My last two years in high school were absolutely miserable. In the junior and senior years of a highly competitive school, one’s whole existence becomes the frantic preparation to enter the next highly competitive situation. Even the most casual conversations turned to SAT scores and grade point averages. What were the Ivies looking for? What extracurricular activities gave you the biggest boost toward getting into a “name” college? Where were the scholarships?
The problem for me was that my family had grown so dysfunctional (alcoholism, depression, an uncle murdered) that even a free New York City high school had become a financial and emotional burden. My grades suffered accordingly. And so I hid from my classmates and their discussions of colleges. I stayed away from school for weeks at a time. I went to cheap flicks on 42nd Street. I took long walks around the city. But mostly I tried to lose myself in books. I would read in Central Park if I found myself there. I would read on the subways that took me from Harlem to lower New York and Brooklyn. Books and reading became my life.
Somewhere along the way I discovered a precarious balance between the intellectual intimacy of the books I read and my personal alienation from a world in which I didn’t seem to belong. Shakespeare, André Gide, Honoré de Balzac (authors suggested by my English teacher) were guides to a world I couldn’t see and only sensed existed. But they were excellent guides, at hand day and night, always comforting.
Sometimes, in retrospect, I am saddened by my lost school years. But at other times I wonder if that odd, isolated life with books was what I was meant to have all along. Perhaps what I saw as a turning away was really a turning toward — leading me toward a reality it has taken me a lifetime to articulate. What I wonder most now is whether my English teacher knew it as well.
From the September/October 2010 special “School” issue of The Horn Book Magazine.