I do believe in supporting educational institutions, both public and private, and I have a record of doing so. I attended six colleges and universities in getting my degrees, and have contributed to all but one. My children’s schools have always been well supported by us, also.
|The house I grew up in
In the summer of 2004, perhaps a month and a half after my mother died, my mobile phone rang while I was driving west on 520. I answered, about halfway across the bridge, using the speaker phone. There was rowdy cheering in the background, and a voice identified the caller as someone I went to high school with. His message was simple: he was calling on behalf of our high school. It was their annual fundraising call-a-thon. He rattled off the names of some other classmates I could hear carousing in the background. “You guys have money,” he said. “You should donate.” This was followed with a roar of laughter in the background.
I do not remember saying much in reply. I may have even hung up on him. I would prefer to think that I used the catch-all I like to use in such occasions: “I am not in a position to help you right now.”
My mother’s death was widely publicized in the local papers, as she was a high ranking administrator at a prestigious university there. My high school published their condolences in the quarterly newsletter, just as they had for my father a few years before. I can certainly imagine that for the purposes of fundraising, using classmates to make the calls is a good way to get participation; it’s someone you know, if not an actual friend. The problem with this system is that if you invite a group of obnoxious drunken bullies (who were obnoxious drunken bullies in high school and seemingly never stopped being obnoxious drunken bullies since) to make the calls, they will behave in the obnoxious, bullying, drunken ways that they have always behaved. The call was an error whether or not I had just lost a parent.
I was not in the worst possible state of mind for such a call. I was still very hardened to bad news. My mother was never old, not even a little old. She was only 20 when she had my older brother and 22 when she had me. She battled brain cancer her last year and a half, so she was sick, but she was never old. My dad had died after a year and a half of bad news about his cancer, and then my mother had died after a year and a half of bad news about her cancer. I had arrived at the point where both my parents were gone, cut down in their prime, and I was still barely feeling like a real adult myself. I had arrived at the point where the unthinkable had happened, where I was among the oldest trees in my woods: my brothers and me. A phone call from obnoxious, bullying drunken idiots from my (seemingly) distant past was like squirrels playing chase up and down my trunk, for I was the unimaginably old elm. What are squirrels to a 300 year old tree?
Back when this elm was a sapling, she went to an exclusive, private non-religious, college-prep high school in suburban St. Louis. I received what I considered a quality education; I sailed through my freshman year at an elite college with mostly As and a few Bs, feeling completely prepared for rigorous writing assignments.
The high school partying scene was alcohol-fueled, though kids from the classes above mine were still smoking pot and a few of my peers regularly dropped acid. It was not a come-to-school-shitfaced thing, more of a get-plastered-on-the-weekend thing. Bad choices were made on a frequent basis. If my children partied today like we did in high school, I would be very, very alarmed and would probably not let them out of my sight.
In St. Louis in the late 1970s, our parents played tennis and golf, rooted for the Cardinals, went to church on Sunday (but were disdainful of actually religious people), and went to parties and had parties where they got drunk. My parents were different, in the end, because they liked to go camping, my mother was a fine artist, and my father ran marathons; we did not belong to a country club like my classmates’ families did. We were different, but we were also the same.
About a year after my mother died, in the summer of 2005, I went back to St. Louis to go through her things. This was a painful process, and I made a few mistakes which leave me with some regrets. It was a thing done as quickly as my brothers and step-father and I could manage, and it was a big task. I have not been back since.
I almost went back this past August. The previous August, I saw pictures on Facebook of a gathering of my girlfriends one weekend. Their kids were all there, and so were many of my old friends (and none of the obnoxious drunken bullies). I had just moved to New York, and pretty lonely, and St. Louis is an easy flight from here. I was sorry to have missed it. I promised to go the next year. When this August rolled around, I was invited, but I was in the midst of the move from North Dreadful to New York City, and really could not manage it.
I went to our tenth high school reunion and our twentieth, but I do not think I will go again. I did enjoy seeing some of my old friends, but there were just enough obnoxious conversations, just enough bullying questions that I did not feel like answering, and just enough drunken gossiping for me to say, “No, thanks.”
Lately, I have had to make many (if not almost all) of the folks I went to high school with invisible to me on Facebook. One of my classmates likes to post videos of business leaders who sell cheap goods (mostly made in China) in their big-box retail stores, but claim that we need the presidential candidate they endorse to create good jobs for college graduates. Another accused me of being “brainwashed.”
Missouri is the home of some famous obnoxious, bullying public figures, including Phyllis Schlafly (who certainly deserves her very own blog post at a later date) and Todd Akin. Akin is one of the many members of the GOP who have used the extra attention of this election season to share with the world their interesting and unusual but appallingly unscientific and degrading thoughts about acts of violence towards women and human reproduction. I was wondering what kind of terrible high school was responsible for Akin’s obviously poor science education. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that he went to my elite, college-prep high school.
I try to be a person who is hard to embarrass, but Todd Akin makes me embarrassed to be from the state of Missouri. When someone who publicly and willfully flouts facts to serve what he claims to be his religious calling turns out to be an alum of the school I have been more or less proud to say I graduated from, I am chagrined. My first thought was one of, “Well, now I can continue not to contribute to annual giving.”
After some more reflection, though, it has become obvious to me that a donation is in order. If we allow the manipulative idiots and the drunken, obnoxious bullies to completely control the conversation, everyone loses. I am thinking about contacting the school library, to ensure that they have the books I have found particularly influential to my current mindset. I am compiling a list, but, for now, two such titles that come to mind are Alice Sebold’s rape memoir, “Lucky,” and Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” I plan to buy the school copies of any books they do not have.
I believe in education: that when we expose good ideas to people, the world becomes a better place.
Readers, I strongly encourage you to add your suggested books in the comments, below.