Poem Recital, the Shame and the Glory



I started out as a child. A shy child.

Introverted was the word for it. And it did not go unnoticed, in particular among the teachers and staff at Saltonstall school. I am sure that the word is written down somewhere in my school records.

I was in the eighth grade my last year at Saltonstall. The top of the heap. Next year would mean high school and starting out on the bottom rung all over again. The concensus among the conspirators was that I needed some responsibility, and more points of contact with my fellow students. So the solution was my appointment as head of sales for the school fundraiser.  Chocolate bars ahoy and record keeping galore.

I did not learn until later that the fix was in. I learned about it from Jimmy who worked on the project with me.  I think Jimmy felt cheated at first, because the position would have been his otherwise. But over the course of our time working together, a mutual respect grew between us. Funny as I think about it now, it was the first inkling of what I would later do for a living.  Counting beans.  Or with the advent of computers, coding beans.

It all went well and so did everything else in the run up to graduation. I was selected from my class to take the lead in the class presentation at the last school assembly. I was assigned the recitation of a poem as the close. It wasn’t the Kipling poem “If’” but it was something akin to it.

The day of the event came with consternation and worry growing with each tick of the clock. We were herded from our class to the backstage area where we awaited the rise of the curtain. The auditorium was filled with families and friends and the other classes.  My family was there and witnessed it.

All went well and smoothly up until the time I stepped forward to center stage. There with all eyes on me, I commenced to recite the poem by heart. I got out one, maybe two lines, and froze.  My mind went blank. And all these faces were focused on me in the silence. And as the silence lengthened, my embarrassment and my shame grew.

The teacher who had charge of the ceremony, and had rehearsed us, took a sheet of paper from her lectern and walked up to the edge of the stage, and  beckoned to me to come take a copy of the poem to read. I could feel the sympathy of those sitting in the audience going out to me.

I looked at her, and the printed page held out to me, and felt worse still. She waved it again.  I motioned my refusal of the offer with my hands and a shake of my head. And started over again, from the top. Line after line in the slow deliberate rhythm of the piece. All the way to its completion.

As I retreated to the back of the stage, the audience saluted me with applause. A taste of glory but overshadowed by the sting of failure.

And even though I was awarded a scholastic prize, the Henry M Cunney award, I remained stuck in a slough of despond.

All in all, it certainly kept me from thinking more highly of myself. On the plus side, it kept me humble. But on the other hand, I remained shy.



Saltonstall School and JDs



Saltonstall School in Salem Massachusetts was located (and still is) on Lafayette Street, one of the main thoroughfares leading south out of the center of town.
Though it may have been the very symbol of a prison to some of my classmates, it wasn’t to me. I had no animus against school, I just wouldn’t ever voice that opinion in front of any of my classmates who were JDs. Like Lon.
Lon was the tough guy in the schoolyard. He was also one of the shortest guys in the same. And because I was one of the tallest (and a newcomer and wore glasses), I was a target for his Napoleonic complex.
There were never any overt threats, no lunch money stolen (I always had a sack lunch anyway), no fisticuffs, just the hint that it was possible. I believe that for Lon it was an issue of respect, for that is what I earned from him one winter in the schoolyard.
The schoolyard immediately behind Saltonstall was an asphalt immensity, flat as a pancake except for the hillside to the right, also macadamized. Only in winter did it lose its austere aspect, when the snow blanketed the yard. Our knees were in danger otherwise, and the clothes that covered them. (Speaking of which I resisted all efforts to make me dress for the weather. I didn’t bundle up with a winter coat or gloves, and I absolutely abhorred wearing a hat or more particularly in this instance a woolen cap. Vanity thy name is Ralph.)
Well, being warned off the obvious snow ball fight, creativity sought another outlet. I made my way up that little hillside, took a run to gain some momentum and slid down the hill standing. This was in my dress shoes, for I wouldn’t wear boots either. Soon others, including Lon, were doing the same, in the same spot, and then all along the whole length of that hillside.
Repeated runs down the hill compressed the snow more and more. And each time the hill became slicker and slicker. And we were all going faster and faster as the compacted snow changed to sheer ice. I was the only one who always kept his feet beneath him. Others had their feet swept out from under them or wiped out in some other way.
By the end of the day I had earned the respect of many, but especially from Lon.
Class photo

The 4th Grade

The fourth grade for me was a tough year. I began the school year in Spokane. My father’s job of ferrying minuteman missiles around to the silos ringing the area had come to an end. A friend from this job, had told him about another down in San Jose, CA, a coin washing machine business.
So, after only a couple of months in my new grade (we’d lived in Spokane since I was in the second grade), we were pulling up stakes and hitting the road.
My father went on ahead to his new job and to look for a new home.  It fell to my mom to get two boys and our little sister on a bus to San Jose, where we would join him.
I remembered the trip being sunny, but long and boring. We passed through Portland OR on our way.
I recall stopping in a Moose hall in San Jose shortly after arrival.  It must have been for some financial help or assistance. While in the waiting room each of us kids was given a net-like Christmas stocking with Christmas candy in it. You know, candy canes, candy ribbon, hard shells with liquid cores, etc., and some tiny toys.
We only lived in San Jose a total of four months.  Long enough, however, for the school district to be redrawn on us. So, I started our time there in one school, only to change to a school that was farther away two months later.
And that is why the fourth grade was so tough for me. Four schools in one year; moving from the laid back West Coast to the more progressive East. And along the way being tested and labelled with an high IQ and placed in a gifted program at Saltonstall School in Salem MA.  (This was our second move to my Dad’s home town).
That, and again having to leave some things behind – the best Christmas presents I ever received as a child – a WW2 Hellcat fighter plane and an astronaut mobile command unit, consisting of a truck tractor and trailer, complete with a “TV camera” in the caboose.
My brother and sister must have had to leave some neat things too.  (I just don’t remember what – selfish of me, I know).
I do know that we weren’t too bothered about it.    We were a family and together, and all making sacrifices.