[From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn’t know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they’ve found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves.
Bill Webb, from the Class of 1983, was in constant motion, swiveling round and round, arms flailing, and cocking his head like a curious puppy. Moving helped him think. It could be irritating, too, so I sometimes closed my eyes so I wouldn’t get dizzy when I listened to him talk a mile a minute. If I could stay still and keep him focused, he’d reach a valuable conclusion. If Bill was anything, he was an original thinker. I requested a handstand picture because that was his common pose, his exclamation-pointed resolve, his metaphorical self forever turning upside down to find his upside right self. And he did.]
I have been asked to write an essay about my high school years at Holland Hall and I am tempted to steal the format of Joe Brainerd’s great book-length poem “I Remember” which is a series of sentences and short paragraphs that begin with “I remember” and then spill, in no particular order, into a detail, a corner, a shame, a joy, a taste or a smell of his life. Or perhaps I shall steal Elie Wiesel’s list of “Never Shall I Forget’s” that is found in his book Night. That list is a vow, a pledge to the seared imprint of his family, the cold, the hunger, tastes, and smells of the concentration camps in 1945. I am a teacher of reading and writing so I do not know how to begin an essay without referring to a text and these are mine today. While these books are far apart in years and intention, sex and shame appear in both, and so does longing, fathers, anger, snow, friendship and food. I will start there.
I did not know what I longed for in high school, but it was not preppy girls in uniforms of kilts and cardigans. I tried, I did try, but I fumbled. I felt set apart, and I did not know why. Or if I knew why it was only a desire to have close friends, buddies, or pals. I saw the ease of boys who could hit and wrestle and laugh with each other on the way to the locker room, share secrets about sex and drinking, toss keys to each other and open doors to a parents’ car to drive to a movie, lunch, home, tennis? I do not know where they went, these boys in polo’s and khakis, but in any case, it looked easy and fun and regular the way the keys were tossed across the hood of the car, “You drive.” I wanted that intimacy. “You drive.” I knew a boy a year older who looked like he shared the same desire that I did, but we did not become friends; instead we only teased each other the way children tease when they know there is a shared secret. We were mean to each other.
My Father did not speak to me of grades or homework; that was my Mother’s job. But he did ask his secretary to type up a 20-page research paper I wrote my junior year. I did thank him. I did thank her. I did not play enough soccer or run enough track for my father to come out and support me, my sisters made up for that. He did though come to see plays and attended any art show where I had a painting. My Father was very happy at graduation. I earned 2 big awards. One for art and one for theater. A surprise. Two! And when I chose to attend Sarah Lawrence College he made a point of stopping off in New York on his way back from Europe to see the college and he was given a tour by Holly Robinson who he called a ”Smart, lovely black girl”. She was and is.
Mostly directed at myself. How amazing it would have been to be honest, to seek love, to flirt, to date, to have a boy wake something in me in high school. But at 16 in Tulsa my imagination did not stretch that big. The imagination of the school, the town did not stretch that big. I wish I had been brave, a pioneer. Instead I sulked, tried so hard to be otherwise and was awkward, clumsy and fawning with my peers. Blech! Girls knew I think, and they singled me out often for taunts and ridicule. Blech! I was so eager to publicly laugh at myself. Blech! I was easy prey. Blech! I was lonely.
The architect of my high school library was very wise. There were lots of hiding places, lots of corners, lots of big windows. These are good things for reading, quiet and naps. It was a beautiful library with long tables, a fireplace, windows that looked over lawns and trees, big, generous armchairs for reading. This building was not old, ivy covered or creaky; it was 70s modern, gold brick, rust carpet and soothing. In the back, hidden by rows of books, was a chair that sat alone facing a 2-story window that looked over the soccer field and it was the best place to watch the snow come down and wait for an announcement that school was closing early. It was a winter chair. How beautiful the snow is from a library window. I wrote a short poem about the drapes that framed that window and I won second place in our poetry rag, the Holland Hall Windmill. I cannot remember the poem, but it was about wind.
I had three great friends in high school, my art teacher, my English teacher, and an Indian boy named Karim. My art teacher gave me unstructured time to paint, draw and make a mess. The art room was big and the paint was free and I spent every moment that I could stretching canvases, painting and hanging out. There were a few older artsy students and once in a while I would be invited to gather with them around the art teacher’s desk and listen and laugh and drink soda. Once, though I was mad and disrespectful and rude and my art teacher almost had me kicked out of school. But my advisor stepped in, my Mother came round, I apologized and we moved on. I had crossed a line I did not know existed, but I learned. Adult friendship had to come with respect. My English teacher did not give me unlimited space and time, she gave me F’s and D’s on papers and forced me to sit with her and learn to write. She had high expectations, curly hair and not a lot of patience. She was also very adult; she did not mess around and she looked like she had a secret private life that had nothing to do with students or school. She trusted the book we were reading and the paper we were writing and not much else. She taught me how to be spare and correct. She also gave me leading roles in plays I had no right to have and made me memorize lines and be responsible to a crew. She knew what I needed to get out of myself. She was smart. Karim, because of divorce and passports, was recently taken from a boarding school in England and enrolled in a private school in Tulsa and we became friends. We drove to Oklahoma City in his Corvette and saw Prince, The Time and Vanity 6 in concert. We were both on C team soccer and he taught me about English new wave, black funk and the fun you could have being an outsider. We drank too much beer and I hung out at his parent’s house in a fancy part of town. I gave a painting to his Stepfather who collected Winston Churchill’s watercolors.
We could drink Dr. Pepper, Pepsi or Mountain Dew all day at school, and there was no limit. They were $0.40 a can. There was a cafeteria, but I mostly brought my lunch and the teachers smoked all the time. The whole school met in the commons each morning for announcements and this is where we learned that John Lennon had been shot and where we were told to turn in permissions slips, when a club was meeting, a reminder about uniforms and what time the football game would begin on Friday night. One day my freshman year I stepped in front of the whole school and said, “See, Odie, brothers aren’t so bad.” and gave my sister a big vanilla birthday cake. Odie cut up the cake for breakfast for her friends, and was embarrassed, but happy. I seemed to be always hungry in high school and I ate mountains of corn nuts and brownies. I never did, as my sister, bake cookies and cupcakes for bake-sales at school, but I did make spaghetti, twice-baked potatoes and hamburgers at home and without knowing it started a life-long path of kitchen love. There was much that began in high school that I did not know to credit. I learned to write, to paint, to question, to read and to run. I learned that work and time create knowledge and not hoping and waiting. I still have no patience with waiting and hoping and would rather hike or swim or make anything than sit still.
Joe Brainerd was a gay man who also grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and he died in 1994. I do not know if he cared for such matters as healing old wounds. Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Romania and published in 2012 his latest book Open Heart in which he challenges and affirms his belief that gratitude instead of anger was the right path for a good life. I will be reading Open Heart with my students next week and we will too ask ourselves what is a good life and how to wrestle with the difficult work of pardon. High school in Oklahoma was not easy, I was not easy, but in clear moments I know that roots of what I love best and what I do best began in the complicated and unruly years of Holland Hall.
William Webb lives with his partner of 18 years in Berkley, California. Bill is the Director of Maybeck High School and is an associate of the Institute of Writing and Thinking at Bard College. He has taught writing workshops at Al Quds University in Palestine; Texas A& M; St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Delano, Ca; Sacramento, Ca; and Los Angeles, as well as Bard College in upstate New York. He teaches literature, writes, paints, and cans apricot and strawberry jam.
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