Archives for category: Introversion

DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?

Sportscaster Al Michaels posed that question when the US ice hockey team defeated the vaunted Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. On their way to the gold medal, a mixture of US college and minor league players came together to shock the sports world and provide an explosion of patriotic fervor during a low period of Cold War relations. The now ubiquitous chant “USA! USA!” was hatched during the course of that contest.
The game, which inspired a movie and propelled the head coach and several players to successful professional careers, brought ice hockey to the forefront of American sports consciousness for weeks; perhaps, as many as ten percent of the nation was excited.
By fortunate coincidence, I’m in Costa Rica this week and have watched the national soccer team advance to the quarterfinals of the World Cup by remaining undefeated against the traditional juggernauts from Uruguay, Italy, England and Greece. Whether or not this performance qualifies as miraculous (some proud Costa Ricans claim it is not even surprising), the reaction of the country’s population is beyond comprehension for an American.
Yes, if UNC wins a national championship in basketball, several thousand people congregate, celebrate, and even make a bonfire. If a professional sports team wins a championship, their home city reliably hosts a “parade,” attended by thousands. Tee shirts and caps are sold to commemorate the event, but there isn’t a national swelling of pride. For instance, when the Yankees win a championship, their accomplishment is greeted by indifference by a vast majority of the nation and is more resented than cheered by the fans of the other twenty-nine teams.
Boy, is it different here! Following the win over Greece, spontaneous celebrations exploded across Costa Rica; people cruised hanging out of windows and perched on top of cars on city streets and highways with flags flying and horns blaring. People cried from joy, and President Solis spontaneously strolled from his home in the capital to personally lead the celebration. A poll before the tournament revealed fifty percent of the inhabitants of Costa Rica believed the performance of their national soccer team to be important or very important. This week, the number is over eighty percent. Since the win over Greece, people are uniformly dressed in team colors smile, and nod to strangers, and everyone understands.
In a world where news is filled with terrorism, drought, war and poverty, where politics has become toxic and culture increasingly profane, it is delightful to bask in a contagious haze of happiness. I recall having previously basked in several weeks of personal “do you believe in miracles” wonderment that also concerned soccer. But the story began several years earlier.

When our daughter, Kelly, started ninth grade at Ramsey High School, we encouraged her to try out for the girls’ soccer program. Her performance on the field prior to high school was best described as “energetic.” Soccer offered her an outlet for a variety of positive personality traits, including: fearlessness, persistence and positivity. But we’d rarely detected several other attributes of successful soccer players, namely: nuance, control and skill. If someone asked: “What position does she play?” there was no one-word answer. Kelly was “all over the place.”
Accordingly, we anticipated Kelly would be assigned to the freshman team. Perhaps, if the junior varsity was short players one day, she might assist. We were stunned when she burst through the door, and declared: “I made varsity!”
“You made what?” I asked.
“Varsity,” she said.
“That’s amazing,” I said. But I have to admit my thoughts were, in no particular order: “Is Ramsey really weak this year?” “Did a whole raft of freshmen make the team, since several of Kelly’s classmates had always outshone her in youth soccer?” and: “Will she be sitting on the end of the bench and, perhaps, be better off on the junior varsity?”
“I’m the only freshman,” she added.
“Julia and Joanie didn’t make it?” I said, incredulous, thinking of two highly skilled freshmen who thought highly of themselves, as did their parents.
“No,” said Kelly. “They were kind of upset. They were crying. They wouldn’t even talk to me after practice.”
“Oh, boy,” I thought, feeling a combination of dread about how several angry fifteen-year-old girls were going to treat Kelly moving forward, along with a guilty thrill of satisfaction and triumph.
“Are you worried about that?” I asked.
“No,” said Kelly, shrugging.
Fearlessness can be helpful in life as well as in soccer.

I knew George Wright, the only coach the Ramsey Girls’ varsity had ever had, since he was also a real estate lawyer. I called him the next day to find out what he was thinking. I hoped Kelly hadn’t misunderstood. Her triumph was so unexpected.
“George,” I said. “I’m thrilled, of course, and I promise I’m not one of those parents who’ll question your choices in the future, but do you see something I’ve missed?”
“Yes,” he said. “Kelly has an energy level we need that has nothing to do with ball skills or positioning. She’s going to be our designated ‘marker.’”
I’d played soccer, and was familiar with the term for playing tight defense, but I’d never seen Kelly focus on marking. I was concerned.
George continued: “In tryouts this week, in a good way, Kelly was disruptive and annoying to the other girls on the field.”
I was skeptical. “You think Kelly will be a critical part of your defense?”
George laughed. “Many of the teams we play have a dominant player in the middle of the field who makes the offense run. Kelly can mess that up. I think she’s inexperienced and oblivious enough to not be intimidated by All-County players.”
George explained: “My plan is this: Kelly’s going to go wherever they go. If they go up, she’ll go up. If they go back, she’ll go back. If they go to the bench for water, she’ll stand and wait for them to come back on the field. Her job is to be within one step of whichever girl I tell her to mark, to make her miserable.”
I was relieved to know George had a specific plan.
“But you have a job, too,” he added.
“Hunh?” I said.
“In the event Kelly needs to kick the ball, it would be nice if her skills were a little better. Can you work with her?”
“Sure,” I said readily; however, I was actually apprehensive. Though we kicked the ball around occasionally, Kelly was hard to pin down for consistent practice.

I’m certain we celebrated Kelly’s elevation to varsity suitably. But what I really remember was the rush of pride I felt. I’m Kelly’s stepfather, and we are temperamentally opposites. In brief, she is an extrovert and I am an introvert, with all the huge differences that implies. Accordingly, while we “got along” at home, we lacked a full range of common interests, and reacted to situations differently. Finally, here was a connection we could share.
During Kelly’s first two years of high school soccer, I never missed a minute of her games. At home, we practiced together once or twice a week, and I drove her to club soccer games. I enjoyed our one-on-one time together more than ever before. On the field, she fulfilled George’s expectations perfectly. She was so good, in fact, at frustrating the opposition’s best player, that one was expelled by the referee for swinging an elbow at Kelly’s head, and declaring: “I’m gonna pull your f…ing braces out!”
A defensive specialist, Kelly scored only one goal each year and the team was mediocre, but Kelly always played as hard as she could; I certainly wouldn’t have expected more. With her seventeenth birthday looming midway through the junior year, Kelly had other things on her mind besides soccer, including: social life, driving, social life, saving baby-sitting money for a used car, and social life.
In a fit of playful encouragement, I said to her one summer day: “If you score twenty goals this coming season, I’ll buy you a BRAND NEW car.”
Kelly’s eyes lit up. “Really?”
Absolutely,” I said.
“Twenty goals,” she repeated. “We play twenty games, so one goal a game.”
“Or two goals every other game,” I said, laughing.
Kelly ran out of the room shouting: “Mom! Mom! Guess what?!”

“You promised her a new car?” asked my wife, Katie, incredulously, while we waited for Kelly to come to the dinner table.
“Only if she scores twenty goals,” I said. “She’s scored one a year, so far, so it’s not exactly realistic.”
“You’re bribing her, with the promise of spoiling her,” she said. “Do you think that’s good parenting?”
“I prefer to call it ‘incentivizing,’” I said. “Anyway, if she were somehow to score twenty goals, she’d get a soccer scholarship to college and I’d make money on the deal. It’d be a win-win. But, you know, twenty goals is impossible.”
Kelly arrived at the table. “We’re gonna practice in the basement every night.”
“We?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “You’ll serve me the balls and supervise. What do you think of the Honda Civic?”

Initially, I was skeptical. For several weeks, however, Kelly practiced without fail and made me a believer. We devised a routine where she preceded me to the basement to work alone for fifteen minutes on dribbling skills, then I came down to toss balls to her: left foot, right foot, left thigh, right thigh, chest, head, EVERYWHERE. In the final five minutes each evening, I would revive goaltending skills not used for twenty years, and catch shot after shot. Kelly’s improvement was so remarkable that she quickly outstripped my knowledge of technique, and we arranged additional private lessons with Minor del Rio, a former professional player, coincidentally, from Costa Rica.
Once the season began, Kelly emerged as the junior star on a senior-dominated team. Her style wasn’t subtle; she careened around the field like a bowling ball going through pins. I modified her incentive so three assists would count as a goal, too, since it would be bad if she shot when a pass would be preferable. Thus, fifteen goals and fifteen assists would also earn the car.
When the season reached its climax at the 2000 New Jersey State Championship game against Delran, Kelly was already choosing upholstery. The Honda was hers, with eighteen goals and twelve assists. For the final game only, George put her back in her old role as the marker of Delran’s star, Carli Lloyd. Not only was Carli All-County and All-State, she was All-AMERICAN, on her way to becoming the center-midfielder for the US Womens’ World Cup team. Kelly delivered several strong shoulders (and, perhaps, a bit of an elbow) during the first five minutes of the game, and Carli was never a factor. Ramsey won, 2-1.
A reader would be forgiven for thinking this was the end of the story. The girl got her car, the team won the championship, and the father was delighted. But more was to come. On the strength of her stellar junior season, Kelly was invited to play on an elite club team for the winter and spring instead of the local team on which she’d previously played. Compared to the smooth and silky players the coach was used to, with their multiple college scholarship offers, Kelly was still “a diamond in the rough.”
As usual, Kelly wasn’t intimidated. She pin-balled her way into a starting position and was unapologetic that no one mistook her style for ballet. She insisted we continue our practice routine, IN ADDITION to all her other practices, and assured me I was still helpful, even while I was certain she was beyond me.
Kelly’s senior season started sluggishly; she failed to score in the first eight games and the entire team seemed to be suffering post-Championship apathy. Still, she revived at mid-season and produced fifteen goals in the final seven regular season games, all wins. When the playoffs began, Kelly was in her element as the senior leader, the center-mid-fielder, and the captain. She scored one goal in the first round victory, all three goals in the second round, the game winner in overtime of the semi-finals, and we traveled down to Trenton again for the State Championship game against Freehold.
This time, it was Kelly whose reputation and press-clippings preceded her. The opponents kept her bottled up for most of the game, and what I recall, primarily, is that it was freezing cold. When the clock wound down with the score 0-0 and Freehold controlling play, no one on our side of the field would have been upset with a co-championship. Unable to stand the continuing cold and stress, Katie decamped for the restroom with about five minutes left in overtime.
When Katie emerged to meet us in the parking lot, she glanced up just in time to see Kelly burst through three Freehold defenders to deliver a thunderous finish that nearly broke the net. The sudden-death goal provided a second consecutive State Championship for Ramsey, made a local hero of Kelly, and allowed all of us to stumble through the next several weeks with a sense of “do you believe in miracles?” Accolades along the lines of “All-County” and “All-State” poured in and upgraded Kelly’s choice from a so-so college with a Division-3 soccer program to an excellent university with a Division-1 soccer team and scholarship money.
As the Bergen Record newspaper noted in a feature on Kelly the following week, I had once written a novel-length manuscript about a young soccer player that was a fictional composite of my three children. In the story, the protagonist takes a final shot at goal in the final minute of her final game and hits the goalpost. I explained to the reporter I didn’t think anyone would have found the story believable if the ball had gone in. Apparently, real life is stranger than fiction.
All in all, for a few weeks, our family lived in its own private Costa Rica, where we nodded and smiled to each other and didn’t need words to express our happiness. As for Kelly and me, it was bittersweet when she left for college. After several improbable years of soccer, I’d lost my practice partner. But at the same time, my stepdaughter had become my daughter.

Advertisements

IN VIRGIN TERRITORY

 

I admit I was a bit of a slow starter.  I headed to law school in 1978 at the age of twenty-one with as much experience with the opposite sex as a typical thirteen-year-old.  Nowadays, the level of knowledge I had at that time might match that of an eleven-year-old.  While I could try to blame this situation on a variety of circumstances and other people, it was largely of my own making, owing to a mix of traits, interests and hang-ups that I did not understand at the time.  Still, an opportunity of sorts managed to arise.

Following college graduation, I found myself at home for one last summer.  My parents would have supported me, regardless, but I reluctantly agreed it was necessary to engage in some sort of employment, even though previous summers of misery had included alphabetizing in a library, typing for the U.S. Corps of Engineers (the “Corpse”) and umpiring adult softball (early lessons in the misery of humanity).  These experiences were so tedious and unpleasant that my expectations for meaningful and useful work were nil.  When a friend advised of an opening for an assistant to the manager at a nearby dinner theatre, I thought to myself:  “That might not be too bad; I can learn something about business and see some shows while I’m at it.”

After several phone calls, I scheduled an interview with a man named Robert, whose family owned the Suburban Dinner Theatre and a variety of businesses throughout the Philadelphia area.    Dressed as I was, in a blue blazer and tie over grey slacks, I was surprised to note that he was only a year or two older than I, and accessorized his all-jeans outfit with an earring and ponytail.  On his feet were clogs.  It was quite an ensemble.  We took the measure of each other, as follows:

“I manage this place and I can use you two or three days a week,” he said.  He spread out his arms expansively, indicating the theatre, the buffet and dining rooms, the offices and the vast lobby.  The décor was faux Roman, with hollow plaster gladiators glowering from every corner.

“Okay,” I replied, relieved not to work full-time.

“I don’t know what you’ll be doing, but my friggin’ brother at the theatre downtown has an assistant, so I’m gonna have one, too,” said Robert.

“Okay,” I said, feeling a bit more commoditized than I’d expected.

“I don’t understand why dad gives him the big theatre and I’m stuck out here,” he said, apparently talking to himself. “Can you drive?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Come in tomorrow at ten and I’ll figure out something.  I’ll pay you six dollars an hour and, ah, lose the jacket and tie.”

“Will I have anything to do with the shows?” I asked, hopeful.

“Nah,” he replied.  “This’ll just be daytime crap.”

Thus began my entry to the business world and to the concept of “make-work.”  I’d already learned from my summer of government employment that it is important to “look busy” while trudging through a pile of letters.  And I’d learned from the library that a low-intensity job sometimes affords the opportunity to read a magazine “on the clock,” while seeming to be involved in filing.  But the idea of completely making up things to do was new.   To his credit, Robert was initially resourceful at finding tasks for completion where none were readily apparent.

During the first morning on the job, I drove a van to three far-flung hardware stores in search of the components necessary to install a chain in front of a side entrance to prevent illegal parking.  One store had the proper gauge of chain, another the hue of silver paint that Robert deemed most visible,  another the piece of metal on which I would write “No Entry” and the type of marker that could write permanently upon a piece of painted metal.

The afternoon project involved vacuuming ceiling vents in the dining room deemed too difficult to access by the janitorial staff.  Only in retrospect did I realize how dangerous it was for me, inexperienced and unprotected by any safety measures whatsoever, to be reaching to the ceiling with a dust-buster from the top of a rickety ladder.

“Here’s a good project for you,” Robert announced on my second day.  “We need some additional feathers for the Showboat production.  See where you can find six ostrich feathers, four eagle feathers and eight striped feathers.  I don’t care what kind of bird.”

I looked at him and determined he was serious.

“You can use that phone,” he said, pointing across his office to an empty desk, and handing me a thick book called “The Yellow Pages.”  It may be difficult for a youthful current-day reader to believe, but “The Yellow Pages” and a telephone were the go-to research tools in the late 1970’s.

While I pored over “theatrical costumes” and “decorator’s accessories” sections, Robert resumed his phone conversation:

“Yeah, I’m sorta working this afternoon…. Haha, I have an assistant now, what a riot….  Okay, baby, I’ll pick you up later.  Love ya.”  Turning his attention back to me, Robert said:

“Man, my lady-friends are driving me crazy.  I have to juggle several; it’s stressful.  I have to go get a massage to relax.   Anyway, after you get the feathers, leave ‘em in my office and call it a day.  See ya.”

I located the requisite feathers after an hour of calling.  Before I left his office, I noticed that Robert’s desk was filled with photographs of himself with a variety of attractive women.   Driving the van downtown to gather the feathers, I pondered unhappily how cavalierly virtuosic Robert was with the vagaries of social life while I, confident of superior intellect and eventual professional prospects, was essentially learning disabled.   It was as though he were winning a race while I was still at the starting line.

Robert greeted me the next workday with a broad smile.  I should have been suspicious.  “I’m running out of important projects for daytime work, but I’ve found you a position in show biz,” he said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said, “it’s an evening position, during the show.  You can do what my dad had me do as my first job outta college.  You’ll be the liquor checker.”

I doubtless looked perplexed while he continued:  “We have a service bar that makes the drinks for the audience.  We suspect the bartender and some of the girls are rippin’ us off by providing some drinks on the side.  So you just gotta match up the drinks on their tray with the drinks listed on the check.  If the table buys six drinks, make sure there ain’t eight going out.  And if the bill says it’s a standard cocktail, make sure the glass isn’t filled with ‘top shelf.’”

“How do you tell the difference?” I asked.

“’Top shelf’ is the good stuff.  Customers gotta pay extra for it.”

“Doesn’t it look the same in the glass?” I asked.

“That doesn’t matter.  You just have to act like you know the difference,” he said, delivering to me an important real-life lesson.  So many times in my eventual career as a lawyer, it was at least as necessary to project knowledge, as it was to actually have knowledge.

Robert walked with me to the liquor bar located adjacent to the buffet.  He explained the routine: patrons arrived before the show for a buffet dinner.  During dinner and intermission, they could obtain soft drinks for no additional charge, but alcoholic drinks were ordered from the waitresses who circulated through the dining room during the show.  On a good night, there were two to three hundred patrons spread around twenty to thirty tables of ten.  The staff consisted of eight-twelve women, depending on the anticipated size of the crowd, and one or two bartenders.

There were three double-edged “perks” of employment in the service bar.  Foremost on employees’ minds were that, after intermission, we were effectively “done” for the evening and were free to attack the buffet.  Unfortunately, the menu never changed, so one gorged on the same rolls, chicken cordon bleu, rice pilaf and salad every night, topped off with Sarah Lee cheesecake.

The second “perk” was that one could hear the music from the show.  However, since the show for the entire summer was Showboat, one’s enthusiasm quickly flagged on a nightly diet of “Captain Andy, Captain Andy, he makes the world seem like a bowl of candy.”

The third perk, for me, at least, was the concentrated opportunity to study female anatomy.  The set-up of the service bar was that the waitresses entered through a swinging door at the far end of the room, obtained their drinks from the bartender there, presented payment to a cashier in the middle of the room, and passed out a swinging door directly in front of me after I perused the contents of their trays.

Like an adolescent boy, my evaluation of female beauty had been based almost entirely on faces up to that point, with only an emerging interest in parts below.  This job, however, promoted appreciation not only of the front, but also legs and rears.  The staff did not have a fixed uniform, just a black and white color scheme.  Most of the women found it profitable, tip-wise, and perhaps, more comfortable in the bustle of work, to wear the shortest of shorts and the skimpiest of tee-shirts.  All of the women were in their early twenties except for one middle-aged woman named Trudy, who was trim, but chose to wear slacks.

The drawbacks of the job were also clear.  First, most of my co-workers smoked.  And the nightly race to sell drinks and earn tips, with contests and bonuses among them, created a casino-type atmosphere of tension that encouraged their habit.  Not only did they light up constantly, but they left their butts smoldering in ash trays while they circulated through the dining room.   The resulting stench in the service bar was akin to Dante’s most hellish levels.  Second, and impossible to overcome, was that my position was to act as management’s spy.   The honest waitresses hated my snooping and the dishonest simply hated me.

The middle-aged bartenders, both of whom looked indistinguishable from Tony Orlando, complete with smarmy moustaches, regarded me with supreme disinterest.

“So kid,” one said shortly after I began there, “you think you’re gonna get laid this summer?”

“Um, I hadn’t really planned one way or the other,” I said, trying to convey that I had a choice in the matter.

“It’s like shootin’ ducks in a barrel,” he said.  “For me, at least.”

Luckily, the summer passed quickly.   My mind was preoccupied with starting law school and the job did not require deep concentration.   Either there was less corruption than Robert thought, or I was really bad at uncovering it, but I never had to “rat out” one of the girls.  Gradually, a rapport developed with several so that conversations were, at least, civil.  While some never spoke to me beyond what was necessary, most accepted that I was “simply doing my job,” and had not chosen to treat them like criminals for fun.  I recognized most of them were headed towards lives of lower-middle-class struggle while I was in a position to achieve upper-middle-class comfort, and I made certain never to gloat.

Even among the waitresses who spoke to me without an edge, there was absolutely no flirtation.  Though they were more aware than anyone that my eyes would doubtless be following their movement, particularly after the drinks were counted, when they passed out the door in front of me, they rarely established eye contact.  Their manner of speech, laced with profanity and “dems” and “dozes,” combined with tawdry hairdos and tattoos, (before tattoos somehow became fashionable) indicated a huge gulf in our respective backgrounds.  One or two attended community college or beauty school, but they flaunted their bodies as their main assets.

It was as though these women/girls were saying:  “We know you have an education and will have a nice car and a nice house and probably there’s a prissy little school teacher out there for you somewhere, but what you can’t have is this – our bodies are great and you’ll never touch anything as good.”  At the time, I would have completely agreed with that assessment.  In fact, I would have been relieved to know the little teacher was out there somewhere for me.

Every Saturday night, after the show, the staff went to a local bar for drinks.  I was never invited to join them and, for that, I was relieved.   I had no interest in socializing with them, breathing more of their smoke, and staying out past midnight discussing soap opera plots or their real-life awful boyfriends.  But in honor of my last night of employment, one of the girls graciously said: “for a company dick, you ain’t so bad,” and invited me to join them after work.  “We’ll treat,” she said.

We went to the Muddy Duck, a hole-in-the-wall bar near the St. Joseph’s College campus.  At first, the evening proceeded as I’d expected.  I nursed a beer as slowly as possible while my surrounding co-workers drank themselves silly.  Any landscaper or gas station attendant who walked in thought I was the luckiest man alive.  We all sat at a large, oval table.  I was next to Trudy, who alternately talked about living with her cancer-stricken mother, chain-smoked, and consumed pints.  Compared to all the twenty-two-year-olds in hot pants, Trudy had never caught my attention.  When a man is twenty-one, women over forty who are not relatives, rarely enter consciousness.

So it was particularly surprising when I turned towards Trudy at one point and found her open mouth bearing down upon mine.  I sensed an uproar of laughter and cheers around me as Trudy landed upon me on the bench and surrounded me with a noxious cocktail of cheap perfume, nicotine and beer.

“I’ll take you to the restroom and give you a real treat,” she rasped over the commotion.  “You should have something to remember from the summer.”

I felt embarrassment and panic that nearly made me faint.  My mind internally ran through a litany of jumbled moral babble:  “We are not dating; we are not even friends; this will be immediately regretted by both of us; somewhere my future wife will be cheated, etc.”   I must admit, I doubt if any of these objections would have overcome an offer from one of the younger girls.

“I can’t,” I said.  “I’m sorry.  I mean, I’d like to….”

Trudy leaned back and regarded me with deep hurt in her eyes.  I felt terrible.   She may not have been sober enough to fully consider the ramifications, but she was offering something that would have constituted a landmark in my life.  Fortunately, most of the girls around the table had turned their attention away from us, but I was still reeling.

“I understand,” said Trudy, after a moment.  “It’s okay.”

“I’m sorry,” I repeated.

It wasn’t long before the gathering began to break up.  Everyone wished me “good luck,” and I was free to go.  I remember taking a deep breath in the parking lot before entering my car.  Nearly all the memories of that summer submerged instantaneously and completely; now that they have bubbled back to the surface for examination, I believe I made the right decision.


INSPIRATION   Graduation speeches often acknowledge inspirational teachers.  A man recalls the steely grit of the small town historian who taught him how to understand the world.  A sculptor thanks her art history teacher for introducing her to beauty.  A scientist recalls the first thrill of discovery at the elbow of his high school chemistry teacher.   Now that I spend hours arranging words as an aspiring writer, I credit an English teacher, Mr. Elliot, as the most inspiring instructor I never had.  (That is not a typo). Due to the deterioration of Philadelphia’s public schools and my family’s disinclination to move, it was deemed necessary to enroll me in private school in the seventh grade.   After considering the local choices, most of which were objectionably religious and/or all-boys, we selected Friends’ Academy.  Nominally Quaker, the co-ed school was effectively non-sectarian.  The administration strove to promote every liberal ideal, including open-mindedness and inclusivity.  Who could object to that, especially during the tumultuous Vietnam War years of 1968-1974, when I attended? In practice, openness to all ideas meant my classmates were encouraged at every opportunity to be non-conformists; in their non-conformity, they achieved near-total conformity.  In retrospect, I was the one who was “out there,” wearing my hair short and my shoes on, forsaking protests for baseball, and attending classes alone on school-sanctioned “cut-days.”  I felt that my parents had paid for me to attend school, not to walk aimlessly around the quadrangle holding a sign.  I felt apart from my classmates, not yet able to pride myself as a person who did not succumb to peer pressure.  On the social level, for all its openness, I found Friends’ Academy oppressive. Despite my sense of social alienation I embraced the school’s shaping of my intellectual life.  Environmentalism resonated with me through an introduction to a ground-breaking (in 1969) recycling program.  Small class-size encouraged immersion in subjects like music theory and art that propelled lifelong interests.  Surrounded by wealthy classmates, I learned to detest hypocrisy, observing with a gimlet eye the conspicuous consumption of rich, Rolls Royce-driving bleeding hearts.  Having it both ways, I decried pandering when other bleeding-heart families steered faux-modest, Volvo hatchbacks with Gene McCarthy bumper-stickers, to and from their “Main Line” estates.  Certainly not perfect myself, I indulged a Holden Caulfield-like disdain for phonies.  After all, no book appeared so consistently on the summer reading list as “Catcher in the Rye.” The majority of the teachers at Friends’ Academy were superb.  I recall with particular admiration the ninth-grade teacher of a course called “Propaganda.”  Mr. Prager lasted only one year on his penurious salary, but left me (for better or worse) with a lifetime of skeptical political insights.  In tenth grade, Mr. Goldsmith taught medieval history so vividly one felt the tip of the lance when he described jousting.  Mr. Groff, dressed daily in his frayed 1933 varsity jacket, made participation on Friends’ Academy’s less-than-stellar sports teams seem as meaningful as suiting up for the Yankees.  His never-ebbing positive attitude combined integrity and antiquity so that one felt they were part of a virtuous continuum. Why do I not mention Mr. Elliot, the man who influenced me more than any other?  In delicious irony, despite a decided inclination towards liberality, Friends’ Academy utilized a class system as though they were monarchist.  Each grade was divided into three sections.   Section 1 consisted of students who were deemed true geniuses or legacies.  All had attended Friends’ Academy since kindergarten and had Ivy League connections (including the “Little Ivy” schools of Williams, Swarthmore, Amherst, Wellesley, etc.)  via siblings, parents and grandparents.  Presumably, the Ivies also lay ahead for members of Section 1. Section 2, wherein I was placed, consisted of capable students who lacked overwhelming wealth of brains or money.  Section 3 consisted of the dummies, many of whom had wealth or legacy sufficient to gain admittance, but whose academic abilities or interests were demonstrably limited.  Section 3 also harbored athletes whose value to the school was measured in baskets scored, not Balzac explicated.  Each student in Sections 2 and 3 was keenly aware of the characteristics of his group and the absolute impossibility of upward mobility. Though some teachers taught classes at more than one level, the most experienced and legendary teachers taught only Section 1.  Mr. Elliot was, perhaps, the most accomplished of these “masters,” with a litany of awards, publications and honorary degrees generally confined to famous university-level academics.   His appearance was striking, too, with bushy black eyebrows and a full head of hair highlighting a larger-than-expected head, balanced precariously on a short, barrel-chested body.   His voice was a growl with hints of England tinged with fluency in Russian, the other language he taught.  (At Friends’ Academy, one could study Latin, Greek, German, French or Russian, but not Spanish – it was considered too easy). From my teenage perspective, I considered Mr. Elliot to be ancient, though he was probably only in his late-forties at the time.  Picture a swarthy and serious Robin Williams, his voice booming through the hallways.  Section 1 students reveled in describing lectures where he recited Beowolf or costumed himself as a peasant to perform Chekhov in the original Russian.  Recounting personally-witnessed Mr. Elliot anecdotes was an unsubtle affectation of membership in Section 1, like explaining the texture of crème brulee to barbarians eating Chips Ahoy. My exposure to Mr. Elliot was indirect.  My eleventh grade German class met in his classroom three hours each week, while his classes were elsewhere, no doubt reenacting scenes from Dr. Zhivago or building sets in the style of the original Shakespearean playhouse.  While Mrs. Springer, the German teacher, tried to interest me in the multiple layers of grammar (more words for “the” than Eskimoes have for snow) I focused on Mr. Elliot’s aphorisms written on construction paper tacked onto the classroom walls.  Each exhortation had the gravity of the Ten Commandments.  “Do not dangle participles.”  “Use parallel construction.” “A semi-colon cannot appear twice on one page.”  Basically, Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” (also a standing member of the Summer Reading List) was reduced by Mr. Elliot to simple rules. One page, written in Mr. Elliot’s un-prettified block letters, that I immediately memorized, was titled the Black List:  “NEVER use the following words:  “Really, very, more, most, get, got, seems, might, good, better.”  From my first day in that classroom, I strove to eliminate unnecessary, imprecise fillers from my writing. Other precious pearls of Section 1 knowledge that I gleaned during German class were Mr. Elliot’s “necessary” vocabulary words.  He spread lists of SAT-type words in threesomes around the walls, such as “trite, banal, hackneyed” and “adamant, obdurate, indurate.”  I memorized these words together to the extent that I still annoy family members by reciting them on a regular basis.  They cringe if certain words are spoken in my presence because I launch into recitations that are “annoying, vexing and bothersome.” I used to imagine what it would be like to have Mr. Elliot as my English teacher.  I pictured a world of brilliant insights exploding like fireworks.    I do not claim the students in Section 1 were unworthy of their selection or that I was improperly left out.  Could I, or would I, have published a novel by tenth grade, as one of the “geniuses” did?  Did I choose to memorize the entire timetable of the London subway system, as did another?  No way.  I lacked sufficient curiosity and was resistant to learning a broad section of subjects.  If a book or lecture did not interest me, I shut down.  Literature, music and history commanded attention; science, math and foreign languages did not. Still, I was delighted when my eleventh grade English teacher arrived in class one day with Mr. Elliot in tow, introducing the elder luminary as our guest lecturer on The Brothers Karamazov.  “The novel represents the dual pinnacles of Mr. Elliot’s interests in Russian and English,” he said. My classmates seemed unfazed by the opportunity to share the Section 1 experience, but I looked forward to savoring an hour with Mr. Elliot.  “Please give him your full attention,” implored young Mr. Dorrance to the class.  I sensed his fear that we would disgrace him. Mr. Elliot strode to the front and immediately launched a rousing explanation of the author’s complex narrative that passed entirely over the heads of my comparatively disinterested classmates.  After pausing for a moment, the Great Man posed a question.  I knew exactly which section he was referencing and I thought I knew the answer.  I rarely raised a hand in class, however, and I was especially reluctant to draw attention from the man I idolized.  Yet, everyone else was sitting like lumps of clay.  Excruciating silence enveloped the room and I could almost feel Mr. Elliot’s inner-thoughts as he confronted the dullness of students not in Section 1. Finally, in stages, I raised my arm.  Mr. Elliot looked at me. “Yes?” he boomed.  “Do we have some enlightenment from the student in the blue shirt?” “I think…” I began. “Stand up when you respond,” said Mr. Elliot. I rose self-consciously, aware of shuffling around me from surprised classmates. “I think…” I began again. “Don’t ‘think’,” interrupted Mr. Elliot.  “You either know the answer or you do not.” Duly prodded and with a burst of adrenaline, I gathered the entire answer in my mind and delivered a clear and well-formed explanation. I waited a moment for my insight to be lauded.  I was proud of how fully it had unfurled from my lips.  Mr. Elliot, I was certain, was impressed.  I anticipated his broad smile.  Doubtless, he was gathering the right combination of adjectives to describe my answer, perhaps: “cogent, lucid, illuminating.”  Instead, his face contorted in a mask of anger.  Not looking at me, he pivoted to gaze at the entire class, and sputtered: “I do not accept someone reading an answer from Cliff’s Notes in response to my question.  In order to achieve anything in your academic careers, wherever they may take you, you must do your own thinking.” I sat down feeling mortified, humiliated, embarrassed. I noticed Mr. Dorrance shaking his head sadly.  Mr. Elliot proceeded to the next portion of his lecture, while I sat down red-faced, burning with indignation.   I wasn’t a perfect student; however, I liked reading novels and I didn’t use Cliff’s Notes or any other shortcut.   I may have been the only student in Section 2 who read every word of every assignment.  My disillusionment with Mr. Elliot and shame at my inability to defend myself was crushing. The only positive thing about being humiliated in front of a class of teenagers is how little they care.  I went to lunch after class in a daze.  One friend said:  “Wow, he really nailed you.” I started to explain:  “I read every page….” No one was listening.  The discussion had already moved onto the daily dissection of the Allman Brothers, the Eagles, and Van Morrison.  The private injustice done to me was already forgotten, except by me.  I didn’t encounter Mr. Elliot again.  But I took satisfaction for the rest of the school year in taking his words and rules from his walls and making them mine.   Eventually, the focus on quality words and writing Mr. Elliot taught so succinctly (concisely, pithily, sententiously) guided me through the SAT’s, the LSAT’s, law school, the bar exam, my career, parenting and writing. Mr. Elliot turned out not to be my hero, but he was my inspiration.      Exoneration, revenge, vindication.