Gardening Time

Hope High School was unusual in that many of its students began their academic careers, so to speak, in failure. Providence, RI eighth graders were given a standardized test, and if you scored well enough you were allowed to attend Classical High School; if not, you went to one of the city’s other three public high schools, of which Hope was one.

I managed to pass this test but chose Hope because of its newly instituted arts program. I’m sure some of Hope’s students attended because it was convenient, but my wife-to-be, who lived just a couple blocks from the Hope’s front door, explained that she never considered attending because “the windows were broken and the kids looked depressed.”

It’s true; this garden was not thriving. But I was happy there. The place was blissfully free of perfectionists. I was a perfectionist, you see, and the last thing I needed were more perfectionists with whom to compete in my suicidal sprint toward the unattainable. What’s more, there was something valuable about a group of people who had largely not yet recognized their own potential. Such a group summoned from me an empathy I had to that point mostly ignored.

Enter Tony Caprio, our principal my sophomore and junior years. Tony gathered the students in the auditorium and stood before us in his mediocre suit gripping a microphone and barking down at us that we needed, “Pride and dignity!” He was so tough. I felt that he had been asked as a young man to choose between high school principal and mob boss. “Pride and dignity!” he repeated. “From now on you have pride and dignity.”

Who could argue with the man? And for a time, something subtle began to shift at Hope. Tony’s stubborn, streetwise insistence that we weren’t a pack of losers began to rub off. Why, this notion of Hope as a broken, hopeless place was just a thought. It wasn’t reality. Why not replace this old thought with a new thought, with Tony’s thought?

Then Tony set his summer home on fire for the insurance money and was sent to prison. In another story, this might have undone all that he had won, but not in the story of Bill. It seemed clear to me that all he needed to see the garden flourish was more time. That he did not take that time was his choice. It did not need to be mine.

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Lucky Fumble

Larry Craighead was my high school’s nose guard and offensive left tackle. He was a fierce competitor and the largest boy in the school, clocking in somewhere close to 250 pounds. As is often the case with young men his size, he had a preternatural gentleness to match his girth, having learned, I would guess, that he had little to fear (physically anyway) from other boys. Given this, his options were bully or gentle protector, and he chose the latter.

It was the middle of the season my senior year and we had just lost a close one. Steven Santos, our starting running back, had had a bad game. He’d fumbled and generally underperformed. We filed into our locker room and Steven sat on the bench in front of his locker with his helmet in his hands, penitent and miserable before us.

Larry arrived last and saw his friend there, still not moving to unlace his cleats or remove his shoulder pads. Putting a hand on each of Steven’s shoulders, Larry said, “Don’t worry, Steven. You’ll go and get yourself some pussy tonight. You go get yourself some pussy.”

I did not care for that word when I was 17, and I care for it even less now. But in that moment I did not mind it, because Larry wasn’t talking about pussy. I felt in Larry the father I am quite sure he would become, a man who would have a view of life beyond touchdowns and fumbles and loss. I turned back to my locker wondering if maybe Larry and Steven were lucky just then for Steven’s fumble.

At graduation, there was a mass of robes and hats and Sunday dresses and neckties milling around the street outside the auditorium. It was a great, big, extended so long. I looked up from my latest handshake to see Larry coming my way. “Billy,” he called. “Come here.” The next I knew Larry Craighead had me in his bearish embrace. That was my last memory of high school.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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The Tyranny of Mediocrity

Mrs. Casey, my senior year English teacher, always worried me. She was a graduate of Brown University and was teaching at a poor urban school, the vast majority of whose students would not attend college, let alone an Ivy League school. She dressed primly with her collar always buttoned to her neck, and referred to her husband as her “darling Arthur.” She probably should have been a New York editor, but there she was teaching Return of the Native to the bored boys and girls of Hope Street High School.

I worried for her for because even though she was physically a sturdy woman, I sensed she lived on the edge of a mental collapse. She would from time to time use the classroom as a forum for her grievances with The World. First, modern America was suffering from a “tyranny of mediocrity.” This was her own phrase, and I must have heard her use it a dozen times that year. Second, she felt the word “tragedy” was used far too loosely. Hamlet, she said, was a tragedy; Oedipus was a tragedy. A 100-point dip in the stock market was not a tragedy. I had to agree, but I also had to wonder, “So what?”

Still, the times I worried most for Mrs. Casey was when she would talk about her “darling Arthur.” She was just so genteel, Mrs. Casey, in her plaid skirts and her sprayed hair. I appreciated her gentility – her propriety and her vocabulary – but it was all so quixotically out of place, and it seemed that the strain to maintain it was going to break her.

The last time I saw Mrs. Casey was two years after I had graduated. Hope’s football team was going to be playing for the Class B State Championships, and my father suggested we go watch. There she was, in the same skirts, the same sprayed hair, standing on the sidelines with three young students who were videotaping the event for her Communications Class. I came down out of the bleachers and said hello.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

She shook her head and winced. “The same, Bill.  It’s a tyranny of mediocrity.”

This is what she said to me – while behind her the boys of Hope High were busy becoming State Champions.

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The Unknown Weakling

As I read about Osama Bin Laden’s violent end, I found myself thinking about all the revenge stories I’ve read and watched in my life. In forty-six years I have never once experienced the relief and satisfaction these stories would have me believe revenge is supposed to provide, though I supposed I did come close once.

It was high school. My friends and I sat at one lunch table, and a group of boys from Federal Hill sat at a table behind us. Federal Hill was the home of the New England Mafia, and these boys were all working class Italians who, in the early 1980’s, suspected that anyone wearing an earring was “a fag.” I didn’t wear an earring, but some of my friends, who were all actors and writers and musicians, did.

There were taunts and a few empty milk cartons thrown our way and once a group of the Federal Hill boys pushed my friend Adam up against a locker and threatened him – but that was it. Still, there was a sense among my friends and I that we had lost. If we had been tougher, if we had been manlier, we would have stood up to them, would have put an end to the taunting by force or sheer will; instead it petered out, and left behind a feeling that the boys had been right all along, for who else but a weakling would have quietly accepted this kind of abuse?

The boys’ leader was Pope. Pope was one of the few boys in my high school that clearly worked out. He always wore tight shirts that showed off his pectorals and biceps. The taunting happened at the end of my junior year, but at the beginning of my senior year I joined the football team – as did Pope. In fact, my first day at practice he chose the locker beside me and fixed me with a look that seemed to say, “This isn’t over.”

I should say that I was generally left alone by these boys because I was an athlete. I was skinny, but I was tall and I was fast. Yet there I was at the table with these actors wearing earrings. I remained under suspicion, and not long after that encounter in the locker room, Pope had a chance to test his suspicions.

It was the tackling drill. We formed two lines facing one another five yards apart. In one line were the runners; in the other line the tacklers. A whistle would blow and the boy at the front of the runners’ line would launch himself at the boy at the front of the tacklers’ line. The goal of the drill was to help the boys get used to hitting and being hit. It was the most violence usually allowed during practice.

Because we did this one at-a-time you could know whom you were going to face by counting where you stood in line. This is just what Pope did. I saw him counting heads in the runner’s line, and then positioning himself in the tackler’s line, ducking out now and again to be sure I didn’t change position. I did not change position. It was going to happen eventually, it might as well happen now.

Our turn came. He actually began to make sounds like a bull preparing to charge. It was frightening in one way, but at the same time he reminded me of someone girding himself to face some long held fear. I reminded myself that my legs were strong and that this was the football field and not the lunchroom.  When the coach blew the whistle, I lowered my head and ran straight for Pope. I closed my eyes and our pads and helmets made a great cracking sound, but I kept my legs moving and driving forward. When I opened my eyes again I was still standing and Pope was dragging along behind me clutching my ankle. The coach blew the whistle and it was over.

In a movie, this might be where the villain ups the ante. “You beat me this time, Kenower, but next time you won’t be so lucky.” In a movie, he might be waiting in a parking lot for me, without whistles or helmets or coaches.

But this is not what happened. Pope never gave me so much as another glare. In fact, a few days later I was allowed, along with a few other boys, to listen to a tale of his recent romantic conquest. I was in the club. I could see he was glad, relieved even to have me in this club. The club must have been formed somewhere on Federal Hill, where boys were taught what manhood was and what it absolutely was not. My only crime, it turns out, had been being unknown, a crime I had apparently cleared myself of by running him over. It’s probably luckier for Pope that he didn’t tackle me that day. That was one less weakling in the world the poor guy had to worry about.

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The Herd

Writers sometimes make reluctant capitalists, but whether we wish to discuss it or not, we are responsible for creating a product that we must in turn sell to the general public. The knock on capitalism, generally speaking, is its cold heartedness, a necessarily unfeeling engine of commerce whose deity, The Market, rights all wrongs through a Darwinian winnowing of the entrepreneurial herd. We writers, meanwhile, usually like to view ourselves as caring, empathetic people. Empathy is more or less in the fiction writer’s job description; how else to render believably all those people who aren’t us?

But there is something beautifully democratic about capitalism that every business owner, including writers, at some point understands. We all have our own crowd. We all have the people we eat and drink with, the people we seek out at parties. Society, in some ways, remains an extension of the high school cafeteria, with everyone gravitating to their respective tables. It’s not always inspiring, but it’s practical; easier to talk to people you like than to those you don’t.

But then you become a writer, and someone from another lunch table does something unexpected: they buy your book. In fact, you might look up to realize that only people from other lunch tables are buying your book. Now these people aren’t so bad after all. And not merely because they’re putting quarters in your pocket. When you meet your readers you discover for whom, beside yourself, you were actually writing.

Though I was the sort who bounced between different lunch tables, I have my preferences. While it is gratifying in a way to learn that someone I know and perhaps admire likes my work, there is something singularly uplifting about a stranger finding comfort in it. On the savannah, herd animals seek safety in numbers. Writers must go it alone to do our work, and our safety, in the end, depends on our willingness to accept all comers, to welcome round us anyone whose questions match our own. You see life then for what it is: a collection of curiosity, whose form must yield by and by to the answers received.

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The Living

Midway through my senior year in high school, our principal dropped dead of a heart attack. I was the co-editor of the yearbook, and it was decided we would dedicate our edition to him, even though Mr. McCarthy, our principal, had been a strangely out of place man, a mild-mannered, tweed-jacket wearing WASP overseeing a largely black and Hispanic student body, who drifted quietly through the halls not bothering us as long as we didn’t bother him. Still, our previous principal had been imprisoned for insurance fraud, so a step in the right direction. Until he died.

It was also decided that I should present his widow with a special copy of the yearbook at our graduation, and that I should say something in honor of this somber occasion. I wrote words to the effect of, “So many of the names of the faces in the yearbook would be forgotten over time, but no one would ever forget Mr. McCarthy.” I don’t know if this would have been true if he hadn’t died, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

And so it was that I found myself standing on stage behind a podium before the entire graduating class and all their available relatives, when not three words into my little speech my graduation cap slipped from my head and fell to the stage. Apparently I said, “Oops,” quite loudly into the microphone, which inspired a big, relieved laugh from the auditorium. From the darkened seats beneath me I heard one of my track teammates call out, “That’s all right, Bill!”

And it was. The whole thing went quite smoothly after that, and when I was done I ceremoniously handed the engraved copy to Mrs. McCarthy, a small shy woman who seemed sort of dazed, as if she were still learning what life was like without Mr. McCarthy to go home to. She appeared quite touched by our gesture, which depressed me a little—but what could be done? None of us had wished him dead, and we were all trying to make the best of it, and now it was time to graduate and begin the rest of our young lives.

I think everyone was grateful that cap fell off my head when it did, even Mrs. McCarthy. Before that moment, the ceremony was in danger of becoming a dry reflection of our own stiff and uncertain relationship with death. But then life popped through, and everyone breathed, and we were allowed to enjoy ourselves again, because life still belonged to the living.

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Nothing Achieved

I had to admit recently that I am an Achiever. You put a task in front of me, and if I am being graded on it in any way then you can bet I will do it well enough to receive a high grade. Oh, the shame of low grades. Obviously, this works well in, say, high school. In life after high school, it becomes a little problematic.

Compare this to my wife. She is not an achiever. Which is to say, she struggles with things she isn’t actually interested in. This makes life in, say, high school – where you are given lots of tasks you aren’t actually interested in – a little problematic. After high school, however, it can be quite a strength. The anti-achiever, if they don’t develop the idea that they are somehow deficient because they aren’t equally good at history, chemistry, and volleyball, is less likely to funnel energy into something that brings them no pleasure.

Which is exactly the problem with Achievers like me. I spent years thinking, “I could do that.” I would see some opportunity, something someone else was doing that looked interesting or profitable, and I would think, “I could do that.” And I could. Given enough time, I could teach myself how to get good enough at almost anything. But so what? No matter how well I teach myself to do something, if the doing alone brings me no pleasure it is only a matter of time before I will stop doing it and have to find something else to do.

Perhaps this is why I spend so much time in this space writing about pursuing only what we love. To return to high school, I learned then that I could always get somewhere between a B and an A on any assignment in any class. However, if the assignment was something I was personally interested in, if it was something I would have done without being assigned – like, for instance, writing a story – the grade was irrelevant. I would get an A not because I was brilliant, but because I would bring a level of interest and imagination to the assignment that was otherwise impossible.

This should have been my clue. In school, the assignments are short enough that if you are driven as I was not to fail, then it is possible to harness your attention long enough to do that thing reasonably well. But life’s assignment is never-ending, and achievements in this sense are meaningless. They are fixed points on the road. You need only stand still and behold their emptiness for a moment to understand that in so doing you have achieved nothing but to delay the true pleasure that is following your path.

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The Foreigner

My oldest son is starting high school today. Occasionally, a movie crops up about a character transported back to high school where he or she lives as a teenager but with the life experience of an adult. I understand the temptation of this fantasy, but it is actually a very strange thing to wish for. You would be unbelievably bored if this every actually happened to you because you have already learned everything high school had to teach you.

Life is never so interesting as when we are learning something. Writers above all should understand this. What is the blank page after all? It doesn’t matter how many stories you’ve already written, it doesn’t matter how much you outline, or how many classes you’ve taken, or books on writing you’ve read, the blank page is the start of a new journey into a foreign country.

It is tempting as a traveler to view the unknown country as unfriendly. To hear writers talk about their works in progress sometimes is like listening to a soldier radio from behind enemy lines. Whose idea was it to send them here, and how will they ever get out? The way out, of course, is always the same as the way in, namely your own curiosity.

You will stay in that foreign country until you have discovered all you wish to discover. You are never lost; you are only trying to understand the way out before you have found it, and this is confusing. All roads do in fact lead to Rome. You may not be able to see Rome, but it is always there. If you are feeling lost, return to where you are at this very moment. This is where all the clues exist.  You need only pick the path that interests you most and it will inevitably lead where you need to go.

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