The Upper School required boys wear ties and jackets (or sweaters, my preference). It held Quaker meeting once a week, boys on one side of the auditorium, girls the other. (The Quakers were liberal on political issues but cultural, not so much. Each fall, we would lose classmates, boy or girl, rumors about whose personal lives had led them not to have not been “asked back.”)
My grades stayed the same. “AU” in Math, Latin, English, Social Studies. “U” in Manual Training, Music, Art, Gym. So did my assessments. “Robert” needed to “become more attentive,” “less careless,” and “settle down.” “If (he) applies himself,” one teacher wrote, summarizing the thoughts of many, “he should do excellent work.” Though Robert seems not to have behaved as recommended., one English teacher found him “a pleasure to teach.”
I played first base on the class baseball team and defensive end in football; but basketball, given my height and lack of coordination, proved an embarrassment. Even more shaming was my social life. In eighth grade, make-out parties had become the order of the day. But to be invited, you needed a girl friend, and I had none. A girl or two might have been willing to make-out with me, but none gave any overt sign of this, and I was too shy and self-conscious to take any steps required to find out. (Between my glasses and my newly developed acne, I had much to feel self-conscious about.) Besides, one’s stature was influenced by whom one made out with, and the most stature-enhancing girls seemed well beyond me.
In my neighborhood, things were worse. At FCS at least, my athletic capabilities – and the positives attendant upon not settling down – gained me credibility with “A” list guys; but in West Philly, my externals and internals, combined with my “private school kid” taint – that tie being as shaming as a scarlet letter – made me a near untouchable for both sexes.
Which was not all bad.
I had enough belief in my self-worth that these exclusions, while painful, were not crippling. Having one world where I was somewhat comfortable and another where I was somewhat not provided a valuable perspective from which to view both. I mean, the fact that one could feel comfortable in one surround and uncomfortable in another meant that these feelings did not depend on who one “was,” since one was always the same and only the surrounds different. Thus, the “one” became more important than his “worlds.” And the development of this one became the area where my interests and instincts called forth the efforts my elders would have preferred I channel elsewhere. I undertook, with diligence and purpose, investigations of somewhat out-of-the-way corners of orthodox West Philadelphia and orthodox Friends’ Central and took from them what seemed of most significance for the person I hoped to become.
The next several blogs will be accounts of that process. I wrote most not knowing what the next would be and, certainly, in the beginning, unaware of their commonality. For the most part, they stemmed from anecdotes I enjoyed telling over the years to others or inside my own head. Only when I began writing them down, decades later, did I begin looking for the lessons they might contain.