Seven to Seventeen

“For the last hour of the school day, I sat in that warm, noxious stew. I tried to ignore the moist jeans, the worsening odor, the looks from other kids.”

Age 7. Second grade was my first year at a new elementary school, and I didn’t have any friends. I was a nice kid—some people called me Smiley, because that’s what I was always doing—but also shy. One time Galen nominated me to be class president. All the nominees had to put their heads down while the class voted. Later, Galen told me I got only one vote—my own. Even Galen didn’t vote for me.

I sat in the school pergola one day, eating lunch by myself, dreaming that some day things would be different. I used to watch a TV show about the Knights of the Round Table, and I thought that being Sir Lancelot must be about the best thing in the world. I imagined myself coming back here one day, clad in a full suit of armor and a helmet, complete with a visor that I could open or close over my eyes. All the kids would get up from their lunch tables and gather around me, patting me on my armor-plated arms. I’d be a returning hero—revered, beloved, noticed.

Age 8. I was scared of school, scared of the teacher, scared of other boys, scared of girls. I was always anxious about something. One day after lunch this constant worrying made my stomach hurt. My bowels began growling and churning; pressure was starting to build. I didn’t raise my hand, though; I never raised my hand. Please, God, make this go away.

He didn’t. My bowels were about to explode, and I was trying desperately to keep that muscle clenched tight. But when the pressure became too much and the pain too sharp, I relaxed the muscle and felt an instant of relief. Almost immediately, though, the horror of what I’d done threw me into a panic. I tried to shut the valve, close the floodgate, but there was no stopping it now, semiliquid feces were pouring out of me like mud from a fire hose, filling my underpants, coating my crotch and hips, oozing down toward my thighs and up toward my back, saturating my white cotton Jockeys and moving inexorably toward my blue denim Levis.

With my bowels fully evacuated, I sat in my seat, bathed in feces. I didn’t know what to do. My stomach was relaxed now, my bowels were at peace, but I squished with the slightest movement and the stench was beginning to escape. Dan, sitting next to me, complained to our third-grade teacher, “Something stinks.” Other kids agreed. After a while Dan said he thought the smell was coming from me; I said I thought it was coming from him. Finally Mrs. Plantamura—tall, angular, and gray—announced that until the person who was responsible asked to be excused, we’d all just have to live with the smell.

For the last hour of the school day, I sat in that warm, noxious stew. I tried to ignore the moist jeans, the worsening odor, the looks from other kids. If I just stayed put, just kept working, three o’clock would eventually arrive. When it did, what I wanted to do was walk home, but it was Cub Scout day, so I dutifully waddled out to the parking lot and joined several other boys in our den mother’s car. The car began to stink. Soon after we arrived at Mrs. Jackson’s house, she phoned my mother, who came and picked me up. I didn’t go to school the next couple of days.

One morning at recess I was in the boys’ bathroom. Larry, a big, tough kid, came in and started using the urinal next to mine. After a moment he looked at me and said with disgust, “You had a BM in your pants.” The words echoed off the big square tiles on the walls and the little square tiles on the floor. I looked down without saying anything. I hoped that the fourth graders standing around the sinks hadn’t heard him. As soon as I finished, I zipped up my jeans and hurried out of the bathroom.

Age 9. Every Sunday night I was supposed to take a bath. I’d go into the bathroom, shut the door, put the rubber plug in the tub, and turn on the water. Then I’d close the lid on the toilet seat, sit down, and start reading a book. Turn off the water, go back to reading. After a while, pull the plug, go back to reading. A little later, open the bathroom door, walk quickly to my room, and go back to reading.

Perhaps it was one of my much-loved Landmark books on US history—The Pony Express, The Wright Brothers, or The Swamp Fox. Or the Hardy Boys, living the life I wanted to live, full of mystery and danger—The Disappearing Floor, The Mystery of the Chinese Junk, or The Hardy Boys’ Detective Handbook.

Sometimes at bedtime I didn’t want to go to sleep. When another of the fantastic adventures of The Swiss Family Robinson is beckoning, sleep can wait. I’d smuggle a flashlight into my room, then read in the dark, in bed. If I didn’t have a flashlight, I’d turn off my bedroom light and wait a few minutes. Then, ever so quietly, I’d open my bedroom door, inch by inch. The hall was dimly lit. I’d sit down on the floor in my pajamas and open my book. When you’ve fallen under the spell of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, sleep has no power.

Many years later, in Paris, I came across a bookstore named La Joie de Lire. The Joy of Reading.

Age 10. Scott (not his real name) was a good friend of mine. One day at school, just before lunch, he whispered to me, “I thought I could hold it.” I was puzzled for a second, then looked down and saw that he’d wet his pants.

I told him to stay right behind me. As we walked down the stairs, my body provided cover for that telltale stain. He followed me to the pergola, where we sat at a table and ate our sack lunches. By the time we were ready to go out and play kickball, his pants were dry and the stain invisible.

Age 11. We were in love with forbidden words—the sound of them, their meaning (usually not entirely clear), the fact that they couldn’t be uttered within earshot of adults. The latest one was twat—that part of a woman’s anatomy I had previously known only as beaver. We loved to say the word, loved to hear it. Twat.

A few of us were standing around the playground one afternoon. The coach was nearby, opening an equipment bag. Suddenly, from nowhere, inspiration. “Hey guys,” I said, before shifting to my best Elmer Fudd imitation, “I think I’ll twat awound de twack.”

The others looked at me and laughed. Everyone realized that a line like this was priceless. One of the kids called out, “Hey coach, we’re gonna twat awound de twack.”

“Good idea, boys.”

Then, as we ran, occasionally someone would say, “It’s fun to twat awound de twack.”

Age 12. It seems like I’d always bitten my fingernails, bad habit, getting worse now, more to worry about. Went from a small elementary school to Eliot Junior High, full of tough guys, Ed Sweatt and Andre Chambers, Jon Hager and Joe Dean, black kids, surfers, thugs, guys with pomaded hair and sneering eyes, chin up, defiant, looking to fight—a three-year sentence in hell, lucky if I get out of here alive. Gym class, I was short and scrawny, hated it when coach said shirts vs. skins, the relief I felt when my team was shirts. The summer before seventh grade I’d been anxious about gym, tried to do some pull-ups, heard that if you couldn’t do two pull-ups they’d flunk you. God, I could barely do half a pull-up. Found an ad in a magazine—the secret to instant muscles, beat up guys at the beach—mailed in the coupon and three dollars, wrote a note asking them to send it right away, had to have it before school started, checked our mailbox every day for six weeks, didn’t want anyone else in my family to see it. It didn’t come for almost a year, thanks a lot, didn’t matter anyway, cheap pamphlet showing isometric exercises, big gyp. In shop class I had to make things, didn’t know how to make anything, must be a mistake, I don’t belong around these screaming saws and white-hot forges and juvenile delinquents and big-skulled instructors. We had to take notes in social studies but I wasn’t sure how so I watched Doug—good student, self-confident—and whenever he leaned forward to write down what Mrs. Simkins said, I’d lean forward and write it down too. Assigned to the advanced math class but when we got to geometry I didn’t get it, a plane, what does that mean, a plane, extends forever in two dimensions, huh?, intersecting planes and parallel planes, I couldn’t picture these things, I reread my math book night after night, I’m gonna bomb at this school, I’m absolutely gonna bomb. Some of my friends talking to girls now, Pete and Dan and Rex, what am I supposed to do, Mary Beth is pretty but I couldn’t talk to her, Pete going on a date with Kathy, God almighty, Pete and Kathy going steady, wearing St. Christophers, couples holding hands in the halls, breasts and bras everywhere. Lying in bed one afternoon, imagining Patty in a two-piece swimsuit, I bet her stomach is flat. A party one Saturday night, someone’s house, I wasn’t there but heard about it later, everybody making out, guys said that the next day it felt like a dream, I’m glad I wasn’t there, I wish I’d been there. I never bit my fingernails at school, waited till I got home, in my room, chewed down to the quick. Worse than that, though: little splits in the skin around the nail, picked at them, finally got enough of a piece that I could grab it with my teeth, peeled it off, a clean strip of skin, one side of my finger to the other, hurt, sometimes bled. The next day bright pink, hurt more then, painful to touch, especially bad if another finger had to press against it when I was writing, sometimes got infected, little bit of pus, went away in a few days, but always new strips of skin to tear off, embarrassing, tried to hide the pink exposed flesh with my other fingers, bad habit, hard to break.

Age 14. I had heard about Mr. Soghomonian long before I was in his class. His ninth grade social studies course was legendary at Eliot: tests every Friday, an in-depth study of the American political and legal system, a 500-point bar exam, classroom trials conducted by students, and a thirty-page term paper about an occupation you were interested in. I chose law.

I had to get an A on the paper, had to, most important paper of my life. Spring vacation, spent most days at the library (Pasadena or L.A.), got there by bus, took notes on 3 x 5 cards, a thick stack, organized by topic. A few weeks later interviewed three attorneys, wrote down their answers to my questions. Paper due on a Monday morning, worked on it all day Saturday except when my dad told me to go get a haircut. Rode my bike to the barber shop, fretting all the way, I don’t have time for this. Worked on it all day Sunday too, really anxious now, stomach in knots, writing the final draft, blue ink, every page had to be perfect, no cross-outs no misspellings, table of contents and outline and bibliography and footnotes had to be just like Mr. Soghomonian showed us, op. cit., loc. cit., and ibid. Sunday night, still had to do the appendix, too exhausted to work any more, had to go to bed. Got up early Monday morning, bowels churning, looked through the encyclopedia with my mom, wrote up a list of great lawyers and lawmakers, the last page, put it all in a dark green, three-prong folder, rushed off to school, turned it in, had to get an A on it, had to.

Got it back one day at the end of class. Setting on my desk. Bent the cover back just enough to see the title page. “Well done, Glenn, law is fascinating and this report substantiates that fact.” Didn’t care about that, just cared about what was written below it. B+. Closed the cover.

Bell rang. Hurried off to drafting class. Couldn’t talk, couldn’t face anyone. Ninth grade, too old to cry. Stunned, disheartened.

Drafting room locked, waited outside for the teacher. Loal asked me what I got. Couldn’t answer, couldn’t say anything or tears would have started running. Silently handed him my paper. He opened the cover, looked at the grade.

“Yeah, that’s what I got, too,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “But I thought sure you’d get an A.”

Age 14. In the 1960s, racial divisions at Eliot were sharp. Pete and Dan, twins who had been friends of mine for years, were both good-hearted kids who didn’t start fights except with each other. But in our first two years at Eliot, I watched each of them get lured into a big after-school fight with black kids who hardly knew them. The sidewalk where the fights took place was a block from the school; you walked down a skinny, fenced dirt path to get there. Word of a fight always got around, and by the time it started there would be a circle of twenty or thirty guys. To me it was a tense, emotional spectacle. There was the possibility, any moment, of pain, blood, helplessness, humiliation.

When I was in ninth grade, the guy whose locker was next to mine was an eighth grader, black. I don’t know his name, never did. He was a little bigger than I was; I was maybe 5’2″ and a hundred pounds. One day I was at my locker, getting books for my afternoon classes. This kid was standing next to me, on my right. Just as I was about to close my locker, he put his left forearm against the inside of the door and wrapped his fingers over the top edge, which was about head high. He looked at me but didn’t say anything.

I put my hand on the outside of the door. “I have to close this,” I said. “I have to go.” He just looked at me. His face was dark and unreadable.

“I have to go to class,” I said, my voice a little shaky. I looked at his forearm pressed against my locker door. It was so different from my arm, which was like a stick. His forearm was thick and solid—steel cables beneath blue-black skin.

“What do you want? I’ve gotta go or I’m gonna be late.” He looked at me, saying nothing. Between classes the halls at Eliot were crowded. Dozens of people were passing by, unaware of the tension a few feet away. I felt tiny drops of perspiration where my forehead met my hair. I pushed the door, feebly, but his face remained as impassive as an obsidian mask. I could have tried to pry his hand off but probably would have failed. I would have succeeded only in drawing attention to myself, which was the absolute last thing I wanted. I’d look weak, I’d look like a joke.

My persona at school was anything but combative. At home I could be disputatious, a gadfly, a provocateur, burning up all my nervous energy at the dinner table, challenging everything everybody said, spewing out counterarguments like a volcano spews lava; but at school I was quiet with all but my closest friends and I was always accommodating. Now, standing by my locker, I was afraid of this kid, but even more, I was afraid of confrontation—confronting people was just not something I did. I wanted to be friends with everyone. When I was a child, my aunt Betty nicknamed me Friendly, and that’s what she called me the rest of her life—or Friend, for short. I didn’t want to hurt people, I wanted to help them. Besides, the idea of getting in trouble terrified me. If things got out of hand, if I suddenly got into a fight in the school hallway, I could be suspended from school. Forget Glenn Gladfelder, honor roll student; now it would be Glenn Gladfelder, juvenile delinquent. Goodbye Harvard, hello San Quentin. My grade point average would plummet; my reputation would be shot; my life would be over. I studied three or more hours a night, desperate to get straight As, and now I could lose everything I’d worked for, everything I’d fretted over day and night for years. I couldn’t get in trouble, I couldn’t.

But I couldn’t just walk away, either. If I had left the locker open, by the end of the day all my stuff would have been gone. I stood there, not knowing what else to say, looking at him, looking at his forearm, looking down. The hall was getting empty now, break was almost over; in another minute the bell would ring and I’d be late. Late! God, I was never late—never late for class, never late with an assignment, never late for anything.

He took his hand off the door, slowly moved his arm away, and went back to his own locker. I closed the door. “Thanks,” I said quietly, then hurried off to class.

From that day on, I dreaded going to my locker. I cut down on my trips there, tried to go when he wasn’t around, got in the habit of carrying extra books. If I went to my locker and he wasn’t there, I’d open it quickly, get what I needed, get out. If he was there, my heart would sink; I’d open the locker and hope. Usually he didn’t do anything, but several more times that year he wrapped his arm around my door and stared at me without expression. I’d stand there, anxious and embarrassed, a reluctant partner in this dance of intimidation. Eventually he’d move his arm. I’d close the door and rush off, hoping to beat the bell. He never said a word.

The last day of the school year, my last day at Eliot, I had it all planned. I got to school early, waited by the doors, and as soon as they were opened I sped upstairs to my locker. I grabbed the two or three books that were there—the ones I hadn’t turned in yet—and shut the door quickly. I’d never see that locker again.

The rest of the day I felt buoyant, relaxed, free of worries.

Age 15. Tenth grade and I was worried about gym. I wasn’t a good enough athlete to get an A, but I needed to get a B to keep from killing my grade point average. What worried me the most was the swimming unit. I remembered taking lessons one summer when I was about seven, and every time we went to the deep end, I’d start to sink; the woman instructor would have to dive in and pull me to the surface. That’s what swimming was to me—the panic of near drownings and the humiliation of repeated rescues.

Several years and several swimming schools later, I finally learned how to stay afloat, but for high school gym I’d have to do much better than that. I began going to the Y by myself every Saturday. I’d spend a couple of hours in the pool, which was usually empty except for a few old men. The pool was in the basement, and every sound—every shout, every splash, every breathless gasp—would echo, seemingly magnified. I swam lap after lap, trying to master the mechanics of the front crawl, the breaststroke, and the elementary backstroke. Each Saturday as I walked out of the Y, my nasal passages cleansed by the chlorine, I felt calm, revitalized, athletic.

One time my brother Hal went with me. He was nine years old. After swimming, we were in the locker room, and I had taken off my trunks and was about to put on my underpants. Hal was changing also, but at that moment happened to glance over at me. “God,” he said with a mixture of horror and disbelief, “you’ve got hair around your dick!”

“Hal, be quiet!” I whispered angrily, mortified that he had broadcast this loud enough for the two men at the end of the aisle to hear.

“You’ve got hair around your dick!” he repeated, almost as loud as before. He looked at me, and at it, with disgust.

“Hal, shut up!” I whispered. “We’ll talk about this outside.”

As we left the Y and walked toward the bus stop, I talked to him about puberty. I was afraid he might blurt out his discovery about me at the dinner table, piling mortification on top of mortification. “Hal, don’t mention the locker room thing to Mom or Dad or anyone.”

“Why not?”

“Just don’t. It’d be rude. It’d be like saying, ‘Anne has tits!’ or ‘Look at that girl’s boobs!’ You just don’t say things like that.”

“Okay,” he said quietly.

That night, at dinner, he kept his revelation to himself.

And later that year, I got a B in swimming.

Age 15. Sitting in speech class, scared. It was our first speech of the year and I’d worked hard on it—writing it out on note cards, every word—I just didn’t want to have to give it. I hated speaking to groups, hated it—everybody watching me, evaluating me—I never spoke up in class, never raised my hand, too shy too nervous too introverted too something, all I know is that walking to the front of the class made my heart pound so hard and so fast it was like having a jackhammer in my chest. The teacher was calling on us alphabetically, and I was praying that I’d get a reprieve, that the period would end before she got to the Gs; but as we marched from Barnett through Dooley and beyond, I knew there would be no reprieve, partly because half the students didn’t have their speeches ready. Mrs. Barrie would note this in her grade book, then call on the next person, and I decided to do that, decided to say I wasn’t ready either, only way to stop that jackhammer in my chest. Tomorrow would be better, I told myself, I won’t be so nervous then; I’ll practice tonight, over and over. Suddenly Mrs. Barrie called my name, and after hesitating for a moment I stood up, too much the good student—that mattered more to me than my fear, which mattered a lot. I walked to the front of the room—EKG absolutely off the charts, a cool drop of sweat snaking down my rib cage—set my note cards on the lectern, started speaking, one word then another then another, not so bad now, heart no longer pounding in my throat, got through it, every word.

Six months later, social studies class, debates, three students per team. The topic I’d signed up for: should the United States pull out of Vietnam? Our side said no (within a year I would change my mind), and we spent one Saturday at the library, reading articles, writing down facts and quotations, organizing our arguments, and preparing our responses to their arguments. The leader of the other team, the one you’d worry about, was Jon Moody—well read, articulate, an avant-garde rebellious type. There was no one on our team you’d worry about—I was probably the best student, but who’d worry about a puny bookworm who never said anything? Before the debate began, Brad, a friend of Jon’s, walked up to him and whispered, “You’re gonna kill ’em!” then gave a little laugh. That’s okay, I thought, we’ll see.

The debate lasted the whole period, with Jon and me speaking the most. I knew our team was doing well, knew our arguments were holding up. Students were listening closely, looking at me like, who is this guy? I was giving the final rebuttal for our team, and as I got near the end I pulled out a note card I’d been saving. Two weeks earlier we’d had a class discussion about historical instances of resistance to tyranny, and Jon had spoken up. As soon as I realized what he was saying and how I could use it, I’d written down his words. Now, as I finished my rebuttal speech, I said, “To summarize our position, I’d like to quote from a Mr. Jon Moody, who said in a discussion in this classroom on March 2, 1966, ‘When people are fighting against totalitarian regimes, you’ve got an obligation to help them.’ We agree with that, and therefore believe the United States must continue to help South Vietnam fight the totalitarian regime of North Vietnam.”

The debate was over, students were laughing and talking about it, then voted overwhelmingly that our team had won. The bell rang and I was getting ready to go when Jon’s friend Brad came up to me, smirking, and said, “That was beautiful, man, that was cold!” and I thought, not the kind of friend I want.

Three months later, people still remembered the debate and wrote about it in my yearbook. From Judy, one of the best-looking girls around—I had known her since elementary school but never figured she’d give me a second thought: “You’re quite a guy and I enjoy being in your classes. I’ll never forget the way you shut Jon Moody down! That was really something!” And from Mrs. Sheinkopf, the teacher: “Boy, when you say something you really come through. I’ll never forget that debate!”

I don’t know whether Judy and Mrs. Sheinkopf ever did forget this debate, but I know I won’t. Most of what we do every day is soon forgotten, never to be recalled, but certain incidents, certain images, have unusual adhesive power; they stay with us to the end. We live our lives continuously, in the present, but in retrospect the past is less like a line and more like a set of points; our memories are fragmentary rather than continuous. Life as we reflect upon it is made of forgettable lulls broken by unforgettable moments—bright lights disconnected in time and space, a constellation of memories.

Age 17. No book ever stirred my imagination more than Cass & Birnbaum’s Comparative Guide to American Colleges. It was a large volume—softcover, green—that described almost every four-year college in the country. I pored over the book’s Selectivity Index; it ranked colleges as either Selective, Very Selective, Highly Selective, or Among the Most Selective in the Country. The last group was the one I read about, dreamed about, wanted to shoot for. There was Harvard with its unparalleled reputation and history; and Swarthmore, less well known but just as strong academically, and perhaps not so full of itself; and Antioch, known for its interweaving of academic study and work experience. To me it was like flipping through the world’s greatest travel book, reading about one fantastic place after another—all while knowing that in the end, I could choose only one destination. Go to the Parthenon and you’ll miss the stunning stonework of Machu Picchu; explore the Himalayas and you’ll miss the wildlife spectacle of the Serengeti. How could I choose amongst such riches?

The college catalogs that I sent for were just as enticing. God, the subjects I could study, the things I could learn! I found the course lists alone intoxicating: Social Psychology, Introduction to Asian Thought, Greek Drama, Melville and Twain, Problems in Ethics. Forget choosing a school; how would I ever decide which courses to take? The most distinctive offering of all came from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, where you spent four years reading great books—Homer and Shakespeare, Aristotle and Nietzsche, Darwin and Einstein. The cover of their catalog knocked me out—nothing but books! Books I wanted to read, books I needed to read. I was excited by the authors I knew something about—Dostoevsky, Plato, Cervantes—and intrigued by others that were mentioned in textbooks—Dante, Rousseau, Freud. I wanted to know what they said, how they saw the world, why their words were still around.

The pictures in the catalogs transfixed me; college looked so different from high school that it seemed like paradise. There were glorious lawns and curving walkways, great brick libraries and perfect cupolas, large seminar tables and intense discussions. And college girls everywhere, just everywhere: there’s one lounging on the grass, reading, hair spilling down her shoulders; here’s one in class, leaning forward in her seat, listening intently, with bright lively eyes; there’s one standing in a group, laughing, a smile that makes me ache, khaki shorts, thighs that make me ache. A year from now I’ll be there too, standing right next to her, perhaps—that seems more unbelievable than anything. She’ll say something to me, won’t she?

I loved Cass & Birnbaum, loved those college catalogs, loved dreaming about the riches that would soon be mine—the cities I’d see, the girls I’d meet, the thoughts I’d have that I had never had before. The catalogs spoke to me of infinite possibilities; they hinted at the journey I was embarking on and the person I might become.

Age 17. Mrs. Harding, the Pasadena High School speech and debate coach, was a big, domineering woman, two hundred pounds of thunder and bluster. She cared about the program and devoted a lot of afternoons, evenings, and Saturdays to it, traveling to tournaments and competitions throughout the region. And she cared about her students, she pushed and badgered and supported us, but if anyone challenged her on anything, she lashed out, becoming loud and dictatorial, shouting people down. For years her chief antagonist had been Bill—like me a senior, like Mrs. Harding abrasive and opinionated. Mrs. Harding ran that program like a fiefdom, and nothing got her more agitated than Bill’s sarcastic comments.

I was captain of the debate team, and everyone expected that I’d be elected president of the school chapter of the National Forensic League. Certainly Mrs. Harding expected it. To her I was everything a student should be: polite, deferential, hard-working, and smart. I was a model student from the 1950s but the 1950s were dead. In a world of mass marches and campus protests, obeisance had no place. Only those who were sleepwalking through life continued to genuflect to authority. I was ready to bust out, shed that perfect-student persona, throw some rhetorical bombs of my own. My future was not bound by my past. It was 1968 and authority figures everywhere were under fire, and the people who seemed alive to me were not the people with power but the people who challenged them, the rebels and the cynics and the protestors. I was tired of doing what I was supposed to do and I was ready to shake things up.

The meeting took place one day after school. Nominations for president were opened, Bill and I were nominated, nominations were closed. There wasn’t any doubt about the outcome: people thought I’d earned it, for one thing, plus a lot of students didn’t like the way Bill mouthed off. I liked his outspokenness, though, and saw him as a counterweight to Mrs. Harding’s despotic impulses.

Bob, a good friend of mine and the president at the time, was running the meeting. Mrs. Harding was sitting at her desk at the back of the room. I raised my hand and Bob called on me.

“The nominations are closed, is that right?” I asked.


I paused for a second, then said, “I’m withdrawing my name.”

For a moment the room was absolutely silent, as everyone absorbed what I had just said. Then pandemonium broke out—some people laughing, some groaning, some jumping to their feet, some raising their hands frantically, some hollering.

“Objection! He can’t withdraw! Objection!”

“Mr. President, point of information!”

“Mr. President, I move the nominations be reopened!”

“I second the motion!”

“Mr. President, that motion is out of order!”

“Mr. President, I call for the vote!”

“Second the motion!”

“Point of order, Mr. President!”

Bob, meanwhile, was rapping his gavel on the lectern. Bill, more stunned than anyone at what I’d just done, was shaking his clasped hands at me prayerfully, gratefully.

Mrs. Harding stood up and yelled, “I won’t have this! I won’t have Bill as president!”

Bob, 6’5″ and 150 pounds, beanpole thin, was laughing at the anarchy around him, even while he was pounding his gavel on the lectern. “Meeting come to order! Everyone sit down! The nominations are closed, there’s one nominee, and it’s time to vote!”

“There’s not going to be any vote!” shouted Mrs. Harding, charging to the front of the room. “This meeting is over!”

“This meeting isn’t over!” Bob said. “I haven’t adjourned it! All those for Bill, raise your hands.” A number of us raised our hands, but just as many students called out, “No!”

“Give me that gavel! I won’t have this!” Mrs. Harding roared, and as she snatched the gavel from Bob’s hand she bumped his beanpole frame with her ample bosom and almost knocked him over.

“Everybody out!” she hollered. “This meeting is over!”

There were a lot of animated conversations as people picked up their books and went out the door. Bill was shaking my hand, thanking me repeatedly; Bob was laughing about how I’d gone astray; and Margo, a girl who was full of laughter and fun, was grinning at me, her mouth dropped open. “I can’t believe you did that,” she said. “I can’t believe you did that!”

*     *     *     *     *

Bill never did become president. Mrs. Harding said she’d shut down the school chapter before she allowed that. She canceled a couple of meetings. Eventually everyone, including Bill and Mrs. Harding, said I should accept the presidency to keep the team from falling apart. So I did.

None of that matters much. What does matter is that meeting, that sweet chaos, the exhilaration of rebellion. What I’ll never forget are those hushed moments, those seconds of silence, when a roomful of people tried to grasp what I had just said—and then, having grasped it, exploded.

Age 17. Almost eighteen now, six feet tall, looking forward to going to St. John’s College—but I’d never kissed a girl, never gone out on a date, too shy too reserved too intimidated too something. Grad Night at Disneyland was two weeks away. There was this girl, Caroline, a junior, we’d never really talked. But she’d been at a student government banquet a few nights before, wearing a sleeveless dress. People were milling about, and I happened to notice her standing nearby. She was telling a story, and her face was lit up, she was laughing, and the guys gathered around were laughing with her. At one point she raised her hand up near her head, brushing her hair back. I thought that her arm, poised in the air, was so beautiful—her skin so smooth, her upper arm so perfectly shaped. I was mesmerized, I was breathing through my mouth.

One afternoon when I was home alone, I looked up her phone number, dialed it, hung up the phone, dialed half her number, hung up the phone, took some deep breaths, dialed again, let it ring this time, asked to speak to her, told myself not to hang up, said hello to her, asked if she’d like to go to Grad Night with me. I couldn’t imagine why she would; she barely knew me.

Afterwards I went into the living room, where we had a stereo console with a dark, glossy finish, got out my Mission: Impossible album, and played it. Played it loud. This is what elation feels like. How triumphant I felt, how excited! In three months I’d be going away to college, and I wouldn’t be a guy—thank God, I wouldn’t be a guy who’d never gone out on a date.

[Written 1999-2000. Revised 2020.]

2 thoughts on “Seven to Seventeen”

  1. I was born in 1951 to white college educated middle class parents so I see myself repeatedly in your vignettes. Unlike you, I had absolutely no academic ambition. What I recognize is the awkward yearning, the quiet subversiveness of the well behaved adolescent, and under certain rare circumstances a willingness to really stretch toward excellence. I admire your description of your 11 year old self and the discovery and use of forbidden words and the hilarious discovery your little brother made in the locker room when you were 15. The stories are well told. My favorite is your memory of being 14. It captures the weird potential for violence that could threaten mild shy kids. More significantly, you handle well the awkward frisson that us white middle class well meaning adolescents could feel when encountering black peers in the hallways at school because we seldom interacted with each other outside of school or actually had black students in our honors or academically enriched tracked classes. I am looking forward to reading more of your writing. Your site is now bookmarked, a rare honor you share with Heather Cox Richardson, who I suspect enjoys a few more regular readers than you.

  2. This is such a brilliant piece of writing—captures the excruciating fear and stress you can feel as a kid or adolescent. But also, I loved the breakthrough moments: the anarchic disruption of the debate society election, and the joyous surprise of the date call. And I couldn’t stop laughing at the locker room scene at the YMCA. As the brother in question I have to say I don’t remember saying what I’ve said here, but I’m really amused that I did—and pleased that I kept it to myself.

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