We are so pleased to have Kate Christensen as our guest author today on the ball. Kate has a new book out, Trouble, and is the author of the novels In the Drink, Jeremy Thrane, The Epicure’s Lament, and The Great Man, winner of the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award.
To my flattered shock, I was asked to be the graduation speaker this year at my old high school. Flattered because who wouldn’t be, shock because in high school I was a dreamy, hermit-like, tortured adolescent whose term reports often mentioned the fact that while I was a good student and bright and all that, I was oj the whole not “living up to my full potential,” words that resound for me even now.
Adolescence is apparently never really over, at least not for some of us.
I came to Green Meadow, a Waldorf school in Rockland County, outside of New York City, in 11th grade, from a desolate part of northern Arizona and a high school where I was deeply unsatisfied and frustrated academically. During the summer of 1978, between 10th and 11th grades, I worked as a waitress at the community guest house near the Waldorf school and decided at the end of th summer to stay. I somehow finagled myself a full scholarship and found a place to live with one of my English teachers, working as an au pair for room and board.
My grandmother, Ruth Pusch, was the school librarian and a “respected and beloved community member,” as the saying goes; she lived near the school and took a sympathetic but distant interest in my adolescent goings-on, most of which (my smoking and drinking, my overwhelming loneliness and isolation as the new kid in the class) she had not one clue about, which was naturally better for both of us.
I was close to my grandmother in a formal, chipper sort of way — she was highly literary, a writer, translator, and prodigious reader, energetic and stoic into her nineties (she died of the flu at 93 with all her faculties intact), bright-eyed, culturally awake, politically aware. She was also impenetrably independent, determinedly cheerful — she never admitted any negative feelings, never copped to aches or pains, but whenever I’ve wondered what lay underneath this tough armor, what loneliness, insecurity, or unfulfilled desires haunted her; I have often imagined she was a lot more like me than either of us allowed ourselves to know.
When my class of thirteen students graduated in 1980, my grandmother was asked to be our graduation speaker. I saved a copy of her speech in the box with all my old childhood stories and report cards and yearbooks. Of course I want to reread it now, now that I’m giving the graduation speech for the class graduating 29 years later; I would love to quote her speech in mine, to link my long-ago class to this present-day one, to honor my grandmother and connect myself back to her, but now, for some reason, I can’t find it anywhere.
The class of 2009 is also small, about the same size mine was. I went out to Chestnut Ridge this spring to meet them. Walking back into my old classroom with my former history teacher, I realized for the first time that it had been almost 30 years since my own senior year; I felt simultaneously much older than these kids and much too young to be so old. We sat in a circle. I reminisced about the bad old days with my teachers and talked about the trajectory of my own life, and then they took turns telling me about themselves, what they wanted to study in college — environmental engineering, the design of intentional communities, nutrition, ballet, architecture, international business, cartooning, psychology, photography, international relations. They come from all over the world: Japan, the Ukraine, Turkey, Holland, Russia, Germany. Most of them have known one another since kindergarten. They are a sophisticated, savvy, poised, articulate group of young adults; I was impressed by their maturity, their apparent ease with themselves and one another.
I think back on myself at their age, myopically squirrelly and introspectively self-conscious. lonely and unhappy and far from home, listening to “Tapestry” over and over in my room after school, writing in my journal at recess in a deserted classroom, furtively picking my face and daydreaming during class: I wonder, what the hell am I going to say to these kids on June 14th? I need to find that transcript of my grandmother’s speech.