We Jewish high school kids self-selected into mainly two groups: college bound and juvenile delinquents (JD for short). There were also some loners here and there. (I’ll have more to say about a couple of those in a moment. Stay tuned.)
I gave JD a try but l couldn’t manage to be bad enough. I even gave the JD uniform a shot—tan chinos (distant cousin of cargo pants) and a black and alarmingly pink gaucho shirt with a bolo tie. But I wasn’t particularly interested in making zip guns and then going through the bother of finding a bullet, or the hassle of stealing cars. So by default, I was left to hang out with the college-bound kids.
But two loners—Henry and Herman—made me wonder if I had the right stuff for college . . .
The Russians Are Coming
The commie scare was pervasive in the 1950s. So the powers-that-be decided that the way to combat the “Red Menace” and secure democracy was to have school kids sign a loyalty oath. I suppose in their controlling minds the school kids’ oaths were guaranteed to protect the nation from hoards of Ruskie invaders—even though the more likely threat was an A-bomb dropping on us. (Of course, we were properly trained for the A-bomb: doing “duck and cover” training drills to seek protection by hiding under our desks. For sure, wooden desktops would stop the skin and body-melting heat and radiation of an A-bomb.)
When presented with the loyalty oath, most of us said, “Sure. What the hell” and signed. It was no dumber than any of the other dumb go-along things we did to get the overseers off our backs. We folded like cheap suits. But not Henry.
The Dreaded “Permanent Record”
Henry was a genius who got straight As. His refusal to sign the oath shook up the entire school and even made the nightly news. He became a commie-loving sensation. But, horror of horrors, he was graded “U” (Unsatisfactory) for citizenship on his “Permanent Record.”
Personally, I dreaded the mere mention of the Permanent Record. The threat of a negative entry on my Permanent Record was the guillotine blade they held over students to whip us into line for the slightest infraction. “Walk the hall on the wrong side again, young man, and it’s going on your permanent record.”
But regardless of a U on his Permanent Record, MIT spontaneously offered Henry a full four-year scholarship. Sure, he had top grades. But even more, they rewarded him for individuality and not going along with the crowd.
As a member in good standing of the crowd-go-alongers, I was baffled by this: Henry broke the rules and earned a giant red “U” for Unsatisfactory on his Permanent Record. If they could have lit it with neon lights they would have. And yet, he achieved entry into the Holy Grail of colleges AND a scholarship. Henry was breaking the rules and still succeeding.
So Henry’s case seemed to provide evidence to me, one of the frightened sheep, that the Permanent Record threat was not what it was cracked up to be. However, even with Henry’s example, I didn’t have the courage to test it. So I continued to accept that a U in gym class would cut off all future opportunity for college, loving marriage, happy children, a snazzy car, a nice TV, financial success and you name it.
And Henry? Well, he quickly accepted MIT’s offered scholarship. For all I know, he’s now operating a secret lab somewhere and running the world.
What’s In That Bag?
After the Henry episode, the rest of us dunces continued to muddle along. But then loner Herman emerged and again shook my idea of what the path to success looked like.
Herman was a shy kid who stuck mainly to himself. He was the definition of loner and what we called an “odd duck.” But like Henry, he was a straight A student.
A skinny kid with Harry Potter glasses and standing about 5 feet 5 inches, Herman was famous for carrying around what looked like his mother’s embroidered cloth knitting bag nearly half his height. It had a floral design and giant wooden carrying handles. We whispered behind Herman’s back about what was in his bulging bag: Did he knit? Did he have someone’s head in it?
I became somewhat friendly with Herman and was hoping to learn the secret of the bag. One day in the basement of his house, I finally did learn the secret when he proudly revealed the contents to me. To my extreme disappointment, it was not a severed head or even knitting. Instead, his precious bag was filled to the brim with a rainbow-colored collection of subway and bus transfer slips.
In those days you could pay for a bus or subway ride for ten cents and get a transfer slip to get on the next bus or subway to your destination without paying again. You showed your transfer slip, had it punched by the bus driver or at the subway station’s token booth, and you were good to continue your cross-city journey.
Herman’s knitting bag was chock full of thousands of punched transfer slips of every possible color, neatly organized in rubberband-bound stacks organized by route. And he had a story about each and every stack.
That peculiar fascination clearly broke the unspoken rule of “Thou shall not be weird.” And yet, despite breaking that rule, Herman got early acceptance into Harvard.
Like Henry, for all I know, Herman is now in a basement somewhere digitally organizing batches of cryptocurrency bound with virtual rubberbands.
So thanks to Henry and Herman, I had confirmation of what I long suspected: The school rules were a crock, and the kid rules of normalcy (whether JD or college-bound ) were a crock. As was the myth of the dreaded Permanent Record—even though, honestly, I never intentionally tested that last suspicion.
And yet throughout the succeeding decades, I have had a pesky tendency to break the rules, to swim against the tide. Maybe I did indeed learn from Henry and Herman.