Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Fool

I breathed a muffled grunt at the overheard joke now forgotten. Although I had thought my exhalation barely audible, it did not go unnoticed.

“Darn!” said the guy who had made the joke. “I almost got Henry to laugh out loud!” As if getting a chortle out of me were some magnificent achievement to aspire toward.

Somehow or other, I had gained a reputation for being a humorless drag. Perhaps it was because I never shared jokes of my own, never laughed nor hardly acknowledged anyone else's funny stories, almost never even spoke to anyone on matters unrelated to business, and basically expressed no interest in anything at all. I don't think I had a negative presence, more just a blank or neutral non-presence. People were kind and respectful toward me, though they generally left me alone. But perhaps there was a certain strangeness of character to me that occasionally excited others' curiosity.

At any rate, my eyes fixed on my work (since we were supposed to be working), I did not offer so much as a glance of recognition in his direction. He took this correctly to be a sign that the business was concluded, that he would get nothing more out of me, and that work was to resume without further deliberation on the matter.

And yet, after a pause, something compelled me to keep it going. I was the one not quite ready to let it go.

“It happened once,” I said.

“What happened?” he asked. The pause had gone on long enough that nobody was sure now to what I was referring. (Yes, I'm a bit slow.)

“Me, laughing out loud,” I clarified.

“Oh, I've got to hear this!” he said.

And suddenly the entire room was focused on me. But this was what I wanted, right? It was why I couldn't let the moment just pass.

“Have you ever read My Brother Sam Is Dead?” I asked.

The only responses I got were some raised eyebrows, a few reflexive grimaces, and the guy next to me backing up a bit in his chair. Perhaps your reaction is the same at my bringing up this grim title to a grimmer novel as the introduction to my “funny” story. But please allow me to continue.

“It was back when I was in fifth grade. We were studying the American Revolution. My Brother Sam Is Dead is a novel about this guy whose brother, Sam, joins up with the Patriots. At the end of the book, Sam is executed by his own army for being a deserter, or some such thing. It's a bogus charge, but the general is determined to make an example of him as a warning to other soldiers. In the end, the narrator just has to watch helplessly as his brother is gunned down by the firing squad. So, it's a book about the Revolution, but it's not black-and-white on the side of the Americans. It's also a commentary just on how ugly war is in general.

“Anyway, after we finished the book, our assignment was to write about how we would have felt or acted in the narrator's place, knowing that our brother was going to be executed on false charges. We were just writing in our journals during class, and, when time was up, the teacher asked for volunteers to read theirs aloud.

“Now, the thing is, I don't remember anything at all about what I wrote, and obviously I didn't read mine aloud. But the kid next to me did. And I will NEVER forget his.

“He came up with this entire alternate ending, where, as the narrator, he and his brother's girlfriend would have somehow devised this miraculous rescue plan to bust out Sam in the middle of the night before the execution. And, some time immediately before or after—I can't remember which exactly, though I don't think it matters much—he would have burned down the house (or was it office?) of that evil general, with the general still inside. And not only that, but he would have made another stop, in order to burn down the house of the other commander—the nice one who had been sympathetic to Sam's situation but had, in the end, been useless to stop the execution. Then he, his brother, and his brother's girlfriend would have made a run for it. God knows where to.

“Anyway, maybe this guy's story doesn't sound that funny, but it must have been the funniest thing I had ever heard, or maybe it was just the way he told it—so earnest and enthusiastic—that was so funny to me, because I started laughing out loud almost as soon as he started, and I couldn't stop myself at all until he had finished. Basically, I was sitting right next to him, laughing uncontrollably through his entire story. This must have lasted close to five minutes.

“Now, to give some context, this shouldn't surprise you, but I had a reputation back then as 'the quiet kid.' And I don't mean it the way a lot of people look back and remember themselves as being a quiet kid in class. I was THE quiet kid. Freakishly so. Like, I literally almost never spoke a word unless called upon by the teacher.

“But I was also known somewhat as 'the smart kid.' That reputation wouldn't last, but, in elementary school at least, I was still top of my class. So maybe the other kids saw my quiet as of the more dignified sort, rather than of the arrested development sort. So they respected me, and they respected my silence, as if it were a valid stance, instead of some personality deficiency, which was really the case.

“But that was my identity. I was the quiet kid, presumably focused on his studies, who never spoke, never acted out, never joined in. And this was many months into the school year, and most of my classmates had known me even longer from previous years. They knew (or thought they knew) what I was about, what to expect from me. I never 'broke character,' so to speak, and it was one of the reliable truths of their world that Henry was 'the quiet one.'

“So what did it mean that I was laughing like a drunken lunatic in that moment in the presence of all my classmates? Well, it was certainly uncomfortable for me. I mean, I was laughing because I genuinely thought what I was hearing was funny. So, in that sense, I was enjoying it. But I didn't mean to be laughing out loud, drawing attention to myself. I was really trying to suppress it, which was usually not difficult for me. My self-control was always a point of pride for me. But, this time, I just couldn't seem to help myself. Maybe it was just too funny. Or maybe I was experiencing a nervous breakdown.

“I don't know how it came across to everyone else. Even as I was laughing, I was also nervously looking all around me. Not a single other person was laughing, but everyone was staring at me. No one else was even smiling, except for the guy reading. I'm not sure if he appreciated my laughter, or if smiling was his own way of coping with the embarrassment. But everyone else looked mortified. And, like I said, this lasted for a few minutes.

“When it was over, what was the reaction? The girl across from me pointed at the other kid and said to me, 'He's crazy.' She was referring to the kid who had been reading, not to me. And she wasn't smiling as she said it, but seemed actually kind of disgusted. Aside from that, nobody else made any comment whatsoever on what had just happened. The teacher said nothing about the kid's story, said nothing about my laughing, and moved right along to the next volunteer. Nobody asked me to explain myself. Not then, not the next day, not for the rest of the school year. None of my classmates ever mentioned it to me ever again.

“Honestly, I think they were all just too afraid to acknowledge it. The teacher too. Like I said, it was one of the fundamental truths of their world that I didn't talk, didn't laugh, basically didn't show emotion. If what just happened really happened, then everything they knew and understood about the world was thrown into question. Suddenly, up was down, left was right, the Earth orbited the Moon, cats barked and dogs meowed, Mommy and Daddy didn't really love each other, Jesus never gave a damn! . . . Bigfoot existed. In short, if that really just happened, then maybe the world was not what they all thought it was. And I don't think anybody was ready or willing to face that possibility. So they all just collectively agreed to pretend it never happened. Obviously, I was more than happy to go along with that.”

Perhaps my story sounded a bit rehearsed. It surely was. For, although I myself had had no occasion in a long while to discuss that moment in my life, it was nevertheless a singularly poignant memory for me—the only time I ever so lost command of myself in a fit of genuine laughter. Perhaps it was the most honest I had ever been in public. Indeed, were I to reduce the story of my life to just a few key moments, I believe this would easily make the top ten. And so I had rehearsed it many times in my mind. You never know, after all, when you may be required to give an account of your life before some cosmic panel or for the ultimate interview, and you had better be ready to present your own best self when that time comes. I dare say I told my practiced story well, and it was met this time, not with mortified stares, but clapping and good cheer.

“I'm gonna get you to laugh out loud. Just like back then,” said the guy next to me.

He sounded quite determined, but, despite his best efforts, he never did get more than the occasional audible breath of amusement from me. Indeed, I'm proud to say that the My Brother Sam Is Dead story still stands alone, and I have never since so lost control of myself.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Other Scholar

Her name was Natalie. She was not my friend; I hardly knew her. I met her only once, and, at the time, she was still going by Natalya.

It was right at the start of my freshman year at John Muir College at UCSD. The quarter had not yet officially begun, and I, along with my fellow first-years, was there for orientation. A more senior Muir student was showing us around campus, describing college life, letting us know what to expect.

We had stopped for a moment to rest at some stone seating walls. In order to help us get to know each other better, our guide proposed the classic icebreaker game “Two Truths and a Lie,” wherein each person was supposed to reveal three things about themselves, two of which were true and one a lie. I distinctly remember one guy, after telling two truths that I’ve long since forgotten, saying, for his lie, “I’m from Mars.” This was met with dead silence as nobody seemed to appreciate his joke, which most people just saw as him not even trying. Myself, I think I would have come up with something similarly lame, but, luckily, before my turn ever came up, a pretty brunette with clipboard in hand came and, after whispering something to our guide who then pointed right at me, pulled me away from the group, saying, “You’re going to see the provost.”

Telling me nothing more as we walked in silence, she escorted me to the office of the Muir College provost, Patrick Ledden. Before leaving, she introduced me thus: “This is Henry, the other scholar.” This cleared things up a bit, as it became apparent that I had come to the provost’s attention on account of the fact that I was a scholarship recipient. And I was “the other scholar” because the first one was already there, seated across from Provost Ledden at his desk. That was Natalya.

My story was a non-story. Truthfully, I had been a mediocre student in high school. I took the advanced classes, but my non-weighted GPA was not even a 3.5. I participated in no extracurricular activities. It was curious that I should even have been accepted into UCSD, let alone received a scholarship, but I think what it all boiled down to was my SAT scores. I was in that office on that day only because I had scored on the high side, and those numbers for some reason suggested to Provost Ledden that maybe I had some potential worth cultivating.

Looking back now years later from the outside, it seems so ridiculous to me that anybody should have assigned such significance to a standardized test score. It certainly doesn’t mean anything to my life as it is now. So don’t even bother asking what I got; it’s nothing worth boasting about, any more than the rest of my life. And if I had any advice for high schoolers about to take the SAT now, it would be not to stress out too much over the results, because, in a few years, none of it will mean anything.

Natalya was a different story. I don’t know what her SAT scores were, or even what tests she might have taken—she had grown up and studied in Russia before having just moved to the United States with her parents—but she seemed like the real deal. As we sat next to one another, I don’t think the contrast could have been any greater. I was inexpressive, aimless, lacking deep thoughts. She was almost overpoweringly enthusiastic, highly articulate, and seemingly had her entire future planned out before her.

As different as we were, when the meeting began, Provost Ledden tried to address us equally in turn. He apparently already had some documents detailing our academic backgrounds—test scores and whatnot—but he wanted to know a little more about our interests. As he explained, he was here to help guide us along in realizing our potential, so that we might get the most out of our college experiences, that we might subsequently make the most of ourselves. Turning to me, he asked what my favorite subject had been in high school.

“English,” I answered.

“Any favorite books?” he asked.

Catch-22?” I said, as though I myself were unsure.

“Have you read Ulysses?” he asked.

I hadn’t.

“Well, it would be your favorite if you had.”

I nodded.

Clearly, he was not getting a lot out of me. As if at random, he then crumpled up a piece of paper (perhaps my academic history?), and, aiming toward the wastebasket in the corner, he asked if I wanted to bet whether he could make the shot.

“I don’t gamble,” I told him.

He fired and missed. “Should’ve taken the bet,” he said.

He then turned to Natalya.

I deeply regret that I cannot remember in greater detail any of what she said, only that there was much energy in her voice and many words. As far as her interests, she had already decided that she would double-major in biology and art. My own experience with those subjects had been incredibly shallow—just one year of each in high school. Really, there was no subject that I knew well enough to be declaring it my major before even having begun college. I could only imagine that she had been through some intense Russian schooling that had made her so ready to conquer both of these two unrelated fields.

Even Provost Ledden seemed a bit awestruck by the vigor and determination with which she spoke. But he was still the wise one in the room, and he recognized that she also could have benefited from some guidance, though of a different sort than me. Whereas he had tried to excite some direction in me, in her case he seemed to want to dial back her focus and make her consider a larger perspective of a future still full of many different doors for her to open and explore.

Having gotten through personal introductions, Provost Ledden proceeded to tell us a little about the particular focuses of the John Muir College at UCSD. I’m afraid I don’t remember much of this speech either. I do remember him informing us, however, that Muir’s most famous alumnus was probably Mike Judge, creator of the animated series Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill. Provost Ledden paused then, as if in anticipation of our “oohs” and “ahs” of recognition. I merely nodded, while Natalya frowned and shook her head.

“Somewhat offbeat television programs,” he clarified. “Maybe not the sort of thing you would watch.”

Disappointed by the lukewarm response, he moved on to the main task of the day, which was to help us select the classes that we would be taking for the quarter.

There was a mandatory Muir-specific writing course that he quickly signed us both up for, but otherwise we were quite free to explore the fall 2001 catalog. I selected Chinese for my language requirement, and I also expressed an interest in psychology, and maybe earth science to fulfill my mathematics/natural science requirement.

Provost Ledden, himself a mathematician, seemed thoroughly disinterested in my selections and particularly frowned at the lack of a math class among my choices. This was by design; I had struggled through high school calculus and was ready to be done with math, as it was clearly not where my future lay. The provost, though recognizing my reluctance, wouldn’t let it go. Looking at the catalog, he insisted that I sign up for calculus (and the more advanced sequence at that!).

“Baouendi’s teaching this quarter,” he said. “He’s excellent, and this might be his last year. You can’t miss that!”

I honestly could not have cared less who was teaching it. Every fiber in my being told me that more calculus would be a bad idea, but I lacked the will to stand my ground and say no. And this was not just one quarter that I would be giving up; once begun, no matter how much I hated it, I would be committed to another two quarters more of it, for the sake of fulfilling that mathematics GE.

“With your SAT scores, there’s no way you shouldn’t get an A in the class,” he assured me.

And so finally I acquiesced. In a short time, he would indeed be proven wrong, as I struggled bitterly through one final year of mathematics. To be fair, I did even worse in psychology, which I had chosen all on my own, and maybe I would have hated earth science too. It’s impossible to say now, and, honestly, I don’t think my choices then could ever have greatly impacted my life today. In any case, it was not worth bearing any resentment over.

With that, my part in the meeting was effectively over. I became a practical nonentity in the room as Natalya completely took over, demanding the much greater share of the provost’s attention. Again, I’m sorry that I can’t remember more clearly any of their discussion. I only remember him trying to get her to loosen up and broaden her horizons (though I didn’t get the impression that they needed much broadening, so varied yet uniformly intense were her myriad interests).

“I want you to take some chances, try something fun and different while you’re here,” he told her. “Maybe anthropology—”

“Oh, I looooove anthropology!” she immediately responded.

I must confess, I wasn’t even sure which “-ology” anthropology was at the time. I certainly hadn’t studied it at my high school, and I knew I didn’t love it.

As for Provost Ledden, he just sounded more and more as though he were scrambling to find some lesson to impart to someone who already knew everything about everything (except who Mike Judge was).

I remember nothing more specific about that day. By the time Provost Ledden let us go, it was too late for me to rejoin the orientation tour, so I just went home. But I came away from that meeting feeling even more inadequate than usual. I was in over my head, I thought. Natalya looked to me the model of a scholarship student, which meant that I was just some horrible fluke, due in time to be exposed for the fraud that I was. Because I was never going to be able to get to where she was, no matter how hard I worked. Because it wasn’t even the working hard that was the crucial difference between us. She actually seemed to care. She seemed to want this. Wanting, caring—those were the things that I didn’t “get.” Already I was a worthless nowhere man floating through life. Nothing meant anything to me, whereas she seemed to crave everything.

But the world didn’t stop for me even as I stood uselessly in place. Time rolled on, and I had a reasonably good year, I suppose, calculus notwithstanding. I never saw Natalya again, but I remembered her occasionally, not as some standard to strive toward, but as an example of true talent and ambition to humble me. I suppose also there was a small part of me that was relieved to know that there were such people in the world, who were so much better than me. It meant to me that I didn’t have to work so hard, because the world was already in good hands with people like Natalya.

And time rolled on. Until February 7, 2003.

The headline was “Student found dead at Pac. Hall.” UCSD’s student newspaper, The Guardian, reported, “John Muir College junior . . . found dead in a loading dock behind Pacific Hall on Feb. 7. UCSD police officials are calling the death an apparent suicide.” A followup article would clarify that this student, a nineteen-year-old sophomore named Natalie, with junior standing majoring in visual arts, was actually the very same Natalya that I had met in Provost Ledden’s office. She had only just changed her name after becoming a U.S. citizen.

It was like I had just taken a punch to the gut, had the wind knocked out of me. I couldn’t believe it. The world was unrecognizable, incomprehensible. Natalya was dead? And not only that, but suicide?

Like so many other students, I wanted a reason, but none was ever produced. There was no note, “I leave the rest to you, Henry.” It didn't happen that way. I'm sure I never crossed her mind in her final moments. I'd wager I never crossed her mind again after we parted ways in Provost Ledden's office.

There was no way to know how long she had been planning it, but apparently nobody saw it coming. Nobody saw well enough to stop it, anyway. One witness claimed to have heard her screaming as she took her fall off Pacific Hall, as if Natalie herself wasn’t quite prepared for the finality of the decision she had just made.

Time passed again, and I very quickly stopped hearing anything further about Natalie. Suicide is unfortunately not an altogether uncommon thing at UCSD, or in college in general, for that matter. I don’t mean to imply that she was the only one, or that her death mattered more than others. But, even though I hardly knew her, I was bitterly dissatisfied with the lack of closure. And so I remain to this day.

The story of Natalie was tragic, but that word alone could scarcely encapsulate all the feelings that haunt and torment those of us who, like it or not, had to walk on into a tomorrow without her. I still find myself asking why. And I don’t just mean what her reasons were for jumping. I want to know why she had to die, while I am still alive. Where is the sense in that? She was the good one, the talented one, the one who gave a damn. She might have made the world a better place, whereas I only stand apart from the world, lest I drag it down.

I struggle to understand what she might have gone through that led her to that final moment. Was she stressed out? Was life too hard? Were the expectations too great? Did she feel alone? Unwanted? Unappreciated for who she really was? Did we kill her with the burdens we placed upon her? With our failures to understand her? It is impossible for me to know the answers, and so the questions go on forever.

A few months after Natalie’s death, I saw Provost Ledden again for the first time since that meeting in 2001. I never went back to his office or anything, and, with my disappointing academic performance in my first year, I would not have wanted to face him again. But I was walking across campus to class one day, and he just happened to be walking the same path in the opposite direction. Eyes cast downward and hair disheveled, he looked stressed out and exhausted, like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders—a far cry from the proud mathematician and James Joyce devotee who had shot that wad of paper at his wastebasket (and merely shrugged and left it on the ground when he missed).

I didn’t think he’d recognize me, but, as we passed, he raised his head just enough to look me in the eye and offer a tired hello. Neither of us slowed even a step, however, and we had our backs to one another before I could respond. I still don’t know if he actually did recognize me, or if he was just being friendly in saying hello to a random student. I never saw him again. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was battling stomach cancer. He would lose that battle on October 28, 2003, at the age of 67.

And so I found myself suddenly alone in that room in my memory. And it kills me that my memories are so incomplete and inadequate, for there is no one else now to fill in the blanks. The only other people in that office are now dead, and I alone survive to carry on the memory of that day.

I am sorry, Provost Ledden, that I was never able to pay off your investment in me. I am sorry, Natalie, that I never got to know you better. I am sorry that I cannot do justice to your story, that I cannot share your life with the world, because I just don’t know it. I only remember that you loved art and biology. And anthropology. But maybe none of those things were even true. Maybe you were forcing yourself, and I was too dense to realize it. I excused my own shortcomings by convincing myself that you were simply of a different class—a genius and a natural. I thought I was isolating myself, but I didn’t realize that I was isolating you too by setting you apart on some pedestal.

I am so sorry, Natalie, that I don’t have what it takes to live your life for you. I’m only just surviving my own. But I swear to you that, though what memories remain to me may represent only the merest fragment of who you really were, I will cherish them and hold onto them for as long as I live.