Education Interuptus

Education Interruptus

How Could So Much Potential Go So Wrongly Right?

My educational adventures look like a hopscotch game that stretched on for decades.  Now I freely admit that the denouement of my storied career in studiousness lands squarely in my realm of responsibility but now that I think about it, I come by my will-o-the-wisp wanderings quite honestly. I hate to regurgitate the morbid maxim of blaming everything on one‘s parentage but in this case, when truthfully examined, it is wholly my mother’s fault.  After all, imprinting starts early and as I will explain, mine began in earnest when I started school, if not before.

My mother fought hard for her education.  Really hard.

She was the eldest daughter of seven children born to Norwegian and German immigrant stock in very rural Wisconsin in 1912.  Her father was a gruff, angry, volatile man who painted barns for a living, my grandmother…..well, she raised seven children on a housepainter’s wages, end of story.

My mother grew up with tales of the wild west as her heritage; Sitting Bull was an acquaintance of my grandfather.  When Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show would come to town, he and Sitting Bull would come to the house and sit on the porch and smoke pipes together with my grandfather and visit.  My grandmother, completely undone by this, kept the children “hidden” for fear of capture and scalping.  My mother talked of crouching behind the divan and peeking her head up to see the Indian out front yet terrified of being seen.

In this time and place, educating young girls was really an after-thought.  But my mother and all her sisters dutifully went through school….and excelled; they were one and all bright young girls.  My mother, the first in line, went off to the local Teacher’s College, now University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse, for her first semester.  Excelling as usual, she hit a hard wall when her father announced he did not have the money to send her on further and opportunities for a young woman to earn money in 1920’s Wisconsin were non-existent.  Embarrassed at her family’s poverty she simply did not attend the beginning of classes for the second semester.  This was not to be the end of the story…by a long shot.

Enter a kindly woman professor from the college.  She appeared at their door one morning with the admonition, “Miss Fillner, I did not see you in class this morning!”. Mortified, my mother had to admit the real reason to which her teacher simply said, “Show up tomorrow, we will make allowances.”

The “allowances” that were made consisted of this teacher paying for the rest of my mother’s college education.  The only condition being that with her education, she was to pay it forward in some way.

Upon graduation there were no jobs in LaCrosse and still many mouths to feed at her house.  My grandfather, picking up the mail at the post office one day, brought home an application for the Civil Service exam, administered then through the postal service.  He tossed it at her at dinner with the words, “Here.  You’re smart, you can do this.” His rough attempt at parental guidance, I suppose. She was, and she did.

She got a job doing, of all things, grading Civil Service exams…in Washington, D.C… 1937.  She took a train through Chicago to D.C. the second week in December having never left her hometown before.  She paid her “debt” by funding two of her sister’s college educations back home and eventually bringing them and two brothers to D.C. as well.  Education was her thing, obviously.

She taught English for a while and then, as she was raising my sister and me, she got elected to the county school board where we were living in Maryland.  I was now in my local elementary school; a strange and unusual mix of kids coming from the homes of the landed white gentry, the working poor, and the children of the freed black slaves who owned and populated the small Quaker community where the school was located.  Talk about cognitive dissonance!  

By the third grade, it became apparent to my mother that I, her late-in-life shining son, was not going to get the quality education that she required for me.  Her mission became clear, she resigned from the school board, gathered her forces and started a private school in the basement of the church we then attended.  She eventually raised a million dollars and built a brick and mortar edifice that continues to this day with a stellar reputation.  As the first student in the school and first graduate, I actually spoke to the 50thgraduating class a few years back.  Her memorial was held in the library that bears her name.  She has a great through-line on her story. Her arc was high and complete.

Back to mine.

I graduated from elementary school, one of a class of eight kids who I had been with through the eighth grade.  Keep in mind, she added a year to the school every year just to keep me in it.  Determined is a word.  As the first student in the first class of this, HER school, I had a weight on me that was immeasurable. All eyes were on me and if that were not enough, I had to ride home with and have dinner with The Principal every night. My life was torture in a lot of ways.

I was confirmed in the Washington National Cathedral; my parents had been married there in 1939.  My mother’s school was an Episcopalian-oriented private academy. While we went to church it was really more of a thing we had to do because the social times and the educational and financial circumstances dictated it was proper.  Religiousity was never a thing; devoutness avoided me as a whole.  When my parents broke with the church as I was exiting eighth grade, church was in my rearview mirror.  My mother had other plans.  I was a legacy student at St. Alban’s School, a boy’s academy attached to the National Cathedral.

The entrance exam was long, administered in a columned, formal, mullioned-windowed gothic room.  It was an all-boys school. There were proctors. There was pressure. I was thirteen years old. I had no desire to go to an all-boys school but felt I had no say in the matter.  Also, as a young gay teen, if I fought against being in an all-male environment (really out of fear of being found out, I suppose) would I trigger some conversation I did not want to have?  Moot point. Confusion reigned.

I turned in a stack of blank blue books.

When the admissions team called us all in for a conference, I believe some of the first words were, “Mr. and Mrs. Sherwin, I believe you have a problem.”  I cannot begin to imagine or recall the shame-faced reaction my mother must have had. I know it was there, I have blocked it out, entirely.  I do recall that after the hour’s ride back home the question of why was proffered and I told the truth as I knew it…I wanted a coed school.  The other underlying reasons remained unearthed for a few more years.

As luck would have it an alternative educational facility, one that actually had and still does have a better academic credential was just up Wisconsin Avenue, Sidwell Friend School, a Quaker academy and, coming as I did from THE Quaker community, it seemed a good fit.  It was never mentioned that they were the second choice. I wish now in hindsight, that I had taken better advantage of this extraordinary opportunity. Latin, French, Greco-Roman history, amazing teachers, out-of-this-world fellow students; literally, offspring of the elite in politics and media.  Quaker Meeting once a week, a meditative practice that I know look back on with envy and wish I had taken it up earlier and with more of a vengeance instead of cutting that “class” to smoke in the stairwell.

It was 1968.  It was Washington, D.C. I was fifteen.  You do the math.

I “dated” older girls…girls who had licenses, and cars….classic 1956 Tbirds, and entrée into the house parties that Justice Scaminaugh would later make famous.  Yes those very-same house parties though he was a few years after my tenure in those storied Bethesda homes.  The shenanigans were more innocent, the drugs were less potent, the price of admission less life-altering in the end.  Life was altered enough with the war, Nixon, Watts; it was a mess.  And then the unthinkable.  As if I wasn’t missing enough class the Quakers had to go and completely fuckup my education by advocating for the legalization of pot.  I know!  How radical.  How prescient? How great!

My mother was having none of it. 

She still played bridge with someone on the Montgomery County School Board and over a few Manhattan’s one evening got me an exemption into one of the premier public schools in the system, one whose district I was in no way eligible for.  It happened to be next door to Holton Arms Academy where she was now the headmistress.  Yes, that Holton Arms; Christine Blasey Ford Holton Arms.  And I still rode to and from school with the Principal only now I drove and dropped her at school and took the car.  Literally, I took the car….to Ocean City for lunch, at least twice a week.  It was a 5 hour round trip if you sped, a lot; you figure out how much school I actually attended.  My folks were not nearly sophisticated enough to check mileage in those days.  It was 1969.  EFFE arrived at our school!

EFFE. Experiment in Free Form Education. Whoever dreamed up this baby was taking the LSD we were peddling.  An important aside here; the pot-infused Quakers my mother had sought to protect me from were nothing compared to the yuppie, shoplifting, LSD-capping, mescaline dropping crowd I soon found myself deep within! Back to EFFE: No grades, no attendance, six weeks, format our own educational goals.  I’m surprised the school even opened.  I decided it was SUCH a good thing that I changed our home address to my cousin’s house and she watched for my grades when they started to show back up because, well, they had my attendance records on them which, by now, were spelunk-worthy.  Until it all came crashing down.

One day I was walking the halls, actually IN school, when one of my network of spies grabbed me in the hall and said that Mr. Jackson, my ersatz “counselor”, was on the phone with my mother and they had my attendance records out!  Alors! Je suis pris!  My career at Walt Whitman came to an abrupt and immediate end that day.  I was back on the rural yellow bus going to the school I had started out in 12 years previous.  It was February of my senior year. It was 1970.  I was eighteen. My best friends with cars met my bus every morning; we either went downtown to protest at the Monument or we went to Ocean City.  I was a latch-key kid on a farm with no latches. I scraped out of high school but was really so stoned I didn’t care. I wanted to spend the summer at the beach with my friends selling fries and doing dope but my mother had other ideas.  My sister was living in Germany popping out grandchildren, so my mother insisted I go to Europe for the summer.  Can we have a chorus of “I’m So Entitled” sung to the Pointer Sisters? I resisted long and loud enough that they agreed to take my best friend along with me. God, I was gooood.

Have you been keeping count?  That would be 5 schools by 12thgrade. I believe from there onward I was doomed to wander.

It was 1970 and my draft number was 13.  Not good.  The only way out was an educational exemption.  So off I went to yet another legacy school, the by now infamous University of Wisconsin in LaCrosse.  I lasted six weeks.  Number one I was in a DORM, horrors; number two, there was a minor legal issue (jail) not worth mentioning but one that got communicated, somehow, back to the mother in Maryland who, along with the father, flew to Wisconsin and blew the entire situation into a Major Issue.  I had no choice but to go back to Maryland where they could keep an eye on me.  That meant in order to keep my draft exemption I started at the local community college as, of all things, an art major. It also meant that after parentally-mandated psychiatric counseling they were told to trust me more and harass me less. This took the form of a Sea-Foam green 1968 Mustang convertible.  Let me just say here that as a teen, I was not allowed to even ride in anyone’s convertible; my mother’s version of Unsafe at Any Speed, so the concept of them buying me one was further proof of my power.  It was also just too much.  Too much privilege, too much laisse-faireism, just too much of all good things and not enough discipline and responsibility.  I was still a wild-child of the 60’s now turned loose on a world that was at war and in turmoil.  The recipe had been baked in.

I moved into the very first commune our small town had ever seen.  Four hundred remote acres with a massive 6-bedroom, 1812 farmhouse, barns, and acreage for soon to be infamous Field Parties.  We ALL worked for VITRO Industries, the makers of Polaris Poseidon missiles; go figure, doped out hippies making bombs for “the man”.  It paid for the drugs.  That commune lasted over a decade.  I left within the year to keep my exemption current.  I did what a lot of east-coasters were doing in the early 70’s, I enrolled in college in Colorado.  I spent the next 3 years sorta going to classes but mostly hooked on Valium that the school health services provided in buckets…for my acne.  Who knew it was addictive?  Towards the end even I knew that this was a major problem, so I simply stopped, cold turkey.  Not a well-researched plan (there was no Google) and the ensuing physical problems manifested themselves in horrific urinary pain among other things. The school health service wanted to do a cystoscopy but the mere thought of someone poking something up my penis permanently crossed my legs and made me cancel the appointment.  Instead, I put myself back on low, low, dose Valium and then titrated myself off, slowly.  The symptoms vanished, the fog in my head cleared, and I knew I needed to once again go back to Maryland and clean up some messes I had left behind.

I got an apartment in a hideous development that was close to the University of Maryland where I enrolled in Business Administration and decided I now had to finish this college thing I had been puttering around with for years.  I also landed a gig cater-waitering for a woman who had a Kosher catering company in my home town. She did all the major Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in the D.C Metro area. Through that I also became the in-house caterer for the corporate headquarters of Fannie Mae, the D.C.-based mortgage giant. Those luncheons with the top 20 big-guns were fascinating to listen in on!  The amount of booze that fed the policy making was astounding.

It was about here I really began to earn the sobriquet that would stick with me through the years moving forward; Miss Finagle.  I was making great money with all the catering gigs, still hated school but knew now that I had to jigger a way through my senior year.  Since I was in Business Admin, I proposed that for my senior year I do a working, marketing audit of the company I was managing.  Instead of boring classroom work, I would do field research and write up a thesis that the department would grade at the end of the year.  I rarely saw the campus again, passed the thesis, made money and matriculated at long last.  It took an astounding seven years and again, four separate colleges in various incarnations.  

So, there you have it, my Educational Inrteruptus, 16 years and 9 schools.  I was at my mother’s school the longest, 5 years, so subtracting that you have 8 schools in 11 years.  As I write this down and look back though the piece I am stunned.  Somehow, through all the home and school disruption, and as the 60’s and 70’s raged around me and in me, I managed to attain something more than a diploma.  I found a way to learn; to assimilate, assess, and most of all to read, voraciously. Had the fates and the times turned a few degrees in any direction and I had managed to stay at Sidwell Friends I believe I would have had the basis for a much more controlled and contained higher education but the cards I was dealt; a dysfunctional family structure, a maniacal menace of a mother, an emotionally absent father, and a boiling cauldron of a cultural explosion, all conspired to keep me perpetually off-balance.  A spinning top wobbling its way around the floor, trying to maintain an upright position, is magical to watch and suspenseful to imagine when its final twirl will occur.  But when that whirling dervish is you, it’s not so magical after all; it is simply damned difficult.

It has taken me six decades to put this all in order, such as it is. It reminds me of the lyrics of a Paul Simon song, “American Tune”.  But unlike the final line of Simon’s tune, I can’t but wonder why things have gone so right!

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

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