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May 1, 2015

The Best School & The Biggest Idiot

     When my family moved from Brighton to Cambridge, I was plucked out of 2nd grade at the Alexander Hamilton Public School (of which I remember nothing) and put into the Shady Hill School, a private school with a unique method of instruction.
     My short time there spoiled me for every other school I ever attended. Never since then have I had so much fun learning.
     Each grade concentrated on a different culture. IIRC 2nd grade concentrated on Native Americans, 3rd was vikings and Norse mythology, and 4th was ancient Greece. The last one is the one I remember best. 
     Nearly every activity centered on that year's culture. In 4th grade, we worked to dramatize Robert Graves' book "The Wrath of Achilles" which we performed. In shop class we made wooden shields and swords and painted them. 
     In art class we learned how to make potato prints and used them to print geometric border on the chitons we wore in the production and made clay pots, our individual and adorably clunky Grecian urns. Mine was shiny black with wavy green stripes and my mother may have it still. 
     We studied Greek mythology from the enormous and enormously entertaining "Gods and Heroes" by Gustav Schwab. I still have my copy of it on my shelves. Even our sports and exercise periods were special. We learned to throw the javelin and discus, ran foot races, did long jumps and high jumps to practice for the school Olympics. We did not take the verisimilitude too far, I cannot remember ever competing naked.
     I often walked the 16 blocks to and from school. I preferred to walk and save my bus fare so I could stop in every few days at the Red & White Market and buy my secret pleasure which was, I swear, anchovy paste which I would hide in my jacket pocket and suck directly out of the tube. I still like anchovies. 
     It was on the way home in the fall that we really lucked out. Some of the other walkers and I would take a short cut through somebody's yard to Mt. Auburn Street. At the back of the yard and, to us at least, not really someones property was a mass of Concord grape vines. I wonder if the owner knew or cared that every day we diminished the potential harvest.
     One of the walkers was Lenore Gessner. She lived a few blocks from the school (on the corner of Traill and Mt.  Auburn I think), and she is the reason that I'm posting these memories today.  close to the school
     I remember her as vivacious, dark-haired and amazingly pretty with a glorious smile. I probably had a bit of a crush on her, every time we were paired in some activity, I quietly rejoiced. (High fives were unknown at the time. 
     One day, I was invited to lunch at her house. The story I told myself for many years was that I'd let her copy my answers on a quiz, but it was far more likely that I helped her with a single answer or on a project. Nevertheless, I duly turned up for lunch only to be taken aback by the magnificence of her home. Dear God! There was a grand piano in the living room and there was so much glass. 
     To make matters even more complex it was a sit down lunch in the dining room. My family lived in an apartment and we didn't even have a dining room. Then came the ultimate shock. There was something weird on my plate, something that I'd never seen before. My father had already nearly killed me with octopus soup so I was suspicious of anything strange at the time. Lenore and her mother recognized my cluelessness and kindly taught me how to deal with the scary artichoke.
     I have heard several reasons why my parents took me out of Shady Hill. One story is that the school psychologist's interest in my particular learning quirks irritated them, but it's more likely that I was breaking their budget. I ended up in the Cambridge public school system and immediately began my new career as an underachiever. 
     A few decades ago I started getting mail from Shady Hill. It seems that they somehow felt that I was an alumnus. At the time, I assumed that either they were either mixed up or desperate for contributions. But then the stalking started. Every year I'd start getting letters and notes and emails from someone who wanted me to send details of my life to her so that she could publish them.
     I tried to tell Lenore that I wasn't really an alumnus, but she refused to let me go. Being a shy and retiring sort, I resisted (I'm a Marxist by nature, never joining clubs that would accept me as a member) but she never gave up. 
     Now it's too late. Yesterday I went to her funeral service. I know that other people from my class were there, but it had been so long and I had insulated myself so well that there was no way to achieve mutual recognition. 
     It was a beautiful day at Mt. Auburn Cemetery; bright sunshine, some trees budding, others in full bloom. I sat near the fountain for a while before going into the chapel. My pad, a spiral notebook and some history books were in my backpack so that I could use my time on the train efficiently, but I left them untouched.
     I went in, amazed to see how many people were there. That wonder only lasted until the eulogies when I realized the chance that I'd squandered by clinging to my outsider status. 
     The bus ride back to Harvard Square took me past Traill Street, past Longfellow Park, past the Red & White where Mrs. Sahagian took advantage of my craving for salted fish, past our old apartment on Hilliard Street then into the "warm dark inside cupboards" of the T. After nearly three hours of bus, subway, train and foot, I walked up the driveway of my hermitage, poured myself a glass of wine and wondered, as I had for the entire trip, why I'm such an idiot.
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