December 28, 1994
"We are all our own revisionist historians," says my friend David Barbour. I find this a compelling concept, and dead-accurate. But sometimes, by surprise or design, we find some external evidence of our past, and we have a startling time-machine window -- for good or ill -- on who we once were.
While I was in New Jersey last week I had the unnerving experience of being back in high school for a couple of hours. It was eerily like a recurring nightmare some of us have, although the reality was not as unpleasant as the dream can be.
How did I find myself back in high school? I was invoked. My friend Netania, who is 16 years old, started junior-year Physics in September. On the first day of school, her teacher (and, once, a million-billion conceptual years ago, mine) gave his annual pep talk. By Netania's account, this was the exchange:
- Mr. Fidanza: I know that every one of you is capable of getting an A in this class, and I don't want to hear otherwise. It is true, though, that very few people get A's in this class. Last year only a couple of girls did.
- Male students in the class: No fair, Mr. Fidanza. You like girls better than boys,
- Mr Fidanza: Not true. Boys have gotten A's in the past. There was so-and-so, and so-and-so, and *twenty* years ago there was Steven Levine. He was brilliant.
If this assessment were true, it would be inappropriate for me to be repeating it. But assuredly it is not true. I did well in Mr. Fidanza's class -- it was my favorite class junior year, for a variety of reasons -- but I was not so gifted of a Physics student that my name should be recalled across 21 years of intervening advanced-science students. Mr. Fidanza even told me at the time that he was certain that I would not go on to study Physics, which I told him I was considering. On hearing Netania's account, I was stunned. I had not spoken to the man in twenty years.
Netania, too, was stunned. "Did he say Steven Levine?" she asked a friend. "I know a Steven Levine! Is Steven that old?" ("I was 22 when you were born," I later pointed out to her. "Oh," she said, having known me her whole life and never having given any real thought to how old I might be.)
That night Netania's mother called me from New Jersey asking me who my high school Physics teacher was. The connections were made, and I was left dumbstruck, wandering around for several days trying to figure out who this kid was who had my name and inhabited my body 21 years ago who made such an impression and why. This is not being remembered. This is being mythologized.
Having been conjured in this fashion, I felt I needed to pay Mr. Fidanza a visit. Through Netania, I arranged to speak to her Physics class on the day before her Christmas break -- about tech. writing, and operating systems, and supercomputers (it doesn't matter really, it was just an excuse to come by). Mr. Fidanza was beside himself with enthusiasm for this idea.
Mr. Fidanza was practically jumping up and down when he came to meet me at the school office; he had a smile to split his face in half, and the handshake of a man greeting a soldier-brother returning from the war. Except for a little extra grey and a few extra pounds, he looked exactly the same as he did in 1973. Except for a little extra grey and a few extra pounds, so did I.
Netania had changed schedules and switched Physics classes early in the year, so this (I thought) was not the class before whom my name was paraded. So I explained to the class how I had come to be there, through being mentioned in the afternoon class. "We know who you are," said one of the kids. "You're the one who used to write your lab reports in verse."
Well, you know, I had forgotten. But it's true. As I said in response, "One fucking lab report written in heroic couplets in the fall of 1972, and you know about it?"
Mr. Fidanza then went on to recall, in frighteningly specific detail, various other oddities of my lab reports -- in particular he remembers, from my very first lab report, that I listed "Mr. Fidanza's aid" as a "Possible source of error" for the lab results. Hey, I remember this as well -- I even remember my grade for the lab: "F -- I can be funny, too" (which was a joke). But my remembering my own writing isn't quite the same as his remembering my writing.
My talk went well enough -- I only spoke for a few minutes: about buzzwords, about operating systems on large computers, about entire professions surrounding those operating systems. "Do you make much money doing that?" was the only question. Mostly I sat around and talked with the kids, about their classes, about my classes, about their days. That was an amazingly rich thing to do, worthy of a post of its own -- I was a dinner guest of Netania's family that night and I told her my observations of each of her classmates, which impressed her. "Netania," I pointed out, "they are hardly subtle personalities. They wear themselves on their sleeves." I even picked up on which kid has an awkward crush on her -- the one who was fascinated to know that I had known Netania as a baby, lest you should think that this observation required any special insight on my part.
I learned over the course of talking with the kids that several of them were heading off to English class next, taught by the woman who was my English teacher when I was in ninth grade, a woman now in her seventies. They told me to come along and see her. I was moderately certain she'd remember me, but I warned the kids that she might not.
Well of course Mrs. Jailer (yeah, I know) remembered me. She was a funny, cynical, dismissive woman (I adored her), and I had never seen her beam with such a smile as she greeted me with. I hadn't seen her in almost 25 years, but she immediately recalled both me and the particular cohort I was part of back then. I was able to fill her in on the whereabouts of all of them. She said she thinks of me a lot, and often speaks of me to her classes, a claim about which I was skeptical, at first.
Well, this is the story she tells. I did not remember this until she reminded me. "We were studying David Copperfield," Mrs. Jailer said, "and he had a friend Steerforth."
"Yes, I remember that much", I pointed out.
"You raised your hand, and with wide-eyed sincerity, in front of a naive group of ninth-graders, you asked me if there was something -- 'going on' -- between David and Steerforth."
"There must have been something in the text that I was referring to". I said.
"I'm sure there was -- but I was left there to deal with the question in front of this group of eager ninth-graders. I had never even considered it before."
She then turned to the class and said, for them to hear, "I have a story to tell you all about Steven after he leaves." (She had already introduced me to the class as "a gem of a student".) I don't know what she told them, ultimately; Netania isn't in that class.
So what did I learn from this visit? What did I see and remember? Which illusions were shattered, which reinforced? Two things: One inspiring, one distressing.
My experience with Mr. Fidanza reminded me that I once loved school -- or at least certain specific parts of it. That whatever else was going on in my angst-ridden poor-homo-me head when I was on the very edge of coming out, I was, simultaneously, embracing my schoolwork. I remember being so angry, and unhappy -- and I'm sure I was, and my discomfort at times during my visit when I briefly felt I had been thrown back into my 16-year-old self attests to this. But I cannot deny that there was a lot more to the picture. "You knew your stuff, and you had such fun," Mr. Fidanza said, wistfully and admiringly. I was correct that it wasn't any special genius in science that caused me to remain vivid in Mr. Fidanza's memory for two decades. But I was wrong in thinking (as I had concluded) that what he remembered was that I wrote unusual lab reports. Sure, he remembered that, but what he remembered, what he reminded me of, was that I used to come dancing into class (literally -- my friend Nancy Pruce and I were learning to jitterbug) at 6:50 am (first period, split session) energetic and excited about Physics. It was this absolute and uncritical smiling enthusiasm that makes me stand out in his mind -- not as unusual, but as unique.
This enthusiasm is something I should remember and revive (although perhaps not about Physics in particular).
Mrs. Jailer's story, on the other hand, disturbs me in the picture it paints. I was fourteen years old, three years from coming out, when I brought up the subject of homosexuality in English class. There I was, dancing around the topic, searching everywhere I dared for information, for acknowledgment, for reassurance. I have written about reading the Village Voice back then for any reference to homosexuality I could find. Apparently I was doing a lot more than that. I don't remember this specific incident, but I suddenly remember how strong a need I felt for external validation. I found, essentially, nothing.
I once vowed that I would not forget what it felt like to grow up gay, to be closeted, to be ashamed. I thought that I did remember -- I can still pull out dramatic words when I speak of this. But I see that I have grown very distant from any real recollection of this. It shakes me up a little to be pulled back -- even in the flattering context of a former teacher's loving recollection.
-Steven Levine, M.T.H.S. '74
Followup: I later told this story to my friend Claire, who had been in that English class with me, and who remembered the exchange vividly. "But don't you remember what happened later?" she asked. When I told her no, that I barely remembered the incident in the first place, she said, "Mrs. Jailer came back the next day and said she had brought this up in the teacher's lounge, and one of the other English teachers said that yes, this was a subtext that others had read, particularly in the context of English boarding schools."
"Oh," I said. "That's pretty cool that she did that."
"No," said Claire. "We were a bunch of kids, a bunch of ninth-graders. We didn't know anything. But there you were, putting yourself out there, asking for something, looking for something. There had to have been teachers who knew what you were doing there, who could have talked to you."
I don't completely agree with Claire as to what it was possible or advisable for a junior high school teacher in 1970 to have done. But she does have a point.
Anyway, I discovered last week that another friend from that class -- at the time dealing with the same issues I was, in a completely different way -- remembered it a lot more vividly than I did. So I'm hauling this out of my files for him. Also another friend who was in that class with me has also appeared on Facebook, so I want to point her to this story as well.