Sunday afternoon of Parents’ Weekend, in October of 1960, Second Form year, I kissed my parents, stoically waved goodbye, and watched our 1953 robin’s egg blue and white Buick Roadmaster roll out of the North Dorm parking lot and cross the bridge into Kent. I ran back to the window at the end of the Middle Dorm South hallway where I could look out across the river, beyond the wide field with a single barn sitting in the middle of it, and wait for a last look at the Roadmaster making its way down Route 7, tears streaming down my face.
It’s taken years to realize how lonely and unhappy I felt during much of my early time at Kent. Back then I played into the notion that I wanted to go away, unaware of my own feelings or too afraid to speak up and tell my parents I’d rather be at home. How could I speak up given the sacrifices they were making to give me the best education they could afford, to give me opportunities they’d never had? Sacrifices that included driving that old Roadmaster into the ground, until one Christmas Eve after a midnight service it refused to go into reverse in a snowy church parking lot and mastered roads no more.
For me the forced purchase of a new car prompted great relief. I could return to Kent after Christmas break secure that the antique Roadmaster was no longer fuel for taunts. My family would arrive at Kent in something new and shiny. One less chink in my armor for tormentors to exploit. My relief was short-lived. Tormentors continued unabated with clever new and recycled old material.
Third Form remains the absolute nadir of my existence on this planet. Having endured the prior year where I arrived as the smallest boy in the school (4’ 11” and 87 lbs.) and shouldered the eponym Embryo (earned while scriming for food – thanks Perry Wroth!), as well as sharing sufferings, humiliations and deprivations with all my classmates, I naively believed a new era would dawn, relieved from bullying and oppression. For me, Algo’s haze was never rent that year. Rather, as I waded through Pilgrim’s Progress in English class learning about the Slough of Despond, I never fully connected to my own hurt, angry, lonely, up-to-chin-level deep slough. Yes, there were French fries at a soccer banquet, a kind reward for being a ball boy. Yes, there was Junior hockey. Most everything else felt like a re-run of the initiation rite we’d withstood the year before. The sky seemed always grey, my mood always blue, no matter what I might have tried to pretend outwardly. I recall one teary meltdown in a German class after lunch. I’d just gotten the worst grades I’d ever received in my life, far worse. I have no idea what comment, what rebuke, what slight set me off, but there I was – in front of Bill Kurtz, in front of Steve Alpern, in front of George Harvey, in front of Herr Cartwright, in front of the WORLD crying out of control until I got to leave class to pull myself together in a Schoolhouse bathroom.
Fourth Form Year I returned late from a hockey practice in a rush to clean up for Friday night inspection. Peter Lewine and I began to argue over who should do what, or who hadn’t done what. Failing the inspection was imminent. Words turned to wrestling. I remember rolling around on the floor when a thumbtack (which should, of course. have been swept up) pierced my back. Then more thrashing around and my leg kicking the large blue and yellow Triple S Stamps sign that decorated our room. It rang like a gong and crashed to the floor. The hullabaloo attracted our floor inspector, George Bourne. Sadist that he was, he stood there and egged us on for his own entertainment, baiting us while knowing full well we were forfeiting any chance to pass the inspection. He’d get the double pleasure of watching a fight and then stinging us hours. In short order Phil Davis, Senior Prefect, arrived to inspect. One more time my eyes welled to overflowing, as I couldn’t hold back my frustration while trying to reason with adolescent authority. No luck. But I’d begun the practice of speaking up and taking care of myself. These were neither tears of self-pity nor remorse, but pent up passion and rage breaking through.
Some of the worst moments of my life were at Kent. How could they not have been, given adolescence? I recently listened to a TED talk by the writer and lecturer, Andrew Solomon, about how the worst moments in our lives make us who we are. Solomon has led me to ponder how I, or we, may have forged meaning over the past fifty years from our experience at Kent. He mentions avoidance and endurance, two tactics I employed generously in navigating my early Kent years. Solomon says, “Avoidance and endurance can be the entryway to forging meaning. After you’ve forged meaning you need to incorporate that meaning into a new identity. You need to take the traumas and make them a part of who you’ve come to be, and you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt. “
Fifty years later we are clearly, and blessedly, not the same people. I speculate on what Kent made out of us, and what we made out of Kent. Never a chemistry student, I struggle to understand the molten amalgam that helped form us, may have galvanized us in some way, and created bonds between us.
A little over two years ago Kent would bring me to tears again. Our son, William, died of a heroin overdose. I arrived early at the church where his memorial service was held. As people began arriving, I found myself walking down the aisle to greet them, touched over and over by the outpouring of support. My trips up and down the aisle became a reunion. Classmates going to great lengths, in distance traveled, inconvenience put aside, or both, to be with us. In a way life had come full circle. A boy separated from his family. Only now I was the father, missing that boy so very sorely.
As I rose to deliver a eulogy for William, there they were. Dear friends. Lifelong friends. Kent friends, providing the comfort necessary to carry on. We’d been through so much together, beginning with our dawn at Kent and on into the fullness of our lives. As I began perhaps the most difficult task of my life, celebrating my son’s far too short life, there was no better support, no finer evidence of the better selves we’ve become than the compassionate faces letting me know how much they were there for me.