity is always at the core of my story, and so I must go back to it.

Here, however, I want to extend this narrative pause to say that this story is about a long confusion, founded on a small school experience and a subsequent, fated time of being young, just before life became complicated by war. After nearly fifty years, I still think about this story, but it seems important to note that I have no trauma, that I have survived. It must also be said that I have had a particular talent for errors and confusions. Like most people, I have been perfectly capable of generating my own problems. This story is all ignorance and innocence, but it is what happened and what I still wonder over, one irresolvable unfinished issue, among others. Now, the narrative resumes.

I am now, probably, eighteen. Mr. Keyes, more than any other person, has instilled in me the idea of being smart, reading critically, writing with strength and power, and — naturally – becoming a teacher. This is a daring aspiration for me, and ultimately a misreading of my heart. I have kept in touch with Mr. Keyes and another teacher, the instrumental music teacher, during all my Virginia failures. These teachers allow me to visit them at home. For what? Respect? Hope? Encouragement? Now I simply see a pathetic boy, undeserving of anything. As a failure since high school, I try to keep myself grounded in what had been my best years, now over. Those visits must have been excruciating for my former teachers, for their wives and even their children. I apologize to all of them, though I don’t know if they are alive now.

So now I am back to that period, a year after high school graduation in 1962 and before my self-rescue late in 1963 when I am most despairing and most certain that I am clearly failing. I have failed several courses at Virginia and will repeat two or more of them. Looking for solace, I am at Mr. Keyes’ house one evening and as I am leaving he takes me aside and says, “I have something to tell you. You never won that election. I switched the vote numbers.” Or, he switched the names, I don’t recall. In any event, Mr. Keyes says, as an advisor he could not work with Nick, the true winner, and so I was reelected by a fix, accepted congratulations from the others, got into college, served my term, spoke my foolish thoughts at commencement, left, failed to be the most likely to succeed, and came back.

And so now I am now even more confused at eighteen than I was at sixteen. “Is this deception true?” I wonder. “Is this my fault?” I wonder. “Is this a coming together of all my faults, greed and arrogance most of all?” It seems deeply just and fitting for me to learn about this fraud when I can do nothing about it. In fact, I disbelieve this story for years, not understanding (until I am a high school teacher myself) the distorted values and misguided acts of high school faculty members. Later, I think of that fervent meeting between Mr. Keyes and Mr. Whatzit. Was it about the lie? A cover-up for high crime? It all seems true and logical, now, because I know my peers would have accepted my false victory as the truth, asking no questions, taking no straw polls. Unlike me, Nick and Steve went on to lives of normal happiness, I trust. But I can take pleasure in this one thing: I did not experience the humiliation of a public loss.

Over time the lie became my lie, the crime became my crime. I have never fully known what to do with the information that I was not the duly elected leader of my little class in my little school in those awful years before Kennedy’s death, before Vietnam and the rest. It seems so small, so stupid, as all of high school now seems. And I wonder: What would it have meant for my barely sixteen year old self to have lost that election in public, to have failed to be the hero I thought I was? What would it have meant to me by now, nearly 65, to have lived with the knowledge of that public loss?

I probably would not even recollect it, because my life would have replaced it with something else, something smarter, something not a lie. What would it have meant for the boy, Nick, who had won fairly? I only know what it meant to the boy who lost but unfairly didn’t know it. When I became convinced of Keyes’s story, I thought of calling Nick to say, “Nick, you won.” I imagined going to a reunion (I never have) and speaking about the lie. (“I have something to tell you.”) But I have not done those things, and so – even though it means nothing now — I remain a permanent, secret, impostor.

By the time I have taught for five years, personal experience will tell me that the moral universe of the American high school is often the most constrained, corrupt and undiversified realm in American life, like a punishing fundamentalist faith combined with cruel competitive sports. In many ways the high school is like a penitentiary where many potential terrorists are nurtured, just before they escape and go to college or military life. In 1973, after five years of teaching I will have come to see high school as a penal colony of young people kept in years of suspended life, occupied by empty games on a false playing field, controlled by teachers whose deficiencies and insensitivities are immense, and whose kindness often diminishes in proportion to their power and insecurity. (I beg to be forgiven by the generous teachers committed to the passions of teaching.) I came to see that the teachers of my youth, even the good ones, were doing what they were expected to do, living by the unspoken rule of bad teachers everywhere: Never Acknowledge the Damage.

What had my teacher done? What had I done? What was my life that it could be so easily configured by a lie and distorted by the truth? What would have it meant, to have lost in public? And, more deeply, why did I put myself up for leadership? Why did I not lower my sights, lower my profile, lower my inflated ego. Why did I waste my heart and courage then? I wonder this: In how many other ways did I grow up with lies?

I write now after decades of feeling myself, often, to be both an impostor and a failure as a student, a liar and a fraud as a man, an inadequate scholar and a weak thinker. I feel these things not because of high school, but because I now can see how much was missing from my life then. I know now that a key to adult life is becoming confident and courageous in youth, being and feeling trustworthy, and feeling mutual trust and strength among others. This must have happened for some people. But what kind of foundation can be built on confusion and error? What integrity comes out of superficiality? Still I wonder: Who is he, that person who never quite became himself?