Had lunch yesterday with an old friend from High School I haven’t seen in decades. He was going to our fortieth HS reunion, I wasn’t, so he stopped in for lunch on his way to the reunion. His life has gone in a logical line, the next in several generations of engineers, he’s been studying or working, mostly happily, in the field for several decades since graduating high school. For the last twenty years or so he’s been at the same company, working on inventions that will do many things, including make smart bombs smarter and more precise in their targeting. There is good money in those government contracts, the company he works for values his work, and many of his co-workers there feel like extended family to him. He can narrate the events of his resume over appetizers, as he demonstrated nimbly over the vegetarian lamb satay.
When it’s my turn, I am at something of a loss. Neither my life nor my description of it goes in a straight line, it jumps from my years as a bike messenger, too angry to consider any way to participate in a society that seems sick beyond redemption, to the 1981 meeting I had with a dean at CCNY who told me it was no problem to waive some requirements so I could get the remaining seven credits on my BA (magna cum laude, it should be noted). He could not waive gym, he explained, so I took volleyball and led my team to the championship.
The dean, a physics professor, if I remember correctly, a kind looking man with a resemblance to Kurt Vonnegut Jr., took care of the paperwork quickly and then gave a concerned look. “That part’s easy,” he said, leaning forward and looking mildly concerned “but, I have to ask you, on a more personal level– what is someone as obviously intelligent and thoughtful as you are planning to do with your life?”
My companion at lunch nodded, his eyes wide open. A scientist and human being, approving of the humanity of his fellow scientist, going beyond his role and asking a good, compassionate and very logical question. I proceeded to try to answer, weaving the story of my father’s life and death among the different periods of my life and times. There was no line to follow, except for the evolution of my resolve to avoid argument and conflict, to be direct, and remain as mild as possible. There was no pay-off to any of this, certainly nothing monetary, outside of a life with somewhat less anger and violence.
Odd to say, while we walked after lunch and chatted, never once did the image of, not three generations of engineers, but three generations of angry, depressed people, seventy years ago virtually all of them murdered in ditches, burned, gassed, one of the lonely survivors whipping and sobbing over her first born, clinging in fear to a God who had clearly turned his back, come into my head.
Just a single brief description of this enraged little redhead I know so little about, other than how she violently sowed the seeds for her baby’s tormented life, the baby who grew up to be my father.
I had a pleasant few hours with my HS friend and was left with the feeling I haven’t figured out how to make sense of much of it. My HS friend looked at my current program through logical eyes and didn’t see why I wasn’t working as a middle school art teacher. Better pay, benefits, same basic work.
The finer distinctions I tried to draw about the uniqueness of my program, the integration of teamwork, children taking complete ownership of the collaborative process, peer-teaching, creative problem-solving, seemed pretty much lost on him, reminding me again how important it is to find a few people who grasp essential things about the program that cannot be quantified in a lab.
Having said that, and not to suggest an inherent contradiction, I also need to quantify the claims I am making in a lab, in order to demonstrate to people who have money that this idea is worth funding.
That said, the only logical conclusion might well turn out to be that it makes no sense, this flickering idea of mine. In time I will either discover this for myself, to what end I know not, or be pleasantly surprised to see a program I’ve long dreamed of alive and walking among the living, and inspiring them.