Why you should care
While graduation speeches are soon forgotten, people will always remember the ill will they engendered.
I knew I was in trouble from the outset.
I’d just spent eight years at the couldn’t-be-more progressive Montessori Academy in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. Staffed by educators who had studied with Maria Montessori herself and steeped in the British education system, the Montessori Academy was where I cut my wise-guy teeth. And when my teacher, Mrs. Kumar, wasn’t kicking me out the classroom over idealogical differences, which she was glad to have me air even if it meant a constant battle between open intellectual inquiry and me being a pain the ass, she seemed glad to be a teacher of the time.
From ages 6 to 13, I not only discussed math, science and languages but also the war in Vietnam, pollution, race relations, sexism, imperialism and a raft of other ideas and notions that largely contributed to me being who I presently am. But then something happened. For reasons unknown to me, the school didn’t go past seventh grade. So in the interval between Montessori ending with the seventh grade and high school beginning in the ninth grade, I had to find a home. That home ended up being St. Stephen’s Lutheran School.
Going from Montessori to St. Stephen’s couldn’t have been more dizzying. From a school where I could, and did, choose to come to school one day dressed as John Shaft, complete with platform shoes and maxicoat, to a school that required uniforms, ties and cleric-taught classes in Latin and religion, I had to … adjust.
“Oh myyy God.” This had been a common refrain at Montessori, inspired by Sandy Dennis’ turn as the put-upon wife in the Neil Simon–scripted movie The Out-of-Towners, in which everything bad that could happen to a couple visiting New York happens. We used it as a punchline, and as punctuation.
“DON’T SAY THAT!” My new classmates froze in horror, and when I asked why, they explained, “You can’t use the Lord’s name in vain!”
Got it. Outside of that, my friendships flowed fast and easily. Most kids had been at St. Stephen’s since they had started school and were happy to have an outsider on the inside. Lesley Pierre, Vonstone, Donna (my girlfriend for a time) and a half-dozen others formed the backbone of my experience there, unmarred by all but two instances.
In short order, I set about upsetting the apple cart as often as possible. I declared myself an atheist. She hated me for it.
The first? One that might seem major from the outside, but to one who lived it, not more than a minor series of incidents that had to do with being pursued by the street gang of note, the Jolly Stompers, for insulting the girlfriend of one of their members with a decidedly risqué and hurtful joke. In other words, I had it coming, even if it never came.
The second? It involved a social studies teacher whose pursuit of an aggressively retrograde political philosophy made us natural enemies. “Remember to bring in your favorite newspaper for a discussion of current events tomorrow,” she said one day.
The next day, some classmates had brought in the New York Daily News, some the New York Post, some the New York Amsterdam News. I brought in what I read once a week, the Village Voice. We read in silence before the discussion while our teacher cruised the room, checking out what was being read.
“What are you doing reading that rag?” she asked me.
“The Voice?” I said with a laugh, thinking she was joking. “Why is it a rag?”
I expected a punchline. What I got was “If you like reading Commie lies about America, knock yourself out.”
I laughed again. Laughed while she glared at me. Laughed because it was ON. In short order, I set about upsetting the apple cart as often as possible. I declared myself an atheist. During free reading, I brought in Mao’s The Little Red Book, which, though virtually unreadable, filled me with endless pleasure to see how much and how thoroughly my teacher hated me for it. Because no matter how much she imagined she hated me, it couldn’t have been more than I hated her cloistered take on everything that still forms the basis of our culture wars today.
“For the bicentennial I want you all to pick a person from American history,” she informed the class one day. “I want you to come dressed up as that person and read from your biography on whom you’ve chosen.” She was naturally all about the 200th birthday of America. In a school that was 98 percent racially homogeneous, I guess it made sense for her to have the great-grandsons and great-granddaughters of slaves dress up as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Andrew Jackson.
“Who are you going to be, Eugene?”
I hated the assignment. We both suspected she had me checkmated into doing something I was constitutionally opposed to.
“Can I be Karl Marx?” I asked.
The room had grown so quiet you could hear the radiator.
“He’s not an American,” she said.
“Then I’ll be Geronimo.” And I was. From that moment on, had I been academically anything other than a good student, she would have crushed me. Instead she satisfied herself with ignoring me.
Until, that is, the scores were tallied at the end of the year and revealed that I had the second-best scores of any eighth grader. Which meant I got to give the salutatorian speech at graduation. A graduation to which we had been instructed to wear patternless, dark clothing and to which I wore an oatmeal-colored, unconstructed jacket with a white shirt and a flower-print tie.
During my speech, I looked between my pleased parents, my amused classmates and my teacher. My speech was for me, it was for us, but mostly it was for her and was all about how dreams were big because dreams are meant to be big and the world was a welcoming place with a plethora of interesting ideas if only we found ourselves OPEN to them.
At the end of the ceremony, my Latin teacher Ms. Reddy, a James Coburn–esque smoker of cigarillos (in the classroom no less), came over to me and wished me luck in all my future endeavors. The social studies teacher, in a deft dance of avoidance, never spoke to me again. A fact largely unmourned by me.
High school, though, lay beyond, and after that, college. I never heard about my nemesis again, but in some small way I hope she found a measure of peace with what was left of her life.