My son Marcus,
actually my stepson, is now married and living in
Kentucky. Years ago, when he was yet living under my
roof, he was attending Carl Sandburg Junior High
School. In Levittown, Pennsylvania, junior high
encompasses grades seven through nine, serving as a
buffer between elementary school (1-6) and high
Carl Sandburg is also my alma mater. That was at a
time when I lived under my father's roof. This is the
same house, but I have since put on a new roof.
There was an occasion, when Marcus was attending Carl
Sandburg, that he was selected to be Master of
Ceremonies for the school's talent show. Ms Keogh, my
significant other and Marcus's mother, drove him to
school that day to have him there early for his
performance. His role was a point of pride with him
and he wanted us to witness it.
That evening, I came by a separate way to the school.
I had decided to walk. It was a whim to trace the old
route I used for school when I was Marcus's age.
Trees had since grown. Houses had sprouted additions.
Each house had its own quarter acre, but the many
lots blended into a grass sea with every home an
island. Still, fundamentally, the homes and community
were unchanged. Originally they were all one-story
buildings topped with steep attics, but very few of
them haven't had their attics converted into second
It was a familiar path through the winding maze of
Levittown and I began to apply the names of families
that once lived in this or that house, realizing that
I was also forgetting many. Most of the families had
moved, and their children, those with whom I went to
school, very few of them returned to Levittown upon
graduating college. Still, there was enough
resemblance with the past that I began to slip
between the yet similar dimensions, back into my
childhood where memories were waiting.
Mary's house! Once there was a small sign posted
beside the driveway that read, "Mi Casa, Su
Casa." The sign was gone. Her father, a retired
Navy officer, had a map of the world that filled one
entire wall of his study. The map is probably no
longer there. The Commander died and was buried at
Arlington Cemetery. Mary's three sisters had all left
home. And then Mary's mother, a religious woman, died
the long death of cancer, was buried next to her
husband. Mary was a tall redhead, a great beauty, who
I admired remotely in junior high and would later
befriend in high school. For a few years we became
very close. My father hoped I would marry her, but
though she and I were intimate, our friendship
remained platonic. In time, our views diverged and we
developed in different directions, to become somewhat
alien to each other. She is now living in Rhode
Island, a chaplain in the Navy, and the last time I
saw her she was still a great beauty.
I walked past Scott's house. In my school days it was
a regular stop. How often his mother said,
"Scott is not ready, yet, you better not wait or
you'll be late, too." His house had changed. The
people living there now had turned the garage into a
spare room and built a carport in front of it. I knew
I wouldn't recognize his home if I had been permitted
to step inside. I would not find the same kitchen
where Scott and I sat discussing morality and
metaphysics over glasses of ginger ale on ice. By
now, I am certain, the original steel cabinets have
been replaced with decorative wood. That day, I
continued on to school without him. Scott's in
California, now, playing piano for The Swing Session,
a lively sextet performing a music between Jazz and
Rock and Roll.
As I came closer to the school, my capricious notion
of taking that walk began to have an undesirable
effect. I grew more oppressed. I remembered the
bullies. I had become quite skilled at being wary,
developing a sharp eye and ability to anticipate. I
recognized and avoided potential brushes with my
enemies, doing so with a cunning nonchalance that
wouldn't betray my ability to predict and detect
their ambushes. I left them thinking it was their bad
luck they couldn't catch me. It was nothing less than
paranoia, but it was also good training that must
have protected me this long from being mugged or
robbed on the bad city streets I would sometimes
explore, later, as an adult.
The oppression was strongest when I was within the
walls of the school. In my childhood, I was scorned
and jeered at by many of my peers. They thought me
strange because I did not endeavour to imitate the
fashions of the day. I was and remain a
nonconformist, more interested in pursuing my own
interests rather than theirs. I suppose the same
thing could be said for the subjects taught in the
classrooms. I forsook their curriculum for the books
I found on my father's shelves. I would like to think
that I might have flourished under another system.
Entering the school halls, the old insecurities
returned. I have visited Carl Sandburg Junior High
School several times when my son was attending.
During these open house visits, I felt a little ill
at ease, but on the particular night of the talent
show, the school was once again filled with children.
They made me feel terribly self-conscious. The old
feelings returned. I began thinking they were
laughing to themselves behind my back, that I was
still being regarded as a queer sort. Their word for
it, back in 1964, would have been "weirdo".
And there I was, a grown-up, an adult, once again
hating it, being suffocated by my oppressive
memories. I could not sit or stand comfortably
without suffering deep concern as to the foolishness
of my appearance in these children's eyes. They, of
course, were hardly aware of me.
It is funny how, for many years, despite all the
maturity and independence we gain, as soon as we
return to our parents' household, we quickly slip
back into our old, immature patterns of co-existence
with them. Something similar happened to me that
afternoon. I allowed a brood of strange children, who
weren't even aware of me, to make me feel
uncomfortable. Surrounded by my son's generation, I
slowly realized they were a different set of children
from those who tormented me. I would like to believe
that I have since resolved the injuries done to my
psyche from over twenty years before. In actuality,
the resolution was I simply escaped them. I am no
longer confined by junior high school. As an adult, I
live in the real world, where my comfort and
happiness is the consequence of having free choice,
except for that one afternoon when I was reminded of
those old constraints.
Quite unlike my son, I would have never wanted my
parents to visit the school. I was unpopular and far
too ashamed that the experience would be humiliating.
Stage fright to this day has me avoiding the boards.
I find even reading my poetry to an audience a
disagreeable task. Marcus, on the other hand, came on
stage that evening, the spotlight hitting him, the
audience cheering and whistling, and he soaked it up,
grinning sheepishly. That evening must have become a
special memory for him.
I should like to sit down with my son and get to know
him better. Rarely do parents really know their
children, and rarely do children really know their
parents. Most of us live with fixed opinions based on
early impressions. Neither of us knows the context by
which the other arrived at life choices. What was
innocuous to one could have been the source of the
other's trauma, and we each find our revelations from
different sources. I suppose, in the natural order of
relationships, some matters can never be discussed
between parents and their children. We are afraid of
disappointing each other. The child is afraid of the
parent's disapproval and the parent is afraid of
disillusioning the child.