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The One Who Made the Difference
Written by Mark Edmundson

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Category: Biography & Autobiography - Educators; Education - Essays; History - United States - State & Local - New England (Ct, Ma, Me, Nh, Ri, Vt)
Imprint: Vintage
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: September 2003
Price: $15.95
Can. Price: $20.95
ISBN: 978-0-375-70854-1 (0-375-70854-5)
Pages: 288


Chapter One

What have we here?

None of us had ever encountered anyone like Franklin Lears, at least not up close. On the first day of class, we saw a short, slight man, with olive skin—we thought he might be Mexican—wearing a skinny tie and a moth-eaten legacy suit with a large paper clip fastened to the left lapel. On his feet were Ivy League gunboat shoes, lace-ups designed in homage to the Monitor and the Merrimack. He had hunched shoulders, a droopy black mustache, and Valentino-type eyes: deep brown, sensuous, and penitential. Even when he strove for some dynamism, as he did on the first day, explaining his plans for the course, he still had a melancholy Castilian presence, the air of an instinctively comprehending reader of Don Quixote. Like the Don, Lears could somehow look dolorous and hopeful at the same time.

He walked into the room where we were assembled, fifteen or so of us, in our evenly serried desks, and stared out at us, his philosphers-to-be, the baleful look tinged with optimism, like a rainbow playing along the edge of a quiet pool. He slouched in his suit, two sizes too big, Chaplin on a dismal day. Then he gazed long and hard at his feet, as though expecting some sympathy from the gunboats. He began to talk.

Lears told us this was a philosophy course and that philosophy meant the love of wisdom, and that that was interesting and worth knowing but it was no end in itself, for it led you on to other questions: What was wisdom? How did you get it? Was there any- one who had it? He asked us if we knew anyone who might be wise. Of course no one answered, though he left open a silent vacuum, inviting and a touch unnerving, for us to push our newborn thoughts into. (It was the first of many, many such vacuums.) And how would you love it—wisdom, that is—once you’d found it? The way you loved your family, your friends? And what if wisdom meant giving up or turning away from other things you loved?

He spoke very softly, with an impeccable, refined intonation that nonetheless carried the words to the back precincts of the classroom, where I sat gazing at this strange creature who had crossed our path, as self-assured, it seemed, and as vulnerable as a cat. I was studying this man—almost all of us were—for the critical signs. We wanted to know what we had on our hands. What manner of man was this? What, given the ongoing war of us-against-them, would we be able to get away with?

So far the signs looked good, fabulous in fact. The fellow was small, soft-spoken, polite, and, by the hypermacho standards of Me’ford, on the effeminate side. We might have struck gold. And yet it was too early to be sure. Miss Minty, who taught math, was tiny, with a pixie haircut, and nervous, sparrowlike movements. She danced in front of us wearing her white lab coat, covering the board with equations and coating everything in sight with snowy chalk dust. She too had looked to be an easy target. But by the end of day one, it was clear that she ran the show. She could screech, ridicule, dole out punishments. And she also seemed to come fitted with a Medford High teacher’s primary asset. “I have,” she often said, “eyes in the back of my head.”

Lears stepped away and put on the board a quotation from Nietzsche. The script was neater than anything that we would see from him again, yet still—in terms of the Palmer penmanship method we’d all been raised on in grammar school, waiting at the end of each month with collective breath held for our rating from Mr. Palmer, or one of his minions, a gold seal or star, a blue seal, or the school-disgracing black star—Lears’ writing was deplorable. It looked like a great variety of insects had been set loose to scramble on the blackboard and then froze simultaneously in mid-wriggle.

Tom Capallano, the quarterback on the football team, our one bona fide star and a pure high school alpha male, turned in the direction of me and Rick Cirone, split end and cornerback, and said, “See, I told you Nitschke was smart.” Capallano, usually known as Cap, was talking about the ferocious linebacker Ray Nitschke of the Green Bay Packers, and he was—I’m pretty sure—making a joke. Still, we had barely heard of Nietzsche, if we’d heard of him at all, and certainly no one in the class had read a word of his up until this moment. As for myself, I had never read all the way through a book that was written for adults and that was not concerned with football.

So what was I doing in a philosophy class? What was I, someone who cared exclusively about shooting pool and hanging out with my friends in the parking lot of Brigham’s ice cream shop and, above all else, playing football, doing listening to someone discourse about the love of wisdom? I owed it to my guidance counselor, Mrs. Olmstead, who was trying, by her lights, to save me.

*    *    * NOT LONG ago, she and I had had a talk about my future. Mrs. Olmstead was a short woman with tightly coiled blond hair. Everything with her was just so. She had large breasts that looked like a shelf for storage of some kind and a slightly elfish face, with narrow eyes, tight, pursed lips, and cheeks that seemed like they’d been applied with an ice cream scoop and then heavily rouged. Her perfume conjured up the tones of the Mantovani string section, sentimental, lush, and all-conquering.

The office where we met had no windows and fluorescent lights so strong that when you first walked in, you felt like a small-scale blast might have recently gone off. They made a constant nosy hum. On her shelf were few books but many dolls, peasant dolls from all over the world.

We talked about my prospects, which were not bright. I ranked 270th or so in a class of about seven hundred. I was well into the top half, she said, smiling, but alas I hadn’t quite made it into the higher third.

But it seems I wanted to go to college? Strange enough! I had, she noted, high Board scores, but that might only be a disadvantage. Because, you see, there were new surveys out about college performance, and what the surveys showed was that students with high Boards and low grades sometimes did very, very well in college. But they often did very badly, too. And there was one other factor. It seemed that these students were more likely than any of the others to get themselves in trouble with the administrators, to start political demonstrations and smoke pot and engage in free-form mischief of all sorts. The kids with their feet up on the provosts’ desks, puffing the big cigars, Groucho-style, after a successful takeover of the building? They were likely members of the high-Board-score, scrape-by-grades crew.

As to the high Board scores, I had a confession that I could have made but managed to hold back. It was that before taking my seat for a full day’s testing in the dismal high school cafeteria, I’d heard—we’d all heard—that dragging a nickel (I think it had to be a buffalo nickel) across the answer sheet would put the test-correction machines in an obliging mood and would result in a perfect score. But mightn’t that information have been wrong? (Medford scuttlebutt often was.) Mightn’t the rubbed nickel send the test-combine awry and give you a flat zero? I equivocated. I dragged the nickel, with the stoical Indian staring out disapprovingly at me, across about half the answer sheet, then stopped. So whether it was the buffalo and the brave who had racked up the respectable scores or whether it was me was something of an open question.

Mrs. Olmstead and I talked about Massachusetts Bay Community College and Salem State College for Teachers—these being the schools to which my credentials opened the doors. They were, I knew—everyone knew—high schools with ashtrays, where I’d have the chance to take all the courses I’d loathed at Medford High one more time, with teachers perhaps a shade less loony and a shade less despondent. It would be a phase in the eternal recurrence of the same thing, where I could continue to live at home and suffer interminably prolonged adolescence.

At least Mrs. Olmstead hadn’t come on strong with a pitch for Miss Fannie’s School of Cooking—associated, I believed, with Fannie Farmer chocolates—as the place to finish off what Medford High had begun. She’d done that to my friend Chuck Fiorello, whose mother and father had just died and who seemed to have even fewer prospects in the world than I did. But Fiorello wasn’t cowed. Fiorello affirmed his willingness to work in a gas station forever rather than apply to Miss Fannie’s. And Fiorello could wax eloquent on the view that working in a gas station—and he’d worked in plenty—was earthly hell. His position was that all the jails in the Commonwealth should be emptied and the prisoners assigned to combination gas dispensaries and auto repair shops—strong punishment; potent deterrent, too.

But beneath the bemusement, or my attempt at it, I was furious. Mass Bay! Salem State! That wasn’t the sort of thing I had in mind for myself at all. No, somehow I aspired to something better, though I couldn’t have said exactly what. I’d done nothing to distinguish myself, nothing to earn a half-decent future; still, I felt some right to one.

Mrs. Olmstead and I discussed my working for the city of Medford; perhaps I’d start by collecting trash (another loop in the precincts of hell), then graduate in time to a desk job.

“Does your father know anyone?” Mrs. Olmstead asked. This was then a Massachusetts mantra, and I suspect it still is. Do you know somebody? Does he know anybody? Posed in certain circumstances, in a certain tone of voice, this meant, Does somebody owe you or your family favors? Are you connected? Because it was simply assumed around Boston, by working-class types, that everything was done on the basis of connections. It was a residue from the old rebellion, when the poor Irish (from whom I was descended) had laid siege to the city of Boston and its environs, kicked the WASPs out—or at least propelled them upstairs, into the law firms and medical schools and universities—and then taken control of the joint. My grandmother, Irish, would put her fingers to her ears if anything irreverent was said about the beloved James Michael Curley, who, local lore had it, once learned of his victory in a Boston mayoral election from a prison cell.

Was I connected? When I was growing up in Malden—an equally rowdy city, where I lived until I was thirteen—my father had, on at least one occasion, taken me and all his traffic tickets in tow and gone down to the police station, where he’d laid a few dollars on the desk sergeant and walked unceremoniously out. (Once, said sergeant had turned up at our house. Why, I can’t tell you.) Could that sort of connection count?

From the Hardcover edition.