by Richard Thieme
American Reporter Correspondent
March 2, 2009
LET'S BE SERIOUS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - Even if it's true that we're all separated by a few degrees, I was still surprised to learn that I was connected to criminal financier Bernie Madoff.
A few weeks ago, when I saw the picture of Madoff's high school in the New York Daily News, I was shocked. Far Rockaway High School in Queens, N.Y., where I was tortured for three years, was also Madoff's school. I didn't know him, but we were there at the same time. He was class of '56. His wife was class of '58. I was class of '59.
High school memories came flooding back when one of the organizers of our 50th class reunion called. She spoke in a shrill voice wrapped in an accent so sharp, nasal and distinctive that it really took back. The "Brooklyn accent" has almost vanished from the culture now, but I was so enchanted to hear it again that I kept Karen on the phone for almost an hour.
I hadn't known her in high school, but that wasn't surprising. Our class had over 800 kids. She said she remembered my curly hair. "You were a very nice person," she said.
How could she know? I was a shy little mouse in high school, afraid of my own shadow. I didn't feel I had a right to exist. I didn't have real friends. I never dated. I scurried around the halls hoping no one would notice me.
Far Rock was a rigidly heirarchical place. A great deal depended on your parents' income. The popular girls - the pretty ones, the wealthy ones, the snobs, the cheerleaders - well, they were goddesses from another planet. I never dared to speak to them.
Karen reminded me that Far Rock had had secret sororities. That brought back the painful day when I first heard about them. Invitations to my class had gone out. I raced home to look through the mail. Nothing. My mother kept all her junk mail in a big drawer, and I tore through it, throwing unopened envelopes right and left until the drawer was empty. Still nothing. I felt so lonely and ashamed.
"I tried to pledge but I wasn't welcome," Karen said. "My father drove a taxi. The girls were snobby. Their parents had money. We weren't good enough for them."
Karen wasn't one of the popular girls, but she did have a group of friends. "I remember going to the beach and chasing the life guards, and watching the fireworks on the Fourth of July, and trying out for the school talent show," she said. "I sang off-key, so no wonder they didn't want me, but it was all the popular girls who were judging me."
People are coming to this reunion from as far away as California and Isreal, Karen said, but there isn't enough extra money to offer invitations to some of our favorite teachers - like Earl Jagust.
Mr. Jagust! He taught English and was the advisor for the school paper. Suddenly, I remembered that I had written for the school paper. And as an English assignment for "Tale of Two Cities," I had taken a sheet of oak tag - do they still make oak tag? - lined it into columns like The New York Times, and written a bunch of news stories as if they came from a day in the book. I even convinced my mother to put on a ruffled cap and shawl and took a picture of her knitting. "Madame Defarge attends a beheading," was the headline.
So, completely forgotten until Karen called was clear evidence that I have been a journalist all my life. That in a life with so many winding paths, I had actually found my calling early.
Karen had married straight out of high school and raised a family. She had never held a job. It took her half an hour of conversation before she even thought to ask me if I worked. When I told her what I do, and how much I enjoy it, she didn't quite know what to say. It was a reminder that the women of my generation, most of them, were gently guided into marriage and motherhood long before they could make a place for themselves in the world.
When I got off the phone, the first thing I did was send an email to Mr. Jagust, thanking him for making such a large impact on my life.
Many famous people besides Madoff went to Far Rock. Carl Ichan, for one. Dr. Joyce Brothers. Several guys from our class made it big in Hollywood. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dr. Richard Feynman was in my mother's class. And yes, she was one of the popular kids.
Looking back, I think that having such a painful experience in high school bought me some time. It took a while for me to find a voice and a direction - time I wouldn't have had if I'd had social skills, joined a sorority, met a guy and married young.
But isn't it strange that in 50 years, one thing about high school has never changed? For most of us, it simply sucked.
Joyce Marcel is a journalist whose first collection of columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," can be ordered from her website, joycemarcel.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.