Middlesex Memories, Five Essays (1964-1967)
I spent my formative years, from birth to age fifteen, in a prosperous suburb of New York City, Darien CT. My father, a WWII veteran, had met my mother at college in a small town in upstate New York (Canton NY), married her in 1948 and, after graduation, moved first to Jersey City NJ and then to Darien CT. My mother had grown up in Darien. Her father owned a laundry in nearby Stamford. I speak about all of this in more detail in my third autobiography, to be published soon, Like One Who Dreams: An Autobiography at 65.
I attended Holmes elementary school and then Middlesex Junior High (1964-1967) in Darien. Ninth graders in those days were the oldest ones in a three-grade junior high (seventh-ninth) rather than the youngest ones in a high school. On the occasion of my 54th birthday (in 2006), I decided to put together five essays on my memories of that period. I reproduce them here, in March 2020, in preparation for my fiftieth high school reunion. Though I didn't actually graduate from Darien High School, I seem to remember the names of the graduates much better than the actual high school from which I graduated (Menlo-Atherton in California).
Here are my essays from 2006, only slightly edited for clarity:
I. Middlesex Junior High (1964-1967)
Memories from Another Era
On my 54th birthday, three days ago, I wrote an essay on one of my former teachers at Middlesex Junior High School in Darien CT (reproduced in the next essay). By thinking about him (Mr. Laube), I was brought back to memories of other teachers, and some students, who contributed to that period of my life. I was born in nearby Stamford in 1952, but lived in Darien until our family moved to the Bay Area in 1967. I didn't know until about a week before we actually moved to CA that we were going to do so. I spent the Summer of 1967 trying to acclimatize myself to Darien High School, where I would be a student in the Fall, by training with the football team and, in general, hanging around the school.
I don't remember anything about the high school except the football coach, a middle-aged man named Victor Crump, if I recall correctly, who used to tell us that his approach to coaching was KISS (I didn't know it at the time, but everyone was saying the same thing. Mindless drones repeat the same acronymn today): "Keep it Simple Stupid." He told us that he was stupid, and that he needed therefore to keep his football plays easy. I probably remember this remark because it was the first time I actually heard someone embrace the concept of stupidity. I would learn over the years that many would employ it, though few would be vocal about their dedication to i.
Ah, Junior High
So, I attended Middlesex Junior High, on Hollow Tree Rd. from 1964-1967. I would often walk to school (about 1 1/2 miles--though I assure you I never walked five miles through the snow in the dead of Winter, which was the mythology of my parents' generation). I recall being amazed not only at the size of the place, but of the fact that we had different teachers for every class. I was exposed to some of this the previous year when I attended a one-year sixth grade at "The Annex" in South Darien, but now I was confronted with that daily reality. I rather liked it, since I had different kids in each class, and it gave me more teachers to get to understand and, at times, torment.
Each day began with home room period for about ten or fifteen minutes. My seventh grade home room teacher was an older lady, Miss Reed (I think that was her name) who probably had been teaching for 35 years by the time I arrived. Her closest colleague on the faculty was Miss Olson, of like vintage, whose classroom was next door. Neither of them was particularly attractive, and we students, in our respectful and loving ways, developed nicknames for both. Miss Reed was "Pruneface" and Miss Olson, the shorter of the two, was "Mousie."
I'll never forget one phrase that Miss Reed would often use. Seventh grade students, lest you forget, are walking cases of attention deficit. They have needs that must be attended to right now or else the structure of the universe will be altered. Miss Reed had develped a classic way of handling all the insistent cries of students for attention. It was the simple phrase, "Die in your seats." Some of us would want to use the bathroom, or be excused from our chair, or get a book or countless other things that only twelve year-olds can invent, but her way of keeping order was to tell us to be quiet and die in our seats. As it happened, no one, even those who had seemingly urgent needs, ended up dying.
Homeroom was memorable for another reason, because we sat in clusters of four students at small tables for those fifteen minutes. Thus, we got to know, and gossip with, three other students if we so chose. The guy sitting next to me was named Gus. He was quite small, and so I called him "Little Gus," and he called me "Big Bill." We greeted each other this way each day through the year. Today he is Gus Van Sant, one of the most creative Hollywood movie directors. As I think of Gus at that time, two things stand out very clearly in my memory. The first is that he had incredibly small, even dainty, wrists around which was the sign of coolness of that era--an ID bracelet. The second, and more to the point, were his penetrating blue eyes. In fact so intense were they, as I recall, that it was as if the pupil had contracted to a mere black pin prick and all there was was a sea of blue. Gus didn't say hardly anything, but I noted that he was always looking intently at the world. Who knows if he was in his own private Idaho at the time, but I think the roots of creativity were certainly already present. When I talked to him briefly later (in the late 1990s) in Portland, he mentioned to me that the biggest influence on him in those days was an English teacher named Mr. Sohn. I never had Mr. Sohn for English (Mousie was my teacher in eighth grade), and never got to know him, but I recall him as a man in a disheveled suit always lugging an enormous briefcase--this was well before the days of "rolling" your book bag with you.
Instead of developing my creative talents in film-making or related skills, I took a different path in Junior High. The next essay tells of a few teachers I recall.
II. Middlesex Memories II (1964-1967)
On Teachers and Activities
As I think of it today, Middlesex Junior High was probably inaptly named. To be sure, the word has deep roots in New England history, perhaps none more prominent than in Longfellow's famous poem, "Paul Revere's Ride," where Paul went riding
"Through every middlesex village and farm, For the country folk to be up and to arm."
But to put together hundreds of gender-confused twelve-fifteen year-olds in one huge building and call it Middlesex--well, you can imagine the stories that were told. I also think the gymnasium had an unfortunate appellation--the Belcher Gym. We gender-challenged boys would, at the end of and even during gym class, try to outdo each other in that activity which seemingly, to us, was confirmed by the name of the gym. Too bad for Mr. Belcher, whom I am sure was a distinguished citizen of the town. I wonder to what extent when the gym was dedicated in his honor that people already knew it would be the subject of future jibes.
Seventh Grade Spanish
My best teacher in the three years of Junior High was my seventh grade Spanish teacher, Miss McGoldrick. She was new when I was new, and Spanish instruction was new that year, too. Darien had been a "French (and Latin) only" town, at least at the Junior High Level, but for some wonderful reason the school board decided to begin Spanish instruction in Fall 1964 at Middlesex. I, a reluctant student, remember being drawn in by her energy, drive and love for the language. She gave us Spanish names the first day of class (I was Guillermo, of course), and from then on it was drilling, and speaking, and listening and reading. We spoke and recorded our words at the language lab, and she insisted that we learn to speak Spanish (Castilian Spanish, that is) with as little an accent as possible. She believed that Spanish was the most beautiful language in the world, and that if we took the time to study it we would be opening new worlds for ourselves. I actually continued Spanish only though tenth grade, but it gave me such a good foundation in the language that when I went to Honduras in 1995 with a bunch of veterinarians from TX on a mission trip, I ended up being the "translator" at our makeshift medical clinic for all-comers in the impoverished town of Siguatepeque. I felt I learned Spanish much better in those years than when I learned German, and I studied in Germany during my doctoral work. All of this is, I believe, thanks to the dedication and passion of Miss McGoldrick [Note: In 2020, I have hired a Spanish tutor to "get me up to speed" in the language. It is coming back very nicely}
Other Teachers--Mrs. Weck, ; Mr. Kronewitter; Miss Foster
I had Mrs. Weck for 8th grade Algebra, and even though she was the only teacher up to that point who gave me less than an A in math (I got an A-), I think of her as the best math teacher I ever had. I remember her not only because of her demanding style, her thorough treatment of algebra and a slight problem with her sight (that gave you the feeling she was looking straight through you when you was talking to you), but also because of her first name: Wilnor. Have you ever heard the name Wilnor Weck before? I did an Internet search on that name, and found it in Florida; perhaps she is retired there now, since I can't imagine two such persons [Note from 2020: I have since discovered that she died in Sarasota, FL, in 2003].
Mr. Kronewitter taught seventh grade Social Studies, as it was known in those days. It was one of those "survey the world"-types of classes, though I think we only "covered" the Western world. But the course, as I recall, was a sort of "Fertile Crescent to 1960" course. The thing that I remember about his class was the word lists he handed out. At the beginning of every large unit (ancient Egypt or early Modern Europe, for example), he would give us a single page listing of about 25 terms we had to know. The reason I recall this is that I remember the last items on two of the lists. He wanted us to learn who "Hatshepsut" and "Tutankhaman" were for Egypt, and he wanted us not to leave early Modern Europe without knowing about the "Hanseatic League." The fact that I recall the last entries on the list in 2006 may be significant: even now when I read books, I always begin with the last chapter or the last few pages and then work backwards. I think I may have started that practice long ago. Just as there aren't two Wilnor Weck's, I doubt if there are tons of Kronewitters around. I ran into one of them in the late 1980s in the Portland area, and he turned out to be Mr. Kronewitter's son. Large world [I learned that Mr Kronewitter died in Tigard OR, about 40 minutes from where I live, in 2000. I attribute his method of precisely defining historical concepts to be behind my drive to master, in precise detail, thousands of things from every culture and place in the world; his son, Rick Lee Kronewitter, died in 2018].
Finally, Miss Bonnie Foster was the teacher I tormented the most. She was a new teacher in 1966-1967, and I had her for ninth grade Latin. Maybe I wanted to destroy her newly-minted enthusiasm for teaching, though I don't think so, since I was enthralled by Miss McGoldrick's teaching of Spanish in 7th grade. I think I just spotted some first-year vulnerability and decided to try to exploit it. I never worked hard at Latin, but for some reason believed I should receive an A+ for just showing up. I was completely chagrined and even mortified to receive a C+ from Miss Foster in the first grading period. Amid dire parental warnings regarding how this would compromise my future success and enjoyment in life, I spent a weekend memorizing every Latin form in the book. I recall putting on such a dazzling display of Latin learning after the weekend that I actually embarrassed myself in class. Seems like I was either completely "on" or "off" in the class. Nevertheless, I began to love languages through the study of Latin.
Middlesex Junior High School offered me an education that was, if not unparalled for public schools, almost unique in the range and quality of its offerings. But school was much more than classes, as everyone knows. My next three essays deal with people and sports.