Later this week Marc and I will probably drive past my high school in New Orleans, a large all-boys school, highly competitive academically and athletically. Each year approximately 40 students are named National Merit Semifinalists. The prizes awarded at the graduation ceremony used to be gold medals of the school seal, and each was awarded to a student who had performed the best on a test administered after school on various days in the spring semester. There was a history test, a physics test, a biology test; a test in religious studies, a test in French, even a test in oratory. A student could sit for any or all of the tests; and any student could sit for a test – a senior, a junior, a sophomore, even a freshman.
In a jewelry box that belonged to my mother is the gold medal that I had received as a sophomore for my performance on the school’s exam for the Latin prize. A strategy sometimes promoted by teachers of the lower grades in my high school was to urge their best students to take an exam as practice for the competition in a later year. Because we did not write our names on the exams, which were then graded anonymously by the members of a department, it occasionally happened that a junior or a sophomore got to attend the commencement in May and walk in front of the seniors in their graduation tuxedoes and receive a prize from the hands of the visiting bishop.
Once I left home after college, my mother decided not to let the small gold medal languish in the dark of a drawer. Hanging on a delicate gold chain around her neck, my Latin prize became a convenient prop in my mother’s boasting about her four sons. Until the final year of her life, it was a regular part of her dressing for both public and private occasions. During visits with my parents over the years, I used to hope that it could remain a quiet, unacknowledged accessory rather than a kind of trophy that would only remind me of something that hadn’t happened at the end of that sophomore year.
What hadn’t happened had to do with how people spoke with me. I will tell you one thing that no one asked me: How do you feel about being a sophomore and getting this prize? How do you feel about being a sophomore and getting this prize in front of a graduating class of seniors? How do you feel about being a sophomore and getting a prize at graduation and going home afterward and having no one ask you what it felt like?
Because no one asked, I have to admit that I did not know what it felt like.
Some psychologists use the term emotional blindness. Most people don’t understand what’s so important about the kind of questions I didn’t hear. Wasn’t I just happy to get the prize? Wasn’t it clear to me – especially years later – that my parents were proud of me?
Because no one asked, I have to admit that I do not know.
I had been a quiet student in school, a dutiful student, the student whose quiz teachers could use as an answer key in correcting my classmates’ work. Conscientious, intent on doing well, I maintained a quiet demeanor from day to day that said: “You don’t need to worry about me. I’ll do the homework and study hard for the test. I’ll raise my hand if no one else is ready to. I will help make your class work. I probably won’t ask to see you after class; I probably won’t take time out of your busy day. There’s nothing about me I’m not used to taking care of on my own.”
My basic strategy worked if teachers and the other adults in my life didn’t feel the need to talk about me. I must have seemed to be doing fine. Talking about me would only have raised questions that I preferred not to engage: What makes him happy? What gets him angry or disappointed or sad? What gives him a sense of satisfaction? What is his dearest wish for his life? What does it feel like when people really know him?
If someone had asked me such questions at the end of my sophomore year and if I had been aware and daring and honest enough, I might have said: “I don’t want to hear this. I don’t know how to hear this. I don’t want to be told that my strategy for making it through school, through life at home and – for all I know – maybe even through life later on is not going to do what I intended. Don’t ask me questions I don’t know how to answer.”
A man in my fifties in his second year of therapy, I’m ready for those questions.
It might be unsettling for friends and partner and family to hear that at this point in my life I need those questions to be asked.
It is important that I find ways to tell people that I need those questions asked now – and often.
I’m ready for them.
Photo of St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans by J.R.Wanek