[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.
Tim Blake Nelson, Class of 1982, took me by storm. Every day. For four years. Countless interactions with him in class and rehearsals reduced me to giggles or tears, soul-searching tears. In morning meetings he often impersonated faculty members. Several of them confronted me in the lounge and demanded to know why he did that. Panicked, I knew I had to save him, so I said he’d either become an actor or a writer and was practicing dialogue and characters. (Shocked silence. I sounded crazy, but I believed that was his destiny.) I insisted he meant no harm. He probably did, but I knew better than to throw him to the angry mob. Yet I repeatedly held his feet to the fire in other ways. When I refused to give him an A on his sophomore research paper, the English Department revolted against me. “In twenty years it won’t matter,” a colleague contended. “It will to Tim,” I said. “He’ll see it wasn’t an A and be embarrassed for himself and ashamed of me.” Tim called, almost on cue in twenty years, and said, “You were right, Karen. It wasn’t an A.” This rowdy boy changed the trajectory of my life. Even now, no one can push all my unsuspecting buttons the way he still does.]
This is going to be boring, because it’s not a story of struggle or duress. High school in many ways mapped out my life. During those years (for me 1978-1982), I began to engage in aspects of every pursuit that occupies me now. I wrote and acted in my own scripts, took lots of photographs, read and wrote a great deal, and acted in as many plays as would have me. I encountered extraordinary teachers, including the one hosting this blog, and I learned how to take from them what they gave, while endeavoring to give back some measure of myself by way of enthusiasm at the very least. Above all, I gathered that a great education and a good deal of work and determination make anything possible. This is a simplistic cliché in which I still believe, much to the frustration of my inculcated children.
Like most at my private school, I grew up in relative privilege. I had access to a family car, a bit of money to spend on weekends, and a room of my own with a door I could close. I lived in a safe neighborhood, and there were both the expectation and means for me to attend college. My best pals and I went off mostly to fancy schools that provided extraordinary educations. Additionally, we got to do this from Tulsa, Oklahoma; what remains to me a contrapuntally exotic place because it offered little allure to the homogenizing corruptions of the outside world. Yes, it was middle America, but a middle America largely hidden from view because folks didn’t go there to visit, but to live. There were few tourists, and therefore none of the places that catered to them, allowing a kind of genuineness to pervade. When I eventually moved East for college, I got to come therefore from a place remote and specific; I was the only kid in my class of twelve hundred from my state, and that felt special.
I was small, Jewish, not particularly athletic, and not among the very smartest scholastically, so my currency came mostly from being funny, a pursuit I pushed hard, and at which I often succeeded but also occasionally faltered. My humor could be cruel, disrespectful, and when it was I knew instantly. I learned through failure about laughter in its more benign and even constructive forms, how when humor lacerated, it needed to have a purpose. Somehow I got a girlfriend who was smart and kind and very pretty. She drove a Jeep Renegade and was the star pitcher on the softball team. When she would periodically break up with me, being funny, let alone doing schoolwork, felt impossible. When we’d get back together, I felt invincible. My friends all loved her, a few of them a bit too much for my liking.
My sophomore year, on the night my girlfriend and I had our first real kiss, my father walked out on my mother, initiating what would be an ugly and attenuated divorce over the next several years. My mother was in unbearable pain, and selfishly I often couldn’t take it, so I hid in my schoolwork and social life, throwing myself into every activity I could, and pursuing the most advanced courses available (except for math, at which I was preternaturally abysmal). I escaped from real life and real pain, in other words, with a new enthusiasm for school. My best buddy JB and I edited the paper our junior year, driving my car onto the floor of the indoor commons to deliver the April Fools edition. It helped us to avoid punishment that he was the headmaster’s son. For my senior year, I was elected student council president. With my friend James, I did skits we would write and perform during morning meetings, often twice a week, for every event or item that needed to be advertised. My grades improved steadily, and with a cadre of enthusiasts I fell in love with Latin and the teacher who taught it. Our clan would study late into the night, reading and translating Catullus and Horace and Virgil.
There was also a good deal of drinking…and driving. How none of us was maimed or even killed—how we didn’t maim or kill others–remains a mystery to me. Every weekend night involved some form of cat-and-mouse with the local constabulary who would search us out in their prowlers in abandoned parking lots, behind churches, or on backroads and overlooks where we’d guzzle Mickeys Big Mouths, Little Kings, or Cold Duck. Had our parents known, we would have been slaughtered. There was plenty of pot around too, but I liked the booze, and spent my last prom night in jail for public intoxication. Ultimately I didn’t care, as shameful and stupidly dangerous as it was. I was graduating, and high school had been glorious.
In contrast, my first months at college were awful. I was lonely, unfulfilled, and lost. I missed my girlfriend, my still struggling and extraordinary mother, my friends, my complete life and its sense of purpose. Yet most of all, even in a homesickness that would eventually abate, I felt lucky. Yes, I’d had ups and downs—breakups, a bad grade here and there, my parents’ divorce, not being cast in a play, an arrest, friends who betrayed me—but by and large high school was something I’d assayed with a verve and enthusiasm that had rewarded me dearly. I had teachers who encouraged and truly cared (again, topping the list the host of this blog), along with a smart and varied group of friends, and a girl who taught me how to love. People laughed at me when I wanted them to, and were interested in the stories I was beginning to tell. I was learning to control and focus that in a way I sensed someday might have meaning.
I left Tulsa, in other words, with a burgeoning sense of what my life could be, and because of that, I feel like I’ve been living it fully ever since.
Tim Blake Nelson, a graduate of Brown University and Juilliard, is an actor, writer, and director. He lives in New York City with his wife and three sons.