I feared Mrs. Protava, just as everyone around me did, and I knew I was to respect her because my mom and dad did. She loomed over all of us like some kind of intellectual colossus, this huge paper-toting, book-packing, chalkboard writing, suit wearing, test-giving, rank-making female titan, and in her great hands she carried proof of things and made demands on us.  Everyone I knew obeyed her and I did everything she told me to.

I was in the first grade.

But somehow, and I can’t remember just how, she learned something about me that I didn’t know and she told my parents and they intimated it to me. It was revealed by a test that she had given me. It was my first awareness of that I could possess a reputation, a public identity, and that this identity could be created by a number that they knew but wouldn’t tell me.

Such numbers, revealed to our teachers by standardized tests, are powerful things, although as I came to learn later when I became the teacher, they aren’t the essence of the thing.

I spoke with a man last week who said that in grade school he was put in special classes because he had problems paying attention. Then he told me, “I knew I wasn’t stupid, but my mom didn’t speak English well and so they put me in these classes and we just went along with it.”

He told me that later in his education, he was put back in regular classes, but that by then he was way behind, and he couldn’t do the work and that he requested to be put back in special classes so that he wouldn’t fail. He kept repeating to me, “I know I’m not stupid.”

After school, he became a tile layer. When I met him he was out of work and that was hard, but I could see that he was still reeling from elementary school.

So am I.

There was some kind of score I got on a test in early grade school that meant that Mrs. Protava would expect something from me, that my parents would expect something from me and that I should expect something from myself. I realized intuitively that this was a good thing about me, a high card that I might play, and I concluded, without talking to any of the adults about this card, that if I played it at the right times, played it often, that it would make people love me. I think we all go through life vaguely aware that we have cards to play, and that value is attach to them by others, and that the cards are, among other things, beauty, intelligence, personality, family, wealth, character, skill or conversely the cards are the lack of each of these things and others too that are like them.

Roy Coons didn’t have good cards. I will never, ever forget the day on the playground where we chased him like a wild pack of animals hunts another animal. He ran crazy, zigzag, like prey, and we chased him running straight and hard. He was dirty, he wore old clothes, he was gaunt, and he didn’t speak the way we were taught in our grammar books. And for some reason that I didn’t know then and do not completely understand now, we went after all that hard. It was an event that I have never forgotten – the sweaty running and yelling and pursuing and the dodging and fleeing and the ripping and tearing that we couldn’t or wouldn’t see or hear but must have happened in a very deep, interior place in Roy. I wonder what ever happened to him? Kierkegaard was right. “Wherever there is a crowd there is untruth.” It stuck in my mind as a day that I learned something important about myself and my classmates; the teachers weren’t the only ones at school ranking people.

This doesn’t change when you graduate or when you don’t. I’ve noticed that some people tend in to see life as a ladder some as a level playing field. Some tend to see us and them, while others tend to see just us. Some tend to want to differentiate, some to not. It’s interesting. I’ve played the game both ways, and I’ve decided that I tend to hate to see people shove people down and step on them. I don’t like to watch boxing. I don’t like it when I’ve dominated others; I don’t like it when they have dominated me.

Once I got one of my brothers down one day. I was yelling at him. I don’t remember over what; it might have been a basketball game, or something else important like that. I remember looking down at him, pinned on the ground and then crying, suddenly very aware that I was ashamed of what I was doing and that I embarrassed that I was doing it. I’ve never forgotten that moment either. It stands out as something I wished hadn’t happened, but there was quite a bit of that perhaps shouldn’t have happened between us brothers, hitting, breaking, hurting. I got off my brother that day because I really didn’t like the whole hysterical thing. I have found that I like it better when I am more rational, sitting eye-to-eye with people, sharing a place on the blanket, sharing a place at the table, solving a problem by talking about solutions. I’m best in an environment of give-and-take, throw it up the air between us, see what comes down. I love to be a leader, but the kind of leader that promotes collaboration.

School, mostly, was a good place for me. My friends and I copied all the flower names out of an encyclopedia, just for fun, on our own. We wrote all the books we that we read each year on little note cards and turned them in for rewards that I don’t remember. Mrs. Myers, our teacher, assigned this. We copied some of the great art of the world and wrote up brief biographies on the artists. I still have mine. I liked Mrs. Meyers assignments, but I didn’t like her, then.  One day when we were at the board, she asked us, “Are you boys passing gas?” I had never heard it put like that. I couldn’t get over it; it was too high to jump, to wide to run past. It was so hilarious to my brothers and my friends that after that we repeated her question endlessly when we were together and roared every time as if it was the first time. It defined her, I think, as from another universe.

My mom detected that I had an attitude regarding Mrs. Meyers. She told me that I had a habit of correcting Mrs. Meyers in class, and it was implied that this was a bad thing. But the truth was, as I later discovered, that I wanted to be Mrs. Meyers. I have never liked sitting in the room at a desk; I have always wanted to be the one standing upfront talking, not saying weird things, or getting other people to say weird things, but creating a safe place for the saying of unweird things. Unfortunately, when I was a new teacher, I said some things that my students probably still remember and in not a good way, worse than Mrs. Meyers, things like, “Get out of my classroom, now.” And I gave out a lot of “F’s” when I did my grades. I understand the whole “A” to “F” thing very well, and I see its value,  and I like it, sometimes, and sometimes I am so done with all that.

I didn’t always do well in school. The little girl that I adored, who I told that I loved, she gave the speech at our grade school graduation, not me. I think five of us graduated together from our eighth grade class so it is not like there was a lot of competition. But I couldn’t have done better than her. She was so perfect in almost every way known to a young girl and it was better to worship than to try to beat her. Our school had a weird name, R-10. It was one step up from the country school house, and it was created by a reconsolidation of several. There were two nice rooms and a cafeteria. In each classroom four grades were taught, by one teacher, simultaneously. Imagine the lesson plans for even a day. Mrs. Myers was heroic, a giant in education.

She prepared me well, but when I went to high school, I played my cards poorly, and I got a D in Algebra. It was disheartening. What happened? I’m not sure. I sat in the back with friends who liked to talk and who didn’t like to study. And my best excuse is that I have always and to this day had a love affair with the particular, the detail, the concrete and the narrative and I didn’t see that in my Algebra book, although I know now that it was hiding in there.

One day in my ninth grade year I received a lesson in adult behavior that explained a lot. We were allowed to leave the campus at lunch. So we usually walked down town and bought good food like chocolate shakes and candy bars and gum. The gum was our downfall. On one particular day we got lots of gum, from a gum ball machine. Someone figure out that if you put in your coin, and jiggled the slot just right, so it didn’t fall but the gum did, you could empty the machine. So we drained it and returned to school with bulging pockets of red, yellow and green gum balls. We couldn’t eat them all so what could we do with them? We could throw them, from the upstairs study hall windows. It was a kick, a hoot in a mild kind of way. It was fooling around, like Tom fooled around in the story of “How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen.” It was high fooling around and it was low fooling around and we wombled and mucked and raked with gum balls until the principal of the high school came up behind us unawares.

He was upset. I could tell by all the yelling. I think he felt left out, betrayed that we hadn’t invited him to throw gum with us. Maybe not, but he got to yelling and wouldn’t stop and we had to leave the school in the middle of the day, and I ended up walking home, which was five miles away, at least until my brother came by and picked me up in his cool car. I think he was impressed with me.

I found out who had the problem later in the year. One day before school, the principal went down to the gym and got into an argument with the janitor. And I suspect the principal’s tendency to get a bit lathered up came upon him again and he picked up a pipe and clubbed the old janitor in the head several times. The janitor went to the hospital and the principal went home, even before school got going that day. I knew a little bit how he felt, going home early. I never saw him again to have the chance to talk over the old times and laugh together over what hadn’t gone so well.

But it is just as well. I hate the clubbing stuff, unless it involves a sock stuffed with other socks. Real clubbling hurts and its bad form.

College was a whole new sense of school for me. Suddenly learning became a lot more interesting, freed of busy work and bells, full of tension option and possibility and taught by creatures seduced by language and ideas. I took a literature class in which we were assigned Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Voice of the Desert. The mystique of the desert limned in a scientific, literary philosophic way, with skill in observation and skill in language, I was smitten.  It was like copying flower names from the encyclopedia,  but better.

I took philosophy. In one class we read Plato’s Republic. This stunned me. The utopia, the cave, the forms, the beauty of ideas, so perfect, so universal that all objects are defined by them. This weirdly clashed with what I had been taught in church, or did it? Here was a fine thinker with a different way of thinking. It opened my mind. There were other possibilities. The Republic allowed me to question the republic that I grew up in; it gave me another option. I wanted to be the philosopher king with access to the forms.

But I am Aristotelian and Platonic in outlook. I love observation. I love sense perception and classification and the particular and the object. I love the science of things. But I also love the science of  ideas, the universals, the forms, the categories that define and give life to the multiplicity and complexity and specificity. It is both; it is neither; we try so hard and understand so little.

Plato and Aristotle are not enough sometimes, they do not get at it. Sometimes  no words and no philosophies will do, only motion and touch.

One day I went into my daughter’s Rosalind’s room. She was crying.

“What’s wrong, honey,” I said.

“I’m stupid,” she cried out, “I can’t read.”

I was frozen. What could I say? That she could. She couldn’t. Her brain damage was, as we sometimes say, “from birth,” because we don’t even know when it was, but we do know that it was real, limiting, crushing, permanent. She wouldn’t go to college like I did or like her sister eventually would. She would go to college , but she would  take bowling and Adaptive PE. Her teachers wouldn’t assign and she wouldn’t read Plato’s Republic.

I looked at her down at her teary face, bent down toward her pillow, full of grief and pain and I broke. And she looked up at my teary face looking down at her face and she slowly she got the oddest look in her eyes, a questioning look combined with a look a sheer amazement.

And she said, “Daddy, are you crying for me?”

“Yes, I am, honey,” I said and we grabbed each other in the tightest hug ever and kept crying together on her bed for a while. It was a moment. She had pain, but she wasn’t alone. And I wish I had something of that in me the day we chased Roy Coon, and that I would a have stopped it and made my class mates stop it  and looked him in eyes and said, “I know. I know,” like Julia Child’s husband did in Julie and Julia.

When Rosalind was little, we watched “Sesame Street” together, and I read to her night after night, and we did flash cards and I knew she was brilliant and that she would grow up to love language and ideas and books. And she did  because I read her all those stories like “Rootie Kazootie”and “The Little Red Hen” and she fell in love with Robert Louis Stevenson and we watched Hamlet together for four hours plus one night and we have watched Much Ado About Nothing lots of times and she quotes from it now and again, and we watched As You Like It  and read The Tales of Narnia and she loves a story and has seen more movies than anybody in our family but it isn’t like we thought it would be at all, and sometimes that just totally sucks.

Life is like that at times, not the way we imagined it would be in the early morning when the ideas came brightly streaming through the window and lay like Vermeer light softly upon the heads of our children in their cribs and on ourselves as we bent over them and smiled.

When I was in graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, I took a  Jewish Literature class. Here I met writers who understood the terror and the humor and the history of social ranking. Rabbi Nachman, Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch, Chaim Potok — these men understood the Jewish experience of life, and they told the stories of a ranked people.  And they understood the beauty of shtetl life and the life of study and the life lived by the book and the life lived by the imagination that thrives beyond the assignment and beyond the contraints of formal instruction.

I love my education; I love not sitting at the desk anymore. I love being able to read what I want to read and I love to make my own writing assignments for myself. Schools exist to take us beyond schools, to the place where we love to  understand  ourselves and others. My daughter Laurel is studying in London this fall. My wife and I will join her at the end of the semester so she can play tour guide, and take us out among the small and great wonders of the city, the food and the people. This is it; every student should study abroad; they they would be more broad in their thinking by meeting different kinds of people. People are an education.

I love my daughter Rosalind’s disabled friends, Steve, Donald, Daniel and Angel. No one greets me more warmly than them. Steve can’t talk but every time I see him he signs something to me. Donald doesn’t say much but he smiles and wants to shake my hand. Angel always tells me, “I am going to come to your house and beat you in basketball.” He did that once. Daniel keeps his thoughts to himself unless asked. He is wiser than most people I know. Rosalind will allow no negative word to be spoken about any of them. If I say something like, so-and-so can’t do that, Roz will say, but he can do this.  In their circle is no judgment. There is no pretence and there is no superiority.

I never have to play a card to win their love, and they play none when we meet. When we are together we never talk about grades, degrees, credentials, certificates or titles. We are rankless.

I like it.

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