The class work, hardly less humiliating, was at least more private. If I wasn’t deeply interested in a subject, I couldn’t concentrate on it at all—those dreadful algebra classes, those Bunsen burners, the mystifying and now deservedly extinct slide rule! Late in each semester, when it became obvious to me that I had no idea what I was supposed to have learned, I’d attend some makeup classes and try desperately to pay attention. As the teacher rattled on, I would grind my teeth, twirl the tops of my socks around my index finger—once I poked myself repeatedly through my pocket with a pin—anything to keep my mind engaged. But it was impossible: a leaf would fall outside the open window, or I’d notice the pattern of the veins on a girl’s hand, or a shout from the playground would trigger a set of irresistible associations that carried me back to another day.
And then the dream was ruptured by the sound of a bell; the class was irrevocably over, and I knew no more about quadratic equations or beryllium than I did an hour before. Failure was now assured, and the countdown began to the Dies Irae, when my report card would land me in trouble again, for my father was incredulous that a boy who blithely recited the names and dates of the United States’ Presidents and their wives couldn’t manage to pass elementary math and science. I grew enormously fond of my father in later life, but he terrified me then. He lived until 2005, long enough to recognize, through my diagnosis, some of the problems that had vexed him throughout his own career and, better yet, to know and delight in my three children, to whom he showed a serene gentleness.
My grades, always disastrous, only worsened as I grew older and more was expected of me. Nevertheless, by the age of twelve I was able to storm through idiosyncratic renditions of most of the easier Chopin pieces and of the simpler passages in his larger works. That was also the year that I finished my first novel—fifty pages of it, filled with a narrative invention that I’ve never been able to recapture. The manuscript was lost long ago, but I do recall that I killed off my central character, a cat, by having him eat “badly prepared fish.” I am still in possession of a school report on “Making a Living in the Amazon,” which we had been required to work on for a week. My contribution read, in its entirety, “In the dense, rainy, rain forest, it is hard to make a living. One way is fishing in the river that is from a mile wide to a 100 miles wide. Brazil nut collecting is another way. You can gather manioc. You are very limited as to what to do for a living in the Amazon rain forest.”
By way of comparison, here is the beginning of a twenty-five-hundred-word story that I wrote the same month, typing it on my father’s gray oversized IBM electric in a single evening:
Nobody knew why the rain had not stopped. The weather report had said four in ten for light showers in the early morning. But here it was: 5 o’clock. And it was pouring.
There was nothing to stop Lady Lieg from leaving the library. She had all the equipment, a fold-up umbrella, galoshes, etcetera and so on. But there was this book on Alla Nazimova that just begged to be taken. How could she resist it?
How indeed? In no way am I making a case that I possessed any innate talent for fiction (although it took a certain prescience to hypothesize a biography of Nazimova some thirty years before Gavin Lambert’s volume was published). But, amid the usual obfuscating data, there are flashes of verisimilitude and understanding, all of which was new to me. By then, I had discovered Maugham, and Hemingway, and Camus, and had begun to trace in literature some emotional pathways that would fulfill me infinitely more than the road map of a Connecticut town.
Oddly, the book that helped pull me into the human race was Emily Post’s “Etiquette,” which I had picked up in a moment of early-teen hippie scorn, fully intending to mock what I was sure would be an “uncool” justification of bourgeois rules and regulations. Instead, the book offered clearly stated reasons for courtesy, gentility, and scrupulousness—reasons that I could respect, understand, and implement. It suggested ways to inaugurate conversations without launching into a lecture, reminded me of the importance of listening as well as speaking, and convinced me that manners, properly understood, existed to make other people feel comfortable, rather than (as I had suspected) to demonstrate the practitioner’s social superiority. I revelled in Post’s guidance and absorbed her lessons. And, typically, I took them too far: even today, I would never dream of addressing a teen-age busboy in a small-town diner as anything other than “sir.”
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Tim Page Remembers Ashford and a Sixties Education
In a warm, funny, and beautifully written reexamination of childhood, Tim Page, an nationally recognized music and culture critic, talks about growing up with Asperger's syndrome. Read Personal History: Parallel Play for the sheer joy of it. Here's a tasty snip;