Saturday, August 18, 2012

Of Grape-Scented Plastic, Harvey Pekar, and the Swamp Fox.

They used the room, normally, for typewriting practice.  It was four rows of eight typewriters at various ages, all with newish dust covers, so the room smelled, I thought, like grape-flavored plastic.   

No windows, as we were in the rear of the basement of the building.  It was surrounded by cinder blocks.  Depending on the day, or your mood, they were white or light beige.  You walked in and felt like an appliance yourself, a cog in a machine, artificial.  Along the back wall, six computers, upon which we learned computer keyboarding, word processing, and some very basic programming language.  We knew these computers were the wave of the future, but beyond letters and numbers, we weren't sure how just yet.  This was 1994, and the word that stuck in my head from everything I knew about computer hardware and software were the words "Microsoft," "Windows," and "multimedia."   Either the internet was too new or too scary to introduce to the students.  In all honesty, I can't remember if we even accessed it.  I was a junior at a private, fundamentalist Christian school in New Jersey. I didn't have to attend public school in Paterson.  I was a teenage Latino male from Paterson and had access to a high-quality, old-school education.  By all conventional wisdom, I was lucky.  I was one of twelve students who would graduate the next year, but today I was in the room for a one-on-one career counseling session.  The only one I'd had up until that point.  The only one I'd ever have.

I was good enough to be placed on a track the school referred to as "college prep," a term I was pleased to be labeled with.  I've always been pegged as the student with aptitudes toward English and writing.  I had entered poetry contests in junior high school and freshman year.  I won one of those contests, a statewide contest for which I received ridicule from the rest of my classmates.  They even recruited my English teacher to participate in a practical joke: someone wrote a fake letter from the contest stating that there had been a miscalculation in the judging, and that my prize was revoked.  I imagine my classmates wanted to knock me down a peg or two, especially if I had reason to be proud, and as high school freshmen, one could imagine their enthusiasm at the prospect of watching my emotions boil over.  They knew me enough to know it would happen.  My intelligence had made me a social pariah.  Who was I to dispute it?

Late homework assignments, boredom, and discipline issues, as best as I can recall, dropped my overall GPA to a little over 2.7 by the time of my junior year.  So when it was my turn to see the guidance counselor, I couldn't have been shocked when my dream of attending a four-year college was, in her assessment, a dream deferred, at best.

I don't want to tell you that I identified, and hard, with the underground comics writer Harvey Pekar, but I did.  Tonight I watched the film American Splendor, detailing his career writing the comic of the same name.  It's not that he was a recluse, or antisocial, or even particularly disagreeable; it's that he made these characteristics work for him, to the point of getting a slot on the David Letterman Show, and writing and editing for major publishers.  He had his narcissistic tendencies.  He had his fears and insecurities.  Yet he was a man who was brilliant enough to know that the mundanities of his life were not really mundanities at all.  Like Bukowski, he turned his angst into existential brilliance, his quirks into critical analysis.  And he was able to show us that comics are not just for children, that it could be an art form like film, a reality show before reality television.  For a man who seemed so hopeless, his comics inspired a lot of hope.  I think I want to be him when I grow up, but with a lot more empathy. 

Harvey Pekar dropped out of college to join the Navy, and like most of my 20th century heroes, he was largely self-taught.  He did not shy away from big conversations, but it does not escape me that he felt himself somehow on the outside looking in.  He was banned from Letterman (besides for being an asshole) for going on a rant against General Electric.  He was honest, I believe, in a dishonest world...even in the movie he ended up starring in, with the real life characters from his books.

He once said this:

"There was a survey done a few years ago that affected me greatly. it was discovered that intelligent people either estimate their intelligence accurately or slightly underestimate themselves, but stupid people overestimate their intelligence and by huge margins. (And these were things like straight up math tests, not controversial IQ tests.)"


" business can possibly equate happy workers (community) with profit (effectiveness). Happy workers are much more productive workers and hence contribute to profit, but no organization is formed for the idea of pleasing its employees."


"I called up my grandparents who I hadn't spoken to for over three years. I called my mother, who I had recently told to stop calling lest I contact the police. I sat with them all and it was normal and fun and good. I'm even ready - maybe - to speak to my father. Superman doesn't get upset at the people who shoot bullets at him. I get why, now."

I wonder how Harvey would have written the scene as it played out in that grape-flavored plastic room with my guidance counselor in 1994.  I'll recount it as best I can.  There may be some snark, but we'll work that out as we go.

I think she had rehearsed this speech a bit beforehand, but I can't be entirely sure.  More than likely, she'd read it in a handbook on how to handle underachieving brown boys in a mentee-counselor setting—a manual written in 1952.  The bottom line came hard and fast and I had no questions for it: While I had certain aptitudes and test scores, to shoot for a four-year college would probably be a fool's errand with my GPA.  It would be better—easier, wiser—if I aimed my sights at community college, obtained my associate's degree, and transferred at some point to a state school.  The ivy league was out of the question.  Out-of-state schools were not discussed.  This was the path I was presented, based on the numbers I'd spat back at them, and even if I moved to Florida, as I'd mentioned, this would be the path of least resistance to what I'd said I'd wanted—law school.  We did not discuss the LSAT, graduate school, or anything beyond the next two years except for the possibility of moving to a four-year school.  We certainly never discussed those strange screens at the back of the room, or the poetry I'd been reading and writing, or the subjects that fascinated me most.  I think the whole thing was over with in five minutes.

This was the extent of my career counseling, and while I can't sit and say that I had it rough in school, I can say without question that no one was interested in developing any sort of intellect in me.  Challenges to teachers were discipline problems, largely.  I was not expected to grow.  I was expected to obey, to read the Bible, and to pray for Republican Presidential candidates.  I was expected to believe that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution threatened the concept of states' rights.  And I was expected to remember, in my senior year of U.S. History, that Francis Marion was also known as the Swamp Fox.  (This is literally the only thing I remember from that year of instruction.)

Honestly, my experience in high school could be a memoir, a cautionary tale at that, about the dangers of mixing fundamentalism and education with class and racial assumptions, in a fishbowl-sized school attached to a church.  That's an entirely different book.  Briefly, I'll say that as an adult, I learned that our, um, Highly Revered school board literally panicked when the school experienced an influx of Hispanics in my last year of junior high.  They couldn't bear the thought of having their daughters marry up with any of those brown savages from Paterson via Puerto Rico and Colombia and everywhere else.  Not sure if our education mattered any more than our parents' tuition dollars did, and they shelled it out by the boatload to keep their children from getting killed, literally, at Eastside High School or Kennedy High School. 

What I need for my Conservative friends to understand is that I first learned about the politics of low expectations from you.  I was taught by Conservatives and directed by Conservatives to community college.  Imagination was drilled directly out of me, first by my peers, and then by my teachers.  I was not encouraged to go directly to the four-year schools with my above-average writing ability, my SAT scores, and my GPA.  Might they have told me no?  I doubt it, but even if they did, the idea of shooting above my head was not an option to the five-minute counselors of my high school.  This is private school we're talking about.  I haven't really talked about public school.  Do I dare?

What I want to know: how much has changed since I went to high school?  Where are our kids going now?  Are these racist mentalities gone?  Do we grow humans who expect themselves to be great, or do we grow fearful hamsters content to spin safely in place?  And who decides who gets to spin where?  

I want to divorce the words "school" and "system."  "Political," and "science."  We don't need systems.  We need new minds. 

Harvey.  We live in an age of grape-scented plastic, and I'm only now understanding that it needs to die, so we can live.

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