Thursday, February 25, 2016

Guest Blogger: Bill Webb

[From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn't know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they've found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves.

Bill Webb, from the Class of 1983, was in constant motion, swiveling round and round, arms flailing, and cocking his head like a curious puppy. Moving helped him think. It could be irritating, too, so I sometimes closed my eyes so I wouldn't get dizzy when I listened to him talk a mile a minute. If I could stay still and keep him focused, he'd reach a valuable conclusion. If Bill was anything, he was an original thinker. I requested a handstand picture because that was his common pose, his exclamation-pointed resolve, his metaphorical self forever turning upside down to find his upside right self. And he did.]


I have been asked to write an essay about my high school years at Holland Hall and I am tempted to steal the format of Joe Brainerd’s great book-length poem “I Remember” which is a series of sentences and short paragraphs that begin with “I remember” and then spill, in no particular order, into a detail, a corner, a shame, a joy, a taste or a smell of his life. Or perhaps I shall steal Elie Wiesel’s list of “Never Shall I Forget’s” that is found in his book Night. That list is a vow, a pledge to the seared imprint of his family, the cold, the hunger, tastes, and smells of the concentration camps in 1945. I am a teacher of reading and writing so I do not know how to begin an essay without referring to a text and these are mine today. While these books are far apart in years and intention, sex and shame appear in both, and so does longing, fathers, anger, snow, friendship and food. I will start there.


I did not know what I longed for in high school, but it was not preppy girls in uniforms of kilts and cardigans. I tried, I did try, but I fumbled. I felt set apart, and I did not know why. Or if I knew why it was only a desire to have close friends, buddies, or pals. I saw the ease of boys who could hit and wrestle and laugh with each other on the way to the locker room, share secrets about sex and drinking, toss keys to each other and open doors to a parents’ car to drive to a movie, lunch, home, tennis? I do not know where they went, these boys in polo’s and khakis, but in any case, it looked easy and fun and regular the way the keys were tossed across the hood of the car, “You drive.”  I wanted that intimacy. “You drive.” I knew a boy a year older who looked like he shared the same desire that I did, but we did not become friends; instead we only teased each other the way children tease when they know there is a shared secret. We were mean to each other.


My Father did not speak to me of grades or homework; that was my Mother’s job. But he did ask his secretary to type up a 20-page research paper I wrote my junior year. I did thank him. I did thank her.  I did not play enough soccer or run enough track for my father to come out and support me, my sisters made up for that. He did though come to see plays and attended any art show where I had a painting. My Father was very happy at graduation. I earned 2 big awards. One for art and one for theater. A surprise. Two! And when I chose to attend Sarah Lawrence College he made a point of stopping off in New York on his way back from Europe to see the college and he was given a tour by Holly Robinson who he called a ”Smart, lovely black girl”. She was and is.


Mostly directed at myself. How amazing it would have been to be honest, to seek love, to flirt, to date, to have a boy wake something in me in high school. But at 16 in Tulsa my imagination did not stretch that big. The imagination of the school, the town did not stretch that big. I wish I had been brave, a pioneer. Instead I sulked, tried so hard to be otherwise and was awkward, clumsy and fawning with my peers. Blech! Girls knew I think, and they singled me out often for taunts and ridicule. Blech! I was so eager to publicly laugh at myself. Blech! I was easy prey. Blech! I was lonely.


The architect of my high school library was very wise. There were lots of hiding places, lots of corners, lots of big windows. These are good things for reading, quiet and naps. It was a beautiful library with long tables, a fireplace, windows that looked over lawns and trees, big, generous armchairs for reading. This building was not old, ivy covered or creaky; it was 70s modern, gold brick, rust carpet and soothing. In the back, hidden by rows of books, was a chair that sat alone facing a 2-story window that looked over the soccer field and it was the best place to watch the snow come down and wait for an announcement that school was closing early. It was a winter chair.  How beautiful the snow is from a library window. I wrote a short poem about the drapes that framed that window and I won second place in our poetry rag, the Holland Hall Windmill. I cannot remember the poem, but it was about wind.  


I had three great friends in high school, my art teacher, my English teacher, and an Indian boy named Karim. My art teacher gave me unstructured time to paint, draw and make a mess. The art room was big and the paint was free and I spent every moment that I could stretching canvases, painting and hanging out. There were a few older artsy students and once in a while I would be invited to gather with them around the art teacher’s desk and listen and laugh and drink soda. Once, though I was mad and disrespectful and rude and my art teacher almost had me kicked out of school. But my advisor stepped in, my Mother came round, I apologized and we moved on. I had crossed a line I did not know existed, but I learned. Adult friendship had to come with respect. My English teacher did not give me unlimited space and time, she gave me F’s and D’s on papers and forced me to sit with her and learn to write. She had high expectations, curly hair and not a lot of patience. She was also very adult; she did not mess around and she looked like she had a secret private life that had nothing to do with students or school. She trusted the book we were reading and the paper we were writing and not much else. She taught me how to be spare and correct. She also gave me leading roles in plays I had no right to have and made me memorize lines and be responsible to a crew. She knew what I needed to get out of myself. She was smart.  Karim, because of divorce and passports, was recently taken from a boarding school in England and enrolled in a private school in Tulsa and we became friends. We drove to Oklahoma City in his Corvette and saw Prince, The Time and Vanity 6 in concert. We were both on C team soccer and he taught me about English new wave, black funk and the fun you could have being an outsider.  We drank too much beer and I hung out at his parent’s house in a fancy part of town. I gave a painting to his Stepfather who collected Winston Churchill’s watercolors.


We could drink Dr. Pepper, Pepsi or Mountain Dew all day at school, and there was no limit. They were $0.40 a can. There was a cafeteria, but I mostly brought my lunch and the teachers smoked all the time. The whole school met in the commons each morning for announcements and this is where we learned that John Lennon had been shot and where we were told to turn in permissions slips, when a club was meeting, a reminder about uniforms and what time the football game would begin on Friday night. One day my freshman year I stepped in front of the whole school and said, “See, Odie, brothers aren’t so bad.” and gave my sister a big vanilla birthday cake. Odie cut up the cake for breakfast for her friends, and was embarrassed, but happy. I seemed to be always hungry in high school and I ate mountains of corn nuts and brownies. I never did, as my sister, bake cookies and cupcakes for bake-sales at school, but I did make spaghetti, twice-baked potatoes and hamburgers at home and without knowing it started a life-long path of kitchen love.  There was much that began in high school that I did not know to credit.  I learned to write, to paint, to question, to read and to run. I learned that work and time create knowledge and not hoping and waiting. I still have no patience with waiting and hoping and would rather hike or swim or make anything than sit still.  

Joe Brainerd was a gay man who also grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and he died in 1994. I do not know if he cared for such matters as healing old wounds. Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Romania and published in 2012 his latest book Open Heart in which he challenges and affirms his belief that gratitude instead of anger was the right path for a good life. I will be reading Open Heart with my students next week and we will too ask ourselves what is a good life and how to wrestle with the difficult work of pardon. High school in Oklahoma was not easy, I was not easy, but in clear moments I know that roots of what I love best and what I do best began in the complicated and unruly years of Holland Hall. 


William Webb lives with his partner of 18 years in Berkley, California. Bill is the Director of Maybeck High School and is an associate of the Institute of Writing and Thinking at Bard College.  He has taught writing workshops at Al Quds University in Palestine; Texas A& M; St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Delano, Ca; Sacramento, Ca; and Los Angeles, as well as Bard College in upstate New York. He teaches literature, writes, paints, and cans apricot and strawberry jam.

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Monday, February 15, 2016

Guest Blogger: Todd Singer

[From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn't know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they've found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves.

Todd Singer, from the Class of 1980, had a razor-sharp wit and eager, tail-wagging spirit. There was no one like him. In ninth grade, he discovered the thesaurus and proudly worked unparalleled into the first paragraph of every paper, no matter the topic. During a lecture that I thought was brilliant, I mentioned not owning a television. He raised his hand in amazement to ask: "Have you ever heard of Walter Cronkite?" and leveled my scholarly ego. Todd loved to pantomime outside the plate glass window by my desk. His favorite performance was Man Running Into The Wind To Chase His Dog. I collapsed into giggles every time. Because of him, I learned that teaching was about more than grammar rules and Shakespeare. It was about paying attention to the expectant, deserving hearts of teenagers.] 


I have been invited to write this post just weeks after making aliyah--immigrating to Israel. It could not be more perfect timing. Moving to Jerusalem is like returning to the Mothership after being embedded in the planet Earth for fifty-four years. My soul has reentered its natural habitat and often I trudge through a debriefing of my life as I understood it. What emerges is a painful and personal inventory, a scrupulous reality.

I arrived at Holland Hall Preparatory School in 1975, at the height of Oklahoma's oil boom, when petroleum and Coors coursed through the veins of gold-clad wildcatters. I believed that I was among the rich, the beautiful, the powerful. I remain eternally grateful that, through my parents' generosity and sacrifice, I was plucked from the policed hallways of a recently desegregated public school--where, along with bussed black students, I endured bigoted slurs and bullying on a weekly basis.

I was a loner. Loners can be shunned or admired. I felt like the former.

Holland Hall was a fresh start. Bully-free, I knew that I would be embraced by all of my peers. By the end of my eighth-grade year, I was arguably popular--one of three Jewish students in my class. I channeled Richard Pryor and Dan Aykroyd to wide acclaim. I had arrived.

Then on to ninth grade. Parochial high schools can be infected with a bacterial smugness in academics, athletics, religion and social status. Holland Hall was no exception, and these pathologies resulted in significant pain. Prepubescent, slight-framed, uncoordinated, with afro and braces, I relegated myself once again to the solitary role of court jester, just like I had in public school.

For me, there was no overt bullying at the upper school, except for one member of the senior class. "Dan" was Jewish and seemed fearful of another Jew usurping his minority authority in a land where Episcopalian girls required no plastic surgery. Backed by his goonish jock minion, Dan suspended me by the collar of my new corduroy winter jacket on the inside coat hook of my cramped locker and then he shut its door. I still remember their muffled laughter outside of my makeshift cell.

I didn't exist.

Where had those idealistic days of middle school gone? How could my popularity have plummeted so quickly? After all, I was constantly developing new material. Those button-nosed girls with Revlon hair were no longer in my fan club. They had become the adored property of upperclassmen athletes.

There were many places students congregated to socialize, but the most popular was aptly named The Commons, a parquet wood-floor wasteland, where at each corner, a class staked its homestead, freshmen through seniors. Although many students viewed The Commons as an incubator for haute transformation, for me it was a tributary to a much larger pool of wisdom and nurturement. Its curtilage housed teachers' offices and cubicles where, within only a few feet of one another, three educators did something quite remarkable; they listened to my heart and challenged my mind.

Through them, I found my refuge and salvation. Their patience, humor, and brilliant instruction struck an artful balance, providing unconditional love without encroaching upon the roles of my parents. Whether it was the tragic death of a fifteen-year-old classmate, my own unkindness and insensitivity to another teacher or classmate, or the euphoria of my first infatuation, they were always there. Through their skillful navigation, I made excellent progress, treasured friendships, and the discovery on my own talents and interests.

Several years ago, after more than two decades in the legal profession, I realized a lifelong dream and became a high school history teacher in an underserved North Carolina farming community. My desire to teach is a direct result of those three teachers at Holland Hall.

Many of my students were in homeless programs, foster homes, protective custody, and living in abject poverty. Most of them had only one parent or guardian living in their home. In many of those homes, family members suffered from untreated drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness and disabilities. One semester, after showing students the movie Schindler's List, "Lisa" tearfully approached my desk and I asked her what was wrong. "Mr. Singer, I thought that my life was bad until this movie and now I feel so lucky. I don't have it bad at all," she cried.

I was in a conundrum.

Lisa had a very hard life. How should I respond? She was in DDS custody due to physical abuse and environmental neglect and had been separated from her brothers and sisters, all of whom were in separate foster homes.  My first thought: "How would Karen Henry Clark respond?" I then suggested to Lisa that the purpose of this Holocaust lesson was not to discount or compare our pain to the pain of others. Its purpose was to acknowledge that even with pain, we can survive. Even with tragedy, our legacy can live on. And in the midst of evil, we can discover our own humanity.

It was then I realized that Lisa was teaching me through her example and that I had carried forward the profound life lessons that Karen gifted me.

There are those days, while muddling through mundane tasks, I pause and realize how blessed I am to have known these three teachers at Holland Hall. It is my prayer, that at some point in their lives, Karen Henry Clark, Craig Benton, and Alice Price have paused and realized the enduring impact that their dedicated lives continue to have upon mine.


A former prosecutor, judge, adjunct law professor, lobbyist and high school history teacher, Todd now lives in Jerusalem.

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Monday, February 8, 2016

Guest Blogger: Elspeth Bloodgood

[From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn't know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they've found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves.

Elspeth, from the Class of 1977, went by Elizabeth back then, was the first student I met there, and was clock-stopping memorable. She was a bright, quirky girl who was five steps ahead of everyone else. When I sat with her in auditoriums during speech tournaments, I couldn't get a word in edgewise because she bubbled over with ideas. Curious, talented, and enormously capable, she was better than what a high school, even a good one, could offer her. All she needed from me was patience and an encouraging smile.   

When I was seven, my parents told me we were moving to Belgium where they spoke French.  They explained it was another language.  At seven, this worried me  a great deal and I thought about it a lot.  I wouldn’t understand what children in Belgium were saying and they wouldn’t understand me.  As I thought, it occurred to me that inside their heads, these children I had never met would have to translate this foreign language into English in order to be able to process it. I knew this fundamental truth, because in my own head, I heard only English when I thought. This gave me great comfort.

It was pretty profound thinking for a child.  It was also profoundly wrong in a way I didn’t understand until later.

I am respectful of that little girl, who often bewildered by a larger world, had her Barbie stolen under a bridge by a little Mexican girl. When she went to the home of this other little girl to take it back and saw how that fierce angry small person lived, and in what poverty, she ran home without the doll and punished herself.

Those fairy tales we tell ourselves and our awakenings come thick and fast as we grow up.  They are especially frequent in high school as year over year we take a new place in the hierarchy, and we are exposed to a ritual of aging that won’t slow down for any single student.  It seems to me it finds us at our most vulnerable and alone, while surrounded by hordes of others at the same phase of their lives. I loved high school and hated my many awkwardnesses.  I raised my hand too often.  I spoke too loudly. I didn’t have long sleek hair. I wanted to be kissed.  I felt out of place most of the time.  I was both more widely read than many and more sheltered than most. I was so afraid as I navigated at the periphery of cliques and groups and teams.  I knew that I had to meet expectations and was profoundly aware that I didn’t have the tools. I got shin splints running track. I was too awkward to play field hockey.  I could not sing on key. I brought home a two foot stack of books at night, but rarely studied. I longed to express myself, but waited until the last minute to author papers.  I longed to be as funny or bright as my comrades, but tended towards the competent but not transcendent, always a half beat behind those with the most visible talents.  My  interior monologue was not even as articulate as the carefully constructed narrative about Belgian children understanding French.   It was full of earnest promises to do better and be more deserving this semester or next year.  If life was a puzzle, I was trying to figure it out.

It was exhausting. But it was magic, too.  I entered speech tournaments.  I helmed the yearbook, where I was able to put my half formed editorial theories to the test.  I wrote for the Hallway.  I hung out in the teacher’s lounge.  I was forgiven for the small trespass of wearing green  toe socks and running around without shoes. I was embraced by comfy library chairs as I read paperbacks I had not been assigned.  I experienced profound loss when my father died, and was buoyed up by a cadre of teachers whose quiet kindness still astounds me.

I recognize the origins of the person I am today, and can see the thread thru time that brought me where I am now, a grandmother who talks too much in work meetings, still doesn’t have sleek hair, who doesn’t much care for rules and won’t wear makeup, but who has largely lost her fear.  I am grateful that I was allowed the time and space to experience failures from which I could recover, to develop resilience and to learn that we awaken to new truths as life unfolds.  I make my living thinking deeply about how things fit together, and persevering against long odds to convey that vision to others.  Most of the time, I believe those insights are less flawed than the conclusions of that seven year old who didn’t yet speak French, or the last minute papers cranked out to meet a deadline.  But even when they are not, I know that it is okay to be wrong, to learn and to come to new understandings.

I never did learn how to speak French without translating it back into English in my head. Maybe I’ll work on that next year.


Elspeth Bloodgood (ne Elizabeth Bloodgood) is a technical product manager for an online bill payment company located in Elizabethtown, KY.   This is her fourth career.  She is married to a poet, mother to one peripatetic scholar and one cystinuriac, and grandmother of the little sweetie and the little person.

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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Guest Blogger: Charlie Morrow

[From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn't know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they've found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves.

Charlie was a member of The Class of 1978, but he had no business being in high school. Not a pep rally/ student council dance kid, he was more like an elder statesman who wrote and spoke in perfectly executed sentences. He had a wicked sense of humor, a generous heart, and the wackiest hair I ever saw on a boy. I did everything I could to keep him engaged while in Kansas (Okay, Oklahoma) because Charlie was Dorothy's three doubting friends, Scarecrow,Tin Man, and Lion, in one, and I believed he belonged in Manhattan, the ultimate Emerald City. During the subsequent years, while he wandered, he held my hand, pulling me along, too. Look at him now. Just look at that gorgeous grey-tinged hair.]


A while back I read an essay about Facebook, addressed to the holdouts—such as myself—who had thus far avoided participation. It was the article’s provocative, amusing title (“You Have No Friends”) that caught my attention. The author, Farhad Manjoo, discussed the site’s social utility, offered a balanced view of its pros and cons, and acknowledged the misgivings of those who chose not to take part, but in the end argued persuasively that FB is, over all, a good thing. I found myself agreeing with him, and decided I would sign up soon. That was in 2009. I finally signed up this past December, at the behest of a dear friend who insisted I would love it.

Why did I wait so long? Well you see, I had a rather difficult adolescence. So did everyone, I suppose, but I had a difficult adolescence the way the Joad family had a bouncy road-trip. Somehow I got through it, and by the time I was, oh, 32 or so, I was able to look back on high school days without actually grimacing. Much later, when FB came along, the first thing everyone said about it was that when you sign on, you’ll hear from lots of people, going back to childhood. Which would include high school, naturally.

Hmm . . . well, I figured, that could be pleasant. Or not. I remained a holdout. Finally, when my birthday rolled around over the holidays, that aforementioned friend set up my page for me, then contacted me and said: All you have to do is create a password, and you’re in. Okay, easy enough. So I came up with a password, I’m in, and she’s right, I love it. Those high school friends who’ve contacted me, or responded to my messages, have, without exception, been happy to get in touch again, warm and supportive. No one has mentioned anything painful or unpleasant, and if such a thing occurs, I’ll deal with it.

What was I afraid of? I had some very good experiences at Holland Hall, my high school alma mater. I had good friends, bright, witty, quirky people. Working on the school paper, The Hallway, gave me experience in writing under a deadline, writing objectively—or at least trying to—about people and events I cared about. The copy editing sessions were both laborious and fun. Quips flew back and forth, but we also learned that, at a certain point, you have to cool it on the witticisms, buckle down and edit copy, compose headlines, measure photos, or finish whatever it is you’re doing so we can all get home at a reasonable hour. A good lesson for the grownup workplace too, way more than anything I ever heard in Algebra classes.

Acting in plays with the Holland Hall Players was exciting and gratifying. The first time I auditioned for something I landed the second largest part, alongside people who’d been in shows for years. This scared me, badly. When you’re 14, the 17 year-olds are grizzled veterans. I had a lot to prove. But I sure did learn my lines fast, and it all came off quite well. Three years later, when I was a grizzled veteran myself, and going through a rough patch, I acted in Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Our director Karen Henry had to nudge us along—no, she had to kick our butts regularly—but whatever it was she did, it worked. Not without snags, however. On opening night, during a high-speed verbal tennis match, Rosenkrantz and I went up in our lines. There was silence on stage for maybe 45 seconds while we tried to regroup. (Felt like nine years.) But we resumed, a little shakily at first, and then got up to speed again. At the end, people applauded warmly. So there’s another life lesson for you, no need to spell it out.

Those activities were meaningful to me in high school. And now, decades later, I write articles about the performing arts, usually under a deadline. Fortunately, I picked up some good habits in my teens. (Some bad ones too, most of which I’ve left behind.) If I could, I would tell my teenage self—well, first, do something about the hair—but next, and more importantly, stop agonizing. Yes, some of this stuff is painful, some of it will always hurt a little. But while you’re busy making yourself suffer, the happy memories, pleasurable experiences, and valuable lessons are also finding their way into your subconscious, and you will access them too, when it’s necessary. You won’t even be aware of this while it’s happening. And someday, trust me on this, a thing called “Facebook” will be invented, and you will find that your friends, the real ones that is, are still your friends.  

Charlie Morrow works at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center. He has contributed articles to This Land Press, Slapstick!, The Chiseler, and other publications. He contributed two essays to the book Spencer Tracy: Fox Film Actor, and several entries to Broadway: An Encyclopedia of Theater and American Culture. He's on Facebook.

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